The Unitarian and Universalist consolidation process continues to this day.
In describing the consolidation, historians have often used the metaphor of a flirtation that lasted 100 years, an engagement in 1959, then marriage in 1961—the final legal incorporation of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the date most often remembered.
But the most significant date was October 31, 1959, argues Barry E. Lentz of the St. Lawrence District, who is organizing a fiftieth anniversary conference to revisit the issues of consolidation this fall in Syracuse, N.Y., where the two denominations voted to unite. On that day, nearly 1,000 delegates—some 400 Universalists and 600 Unitarians—had gathered and approved the last, and most contentious, of the 57 amendments before them, the wording of the “Purposes and Objectives” of the new Unitarian Universalist Association. The final approved text referred to “the Judeo-Christian heritage,” language that would remain until the UUA adopted new Principles and Purposes in 1985.
The story is sometimes remembered as a marriage of convenience between the upper-class, intellectual Unitarians and the working-class, heartfelt Christian Universalists, although those stereotypes held more truth in centuries past. By the 1950s, both denominations had urban and rural churches across the country, both had embraced humanists in their midst, and both had memberships with a good representation of the educated and professional classes.
Both sides also had fears and hopes for the consolidation; both had members for and against it.
The Universalist Church of America, which had been in decline for much of the twentieth century, needed to find an outside infusion of strength. Still, many Universalists feared they would be swallowed up—“submerged rather than merged”—by the larger, stronger Unitarian denomination. Some Unitarians feared that consolidating with the Universalists might be a drag on the Unitarian growth engine.
Some of the fears have, arguably, been borne out. The UUA headquarters continued at 25 Beacon Street, the Unitarians’ denominational home, and the Unitarians’ president, the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, became the first UUA president. The last two Universalist theological schools were shut down. And despite efforts to maintain both names, the media, as well as many UUs themselves, often drop the “Universalist” from the name.
Something was indeed lost, Universalists who were in Syracuse in 1959 say. At the time Universalists were broadening their theological exploration in a search for world fellowship, said the Rev. David Bumbaugh, who was a delegate from the small Ohio Universalist church he served at the time. “The important work Universalists were doing never got done,” he said. “We spend much too much time thinking, ‘How do we position ourselves to grow?’ rather than, ‘Who are we, and what precisely is our message to this age?’”
In the early twentieth century Universalism had moved beyond the theological idea that a loving God does not send people to hell, to a more demanding and radical “ethical universalism,” as the Rev. Dr. Richard Gilbert calls it: that we, not just God, must love and treat equally everyone in the human family, as they are. That, he says, is still a distinctive doctrine for us today, and a difficult ideal.
“I think we’re in the process of recovering the genius of Universalism—the idea of a human family, an acceptance of world religions, marriage equality, racial equality,” Gilbert says. “The Universalist message is critical for a time when things seem to be coming apart.”
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Kimberly French, a UU World contributing editor, has also written for Salon, Tikkun, Utne Reader, and other publications. She leads the Climate Justice Team at First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleborough, Massachusetts, and chairs her town’s Community Preservation Committee.
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