Why did the Universalist Church of America fail?

July 17, 2006

OK, this is a little provocative, maybe.

The protestant Christian denomination later known as the Universalist Church of America was founded, according to Wikipedia, in the 1790s as the Universalist General Convention, a coming together of universalist congregations.

(btw, someone with knowledge in this area really should rewrite that Wikipedia article – it’s pretty useless)

As far as I can see, the early Universalists were undeniably Christian, with unitarian ideas floating around but not the focus. They appear to have grown especially in areas where the competing local religious bodies were not afraid to preach that some would be damned to hell. I have no real idea how big they got at their maximum, there are too many competing numbers out there on the web, many of which seem suspiciously large.

I have found this post which lists a number of creeds that were written over the decades (some of these are Unitarian). These people liked creeds – but seem to have deliberately written them to be short and inclusive. Compare and contrast with the Westminster Confession, for example.

There are a number of changes in these creeds – it looks to me as if the influences of Unitarianism were gradually seeping into the UCA. (Aside: the early Unitarian creeds are laughable today; from 1865: “The continuity of human development in all worlds, or the progress of mankind onward and upward forever”? That sort of naive modernism was beaten up fairly badly in the 20C).

By 1935 the Universalists seem to me to be clearly in trouble – they believe “In the power of men of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the kingdom of God.” This is the Unitarian ‘salvation by our own efforts and good character’ not the earlier universalist ‘salvation by the grace of God’. If we have to save ourselves, it becomes less and less credible to say that we will all succeed in that task. This 1935 creed is also the last with the word “Jesus” in it – and the last with the word ‘love’.

So what went wrong?


8 Responses to “Why did the Universalist Church of America fail?”

  1. StevenR Says:

    first of all, Im the source of the 1790s in wiki – and last week, I added earlier dates and facts to the article.
    i’m also the source of the 9th largest denomination, which I got from the “Atlas of American Religions” which got it from contempary Baptist publications. And would Baptists lie? And of course, 9th wasnt that big. and several groups like Baptists had already split into several denominations.

    You’re asking several questions here, it seems to me. Hopefully I will answer the ones you really want an answer for. Keep in mind that everything here is IMHO.

    I’m tempted just to say that Hosea Ballou happened. He took the churches in an unitarian directions (long before the Unitarians went that way) – thus they had two non-mainstream ideas to defend (those Baptists above had just one).

    the 1840s happened – an unknown percentage of folks split off to Spirtualism (or Christian Spirtualism) and also apparently to Mormonism… There may be an argument to be made, that the spirt of American Optimism was beging to end….

    then WW1 happened, for whatever reason this ends the heyday of the Universalist Church – the end of American Optimism and the rise of cynicism? the transformation of American from rural to urban and the changing demographics (most Churches in the pre-Urban era were family Churches)? the lack of a central planning to adjust for the changing demographics? all of the above and more?

    Universalists were rejected twice for membership in the National Council of Churches for not being Christian enough. The YMCA refused to admit Universalists as members. Certain states had laws prohibiting them from voting or giving testimony in court (admittadly most of these laws were repealled within a few years). Some historians argue that it was in the 1920s that the UCA leadership begain to think of themselves as distinct from Christianity Although the UCA official paper was still the “Christian Leader” up to 1953. (We can certianly argue about what is Christianity – some folks who profess to being Christians dont seem to have much respect for what Christ said).

    Hope this helps

    As far as I know, there are no more statements of faith (do creeds have escape clauses?)

  2. […] Demas, of live from thessalonica, asks the doleful “What happened?” question with respect to the Universalists. He intimates a too-close relationship to the Unitarians is the problem but the Universalists had enough institutional problems (ministerial shortages were chronic, for instance) and an inflated sense of self (propagated today in outrageous estimates of Universalist strength) long before the engagement with the Unitarians. […]

  3. Bill Baar Says:

    A member of my Church is a historian of our areas Universalist Churches. We had some large ones and he told me the bled membership in the 1920s. He’s mentioned two reasons: mainstream Churches stopped preaching hell and damnation, and then also the Church went socialistic as he put it. I guess that means it got wrapped up in left wing politics.

    I’ve been struck by this comment from Ratzinger in Salt of the Earth. It’s startling when the Pope talks like this. I guess we’d call it pluralism per some other comments laying this all out in your blog.

    How many ways are there to God?

    As many as there are people. For even within the same faith each man’s way is an entirely personal one. We have Christ’s word: I am the way. In that respect, there is ultimately one way, and everyone who is on the way to God is therefore in some sense also on the way of Jesus Christ. But this does not mean that all ways are identical in terms of consciousness and will, but, on the contrary, the one way is so big that it becomes a personal way for each man.

  4. Perhaps UCA did disappear in the merger with Unitarians, but the theology lives on in the denomination. I am not a Unitarian but rather a UCC minister. I highly recommend the article from the July 2001 denominational magazine, UU World, called Universalism: A Theology for the 21st Century by Forrest Church. You can read it here:

  5. I was mistaken about the above article. It was from the Dec. issue of UU World. The link above IS correct. The article is eloquent and elegant. I believe it is well worth discussion here.

  6. Adam Says:

    There’s a good, brief book on the history of the UUA that gives really good info on the defunct Universalist Church.


  7. Eddie Cintron Says:

    What is the foundation of the Universalist church as far as belief in Christ for eternal Salvation?

  8. Robin Says:

    Universalists are making a comeback:


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