We should make peace with the stories we told about ourselves.
Published March 10, 2017
You may have heard that, at one time, Universalism was the sixth-largest denomination in the United States. That’s hard to hear when today Universalism is only a part of a small denomination, and so far out of the public eye that writers today sometimes think the Universalist Christian tradition is extinct.
I would like to lay to rest the idea that Universalism was once the sixth-largest anything. If you look at the nineteenth- and early-twentieth century directories of Universalist churches, there were never so many to justify the claim. The Universalists, from about the beginning of the second third of the nineteenth century onwards, Universalists published membership statistics, both of individuals who professed the faith and families who supported the parishes and participated in its life. (Anticipating the categories of “friends” and “giving units”?) Again, the numbers were in the tens (not hundreds) of thousands in either case.
I suspect the claim was wishful boosterism, possibly justified by popular Universalist newspaper and magazine subscriptions. These periodical served as way of keeping attuned to denominational news, to supplement the meager number of sermons someone living on a circuit might hear and to hear salacious tales of how bad non-Universalists could be. These publications included secular news and commentary, and opened a window on a wider world which must have seemed very strange and enticing. (I’ll address more of what that means in the next newsletter.)
The desire to show larger than genuine membership corresponds with an idea shared among Universalists that what we had was self-evident, noble and God-honoring, and that it was proclaimed (often in code or secret) in every age by caring and intelligent theologians. Surely it was only oppressive church structures and common bias that kept it from being accepted broadly if proclaimed openly.
But that leaves out the disputes internal to Universalism, the failures in our own approach to mission, and clear fact that many people thought we were either dead wrong or that the hope in universal reconciliation is an insufficient foundation for a church. And judging by some of the people that left, there were sometime Universalists in that camp. These surely are also some of the reasons that institutional Universalism shrank from a respectable size to one that sought a partner in order to continue.
This and the next newsletter considers the past, and from that some possible departures for new shores. I look forward to any comments or questions.
Also: if you know someone who would like to join the Universalist Christian Initiative, please direct them to http://www.universalistchristian.org/join/. Thanks.
(The Rev.) Scott Wells