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The concepts of voluntary association and freedom of belief were important in the developing Universalist faith, as they were in Unitarianism. Just as the Cambridge Platform of the Puritans was to set the stage for Unitarian societies in North American, so the early history of Universalism in America has its defining documents.
As Universalism was gaining adherents in the late 18th century there was a call for organization and a national meeting of Universalist societies. The first wider meeting was held at Oxford, Massachusetts in 1785. However, many use the founding of the Philadelphia Convention of Universalists in 1790 to mark the organization of Universalism as a denomination. The 1790 meeting in Philadelphia adopted two documents —the Rule of Faith and the Plan of Church Government which set parameters for the new denomination. The Plan of Church Government called for the autonomy of congregations on matters of faith and practice. The Rule of Faith called for a common theological understanding based in Christian scripture and dedicated to a life of good works through belief in the Holy Trinity and universal salvation.
(Leader: Pause and invite participants to read, "Rule of Faith, Philadelphia Convention of Universalists" from Handout 2. Lead a discussion using the questions you have posted on newsprint.)
Two years later, the Universalist churches of New England petitioned the Philadelphia Convention for permission to meet separately based on the hardship of travel for meetings, and the New England Convention was born. At their 1803 meeting in Winchester, New Hampshire, the New England Convention adopted what came to be a long-standing statement of faith known as the Winchester Profession. The Winchester Profession provided somewhat less theological definition while maintaining its belief in Christian scripture, the Holy Trinity, a life of good works, and universal salvation.
The adoption of the Winchester Profession did not come easily. The disagreement turned not on a point of theology, but on whether requiring any statement of belief at all was acceptable. Some felt that a statement of belief was necessary to clearly distinguish Universalism from among the various Christian beliefs being preached. Others felt that any statement, however broad, was limiting to personal conscience. Ultimately, the New England Convention adopted the Winchester Profession, with a Liberty Clause which allowed individual societies or groups of societies to adopt additional articles of belief provided these did not conflict with the beliefs laid out in the Profession.
(Leader: Pause and invite participants to read "Winchester Profession" from Handout 2. Lead a discussion using the questions you have posted on newsprint.)
In 1899, a further statement of faith was adopted by the Universalist General Convention in Chicago. What came to be known as the Boston Declaration reaffirmed a strong foundation in Christianity while maintaining room for individual conscience.
(Leader: Pause to read aloud, or have a volunteer read, "Boston Declaration" from Handout 2. Lead a discussion using the questions you have posted on newsprint.)
The importance of a life of good works was prominent in the Bond of Fellowship drawn up in 1935. Here, theological belief is broadened, and the social basis of Universalism is emphasized. This seems a clear reflection of influence of the Social Gospel movement of that the early 20th century, which called for a socially conscious form of religion that would apply the teachings of Jesus to the problems of the day: such as poverty, injustice, war, and poor education.
(Leader: Pause to read aloud, or have a volunteer read, "Universalist Bond of Fellowship" from Handout 2. Lead a discussion using the questions you have posted on newsprint.)
While the Unitarian side of our history has fewer examples of affirmations of belief, it is not wholly without them. In their annual report of 1853 the officers of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) set forth a statement of their beliefs. According to Earl Morse Wilbur in Our Unitarian Heritage, this statement aimed to defend Unitarianism against orthodox Christians' criticisms of rationalism and radicalism. Since the AUA was, at that time, an association of individuals rather than an association of congregations, and the statement of beliefs came from the officers rather than the entirety of its membership, this statement did not necessarily voice a widely-accepted creed.
Twelve years later, in 1865, the National Conference of Unitarian Churches was founded. Its Statement of Purpose sets out an unmistakably Christian vision.
(Leader: Pause to read aloud, or have a volunteer read, "National Conference of Unitarian Churches Statement of Purpose" from Handout 2. Lead a discussion using the questions you have posted on newsprint.)
William Channing Gannett, Unitarian minister and a leader in the Western Unitarian Conference in the late 19th century, is remembered as both an outspoken opponent of creedalism and author of the statement "Things Most Commonly Believed Today Among Us." While Gannett in no way meant his statement as a creed, it was an attempt to articulate the Unitarian beliefs of the day, and thereby answer challenges regarding over the theological basis of Unitarianism. The statement won wide support at an 1887 meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference.
(Leader: Pause to read aloud, or have a volunteer read the first two paragraphs of, "Things Most Commonly Believed Today Among Us" from Handout 2. Invite participants to silently read the bullet points. Lead a discussion using the questions you have posted on newsprint.)
Today, still, no creed stands as a basis of membership in our societies. Freedom of belief and conscience, as along with freedom of association, is an active legacy of both our Universalist and Unitarian forebears.
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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.
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