Let's Start Here #1 of many

Think about the typical successful Protestant church in the late 1940’s and 1950’s. That church has a healthy membership by our standards. The minister is a white male, and he has a study. That minister has a secretary, a real secretary, not an church administrator, and she manages the great man’s schedule, and even types his letters, answers the church phone. But the rest of that church staff is, by our standard, quite small. Because that church doesn’t actually do very much. Weekdays, the small staff is around during the daytime, but on many nights, the building is empty. There are not a lot of small groups, support groups, or book clubs. The Sunday School program is, by our standards, rudimentary — just simple indoctrination into the faith.

Protestant churches in the 40’s and 50’s were about the Sunday service; and the Sunday service was about the sermon; and the mission of the church was to spread its particular message. The message was some variation of the Christian doctrine. Sunday morning was not “a celebration of community.” it was the proclamation of the church’s understanding of the truth. The ministry was the message. The message was the ministry. The church was an institution to support the message.

This is the religious environment out of which contemporary U/Uism grew. The eldest among us remember it as the church of their childhood.

The leading churches of our denominations were that kind of church, but with one key difference. Our message was different. We were skeptics about the traditional doctrines of Christianity. And, we were committed to an individual’s freedom of belief. How our message had evolved to that point is a longer story, but by the 40’s and 50’s, that was where we were.

We were non-creedal. We were non-dogmatic. Many of our churches still called themselves Christian, but some UU’s didn’t believe in God at all, and the ones that did, did not believe often in a personal God. Many of our churches, especially outside of New England were humanist.

Our hymnal was the red hymnal. It was published first in 1937 and lasted until the early 1960’s. It contains complete orders of services; some of those orders of service are completely humanist and others are theistic and Liberal Christian. Readings those days were from a variety of sources — a little pair of volumes from Robert French Leavens was popular, published in 1927 and published again and again. Other popular sources were the Indian poet, Rabindranath Tagore and Kahlil Gibran, of Lebanon.

That was us in the postwar period: the most liberal and broad-minded of the Protestants religiously, and in the public sphere, Unitarians thought they were the most enlightened wing of the establishment. In many cities and town, the Unitarian church was one of the elite churches. Our public ministry was focused mostly on maintaining the separation of church and state. We were more afraid of Roman Catholicism than Evangelical Protestantism.

But let’s widen the view a little. There were three historical trends that were to re-shape those Unitarian and Universalist Churches. Watch this space. 

Please Comment: What else do we know about U or U Churches of the postwar-Eisenhower era? What about the emerging fellowships? What was the structure and programming of the small lay-led bodies like? 


  1. Not what you requested for comments, because I didn't grow up in a U or U church. But my memories of the 1950s and 60s are not what you describe as a typical Protestant church. I grew up in an American Baptist church with just over a hundred members, in a town of 2500, the county seat of a county of 15,000. My father and grandfather had grown up in it. The Sunday School was not "simple indoctrination." Although I don't remember much of the curriculum before junior high, my grandmother taught a national curriculum on Biblical criticism the years I was in junior high, and in high school we had a curriculum by Martin Marty called "Youth Considers Do-It-Yourself Religion" which asked us to think about things like "what is religion supposed to do for people?". We also studied Your God is Too Small. I believe the adult classes were equally liberal and thoughtful. My current theology is very much grounded in the critical thinking about religion I learned there, and my ethics in how I learned to treat other people.

    Next, the church was not just about Sunday morning worship. There was a Men's Fellowship and many women's circles which met separately, at the church or in homes, at different times, to keep the groups small, and to have a variety of times and interests, and a monthly meeting of all the women. My grandmother for decades was part of another group who quilted in the church basement, co-operating to quilt each other's quilts. There was a Wednesday night prayer meeting, and until the late 60s, a Sunday evening service. The youth groups (junior and senior high)met before the service on Sunday evening. There was a monthly Wednesday potluck, with a program or business meeting following, to which almost everyone came, even those who didn't regularly attend the Wednesday evening service.

    There was a children's choir and a youth choir, besides the adult choir. There were annual spring, fall, and sometimes winter weekend youth retreats. There were monthly Saturday night parties for high-schoolers. There were two weeks of vacation Bible School every summer. Most of us went to a state summer camp, and there was a program for children and youth to volunteer in the church; you got points for church, Sunday school, and youth group attendance, as well as volunteer projects, and the church paid for camp if you had enough points (which was not difficult). The high school youth also went on a trip every summer, which was also subsidized by the church so everyone could participate. It was not a mission trip, but a community service trip with some sightseeing. There was a Halloween party and a Christmas party, geared toward children, open to anyone in the community, and many adults came also. The church was the site for distributing commodities, back before food stamps, and the men's, women's, and youth groups helped with that, with people from other churches, and also donated and delivered food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And community organizations, like Scout troops, met in the church.

  2. [continued]

    It was a community, far from just a Sunday service. Every adult in the church knew who I was, many of them knew a lot about me, and I always felt cared for. And the adults knew and cared for each other; if you were sick, troubled, having a baby, grieving, they showed up with food, comfort, helping hands, and they also ministered to each other and to the children of the church with talk about what really mattered in life.

    We did have a small staff - the minister and the secretary, and a janitor, who was a widowed church member, not because nothing was going on, but because most of the work was done by volunteers. My great-aunt was Secretary of the Sunday School for 50 years, essentially RE Director. She was single, and worked full-time as a store clerk. The pianists, organist, choir directors were all volunteers, and all had jobs. The Treasurer did the book-keeping. There were volunteers, including youth, who got out the newsletter every month. The two Methodist churches in town had similar full programs and small staffs, as did the Presbyterian churches, in larger places, that my mother's parents belonged to.


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