Examining the Universalist theory of worship

So, what makes Universalist worship Universalist? What keys do we have, if we want to build on a tradition?

It turns out that it’s harder to say than in other denominational traditions, including the Unitarian. The problem may date to the beginning, by which I mean the 1790 Philadelphia Convention, where the assembled delegates claimed, “as we have no rules laid down in the word of God to direct us in our choice of a mode or form of public worship, it is recommended to each Church to use such modes and forms of prayer, and to sing such psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, as to them shall appear most agreeable to the word of God, or best suited to promote order, and spiritual edification.” Not a sense shared by many of their contemporaries! Whether this was an act of liberality, or a politic act of evasion, I will leave for you to decide.

Universalism was made up of different streams, united by a common hope in a common salvation. Other doctrines were a matter of liberty — one reason theological unitarianism had a place — and so much for liturgy, too. As such, the various hymnals and worship books had denominational sponsorship and could be widely adopted and still be entirely optional.

After the Civil War, institutional Universalism congealed around a common program and denominational governance. The theologial schools and denomintational press were growing in influence, and yet there was little discussion about how this new structure applied to worship. Prayerbooks could go out without a preface; liturgists, like Charles Hall Leonard, could write the works, but scarcely say what they intended.

So, where to look for clues? Private papers? Articles in the weekly papers, as yet little digitized? But it may be as subtle as examining the more popular texts themselves, and see what was used, discern what the source documents were — the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer and the prayerbooks of James Martineau, surely — and see what they thought to change…

What I’m reading: history and theory of liturgy

I’m working on some Universalist liturgy projects and have been keenly feeling both the generations of lost ecumenical interchange, and the lost reasoning that lead to the texts we do have. So I decided to read some older works to fill in the missing pieces with the goal of working towards the present.

I happened across “The Reform of Liturgical Worship Perspectives and Prospects” (The Bohlen Lectures 1959) by Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Jr.

This gave me a sense of the development of American Episcopalian liturgical development from the Ritualists to his own time, halfway between the prayer book revisions of 1928 and 1979.

And it it, I found a reference to the 1867 The Book of Common Prayer: as amended by the Westminster Divines, A.D. 1661, also known as the Presbyterian Book of Common Prayer by Charles W. Shields, but particularly the appended essay Liturgia Expurgata which fills in for that work a lineage that I wished the contemporary (1866) Universalist A Book of Prayer for the Church and the Home had. Indeed, I wonder if it was on the desks of those Universalists, especially Charles Hall Leonard, who developed the longer-lasting tradition of Universalist prayer books that ran in successive editions and abridgments through the 1950s.

Key to Universalist Quarterly and General Review online

I was reading a part of Ann Lee Bressler’s The Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880, when I ran across this:

Until it ceased publication in 1891, the Universalist Quarterly supplied a forum for those thinkers who, like the neo-orthodox theologians several decades later, objected to the increasingly pervasive theme of continuity between the present world and the divine, “the major positive principle of the liberal mind.” (p. 144)

I have long read the Universalist Quarterly and General Review, first for background for my never-written master’s thesis, and later for Richard Eddy’s multi-part “Universalist Conventions and Creeds.” But you don’t have to read them on microfilm any more. Several volumes have been scanned and may be read online or downloaded. It’s a good read, and is a counter to the oft-repeated trope that Universalists were unsophisticated.

Note: some of these are misnumbered. This is not the scanner’s fault, but the original publisher’s.

Alsos, not all volumes are online, but I’ll keep looking and filling in missing volumes.

“Universalist Register” copies found online

A handy set of links for those researching Universalists.

The Universalist register and almanac

The Universalist Companion, with Almanac and Register

The Universalist Companion, with an Almanac and Register

The Universalist Register

Introductions to Universalism

A nice chat with other member of Universalist National Memorial Church after services today, over coffee. As sometimes happens, the matter of books came up, which merged with another comment about Hosea Ballou, and from there to books about Universalism.

I recommended two smallish, straight-forward books and a documentary history, if with reservations. Both are institutional histories, and both are irenic towards Unitarianism, positing Universalism as a close relation rather than a religious tradition on its own terms. Fine as denominational works, but also a bit unsatisfying for informing a faith, particularly a Christian faith. Of course, theological universalism is hot now — in evangelical circles, and so many of the faith-forward works are better for evangelicals. And the academic works are good for academics.

There’s room for a primer. In the mean time, here are those three books.

  • The Larger Faith by Charles A. Howe
  • American Universalism by George Huntston Williams
  • Universalism in America: A Documentary History of a Liberal Faith, ed. by Ernest Cassara

All three are from Skinner House, but only the first two are available at the UUA Bookstore.

Transcription workflow notes

So, it’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post, but I’ve not been inactive. And since I have the day off today, I thought I’d catch you up. Over the next couple of days, I’ll be putting up two chapters from the 1946 Parish Practice in Universalist Churches as text; I’ve previously posted it as a scanned PDF.

I want to discuss my workflow. I can do the odd report, but I’d like to see more Universalist and other documents transcribed, and to have typographic errors discovered and corrected. I shouldn’t be the bottleneck.

In the past — going back twenty years or so — I would photocopy a book, carefully crop it into a single column, rephotocopy these onto letter size and take them to a central computer center where they would be processed by Optical Character Recognition (OCR). I’d get a file back, and then edit it.  Later, I would use a flatbed scanner at home and OCR software at home, but some documents required the images being edited to one column. These processes were very time consuming. Sometimes, transcribing by keyboard was more efficient!

Image capture and OCR software have improved markedly. Today, instead of scanning, I take a picture with my phone, and use a graphical front-end to powerful OCR software to process the text. It’s not always clean — a second snap and process is sometimes necessary — but the improvement over twenty years ago is striking.

In particular, on my Ubuntu Linux (14.04 LTR) machine, I use YAGF — “Yet Another Graphical Front-end for cuneiform and tesseract OCR engines” with the tesseract engine.

Universalist polity document from 1951

Since I earlier opined that some of our conflicted Unitarian Universalist polity is the product of Universalist and Unitarian inheritances, I thought it best to “show my work” — or rather, some original documents.

1951 Universalist Laws of Fellowship, Government and Discipline

Some carryovers are obvious, and some fixes necessary. I recall a senior minister telling me of how a General Convention in the 1950s ground to a halt, as it was the final court of review. Can you imagine a General Assembly stopping in its tracks over a MFC matter? Well, I can, but I wouldn’t want to… But I also think there are protections lost from over-correction. What other continuations do you see? Things you’d like to see come back?

I’m also reorganizing and cleaning up the my documents site — UniversalistChurch.net — a bit, and will add more documents as time allows.

One day later: I’ve edited and put up the set from 1946. http://universalistchristian.net/…/1946-universalist…/

Noteworthy changes 1946 to 1951: higher standards for parishes and the education of ministers; easier to deactivate or sidestep under/dysfunctional state conventions. Note sure it’s germaine, but the 1946 set was job printed and bound, and the 1951 set was mimeographed and stapled. But the laws would go through three more revisions, until 1958, which should be seen less as Universalist than as pre-UUA.

Universalist polity persists today

A couple of weeks ago, I was batting back and forth with an informed Unitarian Universalist friend about our polity, when at one point he zeroed in at the settled clergy vote at General Assembly, at which point I had to stand up for the Universalist contribution to our polity.

This is my side of the discussion, which I admit was a bit of a monologue at that point. I don’t have his permission to share his side, but if commenters want to continue the conversation, I would consider it an honor.

I was wondering what the future holds…

With the one-way push to regions, will there be an opening for devolution of connection authority? — congregational membership, mission planning, ministerial fellowship [at the regional level] — now that there aren’t 19-22 districts.

[After all,] There’s a lot more embedded Universalism in our system than we sometimes credit.

[And then the push about General Assembly votes.]

It’s about fellowship, not credentials per se. Makes more sense in the Universalist sense if the other piece was still in place.

That is, the fellowship of the parishes.

That’s because, from a Universalist frame, the UUA acts (imperfectly) as a national church, something the Unitarians would never have.

[My friend opined that this result is sub-optimal.]

[Today’s system is]neither-nor.

The names tell you all. The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America.

And why scant resources went to build a Universalist National Memorial Church, but the Unitarians never did.

To finish my thought, the churches were (supposed) to have a parallel relationship to their conventions that the ministers did, supervised by the same committee.

And both ministers and lay persons served on them. Not that I’m all rah-rah retro Universalist.

The half-time service requirement for fellowship renewals — a thorn in my side — is a re-write of a pre-consolidation Universalist rule.

"A Fruitful Life"

It’s been a hard day, and seeking solace, turned to prayer. I pulled this book off my shelf because the title — Light and Peace — spoke to me. It’s a collection of prayers by Charles Hall Leonard, published by the Murray Press, a Universalist publisher, in 1915.

Leonard (1822-1918) was an outsized figure in Universalist history, was a professor and later dean of the theological school at Tufts, and remembered today I’d guess for creating Children’s Sunday, though readers of this blog may be more interested to know that he was the unacknowledged author of A Book of Prayer for the Church and the Home, or what I call usually “the Universalist prayerbook.”

Elmer Hewitt Capen
Elmer Hewitt Capen
One prayer “in memory E. H. C.” bears repeating here. That was the thirty-years’ Tufts president and Universalist minister Elmer Hewitt Capen, who died in office in 1905.

Prayers for deceased ministers have a special place in my heart, and particularly  as Terry Burke, the long-time and much-loved minister of First Parish in Jamaica Plain was laid to rest today, and with whom some day we shall each share glory.

A Fruitful Life

O God, our heavenly Father: To whom can we go, but to Thee, who art our strength in weakness, our light in darkness, and our comfort in sorrow? To-day, we know not how to speak to each other, nor how to interpret to ourselves. We turn to Thee, and, first of all, beseech Thee to awaken within us the memory of all that has been precious in the life of our great friend and leader: his wise devotion to the college into which he built his life; his intelligent administration of its affairs in a manifold range of usefulness bearing upon its progress and growing facilities, and in that loving care and interest which reached the endeavor and the struggle of the humblest student. Help us to recall the calmness of his thought, his unselfish regard for others, his generous approval of all that is right and good, and his Christ-like pity and forgiveness toward all the weak and sinful. We remember the words, spoken in private and in public, which move us to-day with new power, because of this mystic silence.

We desire also to remember all that he was and is, and will be to us, as a part of permanent influence in all the relations which distinguished his life: in the privacy of his home, in the maintenance of a loyal service to the church, in all his efforts as an educator, and in the ampler calls of citizenship.

Help us, O God, in our sense of gratitude for all that this full life has been to us now that we read it anew, know anew its noble witness to learning, to charity, to religion, and get its larger message as from open skies.

Goddard Chapel
Goddard Chapel at Tufts
We bow down before Thee, with whom are the issues of life and of death. Help us all to that acquiescence in grief, which, year by year, has been taught from this place, and, above all, breathed in the prayers that here have daily been put up in our behalf. Help these sorrowing teachers who waited for his step, were cheered, day by day, by the denials he so patiently took up, and were inspired more and more by his confident sympathy. We remember before Thee those who, in great procession along the productive years, moved through these halls, and bore hence the mark of the man they had learned to know, to honor and to love. And grant Thy especial favor to the students, in all ranks, and in all places, here and there, who are now enrolled as members of the college. Have regard unto their sad and questioning hours; and give joy to them also, that they came to know so well the man and president who greeted their coming at first.

And now, what wait we for but for grace and power, both for mind and heart; new motive in view of a great example; new ability to take up the tasks which a great leader has laid down; and new light, also, for comfort to those whose sorrow to-day is deepest, that there may be to them one fixed and tranquil object of thought and affection; and help us all to see that it is no fractional life that we are called to contemplate, but a life, forecast and fashioned in accomplishment, opening more and more into its own power and beauty, and, at the last, opening forth towards the realities of a world from which all veils were taken away. O God, most merciful and gracious, open our eyes to that grateful vision, that so we may be enabled to go on, to bear up, and to find our highest joy and peace in the field of duty to which now Thou dost send us back, and in the entrusted daily care to which Thou hast appointed us. Grant that, from the trembling moments of our human life, and from the mourner’s watch, we may go forth with uplifted heart, and a diviner purpose, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.