Notes on 200 Years and More

Notes on Two Hundred Years (and More)

by Douglas H. Parkhurst

Continued from April 2024…

What was known as the “Humanist Controversy” became an issue for Unitarians, and to a lesser extent Universalists, during the 1920s and 30s. In 1933 a group of about three dozen liberal intellectuals endorsed “The Humanist Manifesto.” This group included thirteen Unitarian ministers, including two who held dual fellowship with the Universalists, and some Unitarian laypeople. One Universalist minister, Clinton Lee Scott, also signed the Manifesto. Scott was a denominational trustee and later became superintendent of Universalist churches in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Years later Ernest Cassara (not a signer), who had been fellowshipped in both denominations and was for many years a church historian, college history professor, and author, succinctly described the objective of the Manifesto.

It was an affirmation of man’s faith in himself, a faith that through the use of disciplined thought man could reorder society in such a way as to assure a world of peace and plenty. The humanists asserted that man must do it on his own, not expecting intervention by divine power. They denied the very basis of the faith of the theists in the liberal churches.

The years after World War II saw the Universalist Church of America (UCA) begin in earnest a move away from its traditional theological position centered in liberal Christianity. Universalist theology was evolving in the denomination’s divinity schools [see note below] and humanist thinking was having a larger impact. The new direction was creation of “a religion for one world.” This effort to “universalize Universalism” had support from the UCA’s general superintendents; other prominent ministers; and  newly-minted clergy coming of age in the wake of the catastrophic effects of world war. Not all clergy, laypersons, or local churches were enthusiastic about a beyond-Christianity concept, however, or the humanism described above. Many retained their conventional theistic beliefs and practices in the presence of this new kind of Universalism.

In 1945 the American Unitarian Association (AUA) began the process of forming small, lay-centered groups of Unitarians in communities with minimal or no liberal religious presence and where individual Unitarians were eager to get involved. This effort became the modern Unitarian fellowship movement; the first fellowship was formed in Boulder, Colorado, in 1948. In the program’s first decade more than two hundred fellowships were established. These groups were lay-led and largely self-sustaining, with an organizational structure and formal affiliation with the AUA. Fellowships were not necessarily meant to become full-fledged Unitarian churches though some eventually did. Some did not survive. In Connecticut, Unitarians were able to establish a greater presence throughout the state than they had in the previous century and a half, with six active churches and fellowships by 1960 [see note below]. The Unitarian Fellowship of Ridgefield was formed in 1964, a few years before the general fellowship effort concluded.

Some kind of Unitarian-Universalist cooperation, federation, or even union had been suggested going back to the nineteenth century. The time was right in the early 1950s for the creation of what became known as the Council of Liberal Churches (Universalist-Unitarian). This arrangement, with representatives from each denomination, would explore bringing together the publications, public relations, and religious education activities of the two parent bodies. In 1953 the denominational youth groups, American Unitarian Youth and Universalist Youth Fellowship, voted to merge into a new organization called Liberal Religious Youth (LRY). The first continental LRY convention was held at Cheshire Academy in Cheshire, Connecticut, in 1954.

A Joint Interim Commission on denominational merger was formed in 1953; a permanent Joint Commission followed in 1955-56. Both included representatives from the AUA and the UCA. The members considered the pros and cons of, as well as alternatives to, a complete union of the Unitarians and the Universalists. Over the next few years in-depth study regarding the function, organization, and history of the two denominations was conducted and shared with Universalist and Unitarian congregations and individuals at the grassroots. Polls were taken. Interestingly, skeptics in each denomination feared being submerged under the influence of the other. In 1959 a joint conference, after much debate, approved “The Plan to Consolidate the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America.” Votes on the proposed plan were subsequently taken at local Universalist and Unitarian churches and fellowships. While agreement was not unanimous, majorities of congregations throughout both denominations voted in favor, as did the Danbury church. In May 1960 a final, binding vote was taken, this time by delegates to concurrent special meetings of the two denominations. The delegates approved consolidation and committees tasked to coordinate necessary details set to work. On May 15, 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Association officially came into being.

Membership in the new Association as of June 1, 1961, including religious education enrollments, was 229,103 in 1,035 churches and fellowships (compared to 187,689 and 1,027 with a much larger national population base in 2020). In 1961 Connecticut counted fifteen groups with 3,162 legal members; the legal membership of the Danbury church was 148. Leaders in the AUA and UCA assumed important positions in the Association. Prominent layperson Marshall E. Dimock was chosen the UUA’s first moderator. Rev. Dana M. Greeley (Unitarian) was elected to his first of two four year terms as president. Layperson Lawrence G. Brooks (Unitarian) and Rev. Carleton M. Fisher (Universalist) were elected vice presidents. Rev. Philip R. Giles (Universalist) became vice president for field relations and later vice president for development. Danbury native Rev. Raymond C. Hopkins (Universalist), an advocate of consolidation and active participant in the process, was named executive vice president, a post he held until 1974.

The UUA and its churches and members faced a variety of significant challenges during the Association’s first decade, above and beyond the institutional effort required to fully integrate the organizations, workings, and traditions of the two parent denominations. One challenge was the amount, kind, and increasing speed of social change that came about in the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s. Much of this change reflected the civil rights movement and other empowerment efforts. The youth movement at times pitted one generation against another. The Vietnam War divided the country; many Unitarian Universalists participated in Vietnam War protests and the anti-war movement. In 1971 the UUA’s Beacon Press published The Senator Gravel Edition of The Pentagon Papers,calling down the wrath of the Nixon Administration. Traditional attitudes toward church, government, and social institutions were evolving and church affiliation was becoming less important in the lives of many Americans. The viability of the Unitarian Universalist Association itself came into question, threatened in 1969 by a severe financial crisis. Overall membership in the UUA grew during most of the 1960s reaching a high in 1968 of 282,307 (including religious education enrollments) in 1,135 churches and fellowships. Over the next few years these numbers declined, however, and by 1974 membership in 1,007 UU churches and fellowships stood at 199,138, significant losses in both numbers of groups and members compared to 1961.

With this bit of background let’s take a look at what was happening closer to home.

[Note – Theological School of St. Lawrence University (Canton Theological School) and Tufts College School of Religion-Crane Theological School. The former Ryder Divinity School had become part of Meadville Theological School and Lombard College.]

[Note – The 1959/1960 Unitarian Annual Report listed churches in Hartford, New Haven, Westport, and New London. The New London church was federated with the Universalists. The Brooklyn church was inactive. There were fellowships in Pomfret and Storrs.]

To be continued in June 2024…