A passage in Richard Eddy’s Universalism in America says something to me about the period around 1803, deacons and baptism, three things I’m studying now.
First, it’s worth knowing a recalling there were two associations or conventions that might make a claim to being “the Universalist denomination” and they ran side by side with some overlap for years: one met in Philadelphia, and the other met in various places in New England. By 1803, both had statements of faith (the Philadelphia Articles, since I so rarely reference them) and plans of church government. But the Philadelphia Convention was dying, buoyed no doubt by the presence of John Murray. Indeed, Eddy’s not sure there even was a Philadelphia meeting in 1804. He points out the different approaches to church governance. The Philadelphia plan concerned itself with the inner workings of churches, while the New England plan really only concerned itself with itself, and thus the power to fellowship ministers, and thus mobilize them.
In the new [New England Convention] plan of organization one noticeable thing, distinguishing it from the [Philadelphia] Plan of Church Government adopted in 1794, was that it was a plan for the government of the Association, while the latter was for the government of individual churches only. It provided, indeed, for what it called “The Communion of Churches” in annual convention, but it made no provision for the officers or organization of the Convention, nor for the voice or vote of any church represented in the Convention (see vol. i., pp. 300-302). And its Plan for the Churches was, in the language of the Circular Letter which accompanied its publication, “nearly that of the Congregational Church.” The “Plan of the General Association” adopted at Winchester, repealed no portion of the previously-adopted “Plan of Church Government,” but expressly recognized the fact that “every Church possesses within itself all the powers of self- government.” In so far, then, it reaffirmed the Congregational character of the Universalist churches or societies, and did not seek, even by recommendation, to make them religious organizations which the courts could recognize as different and distinct from any other Congregational societies.
Eddy, Richard. 1891. Universalism in America. vol. 2, 63.
(How do you cite within a blog, anyway?)
So, perhaps a culture arose where deacons and baptism were considered internal matters, in addition to whatever theological issues Universalists might have had. It’s not like both vanished. This Sunday, I will be in church and from my pew I will see a deacon or two, and the occasionally-used baptismal font. I’ll nose around, but I won’t expect to find anything definitive. Universalist interest in the Lord’s Supper throws that for a loop, but perhaps because it was practiced by the conventions in meeting (see below) it would come up on the radar.
One more suspicion: Universalists kept fellowship on a parish or society basis, and these parishes and societies sometimes had associated with them churches of believers. (Their absence was a point of frustration, perhaps embarrassment among Universalist leaders, and spoke to a controversial rather than spiritual faith.) In this dynamic, the officers of the church are the pastor(s) and deacons, and indeed, they show up in a model church (as opposed to parish) constitution from 1891. With whom did the churches have fellowship? I’d be prone to say Jesus Christ, and that spiritual connection is not the jurisdiction of Universalist conventions.