Our Universalist forebears ranged far and wide.
By the time he died—100 years ago this September—Shinn had visited every state in the Union and most Canadian provinces, traveling thousands of miles each year, many on horseback or foot. His diaries document a grueling schedule, averaging a sermon a day at times.
Tall, handsome, and an expert horseman, Shinn was a dynamic speaker and had a winning way. He founded at least forty churches between 1870 and 1907, recruiting more than 1,000 new members. He persuaded thirty others to take up Universalist ministry. In 1901 he founded the Ferry Beach summer conference center in Maine. Signing the register there, he listed his address as “Everywhere.”
“He believed Universalists needed to get together in great gatherings and encourage one another in their faith,” says the Rev. David A. Johnson, Universalist historian, “and he was absolutely right about that. He encouraged anybody and everybody to get into the act.”
But just as Universalists rejected eternal damnation, Shinn eschewed the “sensationalist” preaching of the revival movement. A traditional Bible-centered Universalist, he believed that his message—the love of God, the immortality of the soul, the certainty of punishment for sin, and the universality of salvation—was so exciting that all would embrace it once they heard it. “There is no hell for any of us to fear outside of ourselves,” he taught. He had no use for more liberal Unitarianism, calling it the “go-as-you-please” church, and resisted the “mongrel movement” toward allying the two groups.
Shinn saw prospects for Universalism everywhere and traveled to the tiniest hamlets to preach. By 1900, he was focused on the South, where he loved the “piney woods.” Shinn’s method was to ride into a town, circulate a flyer, and set up a meeting anywhere he could. Once he conducted Easter services in a blacksmith shop, covering the lathe with newspaper for an altar.
As soon as he identified a family or a few individuals who were excited about his message, he set up a building committee, youth group, or women’s aid society. Then he would hop on to the next town and repeat the cycle, earning him the moniker “Grasshopper Missionary” by some who felt he spread his efforts too widely. Yet Shinn regularly circled back to check on his church seedlings. And he often raised most of his own expenses and the cost of his churches’ construction.
“Whatever we might think of Shinn’s approach, some of the churches he planted are indeed still alive 100 years later, some without much water or nurturing, and most did survive at least a generation,” says Steven Rowe, who writes a blog on southern Universalist history.
Even this omnipresent missionary couldn’t reverse the tide for Universalism, which was in decline by the turn of the century. Universalists were dividing between world religionists and biblical Christians, and their message was no longer as clear. The denomination had little central structure to assist in missionary work and few ministers to send to new churches. And churchgoers began to expect plumbing and lighting—radically changing the economics of church expansion.
Though Shinn’s name may be raised infrequently in UU circles today, that’s not true at Ferry Beach. The Rev. Fayre Stephenson, program director, says campers’ favorite song is sung to “There Is a Tavern in the Town” with much thumping on the tables: “Oh Shinn, O dear old Quillen Shinn, Quillen Shinn! To you we raise this grateful din, grateful din!”
Shinn’s model offers lessons for church planting today, his devotees say. “Still we have that reticence, don’t we?” observes Stephenson, minister of a Universalist church Shinn once served in Foxborough, Massachusetts. “Maybe we need to get over it and be more like Quillen Shinn and get out and tell the good news.”
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Kimberly French, a UU World contributing editor, has also written for Salon, Tikkun, Utne Reader, and other publications. She leads the Climate Justice Team at First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough, Massachusetts, and chairs her town’s Community Preservation Committee.
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