Banned UUA Board Term: The Answer to This Week’s UU Trivia Question

This week’s UU trivia question has drawn more traffic than usual.  Perhaps the idea that the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations would actually ban the use of a term, and even go so far as to exact fines from trustees who continued to use the term at meetings, seems so outrageous or incredible that elicited much curiosity.  Or, perhaps people were so shocked or offended, they wanted to know the answer.  At any rate, there were many good guesses, and also many interesting suggestions as to what the UUA might or should ban.  None, however, were on the mark.

What term did the UUA Board actually ban?

The answer is: Unitarian.

What?!, you cry out in puzzlement.  How could they ban the term Unitarian?

It’s simply, actually, once you know the back story.  After the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America consolidated in 1961, and it was only a matter of years before many people began to shift from using the long, unwieldy term “Unitarian-Universalist,” opting instead to use “Unitarian” as shorthand for “Unitarian-Universalist.”  This was an especially easy slope to slip down because formerly-Unitarians outnumbered formerly-Universalists two to one in the new denomination.

As the practice increased over the years, people from historically-Universalist backgrounds became ever more disgruntled, and even some historically-Unitarian folks disapproved of the trend.  Eventually, the practice became so entrenched at the Board level that action was called for.  The Boardmembers agreed to ban from their meetings the use of the term “Unitarian” as a moniker for “Unitarian-Universalist,” insisting instead that the full name be used.  Trustees who slipped up and said “Unitarian” when they meant “Unitarian-Universalist” were fined a pittance by the Board–the larger fine being the humiliation of having to note one’s own lack of discipline in this regard.

Now, we should note that the term “Unitarian” was not banned in any context other than use by Trustees at Board meetings–it was not imposed on any congregations, publications, or staff at UUA headquarters.  And it was enacted and enforced entirely by common voluntary consent, with no actual power to back it up.  The main idea was for the top representatives of the denomination to break themselves of the practice, and thereby to set the right example for the rest of Unitarian-Universalism to follow their example.  In fact, while “Unitarian” is still sometimes used in this way at Board meetings, the practice did decrease, and fines aren’t collected anymore.  And there seems to be a partial resurgence of denominational interest in Universalism, making the need for such measures less drastic.

Still, there is an undeniable irony to a major body of Unitarian-Universalists having to ban the use of the word “Unitarian” when used in a presentist sense.  Perhaps only in Unitarian-Universalism might political correctness reach the level where “Unitarian” itself becomes off-limits!

Thank you to everyone who contributed guesses and suggestions.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Banned UUA Board Term: The Answer to This Week’s UU Trivia Question

  1. When was this? And where is this recounted?

    • Transient and Permanent

      Charles Howe recounts this interesting factoid in “The Larger Faith.” He doesn’t date it, but we can make some inferences. First, the “policy” obviously dates from after the consolidation, so the starting date cannot be earlier than 1961. Second, the book was published in 1993, so it cannot be later than that. Third, the information is relayed during a discussion of the closing of the Universalist seminaries, so it is probable that the “policy” did not go into effect earlier than 1968. Fourth, manuscripts usually take a year or so to appear from time of submission to actual production, so we can move it tentatively back to 1992. And finally, based on how he discusses it, we can infer that this happened at least several years prior to his writing, so we can safely push it back about another five years.

      That yields a certain time span of 1961-1993 and a most likely time span of 1968-1987. In other words, we don’t know exactly when it happened, since Charles did not provide us with that info, but we can reasonably assume this occurred some time within a roughly twenty-year time span between the late 60s and late 80s.

      Seeing as Charles is a respected scholar and this book was published by the UUA’s imprint Skinner House, I think we can consider the factoid to be genuine.

  2. Transient and Permanent

    It looks like this one may have been guessed after all. On Tuesday, in another thread, Ms. M apparently tried to guess “Unitarian,” but a wandering comma made it difficult to realize that was what she was saying. So, congratulations to Ms. M!

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