UUs Who Made a Difference

UUs Who Made a Difference

Unitarians and Universalists have a long history of advocating for justice. Here are just a few who left their mark on the world. Who would be on your short list?

Staff Writer


Judith Sargent Murray

Portrait painting of Judith Stevens (c.1770-1772), before her marriage to John Murray

Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820) was a pioneering writer, advocate for women’s rights, and member of the first Universalist church. Her essay “On the Equality of the Sexes” (1790) asserted that women and men were spiritual and intellectual equals.

Read more about Judith Sargent Murray. (womenshistory.org)

(Terra Foundation for American Art)

Photography ©Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago

Henry David Thoreau

Drawing of Henry David Thoreau

“Civil Disobedience” (1848) justified refusing to pay a poll tax because the government condoned and abetted slavery. Born to a Unitarian family, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) profoundly influenced a faith he stepped away from. Walden, his chronicle of semi-self-reliant living, is a touchstone of the environmental movement.

Read more about Henry David Thoreau. (UU World)

Image copyright D.C. Sturgess (NYPL; Astor, Lenox, & Tilden Foundations)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Woodcut portrait of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911), a member of First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, has been called “the most prominent African American woman writer of her generation.” Her address to the Eleventh Women’s Rights Convention (1866) implored white suffragists to rise above “their airy nothings and selfishness,” which reinforced the oppression of Black women, and build a truly inclusive movement.

Read more about Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. (UU World)

(House Divided Project, Dickinson College)

Image courtesy House Divided Project, Dickinson College

The Rev. Joseph H. Jordan

The Rev. Joseph H. Jordan (1842–1901, no known photo), the first Black person ordained a Universalist minister, launched a school for Black children in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1887 that operated until 1906, part of a broader movement to support Black people through the Jim Crow era. Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism named a symposium in 2019 after Harper and Jordan.

Read more about the Rev. Joseph H. Jordan. (UUA.org)

Martha Sharp and the Rev. Waitstill Sharp waving
Martha and the Rev. Waitstill Sharp

Unitarians Martha Sharp (1905–1999) and the Rev. Waitstill Sharp (1902–1983) orchestrated the rescue of hundreds of adults and children from the Nazis. In 1940, they established what is now the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, one of the world’s leading voices for international justice and human rights.

Read more about the Sharps. (UU World)

Image copyright William T. Hoff (Brown Digital Repository/Brown University Library)

Whitney M. Young Jr.

Whitney Young standing next to a bookcase reading a book

Civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr. (1921–1971) fought workplace discrimination, especially through the National Urban League, which he led from 1961–1971. He and his wife integrated the Unitarian Universalist church in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1954; he later served on the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Commission on Religion and Race.

Read more about Whitney M. Young Jr. (PDF) (meadville.edu)

Photo copyright New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

Viola Liuzzo

Viola Liuzzo

Viola Liuzzo (1925–1965) was 39 when she was killed by Ku Klux Klan members near Selma, Alabama, where she was supporting the 1965 civil rights march to Montgomery. The UU activist from Detroit was one of dozens of laypeople who came to Alabama after the murder of the Rev. James Reeb, one of many UU ministers who rushed to Selma at the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s urgent request.

Read more about Viola Liuzzo, the Rev. James Reeb, and Selma. (UU World)

Photo copyright AP

Julie and Hillary Goodridge

Julie and Hillary Goodridge celebrate as they leave their wedding

Julie and Hillary Goodridge were two of seven UUs among the plaintiffs in Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, the case that brought marriage equality to Massachusetts in 2003 and paved the way for national marriage equality in 2015. On May 17, 2004, the Goodridges were among the first same-sex couples legally married in the United States, in a ceremony officiated by UUA President William G. Sinkford.

Read more about the Goodridges and the fight for marriage equality. (UU World)

Image: Julie and Hillary Goodridge on their wedding day at UUA headquarters in Boston.

Photo copyright AP/Winslow Townson

Levi Draheim

Levi Draheim at the UU Ministry for Earth’s Procession of the Species at the 2019 UUA General Assembly

Levi Draheim is the youngest of 21 plaintiffs in the landmark 2015 case of Juliana v. United States, in which children and young people argued that the government is violating the public trust doctrine and their Fifth Amendment rights to “life, liberty, or property” by failing to reduce carbon emissions and protect natural resources. In 2018, Draheim, a Florida UU, received the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth’s Guardian of the Future award.

Read more about Levi Draheim and the climate lawsuit. (UU World)

Photo copyright Nancy Pierce/UUA

Standing Rock

UUA President Peter Morales addresses a crowd at a Standing Rock protest

On November 3, 2016, fifty UU ministers, including UUA President Peter Morales, joined 500 clergy to support protests by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota to block the expansion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which cut across land of great cultural importance to the Tribe and posed a potentially serious threat to the region’s water supply. UUs took part in the nearly two years of demonstrations.

Read more about Unitarian Universalists at Standing Rock. (UU World)

Photo copyright Dea Brayden/UUA

Elandria Williams

Elandria Williams

Elandria Williams (1979–2020), an economic and racial justice organizer and trainer who empowered youth leaders, focused on Appalachia but trained organizers working on several continents. E was a founder of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism and served as co-moderator of the UUA with the Rev. Mr. Barb Greve.

Read more about Elandria Williams. (UU World)

Photo copyright Christopher L. Walton/UUA