A Faith for a Few?
Minns Lecture: Number 5
by Mark W. Harris
Given at the UUA General Assembly
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
Some years ago it was common for Unitarian Universalist congregations to print an item in their June newsletters. Written by my colleague Patrick O’Neill, it was called “Why Unitarian Universalist Churches Close for the Summer.” Reason #2 reads: “It began with our New England roots. The Unitarian churches would all close down in the 1800’s and everyone headed for Cape Cod. The Cape churches stay open all summer.” When I served the First Parish in Milton, Massachusetts, a suburb south of Boston we had no summer services. The implication was no one stayed in town for the summer, but that the wealthy congregation dispersed to their summer homes, or at least the wife and children did so, with the husband to follow on weekends when he was free of his obligations in the financial district. Perhaps this was more of a myth than a reality, but the tradition was still present. In 1872, Ellen Tucker Emerson, Waldo’s daughter, wrote to Edith Forbes reporting that she had safely landing back at the Manse in Concord after a prosperous journey, and “remember our visit to Naushon with pleasure.” (1) Her descendants in the Milton congregation planned their summer excursions to this same family island refuge. It is well known that summer congregations were much larger than winter ones in Brewster and Barnstable on Cape Cod, and on Nantucket, only to return to fewer numbers as seasonal members headed home in September or early October
In the book Becoming Cape Cod, historian James O’Connell, tells how merchant Samuel Hooper bought a home in Cotuit in 1850. Other Brahmin families such as the Lowells, were soon attracted to the area. Eventually, Cotuit became known as “Little Harvard,” because so many professors summered there. (2) While church think tanks have since informed us that this is no way to run a growing church, it has been a tradition that has died hard. While we have joked that UUs are the only religious folk that God can trust to be free of divine oversight in the summer, we also know that the church needs to be open and available every week for visitors as well as for our members who do not happen to be wealthy enough to own a summer home in some exotic location. We begin with a church tradition of the wealthier classes going away for the summer, while the poorer folk stayed home.
My talk today is the fifth in a series of the 2008 Minns Lectures. Unfortunately none of you have heard the first four. This is a challenge, and so I am going to attempt a brief summary of those talks to help give you a context for this particular address you will hear today. There has long been a stereotype that Unitarian Universalism, and Unitarianism especially, has attracted those people who are wealthy, well educated and urbane, those whom Spiro Agnew once called “effete, intellectual snobs.” Conversely we have not attracted rural, uneducated or poor people. There is always truth in any stereotype, and it is historically accurate to note that those who struggle economically are more likely to be concerned about heavenly salvation, and what will befall them in the next life, while those with economic, educational and social status join more rational congregations with a this worldly perspective. This is a complex subject. We all know people who cross educational , economic or social barriers. It is hard to generalize, and much of what we know about Unitarianism and Universalism with respect to class is confined to greater Boston, simply because that is where the faiths have been studied most extensively.
It is important to note a counterpoint to the stereotype of Unitarians as Boston Brahmins. British Unitarians could be categorized as a rising middle class, certainly not upper class or professional. Their choice of faith led to a certain social isolation because as dissenters from the Church of England, they could not go to university or enter the professions. Unitarianism was officially illegal in Britain until 1813. The Unitarian movement in Britain included General Baptist and Methodist Unitarians, who were characterized as “weavers, warpers, wool-sorters, overlookers, hatters, cloggers and shoemakers, who sought redress for their economic oppression in the radical reform movements of the day.” (3) In general British Unitarians understood they were at a disadvantage, religiously, politically, educationally, and socially.
This is in sharp contrast to many of the early liberals here n America, who were rooted in the established Congregational church of Massachusetts. These liberals saw salvation as a slow, educational process devoted to the conduct of life, an individualized exercise in free will. They were anti-revivalist, believed in preserving an ordered society, and many even opposed the American Revolution on the grounds that society would be disrupted. (4) Such a disruption was actually the goal of British Unitarians.
Our legacy of promoting Brahmin culture for the masses fuses Unitarianism with culture in a way that continues to make defining our faith and its role in liberation challenging. We have often mythologized this liberal faith and believe that despite its association with wealth and privilege, it was really a benevolent kind of dictatorship that affirmed reform oriented values. But the rich and powerful did not shape the culture to “melioristic liberalism.” It fed their own exclusive, conservative, and business oriented values. (5)Institutions Bostonians treasure such as the Atheneum and Memorial Church at Harvard are the result of privatized business interests buying or building their way out of dealing with commoners and radicals. There were some ministers and others including Margaret Fuller’s brother Arthur, who wanted Unitarianism to have a more universal appeal. They were concerned about the poor, and about providing a welcoming church culture, where they could afford pews, and not have to “sit apart,” as Joseph Tuckerman said, as “‘the class of the poor.’” (6)
The stereotype is that Universalists were among those poor, that they were less well educated than their Unitarian counterparts, and from rural areas. Generally speaking Universalists did come from a broader spectrum of the population than the Unitarians. They invited all to be part of the theological and social mix. Universalist circuit rider George Rogers observed that at one Universalist gathering. “all were on a parity, all distinctions of caste were lost sight of; all individualities were merged in the mass; and as one family all rejoiced together in a common and glorious hope.” (7)Universalists were not all poor – George Pullman of railway car fame was as wealthy an entrepreneur as any, but Universalists did include the poor.
The central question raised in this series of lectures is one that continues to plague us today. We have long promoted ourselves as a democratic faith with a central belief that all people are welcome. From the beginning in Massachusetts liberal Congregationalists said all have the right of private judgment in matters of faith, while they continued to affirm the need for a state church which by its nature is grounded in coercion and privilege. They wanted a democratic society, but they believed they were the ones who were best equipped to lead that society, and should determine the parameters of it. One of the ugliest chapters of this story was the involvement of some liberals in the eugenics movement early in the twentieth century, which was the subject of my fourth lecture. The ways in which we desire to improve the human race or increase individual control over our own destinies has resulted in our projection of what the good life is, and so our ability to be compassionate toward marginalized people was limited. We want a democratic faith that embraces all, but in our efforts to extend this liberal religion, we frequently embraced only those who are like us. Let’s see who we tried to extend our faith to a half century ago.
After the Civil War, a campaign was begun by the American Unitarian Association to found churches in college and university towns. Virgil Murdock later reported that this “College Town Mission” program proved to be one of the most successful extension activities ever,” and included new congregations in Ithaca, New York and Iowa City, Iowa. (8) We take particular note of the kind of communities that were targeted as potential areas of growth for the denomination. The plan was to evangelize highly educated people, a cultured elite. But this proselytizing ended after the turn of the century, and extension efforts reached a low ebb in the early 20th century. In September 1946 , the AUA’s Minister-at-Large, Lon Ray Call delivered a memo which was called “A Research on Church Extension and Maintenance Since 1900 A Progress Report.” He wanted to answer the question of “when and under what conditions should groups be encouraged to organize a new church?” He found what he called seven surprises. These included that the number of Unitarian congregations founded since 1900 had declined steadily, even precipitously, and that some of the best potential cities for new congregations had been overlooked. This he surmised was not purely based upon size, but other factors had to be taken into consideration. Call wanted to see where they had had success before, but also stated what might be barriers to success. These included such factors as whether there was already a liberal church present, and what the percentage of foreign born and Negro populations was. Then he added other criteria as well, including how people make their living, what they read, and whether or not there was “an urge to culture and higher education.” (9)
Using these criteria, Call picked forty cities that might be good areas of extension. University towns were typical choices and his forty included Austin, Texas and Durham, North Carolina. We could say that Call was merely being realistic that the kind of person that our liberal faith appealed to in the twentieth century was always the white, upper middle class professional who was highly educated, and we will grow if we continue to reach out to those who are like us. Finally, after concluding that there had been no well founded policy of church extension since 1900, Call complemented his plan for founding churches in suitable cities by suggesting that small groups of Unitarians be gathered in lay groups. This followed up on an AUA board vote from 1945, where it recommended that a plan be developed for forming lay centers. (10) The plan resulted in the greatest period of congregational growth in Unitarian history. This occurred in the 1950’s and 1960’s under the guise of the Fellowship Movement.
In a Report of the Department of Extension that was delivered to the 123rd Anniversary Week Meeting of the AUA in May 1948, Lon Ray Call followed up on some of his earlier findings. In terms of growing a faith that reflected more class and racial diversity, there were some positive aspects to this report. A new church had been formed on the south side of Chicago under the leadership of African-American minister, Lewis McGee. Call noted that this was “an interracial church, in reality as all our churches are in theory.” (11) Call also reported that many people were being either drawn or driven to Unitarianism by a reaction to the resurgence of orthodoxy. Call saw other factors in the potential attraction to religious liberalism including the rise of intolerant bigotry, the submergence of democratic values, and the increased efforts to publicize the liberal faith Call said it was his task to bring the faith to brand new communities to introduce hundreds of people to the faith. He said these people should come not only “from the halls of universities”, but also “from the marts of trade, from factories (yes, from factories) and from kitchens and drawing rooms.”(12) He even went on to speculate that the Unitarian faith “is now growing most rapidly among those, sometimes without college training or often without any religious background who look at you – you who have struggled up through years of college study, university research, tough wrestling with the spiritual implications of science and philosophy – and say . . . ” I agree with you 100%. Could it be possible that someone without college training could be one of us?
It is a mixed message when it comes to aspirations to class diversity within Unitarian ranks. In theory our democratic faith which says all are welcome, aspires to having people from the factories joins us, and in theory, as Call said, we should be racially diverse, but was there ever much of an intention to be so, or even a realistic expectation that it might be possible? The theory of democracy was not realized in the actual targets of extension. First, we must acknowledge the importance of Lon Ray Call, especially to a movement that had seemingly lost its way in terms of extending the faith. As Minister-at-Large for the AUA he founded thirteen churches, and then for his work devising the Fellowship movement, he was given the name “the godfather of Unitarian fellowships.” One of the churches he founded was the South Nassau Unitarian Church in Freeport, New York, where he served as minister from 1951-1960.
Plans for extension on Long Island are especially pertinent to this lecture in which I am considering what class of people Unitarians expected to join their congregations. In November 1946, Call wrote to George Davis, the AUA’s Director of Extension. Call reported that “Nassau County is of particular interest to us.” He said that in 1930 the percentage of white families filing personal income taxes there was 58%, much higher than New York State as a whole at 43% or the USA generally at 22%. Further he wrote, “The main characteristic of the area is the large number of separate family houses of the upper middle class.” Finally, he concluded that “It is the best possible kind of district in which to establish Unitarian churches that will center around the family.” (13) In a letter to Call when he was in Bellevue, WA, Dale Dewitt the Regional Director for New York assured him that the movement would not grow on Long Island until there was some leadership, concluding, “I am sure there is a grand field there however.” (14) . Call’s own ministry in Freeport culminated with an address about the prospects for merger that was reprinted in the AUA’s Minister’s Packet.
His sermon, “Shall Unitarians and Universalists Unite?” is critical of the Joint Commission on Merger, partly based on his analysis of the differences between Unitarians and Universalists, and reflecting his concerns about who he felt Unitarianism could appeal to and where the expansion of liberal religion would prove most successful. While the Commission noted that 60 percent of Universalist churches were in communities of less than 10,000 people, 60 percent of Unitarian churches were in communities that had a population in excess of 25,000. The Commission made the conclusion that this made the two groups complementary, and therefore an advantage for planning consolidation, but Call thought it a disadvantage. If the “mass of Unitarians are city folk and the mass of Universalists are country folk,” as Call described it, then the “difference in the manner and mood of church life” between the two groups is more “than the Commission is willing to admit.” (15) Call went on to say that he wishes the Commission had considered this further, and that the consolidation “would not solve, but would indeed compound our problems.” In a letter from Robert Raible to George Spencer in 1971, Raible recalled that Lon Call “vigorously opposed the Unitarians giving the Universalists any advice,” on organizing Fellowships. (16)
By 1960, Call had developed exacting standards for where he thought Unitarianism could expand. Call believed that Fellowships could be organized in any type of community, but there was a preference for those places where they believed Unitarianism could flourish. Laile Bartlett in her history of the Fellowship movement Bright Galaxy describes a hypothetical, but typical Unitarian fellowship. She places it in a midwestern small college town. There is a classic conflict between town and gown. The charter members were mostly from faculty families, and thus in the town’s sociological conflict, the Unitarian fellowship represents one part of the spectrum, a highly educated, white elite. Maybe the makeup of the group reflects the obvious. It is not a democratic cross section of the town, and yet the purposes of the congregation state that it believes in “brotherhood undivided by nation, race or creed, and allegiance to the cause of a united world community.” (17)
Call put together the “Organizational Guide” for the Fellowship movement. In it he said that Unitarianism attracts people from all walks of life, but then he qualified that by stating “it has been discovered that persons in certain professions or vocations are more responsive to liberal religion’s appeal. These are: natural scientists, social scientists, architects and engineers, social workers, modern educators.” (18) Munroe Husbands, the AUA’s Director of Fellowships and Associate Director of Extension, prepared a publication called “Organizing and Serving Unitarian Fellowships,” where he said, “Top consideration must be given to communities in which are located liberal arts colleges, for it has been easier to organize Fellowships here than elsewhere.” (19) Those places dominated by one or two industries were the least attractive. While the AUA was concentrating on extension in new areas among those people who were characterized as having the best potential for membership, the AUA’s Commission on Planning and Review in a 1947 report, advocated for efforts to integrate minority peoples, Negroes and others, such as was true at the Community Church of New York. This seems at odds with their extension efforts in rich, white areas. They urged the appointment of a special committee “to study the policies of churches in relation to constituents and members from minority races.” (20)While this study reflected the intention of establishing more diverse, interracial congregations, the actual planning for extension ran counter to this. New suburban population centers challenged liberal religious thinking., As Bartlett noted, “Most of the new communities are inherently and diametrically at variance with the liberal ideal of a broad spread of contact between a variety of people. While Unitarians engage in social action opposing class and racial discrimination, and in study of the world’s people and their religions, those living in suburbia are increasingly isolated from the objects of their concern.” (21) These congregations drew on populations that were not particularly diverse.
The Fellowship Movement: A Growth Strategy and Its Legacy was published this year by the UUA. The author, Holley Ulbrich, reiterates that growing college communities were “especially fertile ground for planting the Unitarian religious flag in new regions of the country.” (22) Here were religious homes for a growing number of academicians and an expanding population of educated professionals. These congregations were characterized by strong lay leadership. Of the congregations founded during the Fellowship period from 1948 to 1967, 323 survive today , nearly a third of our present number. One of the earliest Fellowships was in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Nearly all of the initial members were Oklahoma State University faculty or spouses. Yet it was in the Northeast that the first wave of fellowships succeeded, despite the already large number of established churches. This was because, Ulbrich writes, it had the “more urbanization, suburban development, and commerce. It had a greater concentration of colleges and universities, and its residents had, on average, higher levels of education and income.” (23)
The Fellowship movement made a number of important contributions to our movement. Among those are a sense of shared ministry among the laity and the professionals, and a vibrant sense of democratic leadership that challenges traditional authoritarian models, sometimes going to the extreme of no authority or tradition, only freedom. Bartlett suggests that a core concern for the fellowships was “how to capture true democracy in the fellowship operation.” (24) Efforts to achieve consensus sometimes meant that congregations tried to avoid sharp differences, but this could sometimes make them conflict avoidant. One could say that this kind of group helped institute more broad based and diverse leadership patterns. Yet the empowerment of the laity did not lead to any diversity among the parishioners themselves, where if anything the prevailing class pattern of appealing to white, upper middle class professionals was never challenged, and was actually reinforced in the implementation of the expansion plan by the AUA. This was true of later efforts at expansion including the identifying of potential areas of growth with zip codes that corresponded to wealthy, white and well educated population areas.
In the recent Commission on Appraisal report Belonging: The Meaning of Membership, the authors address this disparity between the ideal of pluralism vs. the reality of UU Congregations. While our principles affirm that we would welcome someone who is very different from us, many of the members feel we should recruit among those who match the demographic characteristics of our current membership. New members should fit in or be like us in order for us to grow, and therefore there is little challenge to confront change. (25) From 1950 to 1960 many Unitarians congregations said they wanted to be diverse, and in theory had a faith that was open to all, a religion for one world, as Kenneth Patton once said, but the one world they promoted looked very much like a replication of themselves, and what is most striking in our desire to be diverse today is that our multiracial and multicultural populations are usually the adopted children in our church schools, or the few adults among us who have the same education, income and values that everyone else does. Our yearning for diversity does not touch differences of class. While this address is intended to look at historical issues one can see a long history of assumptions that people of different classes, cultural groups and ethnic backgrounds would not be attracted by our rational, liberal faith. So our public expression of a democratic faith open to all, does not find practical application among us, and therefore “does not always match the Principles we espouse.”
One way of looking at patterns of class structure among Unitarian Universalist is to see where and with which populations we intentionally tried to grow. Another perhaps more well known pattern of bolstering the homogeneity of class is the white flight to the suburbs from the inner cities. Although we witnessed this in the mid-20th century, it was not a new phenomenon. In the 1850’s the Rev. Arthur Fuller dreamed of a more diverse Unitarian population in his pews because the North End of Boston, the location of his church, was a port of entry for first Irish and later Italian immigrants. Could the white, Anglo Saxon Protestants become more diverse? The New North Church building is the only surviving church in Boston designed by Charles Bulfinch, but it was sold in the 1860’s to the Catholic diocese, and eventually the congregation dissolved. (26) Time and again congregations moved to where they perceived their people were moving. During Chandler Robbins’ 41 year ministry at Second Church in Boston, the congregation had buildings in four sections of the city, finally ending up near the Brookline line in a neighborhood that was “opulent and residential.” Yet the congregation finally abandoned that location selling their 1912 Ralph Adams Cram building when business encroachments and apartment buildings made the neighborhood less appealing to a Unitarian congregation.
We commonly assume that the urban crisis in America began after World War II when African -Americans moved into the industrial cities of the North, and whites fled to the suburbs. As we have seen, this process of neighborhoods in transition started much sooner, and it has become increasingly evident that the crisis of the city began when cities began to be places where poor people predominated. In the meantime the automobile made it possible for the middle class to escape. In a book called Urban Exodus: Why Jews left Boston and the Catholics Stayed, Gerald Gamm makes a compelling argument that some of the sociological forces behind this neighborhood transition were religious. Catholic institutions did not have to be concerned as much with market forces, and so the institutions were anchored in a sense of territorial place, under a bureaucratic hierarchy. Jewish synagogues, even though they were more tolerant, were governed by a different set of rules, more like the decision making we might associate with Unitarian Universalist congregations. The decision to move or not move depended entirely upon the people who made up the individual congregations, and the competition for members. In a religious free market the congregations had to go where they believed they would survive and prosper. In the next few minutes we will hear of some examples of how different congregations responded to urbanization. I am not trying to judge whether these were good or bad decisions, but want to show you what they did to survive and grow. While it clearly reflects who Unitarian Universalists have traditionally believed their people were, the examples also show some desire to maintain a sense of relationship with the people who live in the poor, urban centers. (27)
Did fear of the city, and its poverty and crime, lead to a Unitarian Universalist exodus to the suburbs? We know that many downtown church buildings were abandoned, and we also know that the new suburbs were targeted as appropriate places where liberal congregations would attract white, educated, upper middle-class people. I am most familiar with the case of Springfield, Massachusetts, near where I grew up. The Third Congregational Society in Springfield was formed in 1819 by a secession by some of the “richest, most established parishioners from the First Parish Congregational Church.” By the 1860’s the congregation needed a new building, and a competition among architects was won by the soon to be famous, H. H. Richardson. His first commission was the Church of the Unity erected on State Street in downtown Springfield in 1869. At the time it was called ” the most ambitious, the grandest, and the most satisfactory attempt at elaborate church architecture ever attempted” in Springfield. One third of the final cost of $150,000 was pledged even before the plans were accepted, and at completion there were no unsettled obligations. For decades it was considered Springfield’s most beautiful building. But over the next fifty years populations shifted, roofs began to leak, and finally the congregation voted to abandon it and relocate in 1957, and in 1961, it was torn down. There has been a parking lot there ever since. A proposed hotel was never built. As the Richardson church was being torn down, a new building for the congregation was constructed near the Longmeadow border, a prosperous suburb. Difficult to find, and far from the center of the city, the Springfield church is an example of what happened time and again. (28) As the congregation moved out of the city, the church members initiated an investigation into slum conditions, and plans for action were begun in the same place they had recently abandoned. (29)
The destruction of the Springfield Church did not happen without a great deal of consternation. In 1953 AUA President Frederick May Eliot wrote to Eleanor Herrick of Norwalk, Connecticut who was panicked over a New York Times article that stated that the Springfield church was going to be abandoned. She had written on June 30th that this was a “Richardson Church,” where she was married, concluding that “The AUA just can’t let this happen!” She recalled how “this was the leading church in the city. It was the wealthiest and most important. What has happened?” (30) Eliot tried to reassure her that no plan was underway to give up the building, and that despite “serious problems connected with the fabric of the present church building,” the idea of selling it and moving elsewhere “has been now definitely set aside.” (31) Eliot told Ernest Sommerfeld, then the minister of the church, that he had persuaded Mrs. Herrick that “the entire Unitarian denomination has not as yet gone completely to the damnation bow-wows.” (32) But perhaps it had. Despite a major renovation in 1935, the building had deteriorated quickly. In the fall of 1951, the AUA’s Grant Butler advised Sommerfeld that they should not repair the roof, put in new heating equipment or do other maintenance until they knew for certain that there would be enough money to do so. (33)
Mrs. Herrick wrote back to Eliot on July 4, 1953 saying she was “relieved” that the “alarming story in the Times is incorrect.” But only a few years hence the building was condemned, and her fears about this once “largest and wealthiest group in Springfield,” came to pass. (34) In 1961 the Springfield Republican announced that time had run out on the Church of the Unity. A farewell article in the paper said, “Within a few weeks the dismantling and razing will end the life of what has often been termed “Springfield’s most beautiful building” ‘ It said the church would soon break ground on its suburban site. The newspaper characterized the move as one that “exhibited the thread of Unitarian thought – daring to change, to experiment, to serve the needs of today for the good of tomorrow.” The article concluded that the new building would be “a forward looking example of . . . adaptation of machine age forms to the liberal quest for better ways for a better life today leading to a better life tomorrow.” (35) Was it better to abandon the downtown church? In 1990 the church printed a brochure called “Growth and Decision” that emerged from the UUA’s Decision for Growth Program. In the summary of the Sommerfeld years it was noted that “moving out of the city center had consequences.” Further down the list is, “Negative community image resulted from tearing down church.” In 1962 Alice Harrison, a UUA Director for Junior High Programs in the Education Office filed a report with the UUA stating that the Springfield congregation had a “new lease of life.” While it did give the congregation a new, contemporary facility, membership fell from 306 in 1961 to 219 in 1991. (36)
The struggle between balancing a liberal, democratic faith that welcomes all with being in a location that attracts those who the current membership believes are likely to help the congregation grow was played out in many locations. I want to briefly look at two others. One occurred on the West coast in Berkeley, California. A Unitarian Church had existed in Berkeley since the late 19th century, next to the downtown University campus. By the 1950’s the congregation was already somewhat divided. A gift of land in Kensington, a relatively isolated neighborhood of the Berkeley Hills had generated strong interest in moving out of downtown. As the University system tried to take ownership of the church building, a lawsuit ensued to ensure fair value for its purchase. The church won the suit, sold the building, and the original church, built in 1891, became the property of the University, and is currently a dance studio. As plans in the Hills unfolded, some church members became dissatisfied with the new building plan, and others were dissatisfied with the minister, and some “shared a commitment to remain in the heart of Berkeley.” As a result, 60 families left the First Church to form the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists, which was incorporated in 1957. (37) The Fellowship acquired a building that was both adjacent to the campus and the downtown. Curiously, the history of the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley mentions the split in the context of fund raising and church planning, but nothing about having a downtown presence. And yet the Fellowship lists the downtown presence as primary on its website. (38) Despite the split in Berkeley, Unitarian Universalists were able to stay downtown, as well as have a larger, new campus for an expanding congregation in a beautiful, natural setting, that one local website tells you is admittedly hard to find. (“Get directions, you’ll never find it”)
Another interesting example of the struggle to have a faith that reaches out to understand
and speak to the full range of human experience occurred in Cleveland, Ohio. In June 1951, the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland announced that a majority of their members had voted to move from their downtown location to Shaker Heights. The conclusions of the Planning Commission of the Church were that the primary objective had to be the overall growth of Unitarianism. This congregation which had established the West Shore Church in 1946, expressed the hope that if the move to the Heights occurred, then a downtown presence would be maintained. They got their wish when 317 members of the First Unitarian Church split off. They believed an inner city presence was important, and purchased the building from First Church because there “was a need for maintaining and expanding a metropolitan religious society, . . . which would be readily accessible to the lonely Sunday morning passer-by, the out-of-town stranger, the college student, the apartment dweller, . .” (39) This congregation formally organized in 1951 as the Unitarian Society.
At first, this congregation had the kind of membership that a universal faith aspires to. There were various cultural, economic and racial backgrounds. The congregation was called a “Color Blind Church,” in an article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. It said that from the first day of worship integration of races has “never been a problem, and it became an example for the rest of the community. . . Members of both races have prayed, studied and worked together in complete harmony.” (40) Unfortunately this was a short lived reality of our vision of the truly universal church. In 1969, a year after the Cleveland General Assembly, the publication UUA Now, reported that the “Ghetto church” was given to the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus. The property was turned over to 30 black members of the Unitarian Society for black community use. Hayward Henry of the BUUC said that there was a “likelihood that other Unitarian Universalist congregations may give ghetto facilities to blacks, with white constituents moving elsewhere.” Further it was said that the swing towards black solidarity has called “the integrated church into question.” Some of the same issues which exploded in the UUA’s Black Empowerment Controversy emerged in this situation. Church leadership continued to be white, and neighborhood blacks were not recruited or welcomed. Perhaps most enlightening, the article continued, “Some blacks have resented “outside control” and white presuppositions about how a church should function . . . ” Here are some of the crucial questions about race and class diversity. Will leadership be shared? Can we grow and change beyond our own comfort level? Do we only welcome newcomers if they are like us? On whose terms does the life of the church unfold? Henry concluded, “despite the pious rhetoric of brotherhood and justice, religious institutions have dismally failed to reconcile the contradictions between their pronouncements and practices.” (41).
By this time whites had become fearful of entering black neighborhoods. Some considered it the abandonment of a dream, illustrated by the local Presbyterian minister who called this action a “white, liberal cop-out.” The BUUC was not able to maintain a fully functioning church facility, and eventually the building was torn down, and replaced with a parking lot, reminiscent of our Springfield story. A little more than a decade ago, there was a proposal to form a new downtown church in Cleveland, called Urban Hope The literal hope was that a downtown presence in a racially divided city is important. On a more practical level, it was felt that there were many people with Unitarian Universalist values who lived in the inner city, wanting to build diverse community, search for justice and empower the poor. We Unitarian Universalists continue to dream of a democratic free faith , although this project did not come to fruition.(42)
Many of us carry around class stereotypes about who we think belongs in Unitarian Universalist congregations, and we have all heard anecdotes. A faithful member of my church was asking about the potential long term health problems of one of our members who is quite overweight. After we both expressed our concern, she went on to say that it was hard to understand how he let himself get like this because “he and his wife are well educated people”; thus implying that he ought to know better. She was implying that only stupid, uneducated people get fat, but not us smart UUs. In May 2006 I was in Syracuse, New York for a meeting of the St. Lawrence Foundation Board. This board gives out grants to theological schools and students on an annual basis. As we were leaving the meeting I strolled towards my car chatting with another member of the board. He surveyed the parking lot and said, “It looks like there are a lot of Prius’ here. That must mean there are quite a few UUs staying at our hotel.” He then proceeded to point out the location of his own Subaru, but then went on to say, “We once had a truck, and we drove into a UU parking lot. That was not good.” This reminds me of a story my wife Andrea, a multigenerational UU tells about one of her brothers who went to church in Northampton, MA, for a while. Brian told the person he was talking to at social hour that he was a carpenter. The person automatically assumed he was not college educated, which he is, and then directly asked him why he would ever come to a Unitarian Universalist church since he was obviously not the right type of person. He never learned that Brian grew up UU, has a sister and brother-in-law, a cousin and an uncle who are UU ministers. When I was serving my first church in Palmer, Massachusetts, a small New England mill town filled with working class people, a well respected colleague said to me that my congregation was only there for historical reasons. If we were starting a UU congregation today, we would never start one there. The assumptions are that a liberal thinking person’s faith will not appeal to those who are not college educated, work with their hands, drive pick up trucks or live more than twenty miles from an art museum. Are we going to accept those assumptions, which in fact may not be true? There is also pressure on members to fit a stereotype, and so those who are not college educated are afraid to admit it. While the class issue for Brahmin New England might have once been money and family heritage and privileged control, today the class issue today is more of an educated sense of cultural superiority.
Charles Vickery, the Universalist minister, whom Carl Seaburg chronicled in an earlier series of Minns Lectures, was a closeted gay minister who came from a middle class family from Pittsfield , ME where his father owned an insurance company. He once said, “A church which has any trace of class, or racial segregation, or supernatural deity, or a personal father who will shield people from life, should be destroyed. It has not the answer for our time. It kills man, rather than helping him grow” (43) Much of our historical awareness about race, and class comes from Mark Morrison Reed, who wrote Black Pioneers in a White Denomination. He describes a split in the development of American religion, into what he calls two American faiths: the religion of the middle class and the religion of the disinherited. He was invoking theologian H. Richard Niebuhr who suggested that denominationalism follows social class (See The Social Sources of Denominationalism). Middle class churches emphasize individual self-consciousness, personal salvation, and financial security. Morrison-Reed says: “Often their (the liberal) vision was narrow and their understanding too limited to see beyond the status quo or to step beyond the narrow class appeal of the Unitarian Church.” The Commission on Intergroup Relations reported that the call before the Unitarians was to fulfill their democratic spirit: “the development of a religious movement in which all may be participants without thought of racial or national origins.” (44). One of the central aspects of liberal religion is individualism, and so your own success, liberty, and salvation are central. But has a faith that emphasizes individual fulfillment defined us in narrow demographic patterns that prevent us from building a broader community? The Commission reported that those black people who became Unitarians were the educated, the cultured and the prosperous.
Most Unitarian Universalists these days are strong advocates of individual liberty. We believe everybody should have a fair chance and that everybody is equal. Yet these ideals of access and equality are not congruent with the realities of the lives of many Americans. There was an interesting book published last year called The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality by Walter Michaels, which explains that affirming diversity can lead us away from the true social inequalities that grip our nation. We embrace diversity because of our belief in individual freedom and end up trapped in identity politics. Michaels writes, “A society free not only of racism, but of sexism and of heterosexism is a neoliberal utopia where all the irrelevant grounds for inequality (your identity) have been eliminated and whatever inequalities are left are therefore legitimated.” (45) So multiculturalism becomes a corporate management tool, and as long as we feel liberated in our identity then we have achieved salvation. We are ostensibly fully accepted and affirmed by the society in its current socioeconomic stratification. As long as we succeed and are accepted, do the poor really matter any more? Further, as long as you don’t display ill will towards the poor and homeless, then there are never any grounds for attacking capitalism. It is a non issue. While the affirmation of individuals and their freedom to be who they are has been wonderful and liberating it has only been so for those groups centered upon identity, and thus socioeconomic class has nothing to do with a broader liberation for all people, and so our democratic, inclusive faith vision may achieve some diversity of color or sexual identity, but no economic, cultural, or educational diversity. We need to figure out how this universal, democratic message can be translated into a broader means of welcoming people. One of my polity students last year commented, that the poor person who might fit in would be a downwardly mobile but college educated ex-hippie while the financially comfortable, pest control officer, who has no college education and several children would not feel welcome. Where is the hospitality toward them? Can we cross our class divide?
How are we separated from one another? Our historical journey in these lectures ended with the mid 20th century, where Unitarian Universalists often separated from others by leaving the cities for suburban enclaves that were white, rich and safe. They often intentionally separated by founding new congregations in white, upper middle class college towns. This was where there were more people like us, and distance kept us separated from those who are different from us. Can genuine growth and class diversity go hand in hand? Even as we founded new congregations in green, leafy suburbs, we verbalized a dream of being more diverse. It happened for a time in Cleveland, and we all know some congregations today that seem to welcome a greater diversity of classes within their ranks. Congregations in places like Oakland, CA have persevered, survived, kept their historic building and eventually flourished by affirming their neighborhood status. But the exception remains. At one time UUA Ministerial Settlement forms asked if prospective candidates would be willing to serve in a city, or in a rural setting, but did not ask if we were willing to live in suburbia.
Thirty years ago at General Assembly, Victor Carpenter gave the James Luther Adams Lecture, “Urban Ministry: Wilderness and Wonderland.” In that talk he said the city is the place where different people come together. He described the city as a liberating place where people are freed from the beliefs that blood, or race, or education or income level are the only things that matter. (46) We live in a time where the gulfs that separate classes have grown even wider. We have a dream that we would grow and change as people, and be spiritually richer if our churches truly lived out this democratic dream that they have always envisioned, but never enacted. Do you believe in a faith that can appeal to a broader cross section of people? We know from our history in Britain, and from our Universalist history that a liberal message can appeal to people who have fewer resources than most of us. In a paper written a few years ago, historian Charles Howe surveyed Unitarian Universalism in the South and spoke of our history serving as a challenge both for inclusivity and for perseverance in unreceptive environments. (47) Let us take up that challenge.
Theologically we have to dig deeper than the affirmation of self and our own achievements. Throughout our history the democratic ideal of ours has often been bolstered by a theology, especially among Universalists of a communitarian vision of one world, a heaven where all are equals – a classless place. Related to this former vision is our recent liberal retreat from expressing a unified vision for Unitarian Universalism. In the 1960’s Unitarian Universalism was promoted as a syncretistic faith that drew upon all the world’s religion in an effort to find what is common in all. We once saw world religions as a unified whole. In more recent times we seem to have embraced a more post-modernist view that celebrates diversity, but fails to promote a singular vision. We celebrate how different we are, but simultaneously fail to express any belief that might be construed as universal, as this would be condescending to an individual’s or a faith’s integrity. A remnant of this universal vision is the current Principle: “the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.” But what do we mean by that, and can we still express a common vision for our faith? We have always believed in the human capacity for change and improvement. Today we have looked at recent Unitarian Universalist ancestors who achieved a certain degree of economic and educational status and separated themselves from others in suburbs and away from the cities. Yet many of them always remained concerned about how they could enact their religious message of one world, one unity of spirit among all people. They longed for true relationships with those who they were separated from. They wanted to heal some of those class divisions. Historically that was sometimes done in a paternalistic manner, but the longing for oneness remained, and so when our spiritual founder William Ellery Channing said, “I am a leveler,” he was aware that our class separations must be bridged. Perhaps we need to broaden our expectations of who is one of us or who belongs. Maybe we are a thinking person’s faith, but people in all classes think deeply and broadly. May our history teach us to live our faith in the world, so that each of us might come to say, “I am a leveler.” (48)
1. Ellen Tucker Emerson to Edith E. Forbes, The Letters of Ellen Tucker Emerson, vol 1, p. 700.
2. O’Connell, Becoming Cape Cod, 11-12.
3. Smith, The Unitarians, 86.
4. Heimert, Religion and the American Mind, vii-viii, 46-47.
5. Jane and William Pease, “Whose Right Hand of Fellowship,” in Wright, ed. American Unitarianism, p.182.
6. Joseph Tuckerman, On the Elevation of the Poor, p. 35.
7. George Rogers, The Pro and Con of Universalism, p. 27-28.
8. Spoerl, “Overview on Extension Practices,” p. 4.
9. American Unitarian Association. Department of Extension and Maintenance, Administrative Records. Lon Ray Call, “A Research on Church Extension and Maintenance Since 1900 A Progress Report” (1946), p. 15, bMS11049,
10. Ibid., p. 26.
11. Unitarian Universalist Association. Inactive Minister File, 1825-1999, bMS 01446, Lon Ray Call, “Report of the Department of Extension,” May 1948, p. 2.
12.Ibid, p. 6.
13. Lon Ray Call to George G. Davis, November 13, 1946, bMS 11052-3, AUA, Department of Extension, Administrative Subject Files.
14. Dale DeWitt to Lon Ray Call, January 4, 1949, bMS 11052-3, AUA, Department of Extension, Administrative Subject Files.
15. Lon Ray Call, “Shall Unitarians and Universalists Unite?” p.5, Unitarian Universalist Association. Inactive Minister Files, 1825-1999, bMS 01446, Lon Ray Call.
16. Robert Raible to George Spencer, November 7, 1971, Unitarian Universalist Association. Inactive Minister Files, 1825-1999, bMS 01446, Lon Ray Call.
17. Laile E. Bartlett, Bright Galaxy: Ten Years of Unitarian Fellowships, p. 62-63.
18. Lon Ray Call, “Organizational Guide, Aids and suggestions for establishing A Unitarian Fellowship in your community,” p. 3. American Unitarian Association. Department of Extension and Maintenance, Administrative Records, bMS11049.
19. Munroe Husbands “Organizing and Serving Unitarian Fellowships,” Unitarian Fellowshiup Office, 1956, p.2. AUA. Department of Extension and Maintenance, Administrative Records, bMS11049.
20. “Unitarians Unite,” Report of The Commission on Planing and Review, October 1947, p. 10. AUA.
21.Bartlett, Bright Galaxy, p. 244
22. Holley Ulbrich, The Fellowship Movement: A Growth Strategy and Its Legacy. Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008. p. 2.
23. Ibid., p. 67.
24. Bartlett, p. 68.
25. Belonging: The Meaning of Membership, A Report by the Commission on Appraisal, Unitarian Universalist Association, p. 64-67.
26. Peter Richardson, The Boston Religion, p. 36.
27. Gerald Gamm, Urban Exodus, p. 220-221.
28. Michael H. Frisch, Town Into City, p. 33.
29. “Never Complete,” First Unitarian Universalist Church, Springfield, MA, Unitarian Universalist Association Archives, Files on Churches: Springfield Massachusetts.
30. Eleanor Herrick to Frederick May Eliot, June 30, 1953, UUA Archives, Springfield, MA Church File.
31. Frederick May Eliot to Eleanor Herrick, July 1, 1953, UUA Archives, Springdfield, MA Church File.
32. Frederick May Eliot to Ernest H. Sommerfeld, July 7, 1953, UUA Archives, Springfield, MA Church File.
33. Grant Butler to Ernest H. Sommerfield, October 5, 1951, UUA Archives, Springfield, MA Church File
34. Eleanor Herrick to Frederick May Eliot, July 4, 1953, UUA Archives, Springfield, MA.
35. “Architectural, Historical and Sociological Analysis of Springfield’s Church of the Unity Building,” Springfield Sunday Republican, March 5, 1961, p. 5E, UUA Archvies, Church Files on Springfield, MA.
36. Alice Harrison, Field Report, December 3, 1962.UUA Archvies, Church Files on Springfield, MA.
37. bfuu.blogspot.com/2003/06/congregational-history.html “Perhaps most relevant to the Berkeley Fellowship’s core values was the fact that the Berkeley Fellowship families shared a commitment to remain in the heart of Berkeley.”
38. Merv Hasselmann, “The First Unitarian Church of Berkeley: A History.” (Berkeley, CA, 1981)
39. “The History of Unitarianism in Cleveland,” p. 12, UUA Archives, Church Files on Cleveland, Ohio, First Unitarian Church.
40. “Color Blind Church,” by Richard Wager, Cleveland Plain Dealer. Copy in UUA Archives, Church Files on Cleveland, Ohio, First Unitarian Church.
41. UUA Now, December 8, 1969, p. 6. Copy in UUA Archives, Church Files on Cleveland, Ohio, First Unitarian Church.
42. “New Congregation Proposal: Urban Hope Unitarian Universalist Congregaiton, Cleveland, Ohio, May 26, 1996. UUA Archives, Church Files on Cleveland, Ohio, First Unitarian Church.
43. Carl Seaburg, Inventing a Ministry, p. 75.
44. Mark Morrison-Reed, Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, p. 145-146.
45. Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, p. 75.
46. Victor Carpenter, Stations of the Spirit. p. 31-48.
47. Charles Howe, “Cousins Twice Remove” Unitarians and Universalists in the South,” Unitarian Universalism, Selected Essays 1996. p. 65.
48. William Ellery Channing as quoted in Howard M. Wach, “Unitarian Philanthropy and Cultural Hegemony in Comparative Perspective: Manchester and Boston, 1827-1848.”
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