“Missing” Georgia churches found

As many of you know, I am from Georgia and started my career there. I even worked to an ill-fated and later abandoned master’s degree in church history; my thesis would have been about Universalist churches in the antebellum South. But resources were harder to get thirty years ago, and so left that behind, went to seminary instead.

Between those researches and recent (say, 1980s) UUA directories, I knew there were churches that had been in Georgia for which there was little evidence. Two that kept coming back up was the one in Allatoona, in the northern part of the state, and the one in Senoia, south of Atlanta.

I always wondered what happened to them. The last I heard of the Senoia church was that it was rented to a Pentecostal church, so I assumed it was still in those hands or demolished. In other parts of the South, I’ve seen a gap in a cemetery where a church should be; been shown by an elder where an extinct church turned into a house (and the graveyard into a vegetable garden); and once unwisely drove up a logging road to find the grafitti-ed ruins of an abandoned meeting house. Times takes our little works away.

In a moment of free-form web browsing last week, I visited the Georgia Digital Library and looked up the Universalists and got my answer.

The Allatoona church is in rough shape, but evidently is or was on the radar of historic preservationists. There’s even a picture.

No picture but a happier outcome for the Senoia church. According to the September 27—October 1, 2004 issue of the “Preservation Georgia online” newsletter, the church was given in trust by the last members and has been converted to a private home.

“Harmony Church, a former Revolving Fund property of The Georgia Trust, will be featured this October on an episode of HGTV’s Building Character. The show highlights properties that have been transformed into one-of-a-kind private homes and the owners who rehabilitated them.

Located in Senoia, the 1896 Harmony Church was built by a Universalist congregation that came to Coweta County from South Carolina. Last used regularly in the 1980s, the surviving members of the congregation donated the church to The Georgia Trust’s Revolving Fund in 2002. The vernacular religious architecture of the 1,450-sq.-ft. church has been retained, as have its original windows, doors and hardwood floors. While the pews and pulpit were removed, the interior is still paneled entirely in wood.”

I’ve not found that clip online, but Harmony is a typically Universalist church name. In any case, it’s good to know what happened to them.

Remembering Universalist Heritage at Jubilee celebration

The Universalist National Memorial Church held a convocation on October 7, 2023 entitled “Universalist Jubilee: Its Legacy and Promise.”

The video will become available at some point and I will link it here, but in the meantime these are the notes from my part of the service.

Friends, where have we as Universalist come from? A few words. Look to the window to my right. It depicts, or is intended to depict, the Hand-In-Hand, the vessel which brought John Murray from England to America on September 30, 1770. This is the anniversary we remember today: the point from which we mark the 250th anniversary of Universalism in America. By the time he landed at Barnegat Bay, New Jersey, he was already a broken man. His change of faith within British evangelicalism lost him most of his friends and probably successful career. Then his wife Eliza and their son died. He landed in debtors’ prison, and once out we wanted to lose himself in the world, particularly the great American wilderness. That’s why he came here. But even the ship, bound for New York, was off course. The grace — almost miraculous grace — of his encounter with Thomas Potter encouraged him back to the ministry, and back to life. It’s a well-known, oft-told story, too long to repeat now, but it’s a story we need to tell more often. Murray did not plant Universalism here. There existed groups and individuals up and down the Eastern Seaboard who felt, thought and believed as he did: believing in a perfect hope of God’s complete salvation. One such group was the nucleus of what would be the first Universalist church in America, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. And one of those he met was Judith Sargent Stevens, a writer in her own right and today more famous than this minister she would later marry. The irony was that his own theological and homiletic approach to Universalism, the would-be denomination he supported and his lineage of leadership within the fellowship of churches faded in his own lifetime and he was quickly overtaken by others whose names are also a part of our heritage. But Father Murray was as much a model of Christian life and a preacher or pastor. He suffered disappointment, depression and loss. We can understand him, and trust that he would understand us. His faith that God saves, and saves completely returns us to hope. Little wonder this church’s first iteration was a memorial to him. While the vision in and from Universalism was grand, our numbers never were. Numerically, we have been been in decline for generations. In 250 years, will there be Universalists who look through us, to Murray’s landing in New Jersey? The question is not important. Rather, as with others before me, I trust God and trust in God. I trust God will be true to the divine nature, a nature that we profess as love. Not that God is loving, but that God is love itself. And that love will not betray or fail us. Our existence is not a failure in the universe. New people rediscover and reconstruct this faith all the time; it will not die. So I trust in God, that there will always be a witness for the larger faith, whether in our fellowship or another. Occasions change and plans fail, but the providing grace of God endures. Those who will listen will hear the truth. So at this anniversary celebration, we can look back to Murray’s landing and return to life. Behind him we see the Reformation, and the Apostolic church, and back to Calvary where this world was redeemed, and from that to the foundations of the world. There, with the Creator, “whose nature is Love” we find our legacy and our hope.

UniversalistChristian.net updated

My current, main Universalist documents sites, UniversalistChristian.net is back up. I fixed some bad formatting and have added a last-edited marker on the front page. There are still typos great and small. I know about some, but and report (including any broken links) are welcome.

But getting more documents up or linked will be a first priority.

Connecting the Philadelphia and New England Conventions

Originally there were two Universalist convention bodies, but the Philadelphia Convention died no later than 1809. It was the New England Convention that eventually developed into the Universalist Church of America, and that was what consolidated with the American Unitarian Association to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.

So, if the Philadelphia Convention (1790-1809) was an ecclesiastic dead-end, then why was its Articles of Faith and Plan of Church Government cited and reprinted? Antiquarian interest?

Richard Eddy comes to the rescue in his Universalism in America (vol 2, p. 432).

it’s because the Philadelphia plan was adopted by the New England Convention in 1794, and later adapted or amplified by the meeting at Winchester, N.H. in 1803. That 1794 meeting was the one where Ballou was famously ordained by Elhanan Winchester, with a bible pushed into his chest.

Small Universalist churches aren’t new

Reading though Russell Miller’s The Larger Hope I came across these sentence about the Philadelphia Convention, which I’m reading about now.

Universalist societies in fellowship between 1790 and 1809 were small, weak, and lacked financial resources. With the exception of the Philadelphia church, the largest had only fifteen members and one only had six. (vol. 1; p. 79, citing Richard Eddy, Universalism in America, vol 2, p. 122.)

Cleaning up UniversalistChristian.net

One of the problems of writing about Universalism so long is that when I search the web about something I don’t know, I often find something old I wrote or transcribed, but had forgotten about. Or sometimes, something I’ve written about but have neglected.

I’ve been thinking about how the Universalists viewed elders (the church office) much like I wondered about deacons last year. That lead me back to the 1790 Philadelphia Convention, its Articles of Faith and its Plan of Church Government. Oh look: the page has typographic and styling errors. I need to work on that.

It and Universalist Christian Initiative (UniversalistChristian.org) need a general refresh. I’ve not touched either in three years, and that also means relearning the engine that generated them, Jekyll.

But it’s not just a clean up job, or a polity dive. I’d like to know more about the church building the Philadelphia Universalist had (an interesting story in its own right) and more about a shadowy minister from what are now the far exurbs of Washington, D.C.