On the Formation of Universalist Societies

Note: bracketed numbers refer to page numbers in the original.

Chapter VIII.

On the Formation of Universalist Societies.

I.All religious societies should be formed agreeably to the Constitution and laws of the State to which they belong. In Massachusetts, the rights and duties of religious societies, and the privileges of members, are set forth in the Eleventh Article of Amendments to the Constitution, and in the Twentieth Chapter of [295] the Revised Statutes. As Universalists should always be careful to pay strictest deference to the laws, we shall here introduce from the Constitution, and give entire the chapter from the Statutes.

II. Religious Freedom Established.

“Article 11 [of Amendments]. Instead of the third article of the Bill of Rights, the following modification and amendment thereof is substituted.

“As the public worship of God and instructions in piety, religion and morality, promote the happiness and prosperity of a people and the security of a republican government; therefore, the several religious societies of this commonwealth, whether corporate or unincorporate, at any meeting legally warned and holden for that purpose, shall ever have the right to elect their pastors or religious teachers, to contract with them for their support, to raise money for erecting and repairing houses for public worship, for the maintenance of religious instruction, and for the payment of necessary expenses: and all persons belonging to any religious society shall be taken and held to be members, until they shall file with the clerk of such society, a written notice, declaring the dissolution of their membership, and thenceforth shall not be liable for any grant or contract which may be thereafter made, or entered into by such society: And all religious sects and denominations, demeaning themselves peaceably, and as good citizens of the commonwealth, shall be equally under the protection of the law; and no subordination of any one sect or denomination to another shall ever be established by law.”

III. Revised Statutes, Chapter 20

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IV. The following extracts are made from the New York Statute, entitled “An Act to provide for the incorporation of Religious Societies.”

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V. Constitution of a Universalist Society

We, the subscribers, feeling desirous to “grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,” do hereby form ourselves into a society, they we may be helps to each other, and that by our united energies we may better serve the purposes of religion and of truth. We cheerfully adopt, and subscribe the following Constitution, as the basis of our government.

1. This Society shall be called the “First, [Second, or Third, as the case may be,] Universalist Society in _____.”

2. The object of this society shall be the promotion of truth and morality among its members, and also in the world at large; and as the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, is calculated above all truth to inspire the heart with emotions of benevolence and virtue, this society shall deem it one of its main objects to support the preaching of the Gospel, according to the society’s ability, and to aid in any other practicable way, in spreading a knowledge of it among men.

[302] 3. This society adopt, as the basis of its religious faith, the Profession of Belief accepted by the General Convention of Universalists, at its session in Winchester, New Hampshire, A. D. 1803, which is in the following words:

“We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest, and final destination of mankind.

“We believe there is one God, whose nature is love; revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

“We believe, that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected; and that believers ought to maintain order, and practice good works, for these things are good and profitable unto men.”

4. Any persons sustaining a good moral character, and assenting to the aforesaid Profession of Faith, may be admitted a member of this society, on application to that effect, by a majority of votes, at any regular meeting.

5. It should be regarded as the duty of every member to adorn the doctrine of the Lord Jesus with a holy life and conversation, to contribute according to his ability, in the manner determined on by the majority, towards the support of public worship, and the other necessary expenses of the society; to attend upon the exercises of the sanctuary, as well as the regular meetings of the society for business; and a habitual neglect of either of these duties shall be regarded as a sufficient reason for striking the name of any member from the role, by a vote of the majority.

6. This society shall have an annual meeting, which shall be held on the _____ day of _____, at such place as the Standing Committee may direct, at which meeting the officers of the society shall be elected, and the sum necessary to be raised, and manner of raising money for the ensuing year, shall be determined on.

[In Massachusetts the annual meeting must be held either in March or April. See section 7, of the chapter before given.]

7. The officers of the society, shall be, 1st, a Clerk, who shall keep a true and faithful record of its proceedings; 2d, a Treasurer, to receive all moneys, and pay them out at the order of the Standing Committee; 3d a Standing Committee, who shall be the executive power of the society, and 4th, a Board of three Assessors, to apportion all taxes, if the society should see fit to raise money in that manner.

[The Clerk may be sworn by the Moderator; the other officers may be sworn by the Clerk, or by any Justice of the Peace. See section 10.]

The meetings of this society shall be called either by warrant being left at the house of each member, or by posting it to the place at which the society holds its meetings for public worship; and the same notice shall be given as is required in calling a meeting of the town in which the society may exist; and the subject matter to be acted upon at the meeting, shall be fairly and fully stated in the warrant, and in the plainest possible manner.

9. Ten members shall constitute a quorum to do business; but a less number may adjourn.

10. This Constitution may be amended in the following manner: [303] the amendment shall be proposed, and entered upon the Record, and shall lay over till the next regular meeting; when, if assented to, by a majority, it shall become a part of the Constitution.

VI. Let it be observed, once for all, that the Constitution and By-Laws of any society must conform to the Constitution and laws of the State in which the society exists; otherwise, they are, of course, null and void. With a due regard to the laws, a society may make any by-laws it see fit to; and every society has the fullest right to regulate, as it sees best, the admission and expulsion of members.


Passed over for the time being.

As a member of a Universalist society, it will justly be expected of you, that you will do every thing you can to advance the cause of Universalism in the world. It is the cause of God’s grace; it vindicates his character; it is the cause of human morality, happiness, and consolation; and it is worthy of your highest efforts. Let all your exertions be directed to the advancement of truth. Bend your private partialities to this great object in all things. The fault of many members of Universalist societies is, that they do not feel their responsibilities. To join a society is not the only duty; it is necessary to feel, continually, that you are a member. In pecuniary things, do as much as you are able, without injury to yourself, and do no more. If your income is small, retrench your expenses as well in the superfluities of your family as in your contributions to the cause of religion. But this is not all, that the [306] members of a society should do. You should make it a rule to be present at all the meetings of the society, both for business and for public worship. Show your zeal for the cause by your presence; it is better than ten thousand professions. It is too often the case, that the responsibility for doing the annual business of a parish is thrown upon a few individuals; and then, if they do not adopt such measures as please everybody, they are very unjustly blamed for it. Every member of a society should think himself of some consequence, and remember that he fills a place, which, if he is not present, is vacant. In every society, there should be union; this gives strength, and enables the body to carry all its measures into effect. A society may well be represented by a wheel. The hub, spokes, and felloes are not a wheel. Al these different parts must be fixed in their proper places, and then there is a wheel; but even then it is weak, unless a strong tire is drawn around it, to keep every part firmly bound together. So twenty or thirty individuals are not a society. They must be placed in their stations, and this gives them the form of a society. But without union, they will have no strength; they can accomplish no important object. A strong band of love must unite them, and press them compactly together. Here, then, we see the importance, that every member should fill his place, and discharge his duty. If we strike but one spoke from a wheel, it mars the beauty, and diminishes its strength; it weakens the whole. If one member in a society be negligent or remiss, he is not only missed in person, but the burden be would bear is thrown on others, who, being unable to discharge the double duty, sink beneath its weight. How important, then, that every one should be ready to discharge the obligations that rest upon him.

Again, look at the effect of this remissness in another point of view. Its influence on the minister of the parish is pernicious. No clergyman has stocism enough in him to make him insensible to remissness of his [307] parishoners. It lays like an incubus upon him, throughout all his labors. If he is writing a sermon, he knows not that many will come to hear it; and think you, that this will enable him to throw more fire and fervor into his composition? When he goes to conduct the services of public worship, he sees about half as many people as there are pews, scattered over the house, some below, and some in the gallery; no singers, so that the joyful part they perform must be omitted. He begins with a prayer, but there is no feeling; he knows not what to say; he labors through it, and it seems to every one, a long, dull, and unsuitable one. He announces the text, and endeavours to preach, but it is lifeless reading after all. His congregation have fixed themselves in a situation to suffer the least torture; if in summer, they sleep and nod; if in winter, they bury themselves in their cloaks, and go into a torpid state. How can any man preach to such a congregation? It would be easier to preach to the walls, or as many statues; because, then, the preacher would not feel himself insulted, and he would be able at once to account for the indifference of his auditors. No clergyman of common feeling, could remain with such a congregation. He would go where, if he had any talent, it would be appreciated; and where people would respect heaven, in its message of love, by feeling an manifesting a due interest in the gospel of Christ. There is yet another consideration, which weighs upon the mind of the clergyman. His character, as a parish minister, is somewhat connected with his success; and, with such a society as we have described, he feels that he suffers in his reputation, which, to literary men of common ambition, is a sting they cannot long bear.

The present age is, to Universalists, a highly interestin one. New societies and new meeting-houses rise in the prospect in quicker succession than they ever did before; and it cannot be denied, that there is a great and constant call for ministers of integrity and talent. A society, which has such a clergyman, has a [308] prize, that is should esteem a great misfortune to lose. For, aside from the danger of division, to which a society is always exposed on the change of a pastor, it may not be easy to make his place good. How, then, shall societies, which have good ministers, keep them? We shall say nothing here in regard to a prompt discharge of pecuniary obligations, because everybody knows the importance of this; we will speak of that which is not so generally thought of. We say, then, in the language of Paul, that the best way to encourage your minister, and render his residence among you pleasant, is to be “steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.” Be sober; be vigilant; let benevolence shine in all your actions; love the courts of the Lord; prefer to be a door-keeper there, rather than dwell in the tents of wickedness; attend to the ordinances of the Gospel; “then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your health shall spring forth speedily.”

IX.This brings us to consider, that earnestness, heartfelt zeal, and perserverance, are the surest pledges of the success of a society. There is no society, that can live where these virtues are absent; there is none but that will live and flourish, where these virtures exist. They overcome all obstacles; we may say, as was said of faith, If ye have these virtues like a grain of mustard seed, ye shall remove mountains.

We will give you the history of a prosperous society. It is situated in the town of ———. Eleven years ago, there was not known to be a Universalist in the town. “The people walked in darkness, and dwelt in the land of the shadow of death.” A gentleman, of middling property, abot thirty-six years of age, a Universalist in deed and in truth, whose wife believed, enjoyed, and exemplified the same docrine with himself, moved into the place. Business imperiously demanded his removal; but it was a sore affliction to him to leave his Christian friends, the “little flock” with whom he had so often worshipped God, to go among stangers, in all of whom [309] there was not a soul that would kindle like his own, at the mention of the Redeemer’s unchangable love. He had four consolations, however, even in this spiritual wilderness; 1st, His Bible, the book of books, which he read daily; 2d, His Universalist newspaper, which, next to his Bible, nourished and sustained his soul; 3d, His wifes conversations and prayers, for they alternately officiated at the altar of the evening sacrifice; and 4th, The hope, which he secretly and confidently indulged, that the light of the Gospel would soon break into this dark region.

It was not long, before his neighbours began to borrow “that paper,” as they termed it; and as he was always willing to lend, they were never denied; because he took the precaution, when he discovered this disposition on their part, to subscribe for an additional copy, that he might not be destitute himself. They began to read their Bibles with a better relish, not so much to perform a duty, as because they weere interested, and grew more and more so, as they saw the true sense of the inspired writings. It was not six months (althought that may seem improbable) before twelve copies of “that paper” were subscribed for by inhabitants of that town. They read the spread of this doctrine in other places; of the formation of societies; of the erection and dedication of meeting-houses; and they learned, also, to their no small surprise, that this doctrine, which has been stigmatized for eighteen centuries as a “new doctrine,” had witnesses on the earth, with very slight intervals, ever since God ordained, that the head of the serpent should be bruised. At length, the friend, who had been the means of introducing this doctrine to their notice, proposed, that a preacher should be invited to officiate on a Sabbath. It was a novel experiment; tehy doubted; but, at length, they resolved upon it; an aged Father in the faith went, at their request, and broke to them the “bread of life.” No services could have been more appropriate. The meeting was held in a private house; and there were [310] about seventy-five persons, who filled two large rooms. Our friend was too full for utterance. He could hardly believe the testimony of his own senses. It seemed a vision to him, rather than a reality.

The few, whose attention had been aroused, now held meetings, occasionally, at each other’s houses; not so much for formal worship, as for Christian conversation, inquiry, and free interchange of opinion; but they never separated without prayer. “And why many we not have a society here?” said S. (for that is the initial of our friend’s name), at one of these meetings. No one objected. “We may have preaching,” said he, “once in two months, at least, and next year perhaps we can have a greater supply; and we may meet ourselves, for public worship, when we have no preacher. The world will never respect our cause, unless we show them, they we respect it ourselves.” It was resolved to form a society, which numbered, at the beginning, fifteen males, of whom two were quite young men, who had always been remarkable for their sobriety, amiableness, and intelligence. They formed their society, not from opposition to others, but because they loved the Gospel; and they wished none to join them, except such as loved the truth with the whole heart, and were willing to maintain it, and adorn it with patience and purity. We do not mention the opposition they encountered, because it never gave them any anxiety. It was bitter; but God overruled it for good. A worldling, worth eight thousand dollars, once made application to join them. He was obliged to pay fifteen dollars annually to the old parish, and he said he was sick of it. “How much shall I pay you a year,” said he, “to give me a certificate of membership in your society?” They told him thirty dollars; “and he went away sorrowing.” The fact was, they knew such a member would be an injury to them, — a bad example for others to imitate, who might afterwards join.

The second year, their numbers had somewhat increased, and they had meetings one half of the time. [311] They invited a young man (for they thought it a duty to encourage young preachers) to settle with them, to live in the town; and they flattered themselves, that he would find employment for the remainder of the Sabbaths in towns not far distant; and so the event proved. They prospered so greatly, that they thought the proverb almost literally true, that “men can do whatever amount of good they try to do.”

The last time we visited this society, they presented the same interesting spectacle. Each one bore this part with uninterrupted cheerfulness. There certainly was not an inactive member among them. They held the doctrine, they said, that a society should never retrograde. “We must always keep moving, and always go ahead.” A society cannot stand still; it will go one way or the other, up or down, to glory or to ruin. “We shall fear the day,” said one of them, “when we shall think we have done enough.” “Well, now,” said I, “Br. S., what is the highest point of your ambition in regard to your society?” He replied immediately, “I do not know; I cannot see that point. One thing I am sure of, we shall never rest until we have a meeting-house, and preaching every Sabbath. No society (he continued) should think its work even half done, until it has gained that end.” “But,” said I, “Br. S., I know some old societies, that have preaching but half the time;” and I named two or three of them to him. “Yes,” said he, “I know it; I have long wondered at it. In one of those societies you have now named, there are three men, whose wealth is greater than the wealth of all our members; and yet those three men do not pay a sufficient tax (or did not when I lived in their neighborhood) to defray the expense of three Sundays’ preaching. They care very little about Universalism (said he); they go to meeting because their fathers did, and because it is fashionable to do so; and they go to the Universalist meeting, because that society raises the least money of any society in town. I am sorry to say, that that society is led [312] and governed by such men.” Growing quite enthusiastic, he cried, at the same time rising from his chair, “It will not do, Br. W., every society ought to go ahead; they ought to do more for the present year than they ever did before. If they do not adopt this principle, they will have a name only to live, — they will be dead. I say (said he) we ought to press forward, and never be weary in well doing.” “Amen,” I was constrained to say, “I do love your zeal.”

X. Rich men are not always the best members of a religious society. A wise observer of these matters has said; “In many of our country societies, and among professed friends to our doctrine where no society exists, are to be founf a certain narrow-minded brethren, who can talk much about the ‘glorious gospel,’ and tell of the first time they heard any thing about it, many years ago, and how long they have stood firm in the faith against all the combined powers of the enemy; and how refreshing it is to them to hear the glad tidings proclaimed; but who never seem to think, that five dollars will go further than ninepence in the payment of a poor, itenerant preacher, when they are amply able to pay the former sum a dozen times in a year! I might enumerate examples of this kind, but it would be of no avail to make up such a black list

. I leave such, not for the buffetings of the adversary, — for, perhaps, he would not find enough in them to make an object of contention, — but to the stings of their own strange consciences every time they read a rebuke of this kind, or any thing like it. They will know who is meant.

“I have known a society completely paralyzed by three or four such flint-souled members. They had enough of ‘the wherewith’ in their possession, but they could not spare it to pay for preaching; while those in more limited circumstances were doing their utmost for the support of the gospel. To use the comparison of a quaint preacher, it would take as many of such men to make a society, ‘as it would snow-balls to heat an oven.’”

[313] Ministers are men; they have wants like others, and must be provided for. And they must have time for study, or they cannot make acceptable preachers at the present day. Working on the farm all the week, or in the workshop, and then preaching on Sunday, may answer for a time, under certain circumstances; but such preaching will not keep pace with the times. And a preacher must do this, if he would be “a good minister of the Lord Jesus.” Religious truth should not be behind every thing else, as she has been for ages past. Preachers must study; therefore they need support.

Members of societies should contribute liberally. Every one ought to make a just estimate of his property, and ask himself how much he is able to give yearly for preaching. And when he subscribes, he should ask himself also, how the amount set off against his name on paper, will affect the minds of others. If he is illiberal in this repsect, poorer members may be, — and thus the society has not done justice to its own powers.

Punctual paymens are necessary in every society. Whoever subscribes or agrees to pay his portion, should calculate to be ready when called on, to make payment, for the salary is the preacher’s living. He has earned it, and it belongs to him; and if, instead of receiving it, he is put off with more promises, it serves to discourage him. Let a society evince their attachment to a preacher, not by mere words and professions, but by giving him a substantial proof, that they are determined to make his situation with them a happy one. Promises are poor articles for food or clothing. What tales of sadness some of our poor itinerants could tell, who have traversed hill and dale with the gospel message on their tongues, for which they have had the privilege of obtaining half enough to meet their expenses. I have heard some of their narratives; and I always feel, when i listen to them, as though they had not only entered the kingdom “with much tribulation,” but had found a good share of it within. Faith, I suppose, has kept them alive.

[314] “We have a large society in our town,” said a friend the other day. “It is quite large, and wealthy too.”

This man supposed a rich society was certainly a good one.

“Well,” said we, “how much do you pay your minister?”

“Five hundred per annum,” was his reply.

“Does that afford him a comfortable maintainance?”

“No,” said he, “it is not enough; but we cannot raise any more for him. We have attempted it, and cannot do it. He has a hard time to live, without getting into debt. We find it difficult to pay even five hundred dollars. We are a little in arrears every year. Our parish debt increases, although we pay so little to the minister.”

“How does this happen, friend, if your society is so rich? Have you no members who are willing to pay their proportion of the expenses?

“O yes,” said he, “we have many who are willing to do their part, and more than their part; but they cannot do everything. Those who are the most willing, and those who pay the most in proportion to what they are worth, are our men of small property. To tell you the truth, (he added,) our rich men are the most unwilling to pay. They always object to raising money. They are opposed to any improvements, which make any cost.”

“Do not, then, boast of having a rich society,” I replied. “I am well aware that rich members are not always the best. There are exceptions; there are some rich men who perform their parts well; but there are too many cases of a contrary kind. Rich men love their money. And it is a solemn fact, which many societies have proved by their sad experience, that there are no members of religious societies who exercise so unfavorable an influence as rich men who are unwilling to pay their proportion of the society’s expenses. This of it one moment. A man worth twenty thousand [315] dollars, agrees to give five dollars, as his part of some expense. Many others will estimate what they ought to give, by comparing their property with his. He is worth twenty thousand, I am worth one tenth that, and therefore I will give fifty cents. And yet these persons would willingly have given five dollars a piece, if he had given as much in proportion. Rich men, who are unwilling to do their part, pour cold water on the zeal of others. They are not, perhaps, aware of it; but such is actually the case. And although there are many men of moderate means, who will do their duty, even if the rich man is backward, yet there are too many who conclude what they ought to give, by following his example.

“I see,” said my friend, “that I have been wrong in regarding rich men as the best members of a society. Those are the best, who are most earnestly and zealously engaged in the cause of truth, whether they be rich, or poor.”

XI. Our laymen should see the necessity of exercising their spiritual gifts more frquently than they do. Meetings for religious improvement should be held, even in those places whee no clergymen can be obtained. Such meetings should be held by every society in this land of Schools, Bibles, and moral facilities. If a society has no interest of this kind, unless they have a minister, they need awakening from death to life. The Christian Sabbath is too good an institution to be neglected and misspent by those who might otherwise be improving themselves in Christian knowledge and grace.

If there be but a half a dozen or a dozen members of a society, who are wlling to make the first attempt at holding meetings without a minister, let them start onward. Others will follow. If any covenient place can be found in a public or private house, let it be obtained, and let some sort of religious services be performed. If no one has confidence to utter a prayer, let the Lord’s prayer be repeated, and singing performed, [316] and sermons read; and after these services, coversation on religious topics. These things will be beneficial. We know it, — for we have repeatedly witnessed their effects.

Societies will never know what they can do, unil they make the trial of their powers and means. If one stands back in doubt an diffidence, another may, and so nothing will be sone. But let one, or two, or three only be resolved to commence, and the way will be made clear. The Lord’s blessing will be with a small number who meet in his name.

Good raders can certainly be found in every society. If older ones decline serving, let some father appoint a son, or some other young friend to read a sermon; lt those, who have honest hearts and good intentions, speak. Will it be replied, that there is a difficulty here, — that very many good, honest believers in the truth, dare not attempt to speak in public on religious topics? We have heard this remark repeatedly, and have passed over it with a feeling ofr excuse for such; but now we repent of this error. In eight cases out of ten, we can see no just grounds for excuse. Men can talk about religion as well as about any other subject, if they feel it, and really believe it to be of paramount importance. This diffidence, then, is censurable, because unreasonable. Let a man be bruised or pained, and he can make it known, — let him receive joyful intelligence, and he can vocally exult and be glad. Why must he be dumb, then, on the best of all topics, religious truth? Is there any reason for this?

One consideration here may be in place. Weak and extravagant speakers have been so often heard in certain other denominations, that some conscientious believers in Universalism are at first startled at the idea of giving utterance in public to their own religious thoughts. Every one should consult his own feelings on this subject. If he can talk so as to be clearly understood on other subjects, it will do no harm for him to say something to his brethren on the subject of religion. A good, social [317] meeting of Christian friends will do as much for the spiritual advancement of all who enjoy it. There is a lamentable indifference on this subjet. Too much is thought of mere minister meetings; as if no others could be tolerated. This is wrong. We have known societies go onward month after month, and year after year, holding their meetings without a stated pastor, exhorting one another, and praising God in prayers, “psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs,” with one heart, and in one spirit of Christian love. They prospered, — they will continue to prosper, — for the Lord will not forsake such a society as this. It is a glory in Zion; its “walls are salvation, and its gates praise;” and those who behold it will be led to glorify the name of the Father in heaven.

Who can tell how many talented, worthy preachers of God’s word, may be raised up in our denomination, from those who will date their first attempts at speaking in defence of truth, back to the social, religious meeting held by the society destitute of a minister? This of this, ye who are friends to the doctrine of the reconciliation, and who desire, that all the good means for its advancement among me, may be put in requisition. Remember, that great effects often spring forom remote and little causes. Despite not the “day of small things.” If any reasonable step can be taken to give success to the cause of the Gospel, it is your duty to ask if you shall not encourage it.