Universalists and the Power Elite

A commentator yesterday questioned the assertion that the Universalists shared in the power elite of their day.  While we tend to think of the Unitarians as having been especially elite (and they often were), there is a stereotype that the Universalists were therefore poor country bumpkins.  There was indeed plenty of Universalist activity among the poorer and more rural sectors of early America (much more than the Unitarians), but this should not be taken as an indication that the Universalists as a whole were from a disenfranchised class.  In fact, Universalism commanded the allegiance of some of the most fabulously wealthy members of 19th century society, such as P.T. Barnum and George Pullman, and was substantially represented in urban areas.



Filed under Liberal Religious History, Universalism

5 responses to “Universalists and the Power Elite

  1. My experience of Unitarian and Universalist history is that Universalism’s social stature varied wildly from one locale to another. It is also true, however, that the state conventions made a real effort, from the mid-late 19th century through the early 20th, to build or upgrade downtown “landmark” churches, with the intent of putting themselves next to other socially established faiths. Universalist National Memorial, in DC, is the hallmark of this campaign. The National Convention imitated the states by adopting, if you will, a small local congregation, the Church of Our Father, and upgrading it into a national landmark church. When I attended and served National Memorial in the 1980s, we still had parishioners who had been raised in the Church of Our Father, and remembered the shift (not always fondly)to “national shrine” stature. Frank Oliver Hall’s preaching at New York’s Divine Paternity (now Fourth Universalist) was another “national stature” pulpit.

    Yet at the same time, as the UU Historical Society List-Serve community (uuhs-chat@uua.org) well documents, there were still numerous humble Universalists slogging across the backroads of our nation and its terroritial expansions. These clergy and their families served pioneers and their families, often visiting only on an irregular basis. Social stature is not an issue where a society is not yet established! And any other Universalists rode amongst humble farming communities, serving devoted little congregations as best they could. The names of many of them can be read in the donation book at Universalist National Memorial, where these little shrines apparently hoped to be commemorated long after their own life had, as they knew it would, been changed.

    UUHS List-Serve Co-Moderator

  2. Jeff

    That’s really interesting about National Memorial Church, Elz, I didn’t know that. I’m more familiar with Fourth Universalist, since I used to work there. I’ve only visited National Memorial a couple of times.

  3. While it is unfair to characterize 19th Century Universalists as an undifferentiated mass of the great unwashed—urban “mechanics” and laborers and rural hard scrabble subsistence farmers—the denomination could not compete with the Unitarians for providing a high powered elite in business, education, the arts (particularly the literary arts) and politics. Many prominent Unitarians, inheritors of the mantel of the New England Standing Order, came from long established families who had amassed wealth as farmers, traders, world girdling sea merchants, bankers, and industrialists. They also benefited from very high standards of education at a time when most people had a six grade education. Although many Universalists achieved wealth, prestige, and influence, few had those advantages.

    But that is not to say that the Universalists did not provide an elite of their own. Particularly in in New England outside the “neighborhood of Boston,” up state New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and much of what is now the Mid West, Universalists churches in many towns and cities great and small became beacons of liberal religion which attracted many local leaders in business, law, medicine and education. Even the “mechanics” for which Universalists were known in the post Revolutionary period were often master craftsmen who in the age of industrialization became employers and operators of mills, factories, and other industries. Thus the Universalists often provided strong, rooted leadership from what might be called the “burger” class. These are people who founded colleges and universities, hospitals, frequently the first “government schools,” libraries, and local charities upon which communities flourish—even if the names of benefactors and their Universalist faith are lost to history.

    Some examples spanning a more than century—

    Dr. Benjamin Rush was the most influential Philadelphian after his friend Benjamin Franklin. Not only was he a pillar of the Universalist church, but in the mold of Franklin founded or nourished one after another of the city’s great institutions. And he succeeded in doing so without amassing the kind of personal wealth commanded by the cities stodgy, conservative Quaker establishment.

    Phineas T. Barnam is a case in point. Although occasionally wealthy (he made and lost at least three fortunes in his life) he was a social outcast in the city where he made at least two of those fortunes—New York. The Protestant elite of that city would never welcome to their bosom a man who uniquely opined that leisure should not be the exclusive preserve of the “finer elements of the community” but was the right of apprentices and shop girls as well. The prevailing wisdom was that working people would be corrupted by “idleness” and that the only way to save them from debauchery was to work them to death. Not only that, but Barnam was willing to provide folks entertainment for those leisure hours. That this entertainment seemed “tawdry”—think of the freaks and frauds of Barnum’s Museum—only confirmed the prejudice. Even when, in later life he tried to provide elevated entertainment at his fabulous Hippodrome and by playing impresario to Swedish Soprano Jenny Lynd, he could not win their approval. But back home in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Barnum was a local lion, the benefactor of dozens of local institutions and causes and a respected public official. Divorce Barnam from glittering source of his (relatively modest) wealth, and you have a model of many local Universalist leaders.

    In Elgin, Illinois, George Hunter, General Superintendent of the Elgin Watch Co. endowed and helped design the historic Elgin Universalist Church, built in 1894 the chapel of which was laid out in the shape of a pocket watch. Hunter and other Universalists associated with the company provided leadership to many other local institutions.

    And in 1917 the Ball brothers, of the Ball Jar company, founded and funded what became Indiana’s Ball State University in Muncie.

    None of these people, while perhaps local nabobs, had the kind of vast wealth or social and political influence outside their home regions that so many Unitarians did before the families of the old Unitarian elite began abandoning the denomination for more conventional and orthodox Christianity in the 20th Century.

  4. Patrick, your usual beautiful and well-researched post… and I also love the irony (given the stereotype) that when the great and theologically connective Unitarian British minister, Joseph Priestley, came to the United States (under some duress from his former neighbors in England), it was in the Universalist church that his preachings were hosted.

  5. In my studies of Universalists in the south, I see at least two Governors, which would imply some power elite status. 😉
    In the southeast the old traditional power elite church was the Episcopalians , not the Unitarians (which makes sense as both were the remnants of their area colonial official Church).
    While someone would need to do a more traditional sampling for accuracy. I see the Univeralists in the south in the 19th century as middle class to nouveau riche. One of the largest landholders in Alabama in the 1830s (and I’m 1000 miles from my notes – so this may not be 100% accurate) was a Universalist .
    There were (historically) plenty of rich farmers –
    I have to admit that this whole discussion of “Universalists can be power-elite too” is ironic in face of our denominations current focus on being anti-power-elite.

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