Lambert: Plainfield’s Universalist Society – Part Two

The history behind the former Baci building on Lockport Street.

The Inquiry

The former Baci Ristorante building, now owned by the Village of Plainfield, was once the local Universalist church building. A Plainfield Patch reader asked, “What was the Universalist Church? Why and when did it disappear?”

Read part one on Plainfield's Universalist Society here.

The Facts

A 1905 history noted that, in contrast to the established Protestant teaching throughout Illinois in the mid-1830s, “Roman Catholic priests, the Mormons, preachers of Univeralism, the Millerites, lecturers on Atheism, mesmerism and phrenology” were infiltrating the states and territories west of the Appalachian Mountains by 1835. 

In northern Illinois at that time, the Fox River region was identified as a “stronghold of Universalism.”  However, only a single Universalist Society was organized in the region before 1836.

Fox River Association

By 1840, at least seven Universalist societies had been gathered in Illinois.  The Fox River Association, consisting of Universalists in McHenry, Cook, Lake, DeKalb, Kane, Kendall, DuPage and Will counties, was established the following year to foster fellowship and mutual support of the congregations of the region.  Within five years, the number of Universalist societies in Illinois had grown to 32.  The Fox River region, alone, was home to 10 of those groups and three societies had erected meetinghouses.

Beginnings at Plainfield

Although it is unclear when the local Universalist Society was formed, a Universalist preacher named Rev. Hollis Sampson arrived at Plainfield around 1843.  Apparently, his efforts to establish a local congregation had not been realized when he died here in 1845.

However, the Universalist Society of Plainfield, consisting of 125 families, was established soon afterward.  One of the local congregation’s first pastors was Rev. C. Woodhouse who served until about 1860.

A Meetinghouse

 At a substantial cost of $6,000, the Universalist Society of Plainfield began the construction of their meetinghouse in 1867.  When the building was completed and dedicated the following year, a Sunday School was organized. 

Rev. W. S. Balch, a nationally-known author and orator, presided over the dedication of the Universalist church building at Plainfield.  One of the prominent Universalists of his day, Rev. Balch served a congregation in Galesburg, Illinois.  There, he also was associated with the Lombard College, a Universalist school. 

The Plainfield Universalist Society called Rev. C. G. Howland as their first pastor to preach in the new edifice.  Howland had served the St. John Universalist church at Joliet during the 1850s.  Rev. Tibbetts served Plainfield’s Universalist congregation from circa 1871-1873.   Rev. Jacob Merrifield then served the congregation until accepting a call to the Universalist church at Sheridan, Illinois about 1880.

Plainfield Universalists

Many familiar family names were associated with the Universalist Society of Plainfield.

William H. Flagg and his wife, Margaret Van Horn, followed in the footsteps of his parents, Rueben and Betsey Flagg when joining the Universalist church.  The Flagg family was among Plainfield’s first pioneer settlers, arriving in June 1830.  William Flagg was identified as having “advanced views in regard to religion and is a thorough advocate of the Universalist faith.” 

Other pioneer settlers of Plainfield included the John Bill family and the Philip Hoffer family as well as the Essington, Foss, and Brinkerhoff families.

Many area farmers were members of the local Universalist congregation.

Augustus R. Marten was a farmer who came to Plainfield from Maine in 1852, along with his family, which included his father, Jesse Martin.  Robert B. Graves and his wife, Marietta, along with her parents, Alvin and Susan King, were members as well.  George S. and Rosabelle (Clark) Bristol were members; Mr. Bristol also taught school during the winter term when he was not farming.  Jerome T. Smith, a farmer from Na Au Say Township in Kendall County, along with his parents, David and Sarah Smith, were active members. 

Jerome Smith married Elizabeth Bronk, whose parents, Ephraim and Charlotte Bronk, and brothers, Peter and John, all were early members of the Plainfield congregation. Although Peter Bronk’s wife remained a Spiritualist, John Bronk’s wife, Kate Van Dyke, joined the Universalist congregation.   

Capt. Edward McAllister, famed Civil War veteran, was described as “a man of clear and progressive views on all questions of general interest religiously” and was a longtime member of the local Universalist Society.

Other members were local residents of every calling.  Charles Bartholf was the first principal of the Plainfield School.  Local businessmen Erwin E. Wood along with harness makers John Sonntag and his brother, Albert, were included in the membership. 

Decline of the Universalists

During the 1880s, the Plainfield congregation membership—along with others across the country—began to decline.  The major reason for the loss of adherents was the fact that the mainline Protestants, by and large, abolished the stance of salvation for the elect, and embraced many of the positions first set forth by the Universalists. 

The lack of a sharply-defined doctrinal difference with the majority of Protestants fueled an identity crisis—locally and nationally—for Universalists. 

By the close of the 19th Century under the pastorate of Rev. Taylor, the Plainfield Society consisted of fewer than 40 families.  By 1906, the local Universalists no longer met on a regular basis.

The following year, Mrs. Fred Selfridge and Mrs. William Upton, both Plainfield residents sought to establish a Roman Catholic church at Plainfield.  The former Universalist church building was rented as a mission church until 1908, when St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception Catholic Church of Plainfield was organized.  The Catholic parish purchased the structure for $2,050 and remodeled the building to its present design in 1909.  

Next Column:  Plainfield Township Park District 

Have a question about Plainfield’s history?  Send your inquiries to Michael Lambert via Plainfield Patch.

© 2012 Michael A. Lambert.  All Rights Reserved


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