Not interested in apologetics

Now that I found the world of Universalist Christians outside the Unitarian Universalist Association, I’m having to come to terms with the other theologies and ecclesiologies they have. Some are squarely catholic, a few mainliners or mystics, though most are evangelical or possibly charismatic. Some things that are valuable to me are not valuable to them, and vice versa. Among the things that many of these other Universalists appreciate that I don’t is apologetics.

Apologetics is an approach to theology that defends Christian theological propositions through reasoning and argument, with the goal of refuting opponents or convincing potential converts. If you went back a hundred and fifty or more years, mainline, denominational Universalists relied on apologetics, and particularly the public theological debate, to defend their positions and attract new members, so it could be a part of my inherited tradition. But it died by the 1920s and I’m not looking for it to return.

The problem with apologetics is that once people make up their minds it’s hard to convince them to change. Universalism is counter-cultural, and therefore suspect. If people suspect you, they’ll also suspect you’re trying to deceive them. Perversely, the more clever you are, the less effective you become. As for those Universalists of old, I think too many of them liked the fight more than being right, or being right more than being joyful in God. That’s no way to live.

An apologetic tact is also difficult for Universalists (then and now) because of our numbers. We’ve never been numerous, and so it’s been important to overcome differences, including serious differences, in order to have a critical mass to form congregations to share in common work. The question of whether or not there would be future punishment (the so-called Restorationist Controversy) led to a split, but I think it healed from organizations being too small as much from changing opinions among Universalists. And life’s too short to get caught up in the mechanics of God’s activity when it’s impossible to prove any of it.

I take the tack that Universalism is the kind of Christianity that most people would imagine God would want for us. It’s implausibility is really a reflection on the world we live in, not a reflection of the God who made us. Perhaps that’s what gives it a perverse moral strength, even while those who get sniffy claim that would allow its believers get away with anything. Do you think I ignore the goodness shown me? I didn’t earn that. Universalism isn’t for the haughty.

I’ve been a Universalist long enough to let its truth guide my decisions. I think it’s made me less fearful and perhaps kinder. I’m less impressed by political appeals that lift up the United States over other countries, for instance. That — with the clear profession of faith, not seeking contention — is  how I hope to promote the faith. Let your behavior and mode of living be your argument.

[Typos cleaned up from the original.]

Universalism in Indiana

Elmo Arnold Robinson, who wrote the newly-in-the-public-domain The Universalist Church in Ohio also wrote a two-part article (published in 1917) about the Universalists in Indiana.

Both the Indiana and Ohio works are interesting reads, and doesn’t hide the warts about what didn’t go well, including serious conflict between the ministers. Conflict, I should add, which didn’t kill them.

Issues of “The Universalist” online

I’ve fallen down an internet research hole and found 280 complete issues of Chicago-published The Universalist at the Illinois Digital Newspapers Collection, ranging from 1886 to 1887.

Three images of the church with captions

And yes! the preview issue for the 1897 Universalist General Convention, held at Chicago with pictures of St. Paul’s Church, where it was held, and a defense of “the creed,” meaning the Winchester Profession. It was at the 1897 convention that the “Five Points” were proposed, and adopted at the 1899 convention.

A former Universalist center in New York

While I was noodling through the 1939 records of the Universalist General Convention, I saw a description in the Directory (under New York) to the Prescott Neighborhood House, sponsored by the Church of the Divine Paternity, Manhattan, New York, now known by its parish name, Fourth Universalist.

I didn’t know there was Universalist settlement work that late — and indeed, it wouldn’t last much longer. But remarkably for Manhattan, the building is still there and this article gives the highlights of the mission, the building and the controversy over its closure.

 

 

“‘Canned’ sermons wrapped up in celophane”

Could well-mobilized lay preaching have helped the Universalists in their toughest days?

By 1939, deep into the Great Depression, Universalist institutions — conventions and parishes — were disintegrating. General Superintendent Robert Cummins prodded the Universalist General Convention and the affiliated units for women, Sunday School, publications, young adults and men (in about that order of vitality) towards more effective and coordinated work. And work that got past simply having preaching services in otherwise dormant parishes. Ministers were in short supply; money to pay them even shorter.  He reserved his pique for the support of churches that couldn’t ween themselves off mission support, to free up that money for new work. (I wonder if that experience poisoned later mission support of new churches.) How bad was the situation? (Link to the original)

Of our 544 churches, 71 are receiving the services of a resident minister, supporting themselves and contributing to denominational programs; 171 are supporting resident ministers and carrying on independently of outside help, but are lending no support to the Church’s program beyond that sector of it presided over by their own local parishes; 99 are not aided, yet are unable to support a resident minister or the larger work; 100 are receiving aid from some source or sources; and 97 are dormant, although 14 of these make some contribution to the program of the denomination. One of the most serious problems facing us is the large number of our small parishes. 99 are without ministers, 97 are dormant. Populations have shifted. Transportation has altered conditions. Either these parishes have to be put on “circuits” with ministers serving them only part-time (73 are already operating on this basis), or be satisfied with “occasional” preaching (there are 33 of these and 43 holding summer services only), or be persuaded to use a mail-order variety of service such as might go to them in the form of “canned” sermons wrapped in celophane and devised for use by the laity, or the properties should be sold for whatever they will bring and the money used to re-locate the movement….

I pull this out to say that the problems with the Universalist long predate their flirtation and later consolidation with the Unitarians.  (Allowance of dual ministerial fellowship with the better-paying Unitarians was surely devastating, but that was a Universalist problem.)  Population, economic and transportation changes never stopped, of course. As for transportation, I’m sure he means discontinued rail lines, which killed towns as well as churches. A foretaste of the Interstate Highway System. There will never be enough money or labor to do everything. And I have doubts about the seven-day church in a secular era when people have well packed-seven day lives.

The line that really popped for me was that bit about the celophane (Cummins’s spelling) and the role of the laity in worship. Universalists had, at best, an ambivalent view of lay preaching. If your church was on a circuit, it simply wouldn’t meet for worship when the preacher wasn’t in town. (That’s why the railroads were so important.) As early as the 1850s, Universalist leaders recognized that having laypersons leading morning or evening prayer from a published liturgy, plus perhaps one of those canned sermons, was better than doing without services ― but I don’t get a sense that it made much impact.

As a society, far broader than the Universalists who may stand as an object lesson, if we want religious services, we will either have to change how we treat ordination (a nod to my Independent Sacramental Movement series) or have more lay liturgical leadership. Some denominations do this very well. And there are lay preachers who are very good. Besides, I think there’s a lot to be said for a church with a college of clergy and lay preachers, as opposed to “our pastor.” I’d even be willing to hear something carefully pulled out of cellophane.

Every time I find this tension in Universalist sources, I’ll mark it with the tag lay-led-liturgy.

Universalist Society of Sutton, New Hampshire

I sometimes find nice Universalist bits in local histories, but in this history of Sutton, New Hampshire, you get an extended passage on the long-extinct Universalist society (think: parish) there, with organizing documents and a profession of faith.

The history of Sutton, New Hampshire: consisting of the historical collections of Erastus Wadleigh, Esq., and A. H. Worthen (1890)

And speaking of extinct, there is on page 175 this chilling note in the chapter “Casualties and Sudden Deaths”:

Rev. Thompson Barron, a Universalist minister of Newport, N.H., was found dead at the home of Jacob Nelson, about twenty years ago.

That’s all it says. What a mystery!
And that chapter. Gotta love local history.

(His 1871 obituary, reprinted at uudb.orc, is more detailed but still harrowing. Perhaps a heart attack or stroke?)

Twentieth-century Universalist records available online at Harvard

I’d known for some time that the run of printed Unitarian Universalist Association directories were available to be read online from Harvard Library’s site, so I wondered if any of the hard-to-get and not-public-domain (1924 on) Universalist directories and records, prior to the 1961 consolidation, were available there.

Indeed, there are. Here’s what I found in chronological order, and I’ll add more if I find any. Note that except were stated, the resources were published on a biennial basis.

A Universalist Catechism, part five

So, back in 2004, I set out to type out the 1921 Universalist Catechism, but gave up because I found the theology modernist and dreary. Recently, I read a reference to it, and tried to search for a copy online — only to find my suspended series. (That happens more that I care to admit.) So, I knew I had a copy and have dug it out. Now, I’ll finish the series: my theology has changed in fifteen years, and if not that, at least voice recognition software has improved.

The previous parts of this series:


What is God’s will towards all men?
He wills that all should be saved.

Can God’s will be defeated?
No. He is sure to be victorious.

Will God give up His purpose because men do not find the right way to live in this life?
No. His life is the same yesterday, to-day, and forever, in this world and in all worlds.

What becomes of man at death?
His body dies and wastes away. His spirit lives on.

Why is it reasonable that men shall live after their bodies die?
Men are children and heirs of the Heavenly Father.

Do all Christians accept this faith you have described?
Not all.

Why do you accept it?
Because it exceeds agrees with reason, is supported by the Bible, and is the best expression of Christianity that I know.

What is the name given to the church that teaches this faith?
The Universalist Church.

What are its essential principles?
The Universal Fatherhood of God,
The spiritual authority and leadership of His Son Jesus Christ,
The trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God,
The certainty of just retribution for sin,
The final harmony of all souls with God.

When were these principles first taught?
These principles are found in the teaching of Jesus Christ. They were explicitly taught by the early Christian Church.

When does Universalism disappear from the teaching of the Church?
In the sixth century, when it was condemned as heresy.

Where was the first organized church of the Universalist faith?
At Gloucester, Mass.

Who was the first minister of this church?
John Murray, who came to America from England in 1770.

Who is called the father of Universalist theology?
Hosea Ballou, because he first stated many of the doctrines of the Universalist Church.

Where is the oldest Universalist church building?
At Oxford, Mass.

In John Murray’s time, upon what was the principal emphasis of Universalist teaching?
Upon the truth that all men will be saved.

Upon what is the chief emphasis to-day?
Upon the Universal Fatherhood of God, implying universal brotherhood among men; and upon the certainty of retribution for sin.

Why has this change taken place?
Because men have come to see the importance of applying faith to life.

What is mean by what is meant by applied Universalism?
The application of the principles of Universalism to the problems of daily life.

Who really believes in the Fatherhood of God?
He who lives as if God were his Father.

Who really believes in the leadership of Jesus?
He who follows Jesus Christ and helps to make his ideals real.

Who really believes in the Bible?
He who uses it as a guide-book to life.

Who really believes in retribution for sin?
He who stop sinning and tries to cure the sins of society.

Who really believes the final triumph of good?
He who works untiringly and unfalteringly for that triumph.

Is it enough to apply Universalism to the life of the individual?
No. It must be applied to every problem of society.

What is the duty of every Universalist?
To understand fully the teaching of his Church, to try to apply that teaching to life and its problems, and to win others to the same faith and conduct.

Hymns of the Spirit site updated

About five years ago, I stood up a site about the joint 1937 Unitarian-Universalist hymnal and service book, The Hymns of the Spirit. It was built on WordPress and for some reason attracted a lot of bot traffic. The last thing I needed was for it to be taken over. So I moved it over to a simpler Jekyll site. It’s clean and quick to load; I’ll be fixing some gremlins but it’s ready to use. But there’s no place to leave a comment: comment through this site or email me about it at wells@universalistchristian.org.

Happy Public Domain, 1923!

The District of Columbia is mainly laid out in a grid pattern, with streets running north and south, and east and west. Avenues, named for the states, cross these at odd angles, so that throughout the city (and especially downtown) the intersections carve out small triangular plots. They’re too small to build on, but if you’re lucky, you might get a parklet.

Near my apartment is one such parklet, but it’s a sad sight. It’s dedicated to Sonny Bono (1935-1998), singer, style icon and member of Congress. There was a piece of legislation named in his honor after his death that has been a more enduring legacy than the parklet, and far uglier.

Bono memorial plaque

Bare parklet from the south
Images available under license, CC-BY (Scott Wells)

Copyright law is complex and confusing, so I won’t try to unlock that here. (Neither do I recommend confusing that which is publicly available with the public domain, as some church people fall into.) But extending copyright so long benefits the few who own those rare evergreen properties, and effectively locks down useful but mostly forgotten works. Works about Universalism, say.

Under the law, works published before 1978 went from having a 75-year copyright term to 95 years. The yearly pipeline of new works entering the public domain was cut off for twenty years. And the old term was pretty darn long. For this reason, it’s easier to get books about Universalists (and much besides) from 1840 than 1940. (The issue of “orphan works” is problem, but past the purpose of this article.)

Twenty years! I remember thinking “That’ll be forever from now.”

Forever as it happens, is next week.

On January 1, 2019, new works will enter the public domain, namely works copyrighted in 1923. And each year, we’ll get another year’s works.

As a Universalist, I’m looking forward to these entering the public domain. I hope Google or some other scanning project has them in the wings to share on New Year’s Day.

If you want to read more about the works entering the public domain, Smithsonian magazine as a nice treatment.