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The Chicago Universalist [LCCN: sn 90053049] was a religious newspaper published near the end of the nineteenth century, a century when religious newspapers proliferated alongside the denominations they documented. Denominationalism was a distinctive feature of the nineteenth century American religious landscape, and European observers frequently remarked upon it, usually attributing the phenomenon to religious disestablishment. Denominationalism radically decentralized and diversified religious life, creating a need for current information about denominations, especially since so many of these denominations were new and rapidly changing. The religious newspaper was one response to this need, and its period of fastest growth roughly coincided with the so-called "Second Great Awakening." During this period, the religious newspapers even competed with secular newspapers by printing secular as well as religious news. The religious newspaper's role as a publisher of secular news declined in the 1830s, possibly due to the emergence of inexpensive daily newspapers that were written in a lively, often sensational, style, but religious newspapers remained important sources of information throughout the century.
The Universalist was published weekly by the Universalist denomination. Central to Universalism was a belief in universal human salvation. The Universalists' optimistic rejection of Calvinist rigidity was the foundation for their many social crusades. During the Universalist's period of publication, these social crusades included opposition to capital punishment and advocacy for prison reform. The Universalist Church also supported women's suffrage, and it was the first mainstream denomination to ordain women.
The Universalist formally resembled most religious newspapers of the period, and was intended for the enjoyment and edification of the entire family. Each issue included a sermon, a Sunday school lesson, and sections like the "Farm, Home, and Garden," "The Home Circle," "Our Young People," and a summary of general, non-religious news items. The bulk of the newspaper, however, was about the church itself, and part of the paper's significance is that it documents an era of intense doctrinal controversy within the Universalist Church, an era that essentially ended in 1899 with a renewed bond of fellowship based on five principles of the faith. The newspaper is therefore a crucial source of information on the growth of this denomination. The paper is also a valuable source of news about progressive reform movements supported by Universalists.
Even by the standards of the nineteenth century, the Universalists were unusually active in the field of newspaper publishing. Like other denominations, however, the Universalist Church gradually contracted its newspaper operations after the 1830s. The formation of the Universalist in 1884 represented the penultimate step in a long process of Universalist newspaper consolidations, the paper's immediate antecedents being the Chicago New Covenant [LCCN: sn 87044286] and the Cincinnati Star in the West [LCCN: sn 8424981]. The Star of the West itself had previously absorbed five other Universalist newspapers. Where the denomination once boasted dozens of newspapers serving specific regions, it ended with a single paper for the entire Midwest, and one for the East Coast. In 1897 these last two titles were consolidated into a single Universalist newspaper, the New York Universalist Leader [LCCN: sf 838018].