Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Where Love and Reason Dwell

Last Sunday it was my privilege to attend the 167th annual Homecoming at the First Universalist Church of Camp Hill, Alabama.  The Alabama Historical Association recently recognized the church building, constructed in 1907, as a historical site. Universalists were among the founders of the farming community of Camp Hill in the 1830s. Although I grew up in Dadeville,  just seven miles up the road from Camp Hill and passed by the Universalist Church on occasion, I had no idea of its rich heritage and influence.
When I was growing up, sometimes the Universalist Church was spoken of in hushed tones, “they don’t believe in Hell” was about all my Baptist and Methodist friends seemed to know about the Universalists. In fact, the Universalist Church was established early in this country's history by people who valued a message of the love of God and a respect for human reason rather than the notion of a life dominated by fear of a wrathful God who condemns people to eternal torment.

A Message of Hope

The Rev. Joan Armstrong Davis, a former minister of the Camp Hill Church, was on hand to deliver the sermon for the historic homecoming event. In her sermon, she presented a brief history of Universalism in America. She told of how a Congregationalist minister, Rev. Charles Chauncy, was not comfortable with the hell-fire and damnation message of George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards in the religious movement that became known as the Great Awakening during the American colonial period. Chauncy came to adopt a doctrine of universal salvation when he questioned the Calvinist doctrine that God predestined some people to eternal punishment in hell. John Murray was another who questioned the Calvinism of the evangelists of the Great Awakening. Murray is considered by most to be the father of Universalism in America. He was an evangelist of hope who participated in the first Universalist Convention and became pastor of the Universalist Society in Boston. It is said of him that he set out to “give them not hell, but hope and courage.” Rev. Armstrong Davis affirmed that human goodness and hope are central to the Universalist message.

The Winchester Profession of 1803 became a central tenet for the Universalist Church, proclaiming that love is the nature of God “who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.” [Historical side note: There was another movement afoot in the 19th century known as Unitarianism which, like the Universalists, arose out of the Congregationalist Churches in New England.  Rational thinking and belief in the humanity of Jesus were hallmarks of the Unitarian Churches.  The Universalist Church merged  with the American Unitarian Association in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.]

As she closed her message, Rev. Armstrong Davis observed that all around us citizens today are pessimistic like never before.  She spoke of how the Unitarian Universalists have been small but influential and that today as in the early days of Universalism, they can be a positive beacon to “give them not hell, but hope.”  Who could deny that what we need today is a promise of love and hope rather than fear and condemnation? A true basis for hope can indeed be an antidote for a pessimistic age.

A Fellowship of Love

The church members seemed delighted to have almost sixty people in attendance, about three times the normal Sunday attendance (they meet once a month on the fourth Sunday of the month). After the service, all were invited to an abundant fellowship meal downstairs. It was a magnificent meal of all kinds of home cooked delights. There was home baked bread, casseroles, soups and stews, stuffed peppers and a variety of vegetable dishes along with baked ham and fried chicken. Further down the table was an equally delightful array of desserts: hummingbird cake, german chocolate cake, apple pie, fudge brownies and all manner of cheesecakes and custards. The after-church crowd shared food, fellowship and conversation in a delightful celebration of history, friendship, and family.    

A History of Faith and Good Works

Looking at the historic church in Camp Hill, one has no doubt that its builders saw that it was important to create something of beauty, of substance, and of lasting value. The craftsmanship that went into the woodwork, windows and the brick structure of the building reveals an attitude of careful symmetry and quality. The philosophy espoused by the congregation is likewise one of careful symmetry and quality in that that the traits of love, justice, liberty, and reason should be evident in equal measure.

It takes faith to have a liberal worldview these days. Sometimes when I see what people are doing to one another and I observe politics run amok, I can see how John Calvin might have arrived at his doctrine of total depravity. It is easy to forget that humankind also has an incredible capacity for good. The Universalist Church of the small town of Camp Hill has long been a testament to the ability of people to reach for a higher good.  Camp Hill resident and columnist for The Dadeville Record, Dean Bonner related some of the history of the church and the community in his October 17 article, “Camp Hill Universalist Church recognized on state historic registry.”  Church members from the beginning of its history were involved in town industry as well as in building schools and promoting education in the community. One of the most notable examples is The Rev. Dr. Lyman Ward, a Universalist minister who established a school for underprivileged rural youth, the Southern Industrial Institute (later named Lyman Ward Military Academy).  Ward modeled his school after Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute and in fact became friends with and received assistance from Booker T. Washington.

In terms of an optimistic vision for society, in addition to the Winchester Profession, the Unitarian Universalist Association has adopted Seven Principles which are promoted by each congregation:
  •  The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Go Now in Peace

The Universalist Church arose when people dared to believe that God is truly a God of love. People for some reason have tended to get excommunicated by the establishment for such ideas, but how liberating it can be if we can learn to live in response to love, rather than in fear of punishment. The Unitarian/Universalists have also championed reason in the quest for truth. If you are looking for a hopeful community that stands for love, justice, liberty and reason then you may want to consider the Unitarian/Universalists. If you are in the vicinity of Camp Hill in Tallapoosa County, definitely consider paying a visit to the First Universalist Church.  It is a place where love and reason dwell.

                                                                                                                                      ~ Charles Kinnaird


Photos taken by Charles Kinnaird

In second from the top is a view of the pulpit Bible which was recently restored by Auburn University.
The last photo is the new historic marker which reads:

"The First Universalist Church of Camp Hill was the largest Universalist Church in the southeastern United States in the first half of the 20th century. With its roots in the European Enlightenment, Universalism was transplanted to the American colonies by religious sojourners and was flourishing in this country by the time of the Revolutionary War. A Christian denomination, the defining tenet of Universalism was 'universal' salvation, the belief that a gentle God would not condemn any soul to a literal hell. The Universalist Church of America merged with the American Unitarian Association in 1961, forming the Unitarian Universalist Association."
On the reverse side: "The First Universalist Church of Camp Hill was established in 1846 as Liberty Universalist Church. The name was changed in 1909. The original meeting place was a brush arbor on the present site of Mt Lovely Baptist Church. A simple cabin soon replaced the arbor and served until 1884 when a larger wood-framed church was built on this site. Membership burgeoned, and the striking brick sanctuary was completed in 1907. Designed by Daniel A. Helmich, a Birmingham architect, the church was built with local labor using mostly indigenous materials."


1 comment:

  1. Lovely article, Charlie. If I were still going to church, I would definitely check out Universalist/Unitarian congregations. The best Christian churches share most of the U/U tenets; even the current Pope would no doubt agree with them. (Well, democratic processes aren't so valued in hierarchical churches, but this pope seems more inclined to democracy, perhaps??) Here's a good book about universalism in Christianity: If Grace Is True, by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland.
    Neither of them U/U, by the way. Universalism, to me, is an essential tenet of the truest and highest religion. Not alone, not without those other beliefs and practices (justice, dignity, liberty, compassion).


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...