Re-enacting historic Unitarian worship

How would one conduct a Unitarian worship service using a Victorian-era (1877) Christian rite, in a historically appropriate way? This is the question asked in one of those confidential mailing lists I subscribe to. I won’t say which list, or where such a service might take place. It doesn’t really matter since this could happen anywhere in “Unitarian-dom” (or “Universalist-dom”) if only the option was known.

First, I suppose it should be asked, “Should worship take on the guise of historical re-enactment?” Doesn’t it, in this case, cast Christian worship as a part of the Unitarian and Universalist past? I suppose it might, but I’m inclined to take Christian worship — or historical understanding — where you can get it. Other churches, particularly the Episcopalians, are known to conduct worship using an antique rite to commemorate an anniversary (like the 450th anniversary of the Merbecke setting) or to better understand and record old ceremonies.

That said, I wouldn’t overdo it, say, to include period clothing. So here are some thoughts on its execution.

1. No vestments. You heard it here first. A Unitarian minister of the period would have worn street clothes, though perhaps a frock coat. This Protestant use of formal clothing for preaching continued in some places so long that a cutaway is still sometimes associated with old-fashioned ministers. (A Universalist predecessor of mine at Canon, Ga. wore one as late as the 1920s or 1930s; the church’s eldest members recall Br. Rasnake’s “preaching suit”.)

See this article from Material History of American Religion site.

2. Real wine — or perhaps water — and real bread. I suspect Unitarians would have used real wine and not grape juice in 1877, as pasteurized grape juice — thanks to that esteemed Methodist Dr. Welch — was still pretty new at the time. But they might have used water. My former pastorate (Universalist) certainly did in the period and several votes fought back the grape, fermented or not. (I think it was the cost.) One of my favorite images of Hosea Ballou — Universalist again, and probably thirty years too early — is him leading communion. The bread looked like a sliced sandwich loaf on a footed cake-plate. (He also had a cup as above, plus flagon.) I’d commend pre-cubed plain white bread on a napkin-lined plate.
3. One cup. Individual cups — a response to infectious disease, and especially cholera — didn’t come into vogue until the 1880s. A low-church communion cup would have been tall with a lip, as opposed to the coupe-like chalices used commonly by Catholics and Episcopalians.

4. I’m at a quandry as to the leader’s posture. Lacking any direct citation or references, I would suggest the officiant kneel for the whole service at the “north horn” — the corner of the table to the congregation’s left — or even pray the whole rite from the pulpit. Really. Touching the cup or elevating the elements would surely have been unknown and denounced as “papist.”

5. I haven’t a clue as to distribution, but in-the-pew would have its own challenges. Especially if you don’t have pews.

6. So when? Believe it or not, I would hold a communion service after the main Sunday service, that is, after the benediction. This was the custom. And most members of the congregation would surely have absented themselves.

Oh well. Some things never change.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Then again, a communion service would have been a rare occasion no matter what. An historical reenactment ceremony — if you’re going for reenacting a typical service — wouldn’t include communion at all.

  2. True. A hearty preaching service would be historically more apt, but that’s not what the unseen request asked for.

  3. If I was opening a late Victorian Historical Re-enactment Church Experience — Unitarian, Universalist or most other Protestant — I’d have Communion once a quarter plus Maundy Thursday. Many old church bylaws stipulate when if you’re interested in a particular church.

  4. Quarterly does sound right, not that I was around in the Victorian era (unless it lasted an extra 50 years in the south) . What was the middle 19th century (early Victorian) for Universalist and Unitarian?

    Who did have the yearly?

  5. I’ve heard rumors that a yearly service — Maundy Thursday — survives in some older Unitarian and Universalist churches in the Midwest. These are churches otherwise known as being Humanist (post-Humanist?) or certainly not Christian any longer. Good luck for getting details, but a Google search of UU websites a month before the next Maundy Thursday might be revealing.

  6. The UU Church of Muncie, Indiana continues to have a yearly communion service on Maundy Thursday. The church is Universalist in history. The pattern of a yearly communion service at Maundy Thursday echos the practice in the Church of the Brethren, where there is a yearly eucharistic love feast every Maundy Thursday. There is often a connection in these parts between Universalists and Brethren.

    At the Muncie church the service is combined with a meal of fish, vegetables, bread, rice, cheese, fruit, wine and grape juice. It has been a continuous practice for as long as anybody can remember (although the participants were mostly elderly in the 70’s and 80’s).


  7. Thanks Derek, I was particuarly asking because of the Universalist-German Baptist Brethren connection in the mid-atlantic, mid-west, and south; and wondered if there continued a trend of the Love Feast in those Universalist style churches today.

    Steven R

  8. The 19th century by-laws of the Unitarian Church in Charleston specified communion monthly. When I was there, I reinstituted the practice as a separate service at 10.30 AM before the 11.00 AM main service. I would guess that practice dropped immediately when I left. I am looking for Samuel Gilman’s Prayer Book, but can’t find it as I write–to see if the communion was a part of the regular Sunday service. It seems to me it was an option for service inclusion, but it has been more than two decades since I used that Book. Definitely wine though. The sanctuary held a communion table, which I would like to think would have been moved forward into the chancel with the clergy standing behind facing the people. (I find it hard to believe the clergy would have faced the table with the back to the people, but that would have been the Episcopal practice that set the norm for the City.) There was a semi-circular altar rail with a continuous kneeling rail in front so I doubt that in Charleston, at least, service was ever offered in the pews.

    The Cathedral of Hope, now UCC, continues its MCC tradition of weekly communion within the service. I think it’s beautifully integrated and see no reason why this could not become also the norm for UU Christian services. The elements are offered. Then the clergy embrace communicants, often as couples, and pray with them. This can be very intense.

  9. I doubt east-facing (back to the congregation) would have been the use in Episcopal churches in the era when more Unitarian and Universalist churches had communion. A “popish” practice, I’m sure it was thought. I’d bet they’d have commonly used the “north horn.”

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