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Though the word "evangelism" may cause discomfort for Unitarian Universalists, Unitarians and Universalists over the years have been creative in finding ways to spread the "good news" of their liberal faith. Many of these efforts involved print media. As early as the 16th century in Europe, unorthodox views on the Trinity, God, and the nature of Jesus appeared in print. Rakow, Poland, the center of Unitarian thought in the 16th century, established a press that later moved to Krakow, and eventually published more than 500 titles that were widely distributed throughout Europe. Similar efforts spread the writings of James Relly, Joseph Priestley, and others, carrying Unitarian and Universalist thought across the British Isles and Northern Europe throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.
As Unitarianism and Universalism took root in 19th-century North America, both denominations reached out to attract new members and build new congregations. Universalists tended toward the spoken word, with preaching tours and circuit riding, while Unitarians leaned more on the written word of tracts and pamphlets, but both traditions put their beliefs into print.
When the American Unitarian Association (AUA) was founded in 1825, one of its primary purposes was to publish tracts. In its first year, the AUA distributed 17,000 copies of six different pamphlets; just three years later, 143,000 copies of 21 different publications were sold. Not all Unitarians were enthused about the new emphasis on publications. Minister Alpheus Harding of New Salem, Massachusetts remarked that his members "were not a reading people." Nevertheless, the Unitarian Book and Tract Society was established in 1835 to print and distribute materials for free. During this same time and into the 19th century, the Universalists published not only tracts and pamphlets, but generated more than 180 different weekly, monthly, and quarterly periodicals, with circulations from a few hundred to 5,000.
In 1854, the AUA established Beacon Press to produce denominational tracts. AUA President Samuel Kirk said, dedicating the new venture, "We can send forth a thousand volumes, to be read by ten thousand persons, for what it will cost to send one missionary to speak here and there to a few hundreds." In the early 20th century, AUA President Samuel Atkins Eliot, enlarged Beacon's mission. Eliot envisioned a press where "books of marked theology and religious note will continue to have a predominant place ... the wide interest in all subjects relating to social and moral betterment should be recognized by the Association's imprint. ... The evergrowing topics of war and peace and arbitration, or national amity and racial brotherhood will be represented." Beacon Press continues today to be a powerful voice of liberalism in the publishing world.
In 1877, the Unitarians began a Post Office Mission to send out tracts in response to inquiries from all over the country. The mission was later managed by the General Alliance of Unitarian Women. A similar effort on behalf of the Universalists was a project of the Young People's Christian Union.
The Unitarian Layman's League, founded in 1907, established the Unitarian Mission after World War I, which sent ministers to 115 towns and cities for rallies, public meetings, and interviews to "help to publicize the Unitarian faith." The League later played a significant role in promoting the Fellowship Movement with a popular advertising campaign in the New York Times, Saturday Review, Harper's, The Atlantic, Chicago News, and Chicago Tribune which posed questions such as "Are You a Unitarian without Knowing It?" "Are You a Closet Unitarian?" and "Are You a Religious Humanist?" The campaign, active from 1956 to 1963, drew as many as 7,000 new members to the faith.
The innovative Wayside Pulpit, initiated in 1918, provided an opportunity for congregations to display a poster-size "sharp, pithy sentence" outside their buildings to catch the eye of passersby. Examples include "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" (Martin Luther King) and "We need not think alike to love alike" (Francis David). Still going strong, this trademark practice is noticed even by those who have never crossed the threshold of a Unitarian Universalist church.
At the Unitarian Universalist Association, publications and publicity are an integral part of the life of the denomination. The Church of the Larger Fellowship, established as a Unitarian venture in 1944, produces and distributes worship and religious education materials for individuals, families, and small congregations. UU World magaine provides Association and congregational news and essays in both print and web formats. Groups of congregations in a single geographic area have come together to promote regional advertising campaigns, such as a San Francisco Bay Area "Imagine a Religion... " campaign. Skinner House Books is an imprint of the UUA, publishing books "to aid individuals and congregations in their search for truth and meaning."
In the quickly changing landscape of 21st century media, it is no small challenge to catch the ear and eye of those who may be searching for a new spiritual home. Unitarian Universalism has kept pace with an increased use of websites, social media, podcasting, and streaming video. Recent campaigns have included branding Unitarian Universalism as "The Uncommon Denomination," and subsequently, an extensive national campaign stretching from Times Square billboards to Time magazine ads with the tag line, "Nurture Your Spirit; Help Heal Our World."
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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.
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