A History of the Liberal Religious Youth Movements

By Wayne B. Arnason

Skinner House, 1980



A perennial problem within churches of all denominations is programming for young people.  Secular educators have a relatively easy task compared to religious educators when they approach people in this awkward space between childhood and adulthood.  Secular educators move into more specialized, complex, and advanced fields of study, giving greater responsibility and freedom of choice to the students in determining the direction of their own education.  Religious educators must ask themselves a far more difficult question: what are the religious needs and questions of people at this stage of life, and how are they best met?

Since the turn of the century, the liberal religious churches of North America have answered these questions in many different ways, befitting the congregational system of polity under which we operate.  However a dominant model for the religious education of young adults over this century has been that of the institutional youth group.  Youth groups are not considered as religious education classes per se.  The adults who work with them do not consider themselves teachers, but advisors.  There is usually no predetermined curriculum.  The young people themselves participate directly in determining a program for the group that will meet the needs and questions that are apparent.

In addition, most youth groups organize themselves constitutionally in one form or another.  They seek to institutionalize the fact that they are not a church school class any longer in the way that they have been before.  Their religious education has moved into a different phase, modeled on the educational groups and institutions through which adult people seek to continue their education and growth.  In secular public education, the only opportunity students have for a similar learning experience is in the extra-curricular interest groups, such as the drama club or the student government.  Even then, this depends on the attitude taken by the teacher-advisor or the school administration.

Since the late nineteenth century when this model of religious education for youth became widespread, the youth groups of the Unitarian and Universalist churches in North America have maintained national and continental unions to serve their needs and represent their interests within the denominational structure.  At first, these groups supported a continental structure on their own.  Later, with the advent of the "United Appeal" style of fund-raising, the churches included them under their funding umbrella.

The young people of the Universalist Church banded together into The Young People's Christian Union (Y.P.C.U.) in 1889.  The Unitarian young people created The Young People's Religious Union (Y.P.R.U.) in 1896.  Both groups reorganized themselves in 1941, becoming respectively The Universalist Youth Fellowship (U.Y.F.) and American Unitarian Youth (A.U.Y.).  In the year 1953 they voted to merge into one united youth organization, Liberal Religious Youth (L.R.Y.), anticipating the move towards federal union of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations . . .




The youth movements of the Universalist and Unitarian churches had their beginnings in a larger groundswell of "youth" activity across the denominational spectrum in the late nineteenth century.  This was in turn one aspect of a more general movement of voluntary organizations within churches that produced women's groups, alter guilds, men's clubs, etc.  Of course, both the Universalist and the Unitarian churches has long-standing Sunday School societies, and Sunday School programs devised by denominational committees or local churches included material for those in "senior" grades (today's high school age).

However, there was no specific young people's organization on any national or continental level.  It appears that already in American institutional religion the period between fourteen and thirty was distinguished as a "problem" time, an explosive time loaded with energy that needed to be channeled.  Dwight L. Moody, the famous evangelist, perceived the potential of a student religious movement as early as 1866 when he organized the Student Volunteer Movement for Christian Missions.

The Unitarians and the Universalists made no such specific efforts.  Jenkin Lloyd Jones, the renowned Missionary Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference, began what he called a Mutual Improvement Club in 1874 in his church in Janesville, Wisconsin.  It was to be "a combination of post-graduate Sunday School study, adult education, and social service and reform work."

The idea caught on in the Western Unitarian Conference.  These groups began to be known as Unity Clubs.  Their largely literary and philosophical programs were well attended by people under the age of thirty-five.  By 1882 there were thirty such Unity Clubs.  However, these were not "young people's groups" in the sense that we would use that term today.  High School age people were not involved in them.

The event which initiated the proliferation of church groups specifically intended for young people occurred in 1881 in the Williston Congregational Church in Portland, Maine.  There the Reverend F.E. Clark founded a Young People 's Society for Christian Endeavor (Y.P.S.C.E.).  Clark's idea spread throughout Congregational churches and into other denominations as well.  Between 1881 and 1889 some thirty-eight Christian Endeavor Societies were founded in Universalist Churches. 


The Lynn Convention


            The Universalist General Convention (U.G.C.) attempted as early as 1884 to organize these groups into a single Universalist youth organization.  In 1886 the U.G.C. Committee on Mission Boxes proposed a plan to create a unified Young People's Missionary Society with branches in every church.  The response to the idea was not overwhelming.  By 1889 fifty-five of these Missionary Society groups had been brought into the fold or created, but there were numerous Universalist young people's groups that remained unaffiliated with any larger body.

            The potential for a single youth movement was there however.  Some young ministers in western New York began in 1883 to publish a newspaper for Universalist young people entitled The Universalist Union.  Among the publishers was the Reverend Stephen Herbert Roblin.  Shortly afterwards he took a church in Bay City, Michigan, and there organized a highly successful Y.P.S.C.E. group.  He and two other members of the group, Albert C. Grier and Alfred J. Cardell, were particularly interested in propagating the idea of a national union.  Together they initiated a letter to all Universalist young people's societies calling for a national organization of Universalist young people.

            The response was mixed.  Mr. Grier wrote in 1889:


There followed dark days.  Replies poured in and at times I dreaded to open my mail.  Discouragements of all sorts came upon us.  But few had any such society.  Some have Y.P.M.A.'s and were extremely jealous of anything that was to discipline them; others had literary societies and wanted nothing more; others yet thought that such a society had no business in our church; it was bringing in unorthodox methods and would teach young people cant and hypocrisy.

            There was concern within the Universalist General Convention at this suggestion as well.  U.C.G. elders worried about a competitor of the General Convention for the loyalty of their young people.  One of the U.G.C. executives was delegated to sit in on the first conference of the organizing committee to see that nothing dangerous was done.

            In 1889 the Universalist General Convention held its General Assembly in Lynn, Massachusetts.  The Lynn church had a strong young people's group which supported the idea of a Union.  In conjunction with the young people from Michigan, this group organized a convention of young people on the day preceding the meeting of the U.G.C.

            One hundred thirty-one delegates representing fifty-six societies from thirteen states were in attendance.  On October 22. 1998, they hammered out a constitution and, after some controversy, chose to call themselves "The Young People's Christian Union of the Universalist Church."  Walter Stuart Kelley, a delegate at the convention later recalled the debate over the name:


The most discussion developed over the name, with the contention that the word "Universalist" should be used:  either Young People's Universalist Union (or Society) or Universalist Young People's Union.  My argument for the name on the constitution as drafted was based upon two points:  first, there was a good deal of misconception among orthodox people as to the religious state of the Universalist, and for that reason we should declare ourselves Christian; and second, the young people of the Congregational Church, in organizing the Christian Endeavor Society, had not seen fit to give it a denominational limitation, and I considered it a good precedent  to follow.  I made the concession of adding for ourselves - "of the Universalist Church" and with this the name was adopted by the Committee and by the convention."

            A Bay City man, Lee E. Joslyn, was elected first president of the Union, with James O. Tillinghast of Buffalo, NY becoming secretary and Nannie Jemison of Lynn, MA, treasurer.  The Universalist Union became the official publication.

            So the Young People's Christian Union (Y.P.C.U.) of the Universalist Church became the first self-initiated specifically denominational youth organization (in spite of Kelley's attraction to the Congregational example).  It preceded and set an example for  the Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, and the Unitarians, who all followed suit within the next decade. . .


            The story of the Y.P.C.U.'s early missionary thrust is one of the more fascinating in the history of our youth movements.  It does not seem to have been initiated by the Y.P.C.U. members themselves, although they quickly took it to their hearts.  Initiatives and proddings from ministers in attendance at the convention representing the Universalist church seems to have started the ball rolling.  The Reverend Charles Ellwood Nash and Dr. Quillen Shinn were the sparkplugs behind the decision to enter the missionary field. . .

            In the year 1893 Dr. Shinn was hired by  the Y.P.C.U. as a national organizer.  He devoted his time over the next few years to scouting out some likely places for missionary activity, and receiving and evaluating offers and requests for missionary work.  Atlanta, Georgia became the next site to benefit from a Universalist church built by the Y.P.C.U.  The union raised and contributed $16,000 to it, which was no mean sum at the turn of the century.  Then Little Rock, Arkansas, was given $6,000 for a new chapel, and St. Paul, Minnesota had a new church constructed, (at a cost of $16,230) and called a new minister.

            The peak of all this home mission activity was the construction of the Shinn Memorial Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  The first minister to serve the church, Luther Robinson, had been converted to Universalism by Y.P.C.U. literature.  The 1916 National Convention was held at Chattanooga, and it was then that the church was dedicated.

            The Y.P.C.U. also put $13,000 into the sponsorship of an itinerant Universalist preacher in Texas, "to send him abroad with a  tent for his meetings," and to engage in "scripture proof-text" debates.  The "fires of hell were literal and lurid in Texas theology."  Shinn also founded and the Y.P.C.U. supported a black Universalist church in Barton, Georgia.  A black pastor, the Reverend John W. Murphy of Barton, had been converted to Universalism by the missionary literature.

            There was a great deal of interest in Japan at that time, so Japan became the Y.P.C.U.'s focus for foreign missions.  In 1904 the organization began contributing to the salary of a Japanese Universalist minister.

            These programs of building and ministerial support were also accompanied by a Mission Study Program, which distributed books on mission work and carried on general evangelizing on that subject through mails.  A large Post Office Mission was also a part of the Y.P.C.U. program.  For twenty-five years the union mailed out some twenty-five thousand tracts on Universalism each year to a mailing list of fifteen hundred. . .

            The members' interest in the missions began to wane after the First World War.  Attempts to revive the sagging fund were made over the next thirty years under various names (Home Mission, the Legion of the Cross, and finally Church Extension), but the enthusiasm of the early part of the century was never regained.  However, the historical sketch published by the Union in 1939 showed that the Y.P.C.U. raised an average of $2000 a year for missions during its fifty-year history. 


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