How did the Universalists manage the twentieth-century decline?

I take reader requests, and reader asked what the Universalists did to address the decline prior to World War Two. This squib of an article is what I plan to do.

  • I’ll consider denomination theological and social adaptation, institutional plans and budgets. I’ll use reports, directories and where available newspapers and books.
  • I’ll work from a hypothesis that the decline in denominational Universalism began in the 1920s and lead to a choice to either merge with another denomination or collapse. There were two contenders: the Unitarians and the Congregationalists. As we know, the Unitarians “won” overall, and some individual parishes joined the Congregationalists.
  • I’ll look at the initiatives to encourage loyalty, minimize the parish losses and raise funds. I’ll try to identify what fell off the table.
  • As I review period documents, I’ll point out and transcribe documents that illuminate the truth, and I’ll modify my hypothesis as needed.

This is a long-term project, and to be clear I don’t think there are parallels to the UUA today. (The money and ministerial supply couldn’t be more different.)

7 Replies to “How did the Universalists manage the twentieth-century decline?”

  1. I look forward to your work on the decline of Universalism in America. I have invested a great deal of time examining Universalisms in the South. I live in Georgia.

    I am slowly working on documenting the origins of Universalism in the South. I will be presenting my paper on the origins of Universalism in South Carolina at the upcoming UUHHS History Convo.

    I would welcome an opportunity to collaborate or help research your project.

    BTW: Your initial posting under the title Evangelical Universalist was not lost on me.

  2. Ah, that’s what my (abandoned) master’s thesis was on back in the early 1990s. Good luck to you; at least you’re not at the mercy of microfilm.

    And if you remember the old “Evangelical Universalist” then you have been around a while!

  3. Rev Scott,

    thank you for delving into this matter. I will follow your posts on the topic with interest.

    My sense is that the fundamental ( 😉 ) issue is an innate, human desire to see “justice” done, to see malefactors get their just deserts. Universalism doesn’t play to this desire in the way that more mainstream Christianity does. Not an effective “meme,” if you’ll forgive the expression. Examples of this go on and on Bishop Carlton Pearson (wonderful film on Netflix about him — Come Sunday) and more recently Rob Bell.

  4. How a community structurally manages decline is actually a weighty topic in the context of increasing secularism, and religious organizations needing to down-size from 20TH Century peak memberships. These are pressing current issues for smallish denominations like Church of the Brethren, Friends United Meeting, Moravian Church, and the Alliance of Baptists; as well as for larger denominations like the Episcopal Church, Reformed Church in America, or United Church of Christ. In hindsight, I’m wondering what the Universalists did right? And what in hindsight was a mistake? And can we learn from any of it?

    As an aside (in the spirit of alternative history) it would be interesting to engage in a thought exercise of what a continuing Universalism might have looked like. How would it have been made viable? What would it have needed to give up? What might it have held on to? I’m imagining a niche, micro-denomination like the General Convention of the Swedenborgian Church, or the American Ethical Union.

    But in real history the merger with the Unitarians (seems to me) to have been in slow motion from the 1930’s forward. Looking through the old yearbooks one sees a proliferation of federated Universalist-Unitarian churches, and ministers with dual fellowship. While there was also a parallel Universalist-Congregationalist phenomenon (especially in New England and Illinois), I’m struck by how much larger the Unitarian phenomenon was.

  5. I’ve not been immune to a bit of alt-history myself and the Swedenborgians are my model. (It helps that the nearest church to my home church is Swedenborgian, and I’ve supply preached there. And that a lot of Universalists turned Swedenborgian.)

    But I think you’re exactly right about the Congregationalists and Unitarians. Why did the Unitarians “win”? Relative numbers, for one thing. Unitarians meant merger; the Congregationalists would have meant absorption. The “hidden histories” of the UCC is not the fate I would have wanted.

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