A History of Universalist Societies
Prepared by Ruth Wallace for New York State Convention of Universalists
June 1, 1975, marks the observation of the one hundred fiftieth birthday of the New York State Universalist Convention. The following is a look at the history of both the Convention and of the Universalist movement in the state.
The New York State Convention of Universalists was formed in 1825, following nearly a quarter century of Universalist growth there. Universalism's roots were in New England; a migration of New Englanders, who settled in small communities across the state, brought it to New York.
Religious freedom was as important to these new settlers (and their converts) as political freedom, and nearly as hard to achieve. Universalists often found themselves marked people because of their strange beliefs and outspokenness. This tended to unite them socially and geographically as well as theologically.
Three Universalist societies appeared in the state between 1803 and 1805: one at Fly Creek; another (gathered by the Rev. M.T. Wooley) at Hartwick in Otsego County; and a third at Waterville. Its minister was Nathaniel Stacy, a former school teacher from Vermont. This society grew and built the state's first Universalist church in 1815, at the place now known as New Hartford.
The Rev. Stacy, affectionately called “Father” Stacy by his followers and fellow ministers, found the Waterville area receptive in Universalist concepts, and preached regularly in the surrounding towns and hamlets. He was one of three Universalist ministers in the state in the early days — dedicated circuit ministers who traveled on horseback to preach to groups large and small, often without remuneration. They took part in theological debates with “partialist” ministers, which drew crowds from fifty to one hundred miles away.
Between 1806 and 1823 about fifty societies and four district associations were formed, and in 1823 the movement toward organizing a state body began. “Father” Stacy was one of its chief champions and became the historian of its beginnings and early days. Before this organization could be realized, its supporters had to overcome vigorous opposition from some district association delegates, who feared that a state organization would become “a religious hierarchy, organized to rule the church and probably impose a confession of faith and creeds and all the other forms of organized Christianity which Universalists abhorred.”
By 1825, the dissenting faction had reversed its stand, and at a meeting in Eaton's Bush in June of that year, the New York State Universalist Convention was born. A committee of seven drew up a constitution providing that each of the district associations would be represented by two clerical delegates. Predictably, this was later changed to give the associations each four delegates, two of whom could be lay delegates.
As originally conceived, the purposes of the Convention were to be a bond of union between the existing associations; to provide a means for settling disputes; to consider candidates for the ministry; and in general to promote the cause of Universalist benevolence, working in close harmony with the General Convention of Universalist of the New England States. It was to have no authority over the churches (the associations retained this role), but would act judicially in the field of “complaints and grievances against any brother in the ministry presented to the Convention.”
In 1831, the Convention set in motion a plan to establish an educational institution in the state, for “general purposes of science and literature but with a particular view of furnishing young men with an education designed for the ministry of the reconciliation.”
Based on this general concept, the Clinton Liberal Institute opened in Clinton in 1832. It was officially received under the patronage of the Convention in 1855, when the Convention accepted the responsibility of maintaining the school and paying an indebtedness incurred when the “female department” became part of it.
The Institute was the forerunner of a more ambitious Universalist project — the establishment of a college and theological school. In 1852 and Education Society was formed to work toward that end, and by 1856 St. Lawrence University and Theological School was under construction in Canton. The Society obtained a charter from the State Legislature, and reported: “The number of Trustees named in the charger is twenty-five, of which sixteen are members of this Society.” The legislature appropriated $25,000 toward endowment of the University; individuals were to contribute an equal amount. In addition, over $40,000 was subscribed for the Theological School.
The new institution opened in 1858. Dr. Ebenezer Fisher was dean of the Theological School, which operated for over one hundred years, and was a significant influence on the Universalist denomination. After Dr. Fisher's death, the Fisher Memorial Hall housed the Theological School. Later deans were Dr. John Murray Atwood (for thirty seven years), Dr. Angus McLean (nine years), and Dr. Max Kapp (five years), when the school was closed in 1965.
EVOLUTION, AND THE ESTABLISHMENT OF FOUNDATIONS AND FUNDS
Pension* protection and financial help for its members has been one of the Convention's main concerns since the mid 1800's: When Universalist Cornelius Harsen died, he left $6,000.00 specified for the relief of “distressed Universalist ministers,” to be administered by a committee of the Convention. This Universalist Relief Fund became the Pension Fund of the Convention in 1919-1920. In succeeding years, through the efforts and gifts of many people, it has increased considerably, and currently furnishes pensions to nineteen Universalist ministers and widows. Religious Education Directors who qualify will also be pensioned upon retirement.
Management of the Convention in the late 1800's was a responsibility of the District Missionaries who distributed funds and assistance to churches in need. The missionaries were usually overworked ministers of the larger city churches, representing some fourteen district associations.
A Women's Missionary Society, organized at the 1894 convention, assumed partial financial responsibility for the work of the District Missionaries. This was a separate organization, however, independent of the State Convention.
In 1900 it was reported that there were 69 local unions of the YPCU (Young People's Christian Union of the Universalist Church) in New York State with a very ambitious and important program. In 1953 the YPCU and the AUY (Association of Unitarian Youth) merged at the national level, predating the merger of the parent organization in 1961 by eight years. There are presently strong youth groups in many convention societies.
From 1904 to 1962, the Convention was managed by a series of State Superintendents, successors to the District Missionary System of the late 1800's. They took responsibility for cooperating with the finance committee of the Convention; developed the Ministerial Pension Fund; edited the Convention's publication, The Convention at Work (later renamed The Empire State Universalist); and worked in the field as counselors to struggling churches and sometimes as interim ministers. Among them were the Rev. Delbert Walker (1912-1928), the Rev. Fred C. Leining (1929-1953) and the Rev. Howard Gilman (1953-1962). The Rev. Ernest W. Kuebler currently serves the Convention on a part-time basis as Special Projects Director and Minister-at-Large.
When the St. Lawrence Theological School closed in 1965, the State Legislature incorporated the St. Lawrence Foundation to administer the school's funds and to further the education of ministers for the denomination.
In 1951, the Convention's executive board voted to buy property on Beaver Lake as a permanent location for institutes, the first of which were held there in the summer of that year. The development of the property and programs required so much attention that in 1966 a foundation was established with funds to operate a camp called “Unirondack.” Although the Unirondack Foundation is an independent operation, a close relationship with the State Convention continues.
From the establishment of the first Universalist church in the state to the present time, more than 130 Universalist organizations have existed in New York State. Many were small groups meeting in homes or halls, sometimes only a few miles apart. The majority of these societies were rural, and with population changes, many became extinct. Today the New York State Convention lists thirty-two Universalist churches.
The responsibilities of the Convention have changed from time to time over the past one hundred fifty years. Currently, the New York State Universalist churches and their ministers look to the Convention for ministers' pensions, program assistance, financial help and counseling. The paying of dues by the churches to the Convention was discontinued after the merger of the Universalist and Unitarian denominations. (Dues are now payable to the newly formed Unitarian Universalist Districts.)
Proceeds from extinct or closed churches come to the Convention for safekeeping for twenty years. If a new society or church opens at any time during that period, it has access to the money received by the Convention from the closed church in the community.
The Convention's funds are carefully managed to produce the income needed for those receiving pensions and for seed money to help start well-planned programs in churches, especially those designed to strengthen the churches. The Convention's program director serves as a counselor for many such funded programs and advises the Convention of their progress.
At this point in its history, the Convention is dedicated to strengthening its member churches through their religious and educational programs and community interest — and to the wise and careful administration of the funds entrusted to it.
© 1975 NYSCU
* Legally, the NYSCU “pension” program is a noncontributory service gratuity.
In recent documents the Convention prefers to use this more accurate term.
Last modified December 12, 2018.
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