The Universalists weren’t all sweetness and mother-love

In the last generation, I’ve seen a revolting amount of ecclesiastic “mansplaining”: condescending depictions of Universalism, out of a Unitarian lens, to re-cast my tradition as something sweet, loving, emotive, poor, rural and homey. The whole thing reeks of Victorian sexual politics. Something like this: Universalism was a country girl who, smitten by a Boston Brahmin, is “ruined” by him and destined to be his bride and subordinate. Today, a doting Mrs. Unitarian (neé Universalist) gets brought out for special occasions to be told how sweet she is, but nobody asks her anything. (If there is truth in any of it, it is outsized admiration of the Unitarians.)

The whole idea is offensive, and you would have a reason to be angry with my metaphor if I didn’t hear Universalism described in gendered, female terms in the 1990s and early 2000s. Times are changing, I hope, with a renewed interest in Universalism on its own terms. So, it is to correct the previous misconception, and to offer a cautionary tale for today’s Universalists that I share this passage from Elbridge Gerry Brooks’s 1874 Our New Departure, a manifesto to help bring Universalism to its new phase in mission. (I’ll be quoting heavily from Brooks as I read his book.)

In addition to giving us a contemporary frame, this passage from his chapter “A Survey of the Field” helps explain how fragile Universalism was when, a few decades later, the foundations collapsed. This passage begins at page 43, but engaged readers will want to read on, or even read the whole chapter. It’s not a happy review — the sweet revisionism would be more pleasant — but it explains more than a fable and (perversely) makes me feel closer to Universalists now almost 150 years past.

And looking within the lines of our organization, while we can truthfully say that no church shows a higher average of people upright in business, kind to the poor, every way reputable, it cannot be said that devout affections and a religious conscience are by any means general among us. We are not a praying people — that is, in the sense in which this phrase is commonly employed. Praying Universalists, in this sense, there are, many of them; how many there are who pray in the voiceless secrecy of their communion with God, it is for no human pen to assume to say. But the custom of family, social, or stated private prayer does not, to any considerable extent, prevail among us, because there is no prevailing sense of duty in these directions; and how rare it is to find those in our congregations who can be called to lead in public prayer, we all know. We have opinion rather than faith; more nominal assent than spiritual impulse or purpose. Our parishes far outnumber our churches; and where churches exist, they, as the rule, are very small, with a male membership lamentably disproportionate to that of the congregations. And then look abroad: what mean the so-called Universalist societies — alas, so many of them! — dead or dormant? What mean the Universalist meeting-houses sold, or rented, or standing unused, given up to decay, monuments to our dishonor? And last, but not least, what mean the fields where for years Universalism — or what has borne that name — has been preached to no visible effect in the spiritual vitality of the people, [44] and only to result in a sickly and struggling life for the congregations, or in final wreck and dispersion? For two successive years, not long since, I spent several vacation Sundays with one of our oldest parishes in New England, trying to make the dead bones live. The community is a thriving one, and the Universalists, so-called, have all the advantage of numbers, wealth, and position. But having sold their house of worship, the most of them first allowed themselves to be bodily transferred to an attempt to build up a Unitarian society; and this experiment having failed, they have since sunk into comparative apathy, and though having occasional preaching, seemed, the last I heard of them, to be dying of spiritual inanition. Nor, unfortunately, is this a solitary case — so far as the substantive facts of apathy and inanition are concerned. The question presses, then, What mean these things? And still further, how are we to account for the religious deadness and the indisposition to do anything for the organization of parishes, or the support of public worship, in so many sections where a nominal Universalism widely prevails? There are counties in my native state (New Hampshire), where what is called Universalism may almost be said to be the prevalent form of religious thought, and where there is no lack of pecuniary ability, which are complete wastes as regards any active Christian effort, save as an occasional Sunday’s preaching may intermit the dearth. Other states show similar districts.

By Scott Wells

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


  1. “Spiritual inanition;” as it was then, so it still is in too many ways. (I know of similar histories of other denominations.) Decline and revival; splits and mergers; green shoots among the dead leaves. The Humiliati, Charles Street Meeting House–too little too late, do you think; wrong-headed in any case; or had the inanition done its fatal work by the time of Brooks’s writing never to be reversed?

    Thanks so much for bringing us these fruits of your historical delving, of far more than just antiquarian interest.

  2. Once again, my dear friend, you do us a great service by correcting the sentimentalizing of the Universalist side of the family. The gendering of Universalism as a Victorian woman is fascinating. I note the correlation between your hilarious creation of “Auntie Universalism” with the big lace-covered bosom, generous apron and plate of fresh warm brownies and the grim report by Brother Elbridge mentioning the dearth of men active in the parish. I am itching for more analysis of this particular trend: was Universalist theology not ministering to men at the time of war, or was the feminization of church culture in general to blame? The ordination of women? Just typical Protestant church history? Eager to read more, and thanks.

  3. I suspect is was the “feminization of religion” in general. Antebellum Universalism was, if anything, a man’s religion because the then-dominant, read-as-immoral ultra-Universalism was — as I read in period newspapers — a scandal to “decent” non-Universalist women. And Brooks (1816-1878) was already an old (and sick) man by this point. He had personal experience.

    But note that our curious polity (shared with the Unitarians) is an issue. Men would participate in the parish, but not in the church. Hearing sermons and bean suppers were fine; men were in the congregations. In body, anyway. The churchly life of sacraments and prayers appealed mainly to the women. Note his comment about Universalists not being a “praying people.” The Universalist prayerbook tradition was still new and developing then, and surely a response to the same pressures.

  4. That’s fascinating. I particularly like the discussion of the difference between a universalism that is a salvation story and a universalism that declares salvation irrelevant. It reminds me of that UK atheist bus slogan: “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Only in this case it is “There is no hell. Now stop worrying and enjoy your sense of smug Victorian optimism.”

    Maybe this is what happens if you allow people to define salvation as each individual going to heaven when they die.

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