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Polity Among the Universalists: The First Century (1770-1870)

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Introduction by Peter Raible

In its assessment of the first fifteen years of merger, the Commission on Appraisal began with background, in which it stated:

It has been said of the Universalists, “They began with neither script nor purse,” with only a great theological principle, and gathered their congregations largely from the unchurched, and from dissident elements in the orthodox churches.  Membership was recruited from small tradespeople, farmers, and wage earners.  Their preachers were, with few exceptions, of scant formal education, (The UU Merger, 1961-1975, Report of the COA to the 14th General Assembly, Minneapolis, MN, 1975, p. 4)

The observation was made that “Our churches have always been democratic in organization. This is an inheritance from the ‘free churches’ such as the Congregationalists from which so many of our churches came.”  (Ibid. p. 4)

This statement is not quite correct for Universalists, however.

Unlike Unitarianism, Universalism did not come out of the Standing Order and bring with it organizational structure and polity.  Universalism was put together much as is a patchwork quilt, piece by piece.  The disparate parts of distinct individuals, separate, societies, congregations, associations, and conventions took a century to be gathered together and sewn into the semblance of one whole. The thread holding these pieces, which were, at times, ill-fitting, was not always sufficiently strong and often too loosely stitched.

The Universalist Church, despite its struggles through two centuries, was never able quite to put together an organizational cover, to establish clear, concise polity that could be (for lack of a better word) enforced, required of all its parts and pieces and people.

The impression I have from reading and reading in Universalist archives is that it never really wanted the quilt tightly sewn, and its lack of a seamstress with determination to create such a garment, resulted in the inevitable.

If ever a theology, in which polity has its grounding, worked against organization and established polity, that of Universalism did just that.

In his Introduction to the first volume of his two-volume history of Universalism, The Larger Hope, Russell Miller writes, “By the time of its 100th anniversary, it had spread, in more or less organized form, into every state and territory, with almost 1,000 parishes.”  That “more or less” seemed to be the form of organization preferred by Universalists from the beginning.

Miller continues:

Organizationally, Universalists were committed to what at times became an extreme form of congregational autonomy.  The denomination was a loosely organized confederation of believers who feared and abhorred centralization and frequently failed as a consequence to become an effective religious force in an era of sometimes fierce denominational competition. (Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope: The First Century of The Universalist Church in America, Boston: UUA, 1979, pp. xxiii-xxiv)

Using the image of polity from Paul Harrison in Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition, as “faith put into practice”, the free faith of Universalists could not be put into practice in such a way as to result in an efficient organization.  It was, from the beginning, “burdened by individualism, inefficiency and anarchy”, according to Elmo Robinson in American Universalism.  (p. 4)

During its first century, Universalist leaders were constantly arranging and re-arranging the quilt pieces, to find a better fit, but to no avail.  While the thread of individualism was Universal-ism’s strength, the thread was too strong, and tore through the ill-fitting pieces, to create a weakness working against holding the quilt together.

It took almost its entire first century for Universalism to be sewn together to form the Universalist General Convention, incorporated March 9, 1866, an event described in the. 1959-1960 Universalist Directory and Handbook, as “indicating trend toward more unified, rational, denominational policies.”  (p. 9)

In that same work, the evolution of American Universalism is described, revealing how unusual was the trend described above:

There was no over-all organization.  Soon local associations and state or regional organizations sprang up.  Congregational polity prevailed.  By 1840, a sense of denominational destiny had been felt. Measures were taken to form a comprehensive denomination, but only gradually and grudgingly did state organizations sanction a “general” or national organization, which was achieved by 1866. (Ibid 6)

Thus did Universalism arrive at its centenary.  The readings collected in this section reflect the polity struggles of that first century and reveal frustration with a form of church government described by an exasperated observer as one “in which each congregation does as it pleases” (L. B. Fisher, A Brief History of the Universalist Church, p. 86) and, ultimately, each individual within a congregation and those without who considered themselves to be Universalist.

These early Universalists tended to react to the situations in which their lack of organization thrust them, rather than plan ahead to avoid future difficulties.  Individual ministers serving as itinerant preachers in rural areas where churches were few and far between, made for a loose organization, and also made tightening it difficult.  These circuit riders, independent by virtue of their situation, with no call or settlement to tie them to any one congregation, had little sense of loyalty to the Convention under whose auspices they traveled about.  The loyalty was always, first and foremost, to the faith, with its theology that encouraged fierce independence.  The problems this created ultimately led to congregational call and settlement as we know it today, with some structures put into place for discipline, as the need for such became painfully obvious.

In 1855 jurisdiction was established “to secure a uniform and wholesome discipline throughout the denomination”.  It was to be another eleven years before this was finalized with the establishment of the General Convention.

Covered by this homespun quilt, an odd assortment of individuals and associations, both helped and hindered by an ardent belief in the right of individual freedom which translated itself, as Miller noted, into “an extreme form of congregational autonomy”, presented themselves to the world as the Universalist General Convention and began to make plans to celebrate its centenary in Gloucester.


L.B. Fisher, A Brief History of the Universalist Church. Boston: YPCU, 4th ed., @1904, pp, 77-99, 100-110.

John Coleman Adams, Universalism and the Universalist Church. Boston: Murray Press, 1915, pp. 26-31; 108-115. Available at Google Books. 

M. Hale Smith, Text-Book of Universalism. Salem: John P. Jewett & Co., 1845, Preface, pp. 46-57. (also included as reference on author: Robinson, pp. 162-163)

Richard Eddy, Universalism in America. Vol. I, Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1886, pp. 294-301; 480-481,

Richard Eddy, Universalism in America. Vol. II, Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1886, pp. 42-54; 63-65; 345-353.

American Church History Series, Vol. X: Joseph Henry Allen and Richard Eddy, A History of the Unitarians and the Universalists in the United States. New York: The Christian Literature Co., 1894, pp. 429-443; 461-468.

Elmo Robinson, American Universalism. New York: Exposition Press, 1970, pp. 39-66; 85-88; 96-99; 162-163. [Reprint of these materials on HSL is pending permission].

Additional Recommended Reading:

Paul M. Harrison. Authority and Power in the Free Church Tradition. University of Southern Illinois Press, 1959, pp.3-11. (no text provided by Peter Raible)

Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America. Boston: UUA, 1979, Chapters 4; 5; 7; 8, 9; 23-26. (no text provided by Peter Raible)

George Huntston Williams, American Universalism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970, pp. 1-36. (no text provided by Peter Raible)

Emest Cassara, ed., Universalism in America: A Documentary History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971. (no text provided by Peter Raible)

Readings for which texts are not provided are in print (as of 1992) and readily available and should be texts for the course.