Conrad Wright died Thursday. Here’s the obituary on the Harvard Divinity School Web site — and here is the obituary on the Boston Globe Web site. (Thanks to Bill for this.)
Wright was a towering figure in Unitarian history scholarship. His book-length history, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America, and his essays, many of which are collected in The Unitarian Controversy: Essays in American Unitarian History, have not been surpassed. Later generations of historians have offered minor corrections to his narrative, by e.g. filling in more details on early Unitarian history outside New England, but we pretty much still accept his basic narrative as the default.
In 1998 Wright published a study of Unitarian Universalist polity, Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches, which collects some of his earlier writings on Unitarian history and adds material about Universalist polity. Unlike his work on Unitarian history, his work on Unitarian Universalist polity is somewhat problematic, particularly in the lack of in-depth treatment of Universalist polity, and in the way it does not place enough emphasis on how Unitarian Universalism has been affected by Universalist polity. Nevertheless, Walking Together is an essential book for anyone involved in or interested in the issues facing congregational polity.
But the reason Wright stands as one of my heroes has nothing to do with his scholarship. He’s one of my heroes because of (to use a now outdated word) his “churchmanship.” Wright was a long-time lay leader of First Parish of Cambridge. When I was involved in young adult activities in the Boston area some fifteen years ago (back when I still was a young adult), I got to know several young adults who were members of the Cambridge congregation, and they spoke of Wright with a certain amount of awe. In addition to serving his local congregation, he also used his talents in service of the denomination; it seemed to me that he was always a part of any denominational effort that reviewed our polity.
Wright was someone who cared deeply about the institutional health of Unitarian Universalism, and used his considerable intellect and talents to strengthen our institutions. We have lost one of our Titans.
According to the Globe obit, services will be private. I imagine that Harvard Divinity School will have some kind of memorial service in his honor. I hope that there will be a more public forum within Unitarian Universalism to recognize Wright’s contributions, perhaps at General Assembly.
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