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Quillen Shinn — Grasshopper or St Paul?

Any diner at the Ferry Beach Conference Center can tell you the campers' favorite song. As coffee cups bounce off soundly thumped tables and kitchen ladles hit impromptu serving tray gongs in time to the tune of "There is a Tavern in the Town," the campers, with unnerving regularity, close the dinner hour by roaring, "Oh, Shinn, oh dear old Quillen Shinn. To you we raise this grateful din!" So who is this Quillen Shinn, and why is he memorialized in song by the campers at a Unitarian Universalist camp and conference center on the coast of Maine?

Quillen Hamilton Shinn (1845-1907) was perhaps the best known Universalist of his day, an indefatigable evangelist bringing the good news of Universalism to people across North America. Shinn's call to spread the word of universal salvation was apparent from the beginning of his ministry. Ordained in 1870, Shinn served eight New England churches in 19 years, and set up as many as 14 nearby preaching outposts for each congregation he served. After founding a church in Omaha, Nebraska (1889-91), Shinn decided that, henceforth, his would be a missionary ministry. By the time of his death from rheumatic fever at age 62, Shinn had crisscrossed North America preaching in every state in the Union as well as in Canada and Mexico, sometimes giving a sermon a day. He had founded eight churches, overseen the construction of at least 40 church buildings, and brought Universalism to hundreds, if not thousands, of people. He had reportedly encouraged more than thirty people to take up the Universalist ministry. He had organized four state conferences, a number of Young Peoples Christian Unions, Ladies Aid Societies, mission circles, and seven summer meetings. All this caused him to be dubbed the "Grasshopper Missionary" by a critic who thought he jumped too far afield and stayed too short a time to make his results lasting. But his supporters called him the "St. Paul of the Universalist Church."

Even before Shinn entered the ministry he had an effect on Universalism. As he traveled from his home in West Virginia to take his place at the Canton Theological School at Saint Lawrence University, Shinn stopped off at the 1867 Universalist General Convention in Baltimore. The Rev. Anson Titus later described the scene:

At the convention, after listening to the wordy and sharp discussions upon the Winchester Profession of Faith, for which the convention was noted, Mr. Shinn, overturning all parliamentary decorum, arose and said he was on his way to Canton to fit himself for the ministry, but felt more like returning to his mountain home, for evidently Universalist ministers could write better than they could talk. The utter unexpectedness and sincerity of the stranger's words brought the doctrinaries face to face, not with conceited theories but with living problems. A new spirit was quickened and pandemonium was turned into a love feast.

Tall, handsome, and charismatic, with a dynamic delivery, evident enthusiasm, and seemingly tireless energy, Shinn was the perfect evangelist. Theologically he was a traditional Bible-centered Universalist Christian, and he fit well in a denomination that began as an evangelistic faith and continued as such for many years. Universalism was a faith meant to bring the good news of God's unwavering love and mercy to all humanity. The early Universalists—John Murray, Elhanon Winchester, Hosea Ballou—had been evangelists, traveling preachers spreading the word wherever they could. Their example gave rise to the Universalist circuit riders who were often young men, and sometimes women, of rural backgrounds and little education who were eager to travel. Travelling primarily on horseback, they had no denominational or financial backing and fended for themselves bringing the Universalist gospel across the country. Many of their names are forgotten, but several are still remembered for their work. Nathaniel Stacy, though in frail health, travelled the roads of New York and Pennsylvania. George Rogers, sturdy and humorous, brought word of Universalism to the Southern and Midwest states. T.C. Eaton logged 9,000 miles in fourteen months in what would later become the Iowa Territory. These were the people in whose footsteps Quillen Shinn would follow nearly half a century later, making his own mark as a missionary on horseback.

Shinn was more fortunate than the earlier evangelists had been; he had denominational backing. In 1895, the General Convention named him as General Missionary at an annual salary of $3,000. By 1900, his special interest in the South was recognized with the title Missionary to the Southern States, which he bore until his death. Shinn worked as the Southern missionary ten months of the year and for two summer months led camp meetings in the North where he helped establish camps and conference centers including The Weirs, on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, and Ferry Beach, on the Maine coast.

In his lifetime and following his death he received many accolades and tributes, from honorary doctoral degrees to churches named in his honor. But his work was not without controversy. Because he was willing to organize a Universalist congregation wherever he found two or more Universalists, Shinn set off a denominational debate about whether it was better to concentrate effort in selected urban areas, or to expand anywhere and everywhere. Shinn's answer was unequivocal. He lived his life according to the belief he preached, that all Universalists must be missionaries. Registering for the summer conference at Ferry Beach in 1904, he listed his home as "Everywhere."

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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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