Pickering, David

David Pickering
David Pickering

David Pickering (May 28, 1788-January 6, 1859), a Universalist minister, founded the Providence Association, an organization which challenged the disciplinary authority of the New England Universalist General Convention. With Paul Dean and Adin Ballou, Pickering led a Restorationist faction of 19th century Universalists into schism and helped to found the short-lived sect, the Massachusetts Association of Universal Restorationists (MAUR).

David was the youngest of John and Hannah Ingersoll Pickering’s six sons and among the youngest of their dozen or so children. The Pickering family moved from Salem, Massachusetts to Richmond, New Hampshire around 1778. History does not show family members to have been influenced by the evangelism of Universalist Caleb Rich, who included Richmond in his preaching circuit, or by the work of Richmond residents David and Hosea Ballou, who began their Universalist preaching soon after David Pickering was born. His older brother Timothy Pickering, a carpenter and a builder, eventually became a Unitarian. After a conversion experience at age 16 or 17, David joined the Freewill Baptist church.

Sent to Barre, Vermont to learn a trade, Pickering was there converted to Universalism by the preaching of Paul Dean. He soon decided to become a minister and received fellowship at the 1809 session of the New England Universalist General Convention in Barnard, Vermont. He preached as an itinerant during the next year in the area of Barre and St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Though he was small in stature and spoke in a high-pitched voice, his early preaching made a good impression. In 1810 he married his first wife in Barre. They had two children.

Pickering was called to Shrewsbury, Vermont, 1810-12; Norwell (Scituate), Massachusetts, 1812-13; and Lebanon, New Hampshire, 1813-17. The happiness of his first years in the ministry came to an end around 1816 when his wife died of tuberculosis. In grief his behavior became erratic, and his relationship with the Lebanon church deteriorated. Pickering left Lebanon and afterwards did supply preaching and candidating in Boston, Salem, and St. Johnsbury. He married the daughter of John L. Jennison of Boston and from 1818-23 was settled in Hudson, New York.

In late 1822 six Universalist ministers, calling themselves Restorationists, endorsed a manifesto which implied that “ultra” Universalists, like Hosea Ballou, were not Christian insofar as they denied a period of punishment in the afterlife before final restoration to God. Among the six was Pickering’s mentor Paul Dean. On the subject of the afterlife Pickering’s position was then midway between the extremes of the contending parties. He was thus able to serve as a moderating influence on both sides of the divide. When a committee was drafting a motion of complaint regarding disciplinary procedures on behalf of the Southern Association (a regional group under the auspices of the General Convention), Pickering persuaded the authors to soften their language. He wrote to Restorationist Edward Turner that “the trifling difference of sentiment” concerning the afterlife “ought never to become the subject of altercation.” On the other side, Hosea Ballou initially demanded that the Restorationists’ manifesto be completely and publicly retracted. According to Restorationist Charles Hudson, “it was principally by the influence of Mr. Pickering that this haughty tone was lowered, and a reconciliation effected.”

As these negotiations were going on, Pickering was beginning a new pastorate with the recently organized First Universalist Society in Providence, Rhode Island, his longest and most productive settlement. Members valued his preaching and the effects of his influence even among the orthodox. In 1830 his series of lectures on revelation impressed both the clergy and lay people of other churches, and helped to reduce their antagonism toward Universalists.

In 1825 the Providence church building was destroyed by fire. Aided by contributions from other Universalist churches, the congregation built a new sanctuary within a year.

In his Providence years Pickering founded and edited two periodicals, a Universalist newspaper, the Christian Telescope, 1824-29, and a monthly compilation of Universalist sermons, the Gospel Preacher, 1827-28. Because the Telescope was so effective in promoting Universalism in Providence, Origen Bacheler, an eccentric evangelical, countered with publication of the Anti-Universalist, 1826-28. Bacheler associated all Universalists with the most radical of Abner Kneeland‘s ideas, as well as with the more notorious of Unitarian heresies. “Heretics and infidels,” he wrote, “may therefrom soon be expected to form one body—and that body, the Unitarian Restoration Universalists.”

Needled by Bacheler and annoyed by other Universalists’ failure to distance themselves from views he saw as untenable and scandalous, Pickering wrote in 1826 to Turner, “I begin to be satisfied that Deism has already taken a deep root in the minds and sentiments of many who profess to be Universalists: And for one, I am determined to gird on the sword and repair to the field, for the express purpose of hunting the enemy out of the ranks, or fall in the contest.”

For a time Pickering tried formally to improve and establish the disciplinary procedures of existing Universalist organizations. But he soon became convinced that discipline would be used in them all primarily to hold in line any Restorationist rivals of Hosea Ballou. Accordingly, he convened a series of meetings with colleagues in the Providence area, 1827-29. These meetings led to the founding of a new Universalist organization, the Providence Association. As soon as the constitution of the body was approved, in 1829, Pickering resigned from the New England Universalist General Convention and declared himself no longer subject to the authority of the Convention or any its regional associations. He did, however, attend the Convention at its next session. Paul Dean invited him to pray before his sermon. At Hosea Ballou’s behest, the Convention forbade Pickering to do so.

Other Universalist organizations labeled the Providence Association renegade. In 1831 its members, including Pickering, Dean, Hudson and Adin Ballou, were forced into schism. Pickering tried unsuccessfully to bring the Providence congregation into the MAUR. For several years the members tolerated his Restorationist affiliation, until in 1835 they formally requested that he exchange pulpits with non-Restorationist Universalists. He soon resigned his pulpit and accepted a call to a church in New York City. The move pulled him away from the Providence Association and the MAUR as well.

Paul Dean gave another reason for Pickering’s departure from Providence. He wrote, “This removal was not in consequence of any dissatisfaction with him at Providence, but the effect, as a matter of expediency, of certain difficulties, which occurred between Mrs. P. and certain ladies of the parish.”

Pickering succeeded the recently deceased Edward Mitchell at the Society of United Christian Friends, an independent Universalist church in Manhattan. Himself a unitarian, Pickering had difficulty winning the allegiance of a trinitarian body sustained until then by loyalty to its founding minister. The congregation disintegrated within a year, a result which might have followed Mitchell’s demise in any case. And Pickering, who within months of his arrival was mourning his second wife, may have been just then ill-equipped to rebuild the congregation. He seems to have been unjustly blamed for destroying a long-established church.

In his later years Pickering continued to preach, though not usually as a settled minister. He married a woman who had property in Western New York State. He lived in Buffalo, NY, 1837-39; Newport, NY, 1839-41; Butternuts (Morris), NY, 1841-45; Buffalo again, 1845-46; Aurora/Willink (near Buffalo), 1846-53; Morris again, 1853-54; Alden (near Buffalo), 1854-55; and Ypsilanti, Michigan, 1855-59. Around 1841, when the MAUR expired, he was accepted back into Universalist fellowship. Except when the settled minister in Butternuts, 1841-43, he traveled, preaching wherever there was opportunity. Hampered by a disease whose symptoms or treatment may have included alcohol, he sometimes appeared guilty of “moral delinquency” to others. By the time he moved to Michigan he was free of the disease and the medication for it, but his voice was weakened. He preached infrequently, mostly at local associations and conventions. He died suddenly after a short respiratory illness.


There are letters from David Pickering in the Edward Turner Collection in the Universalist Special Collections at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Pickering’s Providence lectures were published as Lectures in Defence of Divine Revelation (1830). He compiled a hymnal, Psalms and Hymns, for Social and Private Worship (1822, reprinted 1832, 1834). In 1827 he also wrote a review of Nathaniel Emmons, Sermon on the Perdition of Judas. A number of Pickering’s sermons were published. Some of these can be found at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library and the Rockefeller Library at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

There is a sketchy outline of Pickering’s career in John G. Adams, Fifty Notable Years (1883). Brief obituaries by J. B. Gilman, Russell Streeter, and Thomas Whittemore are in the Trumpet and Universalist Magazine (Jan 29, 1859 and Mar 12, 1859). There is another obituary in the Universalist Companion (1860). Other brief accounts of Pickering’s life are William Bassett, History of the Town of Richmond, Cheshire County, New Hampshire (1884) and Harrison Ellery and Charles Pickering Bowditch, The Pickering Genealogy, vol. 1 (1897). Pickering’s career in Providence is treated in E. H. Capen, “Historical Discourse,” A Half-Century Memorial of the Universalist Society in Providence, Rhode Island (1871) and Rubens Rea Hadley, “Historical Address,” Centennial Book, First Universalist Society, Providence, R.I. (1921). His ministry in Butternuts, New York is mentioned in Duane Hamilton Hurd, History of Otsego County, New York (1878). The outline of his later career can be pieced together from the annual handbooks, the Universalist Register (1836-40) and the Universalist Companion (1841-59). His role in the Restorationist controversy is traced in Richard Eddy, Universalism in America, vol. 2 (1886) and Peter Hughes, “The Second Phase of the Restorationist Controversy: Disciplinary Crisis and Schism, 1824-31,” Journal of Unitarian Universalist History (2001, pt 2).

Article by Peter Hughes
Posted February 17, 2003