Unitarian Universalist History 101
This page is adapted from a sermon given by our minister, Deanna Lack, on October 24, 2020.
History. I’m guessing that most of you either really enjoy history, or really get a feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach when you think about learning it, fearing a litany of names and dates that you have to memorize to perform on a test. There’s no test today, and I’m going to try to go light on names and dates. But we’re going to focus here on the history of our denomination.
I think that a lot of UUs are rather ignorant of the history of our denomination, which seems odd to me because we tend to be a scholarly bunch. We might be able to rattle off names of a few prominent historical Unitarians, or celebrate the Transcendentalists, but especially when it comes to the more recent history of our denomination, we might not know much. I think we should. I think it’s important to be able to place ourselves in the time stream of our faith, and also know the shortcomings of our history so that we can right them. If this is a topic that interests you, I can point you in the direction of some good reading if you like.
I’d like to cover three areas today: I’m going to talk about the development of the two halves of our association, mention a few of those prominent historical Unitarians and Universalists, and finally, talk about the history of the association after the merger in 1961. Since we’re going to cover theology elsewhere, I’m only going to touch on that briefly, though in some cases it’s hard to divorce it from the history.
Though Unitarian thought has some roots in Eastern Europe, and also in England, as a denomination our faith’s roots are distinctly American. We consider the Unitarians in Europe our brethren, but at the same time, the UU faith that has developed over the last few centuries is not necessarily the child of European Unitarian movements, but more of a cousin. We’re descended primarily from Puritan congregations in New England. You’re probably aware of the strictness of Puritanism, but as a result of the Enlightenment and maybe just living in the new world, gradually the strictness began to fade a bit. Each congregation was an independent entity with its own polity. In the mid-1700s, there was a call for a Puritan revival with a strict Calvinist interpretation. Here’s where the theology gets tangled into it, and we’ll talk more about Calvinism in a couple of weeks, but basically, these evangelical revivalists wanted to re-emphasize inherent human sinfulness and the need for salvation.
As a result, a schism developed in many of these congregations. Some rejected this revival, and they believed in the benevolence of god, the inherent goodness of humans and inherent dignity, and human free will. They rejected hellfire and belief in the Trinity. So some people started calling them Unitarians, saying they were like those Unitarians over in England. It was a little bit of a misnomer, because the New England Unitarians were far more passionate about rejection of Calvinist predestination to heaven or hell than they were about rejection of the trinity.
Universalism was a parallel but separate reaction to Calvinism, and it occurred earlier than the Universalist change-over. Their key tenet was universal salvation — that God loves everyone, and that nothing at all is required of us for salvation. Of the two, Universalism was the more radical. In fact, Unitarianism is such a staple in New England that many of our UU churches are just called “first parish” of whatever town they’re in, and are the oldest church in the community. If you were a New Englander in the late 18th century, you were very likely to be Unitarian. It has been criticized, often by Universalists, of being a religion of the elite, and in a lot of ways it was. I think it would be inaccurate to say the founding fathers were Universalists, but some of them definitely were. These two faiths were in some ways the child of the Protestant reformation, in which it became okay to develop your own ideas about God, and the Enlightenment, which started people thinking about how they could reconcile their faith in God with science. This, I think, is the cauldron in which our Constitution and the thought of the founding fathers was born, whatever religion they actually professed. Thomas Jefferson described his religious faith in many different ways, but Unitarianism was one of them. And he once said, “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know,” which might be the most UU thing anyone has ever said.
The American Unitarian Association was founded in 1825 as the theology solidified and the churches became more cohesive. The ideas of Unitarianism were born at least in part because of congregational polity; that is, each congregation governs itself. But it’s also useful to have a governing organization, and thus the AUA was founded. The Universalists, at that point, had been in existence as an organized sect for over 30 years, since 1793. But they were organized more loosely, and more grass-roots, with a lot of itinerant preachers. It was called the Universalist General Convention until the 1940s, when they adopted the name Universalist Church of America. Both groups “made freedom of belief and conscience central to their religious convictions,” according to Warren R. Ross, whom I’ll be referring to often in this sermon. And they were natural allies. In fact, reading the history of the two organizations, one might wonder what took them so long to merge, and indeed, fusion had been advocated as early as 1856.
I briefly touched on the founding fathers. John Adams and his family were Unitarians. Presidents Millard Fillmore and William Howard Taft were Unitarians. I said I would go light on names and dates, but for this section of the sermon I just thought I’d do some name-dropping of Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists that you may or may not be aware of.
- Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women
- Susan B Anthony
- Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone
- P.T. Barnum
- Clara Barton, organizer of the Red Cross
- Bella Bartok, composer
- Olympia Brown, the first woman to be ordained as clergy
- Vice President John C Calhoun
- Charles Darwin
- Charles Dickens
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Transcendentalist and author
- Margaret Fuller, journalist
- Horace Greeley, newspaper editor and presidential candidate
- Edvard Grieg, composer
- Edward Everett Hale, writer
- Frances Harper, abolitionist, suffragist, one of first African American women to be published
- SC Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
- Isaac Newton, scientist
- Paul Revere, midnight rider
- Benjamin Rush, signer of Declaration, active in Universalist movement
- Henry David Thoreau, Transcendentalist and author of Walden
- Daniel Webster, to whom we owe the dictionary
- e.e. cummings, poet
- William Carlos Williams, poet
- Ray Bradbury, author
- Morris Dees (SPLC)
- Robert Fulghum, author of All I Needed to Know I learned in Kindergarten, is a UU minister
- Gary Gygax, who developed Dungeons & Dragons
- Naomi King (Steven King’s Daughter) UU minister
- Paul Newman
- Bob Packwood, current Oregon Senator
- Sylvia Plath
- Christopher Reeve, actor/Superman
- Pete Seeger, singer/songwriter
- Rod Serling, Twilight Zone
- Adlai Stevenson, presidential candidate
- Kurt Vonnegut, author
- Frank Lloyd Wright, architect
So those are just some of the people from Wikipedia’s very long list of people who belong or belonged to our faith. I had a lot of fun looking it over, and you might want to look it up as well. I think it’ll be a good wellspring for future sermons. I think I’d love to talk more about the Transcendentalists, and also about women who were ordained in our faith. If there’s a U, U, or UU you’d love to hear more about, let me know and maybe I’ll be inspired to base a sermon on it.
So let’s talk about the modern history of our denomination. Most of this information comes from the book The Premise and the Promise by Warren R. Ross, which I recommend if the modern history of the association interests you. As you probably know, Unitarianism and Universalism merged in 1961 to become the denomination we have today. But they were two denominations with centuries of history behind them, so as you might imagine, the merger was a bit challenging. Universalism was a more grassroots denomination, whereas Unitarian ministers were frequently trained at Harvard. Universalists were hesitant to trust central organization. They were afraid that their denomination would be swallowed up by the Universalists, who were also more numerous, rather than becoming a merger of two equals.
The president of the AUA, the American Unitarian Association, Frederick May Eliot, envisioned a uniting of liberal faiths. There was discussion of incorporating the Quakers and others, but in particular Eliot wanted a merger with Universalists; his wife was a Universalist. He established a Council of Liberal churches but died shortly afterward. It was then left to AUA president Dana Greeley to complete Eliot’s vision. The merger really took several years, and the discussion about the by-laws was intense at times, and sometimes looked as if the merger wasn’t workable at all. There was great debate about how much theist wording to put in the bylaws. However, the vote to merge ultimately passed with 75% approval, and all but 5 of the congregations then existing of both denominations agreed to consolidation. Greeley was elected president of the newly formed Unitarian Universalist Association at General Assembly in 1961.
From the beginning this new denomination was engaged in social justice, speaking out against Vietnam. When National Guard troops fired on and killed student protesters at Kent State University’s campus, future UUA president William Schulz was student minister at Kent’s UU church. Kent city council had banned all public meetings, but Schulz defied it and held a memorial service. Arlington Street Church was a site of many anti-war demonstrations, and other churches served as sanctuaries for draft dodgers. President Greeley formed an Inter-Religious Conference one Peace in 1966.
So the denomination was deeply engaged in social justice as the civil rights movement gained traction. It was only eight years old, though, in 1969, when there was a major walkout in General Assembly, people seizing microphones, calling each other unforgivable names, and spitting at one another. That seems shocking. This is what Ross has to say about it: “Wheras the struggle for racial justice and equal rights in the South had united the UU denomination and sustained its self image of “us” (the good guys) vs. “them” (the racists), the black power movement’s demands for black empowerment split UUs, both black and white, who almost overnight were fighting among themselves, calling each other racist and fascist and inflicting wounds that have still not entirely healed.”
UUs had been involved in the fight for racial justice for several years. They participated in the march on Washington and demonstrated in Selma. UU Minister James Reeb was murdered in Selma while demonstrating.
Interestingly, Reeb’s murder turned out to be divisive. It galvanized the nation and got a lot of press attention. President Johnson sent roses to his hospital room. And yet, a few days later Jimmy Lee Jackson, who was black, had been shot and killed during a similar demonstration, with barely a ripple of notice. But when a white minister from the North was shot, people paid attention. Some felt that Rev. Reeb’s martyrdom was being used as evidence that we were the good guys, and giving us a pass to avoid making deeper efforts toward racial equality as a denomination. Heyward Henry, who was chair of the newly formed Black UU Caucus in 1968, said “We Unitarian Universalists like to keep saying, ‘But we went to Selma with you… why are you rejecting us? In Selma, a black man named Jimmy Jackson was killed and at that time you could count the number of Unitarians in Selma on your fingers. A few weeks later a white man was killed and all Unitarians ran to Selma. Racism, that’s what it was.” And of course, it was pointed out that our congregations remained overwhelmingly white, and few African Americans were being ordained.
In response to the turmoil, a UU Commission on Religion and Race had an emergency conference on UU Response to the Black Rebellion (all of this is capitalized — interesting title, isn’t it?). 135 participated, 37 black. In a short time 30 of the black delegates withdrew to form a caucus closed to whites and developed a list of “non-negotiable demands”, including formation of a Black Affairs Council and funded for four years. Some UUs countered that this faction was separatist and racist, totalitarian, and that it spoke for only a fraction of black UUs. The walkout at General Assembly followed, and it was ugly. Many left the denomination and still speak bitterly of the experience. Some of their comments are outlined in the new report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change.
I tell you all of this because I want you to understand that the recent unrest in our denomination over racial practices is not new. After this happened we put racial issues on a back burner, in a lot of ways, and carried on with our mostly white congregations, with business as usual. We are only now, 30 some years later, returning to consider our practices. And in some ways the work we’re doing now is healing wounds that are decades old.
We did much, much better with issues of gender, at least as far as women were concerned. At GA in 1977 there was a Women & Religion resolution that suggested we avoid sexist language in our songs, bylaws, and all literature. But we had already had a track record of including women, as Unitarianism had women ministers before any other denomination. Today, women make up half of active UU ministers and two thirds of the students of our theological schools.
We did significantly better on issues of LGBTQ rights. The Office of Gay Affairs was instituted in 1973, and has been expanded to all of LGBTQ. One of the women who was ordained Unitarian in the 19th century was a lesbian, though that wasn’t well known at the time. In 1996 there was a GA vote to support same sex marriage. We placed our first openly gay ministers in pulpits in 1980. There is still room for improvement in this area, especially in some of our congregations, but we have made good progress.
When we consolidated in 1961 we adopted Principles and Purposes that served until 1985, when we reviewed them and adopted the Seven Principles that we have today, almost unanimously. They have not changed since then. This year at General Assembly we commissioned a review of our Principles, and we will see how that goes.
As time went on, and I won’t go into too much detail here, we adopted symbols and songs. The Flaming Chalice actually predates the UUA as a symbol, but we developed it as a logo. The Church of the Larger Fellowship was founded in 1944 and is now an independent congregation for anyone who does not have the ability to attend a local congregation. We have our own publishing companies, Skinner House for titles related to UU faith, history, and beliefs, and Beacon Press, which publishes books with reach beyond our denominational boundaries, but which still uphold our principles.
So the road has not always been smooth. There have been inevitable bumps, and we are still trying to smooth the way. But I believe what makes us different is this: one, we do not insist that people believe or act the way we believe they should. Second, is covenant. We agree in advance how to act, and it is that agreement, not enforcement of any rules that we assert came from God, that unites us. Universalist minister Hosea Ballou said, “If we agree in love, no disagreement can do us any harm. If we do not agree in love, no other agreement can do us any good.”