We may not have saints and shrines, but Unitarian Universalists do visit the scenes of our tradition's great stories.
Nineteenth-century American Unitarians were mocked for believing in the “neighborhood of Boston,” but you’d have a hard time getting to every major historic site in the Boston area related to Unitarianism and Universalism on even an extended trip.
The first Universalist congregation in the United States, founded in 1779, still worships in its 1805 meetinghouse in Gloucester, Massachusetts; early feminist Judith Sargent Murray, wife of the church’s founding minister, is remembered at the Sargent House Museum. Tufts University, in Medford, began as a Universalist seminary; its (stuffed) elephant mascot Jumbo was donated to the school by Universalist layman and circus impresario P.T. Barnum. In Boston itself, UU visitors stop outside the Charles Street Meetinghouse to recall the experimental worship that made it famous during its thirty years as a Universalist church from 1949 to 1979.
North of Boston, Universalist history buffs look to the past—and future—each September at the John Murray Day Service at Universalist Memorial Church in Winchester, New Hampshire, where Universalists adopted the profession of faith that defined them for more than a century. At Ferry Beach in Saco, Maine, UUs revere the memory of the circuit-riding minister Quillen Hamilton Shinn.
Unitarianism dominated Boston in the early 1800s, and testaments to its heyday are everywhere. A large statue in the Public Garden commemorates the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, for example; his name is part of a ceiling frieze at the Boston Public Library; and his house is marked with a plaque on Mt. Vernon Street. Many of the city’s oldest churches once belonged to Unitarian congregations. Three downtown churches still do: King’s Chapel (built 1754), Arlington Street Church (built 1861), and First Church (rebuilt 1972). But Transcendentalism, the spiritual, literary, and reform movement that transformed Unitarianism in the 1840s and ’50s, attracts a broader range of pilgrims—from Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s Boston bookshop (now a restaurant), where Margaret Fuller edited The Dial and led women’s study groups, to sites in Concord associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Alcott family, and Henry David Thoreau. Pilgrims leave stones at Thoreau’s cabin site at Walden Pond and at his grave in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.
UU seminarians at Harvard Divinity School offer a guided tour of historic sites in Boston and Cambridge. Download a self-guided walking tour of thirty-four downtown Boston sites from the UUA. Although the UUA is no longer leading tours of its Beacon Hill headquarters as it prepares to sell the 1926 building, its new headquarters on Farnsworth Street will include something 25 Beacon Street never had: a Heritage and Vision Center, with spaces specifically designed for visitors.
The civil rights movement galvanized UUs in the mid-twentieth century—and cost two their lives. Visitors to Selma, Alabama, find monuments to two white UU activists who died responding to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for allies on a 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery protesting the killing of a young black man, Jimmie Lee Jackson, and demanding voting rights for African Americans. President Lyndon B. Johnson invoked the murder of the Rev. James Reeb, who flew to Selma with many other UU clergy at King’s invitation, when he pressed Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a UU volunteer who drove down from Detroit, was murdered in her car ten days later by the Ku Klux Klan. But it took years before she was properly hailed as a hero: the FBI smeared her reputation to cover up the complicity of an FBI informant in her death.
The UU Living Legacy Project and the UU College of Social Justice are leading a weeklong pilgrimage in Mississippi July 5–12 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer. UUs will then gather in Selma in March 2015 with many others to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma campaign.
Unitarianism has old roots in Europe. Through the Partner Church Council, many U.S. congregations regularly send members to Transylvania to visit their partner churches in the Hungarian-speaking region of Romania, where Unitarianism has flourished since the 1500s. They often visit the ruins of the prison in Deva where Francis Davíd, the Unitarian founder and the instigator of Europe’s first official declaration of religious toleration, died in 1579. (The declaration was short-lived, alas.) One Transylvanian Unitarian church, in Székelyderzs/Dârjiu, is a thirteenth-century landmark on unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites.
Another early martyr to religious freedom, the Spanish physician and philosopher Michael Servetus, was burned at the stake in 1553 in John Calvin’s Geneva, Switzerland, for his outspoken anti-Trinitarianism. A statue in his honor was erected in Annemasse, France, in 1908 when Geneva refused to install it; a copy was finally placed in Geneva in 2011. Other pilgrims visit statues in Spain commemorating Servetus—in Villanueva de Sijena, his hometown, and in Zaragosa, where the medical school honors his scientific achievements—and in Paris.
The grave of the American Unitarian minister, scholar, and abolitionist Theodore Parker is, tragically, to be found in the English Cemetery in Florence, Italy, where he had gone in 1860 to recover from tuberculosis. Two of Parker’s phrases are now woven into the rug President Barack Obama installed in the Oval Office: “the arc of the moral universe is long,” which Martin Luther King Jr. adapted from Parker’s writing, and “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” which Abraham Lincoln picked up from one of his sermons.
We may not officially be a religious movement that reveres saints or that treats particular places as sacred, but that doesn’t seem to have robbed us of the thrill of discovering “famous UUs” or visiting the scenes of our tradition’s great stories. John Murray preached universal salvation in a small chapel on the New Jersey shore when he first arrived from England in 1770; UUs continue to gather on that site for conferences and retreats at Murray Grove. UUs come to the laboratory of the exiled English scientist (and eighteenth-century Unitarian minister) Joseph Priestley, in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, to celebrate more than just his discovery of the element oxygen. At the Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls, New York, UUs remember not only Unitarian suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who helped organize the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848, but also First Unitarian Church of Rochester, which hosted the second convention.
These days, we see Unitarian Universalism’s contemporary influence less in bronze statues than in the sight of Standing on the Side of Love shirts in news coverage of social change movements. Our pilgrimage sites are not so much monuments to the past as they are the places where we continue to gather to pursue justice and build a wider community.
This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of UU World (page 56-57). Illustrations (above): © Robert Neubecker.
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Christopher L. Walton was the editor of UU World and director of the UUA’s Periodicals staff group until June 2021. He holds degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Utah.
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