Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Leader Resource 3: We are Universalists

Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) — "The noblest art is that of making others happy, honesty, sobriety, industry, economy, education, good habits, perseverance, cheerfulness, love to God and good will toward men." This was the philosophy of P. T. Barnum, the greatest American showman of the 19th century and a dedicated Universalist. Barnum rose from poverty to bring entertainment to millions with his American Museum of curiosities and his traveling three-ring circus, "The Greatest Show on Earth." Converted to Universalism by his grandfather, Barnum was active in Universalist congregations in Connecticut and New York. After hearing a persuasive Universalist sermon on temperance, Barnum poured his entire wine collection down the drain! Barnum donated generously to Universalist churches, schools and causes.

Clarissa Harlowe Barton (1821-1912) — "I defy the tyranny of precedent. I cannot afford the luxury of a closed mind. I go for anything new that might improve the past." This philosophy led Clara Barton to work for reforms in education, to seek women's suffrage, and to found the American Red Cross. Born into an active Universalist family in Oxford, Massachusetts, Barton expressed interest in spiritualism and Christian Science and religiously defined herself at various times as a Universalist, a pagan, and "not what the world denominated a church woman." Known as the "Angel of the Battlefield," Barton dedicated much of her life to the care of the wounded and ill—on the battlefield, in the hospitals, and as founder of the American Red Cross and as its first president.

Olympia Brown (1835-1926) — "The grandest thing has been the lifting up of the gates and the opening of the doors to the women of America, giving liberty to twenty-seven million women, thus opening to them a new and larger life and a higher ideal." Although she was referring to women securing the right to vote, a cause for which she had worked tirelessly, Olympia Brown might well have been referring to her own impact on the vocation of religious women in the United States. Although Lydia Jenkins was ordained by a denominational body of the Universalists in 1858, Brown has long been considered the first woman ordained with full ministerial fellowship by a denomination (1863). Whatever the nuances of denominational authority, Brown stood as a model and inspiration for many others. Brown was inspired to the ministry by Antoinette Brown Blackwell, the first woman ordained by a congregation in America, and went on to inspire others such as Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford (1829-1921).

Augusta Jane Chapin (1836-1905) — "Let the creeds remain as historic landmarks, but let the church the Master founded move on." Just six months after Olympia Brown's historic ordination in 1863, Augusta Chapin put these words into action by becoming the second woman ordained by the Universalists. Later she was the first woman to sit on the Universalist General Convention, as well as the first woman to receive an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. Chapin served a number of Universalist congregations, worked for women's rights in education and suffrage, was a college lecturer on English literature, and chaired the Women's Committee of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions.

Maria Cook (1779-1835) — "But as the phenomenon of a female preacher appearing among us was so extraordinary, and curiosity was on tiptoe among the mass of the congregation, to hear a woman preach, our opposing brethren finally withdrew their objections, and she very cheerfully obliged us with a discourse." These words by Nathaniel Stacy describe the atmosphere that met Maria Cook's request to speak at the Universalist Western Association in 1811. Though Cook's application to the Western Association was met with skepticism, her successful address led to a letter of fellowship as the first woman to fill Universalist pulpits. However, repeated demonstrations of disrespect from crowds and colleagues, led Cook to doubt the sincerity and unanimity of support, and she destroyed the letter. Cook continued to preach sporadically for several years, but gave up the ministry after being arrested on a trumped up vagrancy charge. As a woman and a Universalist Cook faced unguarded discrimination, but blazed a path that others were to follow.

Nathaniel Gunnison (1811-1871) — "A good deed survives the hand that performed it. A great thought, once uttered, may pulsate the universe and overturn empires and themes which have withstood armies and resisted the onward march of time... " Nathaniel Gunnison was a living example of "a good deed" that survived well past its time. While on a winter's journey, and nearly penniless, the 16-year-old Gunnison was taken in and treated well by a couple who he learned were Universalists. He vowed to always do the same for others, and did so throughout western New York and eastern Canada in his long and active ministry. He was the minister in Halifax, Nova Scotia during the Civil War, a partisan for the North in a city—and, to some extent, a congregation—that sympathized with the South, the source of the cotton trade and prosperity. In a single year of ministry, Gunnison recorded in his journal that he preached "more than 100 sermons, and made more than 500 pastoral calls."

Lydia Ann Moulton Jenkins (1824-1874) — "We supposed that a woman could not do it, unless she were bold, masculine, and presuming. We are now sure that a woman can preach, can pray, in the pulpit, without throwing off her womanly dignity and modesty." With these words about Lydia Jenkins, influential Universalist leader Thomas Whittemore reversed his long-held stand against women in the ministry. Lydia Moulton came to Universalism as a young woman. In 1860, after several years of joint ministry with her husband Edmund Jenkins, Lydia was ordained by the Ontario Association of Universalists in Geneva, NY. Few records of the event remain, and given the controversy over the ordination of women, it was likely not well publicized. Thus the record of the first woman granted ordination by a denomination was lost for many years. In 1866 Jenkins left the ministry to become a physician. She continued working for women's rights until her death in 1874.

Joseph Fletcher Jordan (1863-1929) — "Then came Dr. Shinn and Dr. Shinn's 'beautiful gospel."' This is how the Universalist Yearbook described the conversion of the Methodist preacher Joseph F. Jordan to Universalism after hearing the great evangelist Quillen Shinn. Thus Jordan, the child of slaves, became one of the first black Universalist ministers. Following preparation at St. Lawrence University, Jordan moved to Virginia to continue the work of Joseph Jordan (no relation). He led a congregation and served as principal of the Suffolk Normal Training School, revitalizing and growing both institutions. Until his death in 1929, Jordan remained principal of the school, was active in the Temperance movement, served as a probation officer for black youths, and edited the Colored Universalist periodical.

Joseph Jordan (1842-1901) — "He believes in us, and knows why." This was the conclusion of the ordination council that accepted Joseph Jordan into fellowship as the first African American Universalist minister. Originally a Baptist minister, Jordan was converted to Universalism through the writings of Thomas Whittemore, and other Universalists. Jordan wanted to return to his birthplace, Norfolk, Virginia, to start a school and Universalist congregation for the black community. In 1893 the General Convention granted Jordan's request for building funds and, with help from mentor Edwin Sweetser and Quillen Shinn, the Norfolk community was on its way. A second community was started in Suffolk under direction of Jordan's assistant, Thomas Wise. Following Jordan's death the Norfolk center declined and was closed in 1906, but the Suffolk community continued and grew under the leadership of Joseph Fletcher Jordan (no relation).

Thomas Starr King (1824-1864) — As a statue in his honor in Golden Gate Park reads, "In him eloquence, strength and virtue were devoted with fearless courage to truth, country and his fellowmen. " As Starr King put it himself, "But, though I weigh only 120 pounds, when I am mad, I weigh a ton!" Either way, the might of Thomas Starr King is credited with saving California for Union. Starr King was born the son of a Universalist minister, though he was urged to the ministry by Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker, and would go on to serve both Universalist and Unitarian congregations. With Abraham Lincoln's campaign for President of the United States, Starr King became involved in politics as a spiritual leader to California Republicans. Starr King also worked to help elect Governor Leland Stanford, a member of his growing San Francisco congregation. Church work, politics and fundraising efforts on behalf of the Sanitary Commission and Red Cross took their toll on the slight minister, who contracted diphtheria and pneumonia, and died at the age of 39. The Unitarian Universalism theological school Starr King School for the Ministry is named in his honor.

Abner Kneeland (1774-1844) — "Universalists believe in a god which I do not; but believe that their god, with all his moral attributes, (aside from nature itself,) is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination." This is but a sampling of the radical theology which landed Abner Kneeland in jail as the last man imprisoned in America on a charge of blasphemy. Once a teacher, Abner Kneeland began his ministerial career as a Baptist. Then he read the work of Universalist Elhanan Winchester, and was ordained to the Universalist ministry in 1805. Throughout his career, Kneeland's outspokenness and radical views brought him trouble. As a preacher, newspaper editor, and lecturer, he advocated free thought and free speech, women's rights, birth control, and labor reform. However, it was his attacks on Christian doctrine that finally landed Kneeland in jail for blasphemy. After his release, he moved to Iowa with plans to establish a community of freethinkers.

Angus Hector MacLean (1892-1969) — "He was a champion of the spiritual rights of children and a wise interpreter of the liberal spirit to their parents." These are words of tribute from Max Kapp, successor to Angus MacLean as dean of St. Lawrence University. A Presbyterian lay preacher as a young man, MacLean faced some difficulty gaining ordination due to his liberal views, but eventually prevailed. However, MacLean dedicated his life to education—in the university as dean and teacher, and in the church as religious educator and preacher. One of the leading reformers of religious education, MacLean advocated a child-centered, experience-based classroom in his pamphlet "The Method is the Message." Adopting Universalism as his religious home in the 1940s, MacLean was ordained to the Universalist ministry in 1945.

Judith Sargent Stevens Murray (1751-1820) — "It doth not appear that she was governed by any one sensual appetite; but merely by a desire of adorning her mind; a laudable ambition fired her soul, and a thirst for knowledge." Thus Judith Sargent Murray defended the biblical Eve in her own quest for educational rights for all women. Though she regretted the lack of formal education available to young women in her day, Judith Sargent Murray accomplished much with her self-acquired knowledge, far more than most women of her generation. She was a poet and a prolific letter writer, and as a young widow following the death of her sea captain husband John Stevens, she supported herself with her writing. Two of her plays were produced in Boston. Her father was swayed by the writings of British Universalist James Relly, and invited John Murray to come to Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1774. Judith found a friend and mentor in Murray, and they married 14 years later. Judith collaborated with Murray on his writings and continued to publish essays on the rights and capabilities of women and other social issues, some anonymously as "the Gleaner." In 1798 she finally published three volumes of essays by "The Gleaner," and admitted authorship.

Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) — "The Universal doctrine prevails more and more in our country, particularly among persons eminent for their piety, in whom it is not a mere speculation but a principle of action in the heart prompting to practical goodness." Benjamin Rush wrote these words to his friend Elhanan Winchester in 1791, and they were words that well described his own life. Perhaps best known as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush was an eminent physician who supported medical advances and social reforms well ahead of his time. His work on mental illness and advocacy for treatment forecast a modern psychiatric approach. He was a staunch advocate of sanitation, hygiene, and temperance in preventing illness. He advocated for educational and penal reform, opposed the death penalty, and worked to abolish slavery. While the newly formed United States was creating the Department of War, Rush drew up plans for a Department of Peace.

Clarence Russell Skinner (1881-1949) — "The true social objective is the perfecting of human character by progressive improvement of those conditions and environments which are within the social control." In his work The Social Implications of Universalism (1915), Clarence Skinner declared the need for Universalism to move beyond the church to establish a universal Beloved Community through social engagement. Strongly influenced by the Social Gospel movement of the time, Skinner advocated putting religious principle into social action. Skinner joined John Haynes Holmes in founding the Community Church of Boston, which was patterned on Holmes' New York church, and intended to serve a wider nonsectarian community in order to effect social change. Through his writings, as a minister, and as professor and dean of Crane Theological School at Tufts University, Skinner influenced a generation of Universalists. David Robinson wrote in The Unitarians and the Universalists that Skinner was "certainly the most important twentieth century Universalist leader."

Caroline Augusta White Soule (1824-1903) — "Fatigue in the cause of Universalism is infinitely better than inaction, apathy, indolence." Caroline Soule could hardly have been accused of inaction, apathy or indolence. Widowed before the age of 30, she turned to writing to support herself and her five children. Beginning with a memoir of her late husband, Universalist minister Henry B. Soule, she soon added poetry, stories, and books, as well as editorship of a Sunday School paper to her list of accomplishments. In 1869 Soule helped found the Women's Centenary Association, and added fundraising and lecturing to her repertoire. Ill health forced her to travel abroad to restore her strength, but while in Scotland she became an evangelist for Universalism. Three years later she returned to Scotland and helped organize the Scottish Universalist Convention. In 1880 she was ordained as the minister of St. Paul's Universalist Church in Glasgow, Universalism's first missionary.

Elhanan Winchester (1751-1797) — "I became so well persuaded of the truth of the Universal Restoration that I was determined never to deny it, let it cost me ever so much, though all my numerous friends should forsake me, as I expected they would." In fact, not all Winchester's friends deserted him, though he did know extraordinary loss in his life. He married and was widowed five times; seven of his eight children were stillborn and the eighth died before the age of two. Yet Winchester had many close friends who stood by him, including George de Benneville and Benjamin Rush. When he was forced from his Philadelphia Baptist pastorate for his belief in universal salvation, half the congregation came with him and founded the Society of Universal Baptists. Winchester went on to preach in South Carolina (where he founded a church for slaves), in England, and in New England, converting many to Universalism. Though his life was short, Winchester's influence was wide. Indeed it was Elhanan Winchester who ordained Hosea Ballou to the Universalist ministry.