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.

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A source for the Winchester Profession?

Look what I found. Googling for the phrase, from the Winchester Profession, “holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected” — or rather I searched for “holiness and happiness are inseparably connected” and I found references predating 1803. It’s not the kind of language you see too often.

Now I have three possible inspirations for the phrase, assuming of course that it wasn’t a product of Walter Ferris, the profession’s chief author.

  • From The Principles of Christianity, by Thomas Bowman, the “vicar of Martham, Norfolk” in 1790. I’m not hopeful this made it to rural Vermont. But he does use the phrase twice. One follows:

    The necessity of holiness is evident from the purpose or decree of God; “He hath chosen us, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” Ephes. i. 4. The principal design of God in ordaining any to eternal life, is, that, by holiness, being made meet for an inheritance with the saints in light, they may be for ever happy, to the praise of the glory of his grace. Holiness and happiness are inseparably connected. As then, without holiness no man shall see the Lord, so likewise without holiness no man can be happy.

  • From A description of the work of divine grace on the souls of saved sinners by J. Lawrence “of Bristol” in 1800. I’m a bit more hopeful since there’s something of the sectarian about these pages, and I can easier imagine a book bound from Bristol (in both senses!) reaching Ferris at alia. But I’ve not read the work

    That this change is essential to salvation. For our Lord himself declares, Except a man be born again, be cannot seethe Kingdom of God. He has no native meetness for it, nor any capability of enjoying it; his carnal propensities must be stain, and a spiritual capability to enjoy God and glorify him, must be imparted to him. Without this, no man can enjoy true happiness, cither in the present life, or the life to come; for holiness and happiness are inseperably connected, nor can they be parted ; for a God of unspotted purity and holiness can have no communion with impurity and sin, nor impure sinners with a God of spotless purity. Therefore, in order that his own children may be brought to that happiness to which they are appointed, it is essentially necessary that they be born from from above; for it is this which constitutes their meetness for glory. Consequently, all who go to heaven are prepared for it by this heavenly birth, in the present life; none can go there without it.

  • From the Sacramental Catechism of John Willison (d. 1750) and in print at least as late as 1790, as one of many answers to the following:

    Q. When is our conversation suited to the principles of our profession?
    A. When we distinctly know them, firmly believe them, openly prosess them, stedfastly adhere to them, and have our practice corresponding to our profession, particularly, when we live and walk as those who fixedly believe.

  • Covenant, overplayed

    Minister and blogger Dan Harper thinks we should “get rid of covenant as an organizing principle.”

    I think he’s right and lays out a good case, particularly about how covenantalism — as now extolled — was not what Universalists had. Consider the Gloucester, Massachusetts 1786 Charter of Compact — this was John Murray’s pastorate — and in a day when the church-parish split was well understood, and public worship was state supported. They could have had a classically covenantal church should they have chosen. (Read Dan’s blog post if you’re more convinced by Unitarian models.)

    But I think the appeal of neo-covenantalism is that it dignifies and gives form to Unitarian Universalist theological libertarianism (and decorates its decent into bald sectarianism.) I’ve long been bothered by what institutional Unitarian Universalism has been unwilling and unable to celebrate with me an affirmation of universal salvation in Christ — even as one option among many — as a present reality. What’s the likelyhood such a church organized as Murray’s would be admitted to the UUA today? The Universalists turned to their professions — principally the Winchester Profession — for order and unity, for strength in this life and a guide to the next.

    Spread them.

    Reader's question: Where to get the 1941 prayerbook?

    A reader asked where he might get a copy of the 1941 Universalist prayerbook. This is how I replied:

    The 1941 (and lesser known 1943 Harrisville, R.I. prayerbook) were simply abridgments of the 1894 servicebook, with the 1935 Washington Avowal in place — in the appendix — of the Winchester Profession and a new introduction by Emerson Hugh Lalone who noted “The present volume is abridged but in no sense impoverished. Only those parts which are not necessary to the regular services of worship have been omitted.” This includes selections from the Psalter.

    What’s left is

    • The Order for Morning Prayer
    • The Order for Evening Prayer
    • The Order for Vespers
    • Litany
    • The Divine Law
    • The Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion
    • Baptism of Infants
    • Baptism of Such As Are of Riper Years
    • The Order of Confirmation
    • Hymns and Psalms
    • Universalist Profession of Belief and Bond of Fellowship

    Don’t get too excited about the “Hymns and Psalms” — these are exactly the tests of the Gloria Tibi and Te Deum Laudamus.

    I do welcome reader inquiries and have a couple of other replies to post. (I don’t post identifying information; you may comment and I identify yourself.) Write me through the contact page.

    Confessions of Faith from "Life Hymnal" (1904)

    I read two very interesting faith statements — I dare not call them anything else; they had no formal denominational standing — and have typed them below. These are prescribed in one of the Sunday school services in The Life Hymnal: A Book of Song and Service for the Sunday School by Stanford Mitchell and Emma Talbot Mitchell in 1904.

    This hymnal was on the list of books available as a Google download I published earlier. I swear I’ve seen a fragment of this before, but I cannot say where, or even if it was on a website, in print or in correspondence from or about an elderly Universalist. (I used to get a lot of correspondence like that, mostly clippings given for my use and safekeeping.)

    The last possibility opens other thoughts. For those here who’ve been around long enough to have known very elderly Universalists — many now dead — whose childhoods might have been impacted by this book, we have here a bridge . . . .

    Except for some of the war imagery — recall this predates the First World War — I don’t quibble with the theology. Indeed, I think a number of readers will find it quite stirring.

    from pages xxxiii and xxxiv

    Confession of Faith

    I believe in God, the Father Almighty; in Jesus Christ the Redeemer; in the Holy Spirit, the Inspirer; in the brotherhood of man, the certainty of retribution, the redemption from sin, the resurrection from death, and in the ultimate perfection and happiness of all mankind.

    (Or this may take the place of the Confession of Faith.)

    Superintendent. — What give a special character to your Christian Faith.
    School. — Its Universality. I believe in God as the universal Father; in the Christ as a universal Saviour; and in the Holy Spirit as the Divine and conquering Energy through which all evil will at last be overcome, and God be all in all.
    Superintendent. — Believing, then, that all evil can be overcome, what ought to be the fixed purpose of your soul?
    School. — To be a worker together with God toward do great a good, with all my heart, and will all my soul, and with all my mind. To loyally follow that Son of God who has declared everlasting war upon ignorance, disease, sin, death, and all that makes man miserable. To fight against all evil, in myself and in others; to take the side of the oppressed against the oppressors; to stand for righteousness, and never give up; to do justly, and love mercy and walk humbly before God.