Funny what you’ll find when you look. A couple of weeks ago, I was reading old Universalist General Convention minutes, available at Google Books. The proceedings of the 1874 convention, in New York City, were particularly interesting.
The sixty-seven delegates served a different role than our General Assembly delegates today. For one thing, the General Convention created State Conventions, which handled many of the routine fellowship matters centralized in Boston today. Commercial publishing houses and what we might call independent affiliates took care of many of the program pieces. There were no workshops or celebrations apart from morning and evening worship and a Convention sermon. (Deceased ministers and significant laypersons were remembered by resolution.) This left the General Convention with committee work, report auditing and meta-responsibilities, like domestic and international mission work (including building funds) and establishing fellowship in areas not covered by a State Convention, like my own Washington, D.C. (Not so much because it is the Federal City but because it didn’t have enough churches — indeed, it has only ever had one Universalist church — to qualify for Convention status. I don’t think Maryland or Virginia did either.)
But past these differences, some business verities remain. The delegates considered fund raising, defining fellowship with churches, making policy decisions, budgeting and support for multi-cultural ministries (funding a transferring Lutheran minister to establish Universalist parishes in German ethnic communities).
Much of the decision making was hashed out in a committee created by the Convention to create subcommittees to consider the Board of Trustees report and other overtures. The membership — the Rev. A. A. Miner, Mrs. Eliza W. Bailey, Rev. E. H. Chapin, E. W. Crowell, M. R. M. Wallace, Rev. D. C. Tomlinson and the Rev. B. F. Bowles — included some Universalist heavyweights.
They introduced an omnibus resolution which included remarkable non-discrimination planks. Women’s history buffs should particularly note these:
- That it be the established polity of this Convention to exclude no person from its Board of Trustees, from any office or from any general committee now existing, or that it may create, on account of sex; and that it be its established policy to encourage the existence of no organization composed exclusively or men or women.
- That to make possible the acceptance of the forgoing invitation, we recommend to State Conventions the election of Delegates to this Convention, without reference to sex, but with reference alone to fitness.
The reasoning? I suspect it has to do with the leadership women made with fundraising through the congregation-based Missionary Box program. (Indeed, later in the same meeting, a Committee of Five was established to superintend the program, with a majority of three positions reserved for women.) The same resolution encouraged support of the program, and “gratefully recogniz[ed] the good service” of the Woman’s Centenary Association and that the “proved capacity of women” to raise fund should lead the convention not only to include women in fund raising but “awaken[ing] a religious interest.”
And, with some bumps, that’s what happened.
There’s an old lesson there, and excuse me for bringing this to date. Power flows from showing up and producing, especially money needed to keep the staff paid and the lights on. Alas, the youth and young adult resolution passed this General Assembly makes demands on principle which sound a bit too much like an ultimatum — give us what we want or we’ll leave; yet, so many already leave — and, which all too often don’t hold up in practice. (The lesson of age, perhaps?) As I said before, if the youth and youth adults raised money — as indeed their predecessor organizations did — perhaps the attrition problem would take care of itself.