Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

TERM PAPER Part 7–Unitarianism and Universalism from New England to the Pacific Coast


The first Unitarian or Universalist church on the Pacific Coast was the Unitarian congregation established in 1850 and served by the legendary Thomas Starr King in 1860.[i]  In his 1957 book Unitarianism on the Pacific Coast, the Rev. Arnold Crompton wrote that Unitarian ministers and lay leaders came west following the California Gold Rush and the completion of the transcontinental railroad.  Crompton attributes the growth of Unitarianism to five factors:

First, “transplanted” New England Unitarians wanted a church like those back home….  Second, the tightening of the lines of orthodoxy [in the larger society] gave rise to conscience problems among liberal Christians which led them to seek their own company….  Third, direct missionary activity… established churches or planted seeds of future churches.  Fourth, the great ministers… by their preaching, their leadership, and their lives attracted people to their churches and denomination.  The fifth factor was the changing intellectual climate [especially scientific challenges to traditional theology].

While conclusive evidence is lacking about the Universalists, it seems fair to assume that similar economic promises and the transcontinental railroad brought them westward as well.  Appendix I shows the dates when most Unitarian or Universalist congregations were established on the Pacific Coast in the nineteenth century.  While the dates are similar between the two denominations, it is notable that many of the Universalist churches did not survive.  One that did, in Pasadena, was blessed by a large endowment from Amos Throop, who also founded the California Institute of Technology.

In the rest of the United States, as the number of Universalist churches and members declined in the twentieth century. The standard history of the movement reports that the American Almanac for 1832 lists Universalism as the sixth largest denomination.[ii] However, in a sermon given in 1995 and revised later on his website, David Lawyer cited census and other date to estimate that 49,000 to 64,000 Universalist church members existed between 1890 and 1906.[iii]  Lawyer argues that, contrary to many claims, Universalism was in decline before the twentieth century, and may never have grown as much as its early leaders announced.[iv]

The Unitarians as a denomination had a stronger missionary activity on the west coast, fueled by the Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones[v], a Unitarian leader from the Midwest, and Charles Wendte, who served local churches but also, as part of the Pacific Coast Unitarian Conference, led the planting of many Unitarian churches on the coast.  For a congregationally-based tradition, missionary work entailed pulling together enough local people with liberal Christian beliefs (or better, some with Unitarian backgrounds from elsewhere) and gathering them into a congregation.  This work included advertising, publications, and lectures, working on local causes and civic projects, holding worship and dedicating a church building as soon as affordable.

In 1892, the Unitarian churches in Los Angeles, National City, Ontario, Pomona, Santa Ana, Redland, San Bernardino, San Diego and Sierra Madre attended a conference to organize the Southern California Liberal Conference “as a subdivision of the [Pacific] Coast Conference.”[vi] This reflects a missionary optimism.  Yet few of these churches may have been strong, and half those towns no longer have a UU church.  Just a few years earlier, in 1886, Unitarian leader Charles Wendte (heavily involved in church-planting efforts for the faith) listed only four “stable Unitarian churches on the Pacific Coast”:  San Francisco, Portland, Santa Barbara, San Diego.[vii]

Though based in Boston like the Unitarians, the Universalist Church in America and its state conferences were a much less centrally organized body, and membership statistics are unclear.  While the Universalists’ original evangelistic activity on the other side of the continent was impressive, it is unclear to me whether this Gospel zeal is what led to their founding of West Coast congregations.

In any case, the beginnings of the Unitarian Universalist Church on the island of Negros had no connection to the westward movement of either denomination in the United States.  More recent encounters and relationships do show a mostly-Pacific orientation.  But the founding of the liberal faith in the Philippines was both accidental and home grown.



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