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Faith like a River: Themes from Unitarian Universalist History

A Tapestry of Faith Program for Adults


Faith Like a River explores the dynamic course of Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist (UU) history—the people, ideas, and movements that have shaped our faith heritage. It invites participants to place themselves into our history and consider its legacies. What lessons do the stories of our history teach that can help us live more faithfully in the present? What lessons do they offer to be lived into the future?

About the Author

Jackie Clement

The Rev. Jackie Clement serves the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington-Normal (Illimois) as Senior Minister. She earned a Masters of Divinity degree from Andover-Newton Theological School and served congregations in Maine and Massachusetts before moving to Illinois in 2010. Before entering the ministry, Jackie worked in the high tech industry as an engineer and a marketing manager for computer graphics systems. She is author of "Time/Money Balance" in the UUA's Taking It Home series, a resource for families. Her passions include history, cooking, and reading, but the visual arts remain a primary spiritual practice. In achievement of a lifelong goal, Jackie now lives in Normal with her husband, John Ford.

Alison Cornish

The Rev. Alison Cornish serves as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork (Bridgehampton, New York). A lifelong UU, she earned her M.Div. from Andover-Newton Theological School. She also holds a degree in art history and building conservation; she worked in the areas of architecture and building preservation for 20 years before being ordained in 2004. In addition to parish ministry, Alison serves as an adjunct consultant to Partners for Sacred Places, a national organization helping congregations of all denominations care for their historic buildings. Alison loves to be on, and around the water at her home in Sag Harbor, New York.


We gratefully acknowledge the use of the following material:

  • Excerpt from Unitarian Universalism: An Heretical History, a DVD produced by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockford, IL, 1995.
  • "Would You Harbor Me?" Words and music by Ysaye M. Barnwell copyright 1994 Barnwell's Notes Publishing, recorded by Sweet Honey In The Rock (R). Used with permission. Visit Ysaye M. Barnwell's website for further information.
  • "Humanist Manifesto I," copyright 1933 by The New Humanist and 1973 by the American Humanist Association. Please note that this is no longer a current statement of humanist convictions; it has been superceded by Humanism and Its Aspirations: Humanist Manifesto III.
  • Excerpt from Mark Harris, Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History (Boston: Skinner House, 2010); used with permission.
  • "Unitarian Summer — the Isle of Shoals," excerpted and adapted from Frederick T. McGill, Jr. and Virginia F. McGill, Something Like a Star (Boston: Star Island Corporation, 1989).
  • "Love and Power: The Universalist Dilemma," the John Murray Distinguished Lecture, delivered at the UUA General Assembly in Boston, June 2003, by Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt.
  • "Of Madmen and Martyrs: A Unitarian Take on Knoxville," a blog post by Sara Robinson, July 28, 2008; used with permission.
  • "The Seven Tribes," a traditional story of the Khasi people as relayed by Darihun Khriam, the first woman minister in the Khasi Hills.
  • "Under Our Charge — the Utes and the Unitarians" based on research by historian Ted Vetter and written for this program.


Thucydides wrote that history is philosophy taught by examples. If this is true, then we would do well to study the examples—the stories—from our own faith history to shape a philosophy for living our own faith. This program provides such an opportunity.

By presenting the sweep of Unitarian Universalist history and heritage through the stories of its people and events, the program invites participants to place themselves into our history and consider its legacies. What lessons do the stories of our history teach that can help us live more faithfully in the present? What lessons do they offer to be lived into the future? Engagement with our history and heritage does more than celebrate our Unitarian Universalist identity. It grounds our faith, our Principles, and our spiritual growth in a wider tradition and offers a context for deepening faith, values, and spirit.

As one in the Tapestry of Faith series of curricula for adults, this program weaves Unitarian Universalist values, Principles and Sources with four strands: spiritual development, ethical development, Unitarian Universalist identity development and faith development:

Spiritual Development. In Everyday Spiritual Practice, Scott Alexander defines spirituality as our relationship with the Spirit of Life, however we understand it. Our spirituality is our deep, reflective, and expressed response to the awe, wonder, joy, pain, and grief of being alive. Tapestry of Faith programs seek to form children, youth, and adults who:

  • Know they are lovable beings of infinite worth, imbued with powers of the soul and obligated to use their gifts, talents and potentials in the service of life
  • Appreciate the value of spiritual practice as a means of deepening faith and integrating beliefs and values with everyday life.

Ethical Development. When we develop our ethics, we develop our moral values—our sense of what is right and wrong. We also enhance our ability to act on those values, overcoming oppressions and despair. Tapestry of Faith programs seek to form children, youth, and adults who:

  • Realize they are moral agents, capable of making a difference in the lives of other people, challenging structures of social and political oppression and promoting the health and well being of the planet
  • Accept that they are responsible for the stewardship and creative transformation of their religious heritage and community of faith in the service of diversity, justice and compassion.

Unitarian Universalist Identity Development. Participation in a Unitarian Universalist congregation does not automatically create a Unitarian Universalist identity. Personal identification with Unitarian Universalism begins when individuals start to call themselves Unitarian Universalist and truly feel a part of a Unitarian Universalist congregation or community. Identity is strengthened as individuals discover and resonate with the stories, symbols and practices of Unitarian Universalism. Tapestry of Faith programs develop children, youth, and adults who:

  • Affirm they are part of a Unitarian Universalist religious heritage and community of faith that has value and provides resources for living
  • Recognize the need for community, affirming the importance of families, relationships and connections between and among generations
  • Accept that they are responsible for the stewardship and creative transformation of their religious heritage and community of faith in the service of diversity, justice and compassion.

Faith Development. When we develop in faith, we develop as meaning-makers. Faith is about embracing life's possibilities, growing in our sense of being "at home in the universe." Faith is practiced in relationships with others. While faith has aspects that are internal and personal, it is best supported in a community with shared symbols, stories, traditions, and values. Unitarian Universalist faith development emphasizes each person's religious journey—each person's lifelong process of bringing head, heart and hands to seeking and knowing ultimate meaning.

While the primary focus of this program is Unitarian Universalist identity development, each strand is woven, to some degree, into each workshop.

May these workshops come to life in your hands and in the hearts, minds, and spirits of the people you teach.

Gail Forsyth-Vail, Developmental Editor

The Program

To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves, that the line stretches all the way back, perhaps to God; or to Gods. We remember them because it is an easy thing to forget: that we are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love and die. The grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, the sorrow, is always a measure of what has gone before. — Alice Walker

History is often viewed as a linear progression, where events follow events and actions occur in reaction. But history is not straightforward. This program guides participants to explore the dynamic course of Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist history—the people, ideas, and movements that have shaped our faith heritage.

The program offers maximum flexibility, allowing congregations to customize a series of workshops to fit their interests and needs. Workshops are organized thematically rather than chronologically so groups can choose areas of interest to them. Just as congregations can customize the overall program, facilitators can tailor an individual workshop by selecting from a variety of different kinds of activities.

While our history is largely influenced by and centered in Europe and North America, this program includes a broad a range of stories, people, and locations.

The authors hope this program inspires both facilitators and participants to continue to explore our shared and diverse heritage.


This program will:

  • Introduce the rich history of Unitarian Universalism from the beginning of our theological heritage to contemporary times
  • Explore our inheritance of theology, practice, and institutional organization as manifested in various times and places in our history
  • Present some of the events, historical settings, and people that influenced Unitarianism, Universalism, and Unitarian Universalism
  • Demonstrate connections between historical events, people, and stories and current Unitarian Universalist values, symbols, organizational structures, and traditions
  • Engage participants with primary source materials
  • Encourage participants to explore the history of their own congregations
  • Give participants the tools and inspiration to research more deeply topics of particular interest
  • Offer participants a way to enter into the story of Unitarian Universalism so that it becomes personally relevant.


A team of two or more adults, either lay leaders or religious professionals, should facilitate these workshops. Although consistency of leadership offers many advantages, every workshop need not be led by the same facilitators. Seek leaders who are:

  • Knowledgeable about Unitarian Universalism
  • Committed to the Unitarian Universalist Principles, to the congregation, and to the faith development components of this program
  • Willing and able to thoroughly prepare for each workshop
  • Effective at speaking, teaching, and facilitating group process
  • Flexible, and willing to modify workshop plans to support the full inclusion of all participants
  • Able to listen deeply and to encourage participation of all individuals
  • Able to demonstrate respect for individuals, regardless of age, race, social class, gender identity, and sexual orientation
  • Able to honor the life experiences each participant will bring to the program.

While knowledge of Unitarian Universalist history is helpful, it is not a requirement for effectively leading this program. Willingness and ability to adequately prepare for each workshop, to research answers to questions raised by participants and to encourage participants' own research is far more valuable to creating a good learning and faith development experience for participants than is extensive knowledge of Unitarian Universalist history.


This program is intended for adults. It can be adapted for youth or for a multigenerational program that includes youth and adults. The workshops are equally suitable for first-time visitors and long-time congregational members. Facilitators should be attentive to the differences in knowledge and life experience participants bring to the group, particularly if the group includes a wide age span.

Workshops can accommodate any number of participants. Workshops of fewer than six participants can do small group activities in the full group, or skip some small group activities. If the group has more than twenty-five participants, you will need at least three facilitators.

Integrating All Participants

People with obvious and not-so-obvious disabilities may need accommodation in order to participate fully. In addition to accommodating the accessibility needs of participants who request them, you are urged to follow these basic Accessibility Guidelines for Workshop Presenters:

  • Prepare a few large print copies of all handouts.
  • Write clearly and use large letters on newsprint. Use black or brown markers for maximum visibility (red and green are difficult for some to see).
  • Make a printed copy of information you plan to post on newsprint, to give to any who request it.
  • Face the group when you are speaking and urge others to do the same. Be aware of facial hair or hand gestures that may prevent or interfere with lip reading.
  • In a large space or with a large group of people, use a microphone for presentations and for questions and answers. If a particular activity will likely make it difficult for speakers to face those who are listening (e.g., a fishbowl, forced choice, or role play activity), obtain a microphone you can pass from speaker to speaker.
  • In a brainstorm activity, repeat clearly any word or phrase generated by the group in addition to writing it on newsprint.
  • If the group will listen to significant amounts of material read aloud, be ready to provide printed copies to any hearing impaired participants so they can read along.
  • During small group work, position each group far enough from other groups to minimize noise interference.
  • Keep aisles and doorways clear at all times during a workshop so people with mobility impairments or immediate needs can exit the room easily.
  • Offer a variety of seating options—for example, straight chairs, soft chairs, chairs with arms, and chairs without arms—so participants can find seating that best suits their needs.
  • When re-arranging furniture for small groups or other purposes, ensure clear pathways between groups.
  • Enlist participants' vigilance in removing bags, books, coffee cups, and other obstacles from pathways.
  • Use the phrase "Rise in body or spirit" rather than "Please stand."
  • Use language that puts the person first, rather than the disability—for example, "a person who uses a wheelchair," rather than "a wheelchair-user"; "a child with dyslexia," rather than "a dyslexic child; "people with disabilities" rather than "the disabled."
  • Do not ask individuals to read aloud. Request volunteers or read the material yourself. When possible, ask for volunteers before the workshop and give each volunteer a copy of the material they will read.
  • Ask participants in advance about any food allergies. Add to your group covenant an agreement to avoid bringing problem foods or to always offer an alternate snack.
  • Ask participants in advance about any allergies to scents or perfumes. If participants have allergies or sensitivities, invite members of the group to refrain from wearing perfumes and add this agreement to your covenant.

The Unitarian Universalist Association website and staff can offer guidance for including people with specific disabilities; consult the UUA Disability and Accessibility webpage.

Participants bring a wide range of learning styles and preferences. With this in mind, the workshops offer a variety of activities. Review each workshop's Alternate Activities. Plan each workshop to best suit the group.

Downloading the Document

You can download this program, save it on your computer, edit it, and print it. Or, you can download individual sessions or workshops.

About the Authors

Alison Cornish

Jackie Clement

Jackie Clement

The Rev. Jackie Clement, senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Bloom­ington-Normal, Illinois, celebrates her Latina heritage through food, language, and the arts. She is a contributor to Voices from the Margins: An Anthology of Meditations, edited by Jacqui James and Mark D. Morrison-Reed (...

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