Celebrating 200 Years of Universalism in Western New York
Celebrating 200 Years of Universalism in Western New York
Many churches celebrate important anniversaries, but it’s rare that congregational historians take a wider view. But when Bill Parke, the Church Historian of the UU Church of Buffalo noted this anniversary, he researched the topic and came up with this lovely display and story.

2016 is a bicentennial year for our faith! All the way back in 1816, The Reverend Stephen R. Smith arrived here and began a preaching circuit, bringing a new religion -- Universalism -- to Buffalo and Western New York.

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Take a moment, and teleport yourself back in me and imagine life in June, 1816 when 27-year old Mr. Smith arrived:

At this me, except on the great lateral roads from Genesee River and along the shore of Lake Erie, the settlements were comparatively few – and sometimes “far between.” There every thing but the eternal woods and waters, was new. –Almost every family still occupied its primitive log cabin–the roads were but cart-paths in the interminable forest–the streams were in most instances without bridges, and the soil deep enough to render every traveled way almost impassable. And yet, it was among these settlements, that the preacher of Universalism was to find hearers, and friends, and hope to raise up congregations!

Just a few years earlier, the village of Buffalo was overrun by British soldiers during the War of 1812. Nearly all its buildings burned. Recovery was slow. And just two Universalist societies existed in New York west of the Genesee River. But even if there weren’t churches, there were early believers: Benjamin Caryl, who helped found one of the village’s first businesses, a bank, was one. He had a house in Williamsville and invited Mr. Smith to stay with him and begin preaching. As a result, Universalism arrived in our land. Here is Mr. Smith’s own account:

On the 24th of June of this year (1816), a Masonic celebration in the then village of Buffalo, furnished a convient (sic) opportunity for the introduction of Universal Salvation into that place. The appointment was accordingly made; and at 5 o’clock, P.M. the same building and the same seats were occupied for the service, that had been fitted up for the festival. It was a new Barn, attached to one of the Taverns— and though its accommodations would now be thought rather humble, they were the best which the place afforded, and were duly appreciated by the citizens. A respectable auditory attended, and gave very patient and candid hearing to a discourse from the 6th ver. of 126th Psalm—“He that goeth forth and weepeth bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”

Mr. Smith found receptive audiences for his message and established a preaching circuit which, he wrote,

in its windings to and from the vicinity of Buffalo, embraced about two hundred and y miles. And from this time, during most of the year, this distance was very regularly traveled every four weeks. The number of discourses usually delivered in making the circuit, varied from twenty to thirty-two—that is, from five to eight per week.

What about in winter? After all, today many Buffalonians shy away from winter weather; but not the circuit riding preachers of yesteryear. Roads would be frozen and not muddy, making travel easier. In January, 1817, Mr. Smith wrote from Buffalo to his parents, “I have preached twenty-one times in twenty days.”

In most localities, Universalism was wholly unknown. Mr. Smith was “the pioneer, the first herald of salvation, within their borders.” Mr. Smith himself wrote, “Doors are opened everywhere, and the walls of Zion are, by the divine blessing, laid in fair colors.”

Having laid a foundation of faith, in 1817 Mr. Smith departed. Ensuing years brought ebbs and flows to Universalist fortunes here. Many open-minded Bu alonians were recep ve, but the Universalist message contrasted sharply with Christian beliefs of the time, and general acceptance was hard-won. Thank goodness for stalwarts like Benjamin Caryl. He helped establish the first permanent Universalist Church in Buffalo, by organizing the first board of trustees, signing a certificate of organization to form a congregation on December 6, 1831, and seeing a church built on Washington Street. Shortly after it was dedicated in August, 1833, Mr. Caryl wrote to Mr. Smith: “Br. Smith: We have got, as you have heard, a beautiful house dedicated to the worship of Almighty God, but unfortunately, we are destitute of a minister...” However, Mr. Smith could not be persuaded to return. Finally, in a turn of events presaged in words spoken by Mr. Smith in his first service in Buffalo in 1816 — “He that goeth forth and weepeth bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” — Mr. Smith did return to Buffalo, commencing a ministry on the 1st day of May, 1843 and remaining in the pulpit for six years. The city was booming, the church “was highly prosperous and, above all, there was aboard in the place and neighborhood a spirit of deep religious inquiry.”

In time, however, Mr. Smith’s exertions over the decades took their toll. He preached his last sermon in the Buffalo church in 1849. In declining health, he was forced to give up his beloved pulpit. Then, one Sunday in February, 1850, the end arrived. And in fitting fashion, Mr. Smith connected with his faith — and our church — on his last day: “When the bells rang for church in the morning, he listened to them with deep interest, and finally selected that of the Universalist church from among the rest, and appeared to listen to it with unusual pleasure.” At the end of the day, “— in calmness, in peace, in purity, — closed the earthly career of one of the best of husbands, one of the best of fathers, one of the purest and most upright and exemplary of men, and one of the most eminent and faithful of the disciples of Christ and servants of God.”

Bill Parke, Church Historian
November 4, 2016

For more information contact cer@uua.org.

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