Our North Carolina Universalist Heritage
by Peggy Ward Rawheiser
The project that I am working on to re-organize, update and add to the "History of Universalism in North Carolina." is much more than just names and dates. It is a social history too. So much of the feeling that I get from reading these old records is not appropriate to include in the book but I feel compelled to share it with others.
The Civil War destroyed much of the livelihood and way of life for most of the Universalists in North Carolina. General Sherman was not kind to the state as he and his men passed through. The majority of the Universalists were farmers or at least depended on farms for their way of life. Money was an almost unknown quantity.
The ministers, in the earliest years of mid-19th Century and into the 20th Century traveled from meeting place to meeting place on foot, on horseback, buggy, river boats and trains. Sometimes the minister was away from home for a month at the time. In one case where the minister had only the suit of clothes on his back, his hostess told him to take it off and get into bed and her maid washed and pressed his suit so he would look more respectable at church the next day. I suspect that this was not unusual for him to only have one suit of clothes. Homes had no closets because people had nothing to hang in a closet. My Grandmother's house only had pegs on the wall to hang any extra clothes on if a person was lucky enough to have extra clothes.
The members of the churches were asked to pledge $1 per year to the North Carolina Convention, which paid the local part of the ministers' salaries. Each year's Convention minutes include a plea for the churches to get their members to pay that $1 per year. Tucked in the record book for the church that my father joined as a young man, I found an offering envelope with his name and identifying this as his $1 contribution for the year and gave his address as a student at North Carolina State College.
Most of the pay for the ministers came from the National Women's Missionary Association so representatives of that organization came down from Boston every year to attend the State Convention to encourage the members of the churches and to be sure their money was being spent wisely. One year as the ministers each made their report to the Convention for the year, one of the ministers announced that his church had hoped to become self supporting that year but the price of cotton and tobacco plunged to new lows so the farm income was greatly reduced so the situation looked pretty grim.
The State Convention meetings lasted from Thursday evening through Sunday evening. In that span of time, the delegates and friends heard from 4 to 6 sermons which were preached by the ministers in the state and by visiting ministers, some of whom were well known all across the country. The delegates arrived by horse and buggy and were entertained in the homes of the members of the host church as well as meals being provided for them.
It was usual for the Convention to contribute $10 to the local church to cover their expenses for the event. (No, I did not leave out any zeros in that number.) A plate offering was taken to pay this and the remainder of the $15 or $20 (on a good day) would go into the Convention General Funds. The ladies of the Universalist churches were all good cooks and so members of the host church contributed all the food and everyone ate royally. This practice carried over into the second half of the 20th Century so that as I was growing up, I think I connected church meetings with wonderful food.
When the Universalist General Convention asked for contributions for the missions in Japan, it took several years to get the $100, which the North Carolina Convention had pledged for that cause. In the end, each member of the Executive Board contributed $5 and the remainder was paid out of the Convention Treasury. The same generosity of spirit was seen when the Inman Chapel Church pledged money for missions when they had almost no money to pay their minister.
When a new church was being built, the Convention would contribute anywhere from $10 to $50 to the new building and specify that this amount should pay for the roof on the building. It can be assumed that much of the material were donated by the members of the churches for the churches that I knew in my growing up years were constructed of hand hewn beams and rough lumber which probably was from trees donated by members.
Many of the church groups met in Community Meeting Houses, which were used by other church groups in the community. If an itinerant preacher were passing through the area, he might preach several nights in a row, not necessarily on the weekend. Many of these church groups were very loosely organized and revolved around one or two families for focus and when those people died, the church did too. This lack of organization was the largest fault of the early Universalist preachers in North Carolina. Some of the names of these men were spoken of in reverence as I first heard their names at Red Hill Church. In communities where the churches formed an organization with leadership, they were much more successful in surviving.
The delegates each year passed resolutions on social issues, often the same issues were voted on for a number of years in a row. Some of these were Capital Punishment, need for Juvenile prisons separate from the adult prisons, Temperance and treatment of the defective (mentally ill.) The hospital in North Carolina for the mentally ill is named Dix Hill. Dorothea Dix was a Universalist but not from North Carolina.
Each year there were recommendations that encouraged publicity to spread the "good word" of Universal Salvation and of the need to have Sunday Schools so that the children would learn of this beloved religion. The ministers encouraged each church to have an annual revival with a series of meetings for a week and they tried to exchange pulpits for this with ministers in the surrounding states. People of all persuasions in the community would come for a revival but most never came back again.
The problems that were discussed at every Convention Session could have been written in this day and time. They were desperate efforts to get the churches to do more advertising and public relations, begging the churches to increase their financial contributions, discussing ways to increase membership and pleas for disarmament and world peace. Each year the officers made a plea for the churches to get their annual reports in before the Convention and they often discussed trying to design forms for the churches and the ministers to use for making their annual reports so that they would include all the necessary elements. The passing of ninety or one hundred years has not change things much.
Peggy Ward Rawheiser is a 4th generation Universalist.