Despite difficulties, Unitarians and Universalists have forged a new identity together.
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I began my ministry in 1952, an exciting time of renewal for the Unitarian movement. New fellowships were being formed across the continent, and there was a mood of expansion and enthusiasm. Contributing to this optimism was the possibility of the Unitarians merging with the Universalists. Extensive and heated discussions were held amongst the churches in both denominations over a number of years. There had been a considerable amount of cooperation between the two small liberal denominations in such areas as the development of religious education materials and the publication of a joint hymnbook in 1937. Many felt that a structural union of the two would enhance the potential for liberal religion’s growth and greater influence in the larger society.
In 1960 the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association voted to become the Unitarian Universalist Association. In 1961, at the UUA’s first General Assembly, the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, president of the Unitarians, was elected the UUA’s first president. Greeley was a forceful and charismatic leader, and his administration began with a burst of new programs and expanded staff. Civil rights and peace were high on the agenda for moving into the larger society. Despite these bold initiatives, controversies within the Association and the dynamic changes taking place within American society in the 1960s thwarted the optimistic hopes of the new liberal religious movement.
Desegregation and integration were the goals of our racial justice efforts, but the rise within the civil rights movement of the black power movement—with its emphasis on oppression and its call for racial separation—had a devastating effect on Unitarian Universalism, as well as on most of the mainline Protestant denominations. To oversimplify, the black power movement within the UUA, with its demand for a sizable sum of money for its own empowerment, seriously fractured the Association, especially because these demands ran counter to our emphasis on integration.
By the end of Greeley’s eight years in office, the Association was running out of money due to over-expansion. The membership was bitterly divided over the black empowerment demands, which the Association struggled to pay, in part. Many black members, few though they were within our movement, left the denomination. Disagreements about opposing the Vietnam War became another major source of controversy, and so, faced with financial difficulties and torn by serious conflict, the bright beginning began to dim.
When the new president, the Rev. Robert N. West, took office in 1969, he faced a severe financial crisis that was further exacerbated by the Association’s decision to have our publishing house, Beacon Press, publish the Pentagon Papers, a courageous decision, which no other publisher would make. Despite the U.S. government’s intense pressure, its harassment and threats, Beacon Press published the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Publishing and legal costs, however, threatened to bankrupt the Association.
Coming to the financial rescue of the Association was a small congregation on Long Island, New York. The Plandome church—now the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset—had received a bequest of royalties on natural gas and oil stock in Germany. What at first appeared to be stock of little value turned out to produce many millions of dollars a year in income. Through its Veatch Fund, named after benefactor Caroline Veatch, the church has helped our extension efforts, theological education, social justice programs, and many other programs.
Despite these controversies and conflicts, the Association published the groundbreaking About Your Sexuality curriculum for teenagers. (Twenty-five years later, it published a new, thoroughly updated sexuality curriculum, Our Whole Lives.) The UUA also took a strong stand against discrimination toward homosexuals and established an Office of Gay Concerns. The women’s movement was beginning to have a positive effect on UUA policies and programs, especially through the Women and Religion Resolution in 1977. By the end of the 1970s, the financial situation had stabilized, but budget, staff, and programs had been cut, membership was declining (as it was in most religious denominations), and morale amongst both lay people and ministers was low.
When I became president of the Association in 1979, after President Paul Carnes died two years into his term, the task was clear. We had to begin addressing our divisiveness, halt our decline in numbers, secure more adequate funding, revitalize our education programs, and speak more effectively to the pressing social issues of our time. We made growth our top priority, we began a new approach to fundraising with the launch of the UUA’s first capital campaign, and we negotiated with the Plandome congregation for the establishment of a UUA endowment fund. In order to articulate more clearly our Unitarian Universalist identity, we began a denomination-wide dialogue that resulted in our widely accepted statement of Principles and Purposes. Our extension efforts halted our membership decline and produced modest gains in membership for the first time in two decades.
In the following years, succeeding administrations have improved, strengthened, and enlarged these initiatives. In spite of the controversies and difficulties encountered in the early years, the merger of the Universalists and Unitarians has proved to be a good and positive venture. And while we remain a small religious movement, we have seen new growth and a distinctive Unitarian Universalist identity.
For twenty-seven years our adult membership continued to grow in every region of the country except New England, in contrast to other mainline Protestant denominations, until we began to see slight declines in 2009. For most of that time, growth in religious education enrollment exceeded membership growth everywhere. We were growing younger!
We have developed a theology centered on intellectual honesty, tolerance, interdependence, and compassion. We have become much more inclusive and pluralistic in our religious beliefs and in our religious communities. We have Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Humanist, and earth-centered Unitarian Universalists. We were the first denomination to achieve a fifty-fifty gender balance in our ordained clergy and were among the first to welcome openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons not only to our pews but also to our pulpits.
A new hymnbook, Singing the Living Tradition, was published in 1993 to give artistic expression to our increased diversity and to serve as a unifying force for our pluralistic religious movement. In 2001 we elected the Rev. William G. Sinkford as president, our first African American president, and in 2009 elected the Rev. Peter Morales, our first Latino president.
Our accomplishments since merger have been significant, but we still have much work to do to make our liberal religion more available to persons seeking a liberal faith, and to become a more influential voice for a democratic and just society and world at peace.
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The Rev. O. Eugene Pickett was president of the UUA from 1979 to 1985. Ordained in 1952, he served as minister of congregations in Florida, Virginia, and Georgia, as well as the Church of the Larger Fellowship. He is minister emeritus of the UU Congregation of Atlanta and the CLF and now lives on Cape Cod with his wife, church musician Helen Pickett.
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