The final vote was in. The people had spoken—overwhelmingly-- in favor of the merger of their two denominations. The legal machinery was set in motion that would consolidate the two groups into one unified liberal church. So it was that on May 1, 1961—fifty years ago this very day—a service of worship was held at Symphony Hall in Boston to mark the birth of a new American religious denomination. As the officiating ministers processed into the hall, the delegates rose and sang:
As tranquil streams that meet and merge,
And flow as one to seek the sea,
Our kindred fellowships unite,
To build a church that shall be free.
With what high hopes the merger of the Unitarians and Universalists was greeted. As we have heard, it was a long process—about a hundred years long in all. But joined into one body at last, it finally seemed as though a new golden age of liberal religion in America might finally be at hand.
Oh, there were lingering voices of discontent, certainly. A few scoffed that the marriage was little more than a short-sighted marriage of convenience. The Unitarians had the people and the Universalists had the money, these voices said; that was the long and short of it. Others wondered why the mowing down of two small, struggling blades of grass should, in and of itself, guarantee a new and luxuriant lawn.
The voting within both churches had been overwhelmingly in favor of the merger, but neither was close to unanimous. Between 15 and 20 percent of both Universalists and Unitarians were opposed to it. A number of less traditional Unitarians worried about being tied down in a union with a group of Universalists they found too theologically conservative. On the other hand, there were more than a few Universalists who could not see themselves part of the same church as these (supposedly) “radical” Unitarian humanists.
But given the monumental nature of the task at hand, it is actually quite amazing that the Unitarian-Universalist merger came about as smoothly as it did. It is equally impressive, too, that it has persisted as strongly as it has. Certainly, there have been strains over the years, especially during the earlier period, when many Universalists felt they were being “submerged” rather than “merged”; subsumed by the more numerous (and often more outspoken) Unitarians. (Many of us birthright Universalists are still not pleased when we hear the name of our Unitarian Universalist faith shortened to “Unitarian” alone.)
But more and more, it seems that these are yesterday’s battles. For the majority of Unitarian Universalists today, these earlier issues mean absolutely nothing. Most of our members now have joined our denomination well after 1961. They have no “pre-merger” consciousness; no remembrance of a pre-merger religious existence. That, I think, is a good thing. We can let the dead bury the dead, and concentrate on what it means to build a thriving, strong Unitarian Universalist movement today, in our own time.
No, we are all one now.
However, we should nevertheless remember that, in their origins, Unitarianism and Universalism did represent distinct religious doctrines.
Early Unitarians affirmed that God was one, and not a trinity. Early Universalists believed in universal salvation, that is, they declared that God would ultimately save all people, and that a God of love, in the end, would damn none of his creation to eternal punishment in Hell.
But it is also an historical fact that, from the early days of both movements here in America, there were many noted Unitarians who also subscribed to a belief in universal salvation. And within a generation after the founding of Universalist churches in the New World. By the early 1800s, it is fair to say that most Universalists were, in fact, unitarian (that is, non-trinitarian) in their view of God.
To be sure, differences in emphases would remain between the two groups. Unitarians would emphasize the search for truth; Universalists, the power of love. More and more, Unitarians would come to see human reason as their main source of religious authority, while most Universalists would continue to look to the Bible for religious inspiration and support. Unitarians tended to be more urbane, more intellectual. The chief mode of religious expression for Universalists tended more toward the “spiritual” or the emotional, than toward the exclusively intellectual or rational.
Throughout the nineteenth century, differences did exist between the Unitarians and the Universalists. But it’s very important to note that these were never antagonistic differences. The views of one side never derided or precluded the views of the other. Then, in the years following the Civil War, both religious groups would move, with ever-accelerating speed, beyond their exclusively Christian, Protestant origins, and toward a more inclusive, broader based, more universalized faith. This trend continued into the twentieth century, as both groups developed into religious movements which sought to hold together two divergent wings, traditional and radical, theist and humanist, both Christian and non-Christian.
Perhaps within Universalism, the Humanist contingent was proportionally somewhat smaller than it was in Unitarianism. Perhaps more Universalists held onto their traditional ways of doing things, and were more likely to employ more traditional religious language. But within the Unitarian movement, too, there was a wide variety of theological opinion. There were Unitarians who were just as traditional in their theological views as were the more “conservative” Universalists.
Universalism, too, was changing during this time—and changing quite rapidly, as well. As early as 1870, there was an attempt to relocate the central emphasis of Universalism away from the Christian idea of “universal salvation” and toward a more “universal religion”. This sense of a truly universal Universalism—of a Universalism beyond Christianity—would become the dominant strand within the Universalist denomination by the middle of the twentieth century.
I think it’s fair to say that, by the 1960s, most Unitarians and most Universalists were saying, basically, the same things when it came to matters religious. The time for unity seemed to be at hand.
I was six years old when the Unitarian-Universalist merger took place. I was, of course, an extremely precocious child, but I still think it’s safe to say that it wasn’t a big item on my radar screen. (I think there were radar screens back then.) My guess is that, in the Universalist church in which I grew up in Woonsocket (like Stoughton, another Universalist church that voted “no”, according to the official tally), the subject was not discussed very much, if at all. No one in that church would have ever dared to insinuate that we were anything but Universalists (and proud of it).
I didn’t learn that I was “half Unitarian” until I went away to summer camp at Ferry Beach in Maine in the fifth grade, when I was about 12 or so (that would be around 1966). I remember coming back home to Woonsocket feeling so proud of the stories I had heard about the brave stand taken by our ministers in Selma and Montgomery, in support of the civil rights movement. I came back energized by the openness and honesty I had glimpsed in these “other” UUs—the first Unitarian Universalists from outside my own church that I had ever gotten to know. And, history geek that I was (and am), I came back from camp intrigued by this new dual heritage of which I now was part.
Perhaps the greatest thing we Universalists gained by merging with the Unitarians back in 1961 was a share in that great and glorious heritage. No one can deny the splendid contributions made by Unitarians throughout the history of our country. Just listen to the names of those famous Unitarians of the past: Adams (both of them), Jefferson, Channing, Emerson, Thoreau, Lowell, Hawthorne, Whittier, Whitman—right down to Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, Adlai Stevenson, and Linus Pauling in the twentieth century. Just to be able to claim that heritage as one’s own—what a precious legacy!
But let us never forget, too, the brilliance of our Universalist heritage. So, many of the most noted educational institutions in America (including Tufts University) were originally founded by Universalists. Universalists were the first denomination in America to ordain women into their ministry. It was the first denomination to state publicly its opposition to slavery, and to capital punishment. The greatest of all abolitionists, William Lloyd Garrison, was a Universalist. So was Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. So was Horace Greeley, who told us to “Go west, young man, go west!” So was P.T. Barnum.
We need to work—work very hard indeed—to make our Unitarian Universalist present worthy of both our Unitarian and Universalist past.
Now, I will admit that that name—Unitarian Universalist—can be a bit unwieldy at times. But I’ve gotten use to unwieldy names, and I decided long ago that, if I was going to have to spell my name every time I made restaurant reservation, that it wasn’t that much more onerous to have to spell my religion, too. But it was unusual, back when I lived in Maine and we all still had typewriters, to have to eventually replace the “U” key on mine (along with the “Y”), as well as the more usual “A” “E” and “I”.
For while that name—Unitarian Universalist—might seem at first listen to have all the phonetic resonance of “Hippopotamus Rhinoceros”, there is, nonetheless, something quite brilliant about it as well. For those two words remind us of the essence of our religious search: the search for that which is unitary and universal. It reminds us of our deep spiritual need, in all of our magnificent diversity, to know that we are united—one—interdependent—with all of the universe. In that somewhat unwieldy name of our faith, two deep instincts within the human soul—the unitary and the universal—meet and merge, as well.
Thirty years ago, today, May 15, 1981, I was voted into the Unitarian Universalist ministry by the Fellowship Committee of the UUA. (I was ordained by the First Universalist Church of Woonsocket later that month.) That was the twentieth anniversary of the UU merger, and now, here we are at the fiftieth. Those of us who were Young Turks back then have become the old-timers of our ministry. Time flies when you’re having fun. That’s just how life is.
But of course, fifty years old is not very old for a religion, not at all. Ours is still, in some ways, a very young religious movement. But let us hope that ours is a youthfulness informed and deepened the experience and wisdom of centuries. May we be forever young. But may we also never fail to heed the lessons which the past has taught us.
A freedom which reveres the past,
But trusts the dawning future more,
And bids the soul in search of truth
Adventure boldly and explore.
Prophetic church, the future waits
Your liberating ministry.
Go forward in the power of love,
Proclaim the truth that makes us free.