Universalism: 200 years and growing

The spirit of Universalism and the future of Unitarian Universalism.


Standing proudly since 1805 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a symbol of dedication and adversity conquered is the mother church of American Universalism. Recently refurbished, it is an impressive building, this Independent Christian Church, with its four-story spire and electrified whale-oil chandelier. "When I'm alone there, sometimes," says the Rev. Wendy Fitting, "I hear ghosts"—a statement that is less surprising when you consider the church's history.

This is, after all, the church of John Murray, the ex-Calvinist Englishman who founded the Universalist Church in America 200 years ago and preached the doctrine of universal salvation, the belief that "every individual shall in due time be separated from sin." But the Independent Christian Church's two centuries' worth of ghosts could not prevent a slide into decay and decline. By the late 1980s, it was down to about 40 members and had no full-time minister.

Lately, though, things have been changing. Although the voices of history whisper in her ear, the spirit Fitting now sees is the spirit of renewal. Today [1993], the church has more than 100 members and a revitalized sense of its "independent Christian" heritage—growth she attributes to "the message of Universalism as expressed in a lot of involvement in community concerns."

Fitting and the ministers of three other churches of Universalist heritage who recently talked to UU World say that on its 200th birthday, this heritage, this spirit, is resurgent. They suggest that as Unitarian Universalism pursues denominational growth, it is the movement's Universalist side that may best attract new members.

The country's largest church of Universalist heritage, the 900-member First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, has grown from a few dozen, says one of its co-ministers, by "trying to touch the broader Unitarian Universalist stroke of combining the head with the heart."

And in West Hartford, Connecticut, a 500-member church of Universalist heritage is "growing week by week, a rising membership that," its minister says, "speaks volumes to me that the Universalist message is not dead." Even the struggling congregation of a Pasadena church once dubbed Universalism's cathedral church in southern California is reaching out for new members.

The ministers at all four of these churches, both the growing and the struggling, believe that Unitarian Universalism's theological pendulum is swinging back from intellectualism toward spirituality. And they suggest that across the continent, the time is right for this shift, as increasing numbers of unchurched baby boomers with young children search for a comfortable faith attuned to their generally liberal religious views. "It's heresy to say this," asserts the Rev. Stephen Kendrick, minister of the Universalist Church of West Hartford, "but having served both humanist churches and this one, I fervently believe that there are more liberal Christians waiting to become Unitarian Universalists than there are humanists ever willing to come to church."

Just before Kendrick was called to it a few years ago, the Universal Church of West Hartford had taken a theological poll of its members to aid in choosing a minister. "What they discovered was a very delicate ecological balance," says Kendrick. "A third of the congregation considered themselves ethical Christians, a third considered themselves theists, and a third considered themselves humanists. I resolved from the first day of my ministry that it was my job to retain that balance.

"I do that by using God language that is free, open, and poetic. Although many of my sermons are classic Unitarian Universalist sermons, I always reserve the right to use the word God in them. I don't have any sense that if I use it I'm going to get crucified. This church is very, very open to the spiritual aspects of our tradition."

Looking out from his pulpit at new faces each Sunday, Kendrick thinks: "A lot of people may believe we're going backwards, that we're surrendering to the 'Christians.' But there is no one here who believes Jesus is God. There are people here who think their theistic roots are still worth retaining, still worth exploring, and still powerful.

"Churches that cast a different model of community, and allow themselves to open up the word God, tend to flourish," he adds. "I think we're finding that true here in the Hartford region."

Using his own church as an example and as a guide, Kendrick says that "Universalists bring emotion into religion. They're not overly intellectual. They are committed to social responsibility, but they don't believe their church should be a focus for political organizing. Whenever I analyze this, I come back to my fairly reluctant conclusion that Unitarians need Universalism a lot more than Universalists need Unitarianism. Religion is heart, essentially affection and love. It taps into deep emotions, or it doesn't work at all."

In the current era of spiritual exploration, Kendrick continues, "we have to be aware of the role of emotion and affection in our community life, or we're in big trouble." Well-intentioned Unitarian Universalists have asked him how any Unitarian Universalist church could use the Lord's Prayer—"as if," comments Kendrick "we're all post-Christians and couldn't go back to that old standard. But one of the questions we have to ask ourselves right now is 'As we move toward a more pluralistic movement, are we going to allow Universalism to be part of that pluralism?'"

The Rev. Norman Naylor, minister of Throop Memorial Church in Pasadena, California, agrees with Kendrick that “Unitarian Universalism has to minister to the whole person and not just to the intellect. If we deal only with the intellect, we would be a religion just from the neck up.” Since his 1986 arrival at Throop Memorial, founded 107 years ago by Universalist businessman-philanthropist Amos Throop (who later founded California Institute of Technology), Naylor has emphasized “religious humanism, making it acceptable for members to be theists and say so.” Despite “some resistance from the [congregation’s] scientific humanists, a lot of others have responded very warmly,” he says.

Although Throop Memorial Church is now down to 94 active members—from several hundred in the mid-1960s—Naylor considers it “in some ways a healthier church than it was when I came here. It has a stronger sense of itself now as a church and not just as a debating society or social club. I’m trying to re-instill a sense of institutionality in the church, some kind of focus. It’s an evolutionary process.”

Since an unsuccessful attempt to merge with a nearby Unitarian-heritage congregation, Throop Memorial has been “going through the UUA’s Decisions for Growth program, a year-long program to lead the congregation to more clearly identify itself, its mission, its covenant, its concept of ministry, and its goals.” The congregation has reorganized, with new bylaws, a revamped religious education program, restructured committees reflecting the reality of fewer volunteers, and, thanks to an insurance windfall, some new paint. “But we haven’t really been adding to the membership,” Naylor says. By this time next year, the members of Throop Memorial Church will have decided whether to grow—or not. Naylor believes they will choose growth.

About 45 years ago, the First Universalist Church in Minneapolis was in a similar situation. Its congregation, once one of the largest in the city, had dwindled to fewer than 40 members. Making a commitment to growth, they built a church large enough to accommodate 300 adults and 200 children. Susan Milnor, co-minister of the church with her husband, Terry Sweetser, loves to tell that story, because today, the First Universalist Church is edging toward 1,000 members—almost double the church’s membership when she and Sweetser arrived five years ago.

The oldest continually active congregation in Minnesota (founded in 1859 by New England Universalists), it now needs a bigger church building to accommodate this more recent growth. “Five years ago, there were two Sunday morning church services and two church schools,” Milnor says. “A year ago we added a third service and school session. We’re completely out of space.” Within a few weeks, the congregation plans to move out of its 18,000-square-foot church and into a 44,000-square-foot synagogue it has been raising $1.5 million to purchase.

In addition to being bigger, the congregation’s new home is closer to central Minneapolis, “reflecting our commitment to the city,” says Milnor. “We’re the only Unitarian Universalist church I know of that has a full-time social justice coordinator on its staff. A few years ago, we entered into a partnership with an inner-city day-care center that serves children at risk, which at times has involved large numbers of congregation members’ direct participation as well as our financial and administrative support. We are one of two churches I know of with a social-justice foundation. We use the income from an endowment strictly for social-justice projects. And this summer, we are sending some of our youth out to do internships in social-change organizations in the community we’re moving into, and we’re funding some youths from around the city, as well.”

This kind of high-visibility community activism speaks of a vigor and vitality that attracts community-oriented members, Milnor says, adding, “I like to think this is part of the Universalist get-down-and-get-your-hands-dirty tradition, really caring about people, trying to be really inclusive toward different classes and different experiences. It goes back to that Universalist theology that says every person is a child of God, and every person incarnates divine love. Even though some aspects of that theology may not be exactly the heart of current Unitarian Universalist theology, I have to believe this is something profoundly true for us.”

Accounting for the rapid growth of her own church and others, Milnor says the new churchgoers of the 1990s are “largely seeking community—specifically, religious community in which they find a number of things: some support and guidance for the spiritual development they very sorely need in a highly secular and materialistic society; an opportunity to do something in the wider society that makes the world a little bit better and gives them a sense of purpose, of being in touch with something larger than themselves. They’re also looking for positive messages and a way for their children to learn enough about the wider religious history and traditions of the culture to be at home with them, and also a liberating way of appropriating them. They want their children to be familiar with the Judeo-Christian culture, the images and the symbols of that culture, but they want it in a way that is real for them.

If the recent growth of churches of Universalist heritage were the latest scene of a long-unfolding play, it was John Murray who set the stage for it, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. It was there that Murray married a prominent widow, Judith Sargent, with whose family he established the Gloucester congregation. Their refusal to pay taxes to Gloucester’s First Parish helped set the legal precedent that established the right of freedom to worship and voluntary church support. And after Murray, Hosea Ballou preached there.

“It does kind of awe me,” says the Rev. Wendy Fitting, whose extension ministry at Gloucester’s Independent Christian Church is her first. “It’s a big responsibility, but not terrible. It’s kind of like a treasure hunt, an exploration. Because there’s a lot buried here—literally: there’s an ancient, overgrown graveyard that has had very little attention and now is getting it. And as the church has been revitalized and the external restoration of the building has been completed, there’s been the discovery of Judith’s letters and other old documents, and we’ve been finding out a lot more about the church’s history. One of the signers of our original compacts was a freed slave, Gloster Dalton, and other recently rediscovered old documents show a number of marriages and funerals performed for freed slaves.”

But however venerable this church might be, it seemed headed for death by old age when Fitting arrived four years ago. “When I first came here, elders in the church said people will come here because of our history,” she recalls. “That’s true and not true. It’s more true now with Judith’s letters, which we’re transcribing with a microfilm reader at the church so people can read them. I don’t think people understand how progressive the early Universalists were. Father Jones, the second minister after John Murray, was a real advocate of women’s rights. He urged the congregation to give women equal voice with men in congregational decisions.”

Still, Fitting recalls, in this city of declining population and declining economy—the fishing industry has been especially hard hit—“the first worry when I came was that kids were breaking church windows. It looked in ill repair, like an abandoned building. Now, it’s used. The lights are on at night. The congregation has been brave in reaching out. They said, ‘Okay, we’re going to open our church, we’re going to open our doors.’”

The congregation has also gotten deeply involved in the community. “When you say, ‘We’re Universalists and that’s why we’re concerned about violence in our community, about domestic violence, about supporting people who are HIV-positive, or about housing—whatever—because our belief teaches us that things are important,’ that sends a message,” Fitting maintains. “We believe in the inherent worth of every person, and we’re trying to carry that message in action, by believing in the strengths of the community.”

At least partly as a result, some of the people who had stopped attending church have started coming back. And new people have been coming, as well, during the past few years. The congregation numbered about 40 members in 1989, and Fitting says the figure has shot up to nearly 130 this year. But she is pursuing growth with caution, respecting the traditions of the church she serves. She says, “I feel very strongly about the people who were here when I arrived, that it’s their church, and it’s been their church for generations.”

The Independent Christian Church had begun as a Trinitarian church, in keeping with Murray’s theology, and it has remained a largely Christian church—though it’s “more independent than Christian,” as members like to say. “People come to the church and are a little surprised to see that it’s Christian,” Fitting says. “There is a liturgy committee, and we have changed the order of worship, but some things are very important to people, like keeping the Lord’s Prayer.”

Fitting, who was raised by Unitarian parents, senses “a real longing” for this kind of spirituality. “That’s very strong in Universalism,” she says. “I’ve certainly tried to bring in more religious pluralism, and we’ve kept some things, because you don’t throw people’s worship service out. It’s important to me that we use the old red hymnal, although we’re definitely getting the new one to use alongside it. They’ve always talked about God here, and about Jesus. And that’s okay. We’re rediscovering and revitalizing the valuable phenomenon of the Sabbath, something that many people have lost or have never known."

“This is a liberal church,” she says, “with some traditional elements that may be comforting to people, but it still invites exploration”—an enduring model, some might say, for enduring pluralism, and for Unitarian Universalist growth in the 1990s.

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