Welcome to the Universalist Heritage Center at Winchester Memorial Church
This is the heart of one of the principal birthplaces of liberal religion in America—the Universalist Heritage Center in Winchester, NH. Universalist congregations began forming in New England in the late 1770s. By 1794 they extended from Long Island Sound to central Vermont and New Hampshire, and from the Atlantic to Lake Champlain. The majority were in the hill country of central Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, and southern Vermont. Winchester, NH is at the center of this region.
It was in the meetinghouse here that Universalists gathered, in 1803, to draft the declaration of faith that came to be known as The Winchester Profession. The Winchester Profession served Universalists for almost a century. It was understood to be included in later declarations of faith, and was never repealed. It is the great-great-grandparent of the Seven Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Winchester Memorial Church, the building that today houses the Universalist Heritage Center, was built with donations from Universalists across the country to commemorate the Winchester Profession, after the original meetinghouse was lost to fire.
Though Universalists would adopt other, more modern-sounding declarations of faith in later years, the Winchester Profession remains a good introduction to their unique point of view. It begins, "We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain a revelation of the character of God and of the duty, interest, and final destination of mankind." Within this endorsement of the Bible--typical of the time--we find two crucial words signaling that Universalism was something new.
One of these words is the smallest one: "a." We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain a revelation…. Not the--unique--revelation, but a revelation. One revelation among many. The Judeo-Christian religious tradition isn't the only religious tradition. There are others, and they may be of value, too. This openness to insights from other religions led Universalists in the 20th century to symbolize their religion by an "off-center cross" in which a cross representing Universalism's Christian roots is placed off-center to leave room for other points of view and to acknowledge the validity of other religious paths.
The other crucial word is inconspicuous, too: "contain." [T]he Holy Scriptures … contain a revelation…. The Bible itself is not a revelation, it contains a revelation. Some parts of the Bible are religiously important, but other parts are not. How can these parts be distinguished? By people, using their hearts and minds. In the final analysis each person is his or her own religious authority.
The Winchester Profession continues, "We believe that there is one God, whose nature is love…." Universalists adopted the Biblical motto "God is love" as their very own. In their homes, they sewed it into samplers that were hung in the parlor. In their churches, they painted it on pulpits and carved it into chancel tables. This loving God, Universalists believed, would somehow find a way to save all people--"the whole family of [hu]mankind." Universalists believed that everyone winds up in heaven. This belief, which theologians call "universal salvation," is what gave Universalists their name. God's love is universal, they said. God loves everybody.
Many were scandalized by this. They asked, without the threat of eternal hellfire, why should people be good? In several states Universalists were barred from serving on juries or testifying as witnesses—it was presumed that a Universalist would have no motive to be honest. Universalists replied with characteristic originality. People should be good and do good, they said, because God has given us such a nature that we find it tremendously fulfilling to so conduct ourselves. Doing good is how to be happy in this life.
Appended to the Winchester Profession was a so-called "liberty clause," affirming the freedom of Universalist churches to add their own particular beliefs to the denominational profession. In later declarations of faith Universalists enlarged this liberty clause until it eventually affirmed complete freedom of belief for every individual.