The unfulfilled dream

The Unitarian Universalist Association  celebrates its golden anniversary.

We neglected the Universalist challenge of restating our core convictions in contemporary terms.

Image: © Dan Page Collection/

© Dan Page Collection/


As the 22-year-old lay minister of the Universalist Church in Lyons, Ohio, I attended the Universalist Church of America’s biennial General Assembly in Syracuse, New York, in 1959, where concurrent assemblies of Universalists and Unitar­ians hammered out the plan for merging the two denominations. As editor of the Ohio Universalist, I had made clear my support for some kind of merger with Unitarians. I voted for it.

Two years later, at the UUA’s inaugural General Assembly in Boston, I cast my ballot again in support of bringing the new Association into existence. When the moderator announced the result of the vote, I should have been among those who stood applauding. It was, after all, an outcome for which I had vigorously campaigned. Instead, I stood at the side of the hall, weeping. A great sadness swept over me as I witnessed the end of the separate history of Universalism in America. I felt that I had just voted away my only religious home.

In the years that have passed, I have spent my life in service to the Unitarian Universalist Association; but, in truth, I have never felt fully at home in that Association. As I have come to know and understand more of the history of the two parent organizations, I have come to realize that the root of my discomfort lies in fundamental differences between Unitarianism and Universalism—differences that we were quick to paper over in the drive to consolidate the two movements. Those differences can be understood as divergent attitudes toward diversity—attitudes that are rooted deep within the emergence of Unitarianism and Universalism on this continent.

From the beginning, Unitarians were reluctant to be defined or to define themselves theologically. They had significant differences with some of the other clergy; no one denied that fact. They simply refused to concede that those differences mattered. They, after all, were part of the religious establishment in New England and were determined to protect that role. When their opponents pressed them on what they believed, our proto-Unitarian forebears protested that discussion of theological differences could only prove divisive. As wide a range of beliefs as possible should be tolerated in order to move people gradually toward a greater truth. Throwing around theological labels would only confuse people and distract them from the real focus of religion, the real purpose of life—ongoing, endless, rigorous self-culture and moral improvement.

As recently as 1944, a committee chaired by A. Powell Davies had issued a statement of “Five Principles of Modern Unitarianism”:

Individual freedom of belief;
Discipleship to advancing truth;
Democratic process in human relations;
Universal brotherhood, undivided by nation, race, or creed; [and]
Allegiance to the cause of a United World Community.

A quick reading of this statement makes it clear that this is not an attempt at theological or even religious definition. Rather it is a programmatic statement intended to suggest and support an important social vision. It does little to root that vision in any specific religious claim. Indeed, it is a statement of principles that a wide array of groups, religious and secular, could readily embrace.

This historic propensity played itself out in Syracuse in 1959, as the Unitarians struggled to find language that would allow the greatest diversity and alienate the fewest people. Jesus was a problem: To embrace Jesus too closely might drive away people who could not affirm a Christian identity. To ignore Jesus was to risk alienating those who defined themselves as Christian. The Unitarians went back and forth on this issue as they attempted to find the path to diversity in this thicket of theological definition. How strongly would they affirm the Jewish and Christian roots of the movement? That was finally finessed by affirming the importance of “the Judeo-Christian heritage” rather than “our Judeo-Christian heritage.” Here, at the penultimate moment, Unitarians were recapitulating their history of evading theological definition and opting for diversity.

Universalists brought a quite different history to this seminal moment. Universalists did not have roots in the religious establishment. From the very beginning, they were dissenters, come-outers, separatists. For a variety of reasons, Universalists had found it necessary to define themselves with clarity. In 1803 they adopted the Winchester Profession, a theological statement of who they were and what vision they served. Over the years, they worked to restate their central theological identity in ways that addressed the changing context in which they found themselves. Their very existence depended upon their willingness to state clearly how they differed from more conventional religious formulations.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century Universalism began a serious decline that cascaded toward catastrophe in the early years of the twentieth century. Perhaps they had been spectacularly successful in spreading their gospel into the larger religious community; perhaps they had been devastated by vast, unanticipated demographic changes; perhaps they lusted after respectability and wanted to fold themselves quietly into the religious mainstream. Whatever the reason, the decline was real and threatened the very existence of the movement. Ultimately, Universalists confronted their decline as a theological challenge. They sought to shape a “new Universalism,” a reformulation of the faith tradition that could address with power the challenges and opportunities of a world grown small and dangerous. They saw a clear formulation of the faith as the way to reverse decline.

In 1935, the Universalist General Assembly, meeting in Washington, D.C., adopted, without dissent, a new statement of faith. It read:

We avow our faith: In God as eternal and all-conquering love; In the spiritual leadership of Jesus; In the supreme worth of every human personality; In the authority of truth, known or to be known; And in the power of men of goodwill and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.

Unlike the later Unitarian Statement of Principles, this was a theological statement; it departed in significant ways from earlier faith statements, but it affirmed Universalism’s ancient, central commitments, it spoke of those commitments in the language of the day, and it rooted the call for social justice in a religious vision. Advocates of the new Universalism dreamed of creating a religion that could speak with power to the emergent one-world community coming into being around them. This led them to engage virtually all the theological categories that had structured their tradition and to reform that tradition for a new time and a new context. This process continued throughout the years leading up to consolidation.

Contrary to contemporary, conventional claims, diversity was always more highly prized among Unitarians than it was among Universalists. Consequently, Unitarians and Univer­salists brought quite different agendas to the debate about consolidation. Much of the Universalist opposition to consolidation was theological in nature. Traditionalists feared that the new movement would strengthen the hands of those who sought to move Universalism to an enlarged and non-Christian theological base. On the other hand, much of the Unitarian opposition was institutionally focused. Unitarian critics feared, as A. Powell Davies had suggested very early in the discussion of merger, that consolidation with the Universalists would slow or halt the numerical growth that had allowed Unitarians to claim to be the fastest growing denomination in American in the 1950s. I have sometimes summarized the two agendas by suggesting that Universalists brought to the consolidation an unfinished but important theological project, while Unitarians brought to the consolidation a set of highly questionable marketing plans grounded in a commitment to the central value of diversity.

I would suggest that in the years after consolidation, this concern for marketing and diversity has triumphed. The overriding concerns have centered upon the need to identify and enlarge our market niche and to devise programs and strategies to attract and keep clients. Our efforts at self-definition are grounded in no deep confession of faith, no significant meta-narrative. This becomes clear when we consider the all-but-sanctified Principles and Purposes. They simply hang there as unanchored assertion—not a covenant, but a temporal agreement—and because that is so, they betray the fact that a primary motivating force in their construction was to offend none of our stake holders, while being so general that likely recruits will not find us so clearly defined as to offer a significant challenge.

Over and over, we hear each other and officials of the Association proclaim the conviction that we have a moral obligation to grow, to spread our word because we possess a vital message, one that is of central importance to the world and to the crises in which the world is entangled. When, however, we are challenged to say what that message is, what our faith consists of, what defines us as a religious people, often we are driven to an embarrassed silence, or we smile smugly and confess that no one can speak for all Unitarian Universalists, or we stutter and stammer and mutter some half-digested clichés about the worth of every person or the importance of embracing each person’s freedom to follow his or her own spiritual path. Those are not wrong affirmations, but they provide an incredibly weak foundation for a religious movement and a wholly inadequate program for saving the world. They offer unexamined truisms rather than a solid faith.

The unfinished task Universalists brought to consolidation—the effort to restate the faith tradition in light of contemporary challenges—has been swept away by the fear—one that echoes throughout Unitarian history—that if we define ourselves too clearly, someone may be offended.

If we are to be the religious movement some of us dreamed fifty years ago, if we are to respond to the needs of the world from a liberal religious basis, it is critical that we be able to address and answer three central questions: What do we believe? Whom do we serve? To whom or what are we responsible?

What is so central to our identity that we must proclaim it, even at the risk of offending someone? Universalists brought to the merger—besides a chunk of money—a theological perspective. Universalism was centered on an abiding conviction that we are all children of the same great love, that we are all fated to a common destiny, that nothing any of us might do will serve to sever us from that great community, and, therefore, there can be no division of the human race into sheep and goats. It was not a popular theology in a world shattered by depression and world war, divided by cold-war ideology, and in a nation bent on becoming an empire. But, even though we had diverse ways of expressing it, that was our theology. Embedded deep in that vision was a deep embrace of a more profound diversity, which was a consequence of a theological vision, not a pragmatic desire for growth.

The dreams that had captured many of us who were part of that process—dreams of a vastly revitalized liberal religious movement that could challenge conventional religious thinking and reconfigure the society in which we found ourselves—now seem, in some ways, naïve and foolish. The energy that was brought to the consolidation of two ancient traditions has been spent in servicing the resulting institution. We are not much larger than we were in 1961. Indeed, we may be smaller. Our influence in the world has not grown significantly. Our message, our vision, have become confused and unclear. Institutional survival, tinkering with styles of governance, schemes for growth have replaced any definitive gospel, and a hunger for diversity has blinded us to the reality that true diversity would require that we be clear about who we are and what we believe so that there is some center around which to be diverse.

Perhaps it is only the frustration of one who has grown old in service to the dream that was born fifty years ago, but I long for the day when we take up once more the unfinished agenda that Universalism brought to this movement. I long for the day when we will boldly address those three central questions: What do we believe? Whom do we serve? To whom or what are we responsible? Those are the questions with which every viable religious movement must wrestle. So long as those essential questions remain unaddressed, the dream will remain unfulfilled.

Adapted from an address delivered at the October 2009 conference in Syracuse, New York, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the vote to unite the Universalist and Unitarian denominations.

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