The First Universalist Church of Camp Hill is a mildly astonishing blend of the old and the new. Having served parishioners for 162 years, it is steeped in the history of a people and a place. Yet, it is the local seat of a forward-thinking religious philosophy that prides itself on spritual exploration, open-mindedness, humanity and stewardship of the earth, qualities that make Unitarian Universalism a fast-growing church uniquely suited to the challenges of the 21st century.
The First Universalist Church of Camp Hill was founded in 1846, by a small band of devout, ambitious and undoubtedly stubborn followers of Universalism, a Christian denomination that subscribed to the belief that all people would be reconciled with God. Put another way, Universalists did not really believe in hell. In 1846, this was a radical theology to most other Christian denominations in the United States and in England, where Universalism first gained purchase in the 18th century, supposedly a backlash to the harsher tenets of Calvinism.
The number of Camp Hill Universalists grew along with Camp Hill itself. Published early history of either the church or the town is not extensive; the records of the first 50 years of the congregation were destroyed in a house fire. It is obvious, though, that fortunes of the church and of the town have mirrored one another from the earliest days of both, each reaching an impressive zenith in the first half of the 20th century.
At the beginning of that century, along the Central of Georgia railroad, a handsome and thriving commercial district arose to serve the needs of townspeople in Camp Hill and of rural farming families from three counties. On a promontory just east of the tracks, The First Universalist Church constructed its present sanctuary in 1907, having outgrown two humbler buildings. Upon its dedication, the striking church became a stellar landmark of the town and remains one today. In the years immediately following its opening, the new church would be home to the largest Universalist congregation in the southeastern United States.
Not withstanding the business about hell, liberal Universalism did not differ from Christian orthodoxy in any important ways. However, it consistently was a friend of secular education, separation of church and state, intellectual reason and social reform.
What is today Lyman Ward Military Academy in Camp Hill was opened in 1898, as the Southern Industrial Institute, a direct result of efforts by the members of The First Universalist Church. They enticed educator Lyman Ward from New York for the express purpose of founding a school for children in rural Alabama. Lyman Ward served the school as headmaster and the Universalist church as pastor.
Developing in the United States at the same time and in many of the same places as Universalism, was Unitarianism. Like Universalists, Unitarians could argue that the roots of their basic tenets were traceable to the early days of Christianity itself, but the Unitarian philosophy emerging in 18th-century America was different from that of concurrent denominations, including Universalism. Unitarians believed in the teachings of Jesus. They revered Jesus as a great man, perhaps a supernatural man, but they did not accept that he was God. Essentially, they rejected the explanation of the Trinity. They believed in a single God, hence Unitarianism. Perhaps even more than Universalism, Unitarianism from its start stressed intellectualism, reform and justice in this world.
Both Universalism and Unitarianism thrived in this country throughout the 19th century and into the next, becoming accepted as significant mainstream denominations. Over this time, both continued to emphasize more the human benefits of spirituality and less the supernatural ones. The beliefs and efforts of both national denominations eventually paralleled one another so closely that the decision was made, in 1961, to travel together. Most Unitarian and Universalist congregations merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.
The First Universalist Church travels that path today, but its heyday, and that of the town of Camp Hill, is a memory. The shifting demographics that have shaken the foundations of many a rural community hit Camp Hill particularly hard in the latter half of the 20th century. The congregation cannot brag of numbers today, but it soldiers on, proud stewards of a unique history and determined apostles of a philosphy of love and hope for the 21st century.
Proudly Standing on the Side of Love