(See Notes section for revision history)
The topic for this Sunday is "West Coast Universalism". We've already discussed the meaning of universalism but we also need to discuss the early days of the Universalist Church on the east coast before reaching the west coast since the west coast history is only a part of the big picture of universalism.
The Universalist Church was like a shooting star that flashed briefly across the sky for nearly 200 years, fading from sight (almost) when the Universalists and Unitarians merged in 1961. You may think that universalism lives on in the UU churches since one of these U's stands for "Universalist". But actually, little remains of universalism as it was originally formulated.
What does remain are some church buildings such as ours, which were originally Universalist. However, many of these church buildings have been demolished or are no longer used as UU churches. For example, look at the pictures (posted on the bulletin board) of both the Los Angeles and Hollywood Universalist churches. The Los Angeles church was torn down, and no UU church exists in Hollywood today. Our Throop Church is the sole surviving ex-Universalist church in the Los Angeles region and the largest such building west of the Mississippi.
Isn't more recent history more important? What is so significant about what happened 200 years ago? The answer is that universalism (as a church) was on the decline except during its early period of growth. Thus if we are interested in growth and the reasons for it we must go back 200 years
John Murray founded the Universalist Church in America quite by accident shortly before the revolutionary war. One way to remember this "date" is to recall that John Murray was appointed a chaplain in the revolutionary army by George Washington. John Murray came to America from England, without much money and with almost no experience as a preacher. Although he had devoted much study to universalism as it was preached in England, he had no intention of becoming a preacher here. When he got to our shores he quite by accident ran into a farmer in New Jersey who was a Universalist and invited Murray to preach in his small meetinghouse. Murray impressed the audience and received invitations to preach elsewhere as a guest speaker.
Now it must be pointed out that universalism was not unknown in America at the time Murray arrived. A physician named deBenneville (our camp where we go on retreats is named after him) had preached universalism in America but had formed no church. Others had likewise talked about it and a book had been published in America about it. This was all before the United States even existed (we were still a British colony). Still, few had heard of it nor knew much about it.
Murray thus became an itinerant preacher, traveling from town to town and preaching in other churches and meeting halls. Such a minister usually received no pay for giving guest sermons, but had to survive on whatever could be collected from the offering. Often the people who invited him to speak would invite him to stay in their homes as their guest. His fame rapidly spread far and wide but his infamy as a heretic spread even faster. Eventually invitations to speak dried up and he went to Gloucester, Massachusetts where a family had invited him to come and live with them. He held meetings in homes but the Church of Christ expelled their members who had dared attend his meetings.
This expulsion resulted in the expellees organizing (along with others) a new church in Gloucester called the Independent Church of Christ with Murray as its minister. They got some land and decided to build a small church. Thus the first Universalist church was established on American soil just after the revolutionary war.
Other churches soon followed. A Baptist minister names Winchester became a convert to universalism and preached it to his congregation. For this he was kicked out of the ministry but managed to take about 100 members of his old congregation with him and form yet another Universalist church. Other people became itinerant preachers and wandered from town to town, preaching wherever they could find an audience, sometimes even out in the open fields.
Why was all this successful? One reasons was the powerful and optimistic message they preached. To people who had been taught the Calvinist doctrine that only the elect would be saved and go to heaven, Universalism was preaching that all were going to heaven. While other evangelicals were telling sinners to repent, Universalists were telling people that they were already saved. Preachers often believed they were called by God to spread the good news. Also, they used quotations from the Bible to support Universalism and claimed that they were solid Christians. These were the days when belief in the Bible was strong.
There were differences in what was preached by various ministers. Murray did not believe that there would be any punishment after death for sin but thought that punishment might happen after death for disbelief. Winchester thought that punishment after death for sin would not exceed a duration of 50,000 years. Then the soul would be able to go to heaven. However many preachers avoided emphasis on punishment after death, even though they may have believed in it. At any rate, all such punishment would only be temporary.
There is no way to do justice to the history of universalism in a short sermon. I suggest that you look at the 2 volume set of books by Miller. The first volume is titled "The Larger Hope. The First Century of the Universalist Church in America 1770-1870". The second volume is for the "Second Century" and covers 1870-1970. Be careful! Miller has made some mistakes and often fails to answer the "why" question. There is far too much factual information presented without analysis of it. Stories of failures of churches are often omitted. The photo of the Hollywood church is in this book but nothing about it can be found in the text. A better book on universalism remains to be written but unfortunately, much of the history has been lost. Interest in its history has been declining and the Universalist Historical Association is now defunct after their merger with the Universalist Historical Association. Most of the recent work of the new association has been on Unitarian history rather than Universalist history.
There is much confusion regarding the number of persons who once belonged to the Universalist Church. In the mid-nineteenth century before the Civil War, numerous exaggerated claims were made regarding membership which are sometimes erroneously repeated today. It has been erroneously stated that there were a million Universalists and that it was the 6th largest religion in the US (see Note 1.).
The actual number was more like about 50,000 members from 1840 thru 1960 (see Note 2.). At the time of merger in 1961 there were about 36,000 members indicating a slight decline over a period of 120 years. However between 1840 and 1960 the US population had increased ten-fold giving over a 10 fold decline in universalism as a percentage of the US population. Most other major religions were growing during this period.
However, the Universalists were numbered among the 21 major sects which were covered by the 1850 US Census. Today UU's are only the 50th largest denomination (see Statistical Abstract of the US). Thus 150 years ago the Universalists were much more significant than the "combined" UU religion is today.
As Unitarian Universalists we are dedicated in our principles for the search for truth. It is not truthful to look at our Universalist heritage thru rose colored glasses reporting only on its successes while ignoring its failings. Our "World" magazine for July/August 1993 devoted the entire issue to Universalism. In it was repeated the fiction of the 6th largest religion. The article which pictured our church was titled with the outrageously euphemistic heading "200 Years and Growing".
The truth about the Universalist church is that it grew rapidly during much of its first century of existence, but by its second century it was a church in decline. The decline was mostly in the percentage of people who were Universalist rather than a decline in absolute numbers. This is something for UU's to also think about. We are today still about the same size as we were in 1961 after the merger. The population of the US has grown but we haven't, thus repeating the history of decline of the Universalists.
The "Encyclopedia of Unbelief" takes a whole page to analyze the reasons for a fictitious decline in Universalist membership from supposedly 800,000 in 1840 to under 50,000 in 1961. A major reason is claimed to be the lack of rigorous standards for an educated ministry between 1820 and 1860. This doesn't explain much since most of this period was years of growth in spite of lack of an educated ministry. One may however speculate that a poorly educated ministry tended to attract poorly educated members who were less capable of efficient management of their churches thus contributing to decline in future years.
One can get some idea of the situation by inspecting old Universalist magazines and literature. One spots hyperbole such as the 1953 heading in large print "The only possible philosophy for a better world is universalism". Also, in the 20th century their dogma became somewhat ambiguous. The contents of their magazines sometimes included interesting discussions of theology and world problems, but much of the printed news of what was happening in Universalist Churches around the country was quite boring. In spite of the shortcomings of the UU's "World" magazine, it is likely superior to the old Universalist periodicals.
The drift away from a belief in the Bible and Christ toward a church without any dogma resulted in the Universalists competing with the Unitarians for people who were very liberal in religious matters including agnostics and humanists. Most of these people were well educated. Due to the higher levels of education and sophistication (or class) found in the Unitarian Churches, such people tended to join with the Unitarians rather than with the Universalists. In cases where there was no competing Unitarian Church nearby (such as in Pasadena when Neighborhood Church was still Congregational), people seeking liberal religion would join with the Universalists.
Universalism came to California with the Gold Rush starting just after 1849. Itinerant preachers made the rounds of various mining camps in Northern California and it's claimed that they preached in nearly all places. In 1860 a tiny church was built at Horsetown (alias Igo, alias Piety Hill) in Shasta County near Mt. Shasta. Larger churches were started in San Francisco, Portland, and elsewhere. Then came the Civil War and many Universalists (sometimes the majority) supported the South while their ministers tended to support the North. This resulted in some churches (such as Portland) falling apart over discord.
With the completion of the transcontinental railroad to California in 1869, settlement of the Pacific Coast shifted into high gear. So did the spread of Universalism and churches were established in many communities. But by the start of the 20th century there had been so many failures that the long manuscript by Asa Bradley on "Pacific Coast Universalism" (covering only the 19th century) starts with the sentence "'For what reason did Universalism become extinct in California?'" Note the nested quotes. Bradley is quoting someone else who was unaware the there were sill a few churches left.
By the time of the merger with the Unitarians in 1961 there were only a few Universalist churches still alive in the Pacific States, all of them in California with almost all of these in Southern California. But Throop was perhaps of more significance than all of the others put together. The ones in Oregon and Washington had all failed. Even the churches in San Francisco and Los Angeles were gone.
Some of the people who came west to settle the Pacific States had been Universalists in the East. It was often the case that when a new church was created in the West, most of the members were already Universalists. This made establishing new churches easier because one did not have to make the effort to convert people to Universalism.
In 1853 a Universalist society was organized in San Francisco using rented facilities but soon failed. Then in 1860 the famous Unitarian minister (who was once a Universalist) Starr King, came to San Francisco and took over a floundering Unitarian church there. Many members of his congregation were former Universalists and Universalism's loss was the Unitarian's gain.
In January 1873 after rails had linked California with the nation, a Universalist minister rented a meeting hall in San Francisco, advertised services and personally invited a number of people to attend. Only 18 showed up and the offering only covered about half of the rental cost of the hall. But he didn't give up. Each Sunday thereafter more people showed up until not only was the hall rent covered but some money was left over to pay the minister. A church of 75 members was organized and a new minister called. The first sermon of the new minister in July 1873 was attended by an alleged crowd of about 600.
A high school English teacher took her students to hear the new minister claiming that "He was the most finished speaker to whom I ever listened: every word the right word and every gesture ideal." Then disaster struck which eventually destroyed the church. The minister for some reason was disfellowshipped by the Universalist Church in the East. He refused to step down and continued preaching. The mother church persuaded about 40% of the congregation to leave the "outlaw" church and go over to a new church which was formed. Then another spit occurred when the "outlaw" congregation ousted their minister but refused to go over to the other church. The ousted minister gathered his supporters and formed a 3rd church.
This resulted in 3 Universalist churches in San Francisco, all without a church building and all using rented halls. They soon all merged and got back together again but there were bitter feelings. People who had gained power in running the new churches lost it in the merged church. Some quit. Then there were scandals involving several prominent members which brought the church into ill repute. By 1878 the church was in trouble and in 1880 it folded.
In 1892 a church was organized at Seattle, Washington. By luck a minister came to town and was hired. He was well acquainted with the names of other ministers and the details of Universalist churches. He interviewed leading real estate men regarding purchasing a building site. After checking out the cash from the Ladies Circle building fund to purchase a lot he disappeared. Further checking revealed that he was not actually a minister at all, and had used an alias name to conceal his true identity. That scandal spelled the end of the Seattle church.
In 1893 Rev. Grier organized a church in Spokane, Washington. In 1901 a church was built. However in Spokane in 1913 the Rev. Grier founded a metaphysical church called "Church of the Truth" which was not Universalist. Later in 1924 he became the first minister of the Church of the Truth in Pasadena, CA. In this church, rather than encouraging individuals to seek the truth, the church tells its members what the "truth" is. In the 1990's a prominent member of Throop Church in Pasadena, David Browne, switched to this church.
There were perhaps almost 50 Universalist churches that were organized on the West coast in the 19th century and several more in the 20th century. Most of them failed and in many cases their history has been lost. Only four still remain today as UU churches: Throop, Costa Mesa, Santa Paula, and Riverside.
A major reason for the failures was lack of support from the national Universalist organization mainly due to lack of money. Other religions spent large sums on the project of establishing new churches in the Pacific States. One reason for lack of money was that many churches were reluctant to give money for missionary work in the West, selfishly holding on to money for their own use. Another factor may have been that Universalists may not have been as wealthy as people in other denominations or as wealthy as the Unitarians with whom they competed with in some locations.
Another problem was the ministers. Many old and ill Universalist ministers from the East came west for their health. They lacked the energy needed to get churches growing in the West. Some died shortly after arriving (and one even died on the trip west). Another problem was that most small churches only had part time ministers who sometimes worked at outside jobs during the week. When such ministers moved to another location, no one could be found to take their place. The national organization often did little to help.
The reasons why Throop Church in Pasadena was a success while others failed are many. Throop had a large and impressive church building, financed in part by a wealthy Universalist, Amos Throop. The original building was on N. Raymond Ave. catercorner from the Catholic Church and could seat about 700 people. Our present building can seat only 300, but is more impressive with stained glass windows which are among the finest in Southern California. There was no competition from a Unitarian Church.
Throop had some fine ministers. One of the best may have been Robert Cummins who served Throop from 1933 to 1938 and then became General Superintendent of the Universalists from 1938 to 1953. Miller in his book says about the Universalist movement: "It was at a critical stage in dominational affairs, when there was serious doubt whether the church would survive, that a personality appeared on the scene in the 1930's who reversed, at least temporarily, the visible decline of Universalism in numbers, strength and morale, and infused new life and hope into it. That personality was Robert Cummins ..."
Thus Throop was the largest and greatest Universalist church in the far west and is one of the few survivors in a sea of failures. We have an important heritage to preserve.
(Minor typo fixes, grammatical corrections, etc. not noted.) Nov.2002: Changed "many" to "some" in: "Also, many ministers were poorly educated." July 2003: removed this sentence. Added Costa Mesa church to ex-universalist church list. Mar. 2008: Removed sentence about "poorly educated" ministers coming west. July 2015: Converted to HTML.
This is the standard work on Universalist history (in 2 volumes). Vol. I is for 1770-1870 and Vol. II for 1870-1970. In spite of its huge size, much important has been omitted and much trivial has been included. The "why" question is often ignored.
See Miller, vol. 1, p. 162 where it is reported that the American Almanac for 1832 listed Universalism as the 6th largest denomination. On the same page it says that in 1833 "Whittemore threw caution to the winds and claimed a Universalist population of 'upwards of 1,000,000'". Just 6 months earlier he had admitted that the number of Universalists were unknown.
In 1890 the 11th US Census issued a volume on "Churches". It reported 49,194 Universalists based on responses from the Universalists themselves. According to "Historical Atlas of Religion in America", p. 133, figure 110 (Universalists in America) shows the number of Universalist Churches reaching a maximum in about 1890. But in 1890 there were only about half the number of churches as in 1840. It's doubtful that the number of churches would double while the number of members would decline. Thus one may guess that the actual number of members in 1840 (or 1833) was somewhat under 50,000. In George Williams book, American Universalism (Universalist Historical Society, 1971) it is stated on p.68 that in 1890 "Universalists at their peak" had 50,000 members. However according to the federal census for 1906 there were 64,158 members based on inquiries to individual churches. Thus the 50,000 figure is only a rough estimate.
Archives for Universalist (and Unitarian) history are at: Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, 45 Francis Ave., Cambridge MA 021338. (617) 495-5788. In 1995: Timothy Driscoll was Project Archivist.
Bradley, Asa Mayo. Pacific Coast Universalism, typed manuscript, 1937. I have the single-spaced copy obtained from Ms Isabel Gehr (wife of Dr. Harmon Gehr, the former minister). Harvard has a double-spaced copy of the same manuscript. Only covers the 19th century but a few statements overlap into the early 20th century.
At Harvard: "Records of Universalist churches in California, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas, 1833-1971 (in 8 boxes). Gift of the Universalist Historical Society 1976. The only church in California covered is the "First Universalist Parish in Fellowship (San Francisco, CA.) It was formed in 1874 as a breakaway church (headed by Miller) from the "outlaw" church headed by Van Demark.
Bisbee, Fredrick A.: "A California Pilgrimage, a souvenir of the United Universalist conventions, California, 1915" is owned by Throop Church (archives) and contains nothing of historical religious interest. It is merely a guidebook to the points of interest in Southern California.
Deere, Dr. George H.: Autobiography. At Fuller Theological Seminary Library. Deere became the first minister at Riverside in 1881, but was already an old man so only about a single chapter covers his life at the Riverside Church in California.
Rev. Alexander Meek (Min. emeritus), 26231 Lakeside Dr., Sun Lakes, AZ 85227. (602) 895-8540. Allegedly gave a talk at De Benneville in May 1993 on Universalist History.
Fredrick Selleck, 14304 E. Bronte Dr., Whittier CA 90602. (310) 693-8700. Grandson of Minister at Riverside (Willard C. Selleck) in 1920's. Has written a book about his grandfather, Willard C. Selleck. In 1995 I sent him a copy of the Bradley manuscript and copies from a few pages of Dr. Deere's book.