200 years of the Universalist Society in Marietta

It was a dark and stormy day in early April, 1860, when mourners leaving Mound Cemetery after the burial services for Unitarian Church founder Nahum Ward were caught in a terrific downpour. The storm resulted in the great flood of 1860, which caused the loss of over 3,000 books from the Universalian Religious Library of Marietta that were housed in the old Universalist Church building on Second Street near Butler. This disaster ultimately prompted the May, 1869 merger between the Marietta Universalist Society and the Unitarian Church in May of 1869. This event preceded the 1960 national merger of these two denominations by nearly 100 years …

This weekend, Universalist Association members from all over the nation will be gathering at Marietta’s historic U.U. church to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Marietta Universalist Society in 1816.

Who were the Universalists?

While the majority of the original founders of this city were dedicated New England Congregationalists, some of them – notably Col. Joseph Barker, Maj. Winthrop Sargent, Judge James Mitchell Varnum, and Dr. Nathan McIntosh – had been close friends with John Murray (1741-1815), the British-born founder of the Universalist Church in America, and shared his then-unorthodox views on religion. Murray was a Boston clergyman who presided at the first September, 1785 Universalist Convention at Oxford, Massachusetts that established the denomination’s main tenets. While the Congregationalists subscribed to Calvinist beliefs like “predestination”, “original sin”, and “divine retribution”, the Universalists believed in having a religion whereby any good human being might receive divine grace through good living and by doing good works. They also believed in freedom of thought, the value of “universal love”, and the “worth and dignity of all people”. Like the Unitarians, they considered the concepts of “hell” and the Holy Trinity as outmoded or irrelevant. Needless to say, these allegedly “heretical” views put them in disfavor with more orthodox believers. This resulted in the fact that many of their accomplishments in the Marietta area have been dismissed, forgotten, or left on the cutting room floor by local historians …

Records state that the first Universalist Society of Marietta was established on December 24, 1816 by “R.N. Williamson and others”. In 1824, the Belpre Universalist Society was founded by William Pitt Putnam, a grandson of General Israel Putnam of Revolutionary War fame, W.P. Putnam and his wife Rowena Nye Putnam had earlier been “excommunicated” by the Belpre Congregationalists for espousing so-called “heretical” beliefs. From the Belpre church (called “the old hive”) Universalism extended its influence to other communities in southeastern Ohio, including Athens (1836), McConnelsville (1837), Watertown (1838) Little Hocking (1852), and Lower Salem (1859).

The Marietta Universalist Church on Second Street was built in 1843. It’s first minister was the Rev. George Truesdale Flanders. Many of the early Universalist ministers such as James W. McMaster, Alpheus Sweet, Theophilus Cotton, George S. Weaver, and James Riley Johnson spent a lot of time in the saddle serving as “supply pastors” to multiple congregations in the area. Some prominent members of the Marietta Universalist Church were Griffin Greene Jr., Dr. Felix Regnier, Stephen Hildreth, C.D. Bonney (originally the “Count de Bonet”, an exiled French nobleman), A.M. Crieghbaum, Argalus Pixley, and C.W. Clogston.

On February 2, 1832, the Ohio Legislature granted a charter to the First Universalian Library Association of Marietta. This group was responsible for creating a vast collection of tracts and books on religion and philosophy. These were unfortunately destroyed in the 1860 flood.

In March, 1850, the Universalists founded a “school of the higher quality” called “The Western Liberal Institute”, a co-educational institution designed to promote liberal thinking and to counter the then-socially restrictive policies of the Congregationalist Church-supported institution at Marietta College. It existed for about ten years before a shortage of funds prompted its demise. Some local mothers refused to let their daughters associate with WLI male students whom they regarded as “libertines”. The head-master was the Rev. Paul R. Kendall. The founders were William Pitt Putnam of Belpre, Felix Regnier, Joseph Holden, and George W. Barker. One of the trustees was Owen Franks, the proprietor of a local ironworks firm (it manufactured many of the iron fences still surrounding buildings like the Unitarian Church), owner of the river steamers “Red River” and “Joe Holden”, and the purchaser of the “Larchmont” mansion on Second Street. Like more than a few other Universalists, Franks was an ardent abolitionist. Another anti-slavery advocate was Jewett Palmer Sr. who organized a Universalist Society in Lower Salem. His son, Jewett Palmer Jr., was a Civil War hero who later served as Mayor of Marietta and trustee of both the Universalist and Unitarian Societies in Marietta at the time of the merger. My own interest in the Universalist heritage stems from the fact that my great, great, great grandparents, John and Ann Horton O’Neill converted from Methodism and joined a Universalist Society in the vicinity of Summerfield, Ohio sometime in the 1840s. Their son, Moses O’Neill (my great-great grandpa’s brother) graduated with the Western Liberal Institute’s Class of 1850 before leaving the area for the gold fields of California. He later became a prominent doctor in Blackjack, Kansas …

A happy anniversary to Marietta’s Universalists and best wishes to all free thinkers everywhere!

Fred O’Neill lives in Marietta.