Decline of Universalism: posted works about polity and administration

To continue the preparation towards considering the pre-war decline of Universalism and how Universalists responded to it. Last time, I looked at documents I’d already published about ecumenical overtures; this time, works related to polity and administration.

I need more from the Thirties, and the documents I found a few months ago will help fill the gap.

While slightly post-war:

I think I need to look at the scope of programs and budgets soon.

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.)

Liminal spaces, providing sacraments and Universalist theology

Responding to Tuesday’s post, Demas asked in the comments:

I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on what modern churches with less-than-optimal resources could do about the sacraments, and what your underlying beliefs about those are, if you wish to share them.

Dear Readers: You know I live for this, so I’ll reply as much as makes sense in one post, with a Universalist hook, of course.

First, what do I mean by the sacraments?

I’ll speak out of my belief and tradition, and even there only in brief. Sacramental theology is the kind of thing that could take up a lifetime so I’m not even going to pretend to scratch the surface. I hold two sacraments, or ordinances if you prefer: baptism, and the communion of the Lord’s Supper, as commended and ordained by Jesus Christ. I group all other actions, like confirmation, marriage and funerals as pastoral acts, though in practical terms providing them probably requires the same solutions in small and liminal communities.

And yet the sacraments derive not only their origin but their authority from Jesus Christ. He is the great and eternal High Priest, and we have, with boldness, a hope through those who gather in his name. The sacraments are valid and effective because they fulfill his promises. These promises include being known, being present and drawing us towards him. Which is to say the sacraments encourage, revive and sanctify us. They do not contort us into a state of being better or apart from other people, but throw us both morally and mysteriously into a greater likeness to God. Which is hardly a Zwinglian interpretation of the sacraments, though that’s probably more typical among denominational Universalists historically.

And the liminal communities?

While I’ve read about religious services in submarines and on Tristan da Cuhna, communities can be isolated in other, more ordinary ways. Dying towns, linguistic minorities, or cultural minorities — say a predominately gay church — might have a hard time getting a minister for the sacraments, even as an occasional visiting supply, to give three examples. I’d think the greatest isolator would be poverty, which might also rob a church of a pastor, or subject them to bad options out of necessity.

Two typical solutions are lay presidency and local ordination, which are likely to become more common in time. But there are risks. The former rejects officiating the sacraments as proper to, or necessarily from, the clergy, while the later tends to create different classes of clergy. I suppose neither is ideal, but being without the sacraments is worse. King’s Chapel in Boston, not Universalist but Unitarian, pivoted away from the Church of England when, denied the sacraments for years because of the Revolution, ordained their reader whom the Bishop of London wouldn’t. Thus a local ordination by the laity!

Back to the present. I would think that either a lay president or local minister would need training, perhaps something practical under the mentorship of a minister or (better) a group or association of ministers. That will depend on the setting. But even more, I would hope there would be plural presidents or ordinands as a practical matter, and to ease the responsibility of a single person being the last of last options for each and every service. Indeed, plural eldership (if coming from a low Reformed tradition) might be better still.

Universalist notes

As with most theological points apart from the final salvation of the world, Universalists held a variety of opinions and usually didn’t let those opinions get away of the essentials, of which the sacraments were not included. Yet there was tolerance. So while some ministers would not abide communion, it would always be found at meetings of the conventions, for instance. An open table was a condition of ministerial and parochial fellowship for generations, not being removed from the Laws of Fellowship well into the 1950s. In short, the sacraments were recognized, even if there wasn’t agreement about what they were or that they were necessary. There was this one point of agreement though: with two particular exceptions, their administration was the province of the clergy.

The first exception came very early on. Delegates at the 1790 convention at Philadelphia passed:

Whereas a great diversity of opinions has prevailed in all ages of the Church upon the subjects of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; as also upon the subject of Confirmation, the Washing of Feet, Love Feasts, and the anointing the Sick with oil, &c. and as this diversity of opinions has often been the means of dividing Christians, who were united by the same spirit in more essential articles, we agree to admit all such persons who hold the articles of our faith, and maintain good works, into membership, whatever their opinion may be as to the nature, form, obligation of any or all of the above named ordinances. If it shall so happen that an application shall be made to a Minister to perform any of the said of ordinances, who does not believe in the present obligations of Christians to submit to them; or if he shall be applied to to perform them at a time, or in a way that is contrary to his conscience, in such a case a Neighbouring minister, who shall hold like principles respecting the ordinance or ordinances required by any member, shall be invited to perform them; or, if it be thought more expedient, each Church may appoint or Ordain one of their own members to administer the ordinances in such a way as to each Church may seem proper.

In other words, don’t get into fights about the ordinances. If your minister doesn’t agree, he (women weren’t ordained yet) should invite another minister who does to fill in. Or you can “appoint or Ordain” a member to do it. Appoint suggests a lay role within a church. A friend once pointed out to me that the resolutions at this convention were never repealed or repudiated.

The other example came late before the 1961 consolidation with the Unitarians. By that point, the ministerial shortage had become acute. Universalists had long had licensure: originally a probationary year before ordination where a lay person could preach and pastor a church, but could not “administer Christian ordinances.” Licensure was also a way to induct ministers from other denominations, and later became a status in its own right. (I think the last of the Universalist licensed ministers lived into the 1990s, and the rule allowing for them was quietly removed shortly thereafter.) By no later than 1946, licensed ministers were permitted “to administer Christian ordinances” “with the approval of the Central Committee of Fellowship,” a concession to the ministerial shortage.

But it’s worth noting that in both cases, this is an extension of church authority to a lay person to meet a particular need. Which is to say, there is a solution where people do not have access to the sacraments, but not one that individuals can confect in the presence of an orderly church.

Which is not to make it entirely about the Universalists, of course. At least in the United States, and perhaps anywhere Protestant missionaries (foreign or domestic) served: a shortage of ministers and a can-do spirit tends to make exceptions, and consider new options. Distance (literal or social) from seats of power intensifies the process.

And what if there’s not an orderly process? In such cases, God provides and ecclesiastical authority yields.

About the Bisbee trial

Because of the controversy around the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s public censure of Todd Eklof, there’s been talk of heresy trials. Of course, there’s no trial yet, just the censure and waves of accusation, though some formal action could happen. (I wonder what the euphemism will be?)

There was a trial of a Universalist minister, Herman Bisbee, that’s widely regarded as a heresy trial — and a mistake. Naturally, it’s come up in the Facebook conversations (with Michael Servetus, whom I’ll leave for someone else to write about) so good to give some context to those unfamiliar with the situation. I’m going to pull together what I’ve written about it plus any original documents I can scare up.

But Charles Howe’s article at the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography is detailed, and rather than re-write one, I’ll point to his.

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.