Was a New Religion Founded in 1961, or Not?

Is Unitarian-Universalism a religion? In 1961 the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, two religious organizations that were not themselves religions, consolidated into a single entity, the Unitarian Universalist Association. The UUA is a collection of congregations, most of which belonged to the Unitarian or Universalist denominations/religions. Today, most member congregations of that association affiliate themselves historically with Unitarianism or Universalism or both, as well as in a few cases with Congregationalism, Humanism, Neo-Paganism, or some other variety of liberal religion.

The question is, when and how did the religion Unitarian-Universalism come about? Was it instantly wished into existence when these two organizations–neither of them fully representative of their respective denominations/religions–merged? Did it develop later, out of the shared post-1961 history of Unitarianism and Universalism, such that they become intertwined and basically united? Did it happen when people began to conceptualize themselves as not Unitarian or Universalists, but as Unitarian-Universalists? Or has it not yet happened–is it actually simply that there is a large association of congregations called the UUA, within which are various Unitarian and Universalist congregations?

It was by no means inevitable that we would come to think of there being a definable religion called Unitarian-Universalism. We might have just as easily gone on about our business of being Unitarians or Universalists, who happened to share leadership and organization at the top level of bureaucracy for expediency’s sake. It’s worth pondering the choices that were made to follow this path, to recognize that perhaps improbably the weight of a whole new religion has been asked to balance on a mere hyphen.

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18 Comments

Filed under Defining Liberal Religion, Liberal Religious History, Unitarian-Universalism

18 responses to “Was a New Religion Founded in 1961, or Not?

  1. anonyous reader

    You said: “It’s worth pondering the choices that were made to follow this path, to recognize that perhaps improbably the weight of a whole new religion has been asked to balance on a mere hyphen.”

    That is the best way this issue has ever been raised in the history of UU blogs. Great post!

    In my opinion, “UUism” should have never been created. The two traditions deserved to remain separate.

    • Transient and Permanent

      I’m a little leery about totally anonymous comments, lest they serve as a conduit for spammers. But I can understand why someone might want to make this comment without attribution, so, provisionally, I will allow it.

  2. Good question. An association of Churches came about in 1961 but not a religion.

    Poking some holes in what I just wrote though, OED online tells me: Religion: noun 1 the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods. 2 a particular system of faith and worship. 3 a pursuit or interest followed with devotion.

    Well, we became 1 for sure NOT. Maybe we became a Religion and were a Religion with 2; especially as systems of worship. I’d say not 3 because the pursuit or interests can vary so among UUs.

    Off the top of my head here… I prefer not to call UUism a religion.

  3. There’s definitely documentary evidence that some people did think a new religion was coming into being in 1961—or that it should be. There are essays in each denominations’ periodicals from 1959–1961 advocating a “new” religion, and there were several attempts to define or promote that new religion in the years after 1961. So the idea that “Unitarian Universalism” is a new religion is not new; it’s at least as old as the UUA.

    But advocating the idea is not the same as having the authority to make that idea true. The writers and theologians who promoted the idea were offering an interpretation of the religious experience and ideas of people in the UUA’s churches—but those of us who have argued that Unitarian Universalism is not “a religion” are also offering an interpretation.

    As long as there remain Unitarian, Universalist, and UU congregations in which people hold a range of views about what is, exactly, the religion their congregations practice, there will continue to be competing interpretations. As far as I’m concerned, there isn’t a straightforward way for a historian to identify the beginnings of Unitarian Universalism as a religion; it’s an idea that has been competing for adherents for at least 50 years, and, in the last two decades or so, has probably become the dominant view.

    • Transient and Permanent

      Yes, and its precisely that competition, and the processes involved, that are of particular interest to me. I agree that there seems to have been a shift since about the mid-1980s toward the idea of UUism as a specific, unique religion becoming the dominant view in both the congregations and UU-related media.

  4. I was at a conference at M/L a few months ago with someone who kept saying “denomination”. I had never heard UU’s refer to ourselves that way, and it jarred me a bit… actually grated me.

    I’ve always thought of “denominations” as a flavor of Protestant Christianity; a religion we once were, but a faith we no longer practice. The emphasis on practice as we are a religion of practices but we’re a religion of Christian beliefs no more.

    Chris’s comments on the writings of the time very important.. I’d like to read a whole lot more about what U and U leaders and clergy were thinking at this time. The decades of the 50’s and 60’s I think are going to prove fundamental to understanding where we’ve landed today…. and where we should be going.

    • Transient and Permanent

      You know, off the top of my head I can’t think of an article or book chapter that specifically addresses the creation of “Unitarian-Universalist” as a specific identity, as well as the concept of “Unitarian-Universalism” as a distinct religion or denomination. Maybe I need to add this to my list of future projects. . .

    • Pete Mooney

      Bill, There are a lot of folks in UU congregations (including myself) who consider themselves Christians (though perhaps not in a conservative or orthodox sense).

      I realize that conventional Christianity is not dominant within the UU movement, but, on the other hand, I’m not sure I agree that we’re not “a religion of Christian beliefs.” In my church/congregation, the sanctuary is at its fullest on Easter and Christmas. That may reflect culture more than belief, but still it still indicates, to me at least, that some degree of Christian ritual, tradition or belief is still prevalent

  5. I was shocked at GA last June to hear people in one breakout session declaring themselves specifically to be Universalists, not UUs, and to hear in another session the declaration that the Unitarian part of our heritage is becoming irrelevant and probably a drag on our potential while the Universalist message is growing in importance and may hold our only possibility of survival and growth.

    The branch of our association of congregations in which I was “brought into the fold” clearly and unequivocally views Unitarianism and Universalism to be our history and Unitarian Universalism to be our current religious/ denominational identity, comprising a UU religion. I am not sure how we can be other than a single UU religion when we’ve only got seminaries that prepare us for UU ministry and an MFC that credentials for a UU ministry, with no bodies associated with the UUA that train or credential for a distinct Unitarian or Universalist ministry.

    But how that came to be is an interesting question…

  6. @Paul…did these folks know much Universalist Church history?

  7. @ Bill – If by “these folks” you mean those at GA who identified as Universalist, they were pre-consolidation Universalists and their children and grandchildren. Some of them presented themselves as eating-sleeping-breathing that history and tradition.

    If you mean those at GA who believed Universalism was the future of the movement/ religion/ denomination/ association, I probably should not have capitalized that U, because they were not talking about pre-consolidation Universalist theology and organization per se so much as a small-u universalist theology to take the displace other stuff in the stereotypical UU ethos. That is, displacing Yankee Unitarian church culture with cultures based in a small-u universalist theology and with a style more amenable to the tastes of racially diverse congregations. They did, however, phrase their distinction between _U_nitarian and u/Universalist, so it got a bit murky.

    • …they were not talking about pre-consolidation Universalist theology and organization per se so much as a small-u universalist theology to take the displace other stuff in the stereotypical UU ethos. That is, displacing Yankee Unitarian church culture with cultures based in a small-u universalist theology and with a style more amenable to the tastes of racially diverse congregations.

      Might it be reasonable to exchange the world “displacing” with the word “augmenting”?

      I’m seldom if ever happy about pushing someone out, but telling people to make room is, for me, just un-“pushing out” people who might otherwise be excluded.

      • @ John – It would certainly be reasonable to replace “displacement” with “augmentation.” Hopefully we will.

        I read and hear a lot of ham-fisted language in this context, though, claiming more or less that Yankee Unitarians have to give up their culture for the good of the future of Unitarian Universalism (however UU is characterized). Such wording is about displacement not augmentation.

        One hopes that such expressions do not fully express the intent of such speakers, but one is usually only able to reason so far as one’s language use is capable of accurately expressing some meaning.

        • BFSCR

          These issues are always fraught, and we should all strive for inclusive & accepting speech. Unfortunately, the cultural shift you’re discussing is not the only one where such slips into ham-handed language & behaviours have taken place.

          Working for the CUUPs national board, I witnessed UUs & UU congregations that felt any augmentation were instead displacements, and I’m sure other examples exist.

          Thank you for educating us by sharing your experience.

  8. @Paul re: They did, however, phrase their distinction between _U_nitarian and u/Universalist, so it got a bit murky.

    I can imagine…

  9. Personally I find it useful to distinguish between the term “religion” as a countable noun, and as an uncountable noun. We can be an organization with a religious purpose, intent and function, we can participate in those dimensions of human life called “religion,” without being “_a_ religion.” Countable “religions” – Christianity, Buddhism, Islam – are products of a specific sort of historical development; but “religion,” depending on how it is defined, may well be universal. The ancient Greeks, and many East Asian peoples down to the present, had a lot that we would call “religion,” without being committed to “_a_ religion” or “religion_s_.” I would feel perfectly comfortable with our being like that.

  10. reading late (as I often do), Paul’s comments make me wish I had attended last June’s GA. Certainly the birthright Universalists have been on the defensive for the past 50 years, as the Universalist cash was spent, historic sites sold, and icons ignored until they were forgotten. and of course people dropping Universalist out of Unitarian-Universalist.
    Certainly the past 25 years have seen a small revival of Universalists (usually of the Unitarian’s Patton variety) claiming to be the heart of the UUA, I’m surprised that Paul hadnt heard that particular message before, there are various books published by Skinner House with that as a theme.
    Hopefully, some of those interested in who are these Universalists will be attending the Universalist Convocation in Rochester NY in May.

  11. Pingback: Facebook advice, reverse snobbery, and other UU blogging topics « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

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