Merger (Dialectical Theology, part 6 of many)

In 1947, President of the American Unitarian Association, Frederick May Eliot, proposed the formation of the United Liberal Church of America, which would be created by the coming together of Reformed Jews, Unitarians, Universalists, Ethical Culture, and religious liberals “of every name and sign”.

Eliot’s proposal was in tune with the times. World War 2 had been won through the creation of a large multi-national alliance of nations. The postwar era continued that trend; it was all about creating big institutions. In the postwar period, NATO was created and the European Common Market, and the United Nations. Big was good; big equalled power. President Eliot saw that the need to create a larger and more powerful institution for liberal religion. He had a specific understanding of what was needed for liberal religious growth — institutional strength.

The desire for greater institutional strength led eventually to the merger of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961; it was a much more modest merger than Eliot’s proposal. That was not surprising in retrospect. Of course, organized bodies of Jews were not interested in merging into a “church”? The people in Ethical Culture had already chosen “not” to be in a church?

But in 1961, the American Unitarian Association and The Universalist Church of America agreed to merge, creating the Unitarian Universalist Association.

1961 was also a turning point in the political, social, and cultural history of the United States.

In his Inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy declared that “The torch has passed to a new generation.”

That was true. The outgoing President, Dwight D. Eisenhower was born in 1890. In World War 2, Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, the very highest ranked officer of the military. He commanded hundreds of thousands of allied troops. Skipping way down the hierarchy of the Armed Forces, down down down eventually you would find the incoming President, 27 years younger than Ike, commanding a small patrol boat with a crew of 12, in the Pacific, until he was wounded.
The torch had passed to a new generation: from the generation that commanded the fighters of World War 2, to the generation that actually fought that war, the generation we now call “the greatest generation.”

We know something about these moments in history when torches get passed to new generations: a moment of generational transfer. They happen every 20 0r 30 years and roll across the landscape in waves. And generations overlap. With Kennedy, the greatest generation was coming into its prime, but most of the Congressional leaders that Kennedy dealt with were of Eisenhower’s generation. At the same time, the next generation, the Baby Boomer’s were in middle school, and becoming the primary audience for popular culture. Generations rising, taking power, and fading away.

We are in the midst of a period of generational transfer now. The average age of the 116th Congress is 10 years younger than the 115th. Even in the UUA, it’s happening.

It's interesting to speculate about the generational perspectives of U/U leaders in 1961. I detect two understandings of the role of the new UUism in play.

One is the fulfillment of the WW2 era drive toward bigness, and institutional strength. UU leaders talked about millions of new members coming to Unitarian Universalism. The new Unitarian Universalist Association was forever shaped by its sense of itself as the religious expression of the powerful, forward-looking, rational, and modern progressive movement of history. The world was looking for a religious faith that take them boldly into the future and as Rev. Harrington famously said, “We are that faith.”

The second was the growing participation in the racial liberalism of the Civil Rights Movement.

The new Unitarian Universalists also believed that the purpose of the religious community was in its public ministry. That was where the real work was: public ministry, or what they then called “social action.” The church was supposed to a public voice for certain liberal values: tolerance, peace, human rights, democracy, integration. The church and its ministers were to join coalitions with other faith leaders, and issue statements, and preach fiery sermons. We were to be part of a great social movement for great and noble causes.

The UUA merger happened five years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and a year after students began their sit-ins at the Woolworth lunch counters in Greensboro, North Carolina. The UUA Merger occurred in the midst of major political re-alignment. In the 1960 campaign, 70% of Negro voters had voted for Kennedy, a significant switch from their traditional Republican allegiance.

UUism was born in a period when reformist liberalism was ascendent. The UUA was fully enlisted from its beginning in the prevailing racial liberalism of the day: integrationist, color-blind in aspiration, paternalistic, and white supremacist in that they believed that white ways were better and that Negroes wanted to adopt them.

And, to a large extent, we were. If you consider the fact that our main work was conducting a worship service every week, meeting our budgets, and keeping our buildings from falling down around us, UU churches participated in the great social movements of the age. Our large urban churches attracted many black members. Many white and black Unitarian Universalists were members and leaders of the Civil Rights organizations, like the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Urban League, on both the local and National level.

Some of our Southern congregations worked with great bravery and sacrifice to support the Civil Rights Movement in the South.

And, of course, we all remember, because it is glorious part of our story, that our ministers responded to Martin Luther King’s call for faith leaders to converge on Selma, AL to push for a Voting Rights Bill. James Reeb and Viola Luizzo were martyred in Selma.

Those were heady days for Unitarian Universalists. In those days, UU’s were not as organizationally minded as we became later; we did not create mission and vision statements, and strategic plans. But I think that UU’s had a clear sense of mission, and a vision of what our churches were to be.

But for the most part, Unitarian Universalism in its first decade of growth was moving to the beat of its times. And there was an enthusiasm that showed in growth and optimism. UU’s had a sense of growing into our destiny. That is our genesis story: that Unitarian Universalism is a faith at the forefront of what Seamus Heaney calls ‘a tidal wave of justice, in which hope and history rhyme.” That’s who we are, just as much as you are what you have been since childhood, no matter what has happened since.

But what happens when these two imagined trajectories diverge. We thought we were growing larger and more powerful as UU's participated in the great reform struggles of the day. What was going to happen when commitment to racial liberalism was to make less us popular and powerful? What happens when our genesis story no longer seems true?


  1. Kathleen Hunter2:18 PM

    Would it be too cynical to suggest that the fact that Frederick Eliot’s wife was a Universalist had quite a bit to do with his enthusiasm for the idea?

    Many thoughtful ministers were opposed, notably A Powell Davies who had had much success with expanding his own church and planting new ones.

    I am not as well read in the history as you are but I have long felt that the Universalists acquired a profile in the association out of all proportion to any assets they brought with them. Many of their ministers had already “jumped”. This horrible name we are saddled with and which was not envisaged at the time has been a real drag and still is - makes us sound like a cult.

    Still I appreciated reading your review of the times.

  2. "The UUA was fully enlisted from its beginning in the prevailing racial liberalism of the day: integrationist, color-blind in aspiration, paternalistic, and white supremacist in that they believed that white ways were better and that Negroes wanted to adopt them." An excellent and succinct summary. Only now are we, still haltingly, starting to try to move forward from this point.


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