Associationism, part two

Part One of this four-part series

A historical and descriptive definition: 19th century

The Universalist approach to associationism in the first half of the 19th century had strengths and weaknesses. The decentralization and methodological diversity allowed Universalism to adapt readily to local circumstances, and small Universalist congregations sprang up all over the United States and its territories, and to a lesser extent up into Canada. That same decentralization also meant that there often was no ongoing support and nurture for small new congregations, many of which died out two or three decades after they began.

Meanwhile, the Unitarians found themselves forced into associationism, kicking and screaming as it were. Disestablishment meant that the strongest and most powerful Unitarian congregations suddenly had to learn how to provide their own financial support; not only that, but they also found themselves competing for potential members with a wide range of other denominations (including, of course, the Universalists). The first feeble step towards real associationism came with the establishment of the American Unitarian Association (AUA), so at least there was some central body to distribute Unitarian propaganda; but the AUA was an association of individuals and a few congregations, so it cannot be considered true associationism, an association of congregations, using my definition. The Autumnal Conventions represents the first real emergence of associationism in the Unitarian camp: a few far-sighted individuals decided that delegates from Unitarian congregations needed to meet annually to organize themselves around topics of mutual interest. The Autumnal Conventions were weak associationism, however: many Unitarian congregations did not send delegates (or much care about the Autumnal Conventions), and the Conventions didn’t do all that much.

Associationism among the Unitarians really begins with Henry Whitney Bellows and the National Unitarian Conference in the 1860s; that well-documented story need not be reviewed here. Unitarian associationism is also represented in the old Western Unitarian Conference, which actively promoted connections between congregations, and actively worked to spread Unitarianism in new areas, using innovative methodologies such as encouraging women ministers (e.g., the women ministers known as the “Iowa Sisterhood”). What is important is that Unitarian associationism required neither covenant nor Puritan-style connections between congregations.

On the Universalist side, associationism evolved over the course of the latter half of the 19th century: it had to evolve, because Universalism began to shrink. The methodological and theological diversity, and loose organizational structure, that proved so effective for Universalists in the early 19th century turned out to be a liability in the long run. Early Universalist associationism was too loose, and as local congregations died out for lack of support, Universalists tried to become more tightly organized. They experimented with a creed-like statement in the late 19th century to create theological consistency; conventions tried to exercise more organizational control over local congregations. But the Universalists were not able to focus their efforts effectively.

Many writers have argued that the Universalists began to decline because so many other denominations effectively signed on to the general notion of universal salvation that the Universalists were no longer distinctive. That may be true, but it also seems self-evident that the associationism of the Universalists was not able to evolve quickly enough to keep pace with the societal changes going on. By 1945, there were no Universalist congregations left in Boston, even though the denominational headquarters was in that city; but there were plenty of small Universalist congregations in rural areas, areas which were beginning to see a decline in population. To me, it appears that Universalism declined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries because while Universalist associations were skilled at creating loose associations that functioned well frontier and rural settings, they were unable to organize effectively for the demands of urban environments; yet urbanization, and then suburbanization, were the dominant trends in the United States in the middle 20th century.

A historical and descriptive definition: early 20th century

The Unitarians managed to adapt their associationism to the new demands of urban, and then suburban life. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the American Unitarian Association managed to centralize a good deal of power in its executive office, and that centralized power enabled them to fund and organize new congregations, particularly in the Far West. The AUA funded church buildings, and paid the salaries of ministers, trusting that some of the new congregations would become self-supporting. Another turning point in the history of Unitarian associationism happened in the middle of the Great Depression. Small congregations were dying throughout America, unable to cope with the economic situation. A commission that included James Luther Adams studied the situation, and issued a series of recommendations under the title “Unitarians Face a New Age.” Many of these recommendations led to profound changes in Unitarian associationism; for example, rather than trust independent organizations like the Unitarian Sunday School Society to produce religious education materials, the AUA centralized curriculum production by hiring Sophia Fahs as a curriculum editor; her New Beacon Series of curriculums revolutionized both Unitarian theology and life in local congregations, and arguably was one of the two biggest drivers of the phenomenal growth in Unitarianism in the 1950s.

The Universalists managed to pull themselves back from along slow slide into irrelevance by merging with the Unitarians. Merger negotiations continued through the 1950s. Meanwhile, the Unitarians rolled out another innovation in their associationism, the fellowship movement. Unitarians no longer required new congregations to from “churches” with enough people to financially support a paid minister. Suddenly, new congregations could form as “fellowships,” without a paid minister; all a fellowship needed to enter into formal association with the Unitarians was ten people and regular corporate meetings, along with a formal business structure (i.e., bylaws and financial records). With this innovative new methodology, the Unitarians spread themselves into the new frontier of the rapidly growing suburbs.

Next: Merger and its aftermath>

8 thoughts on “Associationism, part two

  1. Victor

    Looking forward to Part 5 in which you explain how associationism contributed to the decline of Unitarian Universalism by creating a “religion” based on a loosely-defined set of social and institutional mores rather than theology and spiritual practices.

    I’m not ready to give up on the idea of covenants as the central organizing principle of UUism. The fact that the 7 Platitudes are held in such esteem by so many UUs tells me that we still long to share a set of common beliefs even though we are non-creedal. (Yes, I agree with you that the 7 P’s are not theology). The problem, I think, is not with the concept of covenant, but how it’s (mis)understood and practiced by most UUs.

    Thanks, Dan, for creating an interesting series of posts. I can’t think of any topic more important than what unites as a faith community. But I’m not quite ready to give up on covenantalism and theology and hop on the associationism bandwagon to guide us into the future. But since I know you are a deep-thinker…I’ll keep an open-mind until you’ve completed your series of posts on this subject.

  2. Dan

    Victor @ 1 — I hope that I’m showing that associationism isn’t a bandwagon at all; that it is instead the connecting thread that runs through Unitarianism, Universalism, and Unitarian Universalism. In other words, I’m trying to get us off the covenantalism bandwagon that is really only about a decade old — I’m trying to get us away from what I see as a fad.

    You write: “But I’m not quite ready to give up on covenantalism and theology…” Please note that the study of associationism is in fact theology; you could fit it nicely into the subset of ecclesiology; which is exactly where the study of covenant could also fit.

  3. Bill Baar

    Universalism and the Urban setting an interesting one… I belonged to Unity Temple years ago..a former Universalist Church. I’m surprised at the big Universalist Churches Chicago supported. Churches wich included the movers-and-shakers in the city. I have no idea what caused this all to go south though.

  4. Victor

    …?? but didn’t you say that associationism was different than the theologically-based voluntary associations described by John Luther Adams? I inferred this to mean that associationism connected us in ways there weren’t theologically grounded. What’s the difference between the two?

  5. Dan

    Victor @ 4 — James Luther Adams used a different term, “voluntarism,” and was more focused on voluntary associations as a more general concept, and that’s a slight difference. There’s also a great big difference in that he was a hell of a lot smarter than I am. Yet basically what I’m doing in these posts is ripping off Adams’s theology.

  6. Victor

    Adam’s theology seems very much au courant these days – his essay on the “Love of God” sounds very much like the current UUA President’s emphasis to get beyond a discussion of beliefs and into a discussion of what we all find to be of sovereign importance in our lives… (so you’re in good company)

  7. Heather

    You write that “many Unitarian congregations did not send delegates (or much care about the Autumnal Conventions), and the Conventions didn’t do all that much.” Do you think much has changed on this front? Maybe it’s because we’re way up here in Alaska, but our fellowship struggles to send a full slate of delegates, and it doesn’t seem that what happens at GA has much impact on our life together as a congregation.

    I’m attending my first GA this summer, and hope to discover that much more happens there than it seems like from the outside!

  8. Dan

    Victor @ 6 — But I’m not very interested in Adams’s essays on God, and far more interested in his writings on voluntary associations, which make up the bulk of his work. I guess if I want to read recent UU theologians on God, I’d turn to Hartshorne, Loomer, or Paul Rasor; I just don’t find Adams very interesting as a theist.

    Heather @ 7 — The Autumnal Conventions included even fewer congregations than the UUA’s General Assembly. Furthermore, the Autumnal Conventions did not claim to represent all Unitarian congregations, the way the UUA does, or the way the old Universalist General Convention did.

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