Universalist Church of America

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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Universalist Church of America

Universalist Church of America, Protestant denomination originating in the 18th cent. and represented almost entirely in the United States. Universalism is the belief that it is God's purpose to save every individual from sin through divine grace revealed in Jesus. The doctrine is old, but no organized body of believers took it as a distinctive feature of their church until modern times. The Universalist denomination in the United States originated with John Murray, a convert to Universalism as taught by James Relly in England. Murray arrived in New Jersey in 1770. After preaching there and in New York and New England, he settled in Gloucester, Mass., where in 1779 he became pastor of the first Universalist church in the United States. The movement spread; in 1790 a convention in Philadelphia decided upon a congregational polity and drew up a profession of faith. Until the middle of the 19th cent. little thought was given to organization, as attention was chiefly devoted to settling points of doctrine and disseminating the belief. Murray's Universalism was of the Calvinistic type; under Hosea Ballou, the most influential force in the denomination from c.1796 to 1852, the movement was separated from its Calvinistic associations. Ballou's doctrine of "Christ's subordination to the Father" gave Universalism a position very similar to that of Unitarianism. The doctrinal position of the church, called the Winchester Profession, was adopted in 1803 by the General Convention. In 1899 a briefer statement of essential principles was accepted. Later, in 1935, the Washington Avowal of Faith was taken as the official statement of principles of American Universalism. These principles are the universal fatherhood of God; the spiritual authority and leadership of Jesus, his son; the trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God; the certainty of just retribution for sin; and the final harmony of all souls with God. Organizationally, the individual church or parish is considered an independent unit. The church established Tufts Univ. (1852) and Tufts Divinity School (1861). The name Universalist General Convention (adopted 1866) was changed (1942) to the Universalist Church of America. In 1961 it merged with the American Unitarian Association to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.

See R. Eddy, Universalism in America (2 vol., 1884–86); J. H. Allen and R. Eddy, A History of the Unitarians and the Universalists in the United States ( "American Church History" series, Vol. X, 1894); H. H. Cheetham, Unitarianism and Universalism (1962); E. A. Robinson, Story of American Universalism (1970); E. Cassara, Universalism in America (1971); S. Ahlstrom and J. S. Carey, ed., An American Reformation: A Documentary History of Unitarian Christianity (1984).

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