When you read the 1899 and 1935 Universalist basis of fellowship, you realize the talk of anti-creedal absolutism isn’t right, or isn’t quite right. But what did Universalist ministers (and presumably state conventions and churches, the three subjects of fellowship oversight) actually own up to?
Let’s review, emphasis mine.
The conditions of fellowship in this Convention shall be acceptance of the essential principles of the Universalist faith and acknowledgment of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Universalist General Convention.
These historic declarations of faith with liberty of interpretation are dear and acceptable to many Universalists. They are commended not as tests but as testimonies in the free quest for truth that accords with the genius of the Universalist Church.
In 1935, you get the same, around which was wrapped
The bond of fellowship in this Convention shall be a common purpose to do the will of God as Jesus revealed it and to co-operate in establishing the kingdom for which he lived and died.
To that end, we avow our faith in God as Eternal and All-conquering Love,…
Each avowal contained those before; the 1935 document has the 1899 document within in, which has the 1803 Winchester Profession in it. (And since the original Principles of the then-new Unitarian Universalist Association pulled language from the 1935 document, I read a hidden, dormant but not broken continuation today.)
But what did Universalist minister actually affirm? The application forms for ministerial license and ordination help us understand the dynamic.
An application for license from 1920, using a standard blank and written in the form of a letter, states:
I desire to devote my life to the work of the Christian Ministry, in the Fellowship of the Universalist Church. I respectfully apply for a Letter of License to preach under its auspices. The motives are expressed on the other side of this paper. I cordially accept the essential principles of the Universalist Faith as follows:
and then the Five Principles follow, after which it reads:
And I freely acknowledge the authority of the General Convention, and assent to its laws, promising to co-operate faithfully in all measures but maybe by the General Convention and by the state convention in which I am connected, for the furtherance of the work and welfare of our church.
An application for license as a lay preacher from 1959 has a similar format, with the pledge reading:
I cordially accept the essential principles of the Universalist Faith as expressed in the Bond of Fellowship and freely acknowledge the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Universalist Church of America, and assent to its laws, promising to cooperate faithfully in all measures that may be why it and by the Convention or Conference with which I am connected, for the furtherance of the work and welfare of the Universalist Church.
The key verb is accept; nothing craven or crawling, but still a statement of faith, and even more pressingly, a statement of order. I don’t suggest we return to it, but let’s recogize our forebears asked more and less than we are asked today. And there was room for flexibility. A Unitarian minister (and Tufts graduate) in 1942 asking for dual fellowship pledged the following:
Being in accord with the general principles of the Universalist Church, and desiring to manifest my sympathy with the cause of Liberal Religion as a whole, I hereby make application for dual fellowship, and submit the following information…
He was admitted.