Where Do We Come From?

Three Stories from the Histories of the Athens and Sheshequin Universalist Congregations

A sermon presented by Katie Replogle at UUCAS on Sun., Sep. 2, 2018

Where do we come from?

Here in Athens and Sheshequin, we come from a long line of Universalists, among them the earliest white settlers of this area. Our history is full of interesting stories about people and events, as I’ve learned over the last couple of years.

Gathering the facts – the who, what, when, and where – about our history is time-consuming but relatively easy. Putting all those facts into a bigger context – understanding the “why” – is more challenging. What our Universalist ancestors thought and did was influenced by political and economic trends, social standards and social changes, and, of course, by developments in the wider Universalist movement.

To really understand what was going on in our congregations, we have to understand what was going on in the outside world. This morning I’m going to share, with the help of our readers, some stories from our UUCAS history that illustrate not just what our ancestors did, but how their actions reflected the larger movement and other external forces.

Disclaimer: I’m far from an expert on American history, so I welcome your feedback on my interpretations of these stories.

The Eucharist Controversy

The first permanent white settlements in this area were established shortly after the Revolutionary War. Many of the earliest settlers were from New England, and none, as far as we know, was a Universalist. The first Universalist preacher, the Rev. Noah Murray, arrived about 1788. The Universalist congregations that sprang up here in the early 1800s were made up primarily of Murray’s converts and converts of his converts.

The prevailing doctrine of the orthodox (non-Universalist) Christians in the early 1800s was the Calvinist idea that God had predestined a few people to go to heaven after they died and condemned all the rest to eternal punishment in hell. The Universalists’ belief that all souls would be reunited with God after death was deemed heresy by many of the orthodox, but attracted a good many others to this faith. And, as we see in our congregations today, some of those early nineteenth century converts remained connected to certain aspects of their former faith, and some completely rejected all of their old beliefs and practices.

In the 1830’s and 1840’s, Universalists everywhere were debating the propriety of celebrating the Eucharist, or communion. Some believed that the original “Last Supper” was a celebration of the Passover, and that Christians were not obligated to continue Jewish traditions. Others believed that it was a new ritual created by Jesus and was intended for Christians to perpetuate. For others, it was about the “optics” – they felt that the Eucharist should be celebrated to legitimize Universalism in the eyes of mainstream Christians, or as one prominent Universalist minister wrote in 1842, “to remove the prejudices of opposers of Universalism.”

This conflict played out in the Sheshequin congregation, with two of our famous ancestors, Joseph Kingsbury and his niece Julia Kinney Scott, on opposing sides.

In 1836, a nineteen-year-old minister named Gustavus Ames began serving the Sheshequin Universalist Society. Apparently Ames was stirring things up about 1841. Sheshequin member Joseph Kingsbury, an ex-Presbyterian and outspoken critic of all things “orthodox,” wrote to the editor of a Utica-based Universalist periodical:

“… [Some] difficulty has arisen in the society of Universalists in Sheshequin, in consequence of the efforts of their preacher to introduce the observance of the Eucharist in our church administration. I have been one of the strenuous opposers of this orthodox fashion.”

Kingsbury went on to justify his position based on his interpretation of the Bible. He summed up by saying:

“I can discover no possible reason for [following the rituals of the Jews]. First, because it is not required, nor even advised, to be attended to, by the New Testament writers. Second, because I am opposed to using any of the formulas of the self-styled orthodox, not strictly required by that sacred book.”

The conflict in Sheshequin over the Eucharist – and baptism, as well – was probably part of a larger discussion about whether to become a “church” or remain a “society.” While the difference between the two is not well-defined, a “church” was generally more formally organized than a “society.” A “church” would be more likely to perform rituals such as baptism and communion.

Major W. H. H. Gore, a member of the Sheshequin Universalist society since childhood, recalled:

“[About 1841] an effort was made to have a regular church organization, and, through the efforts of Mrs. Julia H. Scott, succeeded in part. I can remember as a boy… the rite of baptism being performed, and Mrs. Scott was one of the persons baptised, also my mother, and undoubtedly it was at this time a church organization was formed.”

Julia Kinney Scott, the famed Universalist poet, grew up in the Sheshequin Society. She was a big proponent of church organization. She organized the Sunday school there in 1830. She remained committed to the society even after she married and moved to Towanda in 1835.

In January, 1841, Scott wrote to a friend, possibly her friend Sarah in Massachusetts, and possibly asking for her assistance:

“We have formed a little church in Sheshequin, and several are opposed to it. I have had a world of trouble about it. As I helped the matter on, they are displeased with me, but that I should not care for, if they could be brought into measure at last. Or, if some influential brother at the East could be persuaded to write some strong articles in favor of church organization and the Eucharist, and would send me the papers containing them, that I might show these people and convince them, how happy I should be.”

Kingsbury and his allies apparently won this battle, though they ultimately lost the war. The congregation probably remained a “society” until 1880, when, according to the plaque on the meeting house, a formal church organization was established. Julia Scott died in 1842, and Gustavus Ames left the congregation the following year. It’s possible that the “church” effort faded away after these two instigators were gone, and wasn’t revived until almost 40 years later.

The Poverty Party

The Poverty Party is the cringe-worthy piece of our history that I alluded to in my newsletter blurb about this service. I am including it this morning because I think it’s important to know about the skeletons in our closet. This story does not reflect uniquely Universalist history, but it does reveal social attitudes of the time that played out in our church as well as churches of other denominations.

Our Athens meeting house was built in 1851. Significant repairs were made in 1885, but, by 1895, the building again needed extensive work, including completing foundation walls and repairing supports under the main floor. A special congregational meeting was held in November to discuss whether to fix this building or sell it and build a new meeting house at the corner of Main and Pine, where 911 Earth is today.

The meeting minutes are unclear as to the outcome of the discussion, but the congregation must have decided to stay here. At another meeting two weeks later, reports were made on the progress of repairs and on plans to raise money to pay for the additional work.

There’s a piece of the historical puzzle that’s missing here, because in February, 1896, – three months later – a fundraiser was planned, and presumably held, for the erection of a new Universalist meeting house. Why they might have been raising money to build a new meeting house is a story another day. Today I want to talk about that fundraiser.

The flyer that was circulated for that fundraiser reads:

“Poverty Party!!! Given at the home of D. W. Tripp [a member of the Athens congregation], at the jinin’ of Elmer avenyou and pine street, Athens, P. A. Saturday evening, Februaree the eighth ’96. Vittles will be served by the wimmin folks. The prowseeds is tu be used toards the erecshun of a noo Universalist Meetin House. All are Korjully Envited.”

The writer appears to have designed the spelling and language to make fun of people who are “poor,” which, in his or her mind, is the same as “uneducated.”

On the opposite side of the flyer there is a set of rules, in equally poor spelling. Women were required to wear a calico dress and apron and would be fined for wearing jewelry or new clothing. Men were to be fined for wearing creased trousers, or for carrying pocket watches or cigars. A “valuable emblematic prize” was to be given to the most “distressed” looking man and woman.

The “vittles” included brown bread, baked beans, and pickles.

This flyer recently came to our attention when it was posted on a blog on slate.com. The blog writer Rebecca Onion noted:

“This invitation, sent at a time of great income inequality, when the suffering of immigrants in cities and black Americans in the post-Reconstruction South was particularly acute, shows how some people in the middle and upper classes of the Gilded Age regarded the poor they lived alongside.

“From the dialect used on the invitations, to the plain food served at the event, a poverty party established social distance between the celebrants and the lower classes whose shoes they were stepping into for a night.”

To be fair, our Athens Universalist ancestors were not alone in their disdain for people living in poverty. “Poverty Parties” like this one were “trendy” around this time, and, sadly, they persisted for decades afterward. Ms. Onion noted that a similar event was held in 1900 by a Methodist church in Orange county, N. Y. She also pointed out that several early-1900s books on entertaining included instructions for hosting a poverty party.

Today we cringe at the idea of making fun of people living in poverty. We are undeniably more sensitive now to income inequality. We stopped holding our annual service auction several years ago because members’ ability to participate depended largely on their finances. Members of this congregation are involved in the Poor People’s Campaign and other social justice movements. We’re trying to do the right thing.

But I can’t help but wonder – what are we doing today that will make our descendants cringe in a hundred years?

A Religion for the Atomic Age

The Universalist movement in this country grew dramatically through the nineteenth century, peaking around 1880. But then the number of congregations dropped precipitously, according to historian Ann Lee Bressler. The distinction between Universalism and other, more mainstream, liberal Christian denominations was diminishing. Mainstream Protestants had softened their stance on hell fire and damnation, and Universalists were shifting away from the idea of predestined salvation for all toward what Bressler calls “a humanistic vision of the infinite potential of every member of the human family.”

At the turn of the 20th century, the four remaining Universalist congregations in Bradford county were shrinking. By the mid-1920s, one minister served the North Branch congregations of Athens, Sheshequin, Standing Stone, and Towanda. The Rev. James Herrick, whose grave some of us visited a few weeks ago, filled this role for thirty years, often preaching at three churches every Sunday. He was succeeded in 1945 by the Rev. Lyman Achenbach.

Achenbach graduated from the Universalist Theological School at St. Lawrence University in 1931. He came to Towanda with fourteen years of experience in parish ministry. Achenbach has an interesting story of his own, which I don’t have time to tell this morning. I’ll just mention that he may have been a member of the Communist party – he actively opposed the House Committee on Un-American Activities – and he was a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Planned Parenthood Association.

Achenbach recognized the need to bring more people into the dwindling Athens congregation. In October 1946 he placed a ¼-page ad in the Evening Times under the title: “Is This Yours Too? A Religion Adequate for the Atomic Age.”

Below the title was a 14-point description of Universalism, including the following:

  • Founded upon the best in Christianity, Judaism and the other great world religions.
  • Founded also upon the average person’s common sense and personal experience…
  • Believes in God as the same throughout the history of mankind and in man’s progressive understanding of God’s character and laws, an understanding as yet far from complete.
  • Believes in salvation through growth in character…
  • Encourages free thought; the inquiring mind; humility of spirit; … continued research in science; … peaceable solution of all social problems, …

Universalists had always been proponents of free thought, but Achenbach’s description shows how the movement had changed since the early 1800s. Including “the other great world religions” in the foundation of Universalism is relatively new. And “salvation through growth in character” sounds more like the Unitarian view than the early Universalist belief that all were saved by God’s grace, regardless of how badly they behaved in this life.

The next month Achenbach organized a two-week-long “Institute of Liberal Christianity.” This was an ad in the Evening Times. It says:

“Did Jesus say he was the ONLY Son of God?  Which is more important – what Jesus said and did, or the statements others have made about him? Have you been told that Universalists do not believe in Jesus?

“COME IN AND FIND OUT THE ANSWERS to these and other questions at the Institute of Liberal Christianity, UNIVERSALIST CHURCH, REV. LYMAN ACHENBACH, Minister.

“7:30 Each Evening Except Saturdays, continuing through November 17th”

Note that this Institute went on for two weeks – “each evening except Saturdays.” Achenbach brought in guest speakers from among his ministerial colleagues from as far away as North Carolina.

Sadly, this heroic PR effort did not bring in new members, and, a year later, the congregation voted to sell this building. In 1965 the congregation formally dissolved and the remaining members joined the Sheshequin Society.

After the Unitarians and Universalists joined in 1961, Achenbach applied for fellowship in the Unitarian ministry. On the application form, he wrote the following about his concept of the liberal ministry and the role of church in society:

“My concept of the liberal ministry has remained fairly constant over the past thirty-five years. It might be summed up most briefly in the statement attributed to Jesus… : ‘I am come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’

“…[The] role of the liberal church in today’s society [is] a ‘ministry of all believers,’ in which the ordained clergyman is a chosen leader…  The liberal church should constantly be helping devise and encourage every possible means toward the enrichment of life for all… [and] the full development of the innate potential in each individual person.  [It should … encourage] people to think for themselves, while providing them with the necessary materials and stimuli with which to think.  [It should instruct] them in all the rules of logic and sound reasoning, while also maintaining environment and offering experience conducive to a free and wholesome emotional life.

“I think of the liberal church as in some respects a pioneering institution, ever exploring and extending the frontiers of knowledge…  I covet for the liberal church an ever growing empathy among its constituents toward all the world’s religions and their adherents, including Christianity and Christians.”

Where do we come from? We come from a long line of Universalists…

  • Who, like Joseph Kingsbury and Julia Scott, want what’s best for their church but don’t always agree on what is best
  • Who, like the Athens congregation in 1896, aren’t always more progressive on social issues than the rest of society is
  • Who, like the Rev. Lyman Achenbach and his congregation, are free-thinkers and explorers and who want to make this world better for everyone.

May we take inspiration from our ancestors and continue to strive for a better world.