Tag Archives: Universalist history

The greatest Universalist on earth

This year is the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of the person who was arguably the most famous Universalist ever: the great showman and promoter, P. T. Barnum, who was born on July 5, 1810. His name still lives on in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus; and his reputation lives on in a remark he supposedly made, that there’s a sucker born every minute (actually, there is no record that he ever said that).

It is less often remembered that Barnum was a great supporter of many reform causes. Most notably, he supported the temperance movement, and felt that his shows and entertainments helped provide recreational options that could keep people from drinking.

Barnum was also a tireless supporter of Universalism, and a supporter of Olympia Brown, the first woman ordained in the United States by a denominational body. He helped endow Tufts, originally a Universalist college, and for many decades Tufts displayed a stuffed elephant from Barnum’s circus. He even spent time with Quillen Hamilton Shinn, the great Universalist missionary of the latter half of the nineteenth century, and supposedly admired Shinn’s showmanship.

Not long before he died, Barnum wrote a moving statement of his religious identity, titled “Why I am a Universalist.” Some years ago, I adapted a portion of it so it could be used as a responsive reading in contemporary Unitarian Universalist congregations:

I base my hopes for humanity on the Word of God speaking in the best heart and conscience of the race,
The Word heard in the best poems and songs, the best prayers and hopes of humanity.
It is rather absurd to suppose a heaven filled with saints and sinners shut up all together within four jeweled walls and playing on harps, whether they like it or not.
I have faint hopes that after another hundred years or so, it will begin to dawn on the minds of those to whom this idea is such a weight, that nobody with any sense holds this idea or ever did hold it.
To the Universalist, heaven in its essential nature is not a locality, but a moral and spiritual status, and salvation is not securing one place and avoiding another, but salvation is finding eternal life.
Eternal life has primarily no reference to time or place, but to a quality. Eternal life is right life, here, there, everywhere.
Conduct is three-fourths of life.
This present life is the great pressing concern.

I continue to be moved by the idea that eternal life is a quality, it is right living that can happen in the here and now. Though I am not a theist in the sense Barnum was, this basic concept remains a central part of my own Universalist faith today: this present life is the great pressing concern.

So happy birthday, Phineas Taylor Barnum!

More about Barnum and his Universalism here.

UU writer and minister Charles Howe has died

Rev. Dr. Charles Howe D.D., Ph.D., a Unitarian Universalist minister who wrote about denominational history, died last week, on Tuesday, August 10. Obituary from the Raleigh, N.C., News-Observer. Biographical summary at the UUHS Web site. Howe was originally trained as a chemist, and received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He left academia to become a Unitarian Universalist minister, and after a long career in the parish, turned to writing about Unitarian Universalist history. He was awarded the honorary Doctor of Divinity by Meadville Lombard Theological School.

Howe wrote two clear, concise one volume syntheses of topics in Unitarian and Universalist history. His The Larger Faith is a lucid, accurate, and concise introduction to North American Universalism; even though I own Russell Miller’s massive two-volume history of Universalism, I often find it’s quicker to look something up in Howe’s book. Howe’s For Faith and Freedom is another excellent one-volume summary, this time of European Unitarianism; although in this case, there is no other work that covers everything that Howe covers in this one volume. Howe was also an editor and complier, and in third major book, Clarence Skinner: Prophet of a New Universalism, he gave us a solid one-volume introduction to perhaps the major figure of Universalism in the 20th century, with excerpts from Skinner’s work, and essays on Skinner’s life and theology.

Yet another obscure Universalist x 2

I’m reading An Editor on the Comstock Lode, a book Virginia City in the 1870s, and the author mentions that Ethan Allen Grosh and Hosea Ballou Grosh are often credited with finding the Comstock Lode. If he was named “Hosea Ballou Grosh” after the great Universalist theologian, I thought to myself, he had to have been a Universalist. And it turns out he was.

A 2008 Associated Press article, “Letters from Gold Rush era are themselves a treasure,” by Martin Griffith, has more information:

Brothers Hosea and Ethan Allen Grosh were jubilant after they discovered a “monster ledge” of silver in the parched mountains of present-day Nevada in the summer of 1857.

The sibling prospectors never prospered from the find, however. In fact, both went to early graves without realizing they were on the verge of locating one of the world’s greatest bonanzas: a massive, underground pocket of silver and gold know as the Comstock Lode, about 20 miles southeast of Reno….

The sons of a Universalist minister in Marietta, Pa., the Grosh brothers arrived by ship in San Francisco in 1849 to find a tent city “growing like a mushroom,” full of grog shops and gamblers. But they faced problems from the start in the West, suffering from dysentery soon after arriving, and both were ill off and on until the end eight years later.

Just when their hopes were highest, Hosea Grosh died in September 1857 of an infection after striking his foot with a pick. That winter, his brother died near Auburn, Calif., of complications of frostbite after being caught in a Sierra Nevada snowstorm. Hosea Grosh was 31 and his brother 33.

More information about the Grosh brothers can be found in various books about the Comstock strike. Papers of the Grosh brothers from 1849-1857, including many letters, are in the Nevada Historical Society in Reno.

Update: More on the Grosh brothers — Continue reading

Associationism, part two

Part One of this four-part series

A historical and descriptive definition: 19th century

The Universalist approach to associationism in the first half of the 19th century had strengths and weaknesses. The decentralization and methodological diversity allowed Universalism to adapt readily to local circumstances, and small Universalist congregations sprang up all over the United States and its territories, and to a lesser extent up into Canada. That same decentralization also meant that there often was no ongoing support and nurture for small new congregations, many of which died out two or three decades after they began.

Meanwhile, the Unitarians found themselves forced into associationism, kicking and screaming as it were. Disestablishment meant that the strongest and most powerful Unitarian congregations suddenly had to learn how to provide their own financial support; not only that, but they also found themselves competing for potential members with a wide range of other denominations (including, of course, the Universalists). The first feeble step towards real associationism came with the establishment of the American Unitarian Association (AUA), so at least there was some central body to distribute Unitarian propaganda; but the AUA was an association of individuals and a few congregations, so it cannot be considered true associationism, an association of congregations, using my definition. The Autumnal Conventions represents the first real emergence of associationism in the Unitarian camp: a few far-sighted individuals decided that delegates from Unitarian congregations needed to meet annually to organize themselves around topics of mutual interest. The Autumnal Conventions were weak associationism, however: many Unitarian congregations did not send delegates (or much care about the Autumnal Conventions), and the Conventions didn’t do all that much.

Associationism among the Unitarians really begins with Henry Whitney Bellows and the National Unitarian Conference in the 1860s; that well-documented story need not be reviewed here. Unitarian associationism is also represented in the old Western Unitarian Conference, which actively promoted connections between congregations, and actively worked to spread Unitarianism in new areas, using innovative methodologies such as encouraging women ministers (e.g., the women ministers known as the “Iowa Sisterhood”). What is important is that Unitarian associationism required neither covenant nor Puritan-style connections between congregations. Continue reading

Associationism, part one

Abstract: In this four-part essay, I claim that the central organizing principle of Unitarianism, Universalism, and now Unitarian Universalism, has less to do with theology, liturgy, religious practice, etc., and more to do with social and institutional structures. We are unified by an institutional approach which I call associationalism. I define associationalism through describing past and existing associational structures, and then briefly set forth a possible direction for the future of associationism within Unitarian Unviersalism.

A historical and descriptive definition: Beginnings

In terms of organizational structure, Unitarian and Universalist congregations in North America are often closely related to the Congregationalist and Baptist traditions. Stephen Marini has documented how early Universalist congregations in central New England often started out as Baptist congregations; and it is well known that many New England Unitarian congregations began as Puritan congregations, and so are closely related to those Congregationalist congregations that also emerged from the old Puritan Standing order churches. We could say, more broadly, that these are congregations that come out of the English Free Church tradition.

It is important to remember that not all Unitarian and Universalist congregations trace their historical roots back to the English Free Church tradition. The Icelandic Unitarian churches in Canada were founded by liberals from the Icelandic Lutheran tradition, who happened to find a comfortable institutional home within Unitarianism; similarly, Nora Church in Minnesota was founded by liberal Norwegian Lutherans. King’s Chapel in Boston evolved away from its Church of England roots to a Unitarian theology, but it still keeps its revision of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer today. There are churches like First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia and the Independent Christian Church in Gloucester which were founded independently as Unitarian and Universalist churches without any previous denominational connections. And once Unitarians and Universalists traveled West of the Allegheny Mountains, they often had tenuous and even antagonistic connections with eastern churches, and their organizational structures were innovative, diverse, and/or fluid.

Thus it is quite simply wrong to state that all Unitarian Universalist congregations today trace their organizational structures back to the Puritan congregationalist methods captured in 17th century New England political theocracy, church covenants, and documents like the Cambridge Platform. That 17th century New England inheritance is one part of our organizational history, but it is only one part. Continue reading

“The Man with the Hoe”

The Universalist poet Edwin Markham wrote the poem below; he first presented it at a public reading in 1898, and it was first published in the San Francisco Examiner on 15 January 15 1899. The poem was republished many times thereafter, and reportedly earned Markham a quarter of a million dollars over his lifetime.1 When you read it, you’ll see that it is a poem based on the Universalist notion of the supreme worth of every human being.

In the early 20th century, Markham moved to Staten Island, New York, where he lived on Waters Ave.,1 not far from where my father lived at that time. My father still remembers Markham’s visit his elementary school. Markham lived in Staten Island until his death in 1940.

The Man with the Hoe

Written after seeing Millet’s World-Famous Painting
     God made man in His own image,
     in the image of God made He him. — Genesis.

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,—
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?
Is this the Thing the Lord God made and gave
To have dominion over sea and land;
To trace the stars and search the heavens for power;
To feel the passion of Eternity?
Is this the Dream He dreamed who shaped the suns
And marked their ways upon the ancient deep? Continue reading

Documents pertaining to the origins of the “child dedication” ceremony in Universalism

Universalists have used a number of ceremonies to welcome children. Some early Universalists started out as Baptists, and so were probably wary of infant baptism. Other early Universalists worked on the frontier of Euro-American settlement of North America, and were more flexible about the ceremony they used to welcome children; in fact, some early Universalists also practice adult baptism. Universalist views changed over the years; baptism was less popular in the early 19th C., almost universal in the late 19th C., and waned again in the 20th C. An excellent overview of Universalist views on baptism may be found in “Baptism on the Universalist Frontier,” by Lewis Perry, Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, vol. XXIX, 2003, pp. 3-18.

John Murray, arguably the central figure in the founding of institutionalized Universalism in North America, did not approve of infant baptism since, he said, it had no scriptural warrant. Upon his arrival in North America in 1770, some of his early converts to Universalism asked for baptisms; instead, he developed a ceremony which called “dedication,” in which he named the child, and dedicated her or him to God. The following documents describe early child dedications from the late 18th C. to the mid-19th C.

How John Murray developed the dedication ceremony
More from John Murray on dedications
Judith Sargent Murray describes child dedications
A Universalist dedication ceremony from 1855

Continue reading

“Death and glory” all the way!

In the middle and late 19th century, Universalists spent quite a bit of time arguing about the afterlife. Sure, they agreed that every human being was going to be saved; they were Universalists after all. But some Universalists (an increasing number as the 19th century went on) believed that there would be some form of punishment in the afterlife; while other Universalists believed that you would go straight from death to glory in heaven. The first group were called the Restorationists; the second group were called the Ultra-Universalists, or the “Death and Glory” faction. The Unitarian Universalist Historical Society has a good (albeit long) article on the Restorationist controversy.

You are probably not interested in the Restorationist controversy, but some few of us are. I used to get into gentle arguments with Lindsay Bates, who is a Restorationist. She would say, “There are some people whom I believe need to be punished.” I would say that if there is any afterlife at all, either I want us all to go straight there upon death (yes, even the child rapists and axe murderers), or I didn’t want to be a part of such a theological scheme; or to put it another way, either God is perfectly good beyond human comprehension, or I didn’t want any part of God.

Not only was Lindsay a much better debater than I, I always felt my argument was pretty weak. Today, I was leafing through Hosea Ballou’s An Examination of the Doctrine of Future Retribution, on the Principles of Morals, Analogy, and the Scriptures (Boston: Universalist Trumpet, 1834), and I came across an argument against Restorationism that was new to me, and convincing in an odd, 19th-century sort of way. Ballou writes:

“But I must hasten to notice your queries. 1st. In relation to what you term ‘death and glory.’

“This subject has never been much agitated among brethren of our order, until quite lately. Dr. Priestley’s views of an unconscious state after death, were not known to me when I wrote my treatise on atonement, nor had that subject then ever been considered by me. This accounts for my silence on it. Of late, I have endeavored to know what divine revelation has communicated on this subject; but, owing to my want of discernment, I have not been able to reconcile all the passages, which seem to relate to the case, to a fair support of either side of the question. My efforts, I acknowledge, have not been made with that intenseness of application, respecting this matter, as they would have been, had I been persuaded that the question was of any great consequence. Being fully satisfied that the Scriptures teach us to believe no moral state, between the death of the body, and the resurrection state, in which that which was sown in dishonor will be raised in glory, and that which was sown in corruption, shall be raised in incorruption, it seemed to me immaterial whether we enter, immediately, after the dissolution of the body, on the resurrection state, or sleep in unconscious quietude any given time before that glorious event shall take place. In either case, it is what you call ‘death and glory’; for it makes no difference as to the length of time during an unconscious state. In such a state there can be effected no moral preparations.”

You go, Hosea! Take that, all you Restorationists!

Now I just wish someone would write a hymn that uses the phrase “Death and glory!”