Universalist Church of America
Formation 1942
Type religious organization
Location United States & Canada

The Universalist Church of America was a Christian Universalist religious denomination in the United States (plus affiliated Churches in other parts of the world). Known from 1866 as the Universalist General Convention, the name was changed to the Universalist Church of America in 1942. In 1961, it merged with the American Unitarian Association to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.

The defining theology of Universalism is universal salvation; Universalists believe that the God of love would not create a person knowing that that person would be destined for eternal damnation. Thus, they concluded that any existing person must be destined for salvation. Some Universalists believe that Hell exists as a temporary abode for those who have died unreconciled to God, but where God continues to work with the souls in Hell and will lead them eventually to the salvation God intends for all persons. Other Universalists, notably Hosea Ballou, denied the existence of Hell entirely. In other respects Universalists followed orthodox Christian doctrine, simply expanding the number of the saved to include all persons.


Spiritual ancestry

Universalism, like most Protestant movements, claims to trace its origins to early Christians in the first through third centuries A.D. Universalists state that universalist beliefs were reasonably common then, before Catholic theology was firmly laid out; they cite Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Clement of Alexandria, and others as Church Fathers who wrote of beliefs consistent with Universalism.[1]

Early America

American Universalism developed from the influence of various Pietist and Anabaptist movements in Europe, including Quakerism, Moravians, Methodists, Lutherans, Schwenkfelders, Brethren, and others. Pietists emphasized individual piety and zeal and a "religion of the heart." Early followers were most often German in ancestry. The majority of the early American Universalists lived in the Mid-Atlantic colonies, though Rhode Island also had a fair amount of followers.

One of the most important early Universalist evangelists was the Dr. George de Benneville. Born in a Huguenot family exiled to England, he arrived in America in 1741. A physician and lay preacher, he spread Universalism among the German immigrants of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and later around Philadelphia and New Jersey. Benneville also commonly visited the Ephrata Cloister, a utopian community with Universalist beliefs. He arranged for the translation of a German book about universalism, The Everlasting Gospel, by Georg Klein-Nicolai of Friessdorf, Germany. Nearly forty years later, Elhanan Winchester read the book and converted to Universalism. He was influential in the printing of the Sauer Bible, the first German Bible printed in America, with passages supporting Winchester's belief in the universal availability of salvation in boldface type.

In the South, Rev. Giles Chapman was a former Quaker and Continental Army Chaplain who married into a Dunker family. The first Universalist church in South Carolina (and possibly in America) was the Freedonia Meeting Hall situated in Newberry County.

Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a convert to Universalism, was a vigorous foe of slavery, advocated the abolition of the death penalty, advocated for better education for women, supported free public schools, was a pioneer in the study and treatment of mental illness, and insisted that the insane had a right to be treated with respect. He published a pamphlet on the iniquity of the slave trade. As part of his abolitionism, he helped organize the "Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage," the first antislavery society in America; he also served as its president.

The first General Society was held in 1778. Annual conventions started in 1785 with the New England Convention. In 1804, this convention changed its name to "The General Convention of Universalists in the New England States and Others." At its peak in the 1830s, the Universalist Church was around the 9th largest denomination in the United States.


The Church merged with the American Unitarian Association to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. Some state Universalist Conventions did not accept the merger. These churches and others form minor pockets of Christian theological Universalists which remain, but most are affiliated with other denominations.[2][3]

Church organization

Universalist congregations tended towards independence and were not easily prone to centralization. They generally met in State Conventions, which usually had more authority than was vested in national Conventions. The church had three divinity schools, Theological School of St. Lawrence University (1856-1965), the Ryder Divinity School, and the Crane School of Theology (1869-1968).

The Philadelphia Convention was an independent National Convention from 1790 to about 1810.

Notwithstanding it tendency toward independence, Universalist congregations supported the construction of The Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, D.C., to serve as the official church of Universalism. In 1921, the Universalist General Convention approved funds for the building of the church and services began in 1925. The present church, located at 1810 Sixteenth Street NW, Washington DC, was established in 1930 and its current congregation continues to follow Universalist principles.

Social and political stances

The Universalist Church of America involved itself in several social causes, generally with a politically liberal or libertarian bent.


As noted above, Benjamin Rush was a major political activist for anti-slavery causes in early America. The issue resurfaced in the 1850s with the Fugitive Slave Act and other compromises; the Universalists, along with various other denominations, vigorously opposed slavery as immoral. They also favored postbellum legislation such as the Fifteenth Amendment and the Freedman's Act to enfranchise all American citizens.

Separation of church and state

Like many American religions, Universalism has generally been amenable to church-state separation. In New England, Baptists, Universalists, and Quakers provided some of the loudest voices calling for disestablishment of the government sponsored churches of the standing order.

One example comes from the 1770s. By Massachusetts state law, citizens were taxed to support the Congregational Church of the community where they lived. Sixty-one people in Gloucester left the church to form the Independent Church of Christ, which stood for Universalism. They then refused to pay their taxes. The church they built was seized and sold to pay; however, the Church sued, and in 1786, they won their case.

While many Universalists have firmly believed in voting their values, few Universalists have asked for direct governmental support.


Although the Universalist Church as a denomination never fully embraced Spiritualism, many Universalists were sympathetic to this nineteenth-century movement. Spiritualism was preached with some regularity from Universalist pulpits in the middle decades of the 19th century and some ministers left the denomination when their Spiritualist leanings became too pronounced for their peers and congregations.

Ordination of women

On June 25, 1863, Olympia Brown became the first woman in the United States to receive ordination in a national denomination. By 1920, there were 88 Universalist women ministers, the largest group in the United States.

Notable Universalists

See also


Further reading

  • Buescher, John B. 2003. The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience. Boston: Skinner House Books. ISBN 1-55896-448-7.
  • J.W. Hanson (1899)Universalism, The Prevailing Doctrine of the Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years. San Diego: St. Alban Press, 2002 Second Edition. ISBN 0-935461-82-5

External links

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