Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Joliet's Enterprising Universalists: The Church and the City in Late Nineteenth Century Illinois

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Joliet's Enterprising Universalists: The Church and the City in Late Nineteenth Century Illinois

Article excerpt

I believe that all reforms which are prosecuted in the spirit of the Gospel are a part of the world's Christian Work, even where they lead only to better moral and social conditions. The Gospel has a work to do in the world around men, as well as in man.

- Reverend A. H. Laing, St. John's Universalist Church

The late nineteenth century represented an unsettling time for many Americans. Reconstruction and the influx of new immigrants roiled ethno-racial relations. Anxious farmers established a radical political movement known as Populism. Burgeoning industrialization subsumed the older modes of production. And, perhaps most disturbingly, the cities grew apace. With the urbanization of American society, various people began doubting the efficacy of their old, time-honored religious values and institutions. Josiah Strong, for one, lamented that in the cities he saw

a mottled population containing the worst elements of society, far removed from saving Christian influences and peculiarly difficult to reach with them, growing rapidly in numbers, political influence, and commercial importance, while church provision is steadily becoming more inadequate.2

Such anxieties surfaced despite the fact that, historically, American religious people had responded creatively to drastic changes in material life. Religious historian Martin E. Marty, for example, notes that despite Americans' fears during the Gilded Age of "an urban and industrial life inimical to faith . . . citizens kept inventing protean ways to pursue their spiritual questions."3 Fortunately, therefore, despite the fears of the age, there were in the 1890s perspicacious religious people believing that modernity and spirituality were, in fact, compatible?

Under the spiritual guidance of Reverend A. H. Laing and the pragmatic lay leadership of prominent capitalists active in civic affairs, some of these same discerning religious people boldly experimented with their church edifice in downtown Joliet, Illinois, believing that the fruits of this experiment would not only "better moral and social conditions" in the modern age but also do good work "in the world around men." On May 15, 1892, on the corner of Chicago and Clinton Streets in downtown Joliet, the congregation of St. John's Universalist Church dedicated its impressive, new Auditorium Block. This remarkable structure testified to the synthesis needed between church, commerce, and community in modern religious life. By replacing a perfectly serviceable church building with a new, multi-purpose facility, Joliet Universalists evinced an enterprising spirit in combining the religious, economic, and municipal needs of their community, thereby ameliorating some of the tensions between institutionalized religion and urban development while also exhibiting the fundamental pragmatism of their denomination.5

Universalism as an organized denomination first became prominent in North America during the American Revolution, although the central doctrine itself had long been held as heretical by orthodox Christian thought. At about the time that the Joliet Universalists embarked upon their enterprising project, Richard Eddy, reviewing more than a century of church history, identified various "channels" of American Universalism, including radical Christian mystics, "Dunkers," Moravians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists. In addition, Eddy cited the former English Methodist John Murray, who came to America in 1770, as the true progenitor of the denomination. Murray's theology, heavily influenced by James Relly, emphasized that the righteousness of Jesus Christ had brought all mankind into favor with God. As his mission took him throughout New England, Murray began to meet all kinds of literate colonists caught up in the dynamic cultural and material ferment of the day, including the widow Judith Sargent Stevens, whose prolific prose, especially the provocative "The Equality of the Sexes," along with her new husband's unorthodox teachings, represented a challenge to the status quo that very much reflected emerging American Universalism. …

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