An old reflection on what it means to be a Universalist church

A continuing concern of mine is what makes a Universalist church Universalist. I’ve gotten hints from liturgies and speeches, but nothing helps so well as polity documents, which tell more than they intend.

So when I found the badly-typeset 1873 constitution and bylaws of the (extant) Halifax, Nova Scotia Universalist church, I was touched and interested by its combination of boilerplate and local additions. There’s quite a bit to unpack within it, so first the document itself, below the fold. I welcome unpacked observations, and I’ll be adding my own in the comments, too.


Act of Incorporation and Constitution of the Church of the Redeemer, Halifax, Nova Scotia

adopted June 29, 1873

Church of the Redeemer

Preamble:

Believing in the Church as an association of Christian believers, for religious culture and christian work, we hereby unite for the formation of a Parish therein, and adopt for our government the following Constitutions and Bye-Laws. —

Article I.

Name. — This organization heretofore known as “The First Universalist Church of Halifax,” shall hereafter be designated as the Church of the Redeemer.

Article II.

This Parish acknowledges itself part of the Universalist Church of America, recognizes the ecclesiastical authority of the United States General Convention of Universalists, and the jurisdiction of the Maine Universalist Convention; — regards itself a pledges to enlist and co-operated in such measures for raising funds and fostering and extending all the interests of the Church, as the General Convention may adopt or prescribe; — and accedes to and shall comply with the conditions of fellowship establised by the said General Convention; provided always, that all monies raised in the Parish be under its immediate control.

Article III.

Membership. — [I.] An expressed assent to the Confession of Faith adopted by the General Convention of Universalists, at Winchester, N. H., A. D. 1803, shall be essential to membership in this parish, to wit.

Art. I. We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

Art. II. We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

Art. III. We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

II. — Any person who assents to said Confession of Faith and contributes to the support of the Parish, becomes a member thereof, provided that a majority of members do not object.

Article IV.

The Pastor. — No Minister shall be call to, or continue in, the Pastoral charge of this Parish unless he has the fellowship of the General Convention.

II. — The Pastor shall be chosen by a majority of the congregation at a meeting called for that purpose, and three months notice shall be given on either side to terminate the connection.

V. — Baptism.

While this Church does not regard Water Baptism as essential of Christian discipleship, it recognizes its propriety as a symbol; and the Pastor, in case it shall be desired by one admitted a member, shall administer it or [cause] it to be administered in such a form as may be preferred.

VI. — The Communion.

The Communion of the Lord’s Supper shall be regularly observed quarterly in each year, in the months of January, April, July and October; it being provided that its participation therein shall not be made obligatory upon any member; and further, that at every such service all present who may feel it to be a duty or priviledge to do so, shall be invited to join its observance.

VII. — Children and the Church.

1. Believing that Children are born into the Church by virtue of their birth of Christian parents, this Parish regards its the duty of all christians to endeavor to train their children in a [consciousness] of their Christian obligation, and it recommends that they bring their children forward for Baptism or dedication, as a token of the recognition of this duty.

2. To this end the last Sunday in June of each year shall, of practicable, be observed as Children’s Sunday.

VIII. — Statistics.

A Book or Register shall be provided, in which shall be recorded by the Pastor, in the manner and form prescribed by the laws of the General Convention, all Baptisms, Dedications, Marriages, Funerals, etc., performed or attended by him, or by another for him.

IX. — General Committees.

The Parish shall be divided in the following General Committees, which shall be appointed by the Pastor and Vestry, annually, on the first Sunday in April, viz: Committee on Hospitality; Committee on Visitation; Committee on Sunday School and Mission.

The Committee on Hospitality shall seek out the strangers in the Parish, call upon them, introduce them to the Pastor and members of the congregation, and endevor to make them feel that they are among friends.

The Committee on Visitation shall visit the sick in their respective district, — do all in their power for their comfort, — devise and put in operation the means as they deem suitable to reach and help the needy, and report the cases to the Pastor. They shall also endeavor to make the acquaintance of all members of the congregation who reside in their respective districts, call upon every person, and exert themselves to unite the Parish as one great family.

The Committee on Sunday School and Missions shall be charged with the superintendence of these great departments of Christian work in the Parish. They shall visit the Sunday School as often as one a quarter, and report on its condition at the quarterly meeting othe Society. They shall also interest themselves in the establishment of Mission Sunday Schools, distribution of Books and Tracts, and in all other work which related to the spread of the Gospel and the good of man.

These Committees shall adopt such regulations and plan of organization as shall seem to them advisable, shall keep a full record of their work, and be ready to report at any regular meeting of the Society, at the request of the presiding officer.

X. — Quarterly Meetings.

The Parish shall hold regular quarterly meetings for the purpose of hearing reports of the above named Committees, and the transaction of business connected therewith, on the first Sunday in the months of January, April, July and October of each year, at three o’clock in the afternoon.

8 Replies to “An old reflection on what it means to be a Universalist church”

  1. 1. Reviewing this and the laws it mentions, to be a Universalist is to have a particular relationship to the profession of faith and established authority, in the later case largely related to funding and rule of law. Members to a church; church and ministers to a state convention and the state convention to the General Convention. But these are hardly onerous bonds, as the funding reports I’ve seen suggest. Also, note the verbs, like assent.

    2. An interesting early use of the term Universalist Church of America, which sounds here more like a spiritual union than an organization.

    3. The General Committees, which look to me like a local use, seem like the work I’d associate with elders and deacons redistributed and “democratized.” Especially since the Vestry itself is alluded to but not in the Constitution itself.

  2. The document also expresses a clear Doctrine of the Church. The Church is a voluntary association of Christians who perform religious culture and Christian works. Additionally, the local parish is expressed as a unit of the Church (which would be an Ecumenical commitment).

    Membership is grounded in a profession of faith, which I interpret to be a shared theological witness. Is this semi-creedal?

    I take note that observance of the sacraments of Baptism and Communion are deemed as optional and not essential for members. However, it is still written as essential that the local parish offer these rites. There is, therefore, some definite theological tension here about the nature of these rites in the practice of Christianity.

    I would also observe that the celebration of communion is “open communion”, and not restricted to anybody based on history of baptism or denominational affiliation. Again, this is an ecumenical commitment. It may also be a liberal-evangelical commitment towards pre-valent Grace, which does not demand baptism as a prerequisite cleansing for accepting communion with God through Christ.

    In this Universalism I see a kind of small-c catholicity that runs contrary to much of contemporary, sectarian Unitarian Universalist thought. Also, the role of shared theological witness runs counter to contemporary anti-creedalism (which may have roots that are more Unitarian than Universalist).

  3. Thank you for sharing this! It is amazing how little we know about our own denominational roots. I find this fascinating and also inspiring. Knowing that anti-creedalism has not always been the emphasis of our faith, as it is today, is an interesting revelation.

    As a lifelong UU, who has always known in her bones that she has the freedom to believe whatever she wants, emphasizing anti-creedalism above other things feels like a moot point. I’m always looking for more. And the more I learn about Universalism the more I find a faith that gives me more.

    Thanks for sharing this treasure from the past!

  4. Indeed: I’ve heard it said — I forget by whom, but not long ago; Derek, is this from Wells? — that Universalists need or have these structures to overcome their own natural individualism.

  5. This is an interesting twist though…membership through assent to the Winchester Confession and “provided that a majority of members do not object”. And silence on the criteria members might use…

  6. @Bill. I was reading “objection to character”, though the silence is interesting. And there’s no standing committee or referenced mechanism to so do. All-in-all, not this document’s clearest or strongest part.

  7. Ahhhh… This does get back to our dear brother in ministry, who is less fond of the Winchester Profession and more rooted in the Washington Avowal of Faith. And yes, he did tell me at one time that “we Universalists have needed these things so we can work beyond our own individualism”.

  8. The parts I like best:

    — In the preamble, the phrase “religious culture and christian work” sounds very familiar. Today you might hear this expressed as, perhaps, “spiritual maturity and social justice” (in both liberal Christian churches and post-Christian congregations) but the overall intent seems similar if not the same.

    — The section on “Children and the Church” offers a perspective distinctly different from most Unitarian and Universalist congregations of the past 60 or 70 years. The mid-20th C. curriculums put out by the Unitarians and Universalists operated under the assumption that children are not born into the church, and that we should not teach them much of anything about our faith. We still haven’t completely recovered from that mid-20th C. attitude. I like the attitude of these bylaws much better.

    — The section on statistics is excellent, and deserves attention today. Too many of today’s Unitarian Universalist churches keep lousy records of major life passages.

    — The three general committees show what this congregation thought most important: hospitality, visitation, and Sunday school/mission (and I love that Sunday school is put together with mission, because they really do belong together). Good set of priorities, if you ask me.

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