Universalist church survives in conservative religious environment.
For 100 years the Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church has sat atop Pleasant Ridge in Ellisville, Miss. Seven miles west of Laurel and 140 miles north of New Orleans, the red brick building shares its rural neighborhood with thick stands of oak trees, small cattle farms, orchards, and country homesteads.
Our Home––named by a founding member, Orange Herrington, who vowed that he would start a Universalist church even if he had to hold it in “our home,”––celebrated the centennial of its founding with events last September that drew about 150 people, including a worship service, an old-style theological debate, dinner on the grounds, and a gathering of former ministers.
Universalism, which is largely a North American movement with roots in eighteenth century England, preaches that all human beings are saved.
Our Home, one of scores of Universalist churches established in the rural south in the 1800s and early 1900s, has had its share of challenges. In the beginning, members were taunted as “No Hellers” because of Universalism’s rejection of the concept of hell and eternal damnation.
“Before they had a building they tried to meet at the local schoolhouse,” said Peggy Owens-Mansfield, 56, who has been part of the church since she was eight. “At the schoolhouse they found signs, ‘No Hellers not wanted here.’”
The Universalists did meet in Orange and Iva Herrington’s house for a few months before building on Pleasant Ridge in 1907. Over the next few decades the congregation grew as it drew people who were looking for a more inclusive alternative to other religions. Its membership peak was 150 in the 1930s and it continued to have close to 100 members into the 1970s. After that it gradually tapered to the 20 to 25 who attend services now.
“There’s a wonderful spirit out there,” said Owens-Mansfield. “There have been some really lean times when the membership dwindled and we were down to two services a month, but the doors have never closed,” Owens-Mansfield is executive director of the Pine Belt Chapter of the American Red Cross and a member of the governing board of Our Home.
At the centennial weekend September 20-22 six of the congregation’s former ministers came back. There was a reenactment of a historic debate between a Baptist minister and the Universalist minister at the time, the Rev. A.G. Strain. In the reenacted debate, the Rev. Doak Mansfield took the Baptist side. The Rev. Gordon Gibson spoke for the Universalists. Both are former Our Home ministers.
“We did 45 minutes of excerpts from the original debate,” said Mansfield. “People were impressed with the logic and consistency in how well Universalists did in confounding the Baptists using Scripture.”
The Rev. Scott Wells, a Unitarian Universalist minister who lives in Washington, D.C., has studied Universalism in the South and said the golden age for Universalism in the South was between 1880 and 1910.
“There were dozens of congregations, most of them extraordinarily small,” he said. “Today we’d think of them more as preaching stations or chapels rather than as full-service congregations. There were very few Universalist ministers covering a lot of territory.”
“Universalism made several contributions in the South,” Wells continued. “They were developing a liberal faith that was meaningful to them and they were doing it in surroundings that were often quite hostile to the message. The fact that Universalism was able to accomplish what it did with as few ministers as it had, and with relatively little money, and in virtual isolation from the rest of the denomination—Southern Universalists deserve our respect.”
In 1961 the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. Not all Universalist congregations chose to join in the merger. Our Home is one that did. To honor its heritage it still puts Universalist first in its name.
Our Home has no called minister. It relies on Mansfield, of Laurel, Miss., and another retired UU minister, the Rev. Eugene Kreves of Hattiesburg, for occasional sermons. Most Our Home services are lay led.
Linda Foshee is one of the people who keeps Our Home going. “There are times when all of us think, ‘Oh, gosh, is it worth all of this effort when we’re not really growing?’” she said. “But we know it’s important that we offer the hopeful and loving vision of Universalism in a fundamentalist religious environment. That’s what keeps us going.”
Lately the congregation has been advertising Unitarian Universalism on Mississippi Public Broadcasting stations, courtesy of a financial gift from a member. That program has inspired a statewide effort by other UU congregations to do the same thing. A recent grant of $7,560 from the UUA-UU Service Committee Gulf Coast Relief Fund, to be matched by Mississippi congregations, is for that purpose. The fund was created after Hurricane Katrina.
Gibson served Our Home one Sunday a month from 1977 through 1984. “One of the outstanding things about this congregation is its tremendous warmth,” he said. “Another is its radical inclusiveness in terms of class, occupation, and educational level. Our Home is an oasis of tolerance and liberality in a fairly conservative place. I think it has inspired Unitarian Universalists across the Deep South and people in other religious traditions around Mississippi.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.