Nathaniel Stacy’s recollection of the 1803 Winchester Convention
From Memoirs of the life of Nathaniel Stacy, preacher of the gospel of universal grace. Comprising a brief circumstantial history of the rise and progress of Universalism in the state of New York, pp. 87-90, 92-96
Having finished my school, early in September, and settled with the trustees of the district, I crossed the Green Mountains, on my way to the Association, or Convention, as it was called, (now changed to the General Convention of the United States,) which met that year in Winchester, N. H. On my way, I delivered discourses in Rochester and Bridgewater; and in Barnard, joined company with Mr. Ballou, and delegates from the societies to which he ministered. Mr. Ballou and lady, with several others, rode together in a carriage; Mr. Dean, a young man then preparing for the ministry, and a delegate from the society in Barnard, and myself, were on horseback. Mr. Ballou had previously sent an appointment for an evening lecture, at the house of a Mr. Burroughs in the town of Surrey; and when we arrived at Bellows’ Falls, in Walpole, the company with whom Mr. B. traveled were unwilling to take the road by Burroughs’ on account of its roughness; he, therefore, requested me to go that way and supply his place. I told him I would willingly go that way, and inform the people that he would not be there, and excuse him as well as I could; but I could not supply his place, nor would I promise to try to preach. The people would be sadly disappointed; and no one living could fill his place, in their estimation, and it would be but mockery for me to try. However, go the other way they would; and Mr. Dean and myself went to Burroughs’, where we found a numerous congregation awaiting. When we informed them that Mr. Ballou would not be there, they manifested so much disappointment, and even dissatisfaction, (as I expected they would,) that I could not have preached, had no other preacher been present. But as good Providence would have it, Mr. Farwell, one of the oldest preachers in our connection, and Mr. Kneeland, were already on the ground; and Mr. Kneeland consented to deliver a discourse — and he did deliver one, the least interesting and instructive that I ever heard from a Universalist minister. He repeated a text, but could not tell the people where to find it, not having furnished himself with a Bible; but his discourse and his text were utter strangers to each other, and never were so happy as to have an introduction. The reader may be curious to know, whether this was the celebrated Abner Kneeland, author of the Greek and English testament, and who afterwards figured so conspicuously as an Atheistical lecturer, and editor of an Infidel periodical? Yes, the identical personage. But Mr. Kneeland was then young in the ministry, having attempted to preach the doctrine of Universal Salvation but very few times. He had belonged to the Baptist connection, and had publicly improved in that church for a season; but, I think, had never been regularly initiated into the ministry, according to the rules of their discipline. He then barely possessed a respectable English education, and had very limited understanding of the doctrine he wished to inculcate. Mr. Kneeland was a very singular man, for a great man. He was naturally a scholar, and made rapid advance in every science he attempted to study. After he became regularly established in the faith and ministry of our order, he entered upon the study of the languages, and obtained, very soon, a good knowledge of the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, without any assistance, I believe, except what he obtained solely from his authors; and I have been informed, no doubt correctly, that he obtained a knowledge of several other languages. But he never possessed the faculty of original thought — he never originated a single idea; it was all borrowed; and he was generally the echo of the last author he read. In this respect he was exactly the reverse of Mr. Ballou. Mr. Ballou was perfectly an original genius — he never borrowed anything, not a single idea, from any man, or any author, save, the inspired word. His theory was his own; such as he had formed, independently of any man, or any church, by a careful and faithful study of the Sacred Scriptures.
At the time I have been speaking of; Mr. Kneeland had formed no acquaintance with Universalist preachers; he had probably never heard three discourses on the doctrine; and it appears to me, that he said he had never heard a preacher of our order. But he had read Mr. Winchester’s writings, and became a convert to his theory of Universalism. He was a perfect Winchesterian. Whatever Mr. Winchester had published, that Mr. K. believed in, that he preached; and he could illustrate and defend that, and nothing else. He had a great itching for authorship too. He had previously published a definition spelling-book; though I believe it never got into very extensive use; and he was even now collecting scattered fragments of Mr. Winchester’s writings, most of which had been published in a periodical in Philadelphia, many years before, and compiling them into a book which he afterwards published, under the title of the Columbian Miscellany.
Mr. Kneeland was now on his way to the General Convention of Universalists, with a design to unite with them; and he did so. Here he became acquainted with Mr. Ballou, heard him preach, and had conversation with him; and it was not six months from this time before he renounced Winchesterianism and became a complete Ballouite; and preached Mr. Ballou’s theory with as much zeal as he ever did Mr. Winchester’s, with vastly more eloquence and soundness of argument. He continued in this faith until he left the ministry, went into the mercantile business, broke down, resumed his sacerdotal functions, and settled as pastor of the society in New Hartford, Oneida county, N. Y. There he was so unfortunate as to fall in with Dr. Joseph Priestly’s [sic] writings on Materialism. This was something new to Mr. K., and he devoured it at once, and became a most zealous Materialist. He preached it with all his eloquence; and defended it by all the arguments he was master of, both in private and in public; and he continued to do so, to the great disadvantage of the cause of divine truth, in that region until he removed
At the convention of 1803, a great majority of the preachers in the United States were present; and they made not a very formidable procession, even then. If my memory is not treacherous in this particular, and I think it is not, there were but twenty-one preachers in the whole connection previous to that meeting; and there were four who received letters of fellowship at that time. It can not, I apprehend, be uninteresting to the reader to see the names of those veterans in the Christian warfare, who enlisted at this early period, and dared to raise the standard of Universal Grace in the face of well disciplined and countless hosts, who, in mighty phalanx, were resolved, by all the means within their power, (for their maxim was, the end justifies the means) to crush every innovation upon their theological establishments; — the names of those men who fearlessly risked their reputation, their interest, their earthly all, (for several of them certainly expended a handsome property in their devotion to the cause,) without the least prospect of temporal fee or reward — who suffered every hardship and privation, that human nature could endure and survive, solely for the love they bore to the cause of Christ, the cause of Universal reconciliation to God, and the final beatitude of our whole race. Such names should ever stand in bold relief, upon the faithful page of history; that unborn ages, as they rise in the enjoyment of spiritual freedom, may be taught to cherish, in grateful remembrance, the instruments that laid the foundation of the inestimable privileges, they are born heirs to. Here they come — besure, they were not all equally influential, nor equally worthy; but, at the time I speak of, they were all enrolled in the little army of Universalists; and most of them have received their discharge, and are gathered home to enjoy the fruition of their hope. A very few remain; but their gray hairs show that the time of their service is nearly expired: JOHN MURRAY, CALEB RICH, THOMAS BARNES, ZEBULON STREETER, ZEPHANIAH LATHE, WILLIAM FARWELL, DAVID BALLOU, HOSEA BALLOU, JACOB YOUNG, GEORGE RICHARDS, EDWARD TURNER, SOLOMON GLOVER, WALTER FERRIS, EDWIN FERRIS, EBENEZER PAINE, CORNELIUS G. PERSON, JOSHUA FLAGG, MILES T. WOOLEY, JAMES BABBIT, NATHANIEL SMITH, JAMES FOSTER. ADAM STREETER, and ELHANAN WINCHESTER, died previous to this meeting; and at this session a contribution was made to erect a stone at the grave of the lamented Winchester. This, to me, was a season of unprecedented felicity. I had never been enabled to attend but part of an Association, since the one I have before mentioned, in Woodstock; and at that I enjoyed the satisfaction of hearing only one discourse, and that was from Mr. Barnes. But now I had met nearly all the preachers of our order; and I should have the unspeakable happiness of hearing several of them preach! My feelings were so excited in anticipation, that I could scarcely eat or sleep for days, and even weeks, before the meeting. And when I was actually permitted to meet the brethren, face to face; to feel the warmth of their fraternal hands — to listen to the gracious words that fell from their lips — to hear their songs of praise and thanksgiving, and to mingle with them in the joyful season of devotion, as one of their number, was indeed overwhelming! I “knew not whether I was in the body, or out of the body;” but one thing I did know — that I was in the spirit! What rendered the season more exquisitely delightful to me, probably, was, I had been but a short time in the ministry, not quite a year; and most of that time I had spent at quite a distance from any of my ministering brethren, and had not enjoyed even the privilege of associating with but very few who dared to name the name of Universalism: I had been exposed, alone, to the buffitings of opposers, and had to meet with vastly more frowns than smiles, and with more censures, rebukes and curses, than with tokens of kindness, or words of encouragement. This rendered the meeting doubly interesting and joyful, as well as all other meetings of the Association for years, from similar causes. I looked forward with earnest anticipations for the time to arrive, traveled with tireless steps and sleepless eyes to the appointed place, and remained in extacy until the close of the meeting; but then, alas, the time of trial came! I had to part with the brethren, and go off alone to my thankless labor; to meet the frowns of the enemy of the holy cause, the curses of those I loved, and the fatigues and privations unavoidable to my calling. I have wept for miles, after parting with the brethren; and felt like a child when whipped to his task, by a father’s rod.
At this session of the Convention, four brethren received letters of fellowship, viz., Noah Murray, Abner Kneeland, Samuel Smith, and Nathaniel Stacy. I have still, in a good state of preservation, my letter of fellowship, written by Geo. Richards, and signed by Zebulon Streeter, Moderator, and Edward Turner, Clerk; dated Sept., 1803. Mr. Murray was a convert from the Baptists, with whom he preached a number of years; but, many years before this, he had renounced the doctrine of Partialism, and had been proclaiming the doctrine of Impartial Grace; but never, until this time, had met and united with the Association. But, at this session, he not only received a letter of fellowship, but ordination was conferred upon him; and he continued faithfully to proclaim the glad tidings of free grace to all mankind, until he closed his earthly pilgrimage. His residence was in the town of Athens, Tioga Point, Pa. A few years after his death, I visited the surviving members of his family, at Athens, among whom was his venerable widow, who, in the full enjoyment of the faith and hope which sustained him, in the hour of his departure, was waiting that deliverance which she has long since experienced.
Samuel Smith proved an unprofitable member. He traveled about in many places, among the societies and brethren, attempting to preach, but wounding the cause wherever he went. A short time after I visited the State of New York, Smith came into, and was about, that country two or three months. I saw him, I believe, but once, and felt little inclination to encourage his meetings. From thence he went to Connecticut, and soon after made shipwreck of his faith, (if he ever had any, which to me was very questionable,) at an exciting Methodist meeting; and the last I ever heard of him was through a very singular letter from him, addressed to a friend in New Berlin, Chenango Co., New York, which afforded abundant evidence that he never entertained any correct views of the doctrine of Universalism. The ultimate course of the other two, the world has already learned, or will soon be apprised of: Such were the four who received the fellowship of the Association, in 1803. Two of them have certainly paid the debt of nature; and, it may be safely presumed, that, only one of them remains a tenant of this earthly ball.
There was a measure called for, at this time, which, in its adoption by the council, produced considerable argument in the discussion, and no little sensation among the brethren; which was, the adoption of a written creed or confession of faith. It became absolutely necessary, to save Universalists in New England, and particularly in New Hampshire, from clerical oppression. In those days, the Presbyterians and Congregationalists were denominated the Standing Order; and they had a legal right to tax every individual in the parish, for the support of the clergy; and the only remedy the individual had to avoid paying such tax to them, was,to join some other sect, and bring a certificate from them to the Standing Order, that he had joined that society, and actually paid taxes to them. This had been done in one or more cases, in the State of New Hampshire; but, nevertheless, the Standing Order proceeded to collect the tax. Resistance was made, and the case was finally carried up to the Supreme Court, which decided that there was no such order known as Universalists, for they had no creed or profession of faith to distinguish them from the Standing Order; and they were, consequently, compelled to pay taxes to them. Our brethren felt afraid of creeds. They had read, seen, and experienced, as they supposed, the distracting, illiberal, and persecuting effects of human creeds; and they wished to avoid the vortex of that whirlpool into which they had seen so many drawn to inevitable destruction. The Bible was a sufficient creed — it was all the creed they wanted — all they needed — it was sufficiently, definite — and each one had an equal right to construe it for himself, while he did not deny its inspiration and authority. They felt no inclination to take upon themselves a “yoke, which neither they nor their fathers had been able to bear,” They had so far lived without a creed; and they had lived in, perfect union. Now, they very much feared, should they go to making creeds, they would become divided, and, like others who had gone before them, begin to cherish an exclusive and persecuting spirit. But what should be done? They sympathized deeply with the persecuted brethren in New Hampshire; and wished, if possible, to relieve them. A committee was appointed the previous year to prepare a confession of faith, and a platform, or constitution; of which Mr. Walter Ferris was a member; and he now presented one so unobjectionable, that it was difficult to find where the most fastidious could object to it, or how it could lead to division. A motion was made to adopt it; and probably the longest and warmest debate ensued, that had ever been known in that deliberative body. It was, however, conducted throughout with the kindest feelings, but with much earnestness and considerable sensibility; tears and smiles by the attentive auditors, alternately followed the pathetic appeals of the speakers on each side. Among its warmest advocates were George Richards, Hosea Ballou, Walter Ferris, and Zephaniah Lathe; and among its opposers, Edward Turner and Noah Murray. I distinctly recollect a metaphor in one of Mr. Murray’s arguments, and Mr. Lathe’s reply. Mr. Murray said, in allusion to the confession of faith, “It is harmless now — it is a calf, and its horns have not yet made their appearance; but it will soon grow older — its horns will grow, and then it will begin to hook.” Mr. Lathe arose, and replied, ” All that Br. Murray has said would be correct, had he not made a mistake in the animal. It is not a calf; it is a dove; and who ever heard of a dove having horns, at any age?” But the confession was adopted without alteration, I believe, as reported by the committee, through Mr. Ferris. The opposition yielding, it passed, (if my memory well serves me,) by the unanimous voice of the council, with a resolution appended to it to this effect, that no alteration should ever be made, hereafter, to the confession of faith. These articles have been published repeatedly, and are contained in the “Modern History of Universalism,” by Mr. Whittemore; but it may be gratifying to my readers, notwithstanding, to see them here; and, as they are short, I feel disposed to satisfy their curiosity.
“Article I. — We believe in one God, whose nature is love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one holy spirit of grace; who will finally restore the whole human family to holiness and happiness.
Article II. — We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, contain a revelation of the character of God, of the duty, interest, and final destination of mankind.
Article III. — We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected; and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order, and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable to men.”
To the above creed no one could reasonably object, who believed in the final restitution of man, let his views of future retribution be what they might.
At the close of the meeting, I proceeded to Massachusetts, made a visit of a few weeks in my native town, preached a few discourses, among which were two on funeral occasions, in families of my early and most intimate associates; and then returned to Vermont, where I tarried about one month.