I’ve twice lately tried to not to make too much of the way Universalists distinguished between the parish (or society) and church, but it’s an important distinction to understand the polity and institutional processes. So dang if I didn’t run into this again as the reason a 1850 committee of seventeen ministers north of Boston presented in 1855 an alternative and resource to what they saw, namely:
1. As a general rule, our societies are organized merely so far as to give them a legal existence, and enable them to hold property, and perform, according to law, the business necessary for the maintenance of public worship.
2. Connected with most of our societies, there are churches, having an organization about as meagre as can well be imagined, in any body claiming to have a corporate existence. These churches meet, at stated periods, at the communion table, and for the reception of members, or the election of officers ; and beyond this, there is little that they attempt to do.
3. While our societies are, for the most part, in a flourishing condition, so far as pecuniary support and attendance upon public worship are concerned, a general apathy prevails in regard to our churches; many of our most active and zealous, as well as worthy and respectable men, not being, even nominally, members thereof.
4. Beyond the mere support of public worship, there is little that either our societies or churches have attempted to perform; that object being attained by the former, the latter have few claims to present, for countenance or support. For this cause, it is apprehended, our churches languish, and are asleep — simply because they have nothing to do, or rather because they have never set themselves, unitedly and systematically, about the great work that they ought to do. The fault is not so much in the men, as in the system of their organization. Our churches are not thus languishing, inactive and neglected, because of a general lack of zeal, or Christian benevolence and charity, among our people. But they do next to nothing, for the simple reason that their organization does not propose to do anything of importance, beyond what could be done by any society having a legal existence. The result is, that the church is looked upon as an extra affair altogether; a thing to bind men’s consciences, rather than engage their hearts and hands in works of charity and love.
The rest of the introduction from which this comes defends the propriety of using modern technology and culture to advance the church, and that the church’s mission needs adequate structures. This anticipated (or prepared) the post-Civil War institutionalization of Universalism, but perhaps conditions did not change so much even then.
Merrimack River Ministerial Circle, The Universalist Church Companion, 10-12.