A belief in the worth and dignity of every individual, and an emphasis on social and humanitarian endeavors rather than strictly doctrinal concerns, has been a hallmark of the Universalist movement since its beginnings in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1790. The Universalists opposed war and slavery, and were staunch advocates of free public education. Many adherents to Universalism played prominent roles in the reform movements that flourished in the early decades of the nineteenth century.
Among the most controversial teachings of the Universalists was the doctrine of universal salvation, from which the church derived its name. That doctrine held that evil was the result of social maladjustment rather than sin, and comprised a rejection of Calvinism, predestination, and the strict Puritan outlook that had dominated New England. Presbyterians and Congregationalists denounced the doctrine as unbiblical and as a disincentive for the conduct of a Christian life. Universalist preachers traversed New England and New York, engaged in heated disputes with Presbyterian and Congregationalist clergy. This controversy extended to Auburn, where the Presbyterian-sponsored Auburn Theological Seminary had been founded in 1818 to train ministers in the Calvinist tradition.
Auburn was home to a small but vibrant Universalist community. The first Universalist gathering in the village took place in 1812, when two men and eighteen women met in the home of Lyman Paine, just south of the Owasco River on Meridian Street (now called North Street). At that service, Rev. Paul Dean preached a sermon reflective of his Universalist principles, the first such sermon in Auburn. Many of those in attendance "unquestionably went there trembling with apprehension, lest their neighbors should discover... that they had dared to hear God represented as the Father and Friend of all His creatures."
The Universalist Association of Auburn was formally organized on April 12, 1821, in the school on Academy Green. Without a church edifice of its own, the congregation worshipped on the second story of Cayuga County's wooden courthouse and in various other public places.
In 1827, Ulysses F. Doubleday began publishing The Gospel Advocate and Impartial Investigator at Auburn; it was considered "the most widely circulated and most influential periodical in this country devoted to Universalism." When Doubleday found himself in need of an editor for the newspaper, he engaged Orestes A. Brownson, a twenty-four year-old Universalist minister who relocated to Auburn and served the pastoral needs of the Universalist congregations in Auburn, Geneva and Ithaca. With in a short time, Brownson, by his editorial denunciations of the efforts of the "evangelical" clergy to strictly enforce the keeping of the sabbath in the village, incurred the wrath of Rev. Dirch Cornelius Lansing, a founder of the theological seminary and pastor of the Presbyterian Church. Lansing, in turn, used his pulpit to denounce the errors of "liberal" Christianity.
After Josiah Hopkins succeeded Lansing in the pulpit of the Presbyterian Church, the Universalists encountered a more eloquent foe. Hopkins had not pursued a collegiate course of study, but prepared for the ministry under the tuitelage of Lemuel Hayes, "the esteemed colored minister of Rutland." As a preacher and as a scholar, Hopkins acquired an enviable reputation in Vermont, where he engaged in ministry for over two decades prior to his relocation to Auburn. Upon his arrival at Auburn, the new pastor determined that the community would fall prey to "the most pernicious error" that was Universalism unless he effectively presented and defended "orthodox" views. "There was never a time," he wrote, "when correct views on this subject were needed more than at the present." He described Auburn as "a field over which was not very sparingly scattered those who professed to believe in the doctrine of universal salvation." During his pastoral career in the village, and as a member of the seminary's board of trustees, Hopkins continued his study of Universalist teachings in order to be better equipped to show them to be false. After more than three decades in this work, he compiled his arguments in a small volume entitled The Scripture Doctrine of Endless retribution Candidly Presented and the Doctrine of Universal Salvation Shown to Be Unphilosophical, Unscriptural and False. The book purported to include direct proof of everlasting punishment and the moral depravity of mankind. Hopkins died on 21 June 1862 while the book was in press.
Hopkins was by no means alone in his vilification of the Universalists. New converts at evangelical revivals were often described as former Universalists. Religious newspapers described prominent criminals as adherents to the doctrine of full and free salvation. A student in the Auburn Female Seminary, whose family was affiliated with the suspect denomination, was required to write over and again, "Universalism! Veritable wickedness!"
In October 1844, Rev. John Mather Austin became the pastor of the Universalist community in Auburn, which had become known as the First Universalist Church. He promptly joined the ongoing debate between the advocates of universal salvation and those of "endless retribution." He was quick to respond to attacks from neighboring pulpits and in the local press.
A particularly fierce antagonism existed between Mather and the pastor of the First Baptist Church, J.S. Backus, author of a derisive book entitled Universalism, Another Gospel, or J.M. Austin against the Bible. The vitriolic volume was the presult of Austin's self-proclaimed success in public debates with Methodist Rev. David Holmes at Genoa in 1847 and 1848; Backus had sought to draft a treatise that would remedy the deficiencies of Holmes' arguments in those debates. "Although their doctrine of the endless tortures of their fellow-creatures was defended in that discussion," claimed Austin, "although the arguments pro and con are fairly reported, yet these reverend gentlemen are nervous, and restless, and far from being satisfied with the fruit springing up from the debate. At last their distress became unbearable, and gave birth to a book entitled Universalism, Another Gospel."
Not to be outdone, Austin wrote A Critical Review of a Work by Rev. J.S. Backus, entitled Universalism, Another Gospel, or J.M. Austin against the Bible. "Believing they richly deserved rebuke," he wrote later, "I did not spare these gentlemen, but applied the lash with some severity. Of course, they were not pleased with this. Who ever knew the erring to be pleased when their sins were held up to the gaze of the world? Their predicament was truly pitiful."
The orthodox pastors were satisfied neither by the results of the Genoa debates nor by Backus' published attempt at damage control in the aftermath of those debates. They determined that Rev. A.B. Winfield, pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church at Owasco Outlet (commonly called the Sand Beach church), should be their spokeman. Thus, commented Austin, "an instrument was found who in taste, in habits, in blind prejudice and stupid ignaorance, was precisely fitted for just such work.... Curous spectacle! A Baptist blundering to prop the platform of a Methodist; and a Dutch Reformed running to pick up the fallen Baptist. Three sects, bitterly opposed on fundamental principles of religion, concealing for the time being their enmity and jealousy of each other, to unite in showing their contempt and hatred of Christ's glorious Gospel of Universal Reconciliation!"
It was not the debate on the doctrine of universal salvation, however, that introduced Austin to Winfield, nor the latter's work entitled Antidote to the Errors of Universalism. Rather, Winfield attracted Austin's attention when he delivered a controversial sermon at the funeral of the Van Nest family in March 1846. Austin, who vehemently opposed the death penalty, was aoppalled by Winfield's call for swift and violent retribution in Winfield's bitter and vengeful sermon at the Van Nest funeral at the Dutch Reformed Church. "Their sudden and sanguinary death," recalled Austin, "filled all with the deepest distress and horror. Yet it was precisely one of therse cases which tests the Christianity of professotrs of religion, and shows whether they have really been born again or not. It determines whether their hearts conceal a rankling spirit of malice and revenge, or the pitiful and forgiving spirit of Christ, toward the erring." Austin did not resist the temptation to denounce Winfield's views from the Universalist pulpit and to distibute printed copies of his sermon. He reminded his audience that "The dear Redeemer prayed for his murderers."
Daniel Livermore served as the pastor of Auburn's Universalist congregation from 1855 to 1857. He and his wife, Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, were prominent in the abolitionist, temperance and women's rights movements.