Notes on 200 Years and More

Notes on Two Hundred Years (and More)

by Douglas H. Parkhurst

A century ago, around the time First Universalist Society of Danbury (now Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury) celebrated its 100th anniversary, Rev. Lewis B. Fisher, DD, wrote the following to begin his book Which Way? Dr. Fisher was dean of Ryder Divinity School in Chicago [see note below].

Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand. The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move. Or we are asked to state our position. Again we can only answer that we are not staying to defend any position, we are on the march….

Of course we can always say that we stand for God and man, for Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, for the Bible and the immortal soul, for redemption from sin, and for a human race that, in some day yet to be, shall learn to live in harmony with God. But all these words and phrases take on new meanings, and need new definitions, in each succeeding age….Our worn phrases are always losing their old meanings, and must forever be finding new meanings in the light of new experiences.

The Rev. Harry Adams Hersey retired in the summer of 1948 after eighteen years at First Universalist. Ordained in 1906 and more than forty years in the ministry, Dr. Hersey was by all accounts of the “old school” in his manner of preaching, caring for his flock, and involvement in both local community and denominational affairs. The next quarter century, book-ended by the immediate post-World War II years and the Vietnam era into the early 1970s, would see many changes in both the Danbury church and the larger Universalist and Unitarian worlds.

Let’s look first at some of what was happening in the two denominations. In 1935 the Universalist General Convention (later renamed the Universalist Church of America) adopted an avowal of faith building on professions of 1803 and 1899. It read this way.

The bond of fellowship in this Convention shall be a common purpose to do the will of God as Jesus revealed it and to co-operate in establishing the Kingdom for which he lived and died.

To that end we avow our faith in God as Eternal and All-Conquering Love, in the spiritual leadership of Jesus, in the supreme worth of every human personality, in the authority of truth known or to be known, and in the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God. Neither this nor any other statement shall be imposed as a creedal test, provided that the faith thus indicated be professed.

Two changes were made to this statement in 1953. The word “Convention” was replaced by “church” and the final words in the avowal, “provided that the faith thus indicated be professed,” were deleted.

Unitarians offered the following statement in 1944.

Five Principals of Modern Unitarianism:

Individual freedom of belief;

Discipleship to advancing truth;

Democratic process in human relations;

Universal brotherhood, undivided by nation, race, or creed;

Allegiance to the cause of a United World Community.

And, in 1959, two years before the formation of the Unitarian Universalist Association and five preceding the Unitarian Fellowship of Ridgefield, an earlier Unitarian profession was updated to read like this.

In accordance with its charter, the American Unitarian Association shall “be devoted to moral, religious, educational, and charitable purposes.”

In accordance with these purposes the American Unitarian Association shall:

1. Diffuse the knowledge and promote the interests of religion which Jesus taught as love to God and love to man;

2. Strengthen the churches and fellowships which unite in the Association for more and better work for the Kingdom of God;

3. Organize new churches and fellowships for the extension of Unitarianism in our own countries and in other lands; and

4. Encourage sympathy and cooperation among religious liberals at home and abroad.

The Association recognizes that its constituency is congregational in polity and that individual freedom of belief is inherent in the Unitarian tradition. Nothing in these purposes shall be construed as an authoritative test.

The origins of these avowals differed, but for our purposes here, no matter. As the Universalists and Unitarians progressed through the late 1940s and the 1950s to their historic consolidation in 1961, the statements above were at least partly a basis for the creation of the original six Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) These six were stated as follows.

…the members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, dedicated to the principles of a free faith, unite in seeking:

1. To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship;

2. To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man;

3. To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth and dignity of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships;

4. To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice, and peace;

5. To serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships, and to extend and strengthen liberal religion;

6. To encourage cooperation with men of good will in every land.

[Note – Ryder Divinity School was part of Lombard College (Universalist) of Galesburg, Illinois. Ryder relocated to Chicago in 1912. When Lombard closed in 1930 its Illinois college charter was transferred to Meadville Theological School (Unitarian). Meadville had moved from Pennsylvania to Chicago a few years earlier. Today the school is known as Meadville Lombard Theological School.]

To be continued in May 2024…