|Singing the First 100 Years of Universalism
by Barbara Park
Prairie UU Society
presented in part on May 22, 2011
Opening words: On September 4, 1793, a group of people who called themselves Universalists gathered in the village of Oxford, Massachusetts, for a day of preaching, prayer, fellowship, mutual support, and organizational business. Those present called their meeting a "General Convention" of the "Universal Churches and Societies in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and NY. The Rev John Murray was their moderator and the only record of the proceedings is a circular letter written by him on behalf of those attending. Although they could not have known it at that time, their meeting marked the beginning of a new denomination that would survive for 168 years until it united with the Unitarians in 1961. (Charles Howe - The Larger Faith)
This program in based on the program "Singing, Shouting, Celebrating:200 Years of Universalism" presented at the General Assembly at Calgary, Alberta on June 28th, 1992. We will do a lot of singing with a little bit of connecting explanations.
Our first hymn was written by Hosea Ballou for the General Convention of 1808.
Hymn: Dear God, Behold Thy Servants Here (Labeled #1 in your handout.)
Chalice lighting: If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.
Let us endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace. Hosea Ballou (An early Universalist preacher and leader.)
A few weeks ago, Rev Kalen Fristad presented a brief history of universalist thought down through the history of Christianity. At that program, Rose Smith read us the story of John Murray, the moderator at that first meeting, and how he came from England to America, discouraged and despondent after the death of his wife and child, determined not to preach the Universalist message again. Today's children's story is a fictional account of a family who attend that first talk after Thomas Potter meets John Murray on the beach and talks him into preaching in the chapel which he built.
Children's Story: The Minister Who Was a Scientist
Sing children downstairs.
Now we start the singing!
Today we will talk briefly about a few of the founders of Universalism in North America, recount a few stories and sing several hymns, all of which illustrate their gospel of love, their yearning spirit and their social prophecy. Though some of their words sing of another time than ours, our Universalist founders pioneered the questioning mind, the loving and caring spirit, the keen sense of justice and equity that we prize today and have framed in the Principles and Purposes of our Association.
John Murray, considered by most as the "Father of Universalism" in North America, became minister of the first Universalist church in Gloucester, Mass in 1779. Together with that congregation, Murray won two landmark victories for religious freedom and the separation of church and state: the right of congregations to be free of financially supporting the state church, and the right of independent churches to ordain their own clergy and grant them the right to perform marriages. There he met and married the talented author, essayist and woman of letters, Judith Sargent. Together they spread the idea that all are "equally dear to God".
There were other pioneer ministers who preached Universalism in the late 1700's along the New England coast, some journeying as far north as Canada, which was included in their association from the beginning in 1804. These folks were evangelists. They included the likes of Elhanan Winchester, who was born in the Puritan establishment in Brookline, Mass, and became Universalism's articulate, thoughtful and passionate enthusiast and revivalist. He preached God's universal love for all people, in all places, times and conditions. Another man, Caleb Rich, evangelized New Hampshire and beyond.
Let's sing # 2 in your handout, Go Forth, My Friends. These tunes will be very familiar to you. In the 18th and 19th centuries, authors wrote texts in meters which fit tunes they knew. Few hymn books published before 1850 contained the tunes, so we seldom know the exact tune that the author had in mind. The hymns in this program were set mainly to tunes that had already been composed by the date when the text was written and are still familiar today.
Forth they went - the work arduous, the trials great, the harvest of souls heartening. One of these was Hosea Ballou whose words we read for the opening. Hosea Ballou was a self-educated farm boy from Vermont who became a forceful and progressive speaker for the Universalist cause. In 1805, he published A Treaties on Atonement, asserting that God was a loving Father rather than a punitive Judge, that Jesus was an exalted human being rather than a member of the Trinity, and that sin was personal rather than inherited. He trained generations of ministers and thousands came to hear him.
In 1807, the Universalist convention charged Hosea Ballou and three other ministers with writing a book of new hymns that would unite mind and spirit in singing the Universalist gospel. On year later they published the hymnal for 75 cents, leather bound. I contained 400 original hymns by the 4 editors. We will sing one of Ballou's hymns foretelling the glories which come to earth when all creation hears and responds to the new truth.
Hymn: When God Descends to Earth #3 in your handout.
The hope was millennial and the spirit contagious. Universalism spread north, south and west past the Alleghenies, removing the fear of hell and bringing the hope of universal salvation.
While Unitarianism spread from city to city, Universalism spread everywhere. Preachers took the gospel on horseback to cities, town, hamlets and crossroads. The work was spread by Jonathan Kidwell in Ohio and Indiana, George Rogers from Toronto to New Orleans, Alexander Laurie and David Leavitt in Ontario, down through the years to Quillen Shinn, Universalism's last great evangelist, who died in 1907 at the age of 62 after a missionary trip to South Carolina. It is reported that from 1904 to 1905 alone he traveled more that 38,000 miles, 900 of them on horse back or by foot. Russell Miller observed that Shinn recruited hundreds of individuals, was responsible for building at least 40 churches and recruiting at least 30 people into the ministry.
Traveling preachers were a form of entertainment during the1800 and early 1900's. The Universalists were known for having studied the Bible and early realized that the Bible was written by many people and that some parts carried more historical weight than others. One example of these traveling preachers was David Leavitt. He traveled the far corners of Ontario, challenging orthodox preachers to debates that lasted 2 or 3 days. People loved this religious s port and flocked to hear. On one occasion, Leavitt, with his prodigious Biblical memory and skill at arguing from "proof texts" downed four Methodist preachers in a row.
We'll sing a particularly poetic hymn written by Alexander Gretton Laurie, A Scotsman who preached in Ontario starting in 1843. He described "Universalism as sprinkled like fleecy clouds on the bosom of a speckled sky."
Hymn: The Golden Clouds (# 4 in your handout.)
There was certainly not unanimity in among the early Universalists. Universalists were not of one mind yesterday any more that Unitarian Universalists are not of one mind today. The independence that brought Universalists out of orthodoxy resulted in a variety of beliefs. Death and Glory Universalists held that everyone, no matter how evil, went immediately to heaven after death. Restorationists, clear that the world did not provide sufficient comeuppance to the wayward, believed that a God of justice would mete out some purgatorial punishment before the final restoration of all souls with the divine.
One of these controversies was aired very publicly. Thomas Whittemore, the Universalist minister who edited and published the Universalist Trumpet, became very influential in shaping Universalist thought. He preached the simple gospel of God's unfailing love for all persons in all times, places and conditions. He butted heads with Abner Kneeland who was the most radical of Universalist ministers and ultimately left the Universalist fold. Kneeland disdained societal mores, preferring naturalistic and personal quests for truth. In 1831, after several stormy ministries, he went to Boston and founded The 1st Society of Free Inquirers and a newspaper called The Boston Investigator. Whittemore challenged Kneeland to a newspaper debate in their 2 publications. Kneeland declared that the Universalist belief in God was a chimera of their imaginations, Universalist belief in Jesus nothing but myth and fable, and Universalist faith in eternal life false. Kneeland ended up being arrested for blasphemy and was convicted after 4 trials. He spent 60 days in prison and, when released, left for Iowa were he founded a small utopian community named Salubria. Today we would not find his ideas shocking. He believed in equal treatment for all people, both under the law as well as by society and supported such controversial ideas as divorce rights for women, married woman keeping their own names and property, and refusal to condemn interracial marriage, a was in favor of birth control.
Here is one of Kneeland's hard-hitting hymns.
Hymn: As Ancient Bigots Disagree (A View of Christendom - # 6 in your handout.)
The education of children was an early concern. In 1787, Shippie Townsend wrote a catechism for Universalist children. Soon Sunday schools were started in several communities. They took religious education seriously. The post of Sunday school superintendent was an honored as well as a demanding on and was frequently filled by the most prominent layman in the congregation. In the second quarter of the 19th century, Universalists strongly supported the transition from private schools to public, tax-supported public schools. They strongly supported the separation of church and state and therefore worked to keep public schools non-sectarian where no religious instruction would be permitted.
Here is a hymn about Sunday school written by John Greenleaf Adams as part of The Sabbath School Melodist: A Collection of Hymns and Tunes Designed for the Sabbath School and the Home, published in 1866.
Hymn: Love for the Sunday School (# 7 in your handout.)
Universalist women were among the most ardent and prolific of hymn writers. The Cary sisters and Phebe Hanaford represent that numerous clan. The Cary sisters' literary soirees in their NY apartment drew some of the most famous authors and public figures of their times. They gathered,too, the unknown, especially women, who they guided and encouraged. Let's sing a hymn written by Alice Cary, published in Services for Congregational Worship in 1877.
Hymn: My Mouth is Full of Whispered Song (# 9 in your handout.)
Another literary Universalist was Phebe Hanaford. Poet, lecturer and author of 2 dozen books, she wrote in mid-life "All my books have been prepared among pressing duties of a domestic, editorial or pastoral character...but God called me to preach." And preach she did - all of these Universalist women did - not only about Universalism, but women's rights and hopes for children. These women forged the trials of life into poems, songs, hymns that moved the hearts of all, women and men alike. Here is a hymn by Phebe Hanaford written in 1852.
Hymn: Cast Thy Bread upon the Waters (# 10 in your handout.)
Bounteous the harvest? Perhaps, but the harvest of social reform was important, too. As early as 1790, the Philadelphia Convention of Universalists addressed the social issues of its day, just as we do in our General Assembly today. They passed pioneering resolutions opposing war, slavery and compulsory oath-taking and affirmed arbitration in place of litigation. On the issue of slavery they reasoned that since people would all be equal in heaven, they had best practice getting along as equals on earth. Other Universalists were working for temperance, women's rights, prison reform, the rehabilitation of prisoners and the abolition of capital punishment.
Another expression of reform was the formation of Utopian communities. In 1842, one of the first and most successful, Hopedale Community, was founded by Adin Ballou, a distant cousin of Hosea Ballou. When he became a Universalist, he decided that, if God's love was universal and Jesus' life was a model for all time, then he must be a temperance advocate, a pacifist, a women's rights champion, a supporter of labor and, as he called it, a "practical Christian socialist". His writing on the idea of "peaceful non-resistance" influenced Leo Tolstoy and through him, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Here is his great and enduring peace hymn.
Hymn: Years are Coming - Speed Them Onward #166 in our Hymn book.
Universalism was the friend of women and was greatly gifted and carried forth by women. Their names are legion. Judith Sargeant Murray was the wife of John Murray, and a well-regarded author, essayist, and playwright. Clara Barton was the founder of the American Red Cross. Olympia Brown was the first woman to be ordained in America and an ardent suffragist. She was the minister in Racine, WI. She would be amazed and proud of the large number of women in our ministry today. Frances Dana Gage effectively championed the triune cause: abolition, women's rights and temperance. In 1850, she petitioned the Ohio State Legislature to remove two words of power and privilege from the state constitution. The words were "white" and "male".
In 1852 Gage wrote a poem later made into a song by the Hutchinson Family Singers, who first sang together in the choir of the Universalist church on Purchase Street in Boston. On the front page of the sheet music they wrote "A very desirable song for the Conservatives who pray for a procrastination of the Millennial Day"...composed by that long tried and earnest advocate of human progress, "Aunt Fannie Gage." Note how many social justice issues Gage cited that are still with us today. You can judge for yourself what progress has been made in the almost one hundred seventy years since Gage wrote her poem.
Hymn: A Hundred Years Hence (#13 in your handout.)
They were great preachers, but poor prophets. Our last hymn, which we will sing at the end of the program, was written by Mary Cloburn who was an early member of the Hopedale Community. Universalists in the North were early and ardent opponents of slavery from the first efforts of Benjamin Rush and Elhanan Winchester in the 1770's to the anti-slavery resolutions at the great Akron Convention in 1846. One of the differences in the Unitarian and Universalist positions on slavery is that the some of the northern Unitarians were merchants and ship owners who were making a great deal of money tied to cotton produced in the south and kept alive through the institution of slavery whereas the Universalists had no such conflicts. The Unitarians might have formal and elegant petitions. The Universalists marched. They spoke, argued and participated with Quakers and others in the Underground Railroad to safe haven in Canada. We will save Colburn's abolitionist hymn until the end and stop here so there are time for some questions. I've put some books on Universalist history at the back if you want to look at them after the program.
Offering: The choir is going to sing during the offering today. Unlike most of the hymns we have sung today, the composer Thomas Whittemore wrote both the words and the music. If was first published in Conference Hymns in 1842. Picture a big revivalist meeting in some small frontier town as the setting for this rendition of the Resurrection Hymn by Thomas Whittemore.
Closing Words: (Again - the famous quote from John Murray)
Choral Benediction: The very popular One Sweetly Solemn Thought by Phoebe Cary, 1852