Funding completed for Ralph Waldo Emerson Professor; scholar will study Unitarian Universalism and other liberal religious traditions.
“This new professorship will enable Harvard Divinity School to devote much-needed scholarly attention to Unitarian Universalism and related religious and philosophical traditions,” said Professor William A. Graham, dean of the divinity school, in an announcement released jointly with the UUA.
The new professorship was announced on May 25, the 203rd anniversary of Emerson’s birth and the 181st anniversary of the formation of the American Unitarian Association.
Although Harvard Divinity School is nondenominational, it has historical significance for Unitarian Universalists and continues to educate many UU ministers. A controversial faculty appointment 200 years ago provoked a schism between liberal and orthodox Congregationalists in New England. Known as the “Unitarian Controversy,” the battle over Harvard’s theological orientation soon divided many of the oldest churches in Massachusetts and led to the formation of a Unitarian denomination.
Harvard’s graduate school of divinity was identified with liberal theology generally and with Unitarianism specifically from the 1820s into the mid-twentieth century, when the school was transformed into an internationally recognized non-denominational seminary and graduate school of religion.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, after whom the professorship is named, was a student at HDS and a Unitarian minister early in his career. A prominent American thinker and writer, he was one of the leading exponents of Transcendentalism, a philosophy that influenced the course of American intellectual history as well as Unitarianism’s theological development in the nineteenth century.
“There is no better place than Harvard Divinity School to carry on Emerson’s legacy of incisive and wide-ranging scholarship,” said the Rev. William G. Sinkford, president of the UUA, in the joint announcement.
The Emerson professorship is one of many endowed chairs at Harvard Divinity School. There are professorships in Buddhist studies, Christian studies, Jewish studies, Islamic studies, African American religious studies, comparative theology, and pastoral care and counseling, among others. Although Harvard professors have paid attention to Unitarian Universalist history and theology, the new chair recognizes Unitarian Universalism as an area of study in its own right.
The chair was funded by initial grants from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, N.Y., and the Liberal Religious Charitable Society, which gained substantial value over the years. Two recent gifts of $250,000 each, from Alice Schulman and the late Rev. Dr. J. Frank Schulman, and from W. Lowell Steinbrenner and Janice Steinbrenner, completed the funding for the $3.5 million professorship.
Lowell Steinbrenner, a member of the UUA President’s Council and the UUA Congregational Properties and Loan Commission, is an engineer and the retired chair of Contours, Ltd., a specialty steel company he cofounded in 1970. Steinbrenner founded the UU Fellowship of Wayne County in Wooster, Ohio, and has served on the board of the Church of the Larger Fellowship. He earned a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1987.
“I feel it’s important that the Unitarian Universalist movement have a chair at Harvard Divinity School to have a voice or spokesperson representing liberal and UU theological viewpoints,” Steinbrenner told uuworld.org. He noted that it was especially meaningful that he and Schulman jointly financed part of the professorship because Schulman was minister of the first UU church he attended in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1960.
The Liberal Religious Charitable Society (LRCS), one of the professorship’s original benefactors, was founded in 1978 as a support organization for the UUA. Robert Adelman, vice president of LRCS and the UUA’s financial advisor from 1973 to 1981, said, “We wanted to make sure that Harvard had a UU presence, especially to teach the history of Unitarian Universalism.”
The Rev. Dr. Barry Andrews, minister of religious education at Shelter Rock and former chair of the UUA Panel on Theological Education (as well as the chair of the UUA’s Emerson bicentennial celebration in 2003), spoke on behalf of his congregation, one of the initial funders of the professorship. “The chair will have a direct effect on ministerial students,” he said, “but it’s also important for educating scholars. There is a dearth of scholars in our tradition. Once we fill the position we can attract more Ph.D. students.”
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Jane Greer is a former senior editor of UU World magazine.
Christopher L. Walton is editor of UU World. He holds degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Utah and is a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.
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