The truth about the Liberty Clause

Well, I’ve lived long enough to see this, which I’ve argued with certain ordained people for years —

A bit of vindiction from page 12 and 13 of Engaging Our Theological Diversity

Consider the typical modern interpretation of the inclusion of a “liberty clause” in several statements of belief developed by our Universalist forebears, such as the Winchester Profession of 1803. While commonly thought of as allowing individual Universalists to disagree with corporate affirmations of faith, in fact the intent of a liberty clause was to accommodate some variation in congregational creedal statements within the covenant of the national church.

Categorized as Universalism

By Scott Wells

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


  1. How far “some variation” meant “too much variation”? Is there any case reported of excessive variation in creedal statements that led to concern and some action from denominational headquarters?

  2. -A good example of somebody “disowned” for moving too far from the general Universalist concensus was the Rev. Abner Kneeland, who in the 1800’s developed an anti-Theistic Universalism that was erie pre-cursor of the 1930’s Humanist Manifesto. He was convicted of heresy, defrocked, and then set up an astounding failure of a utopian community (the Salubria Community) in Iowa.

    I have found evidence that the Universalist church which once existed in Battle Creek, Michigan was kicked out of the Michigan State Universalist Convention when it was taken over by Spiritualists who claimed to be communicating with dead people. That was simply further than the Michigan Convention was willing to allow. This same Spiritualist community also took over the Battle Creek Hickstie Quaker meeting, which was also disowned by its respective Quaker body.

    My read on the various Universalist avowals, was that they lent common ground, and some liturgical confessional theology; but they were held less rigidly than say a Lutheran church would hold the Nicean creed. In other words, Universalism was not so much creedal as it was confessional in terms of faith. That said, the early Universalists understood something that we as contemporary UU’s often ignore. What is it? You can’t believe everything at the same time, and be one community still. If you affirm some things, like the univeral salvific purpose of God, then you can not affirm atheism. The reverse is also true if you affirm atheism you can not also affirm the universal salvific purpose of God. The Avowals of Faith (and they changed with time) gave the Universalist community a common frame of reference with some considerable diversity (Unitarian and Trinitarian; low church Baptist’ish worship and high church Anglican’ish liturgy; etc.). This common frame of reference gave the community some shared language and shared story amid considerable diversity in Christology and worship style.

    Today we mostly have our own individual stories, a common frame of reference defined more by secular good works and activism, and a language where we mostly talk past one another.

  3. Jaume, the rule was that a congregation — or sometimes a regional association or even a state convention — could create a profession that included more than the Winchester Profession but not less than it. Note that the 1899 and 1935 avowals encapsulate the earlier documents; again, more and not less. I’ve heard one minister suggest the Winchester Profession itself has a similiar relationship with the 1790 Philadelphia Articles, as the Philadelphia Articles were never repealed or repuditated (until, perhaps, in 1961.)

  4. Steven — the Bisbee heresy trial (Kneeland was tried in civil court) is the exception that proves the rule. The liberty clauses were suspended between 1870 and 1899, and the Bisbee trial (1872) has been seen as an eventual contributing factor in its resumption and the formation of the 1899 Five Principles itself.

  5. The problem with coming from a Unitarian family is that I’m not so strong with the Universalist side of things… but even *I* knew that the Liberty Clause covered the relationship of the individual congregations “within the covenant of the national church.” Of course, some folks offer the same argument for Unitarian history: “Unitarians could believe anything they wanted.” Nope, not true — an individual Unitarian was always bound by the covenant of the church to which s/he belonged (and could be, and sometimes were, quietly ejected). “But congregations could believe anythign they wanted.” Nope, not true — congregations were bound together by congregational polity, which meant (and means) that congregations were responsible to one another.

    By the way, Scott, can you give a reference for the rule “that a congregation… could create a profession that included more…”? I’d be curious to know when that was codified.

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