Amy Morgenstern, the senior minister, and I have been talking about child dedications recently. As we talked, I realized that one of the results of the social process known as “secularization” (which in the U.S. is more of an adjustment away from communal religious organizations to individualized religious practices) is that fewer and fewer people know that there are established communal practices to welcome babies. Even if they do know about such practices as Unitarian Universalist child dedications, they may find it difficult to understand why they would want to have a communal ceremony, within a religious community, rather than something more individualistic.
This realization has led me to rethink the entire concept of child dedications. After I was born in 1960, I was christened (not dedicated) in a Unitarian church — but what was a Unitarian christening, and was there then a distinctive way of thinking about this naming ceremony? What about Universalist understandings of naming ceremonies? How have Unitarian and Universalist naming ceremonies combined and evolved into Unitarian Universalist naming ceremonies?
I don’t yet have answers to these questions, but I’ve been collecting relevant historical documents. Without further ado, here are documents from the 20th century that relate to Universalist, Unitarian, and Unitarian Universalist naming ceremonies.
(Updated 28 Feb 2020: corrections and revisions, added another document)
1903: Unitarian naming ceremony
This is a complete naming ceremony from the 1903 American Unitarian Association service book. The ceremony is called, not a christening and not a dedication, but a service for baptism.
Unitarian Service Book (Boston: American Unitarian Assoc., 1903):
A Service for the Baptism of Children
The parents with the child or children to be baptized being present and standing before the minister, the minister shall read one or more of the following sentences:
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words which I command thee this day shall be upon thine heart; and thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou risest up.
The promise is unto you and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord your God shall call.
And Jesus took a young child, and set him in the midst of them, and when he had taken him in his arms, he said unto them, Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name receiveth me; and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.
Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven.
And they brought young children to him that he should touch them, and his disciples rebuked those that brought them. But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them: Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily, I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein. And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.
Then shall the minister say:
In the presence of this congregation of the Church of God, we are about to dedicate this child to the love and service of Almighty God. This water is the emblem of that purity which was in Jesus, through whose gospel we are called to holiness of living. May the God of love consecrate unto us this service, that we who are of the family of this household of faith may receive this child into the peculiar charge of our sympathy and love; that as (he) shall grow in stature and in wisdom and wax strong in spirit, (he) shall find in this family of the people of God congenial fellowship for (his) soul’s abiding joy. Through this sacred rite may this church assume to itself a solemn burden of responsibility for this child’s sake: that (he) and we together grow in the fellowship of a pure religious faith, and in the way of truth whose law is perfect freedom.
Then shall the minister say to the parent or parents of the child presented for baptism, taking each child in turn where more than one are to be baptized:
You present this child for baptism in token of your belief that (he) is God’s child, and of your desire so to nurture and train (him) that he may ever seek to know and to do God’s holy will. Is this your purpose?
Answer. It is.
Do you therefore promise that you will faithfully instruct this child in the way of religious truth, as best you can understand it; and will steadfastly endeavor to rear (him) in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?
Answer. We do.
Name this child.
Then shall the minister baptize the child, repeating the name and saying:
In the faith, fellowship, and hope of the gospel, I dedicate thee to God, our Father in Heaven.
I baptize thee in the name of God our Father, and into the faith and fellowship of the religion of Jesus Christ.
In either case this benediction may be added to the words of baptism.
May the Lord bless thee and keep thee: the Lord cause his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon thee and give thee peace. Amen.
After all the children presented have been duly baptized, the minister shall say:
Let us pray.
Prayer: to be said by minister and people.
Almighty and Everlasting God, who hast promised unto us that thou wilt not only be our God, but the God and Father of our children, we welcome this child into the bosom of thy Church, and into the fellowship of those who love thee and strive to do thy will; grant unto (him) thy best blessings of body and soul, that (he) may pass safely through the temptations and trials of this life, and have part with all thy faithful children in the blessedness of the life eternal. Amen.
Prayer: to be said by minister alone.
Endue these thy servants, O God, with wisdom from above, that they may tenderly and faithfully educate and preserve this child whom we now bless in thy name. Help them in thine own way to consecrate to thy service this gift of thy goodness, so that in years to come it may rise up and call them blessed. Counsel them in all their perplexities, sustain them in the exercise of their duties, and the discharge of their responsibilities, and grant that theirs may be the joy of seeing their child grow in strength, and wisdom, and grace, obedient to thy will for evermore. Amen.
1922: Universalist naming ceremony
Volume 25 (1922) of the periodical The Universalist Leader has references to both christening and child dedications, though by far the most common term used is “christening”; throughout vol. 25 of The Universalist Leader, there are frequent references of children being christened in the reports from congregations. The terms “Christening” and “dedication” appear to be used interchangeably, e.g., “One child was christened, the dedication service prepared by Mrs. Jones being used” (June 24, 1922, p. 20). The term “baptism” is also used in advertisements by the Universalist Publishing House for “Certificates for Baptism and Christening” (e.g., June 3, 1922, p. 22).
June 10, 1922, The Universalist Leader, p. 16:
A SERVICE OF DEDICATION
The Rev. Edward A. Lewis
“And Jesus took a child and set him in the midst; and when he had taken him in his arms, he said unto them, ‘Whosoever shall receive one of such children, in my name, receiveth me; and whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.’
“And they brought little children to him, that he should touch them; and his disciples rebuked those that brought them; but Jesus saw it and was much displeased, and said unto them, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’
“And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.”
The Meaning of the Service
This church rejects the sacramental interpretation of all religious ceremonies. For us these things have no meaning aside from the inspiration they produce to nobler living.
But with growing intelligence and more enlightened minds, we are coming now to understand that we establish right relationship with God only as we make justice and love the basis of our human relations with our fellow men in our social and community life; and we know that whenever we are brought together to participate in common acts of love and service the bands of community life and brotherhood are strengthened.
And so, this … (morning, afternoon, evening) we have come here to bless, with other people, a solemn moment in human experience. Nothing means so much to the life of an individual, perhaps, as the advent of a little child. Henceforth he liveth not unto himself alone but also, in a new sense, unto others.
And the child comes not only into the life of his parents, but into that of the church and the community as well. It is, therefore, right and proper that we should at this time, as members of the family, the church, and the community into which these children have been born, here publicly attest our desire to fulfill the obligations thus devolving upon us.
(Here the parents with their children will rise.)
Recognizing these little ones to be not only our children but also the children of God, we realize that they are the rightful heirs of all that is divine, and we do hereby declare it to be our earnest desire and solemn purpose to help them to that richer, fuller life which is their inalienable heritage and true destiny.
With this water which is the emblem of that purity which the heavenly Father desires in the souls of all His children, let us now dedicate these children to pure and noble living and to God.
(To the parents) Name this child.
———, in the faith, fellowship, and hope of the gospel, I dedicate thee to God, our Father in heaven.
O Thou Infinite and Everliving God, who art not only our God and Father but also the God and Father of our children, we rejoice in the faith that these little ones are destined for divine life. Grant unto them, we pray, healthful bodies, good understandings, and sweet dispositions.
We realize that the development of these new lives will be greatly influenced by the acts and lives of those around them and the circumstances which surround them in their youth. Help us all, O God, to fulfill our social obligations for the sake of the younger generation.
Endue these Thy servants with wisdom from above. Help them in Thine own best way to consecrate to Thy service these cherished gifts of Thy goodness. By Thy Holy Spirit aid them, and all of us here present, so to live before Thee in love and obedience as to help, in whatsoever measure we may, the cause of Thy blessed kingdom. Amen.
The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the knowledge and love of God, and of His Son Jesus Christ; and the blessing of God, the Father, be amongst us and remain with us always. Amen.
1966: Description of Unitarian naming ceremonies
The book Challenge of a Liberal Faith was originally written for the Church of the Larger Fellowship of the American Unitarian Association, prior to the consolidation of Unitarians and Universalists. The excerpt below comes from a study guide written after consolidation; nevertheless this passage reflects mid-century Unitarian views, with little reference to Universalist views.
George Marshall, Challenge of a Liberal Faith, (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Assoc., 1966 [1970 reprinting]), p. 244.
Do Unitarian Universalists practice christening of children?
Yes, many do. The service of bringing children, a gift of God in their innocence and in our sense of dedication, to the church as we share our joy and undergird our hopes and seek the support of the values by which we live, is a beautiful and inspiring service for many of us. It has none of the connotations of original sin, of the need to be washed in the blood of the lamb, however, of the orthodox theologies, and so some of our members prefer not to christen, lest it be misconstrued. It is a service of dedication, a naming service, a presentation of parent and child under solemn circumstances, whenever practiced, free of theological implications. To us it is an ethical, thankful, and dedicatory occasion.
1999: Description of Unitarian Universalist naming ceremonies
I served on the Pamphlet Commission while an edition pamphlet “We Dedicate This Child” was in development, along with (if memory serves me correctly) Mary Ella Holst, Jane Rzpeka, Ken Sawyer, Cathy Bowers and one or two others. The Commission had been discussing how all the printed material on child dedications then available sounded dated to us. Instead of revising an older pamphlet, Mary Ella Holst proposed writing a completely new pamphlet that would accurately reflect contemporary understandings of child dedications. As she wrote and revised, I recall other Commission members having a good deal of input into the text. The Pamphlet Commission was abolished not long thereafter as a cost-cutting measure, and soon after the UUA took over publication of pamphlets Mary Ella’s pamphlet was replaced by one written by Linda Olson Peebles. However, I still feel Mary Ella’s text is relevant, still the clearest and best recent explanation of Unitarian Universalist child dedication practices.
Mary Ella Holst, “We Dedicate This Child,” UUA Pamphlet Commission Publication, 1999:
The rituals surrounding birth, marriage, and death have both personal and public meanings. Each of these occasions is certified as a fact by secular government; yet most people, including those in liberal religious congregations, seek an added dimension beyond the recognition of the fact with a ceremony that strives to express a deeper, more complex meaning.
When Unitarian Universalists welcome a child, the ceremony, in whatever form it may take, usually recognizes three strands of complexity:
— The child as an individual.
— The intimate family of the child is making a deep commitment to love and care for the child.
— A community beyond the immediate family welcomes the child.
The Child as Individual
The first step in declaring individuality is to have a name that is our own. This name sets us apart from all the other babies, who tend to look alike have have similar needs. I am! declares this name. In Unitarian Universalist congregations, the ritual surrounding the presentation of the child may be called a naming ceremony, which reflects our strong emphasis on individuality….
The Parents’ Commitment
It is not required that a ceremony be held at all. The nature of the ceremony, whether it is held in relative privacy with members of the family and a few friends or in full view of the congregation during a regular service, is decided by the parent/s or guardian/s and reflects their desire to celebrate as well as to dedicate themselves to the child’s physical, ethical, and spiritual development … the ceremony [may be] called a dedication ceremony as a reflection of this commitment.
The Child in Community
Communities need children…. Children develop within communities.Whether or not the family remains within the particular community, the act of choosing to dedicate a child within this community will serve as a reminder of intentions….
[A minister or congregation may have] a ceremony they customarily conduct…but are also willing to include new or different elements…. Symbols may include water or a flower, the symbolic meaning of which is explained by the person conducting the service. Readings are drawn from diverse religious sources, including sacred literature and secular poetry. The service itself is quite short. Most services center upon a baby or toddler but, on occasion, a service is held for an older child or young adults. (Adults are welcomed into the congregation through membership ceremonies, which are different from dedication ceremonies.)…