Tag Archives: Unitarian history

Two more UU two hundredth birthdays

With all the attention that’s being paid to the two hundredth anniversary of Theodore Parker’s birth, I somehow missed two other two hundredth birthdays — one of a Unitarian and one of a Universalist.

The Unitarian first: James Freeman Clarke was born on April 4, 1810. Unitarian minister, abolitionist, and Harvard professor, Clarke also published the Western Messenger, which historian David Robinson has called the first Transcendentalist periodical; some of Margaret Fuller’s earliest work was published in the Western Messenger. Robinson adds, “Few Unitarians of his day or after have made a larger contribution to Unitarianism.”

In 1886, Clarke printed a revision of the Five Points of Calvinism into “Five Points of the New Theology,” an optimistic statement of Unitarian faith, in which he said he believed in the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and progress onwards and upwards forever. This affirmation of faith became widely popular in Unitarian circles, and remained popular for decades — I remember hearing it in the Unitarian church of my childhood in the late 1960s.

You can read more about Clarke in the article at the UU Historical Society’s Dictionary of UU Biography. And tomorrow I’ll tell you about the Universalist who was born two hundred years ago this year — possibly the most famous Universalist that ever lived.

UU writer and minister Charles Howe has died

Rev. Dr. Charles Howe D.D., Ph.D., a Unitarian Universalist minister who wrote about denominational history, died last week, on Tuesday, August 10. Obituary from the Raleigh, N.C., News-Observer. Biographical summary at the UUHS Web site. Howe was originally trained as a chemist, and received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He left academia to become a Unitarian Universalist minister, and after a long career in the parish, turned to writing about Unitarian Universalist history. He was awarded the honorary Doctor of Divinity by Meadville Lombard Theological School.

Howe wrote two clear, concise one volume syntheses of topics in Unitarian and Universalist history. His The Larger Faith is a lucid, accurate, and concise introduction to North American Universalism; even though I own Russell Miller’s massive two-volume history of Universalism, I often find it’s quicker to look something up in Howe’s book. Howe’s For Faith and Freedom is another excellent one-volume summary, this time of European Unitarianism; although in this case, there is no other work that covers everything that Howe covers in this one volume. Howe was also an editor and complier, and in third major book, Clarence Skinner: Prophet of a New Universalism, he gave us a solid one-volume introduction to perhaps the major figure of Universalism in the 20th century, with excerpts from Skinner’s work, and essays on Skinner’s life and theology.

Early Unitarians in Nevada

Virginia City, Nevada, was a Far Western mining town that came into being c. 1859, soon after silver began being mined from the famous Comstock Lode. After the Comstock Lode ceased producing profitable ore in 1898, Virginia City’s population declined precipitously. During the 1870s, there was a small Unitarian organization in Virginia City.

Mary McNair Mathews, in her memoir Ten Years in Nevada: or, Life on the Pacific Coast (1880; reprint 1985, University of Nebraska Press, p. 194), wrote: “There are churches here [in Virginia City] of every denomination, except the Universalist. All have their own churches except the Unitarians or Liberalists, as they term themselves. They hold their services at the National Guard Hall….” Mathews lived in Virginia City from 1869 to 1878.

This Virgnia City Unitarian congregation predates the organization of the Reno Unitarian Church under Revs. Mila and Rezin Maynard in 1893 by some twenty years.

How did Unitarianism come to Virginia City? Continue reading

Another Maybeck Unitarian church building

The old Palo Alto Unitarian Church was designed by Unitarian architect Bernard Maybeck in 1906; he his firm also designed the old Unitarian church building in Berkeley (now owned, and treated somewhat disrespectfully, by the University of California), and he most famously designed the First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Berkeley. The first set of drawings for the Palo Alto church building was destroyed in a fire that followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Maybeck made another set of drawings, and the main church building was completed 1907; due to the rise in construction costs following the earthquake, the social hall was not completed until 1913.

“A prominent architect, Mr. B[ernard] R[alph] Maybeck… was hired. The new building was dedicated on March 24, 1907…. The design of the building was unusual. It used rough, less expensive forms of material, redwood board and battens, common redwood shakes, rough, heavy timbers which more than caqrried the weight of the roof and cement plaster like that use for outside work, forming a deep chancel arch as high as the roof. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Associationism, part one

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. Continue reading

An obscure Palo Alto Unitarian

While researching something completely different, I came upon an obituary in the 1919 volume of The Pacific Unitarian for Helen Kreps. She had been encouraged to enter the Unitarian ministry by Rev. Florence Buck, interim minister in 1910 at the old Palo Alto Unitarian church. By 191, she was a highly promising student at Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry (now Starr King School for the Ministry) when she died in the great influenza epidemic. I make no claims for the historical importance of this story, but its poignancy makes it worth reprinting here.

From The Pacific Unitarian, vol. 28, no. 3, March, 1919, p. 65:

Helen Katharine Kreps

(Editorial Note. — The above article by President [Earl Morse] Wilbur came just too late for our last issue. Since it was written the deeply lamented death of Miss Kreps ended her heroic struggle. Dr. Wilbur now adds a tribute to her memory.)

About three years ago I received from a young woman in Palo Alto, of whom I had never heard, a request for information about courses of study in our divinity school. Shortly afterwards a member of the staff at Stanford university told me that one of their finest graduates was coming to us to study for the ministry, and mentioned her name with high praise. Later in the spring a slight, girlish-looking person appeared at the school, accompanied by her mother, to make final arrangements for the proposed course of study. Thus I first came to know Helen Kreps. She entered as one of our students in the autumn of 1916, and was thus in her last year when death snatched her from us. Continue reading

Isaac Watts, nonconformist and… Unitarian?

The Newington Green Unitarian church have, in the past, claimed that the great English language hymnodist Isaac Watts was a Unitarian. The congregation’s Web site used to suggest that since Watts lived the last years of his life in the neighborhood, and since their chapel was the only dissenting congregation nearby, that Watts likely attended services there. The Wikipedia article on Watts quotes a 1958 history of the congregation, published on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of its founding (Trust in Freedom: The Story of Newington Green Unitarian Church 1708-1958, Michael Thorncroft, 1958), which states that Watts “in later life was known to have adopted decidedly Unitarian opinions.”

This revives what is apparently an old, old argument. In The Life of the Rev. Isaac Watts, D. D. by Samuel Johnson, LL.D., London: 1785, there are notes containing amniadversions and additions; to which are subjoined… an authentic account of his last sentiments on the Trinity”; this last-named account denies that Watts was an “Arian,” and claims him for the Trinitarian party:

“It has been confidently asserted by some Anti-trinitarians, that the Doctor before his death was come over to their party, and that he left some papers behind him, containing a recantation of his former sentiments, which his executors thought it most prudent to suppress. A report of this kind was lately revived, with the mention of some remarkable circumstances in confirmation of it, in the Monthly Review….”

All of which leads me to wonder what Watts’s theology actually was. He was a Nonconformist, of that there is no doubt. He was allied with the Congregationalist nonconformists. But did he have unitarian leanings? And if he did, wouldn’t it be deliciously ironic that the favorite hymn writer of many of today’s Christian evangelicals was in fact an Arian — a unitarian?

Midwestern Unitarian christening ceremonies of the late 19th C.

The christening ceremonies of the Western Unitarian Conference contain many elements still used in contemporary Unitarian Universalist christening and child dedication ceremonies, including gender-inclusive language, the incorporation of flowers, and even the language of “dedication” rather than “christening.” You’ll find two complete christening services below:

1893 “Service of flowers and christenings” using gender-inclusive language
1884 “Christening service” including the term “dedication”

Continue reading