Notes on Two Hundred Years (and More)

by Douglas H. Parkhurst

Two hundred years is a substantial period of time in human terms. Two centuries. Six or seven generations. What was happening in 1822, two hundred years ago?

In the United States the times were known as the Era of Good Feeling(s). James Monroe was President. The Declaration of Independence had been signed forty-six years before, an event still in living memory, and the War of 1812 was over for eight. The U.S. territory of Florida was organized. In Connecticut the Congregational Church had been disestablished only four years earlier. Fire insurance, whaling, and the fabrication of brass were growing industries in the state. Carey and Lea’s 1822 Map of Connecticut was published. Danbury was largely an agricultural community with a growing commercial center. Hatting and comb-making were leading businesses. The population of Danbury was 3,900; a stagecoach ride to Norwalk took half-a-day and a rail connection was still thirty years in the future. The village area around what is now Main Street was incorporated as a borough in May of 1822. And later that year, on December 9th, a Universalist society was formed in Great Plain. This society is the present-day Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury (UUCD).

UUCD is primarily a Universalist-heritage congregation, though beginning in the 1960s Unitarians could claim a portion of the group’s history. Universalism as a philosophy and a theology, with differing definitions and evolving interpretations, dates to ancient times. Elements of universalistic thinking which later were adopted in western traditions can be found in the preaching of the Hebrew prophets, in the writings of Zoroaster, in the teachings of Christian church fathers Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa and in the universal person of Jesus of Nazareth. In the 400s and 500s of the Common Era universalism was condemned as heretical by Christian authorities and largely lost for the next thousand years.

During the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, with the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment, universalist thinking re-emerged in central and western Europe. It was found, with varying interpretations, among Anabaptists, Pietists, German mystics, Deists, and English Protestants. When Europeans began crossing the Atlantic and settling along the east coast of North America some brought their “heretical” ideas with them. Prominent among these settlers was George de Benneville who came in 1741. John Murray arrived in 1770. There were American-born universalists, too, including Caleb Rich, Charles Chauncy, and Elhanan Winchester. It was from such forebears and their spiritual confreres and descendants that denominational Universalism, one half of today’s Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, came to be.