After the Village of Plainfield purchased the former Baci Ristorante building, some identified the structure as the Universalist Church. A Plainfield Patch reader asked, “What was the Universalist Church? Why and when did it disappear?”
Universalism took its name from its distinguishing doctrine of universal salvation. Universalists believed that the God of love would not create a human being if that person would be destined for eternal damnation. As a form of religious liberalism, Universalists embraced the theological doctrine that all souls ultimately will be saved and that there are no torments of Hell.
During the late 18th Century, Universalism developed in three distinct areas of the eastern United States. The first adherents of universal salvation appeared in the middle Atlantic and Southern states. Simultaneously, several preachers throughout rural New England began to disbelieve the strict Calvinist doctrines of eternal punishment for sins committed throughout a person’s lifetime.
By 1781, a Universal Baptist congregation had been organized at Philadelphia. Among those associated with that congregation was Benjamin Rush, the famous physician and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
After officially organizing in 1793, the Universalists spread their doctrinal beliefs across the eastern United States and Canada. American Universalists in the East adopted a common profession of faith in September 1803.
Universalism Introduced to Northeastern Illinois
As settlers from the East flooded into northeastern Illinois after 1832, they brought their religious beliefs along with them.
Pioneer Universalists embraced various social and political movements, including those for peace, temperance, abolition, prison reform, and increased opportunities for women. From its beginnings, Universalism challenged its members to reach out and embrace those individuals whom society often marginalized. Universalist congregations were among the first Protestant churches to welcome freed slaves as members.
In 1836, local Universalists began meeting at Juliet (present-day Joliet) and established their congregation in 1844. Known first as the First Universalist Society of Juliet, it became St. John’s Universalist Church around 1855. The First Christian Congregation of Geneva was gathered in 1842 and erected a house of worship the following year. In 1846, the First Free Christian Congregation of Elgin was established, but reorganized as the First Universalist Society of Elgin in 1857.
During this time, the Universalist Society of Plainfield was established. However, their exact founding date as well as the location of their original meeting space has been lost to time.
The Impact of Universalism in the Nineteenth Century
At the middle of the nineteenth century, the Universalist movement was the sixth largest denomination in the United States.
During the 1850s when the Fugitive Slave Act and other compromises were enacted; the Universalists, along with various other denominations, vigorously opposed slavery as immoral.
Universalists also opposed capital punishment. American social reformers of the 19th Century included Charles Spear, a Universalist, who called for prison reform.
Many of the socially-progressive pioneers who had settled throughout northeastern Illinois joined the newly-founded Republican political party in 1854, when its platform was decidedly liberal. Among those early Republicans were countless Universalists.
On June 25, 1863, Olympia Brown became one of the first women in the United States to receive ordination within a national denomination. Olympia Brown followed Antoinette Brown (no relation) who is recognized as the first female minister, ordained by the Congregational Churches in 1853.
Universalist Clara Barton, known as the “angel of the battlefield” during the American Civil War, founded the American Red Cross.
By 1874, more than 760 Universalist congregations existed throughout the United States. Universalists sustained 11 colleges and 3 theological schools.
The Universalist Society of Plainfield
Plainfield Universalists erected their plain church building along the north side of Lockport Street in 1868. Erected at a cost of $6,000, their simple building consisted of a towered entry which opened into a large, austere hall. Rounded arch windows of clear glass pierced the sidewalls of the unadorned meeting room.
Sitting next to the Congregational church, the Universalists’ impressive steeple soared heavenward and, for many years, was the second-most prominent spire on the Plainfield skyline. Only the highly decorative spire of the Plainfield Methodist Episcopal Church, erected two years earlier, was taller.
Around 1900, a terrible storm swept through the village and damaged the majestic spires of the Universalist church and the neighboring Congregational church. Subsequently, the Universalist spire and belfry were modified.
Next Column: Plainfield’s Universalist Society – Part Two
Have a question about Plainfield’s history? Send your inquiries to Michael Lambert via Plainfield Patch.
© 2012 Michael A. Lambert. All Rights Reserved