Universalists may have built cosmopolitan enclaves in the first churches, but our goal needs to be different.
Published March 25, 2017
In the last newsletter, I recalled the common non-truth about Universalism being the sixth-largest denomination in the United States, how that claim is a gross overstatement, but how that the claim should focus us on the stories we tell ourselves. Today, I would like to explore the ways that Universalism created interest and excitement in its heyday, but no longer does with the goal of finding a new path. (Reinvention itself being quite accepted in Universalist history.)
I have a theory about Universalism. It grew up in a time (the early Federal period) and a place (mainly New England, with disproportionate strength on the frontier) noted by rapid social and political change, but with few resources, particularly educational and cultural resources. Universalism, insofar as it could, filled the gap by drawing together free-thinkers, enterprising individuals and social eccentrics under a banner so optimistic and obvious for a new age: God’s universal benevolence. I hypothesize that the appeal of Universalism in its formative period was that provided an expansive view of God and an enriched setting where there were few options. The well-known Universalist interest in Freemasonry suggests a parallel development, and anticipating the “liberal embassy” phenomenon of Unitarian fellowships by a century or more. As Universalist missionary activity was opportunistic (and in the South relied on family networks, perhaps elsewhere, too) Universalist churches were over-represented in small towns and open country. Some of these Universalist-founded churches survive to the confusion and amusement of those to run across them as if finding a colony of ivory-billed woodpeckers. These scattered churches in their time were focus of progressive action and thought, but being scattered were vulnerable to closure.
A number of factors destroyed institutional Universalism but American de-ruralization, perhaps with the Great Depression, may have been the most profound.
Today, the demographic and cultural situation is almost the reverse. Most people in the United States live in or near cities, and so goes the population of the world. While barriers persist, it has never been easier or cheaper to have access to information. Too many choices is the problem, rather than too few.
But the application of a social viewpoint based on God’s benevolence continues. Rather trying to gather more ideas and information, Universalist Christians can make churches that remain consciously and determinedly cosmopolitan, even as other churches try to use their First Amendment rights to stay insular and rigid. It is possible to have strong theological core, and be hospitable to people who may be just passing though.
For further reading, consult Stephen Marini’s Radical Sects in Revolutionary New England and Ann Lee Bressler’s Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880 are good resources if you have the money or access to large libraries, and where I first came across these ideas, reinforced by period Universalist newspapers.
A few people have consulted Universalist Christian Initiative material on our Facebook page since I reactivated it after I published the last newsletter, and I would appreciate you “like”-ing it.
Also: if you know someone who would like to join the Universalist Christian Initiative, please direct them to http://www.universalistchristian.org/join/. Thanks.
Sincerely yours, (The Rev.) Scott Wells