A Brief History of the "Old School" UU 's

"Old School UU" is my term for a movement among UU ministers during the last half century and more.  It's a shared state of mind, more than any organized faction.

This is an off-the-top-of-my-head sketch of this history.  I invite elaboration, clarification, argumentation about it.  It is part of my critical curiosity about recent UU history.  My general thesis is that contemporary UUism has been shaped in a 40 year period of a political culture that was antagonistic to all forms of liberalism (1968-2008).  I think that "old school UUism" is one of the many currents of defiance and accommodation that marked UU history during that period, and still do now that it has passed.

Old School UUism had its modern roots in the theist and Christian minority who were the losers in the great Humanist ascendency within Unitarianism and Universalism.  As such, it was centered in some of the larger churches which had more established theist liturgies, and, of course, in New England and the East.

When merger/consolidation (the language matters to Old Schoolers) came about, the Old School tended to be more skeptical.  The experience seemed to be embittering.  There was a lot of wordsmithing of documents to find that language that would allow Christians and Theists some threadbare acknowledgement of their religious beliefs in the overall humanist vision of a new world religion.

What has come down to me is that Wallace Robbins opposed merger, saying that since Humanism was dominant at the time, the new denomination would be necessarily humanist and that Christianity and theism would not re-emerge in liberal religion until the 21st century.

The Old School, of course, continued in the UUA, but settled into a role of being the internal opposition.  I think that a general attitude existed among many that since the UUA was not right with God, nothing it would ever do would be right.  I never heard that said out loud, but it seemed to me to be the undercurrent of much I heard.

If one looks back through the records of the UU Christian Fellowship, which I have done, one would be surprised as the names of the ministers who were involved, many who did not continue to claim that public role later on.  I got the impression that the UUCF was the organizational center of the Old School during the early days of the UUA.

But Christianity became a defeated theological tendency in the UUA, confined to a small handful of churches.  It was definitely not a useful identification for most ministers to have on the ministerial record.

The Old School evolved.  Instead of seeing themselves a the carriers of theism and liberal Christianity in the UUA, they moved to seeing themselves as preserving the traditions of congregational polity.  Congregational polity became the authoritative tradition that we were backsliding on.  Instead of humanists being seen as the problem; 25 Beacon Street was.  The independence of each congregation was imperiled by tendencies toward centralization and 'denominationalism'.

John Buehrens was the last UUA President elected with the support of the Old School.  He turned out to be a disappointment to them, which is no surprise.  After all, he had been elected to be a denominational leader.

The Old School settled into a cluster of inter-related attitudes.  This is a paper I wrote in 1998/99 which summarized the Old School attitudes, as I thought they stood at that time.

At that time, the Old School was attempting to organize itself as the Free Church conference.  Three conferences were held.  That effort failed; the organizational basis of the Free Church conference was, in theory, congregations, but in fact, was ministers.  So when key ministers in the conference left their congregations, the conference fell apart.

Old School UUism continues on, as a perspective rather than an organized tendency.  It lives on in as distrust of headquarters on behalf of congregations.  (There is a mirror distrust on the "left" side of UUism which sees the headquarters as excessively conservative, elitist and New England.)  It lives on in the complaint that "we don't know our history."  It lives on in a suspicion of UUA generated social justice projects.  Probably everyone who thought that going to Phoenix last summer was going to be "a hot mess in the desert" was reflecting Old School UU thinking.  Old Schoolers wonder who community ministers are going to accountable to, and can't understand what's really "beyond congregations" and why an association of congregations would want to find out.  Old Schoolers think being ordained by your intern congregation is a mistake.

Lots of important traditions to maintain; lots of new ideas and ways of doing things to embrace.  Nobody is right all the time.

I want to suggest, however, that Old School UUism was an accommodation to the conservative culture in which we have lived for most of our UUA history.  Many of larger churches needed to protect themselves, and they did so by minimizing the difference between themselves and the culture.  Respectability was important, and maintaining their 'churchiness' was a part of that.  Old School UUism avoided social and political controversy, by moving political concerns down to the individual member.  The UUA itself, with its GA resolutions and Washington Office, shouldn't speak for congregations.  Inside congregations, political diversity would be honored above all.  What was left was congregationally-based charity and individual action.  A small and isolated social justice committee was left to be a pain in the coffee hour.

The Old School UU's and the larger churches were more on the accommodation pole; the UUA itself and the smaller congregations were often on the other pole -- the defiance pole.  Planting a flag in opposition to the conservative culture was seen as a path to growth and vitality.  Being on the cutting edge of the ideological opposition to the status quo was seen as crucial.  Not only political activity, but feminism, anti-racism and GLBT equality, were what made us us.

Accommodation and Defiance: two ways of responding to an aggressively conservative culture.  A lot of theorizing and theologizing and thinking went into understanding what we were doing, what we felt we could and what we thought was impossible for us to do in that culture.  In 1968, we were a young denomination, and the ground was shifting under our feet.  We were engaged in the process of self-definition and gradually we perceived that the leading elements of the culture were hostile to us.

We are just barely now beginning to understand what happened.  We are just barely now learning to live in culture where we might not only survive, but lead.

I know that this posting is ramshackle -- written in a heat over six hours, careless with the details and sweeping in its rhetoric.  I hope that it is a start of a larger discussion.


  1. Resonates with my sense of the history; might consider the nucleus of the Prairie Group too? Of the I think it was 1987 maybe study on Conrad Wright and covenant language re-emergence among us, which helped to also fuel the congregations first work in the UUA some time after that and the free church conferences; i think you have to throw in some of the GA "excesses" of the 70s and 80s and the plethora of related groups and the minimalizing of the role of congregations in the programming at GA, as a burr under the saddle too. But I like the connection with the overall movement toward the right after Jimmy Carter (and maybe even including his election). just top of the head comments too. yes perhaps about the uucf too; there was that one interesting little stream that was connected, i think, with the uucf vision of its building in the post-merger years, its first creation of an executive director at the same time, and some open dialogue (perhaps at worcester actually i think) about a potential new association of more christian and theistic churches (mostly unitarian i think? not sure if at the time the universalist churches were part of that exploration or not). PS guess I am a neo-oldschooler; it was my formation, but i have found it not quite complete enough for evolving ministry and call, though still my default mode.

  2. Interesting, Tom. I am trying to relate what you've written (and what Ron has added) to the way things are out here in the far west, at least the corner of the far west that I'm familiar with. It seems to me that we out here just go ahead and do what feels right without spending much time agonizing about the UUA or whether people are humanist or theist or what. In a side note, one of the things I plan to write about soon is how theism has a whole different meaning any more. The idea of "God" has changed so much over the centuries that to be theist means something entirely different than it used to---at least to me.

  3. You're describing a political pull that many of us felt in the UU Christian/theist/historically-minded orbit, but there were others, which often tugged in other directions. The planning group that assembled to put together the very first Revival retreat, for example, was pulled together by the then-director of the UU Urban Ministry in the mid- to late-1990s, and I'd say we were a liturgically-oriented group that included a number of very activist oriented seminarians. The common thread was a desire for spiritual depth, but it wasn't defined in opposition to the political and social justice trends in the UUA.

    The legacy of James Luther Adams is one other countercurrent to this storyline.

  4. The old school manifests itself today in the "Associaton of Congregations" formulation, while what could be called a New School might be called "The Movement" folks, which sees new ways of being congregations, new ways of congregations being enmeshed in communities, and byond brick and mortar priorities.

    Big churches in 2013? With a few exceptions led by movement senior ministers. Assocation staff, movement functionaries. Board of Trustees are strongly open to the movement reframe. Once in a while I hear "let us not forget our brick and mortar"

    Meanwhile, inarticulate God talkers find the RSCCs telling them to get some thelogy and understand the pastoral power of religious langague. Suggesting "spiritual direction" and being given the names of Christian directors is not an uncommon part of the candidates "growing edge" work.

    Meanwhile there are new emerging "UU historians" who approach our history from the buttom up and understand the role of women and lay folk. So the old "old school" is fading away, but the tensions will reassert again and again. Soon 25 will become condos and we will see the invention of a history for that crumbling pile that never really was.

  5. Thanks for this, Tom. I think you're essentially correct in your assessment. I might extend that "old school" tendency -- and its corresponding tension (creative and otherwise) with the radical wing -- back all the way to pre-denomination days, with conservative reactions to progressive ministers such as Jonathan Mayhew and Theodore Parker. I've linked to your post over at my "Faith of the Free" page and discussion group. Hope to see some conversation there as well.

  6. Philocrites: I think that the 1999 turn in the UUCF is one of the more remarkable stories of the whole period. Most agree that there has been a re-emergence of Christianity in the UUA, but not in the form of more UU churches becoming Christian and thriving, but as a respected path of personal spirituality. I wonder sometimes if the resurrection of the UUCF in at the 1999 New Orleans Revival wasn't a pre-condition for that change.
    I think that there is an untold story in the arrival on the scene of younger gay and lesbian seminarians who were active in the new UUCF. What prospects did they have as Christian ministers in the old ways of the UUCF?
    But you are right -- not only did the "old school" leave the UUCF, but the UUCF left the "old school" at the dawn of the new millenium.

  7. An interesting way to describe a well-defined set of UU ministers and lay allies.

    My own personal experience with this group led me to stereotype them as follows:

    -- When it came to congregational polity, these folks had a strong tendency to ignore the Universalist side of our history; the way they described congregational polity ignored things like: the Winchester Profession of faith, which can be seen as the roots of the seven principles; the fact that the Universalist General Conference, later the Universalist Church of America, was a denomination; the fact that the denomination could ordain ministers; etc.

    -- These folks had a fairly narrow definition of Christianity, and they had a tendency to badmouth Transcendentalism (as a Transcendentalist, their fulminations drove me away from UUCF).

    Also, I wound up being surprised by these folks. The minister in the UU church in which I was raised, Dana Greeley, was a self-avowed Christian, but he was not a narrow thinker, and had many good things to say about humanism. As I recall it, he was also the one who pushed to reduce the frequency of communion (eventually to just once a year).

    So while yours is an attractive historical interpretation, I'd like to see more factual research, more historical evidence on which to base the interpretation. I suspect more research could lead to some very interesting nuance, perhaps e.g. in the directions Philocrites has suggested.

    Looking forward to more posts on this topic.


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