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Marilyn Sewell

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Why Unitarians and Universalists Belong Together: A Fifty-Year Recollection

Posted: 06/13/2011 1:04 pm

A dramatic moment unfolded on May 23, 1960, for Unitarians and Universalists, two small liberal denominations that had considered a merger for at least a hundred years. Simultaneous sessions of both denominations met in adjoining rooms in John Hancock Hall in Boston. They were connected with a public address system which faltered in the midst of the historic proceedings. Scattered, passionate acrimony remained, but a strong positive vote was given on both sides. Donald Harrington, minister of New York's Community Church, proclaimed that on this day was created "a new world faith" which would stand alongside the other great American religions: Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish -- a bit grandiose for this new denomination, Unitarian Universalism, which numbered at the time a grand total of 141,821 members. The last formal act for consolidation took place on May 12, 1961, at the first annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston, when the constitution and by-laws were ratified.

Why had these two small, struggling denominations failed to join before this time? Do they really belong together? Some Universalists, who were ever more pious than Unitarians, would still say no. And many Unitarians have little understanding of what Universalists brought to the union, and so do precisely what the Universalists feared: disregard the Universalist heritage, referring to the denomination simply as "Unitarian."

The main problem with the merger always lay with the Universalists. They were the smaller of the two groups, with fewer resources and less stability. In fact, at the time of the merger, they brought only 36,864 members to the joint membership, about 25 percent of the total. But the domination of the Unitarians was not merely numerical -- there were class differences which had kept the two groups apart. Both groups emerged about the same time in this country -- at the end of the 18th century -- and both had roots in England, but the Unitarians came from upper-middle class stock, and the Universalists tended to be from rural areas and were less well educated. Their worship styles were different, too, the Unitarians tending toward the cool and intellectual, while the Universalists were warm and emotive. As one anti-merger Universalist put it, the Unitarians seemed more interested "in analyzing the nature of infinity ... than in the spirit of love. I ... feel that I ought to put on my company manners when I go into a Unitarian Church."

Nevertheless, the two groups had much in common. Most significantly, each was a free faith, with no creed, and both had a strong policy of congregational autonomy. They were compatible theologically, though each brought a different emphasis. The Unitarians brought the concept of "one God" rather than the Trinitarian God of conventional Christian churches. Too liberal for both Calvin and Luther, they had come out of the left wing of the Protestant Reformation, and were adamant that each person must be free to follow the dictates of conscience. The Universalists, who believed in the doctrine of universal salvation, were widely known for their tolerance and generosity of spirit. Both groups allowed the umbrella of their religion to encompass an increasingly diverse range of beliefs, including atheists, agnostics, humanists, Jews, as well as Christians. And by the time of their consolidation, the class differences were more historical and perceptual than otherwise, especially in urban settings. The merger, then, was a practical move to strengthen two small denominations that had limited resources. Long in coming, it was the right way to go, not only for pragmatic reasons, but because each faith continues to teach and strengthen the other.

I personally entered the church in the 1970's. Like a majority of the members, I was a "come-outer" from another faith, in my case Southern Baptist. As a newly divorced woman, I no longer felt welcome in the Baptist church, and so I found myself isolated, cut off from my community. One day as I was bemoaning my fate, my therapist said to me, "Why don't you go over to the Unitarian Universalist Church? There are a lot of divorced people over there." In the Baptist church, I could not be a deacon, much less a minister, but the Unitarian Universalists soon engaged me in leadership positions, and six years later, I was on my way to seminary at Starr King School for Religious Leadership in Berkeley, CA.

At that time a kind of cool academic intellectualism characterized the pulpits of many of our churches and fellowships. This approach emerged not only from the Unitarian emphasis on reason, but also from the influence of the Humanist Movement of the 1920's and 1930's, which dominated the lay-led churches that the UUA started from 1948-1967, mainly in university communities. That style began to be questioned as more women and gays and people of color entered our ministry. Newcomers to Unitarian Universalism were looking for more than intellectual searching -- they wanted spirituality. At the same time, many of the come-outers brought with them a fear of religion from their painful growing-up days in more dogmatic churches, so ministers had to work with that fear, reframing conventional theological language so these folks could feel safe to explore new forms of spirituality. Church music moved from the rigidity of all-classical, all the time, to music more ethnically and stylistically diverse.

And so today, we are Unitarian, with a strong emphasis on reason and learning. Our congregants tend to be highly educated and we love ideas. But we are not satisfied to rest there. We are also Universalists, wanting to explore emotional and spiritual depths, wanting to be whole persons, generous and loving and ever more inclusive. Considering population growth, we're not much bigger than we were 50 years ago, for only 0.3 percent of American adults identify as Unitarian Universalists. But we are influential far beyond our numbers, because we are found at the edge of change, wherever change is needed. We are informed, and we are passionate, heartful people. We are Unitarian Universalists, and we belong together.

 

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