Universalism: A Kind and Gentle Religious Tradition was Once Dynamic in Galesburg

by Rex Cherrington

A social-religious-educational phenomena of considerable magnitude has gone the complete cycle from germination to extinction in Knox County. Most people in our area know there was a Lombard College, which was actually chartered as a university. It was the college where Carl Sandburg studied for a few years and left without completing his degree requirements. Fewer know about the Universalist Church which was the founding and sponsoring organization of this educational institution.

The college left us in the early 1930s to be merged with Knox College and the campus to become a public school. Galesburg's First Universalist Church left us in the early 1960s to have its building torn down and its legacy largely forgotten.

The First Universalist Church in Galesburg was located at the corner of S. Prairie and Tompkins St. from 1895 to 1963. In a pamphlet issued by that church in the 1950s, questions were answered about the religion: "What is a Universalist? A Universalist is one who believes that in religion, as in everything, each individual should be free to seek the truth for himself, unhampered by official creeds. He regards creeds as negative: they say `No' to new truth. The mind can only honestly affirm what actually persuades it and this often can be in conflict with the creeds. To a Universalist, it is therefore a sacred obligation to accept whatever he finds to be the truth, and to follow it wherever it leads him." God is viewed as a Love which permeates all things.

Throughout the pamphlet it is stressed that all are free to believe what persuades them. The little pamphlet gives a bit of history and traces the origins of Universalism back to Rev. John Murray who organized its first society in Gloucester, Mass. in 1770. It is mentioned that the Universalist Benjamin Rush and the Unitarian Thomas Jefferson collaborated to produce the Declaration of Independence which proclaimed the freedom of man as well as his equality in the sight of God. Mention is made that Universalism is distinctly Protestant and tried to carry the Reformation much further than it went.

In contrast to this pamphlet from the 1950s a Universalist Church Membership Certificate from the 1930s contains the text of a "Profession of Belief," "Declaration of Principles" and a "Bond of Fellowship and Statement of Faith." While the membership certificate stresses the importance of the individual liberty of interpretation, still it gives a picture of a more structured religion than does the pamphlet of the later period.

Before thinking this is just another religious article, let's get back to history. The origins of Universalism in Knox County are obscure. In a letter from J. M. Holyoke which appeared in a book prepared for the Semi-Centennial Celebration of the First Church of Christ, mention is made of Universalism in connection with the erecting of that church's first building in the early 1840s. "Many persons not members of the Church seemed anxious to have the work go on, and gave their good will, and some money and muscle also. Perhaps it is not worth while to mention names, but will say that the doughnuts and cheese handed around by Laura Clark, at the raising, were thoroughly orthodox, though she herself was a Universalist; and the timber furnished by Olmstead Ferris answered the purpose just as well as if it had been got of William or Henry."

We can only wish Holyoke would have thought it worthwhile to mention more names! Holyoke's letter makes clear that Universalism was present from the earliest times in Galesburg. Even though staunch Presbyterians and Congregationalists of our old First Church of Christ would have viewed poor Laura's religious persuasion as nonsense at best and more likely as heresy, their practical Yankee side allowed them to enjoy her doughnuts and cheese. While Holyoke was devoted to acting on his religious beliefs there is a humorous tone in his letter which indicates that at least not all of Galesburg's pioneers were so severe as we generally imagine them. The fact that Universalists settled in Galesburg during the early years causes us to consider that perhaps the populace had a degree of religious toleration which was absent in the leadership.

Universalists met at Greenbush in Warren County to plan the founding of Galesburg's Lombard University, first founded as Illinois Liberal Institute in 1851. This actually predates the forming of a Universalist Church Society in Knox County. In 1852 P. Raymond Kendall was appointed principal and, in time, nominal president. He and his female teaching assistant, who soon became Mrs. Kendall, taught the courses offered in the first years. In 1854, John Van Ness Standish, whose name is still kept before us through Standish Park, became acting president and in that same year a cousin of Professor Kendall's, Harriet August Kendall, was added to the faculty. Miss Kendall soon became Mrs. Standish.

In 1855 the Institute's building burned. Benjamin Lombard, a Universalist of considerable means offered to give $20,000 if others would raise $15,000 and the school be renamed after him‹ which was done.

The location of the old building on the northwest corner of Tompkins and Seminary Streets was abandoned in favor of an 80-acre tract, a portion of which is the present site of Lombard Junior High. Commencement exercises in 1857 were held in the new building. A complete history of this institution is beyond the scope of this article but for a span of about 80 years it provided quality education to many.

The development of the Universalist Churches in Knox County is more difficult to chronicle than their college. Galesburg's First Universalist Church published a booklet for its 100th anniversary in 1956 which informs us that William Starr Ballou was the first minister of the church. We also learn that a committee consisting of brothers Ballou, Fuller and Livingstone in January 1855 explored the possibilities of forming the church and apparently their findings were favorable. Among the original members of the church were Samuel Dow, Rev. J. F. Fuller, A.S. Devendorf, W.H. Pette, Prof. J.V.N. Standish, Rev. T.J. Carney, Lorenzo Chapin, Wm. Livingstone, Mr. and Mrs. Jesse Beals, Mr. and Mrs. L.E. Conger, Mrs. Fielding Miles, Joseph Williams, Mrs. Seba Williams, Mr. W.D. Lock, Uriah Conger and wife, and J.J. Clay.

This is not half the original 42 members and apparently the author of the centennial booklet chose names thought to be most readily recognized by persons living in 1956. Noticeable is the absence of Mrs. Standish, and Mr. and Mrs. P. Raymond Kendall and, unless complete records are found, we will most likely never know if this is an oversight or the choice of these people to keep their connection in a Universalist society at another location.

The booklet claims over 500 persons held membership during the church's first 100 years.

Rev. T. J. Carney joined‹ but not a mention of his wife, Julia Fletcher Carney who, in 1845, while she lived in Boston, authored the famous poem "Little Things." It is known that Mrs. Carney was a Universalist and authored contributions to church publications on a regular basis. Rev. Carney was never minister of the Galesburg church, though a member. County history books document him as minister of the Universalist churches at Maquon and Yates City‹ though according to Galesburg City Directories he apparently maintained his residence in Galesburg the whole time. Maquon and Yates City are both on the railroad to Peoria and by 1857 passenger service existed which would have aided him greatly in his ability to accomplish this. Rev. Carney's son, Fletcher Carney was Mayor of Galesburg at the time of President McKinley's visit in 1899.

The Universalists had met for worship at the "Institute" but when it burned in 1855 the Methodists offered the use of their church building. The Universalists occasionally had Sabbath Day observances larger than the Methodist church could handle and on those occasions the Swedish Lutherans offered the use of their edifice. Apparently this arrangement went on for about three months until other quarters could be secured. It is interesting to consider the cooperation between the Methodists, Lutherans and Universalists. All three religions would have been viewed dimly by Galesburg's Presbyterian founder, Rev. George Washington Gale, but by this time his ecclesiastical and secular authority were both negligible.

In addition to Galesburg, Maquon and Yates City, Universalists organized at Oneida, Abingdon and Henderson Grove.

County histories mention this but names and dates are lacking. If anyone has photographs, records which contain names, correspondences or anything else which would help document the history of Universalism in Knox County, I would appreciate being contacted. Even a lead to the possible location of information would be a big help. I am currently researching and writing a pictorial history for Knox county and would like to include photos of church buildings or groups of people associated with this movement in addition to a brief and accurate account of its history.

Julia Fletcher CarneyThis picture of Julia Fletcher Carney was produced by photographer-author Allen Ayrault Green and used with the text of her poem "Little Things" as a frontis for a book dedicated to her entitled Rhymes of the Woods.

The following text of "Little Things" is presented by Green as the correct copy of the poem he personally received from the hand of Mrs. Carney. This poem appeared in many school readers and some textbook editors made unauthorized changes‹ hence Green's making particular note of the authenticity of this text. Many school teachers required their students to memorize this poem so that it could be recited aloud.


Little drops of water,

Little grains of sand,

Make the mighty ocean

And the pleasant land.

So the little moments,

Humble though they be,

Make the Mighty ages

Of Eternity.

So the little errors

Lead the soul away

From the paths of virtue,

Far in sin to stray.

Little deeds of kindness,

Little words of love,

Help to make earth happy,

Like the Heaven above.

Back to the Zephyr home page.