UU Historical Highlights, Part 3:
The Arc of the UUniverse Bends Towards Merger
A Sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove, co-minister
Call to Worship:
I'm alert to St. Patrick's Day more this year than ever before, because Barbara and I will be flying to Ireland in a couple weeks, on April 1. But also, St Patrick's Day always means that the annual Earthly renewal of Spring is technically just a few days away.
I think we can all use some renewal right now. Our world seems very full of pain and loss, violence and hate. It's been a hard year, especially for some individuals among us, but also for anyone who loves peace, because there seems to be less of it in the world right now.
Part of me wonders why I should bother preaching, as I will momentarily, about our Unitarian Universalist history, when there is so much need to make sense out of the current struggles of this time. But then I realize that what we have here, in our church and in our religion, is peace. But not just an easy peace where everyone thinks and acts the same and agrees on everything or at least says they do.
No, we UUs encourage freethinking, we respect different opinions and beliefs, and we honor each person's unique approach to life. This isn't always easy. But we do it in peace and we create peace in our little corner of the world. We are peace. And that's important.
And our kind of liberal religious people have been doing this for a long time, so we come from a tradition of striving for peace amid difference. This is our religious identity, and my sermon today will describe how some of it has come to be, perhaps more than you want to know. But it's important, too, because we UUs are an example of how people of different beliefs can get along and be in peace together.
And that's a big contribution to a world that needs to know how peace can happen. We can show them, here at Paint Branch and everywhere we go. We can let our little lights shine in a big way.
SONG #118: This Little Light of Mine
READING: "The Things Most Commonly Believed To-day among Us" (1887)
NOTE: Sections beginning and ending with double asterisks (**) are portions that were left out of the preached sermon due to length. They are included herein as a bonus for the good reader's interest.
INTRO: In the Unitarianism of 115 years ago, we find striking similarities to what still percolates, generations later. This is one reason I love to examine history: there are significant thrusts and ideas that play out in very human lives, relationships and endeavors, but often outlive them and are carried on by succeeding personalities. In studying the ebbs and flows of historical impact, we can see better how meaning emerges and endures, often embodied by very human characters.
One such individual is William Channing Gannett, named after William Ellery Channing, who partnered with Gannett's father to launch the American Unitarian Association in 1825. This younger Gannett helped heal a denominational rift in the latter 19th century, post-Transcendentalist era by penning an eloquent statement that suited his times and may still speak to ours, albeit in somewhat dated language. I'll read it in a moment, but it may first help you to understand a bit of the setting.
Unitarians of this era who were more theologically radical than their northeastern founders often moved west, as befit the pioneering spirit of the developing country. ("West" here, mind you, means anything past NY State. Chicago was a distant outpost.) But their frontier heresies still reflected back quite painfully on more traditional Bostonian Unitarians, who challenged the right of these free-thinkers to even call themselves by the same name.
"The Issue in the West" as this debate came to be called, was ostensibly over whether Unitarians would include in their ranks those whose theology had expanded beyond even liberal Christianity into so-called Free Religion (the first flowering of religious humanism). A growing number of churches in the breakaway Western Unitarian Conference were inclined in that direction, although others out there were quite willing to stay with the more traditional theology, so-called Christian Theism. **True to form, those rebelling from the rebels even created a short-lived alternative institution, the Western Unitarian Association, to be stay more aligned with the Boston crowd.**
This fractious and polarized although still polite atmosphere threatened to splinter what was already not a very strong or numerous body. (In contrast, the more pious Universalists were in their heyday in the 1880s the sixth largest US denomination without much organization or internal controversy.)
Into the Unitarian fray stepped William Channing Gannett, minister-at-large for the Western Conference. With a poetical style, he had contributed to the 1880 hymnal, and three sets of his lyrics remain in our present hymnal, especially the uplifting #187, "It Sounds Along the Ages." At a critical meeting of the Western Conference in 1887 he offered a few carefully crafted paragraphs that opened the door to continued peaceful collaboration between Unitarians of differing theologies. It was adopted by a vote of 59-13. Without this pivotal statement, it is quite conceivable that our Unitarian foundation would have broken in pieces even before reaching the 20th century, let along merger with the Universalists.
**One sympathetic humanist historian writing in the mid-20th century [Charles H. Lyttle, in Freedom Moves West], presented the historic passage with this glowing preamble: "Gannett's Statement remains the most comprehensively and nobly conceived, the most justly and persuasively argued, the most ethically inspired and the most beautifully expressed document of its kind in all Unitarian history."**
The outvoted western Theists were quite a bit less enthusiastic and tried to ignore the statement, but it carried the day nonetheless. **Even the mainstream Unitarian journal, The Christian Register, called it "a glorious presentation of Unitarian beliefs which command the allegiance and the love of the human heart and mind."**
Here are Gannett's words, which I've only slightly edited. It begins with his preamble, then lists what he called:
"The Things Most Commonly Believed To-day among Us" (1887):
The Western Conference has neither the wish nor the right to bind a single member by declarations concerning fellowship or doctrine. Yet it thinks some practical good may be done by setting forth in simple words the things most commonly believed among us, the Statement being always open to re-statement and to be regarded only as the thought of the majority.
All names that divide "religion" are to us of little consequence compared with religion itself. Whoever loves Truth and lives the Good is, in a broad sense, of our religious fellowship; whoever loves the one or lives the other better than ourselves is our teacher, whatever church or age [they] may belong to.
Because we have no "creed" which we impose as a condition of fellowship, specific statements of belief abound among us, always somewhat differing, always largely agreeing. One such we offer here:
"We believe that to love the Good and live the Good is the supreme thing in religion;
"We hold reason and conscience to be final authorities in matters of religious belief;
"We honor the Bible and all inspiring scripture, old and new;
"We revere Jesus, and all holy souls that have taught truth and righteousness and love, as prophets of religion.
"We believe in the growing nobility of [Humanity];
"We trust the unfolding Universe as beautiful, beneficent, unchanging Order; to know this order is truth; to obey it is right and liberty and stronger life;
"We believe that good and evil invariably carry their own recompense, no good thing being failure and no evil thing success; that heaven and hell are states of being; that no evil can befall the good [person] in either life or death; that all things work together for the victory of Good.
"We believe that we ought to join hands and work to make the good things better and the worst good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all;
"We believe that this self-forgetting, loyal life awakes in [us] the sense of union here and now with things eternal the sense of deathlessness; and this sense is to us an earnest of a life to come.
"We worship One-in-All that Life whence suns and stars derive their orbits and the soul of [humanity] its [fullness], that Light which lighteth every[one] that cometh into the world, giving us power to become the [children] of God, that Love with which our souls commune."
I begin this third and last in a series of "UU History Highlights" with William Channing Gannett's unifying 1887 statement of "Things Commonly Believed Among Us" because it adequately points us toward the 20th century and certainly points out one of the abiding challenges that link our time with theirs. How does a non-creedal religion hold itself together, let alone grow? Religious groups have always tried to express their commonalties, but from Gannett's offering on, the added dimension in Unitarianism has been to be inclusive of theological diversity. The Sunday Bulletin in your hands contains our collective latest effort, a statement of UU "Principles and Purposes."
A month ago, my second sermon tried to describe how a few rebellious Unitarian Transcendentalists of the first half of the 19th century projected personal religion beyond traditional Christianity. This did indeed set in motion a subsequent generation of free-thinkers who carried the idea further, beyond what even some elder Transcendentalists were comfortable with: "Free Religion" that dropped most Christian theology altogether. And here we are, a century later, still trying to find a balance in this still heretical posture.
Today I invite you on an all too superficial journey through a whole century of development, what another writer calls "one hundred years of courtship" between two denominations&Mac247;Unitarian and Universalist&Mac247;that finally came together in 1961.
**But first, it's worth finishing our mention of eloquent Gannett by noting that there was a final sentence left off of that one humanist historian's rendering of his formative statement. (And here is where historical study can become dangerous. It is all subjective rendering.)
As we heard, Gannett's final paragraph begins with an abstract phrase that sounds remarkably contemporary: "We worship One-in-All" and then he delineates the Life, Light and Love that embody that "One-in-All." But originally this paragraph was followed by a short closing line that declared: "This One we name, the Eternal God, our Father." Curiously dropped by the 20th century humanist historian was a line Gannett had designed to build bridges in his day and make the passage more widely acceptable among the Theists, which it did, by and large (and so they merely tried to ignore it). But inclusion then became aversion later, when "God, our Father" was an image no longer even printable for some.
Interesting, this matter of historical perspective and accuracy. But I've lingered too long in this era, so let me keep moving inexorably forward.** Buckle your seatbelts, because we're going to have to go pretty swiftly through more than a few decades to get to the actual merger. And I wouldn't want to shortchange the Universalist side of our heritage along the way!
I mentioned that while the late 19th century Unitarians debated wording and problematic theological diversity, the Universalists had an appeal that translated into pretty big numbers. By some accounts, there were more Universalists in the Northeast in the 1880s than there are Unitarian Universalists today. The general reason offered for this spike in numbers is that Universalism was an attractive alternative to the concurrent increase in harsh, Bible-thumping, Calvinist preaching that may well have drawn lots of attention, but also alienated a fair number of mainstream Christians.
Those folks went looking for a more liberal Christianity, which was Universalism. Here was a loving God who promised salvation for all, plain and simple. Nothing fancy, but a sincere, powerful alternative to the Calvinist God of original sin and predestined election to salvation of only a special few.
However, the Universalists never really organized an effective national base of operations. So, into the 20th century, when the Calvinist fever died down, and mainstream Christian churches softened their theologies, and fair weather Universalists wandered back to those other churches in droves well, there was little cohesive structure or commanding institutional vision to support more sustainable Universalist growth. And their numbers went steadily in the opposite direction.
There was plenty of long-standing anti-institutional sentiment in both denominations, but the Unitarians still had a habit of nurturing strong individual leaders who, with relatively effective national support, would lead various eras of organizational renewal and sometimes even growth. The Universalists tended to rely mainly on their message, universal salvation, and spent considerable denominational energy on missionary work to spread this gospel, although not very far geographically, and with little institutional follow-up.
With most of their authority (and dwindling resources) located in state conventions, the Universalists&Mac226; missionary efforts did not translate into denominational stability. Unlike the Unitarians who generally came to stress a theological method, rational religion, over specific doctrine, the Universalists had always relied on a particular and Biblically-based message of a loving God who promised universal salvation. Their message was their identity, which made it difficult for them as a movement to evolve in response to the changing theological landscape.
But a new strand of Universalist thought was emerging nonetheless, and it would ultimately provide common ground for merger with the theologically more flexible Unitarians. As early as 1870, there was interest in proclaiming a universal world religion, and gradually this became a strong, if still controversial thread. I'll come back to this development in a few minutes when I approach the actual merger process.
Meanwhile, the western thrust of Unitarian zeal was notable for both its radical theological underpinnings and its dogged organizing. Results were never huge, but a steady stream of new Unitarian groups began meeting, thanks in large part, again, to enthusiastic ministerial leaders who conducted their own style of missionizing, fellows like Thomas Starr King, Henry Whitney Bellows, and Jenkin Lloyd Jones.
At the same time, women ministers in the "Iowa Sisterhood" of the late 19th century were led by Mary Augusta Safford and Eleanor Elizabeth Gordon, who built churches and actively promoted the cause of liberal religion in the Midwest. They also contributed to the larger cause of Women's Suffrage, as did Unitarians Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Universalists Mary Rice Livermore and Olympia Brown (who not only went against the tradition of using three names, but was also one of the first women ordained by an American denomination, in 1863).
There were inklings of collaboration between Unitarians and Universalists as early as the mid 1800s. Back then the two denominations may have begun to share some theological ground, but they differed considerably in class, a distinction that managed to keep them farther apart than we today might imagine.
**In fact, their two greatest leaders in the early 19th century, Universalist Hosea Ballou and Unitarian William Ellery Channing, lived within easy walking distance of each other and had prominent Boston ministries that overlapped for 24 years, yet they apparently never met professionally or socially, even though they certainly knew of each other.**
Early Universalist preachers were often self-educated and generally preferred to roam the countryside, speaking to small groups about their loving God. Unitarian ministers of that era all came through the gates of Harvard and became the intellectual and social aristocracy of Boston.
Thomas Starr King, the self-educated son of a Universalist minister, crossed these lines in mid-century by leaving his Universalist post and serving two Unitarian churches, the second of which was in San Francisco during the Civil War. His personal experiences with each denomination qualified him to make a classic observation that noted the difference in attitude between Universalists and Unitarians of his day:
The one thinks God is too good to damn them forever,
the other thinks they are too good to be damned forever.
Meanwhile, the very first local congregational merger came in the west in 1878, when Unitarians and Universalists in Mukwonago, Wisconsin decided to consolidate. At the turn of the century, both denominations adopted resolutions, declaring that "closer cooperation is desirable and practicable."
But nothing much happened, until 1933 when the Free Church Fellowship of America was organized to accommodate religious liberals even beyond Unitarians and Universalists. During the Depression era, however, other concerns took precedent, and only a new hymnal emerged from the collaboration.
Meanwhile, religious humanism had taken steadily stronger root out west, and 1933 was also a significant year in its development. Unitarian ministers Curtis Reese and John Dietrich led that movement toward ever greater visibility and understanding, with eventual publication in 1933 of the influential document "A Humanist Manifesto." From that point on, the Unitarian context sponsored a very active humanist perspective affirming that our human experience and reason in this world can be the locus of truth and morality.
There were also Universalist ministers signing on to the Humanist Manifesto, signaling a growing coherence between them and the Unitarians.
**And there's another Unitarian family name that figures prominently in this era of institutional history and deserves mention: Eliot. Various important 19th century Eliots went west and were foundations of Unitarian communities in St. Louis and Portland, Oregon. But two of the strong individual leaders who led various phases of 20th century organizational renewal were also Eliots: Samuel and Frederick, who also had significant parish ministries in the west.
They then took turns leading the American Unitarian Association for over 20 years each, supplying essential inspiration and administrative skills. Samuel finished his term just before the Depression clobbered everything, and then Frederick stepped forth a decade later in 1937 to rescue Unitarianism, eventually becoming an influential proponent of merger.**
And speaking of merger, let me now address it directly, although I'm chagrined because of all the juicy stuff I have to leave out. Alas, but the arc of the UUniverse does bend toward merger.
In 1947, Unitarians and Universalists appointed a joint committee to explore merger, but four years later another new group was launched, this time called the Council of Liberal Churches.
President of the American Unitarian Association, Frederick May Eliot, had a lot to do with this latest joint creation (and his wife was a Universalist!), but he died unexpectedly not long thereafter. His influence lived on, however, as others gradually saw the building wisdom in his words. "If liberal religion is to play a real part in working out the destiny of democracy in America, it is imperative that our efforts be concentrated and not scattered" [Warren Ross: The Premise and the Promise, pg. 14].
But even with high hopes and active consolidation of a few Unitarian and Universalist departments, the Council of Liberal Churches didn't strengthen either denomination, both of which kept their established organizations intact. Then, low and behold, it was the youth who finally showed the way!
In 1954, after several years of joint conferences, the separate Unitarian and Universalist youth organizations disbanded to form Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), with a college-age program called the Channing Murray Foundation (named after the acknowledged founder of each denomination). The LRY Hymn #318, "We Would Be One" (written by Sam Wright, one of the first leaders of LRY), remains in our hymnal as a testimony to the sentiment for merger:
We would be one in building for tomorrow
a nobler world than we have known today.
We would be one is searching for that meaning
which binds our hearts and points us on our way
And so the adults finally got on the stick and, a couple years later, formed a Joint Merger Commission that really got serious. However, some of the old class distinctions still lingered in the two bodies, making the process of uniting quite fraught with emotional hurdles. Plus, the Universalists had fewer numbers, less money and even less organizational stamina, so they feared getting swallowed up as a group and patronized as individuals. A reasonable concern was that they would be submerged.
But even as its institution health had floundered, the Universalist vision had become expansive, which ultimately helped them find common ground with the Unitarians. Still with roots in their calling card doctrine of universal salvation, some Universalist leaders had moments of believing it could also encompass a universal world religion. One [Brainerd F. Gibbons] described his denomination's possibilities "as boundless in scope, as broad as humanity, and as infinite as the universe" for which it was named. [The Premise and the Promise, pg. 16].
**And a local embodiment of such a dream was enacted, at the Universalist Charles Street Meeting House in Boston, where, in 1949, the prolific humanist minister Kenneth Patton was called to explore "A Religion for One World"&Mac247;the title of his book on this noble and fascinating 15 year experiment. The Charles Street congregation survived only a few years into the 1960s, unsupported by the new UUA, and so in 1964 Patton went from there to serve the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, NJ where, at the time, I was a young adolescent.
The same stretch of years (mostly the 1950s) when the Universalists were trying one last gasp effort at modern relevance with the Charles Street Meeting House, the Unitarians launched a vigorous effort at starting hundreds of new fellowships all around the country. (One of these began in 1954 as the College Park Unitarian Fellowship, the name of this congregation before moving here to the banks of the Paint Branch.)
But back to the merger.** Despite lingering differences, Unitarians and Universalists had been on theologically converging paths for decades, each affirming a liberal understanding of divine benevolence and the inherent goodness of humanity while rejecting evangelical Protestantism. The degree of that rejection remained a significant issue, as it was in William Channing Gannett's time, and continues to be in our time. (This is one of those historical thrusts that gets played out by many characters, over many lifetimes.)
Let me briefly portray some of the very substantial and sometimes curious merger process, in which two denominations, very different in style but nonetheless destined to join forces, went through an elaborate and very democratic dance together. To instantly mix metaphors, let me tell you one telling way the two contrasting entities were described: as plants. "The loosely federated [Universalist] State Conventions were somewhat like a bunch of grapes, connected but clearly distinct, while the Unitarians were more like an artichoke, a cluster of leaves that at least gave the appearance of a single entity" [The Premise and the Promise, pg. 11].
But unite they did, after an exhaustive process, led in no small way by Frederick May Eliot's successor, the indomitable Unitarian leader Dana McLean Greeley, who continued Eliot's inspiration toward the goal of union, and Philip Giles, Greeley's counterpart among the Universalists. Alongside their stirring rhetoric, a good team of hard working process mechanics guided a very intentional and thorough series of exchanges and meetings, whereby all congregations in both denominations got a ton of paperwork about the proposal and had a voice in the decision-making.
An early referendum asked all the congregations in each denomination if the Merger Commission should proceed with the concept, and it received a 75% approval. So, in Syracuse, NY, in 1959, representative delegates struggled to prepare a full document for the congregations to consider. And there were moments of doubt that it could ever be pulled off, most notably because of the wording of the Principles in the new bylaws. Low and behold, the sticking point was again how much of Jesus to include. His name was dropped in favor of reference to "our Judeo-Christian tradition," which then eventually got changed to "the Judeo-Christian tradition," and that did the trick.
The Universalists were involved all the way but most were more easily satisfied than their partners in this dance and often sat on the sidelines, shaking their heads at how exasperating the Unitarians were with all their contorted process and wordy nitpicking. In contrast, one participating minister reported back to his Unitarian congregation that it was "unbridled democracy in actiona Unitarian Council of Nicea, a parliamentary alley fightand a heated family squabble. They were all there, amid the determination to produce a reasonably good plan."
**Another important detail of the plan, that suddenly had direct relevance to a controversy of the past year in this region, was that, as one chapter heading says, "There Never Was a Merger." Some of those process mechanics recommended that they should not merge but consolidate, which meant that legally the two denominations were not terminated but changed into a single organization, so all the assets were protected, including the names. Any other formation could have allowed a dissenting church to declare itself the true successor of either denomination and claim all its assets.
A technically fine point, perhaps, but just last year, a breakaway group of conservative UUs, largely centered in Loudon County, Virginia, declared that the present UUA had become too inclusive to be called by its original Unitarian name. They launched a new organization and actually started using that original name, the American Unitarian Association, for themselves. (I have a brochure they printed under that title.) Because the two denominations had technically consolidated 40 years earlier, the UUA was able to uphold its historical name and block this usage. (Perhaps the brochure will become a collector's item.)**
But back at those Syracuse meetings to iron out the details of consolidation, there were some significant folks in both denominations opposed to it by any name. They knew that after the final proposal was finally agreed upon by the drafting delegates there, it still had to go out to the congregations for their own process and approval. So they managed to add a provision that not only would a 75% majority be required for passage, but that 75% of the congregations had to participate. Such response and participation for a general vote was so unheard of that the opponents of merger left this assembly peacefully, convinced that they had actually won the day.
Well, they didn't count on the determinationand telephone skills!of the Merger Commission chair, Universalist minister Raymond Hopkins, who managed to engage more than 90% of the churches and fellowships in the vote, which went for merger by 9:1 among Unitarians and 8:1 among Universalists.
The thus highly affirmed proposal still had to come back to another gathering of representative delegates to be ratified, which it was, also resoundingly, in Boston in 1960. Some Universalists may have scoffed at the rigorous procedures their dance partners put them all through, but the net result was that there was no doubt that consolidation was the will of the people, who were now part of the new Unitarian Universalist Association.
There was still quite a bit of hard work and plenty of controversy and trial ahead, but the ship was launched! And when any group of leaders strives so long, with such dedication toward a goal that is finally reachedin this case culminating a hundred years&Mac226; journeythe closing ceremony is likely to be powerful.
As the ratifying delegates gathered for a final worship service, the ministers marched in to a processional song sung by the whole assembly with greater gusto and tearful meaning than perhaps ever before. The words have become a stirring anthem of our unified movement:
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.
A free church, yes! But the continuing challenge, the thrust of history that we have inherited and will likely pass on to new generations, is to further explore and prove how a non-creedal religion can hold together. One way, I think, is by very intentionally showing how to be peace, respecting and celebrating diversity, as a model for a world that hungers for such demonstration and hope. May it be so, here and in our wider Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.
"As Tranquil Streams" is #145 in our current hymnal, and some among you may recall it by its original and more meaningful title, "Our Kindred Fellowships." We may not reach the fervor of voice that the delegates did then, but let's honor the liberal religious heritage underneath us and close this look at some UU Historical Highlights with our own choral rendition.
This morning we greet the sun; this week we greet Spring and the welcome renewal it brings; in a few moments we greet each other in fellowship. Such are the time-honored rituals that reassure us of our place in the UUniverse.
As we are "building up a world of peace," may your liberal religious identity flourish in "a freedom that reveres the past but trusts the dawning future more; (that) bids the soul, in search of truth, adventure boldly and explore."
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