What happened to the Universalists? Demas asks

Demas, of live from thessalonica, asks the doleful “What happened?” question with respect to the Universalists. He intimates a too-close relationship to the Unitarians is the problem but the Universalists had enough institutional problems (ministerial shortages were chronic, for instance) and an inflated sense of self (propagated today in outrageous estimates of Universalist strength) long before the engagement with the Unitarians.

A lot of small denominations “failed” because their ethnic base assimilated. See the various Lutheran bodies in the United States. But really they merged and cross-pollinated. Would the Suomi Synod have survived at all — as the kids stopped speaking Finnish — had it not folded into larger Lutheran bodies?

For a long time, some people were content to say the Universalists “won” because the doctrine of universal salvation spread. In fact, there were believers in the doctrine long before the first Universalist church or convention formed and there will be long after the last vestiges of Universalist Christianity die out of, or leave, the UUA.

That has to be accepted, but not so grimly, considering the faith that trusts God to be All in All, and in time, to have communion with all souls.

10 Replies to “What happened to the Universalists? Demas asks”

  1. Scott, I understand that colleague Sydney Wilde is preparing a doctoral project on interviewing a number of Universalists, and a few Unitarians, who were present at the merger/consolidation. She is interviewing them on their perspectives from that time, and related to their sense of how all that played out, and where it got us, etc. It looks like a truly terrific proposal and one that I think will make a significant contribution. One of the things I think she will ask is how each of them understood universalism as part of their ministries, which by itself will be worth so much..

  2. From time to time I play the thought game of what if history had played out differently – a sort of alternate history science-fiction. So what do I think would have happened had the Universalists not merged with the Unitarians?

    (1) Many of the Universalist churches that closed after merger would still have closed. Many were family chapels that were deeply hurt by changes in rural population, had an insular behavioral pattern, and which also found it difficult to reach beyond their traditional extended-family based membership.

    (2) Some state conventions like Kentucky, Kansas, Ontario (Canada) and maybe Iowa and Indiana would still have dissolved as the number of Universalist churches in those states/provinces declined to 1 or 2 member churches.

    (3) Some surviving state conventions like Ohio would have had huge endowments but still a smaller number of member churches.

    (4) For such a small denomination there would still have been a need to merge the theological schools at Tufts and St. Lawrence; and who knows how long the merged entity would have lasted considering the trouble many small theological schools are facing in the present economies of scale (consider the present day plight of the UCC’s Bangor Theological Seminary or the UUA’s Starr King School for the Ministry).

    (4) I’m not confident that the Universalist Church would have been able to generate a new wave of church planting that would have revived the movement. In most state conventions at the time of merger, the newest churches were often founded between 1900 and 1920. The few 50’s era Universalist church plants were a small number of experimental lay led fellowships (the few of these scarce creatures that survived became Countryside Church in Palatine, IL and Orange Coast Church in California); and an equally small number of joint Universalist-Unitarian church plants (like Northwest Church in Southfield, MI and 1st UU in Terre Haute, IN).

    In sum I imagine that the institutional Universalist Church would still have become an increasingly smaller body of churches, with endowments concentrated in a few wealthy state conventions, and a membership trajectory that would continue to be in decline today. In many ways this would probably parallel the fate of other small, liberal denominations like the Swedenborgian Church ( http://www.swedenborg.org ). In 1920 they had about 9,000 members. Today they have between 1,500 and 2,000. Not quite extinction, but definitely an endangered species in America’s religious “ecology”. Perhaps as some have told me, a smaller and more pure Universalist denomination would have been a good thing, but I’m not confident that this is true. And despite our speculations, there is no changing history. We need to live with the present day as it has been given to us, and make the most of it, trusting that God is at work regardless of how we arrange the checker-board.

  3. Scoots, what say you about the changing definition of “universalism” at the turn of the century? Did that make a minor or a major contribution?

  4. I think that has more to do with Universalists trying to stay relevant and find a platform larger than one issue. In no way do I think there was as much uniformity as the histories project (as these tend to be written by insider/institutionalists).

    But the net result is doubtful and I agree with Derek’s anaylsis. Which is why I’m not as depressed about the state of Universalism as I once was.

  5. To tag on Derek, I think the diminished Universalists — had consolidation not happened — would have been mopped up informally by the UCC like the Schwenkfelders were. Perhaps not where there was some residual strength, or where the UCC was dominated by the E&R.

    Of course, I wouldn’t mind a Universalist “hidden history” but that’s all speculation.

    UCC Hidden Histories

  6. I’ve been meaning to ask:
    Anyone else read Brian McLaren’s “The Last Word, and the Word After That” which is his final book in the “Neo” trilogy, and where there is one of the most thorough discussions/dissections of universal salvation I have seen in a fairly new book by a pretty popular theological writer. Of course there is the one line that throws away the Unitarian Universalists so folks aren’t confused with Universalist Christianity (one part of me says you can’t blame him and others for doing that; other part wants to scream that we aren’t invisible). But for a discussion in his semi-fictional creative non-fictiono mode of the doctrine of hell, with exlusiveness, inclusiveness, pluralism, universalism, annihilationism, conditionalism, et al, and how it all relates to contemporary evangelism, it is a must read. And shows how under whatever name the emphasis by Universalist Christians has found interesting new bedfellows.

  7. PB: the changing defination of Universalism seems more 1940s-1950s, than turn of the century. Most of what Im reading pre-1920s seems nowhere near the newer version. True, there are seeds, but you can only see them because of the later years.

    Steven R

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