Ponderings of our Spiritual Life Director 10-26-22

I’ve been occupied this week with my UU History and Polity presentation. I’ve been assigned to cover the Universalist side of things– what was going on with the Universalists in the early part of the 20th Century while Humanism was on the rise in Unitarianism? (Remember, the two denominations did not merge until 1961.) So, I figured I’d share with you today what I’m learning (my entire 5 minute presentation, in fact…).

Universalism and Modernity, Buehrens pp139-148

John Buehrens tells us in Universalists and Unitarians in America that at the turn of the 20th century, Universalist churches were in decline. With the coming of roads, highways, and railroads, plus shifts of population to cities and the West, numerous small village churches were closing down. We see the larger, urban churches attempting to set up social services programs, but having to align with Protestant Social Gospel leaders in order to sustain their endeavors.

Throughout the 1920s, Universalism continued to struggle with modernity and their Christian identity. Most congregations were still not gaining membership, or financial resources, thus several churches merged with nearby Methodists and other liberal Christian churches.

Heading into the Great Depression, the 1930s brought worsening financial trouble. In 1931, there was an effort to establish the Free Church Fellowship for all religious liberals, including Unitarians, but it only had 21 member congregations before disbanding 3 years later.

Universalists were struggling to sustain themselves and did not want to lose their distinctive identity.

A modernized and more inclusive affirmation of faith was finally approved by the General Convention meeting in Washington DC in 1935, but few Universalists were yet post-Christian, in other words, not ready to embrace humanism as the Unitarians were doing. Their modern affirmation began by stating:

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.”

Universalists felt this statement was central to their basic historic, spiritual identity. Unitarians found this too creedal and as Buehrens states, this difference remained a barrier to future merger.

While most Universalists were neither reactionary, radical, or post-Christian, Bueherens does tell us about a few individuals that did eventually lead the Universalist movement forward, contributing to a wider embrace, or at least tolerance, of humanism and the eventual merger with the Unitarians.

One of these individuals was Clarence Skinner, who was following in the footsteps of his Universalist grandfather, great uncle, and great-grandfather, who all served as ministers. Clarence Skinner went into church work in 1910 without the benefit of seminary. Nevertheless, he doubled membership in a few short years at Grace Universalist in Lowell, Massachusetts, by conducting an evening series on social issues to which he invited in speakers. In 1914, Skinner went to work at Crane Theological School at Tufts as professor of applied Christianity, where he published “The Social Implications of Universalism”. He wrote:

The challenge is for Universalism to develop a religion which is throbbing with the dynamics of democracy, a spirituality which expresses itself in terms of humanism, rather than in terms of individualism”

Skinner drafted the 1917 Declaration of Social Principles for the Universalist General Convention. In WWI, he began serving as part-time pastor of Medford’s Hillside Universalist Church, near Tufts campus. Skinner used the church as a laboratory for his theological students and his new ideals. He declared himself a pacifist and was shunned by some in the Universalist church who became suspicious of his radical ideas. After the war was over in 1919, the Hillside church asked him to leave. This church then took a hard swing to the right and hired a minister with seriously questionable ethics as related to racial justice.

After leaving Hillside, Skinner launched a non-denominational Community Church of Boston with a speaker forum that invited controversial speakers: Margaret Sanger, Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise, Bertrand Russell, Christian realist Reinhold Neibuhr and several others.

Clarence Skinner wanted a radically new model for Universalism.

One other individual who led Universalism into a new future was Clinton Lee Scott. Scott was a progressive Universalist minister of the 1920s in Philadelphia. Buehrens tells us that this is a time during which many white families moved away, the neighborhood around the church filled with black families, a few of whom began to attend services. Clinton Lee Scott filled the building with beneficial outreach programs like those recommended by the Commission on Social Service and its new Declaration of Social Principles. He also wanted an electric sign to advertise the church’s programs and its missions. The lay leaders, who had kept putting him off, finally answered him with Matthew Chapter 12, Verse 39, which read: An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there no sign be given to it.

(Here, let me note, that there is much to be disappointed and heartbroken about in our U and U history. But that’s why we study it, to reveal the truth so we may understand who we are today and how to be better.)

So Scott left Philadelphia, and the congregation sold their building to an African-American Baptist congregation and built a new church in a white neighborhood. Scott went on to serve other parishes, including Peoria, IL, Buffalo, Los Angeles and “the Mother Church” in Gloucester, Mass. Clinton Lee Scott was the only Universalist minister to sign the Humanist Manifesto.


If you are interested in reading more about our history, the courage of our religious ancestors (or indeed, the painful lack thereof in many cases where race and gender was a factor), you might consider reading Darkening the Doorways by Mark Morrison-Reed and John Buehren’s Universalists and Unitarians in America. As always, I’m happy to talk to any of you about this!