By the Rev. Sarah C. Stewart
Beginning in the 1850s, Weirs Beach became the most popular tourist destination spot in New England. Four express trains steamed in from Boston’s Union Station each day, discharging tourist families all summer long. They enjoyed the cool, country air; swims in the lakes; and they went to their churches on Sundays. By the turn of the twentieth century, Weirs Beach, long a sleepy agricultural town, had seen fifty years of summers bustling with tourists, railroads and resort living (Ames).
In the 1890s, these tourists had a new kind of religious experience at the Weirs. At first a few people gathered, and then more and more, to hear the legendary Universalist circuit preacher, Quillen Hamilton Shinn. For seven years, they gathered in the Weirs Universalist summer meeting to hear him preach. He spoke to them of a God who loved all human beings, even the sinful, even the proud. He recited the Bible from memory, telling the gathered people about the times and places when the Holy One had shown boundless love to human beings. As he did in Sebago Lake in New York; as he did in Saco, Maine; as he did in Ohio and Kentucky and throughout the South, Shinn planted the seed of Universalism in the American countryside (Miller).
Men and women who had no church home, or were Methodists or Congregationalists searching for something different in the Spirit, came to hear Shinn preach. They were drawn in by his reputation, and they stayed for the message they found there. They found a religion that believed in following a moral compass without the threat of eternal damnation. They found a religion set on temperance, on prison reform, on education, and on equal opportunities for all people. They found a religion that definitely preached God–it was not quite as theologically radical as the Unitarian church of the time–but preached a loving God, a parent to all.
Here in Plymouth, Universalism had made its debut in 1850, when the Rev. James Shephard opened a seminary in the Holmes Academy Building. In addition to running the seminary, and eventually buying Holmes Academy, Shephard preached Universalism to the townspeople of Plymouth. Although he was forced to close his school in 1853 and moved to Center Harbor in 1856, he had planted the seed of the church of an all-loving God in this area (Plymouth).
The Plymouth Universalists met in the old courthouse and were served by a number of preachers over the next twenty-five years. Some only preached in the summer months, when they were inclined to be in Plymouth on vacation anyway. The Plymouth Universalists got their next big injection of life when Quillen Shinn settled as the minister here in 1881 (Plymouth).
Shinn was more theologically conservative than the Universalist denomination as a whole. He believed in God and Jesus; he believed in the Bible; he believed we created our own suffering for our sins; and he believed in an all-loving God who would bring everyone into salvation. Socially, he was an enthusiastic supporter of temperance and prison reform, which were also goals of the national denomination. But he decried the Universalists’ move toward liberalism, thinking it took the church too close to the heathen Unitarians.
The Plymouth Universalists, to all appearances, welcomed Shinn and his theology–which just goes to show that some things have changed in Plymouth! Shinn stayed as minister for four years. Under his leadership, the Plymouth Universalists built their church home, the building that is now the sanctuary for the Church of the Holy Spirit on North Main Street. Shinn was an energetic and moving preacher, able to draw crowds wherever he went, but he was never one to be tied down to an institution. Once he had seen his congregation through the task of building a meetinghouse, he moved on to continue his missionary ministry. Over the next twenty or more years, the Universalists in Plymouth struggled to keep their doors open and retain a settled minister. Somewhere we have a postcard identifying the church building as the Universalist church in the 1930s.
Just a century before, when Universalism first emerged in America, it had been a radical religion. Even then, it had its roots in rural America. The first Universalist creed, the Winchester Profession of Faith, was adopted (as its name suggests) in Winchester, New Hampshire. At that time, in 1803, it was so scandalous to be a Universalist that women stayed away from local churches for fear of their reputations. Without the threat of hell, many conservative Christians believed, what would compel people to behave morally? They could see, as we still do today, that many sins and crimes go unpunished during a person’s lifetime. If there were no hell, the conservatives reasoned, then those wrong acts might go unpunished forever. It was not unlike being an atheist today. Universalists found themselves part of a tiny minority in the American religious landscape, trying to convince their neighbors that they were still good and upright people even though they didn’t believe in eternal damnation.
Over the years Universalism grew and changed. Its emphasis on the basic goodness of human beings and the loving nature of God brought them ever more into the realm of social justice and social change. It remained popular in rural areas and what was once the American frontier: Ohio and Kentucky, especially. The Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association tried many times over the years to merge. They recognized their mutual interest and shared values, even if their theologies were slightly different. Finally, in 1961, nearly fifty years ago, the two religious communities came together to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was a merger of necessity, for two of our country’s smaller religious associations to come together. But it was also a moment of faith in the future and hope for what could be accomplished together.
Universalism lasted in Plymouth until at least the 1930s, but by the modern era, the congregation had died. When religious liberals in 1980 decided they wanted a Unitarian Universalist home in the Plymouth area, there was no longer any remnant of that old Universalist church. Thirty years ago, a dozen or so people met in Ruth and Irv Macey’s living room to see about the possibility of starting a Unitarian Universalist gathering in the area. They might not have been meeting in a revival meeting in a wooded grove, and they might not have been waiting on the circuit riding preacher, but they were just as enthusiastic and committed to liberal religion in our area as their Universalist forebears had been. Eighteen people signed their names, in the membership book we still use, to found Starr King Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Eighteen people stepped into the unknown together, relying on their faith in the future: that they could continue the tradition of liberal religion, that they could create a place to rear their children according to their principles, which were the principles of reason, tolerance, justice and love.
In 1985, Arthur Vaeni came to serve Starr King Fellowship as its intern minister. Two years later, the congregation called him to be the permanent minister, first half-time and later full-time. Moving from internship to settled ministry was unorthodox then and now, but for this congregation, it worked. In the early 1990s, the congregation received a bequest of property. Starr King Fellowship, then meeting in rented spaces, sold that property and used the proceeds to buy the land we meet on today. Through a capital campaign, financing from the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the hard work of members and friends, the congregation built what is now the eastern part of this meetinghouse in 1994. This sanctuary was and remains the heart of the building. It opened into the foyer and a kitchenette through those doors. Downstairs, there was an office area, a large religious education area, and one classroom. An elevator had been planned but had to be put on hold because of cost concerns.
In 2006, our congregation began seriously planning for our expanded building. We drafted a strategic plan that focused especially on growth in membership and program strength, and prioritized what we needed in a new building. With a plan before us, we successfully raised more than $400,000 to pay off our old mortgage and build our addition. Then, just when energy was really high, we entered into a difficult period. The cost of our proposed addition turned out to be far out of our price range, in part because of the cost of steel, which was to be the framing material. We ended our church year in 2008 not knowing how we would move forward. The congregation seemed split evenly between going ahead with the larger addition, finishing what we could, or constructing a smaller addition which we could afford but which would not give us everything we needed.
Over the summer, the spirit worked in mysterious ways. The Governing Board planned a series of small group meetings to work through the impasse, and in the meantime, Stu White, our architect, reflected on the barrier of cost and especially on a letter from one longtime member and fellow architect. Stu offered us a revised plan. The new plan proposed wood construction instead of concrete and steel; a lower roof on the addition; and fewer changes to our original building. Excitement began to build again.
In the spring of 2009, we broke ground on this new addition we dedicate today. New donors and new creativity came into the community to continue to support the project, providing everything from paint to artistry, everything from a new sign to a new dishwasher for the new kitchen. I think now of how our children used to meet in an open area for Sunday school, squeezed in among daycare furniture; I think of how we used to gather for fellowship after the services–all of us–in the foyer, unable to move from one end of the room to the other; I think of how the Director of Religious Education’s workspace used to be a desk in a shared area that was also a sort of lost-and-found depository; I think of how wheelchair users used to be able to enter and use each floor of our building but not move between them without going outside and down the road; and I think: we did a good job building this new building, creating the space for ourselves and our children that we have needed for a long time.
This space is for us. But we also stand in the long tradition of liberal religion in central New Hampshire. We stand with Universalists in Weirs Beach, in West Rumney, and here in Plymouth. We stand hand in hand with those courageous Universalists who first gathered to hear the Rev. Shepherd preach in 1850. We stand with that congregation as it struggled to meet and hear the preaching of universal salvation through the 1860s and 70s. We stand with the congregation that, with Quillen Shinn’s leadership, built their first building only to part ways with their minister the following year. We stand with the eighteen men and women who gathered with their children to found a Unitarian Universalist congregation in 1980. We stand now with Unitarian Universalists all over the country who are celebrating almost fifty years of our association of congregations. And we stand with all those people who have yet to come through our doors, people hungry for liberal religion, people who now live far away or are not even yet born, who will come to know a religion of tolerance, love and respect because we are here.
Now that we have expanded our building, our next task is to fill it with our love, our energy, and our spiritual community. I wonder what awaits us, what new adventures we can begin now that we have a larger space. I invite you to dream big, and to let your dreams expand to fill this sacred space. Let us together continue to proclaim the good news of a universal love for all the people. Let us open our doors wide to welcome the world in.
Ames, Robert. “History.” Weirs Beach: Where Lake Winnepesauke Begins. Feb. 2008. Accessed 1 Oct. 2010. http://www.weirsbeach.com/topten/reason9.html.
Miller, Russell E. The Larger Hope: The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1870-1970. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1985.
Plymouth Historical Society. “The Universalist Church.” Accessed 1 Oct. 2010. http://www.plymouthnh-historicalsociety.org/MinistersandChurches/universalist_church.htm.