Abstract: In this four-part essay, I claim that the central organizing principle of Unitarianism, Universalism, and now Unitarian Universalism, has less to do with theology, liturgy, religious practice, etc., and more to do with social and institutional structures. We are unified by an institutional approach which I call associationalism. I define associationalism through describing past and existing associational structures, and then briefly set forth a possible direction for the future of associationism within Unitarian Unviersalism.
A historical and descriptive definition: Beginnings
In terms of organizational structure, Unitarian and Universalist congregations in North America are often closely related to the Congregationalist and Baptist traditions. Stephen Marini has documented how early Universalist congregations in central New England often started out as Baptist congregations; and it is well known that many New England Unitarian congregations began as Puritan congregations, and so are closely related to those Congregationalist congregations that also emerged from the old Puritan Standing order churches. We could say, more broadly, that these are congregations that come out of the English Free Church tradition.
It is important to remember that not all Unitarian and Universalist congregations trace their historical roots back to the English Free Church tradition. The Icelandic Unitarian churches in Canada were founded by liberals from the Icelandic Lutheran tradition, who happened to find a comfortable institutional home within Unitarianism; similarly, Nora Church in Minnesota was founded by liberal Norwegian Lutherans. King’s Chapel in Boston evolved away from its Church of England roots to a Unitarian theology, but it still keeps its revision of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer today. There are churches like First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia and the Independent Christian Church in Gloucester which were founded independently as Unitarian and Universalist churches without any previous denominational connections. And once Unitarians and Universalists traveled West of the Allegheny Mountains, they often had tenuous and even antagonistic connections with eastern churches, and their organizational structures were innovative, diverse, and/or fluid.
Thus it is quite simply wrong to state that all Unitarian Universalist congregations today trace their organizational structures back to the Puritan congregationalist methods captured in 17th century New England political theocracy, church covenants, and documents like the Cambridge Platform. That 17th century New England inheritance is one part of our organizational history, but it is only one part.
If we want to find an organizational structure that applies throughout Unitarian Universalism, instead of looking back to 17th century Puritanism, we would do better to look to the late 18th century in North America. Universalism and Unitarianism began emerging as distinctive religious movements in the last three decades of the 18th century, and these religious movements were inevitably shaped by the historical changes going on around them. Most obviously, the political situation changed very rapidly in those decades: a substantial portion of British North America renounced its allegiance to the crown, set up an independent government, and then had to fight against both troops from overseas and troops from the North American colonies that remained loyal to the crown. People in the 13 breakaway colonies experimented with egalitarianism, with new forms of government, and with new ways of organizing themselves.
Both Universalists and early or proto-Unitarians were involved in the political and intellectual ferment of the late 18th century. Universalist preacher Rev. John Murray was a chaplain in the Continental Army. Proto-Unitarian preacher Rev. Samuel West of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, articulated new ways for people to relate to one another and to governance structures. Both Murray’s church in Gloucester and West’s church in Dartmouth lived out their new egalitarian ideals by admitting African Americans into church membership.
Of the two groups, the group that became Unitarians was more organizationally conservative than the Universalists. It was in the Unitarians’ interest to remain conservative because in several states, most notably Massachusetts, the proto-Unitarians were financially supported by tax dollars. Thus many Unitarian congregations remained enmeshed with the old structures of theocracy, covenant, and Puritan-type connections between congregations. In Massachusetts, most Unitarian congregations remained supported by tax dollars until 1833. Until disestablishment, there was little incentive for Unitarians to spend much effort on organization: the American Unitarian Association began in 1825 as a tract society, to help spread Unitarianism elsewhere, not to organize it where it already existed; the Autumnal Meetings were the first real attempt to organize Unitarianism, and they didn’t begin until after disestablishment in Massachusetts.
The Universalists, however, began creating an organization that I’m going to identify using the term “associationism.” James Luther Adams, the great Unitarian Universalist theologian of the 20th century, wrote extensively about “voluntarism,” that is, the principle of voluntary association as it relates to theology. “Associationism” is a term that is doesn’t have a firm definition (in fact, “associationism” in philosophy refers to psychological concept), but roughly speaking it refers to a form of voluntary association in which local organizations or voluntary associations are connected into a larger association or network of local organizations, by means of written records (minutes of meetings, bylaws, etc.), and formal and informal exchanges between associated local organizations (informal local cooperation, formal regional and national conventions, annual meetings, etc.). “Associationism” is a term that has been used by scholars studying Baptist organizational structures; it is also a term that has been used by scholars studying other types of voluntary associations (e.g., John Bealle’s study of Southern singing schools).
The Universalists held their first national conventions in the late 18th century. By the early 19th century, they had organized state conventions, and had increased the organizational complexity of the national convention. Theirs was a relatively decentralized approach that allowed a good deal of theological, methodological, and liturgical diversity. There was theological diversity: in the first decade of the 19th century, trinitarian John Murray and unitarian Hosea Ballou were both contained within the national convention. There was methodological diveristy: as the frontier territory of Ohio opened up, the Ohio Universalist convention happily included itinerant preachers and settled pastors, lay preachers and ordained ministers. There was liturgical diversity: there were the Universalists who, along with John Murray, eschewed baptism for child dedications, and there were Universalists who did full immersion baptisms in the local rivers.