Thursday, October 8, 2020

Universalism Is Here to Stay

Universalist Meeting House of Sheshequin, listed on the NRHP on September 18, 2013
When the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America consolidated in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association there were fears that the latter would be absorbed and forgotten. When I consider the alternatives to consolidation for the Universalists, and the history since consolidation, I’m led to believe that Universalism is more secure and even prospering in the present scenario.

Aside from John Murray, Hosea Ballou, and to some extent Adin Ballou, I haven’t heard as much about Universalists in history as I have Unitarians. There are many noteworthy Unitarians and former Unitarians (like Emerson) who are easily identified for their contributions to literature, American religion, or abolition. With very few exceptions, the same really can't be said of the Universalists. And yet, when American Universalism is discussed, there’s maybe something more compelling about it that American Unitarianism. 

We have a lot of Unitarian history that is easy to talk about, and it can at times suck the air out of the room for Universalist history. And yet, Universalist sentiment is simpler to convey than any feeling about Unitarianism. In Universalism we find an expansive theology that makes room for all, and which calls us to look for the redeeming qualities or potential for improvement in everyone, even those we would deem most unlikely. Unitarianism really doesn’t do anything similar. Most would be hard-pressed, I think, to come up with a compelling Unitarian theology that would warm hearts (perhaps that could be a nice challenge for someone).

Well before the consolidation in the 1960s, Universalists in the early 20th century had eagerly pursued the possibility of union with the Congregationalists. Such a merger would have made good sense, considering that the Universalist churches were (mostly) autonomous and more often than not identified with the Christian tradition. It is this similarity, in addition to the softer stance on eternal punishment among Congregationalists at that time, that I believe would have spelled the end for Universalism as a distinctive tradition.

The Congregationalists ended up uniting with the O’Kelly Christians (Christian Connection), and then the new denomination that they formed almost immediately began talks with the Evangelical and Reformed denomination toward another merger. This union of four Christian denominational traditions resulted in the United Church of Christ. While it’s a fine, liberal Christian denomination, and they do teach their history to some extent, the various traditions that went together to create it don’t tend to get a lot of individual attention. Sure, from what I've observed some of their churches preserve distinctively Lutheran customs, but generally their theologies have been unified into a soft-edged mainline Protestant ethos with plenty of room for individual interpretation.

Unitarian Universalism has what I consider an integrated basis for theological formation, but it’s one in which the Unitarian and Universalist traditions can be appreciated in their own right. In RE classes I’ve shared with children about the history, ideals, and concepts behind the two traditions, and in sermons I’ve heard thinkers and doers of both quoted. As I’ve already indicated, Unitarianism has a lot of interesting facts, but I find Universalism to have a more inspirational and demanding message.

I believe that every church and organization that was founded Universalist prior to the consolidation could close, and Universalism would still continue to thrive within Unitarian Universalism. The tradition and theology are too deeply embedded and too meaningful to really go away. Through the consolidation, Universalism’s future was secured.