A historical document, which I’ll migrate to the main site one of these days. Note the US Constitution-like preamble and the way that delegates are named, which explains the ministerial voting rights at General Assembly today. Note also the prevailing non-home-rule attitude towards the District of Columbia (which could never have its own State Convention, even if Universalism took off, but thinly populated territories could.)
This document will probably take three or four more entries, so be patient.
Constitution and By-Laws of the Universalist General Convention
We, the people of the Universalist Church, in order to establish fellowship, propagate the Christian faith, and help the Kingdom of God to come, do hereby organize ourselves into an ecclesiastical body, and do ordain for its guidance the following Constitution and By-Laws.
Article I – Title
This body shall be known as The Universalist General Convention.
Article II – How Constituted
- This Convention shall be composed, first, of its officers; second, of the President, Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer of each State Convention in its fellowship; third, of the several district, regional or State Superintendents; fourth, of all ordained clergymen in fellowship, whether with a State Convention or with the General Convention; fifth, of two lay delegates of whom one shall be a man and one a woman, from each parish in fellowship.
- To be entitled to such lay delegates each parish must maintain its legal existence and support public worship regularly and make a contribution on quota to the General Convention in such matter as the latter may prescribe.
- This Convention shall be the judge of the election and qualification of its members.
- Members from seven states, but not less in aggregate than twenty-five persons, shall be a quorum to do business, but a less number may adjourn, and demand the attendance of absentees.
Article III – Creed and Conditions of Fellowship
1. The Profession of Faith adopted by this body at its session at Winchester, N. H., A. D. 1803, is as follows:
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.
2. The conditions of fellowship in this Convention shall be as follows:
I. The acceptance of the essential principles of the Universalist faith, to wit: The Universal Fatherhood of God; the spiritual authority and leadership of His Son Jesus Christ; the trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God; the certainty of just retribution for sin; the final harmony of all souls with God.
The Winchester Profession is commended as containing these principles, but neither this, nor any other precise form of words, is required as a condition of fellowship, provided always the principles as stated above be professed.
II. The acknowledgement of the authority of the General Convention and assent to its laws.
Article IV – Powers
- The Convention shall have jurisdiction over all organizations, wherever located, which are now within its fellowship or which shall hereafter be organized. It shall have and retain jurisdiction over all matters not specifically coming within the jurisdiction of local or subordinate bodies.
- It shall have power to acquire and hold title to real estate, to sell and convey the same, to raise funds and hold and administer may funds that may be entrusted to its care. All monies or other property given to the Convention for a specific purpose, and the proceeds of the same shall be used only for the purpose designated by the donors of said respective funds. Property given for endowment purposes and not specially designated shall be placed in a general fund which shall be carefully invested, and the income only therefrom shall be used for the purpose of this Convention.
- It shall have original jurisdiction over all cases of dispute between State Conventions and shall be a final Court of Appeal for all cases of discipline and those of government which are appealable in accordance wih the laws concerning Fellowship, Government, and Discipline.
- It shall have the power to require all organizations and clergymen subject to its jurisdiction to furnish such statistical and other reports as may be provided in its By-Laws or by special actions.
- In those States and Territories where no Conventions are organized, and in the District of Columbia, it shall exercise the same jurisdiction as is exercised by State Conventions where they exist.
- It shall have the power to adopt such By-Laws as it may deem necessary, to determine the rules of its procedure, and to adopt such measures as may be necessary to secure the purposes for which it is organized.
I am really glad this stuff is available. Please help me out with one thing though. I have read, “The conditions of fellowship in this Convention shall be as follows.” Does the term “fellowship” imply membership in the church or ministerial fellowship? And if it only implies church membership, were there additional conditions for clergy?
I do not mean educational conditions, but affirmations. There is some paradox in statements like “The Winchester Profession is commended as containing these principles, but neither this, nor any other precise form of words, is required as a condition of fellowship, provided always the principles as stated above be professed”, wherein the latter seems to negate the former. (Note, I am not at all crticizing the need for such conditions; I am simply finding the generous interpretation of creedlessness somewhat puzzling and even amusing.)
So…were there “creedal” (in the vaguest sense) requirements for clergy?
I’ll be happily corrected, but this is how it worked in general:
a. Ministers and parishes both held fellowship through state or General Convention Fellowship committees (the one committee for both ministers and parishes) — which parallels nicely with voting rights. Yes, parishes could be disfellowshipped. Lay members did not have fellowship with a convention; they had fellowship with their church. c.f. the church-parish distinction, and how it got muddied. Yes, that suggests a kind of super-locality for ministers, and is quite unlike the Unitarians. Indeed, I think there is still a question for congregations seeking a settlement over whether or not a minister is member of that church. Indeed, the responsibilty of lay members to profess something or not is a bit vague, especially after 1900 (the time at which churches and parishes began to merge.) Persumably lay members of congregations would not have to “assent to the laws” of the General Convention like the parishes and ministers would, so I think there may be a parallel to profession.
b. Yes, there were theological standards for ministers until the 1950s (I forget which year) and I see that ending as a resignation/affirmation of consolidation with the Unitarians and the sharing of ministerial fellowship. The standard was that they generally hold — note the term acceptance — the truths of the Winchester Profession (“the creed”) — which some saw as an anachronism — as described (not formally replaced by) the 1899 Five Principles and Washington Avowal. Recall that the enacting legislation of the 1803 Convention stated that the Winchester Profession in function could be added-on-to but that the WC itself could not be changed. This constitution accept this in letter but not spirit. It sorta is the standard and isn’t. Or, its core is sorta the standard, and the Five Principles and later the Washington Avowal are embodiments of that core, provided you can make a breadcrumb trail back to Winchester. Good luck to any congregation trying to update these. (He writes, knowingly.)
c. I’m not clear how you would know “the principles as stated above be professed” if there was no form, except by judging each and every minister and church. So I’m a bit puzzled, too. Such liberality was not the case between 1870 and 1899, and I think there was some embarassment about their prior illiberality. C.f. Bisbee heresy trial.