Yet this canard persists on page 21 of Engaging Our Theological Diversity:
Universalism was a populist movement that ranked among the largest six or seven denominational groups in America at its height in the mid-nineteenth century.
This claim seem wholy unmerited, however often it is repeated. Note there’s no footnote. A review of mid-nineteenth-century Universalist Registers would also support a small denomination than number six or seven.
it’s wrong, but not wholy unmerited,
and based on information provided by the Baptists!
the ATLAS OF AMERICAN RELIGION, 2000, William M. Newman and Peter l. Halvorson
lists the 1850 Universalists as having 84, 480 members the 13 largest denomination in the USA –
of which 34 religious denominations exists – if we combine 4 methodists,8 baaptists, etc to one large Baptists and Methodist denominatiosn then Universwalists are number 6 —- considering that by 1850, the Universalists have already been split by the Spirtualist uprising, then its possible – if not too likely — that the Universalists could have been in the top ten in the 1830s —
part of this is also that only about 1/4 of the USA populatiion were church attendies….
now of course, this data is based on Baptists survey, so it is possible they up the number to have more folks to pamphlet against (and I havent seen the actual Baptist numbers either. or know how they were arrived, so buyers beware).
other denominations awithin 6 of 84 include: Methodist Protestant, Baptist Free Will, Mennonites, and Friends,
Congregational Unitarians listed with 42, 420
There are other reasons to be skeptical of the claim of 6th largest denomination. The Rev. Wells Behee and I did a cursory study of Universalist records in Ohio. From maps it looks like there was a Universalist church in almost every county in the time period between the Civil War and World War 1. But at a closer examination you find out some odd things…
(1) A significant number of the rural churches were family chapels, set up for the devotional practices of 1 or 2 Universalist families in a rural community. Besides weddings, funerals, and socials, religious activity was minimal. Worship and Sunday school only happened when a travelling preacher made his way through the community (maybe once per month). Only a minority of these churches transitioned into something larger and more viable, when (mostly after 1880) more local women got degrees from Buchtel Universalist College (now University of Akron), and were ordained. They worked as school teachers on weekdays, and preached on Sundays, and were paid much less than their male colleagues at large churches.
(2) Another significant number of churches in Ohio were not really churches by modern definition. They were preaching stations (both rural and urban), with no stable congregation, no building, and only sporadic worship when a Universalist circuit riding preacher would come through (often once per month).
(3) Another group of Universalist churches were very short lived, and quickly converted into Masonic lodges. I’ve heard that this was often the case in Iowa and Illinois.