Universalism developed as a distinct Christian denomination during the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Universalists did not accept the Nicene Creed, finding no Biblical basis for the Holy Trinity. The faith was brought to America in the late 1700s, with the first congregation organized in Massachusetts in 1779.
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Often called “Hell Redemptionists” by outsiders in early America, Universalists believed that a rational, loving God would not subject his people to eternal punishment—those people who sinned would be sent to Hell for spiritual cleansing, later to ascend to Heaven. The inclusive theology practiced by Universalists led many of the faith to try to create a more just society. Prominent among 19th century American Universalists are Horace Greeley, Clara Barton, and Dorothea Dix.
Benjamin F. Strain, a travelling Universalist preacher, converted a cluster of Haywood County residents in the mid 1860s. He apparently granted a Universalist license to Jonathan Plott who helped organize the First Universalist Church of Haywood County in July 1868. Plott, unable or unwilling to serve as the congregation’s permanent minister, designated James Anderson Inman, who was ordained by Strain shortly thereafter. (Plott’s family developed the breed of hound that became the state dog.) Inman (1826-1913) had lived in the Pigeon River community later known as Sunburst since he was a teen and remained within about a ten mile radius for the remainder of his life. (James Inman was the brother of William P. Inman, of Cold Mountain fame.)
When the state conference of Universalists organized in the east in 1896, one of the first orders of business was to offer assistance to the Haywood County congregation in constructing a church building. The structure, appropriately named Inman Chapel, was completed in 1902, with the aging James Inman having donated much of the money.
At his death in 1913, the chapel reverted to management by the Universalist’s Women’s National Missionary Association (WNMA). The congregation had almost dispersed by 1921 when Hannah Jewett Powell was selected to be the denominational representative in the region. Powell enthusiastically embarked upon life in the isolated community, focusing on the under-served youth. She opened a Sunday school and launched the first Universalist-sponsored kindergarten in the state. Within a few years, the burgeoning congregation needed a community center, which the WNMA sponsored.
Powell organized a community library at the center, known as Friendly House, with over 1,000 donated books. Friendly House contained a clothes closet for dispensing clothing, a telephone station, meeting spaces, and housing for transient workers. Through the church, Powell also established a mission circle for women, a Clara Barton Guild for young girls, and a nursing service. In time, Universalist congregations from around the United States would offer financial support for the missionary work being done at Inman Chapel.
Powell retired in 1942 and the WNMA (later AUW, Association of Universalist Women) announced plans to relinquish support of Inman Chapel in the near future. Although her successors continued to serve the Pigeon River community, the congregation of Universalists declined and the AUW closed the chapel and community center in 1957. Although the Universalist Church no longer had a presence in Western North Carolina, it was not forgotten.
A family that knew Powell and admired her work donated property and a stipend to the Unitarian Universalist Church in 1969 to establish a church in Asheville. Having been used for many years as a reunion destination for the Inman family, Inman Chapel has now been carefully restored. Descendants now return to Inman Chapel for homecoming and share stories of the influence of the compassionate Universalists who provided sweeping opportunities to the isolated mountain outpost.
Ann Lee Bressler, The Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880 (2001)
Russell Miller, The Larger Hope: Second Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1870-1970 (1985)
Phyllis Inman Barnett, At the Foot of Cold Mountain: Sunburst and Universalists at Inman’s Chapel (2008)
Peggy Ward Rawheiser, A History of Universalism in North Carolina (2007)
Catherine Bishir and others, A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina (1999)
Waynesville Mountaineer, October 20, 2007: http://www.aahardwoods.com/news_mountaineer-10-20-07.htm
Modern photo of Inman Chapel courtesy of Cheryl Inman Haney.