Unitarian Universalist Tradition: A Short History

Time Machine 1648/49: The Cambridge Platform

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How did Unitarian Universalism become congregational? This section provides a brief history of the emergence of congregational polity in Unitar-ianism from its colonial roots and considers why these roots are still important to Unitarian Universalism. It also describes the evolution of American Universalism and notes the current practice of polity in the United States and Canada.

American Unitarianism came out of the congregational churches established in Massachusetts, which organized themselves around the principles articulated in the Cambridge Platform of 1648. This document was created to settle differences between local congregations on matters of church discipline and to explain themselves to the Church of England, to which they all professed to belong. Doctrinally consistent with the Reformation Christianity of the day, the Platform sought to prove that Congregationalism was the best and most biblically accurate form of church governance.

The Cambridge Platform holds that "there is no greater Church than a Congregation," which consists of visible saints in voluntary agreement and covenant with each other to "worship, edify and have fellowship." [1] Each church is autonomous, because there is no higher authority than the congregation. And yet the Platform also says:

This government of the church is a mixed government... In respect to Christ, the head and king of the church, it is a monarchy: In respect of the body, or Brotherhood of the church... it resembles a democracy. In respect of the Presbyetry [sic] and power committed to them, it is an Aristocracy. [2]

Although the general description of the government of the church sounds foreign, some of the the details are familiar, such as granting members the right to determine their own leaders and standards of membership:

In choosing their own officers, whether elders or deacons. In admission of their own members and therfore [sic], there is great reason they should have power to Remove any from their fellowship.

Congregational Polity Then and Now

Congregational polity then and now sees no power that extends beyond those who elected them, that is, a congregation. Then and now, a congregation has the right and responsibility to choose and ordain its own clergy, elect its own officers, direct them in the course of their duties, and replace them when necessary. Then and now there are no synods, bishops, or other persons empowered elsewhere with authority over a congregation.

However, some aspects of polity have changed over time. In addition to abandoning the principle of Lordship before Christ, we have also abandoned its earthly form, hierarchy, so that church officers are no longer understood to be models of Christ but delegates of the people. And few congregations maintain deacons. We have also left behind stringent requirements for membership, which in the colonial period meant a rigorous inquiry to ascertain the presence of grace and thus likely election to salvation. We count these changes as improvements. Yet we may not realize that we have also left behind the principle of intercongregational life. "Although Churches be distinct," the Platform reads, "and therefore may not be confounded one with another, and equal, and therefore have not Dominion one over another; yet all the Churches ought to preserve Church-Communion one with another, because they are all united unto Christ."[3]

While discarding the doctrine of Lordship, have we also lost a principle of union? Are we in a community of congregations merely to simplify the delivery of services? Does Unitarian Universalism have any meaning larger than what it means to any particular congregation?

If we choose to say that there is a connection among congregations, what would it be? The Cambridge Platform notes six duties that congregations owe to each other: care, consultation, admonition, participation, recommendation, and relief. The Platform also sanctions the calling of synods (or councils), official gatherings of congregations to settle general matters of dispute (such as that which created the Cambridge Platform).[4] None of these exists formally today. Those that exist informally are not uniform or consistent. These intercongregational duties are mainly absent from American Unitarian Universalism. How did that happen?

Congregational Polity in the American Unitarian Tradition

American Unitarianism emerged out of the culture that the Cambridge Platform described. Unitarian congregations elected their own leaders, determined their own membership (which was often how a congregation could be known as Unitarian), selected their own clergy, and paid their own way. The American Unitarian Association (organized in 1825 and succeeded by the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961) mimicked the practice of synods and councils through its May meetings and fall meetings. The former were the business meetings of the Association, which was not (until much after 1825) composed of congregations. The latter were the occasions of debate on issues and matters of faith, suitable subjects for a true synod, but not binding.

Today we have the General Assembly, which continues the tradition of councils and synods, especially when revising the Bylaws. Lesser assemblies, local councils, exist at District meetings, but rarely do they take on the challenges of consulting, admonishing, and recommending. One of the few mutual duties we preserve is relief, as when congregations suffer catastrophic loss because of weather or fire. Very often individual congregations will respond with help. But perhaps there are other needs.

Conrad Wright, in his book Walking Together, has pointed out that, "congregationalism meant, and should still mean, not the autonomy of the local church, but the community of autonomous churches." That idea never existed in its ideal state, even in the years following the Cambridge Platform. In fact, the idea itself paled as change and controversy tested it. By 1720 there had been seven subsequent platforms and agreements, each compromising the standards set by the Cambridge Platform. Clearly, our recent experience rewriting the Bylaws is neither unique nor new.[5]

Between 1800 and 1825, New England congregationalism split into liberal and conservative wings. Churches divided over pulpit exchanges and ordinations. Councils that convened to settle disputes were torn apart by theological differences. So, too, were ministerial associations, which had come into existence early in New England, but were not officially a part of the polity. But they became the chief means by which churches connected and communicated.[6]

By 1825, the split was complete. The liberals formed the American Unitarian Association (AUA) and went their own way, organizing separate associations and institutions. Such organizing was itself a new phenomenon. In part it was the consequence of the new Massachusetts State Constitution, which dismantled government support for the congregational churches. Uncoupled from the state, religious bodies began to organize into independent bodies. The Unitarians, who doggedly protected congregational polity both as proof of their legitimacy and because it expressed early Unitarian ideals, found such organizing difficult. They even viewed the new denomination as anti-Unitarian and called it sectarianism. The most the Unitarians were willing to do was to develop a communication network through publications and the efforts of a secretary of the American Unitarian Association. There was, however, no formal structure that connected congregations; the AUA at that time was an organization of individuals rather than churches. The explicit belief that a congregation was by definition one among many receded.

The informal network remained intact, however, and was central to the Transcendentalist Controversy, which began when some ministers were accused of abandoning Christianity in favor of natural religion. The same tactics used by the conservative congregationals, such as shunning of colleagues, were used by Unitarians who disagreed with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker.

After the Civil War, during which some Unitarian clergy and congregations joined in relief efforts, an underlying structure for a congregational network formed through the creation of the National Conference of Unitarian Churches, which brought 200 Unitarian congregations into formal relationship with each other. In addition to regular meetings of the Conference on a national scale, numerous local conferences were also formed "for fellowship, consultation, and the framing of methods and plans for meeting the religious wants of their own allotted sphere." [7] The National Conference encouraged the understanding of congregational polity as a responsibility of churches for one another's welfare. Such an understanding was already at work in the semi-independent Western Unitarian Conference, thus the National Conference was especially effective there. In the west, the number of congregations doubled within a year.

By 1900, the Conference had matured into a strong body for advancing Unitarian institutional needs. In 1925 the American Unitarian Association and the National Conference (renamed the General Conference in 1911 to recognize the inclusion of Canadian members) were merged into a single body under the former's name. The AUA, which in 1884 began admitting church delegates to its meetings, had increasingly become the forum in which denominational policy and business matters were decided. The National Conference began to devote its energy to addressing theological and social issues. Under the new organization, business meetings were held annually in Boston, with biennial meetings, patterned after former Conference meetings, held elsewhere. It is difficult, though, to determine to what extent any "community of autonomous churches" emerged; we can presume wide variation from one geographical area to another. Wright points out that this centralization of power in the AUA was administrative, not ecclesiastical, in nature, and did not constitute a threat to the autonomy of the local church.

When the Great Depression began, the denomination began to decline, beset by problems of finances and leadership. By 1934 the situation had become so critical that a Commission of Appraisal was established to study the denomination and to make recommendations to strengthen it. That Commission, in its 1936 report, stated that "one of the most significant shifts in denominational organization during the present century has been the tendency away from decentralization toward centralization . . . with a corresponding dwindling of regional responsibility and activity." Such a dwindling, coupled with the weakened condition of the denomination, may have had an adverse effect on cooperative relationships among local churches and their sense of responsibility for each other.

While the American Unitarian Association underwent a dramatic renaissance from 1937 until 1958, decentralization did not take place. Whether decentralization would have promoted greater regional responsibility and stronger lateral relationships among churches is uncertain. Wright has pointed out that a decentralized structure does not necessarily strengthen such relationships; at least as crucial is the quality of communications taking place within the structure. Neither did growth in numbers change the culture of congregational individualism. Twenty-seven percent of all current congregations were organized between 1941 and the merger in 1961. If anything, there was even greater zeal for congregational individualism, perhaps to protect their freedom even from each other.[8]

Congregational Polity in the Universalist Tradition

In 1790, seventeen Universalists representing eight societies convened in Philadelphia, where they drew up articles of faith and an organizational plan. The plan of church government adopted by the delegates was described as "nearly that of the Congregational Church," and a church was defined as consisting "of a number of believers, united by covenant, for the purpose of maintaining the public worship of God, the preaching of the gospel, ordaining officers, preserving order and peace among its members, and relieving the poor." Each church was empowered to decide on the "call, qualifications, and gifts, of those who wish to devote themselves to God and the ministry," and to "solemnly set apart and ordain such persons." Not only were ministers to be ordained, but also deacons, who were "to attend to the secular affairs of the church." No ordinances were to be insisted on as obligatory, and "all such persons who hold the articles of faith and maintain good works" should be admitted into church membership. In addition, "the communion of the churches" was to be accomplished by a "convention of the churches held annually by deputies or messengers, to inquire into, and report, the state of each church . . . and to send forth ministers to propagate the gospel." Finally, it was made clear that all the actions of the Convention would "be issued only by way of advice or recommendation."[9]

Four years later, the New England Convention of Universalists, meeting in Oxford, Massachusetts, "adopted the Philadelphia platform of articles of faith and form of church government, and recommended that the same be observed by the churches and societies forming this Convention." In the words of Richard Eddy, a nineteenth-century Universalist historian, "So far as recommendations could effect it, this action of the Convention brought all the Universalists of the land into harmony of belief in regard to the great essentials of doctrine, and was an emphatic endorsement of organization and discipline."[10] In using the phrase "all the Universalists of the land," Eddy was reasonably accurate: The Philadelphia and New England Conventions included most Universalist churches then in existence, probably about fifty in number. The New England Convention evolved into the General Convention of Universalists.

The organizational plan adopted by the two conventions closely resembles that of New England congregationalism of the same period. By 1803, however, when the New England Convention met in Winchester, New Hampshire, it was evident that the articles of faith and plan of church government adopted earlier did not anticipate the growing movement's diversity of faith and practice. As a result, the delegates adopted a simplified and liberalized profession of belief, with a liberty clause forbidding a congregation or association from requiring a creedal test or other conformity to certain statements of belief. The delegates also adopted an organizational plan that allowed latitude at the local level while strengthening the Convention's powers with regard to discipline, fellowship, and ordination. The plan also recommended formation of "associations" of congregations within the Convention. In organizing associations within a convention, the Universalists were following the practice of the Baptists; this is not surprising, because many Universalists had come from Baptist congregations.

As the Universalist movement grew, conventions organized in each New England state and several others. A four-layer pyramidal structure emerged, with the General Convention at the top, descending to state conventions, local associations, and at the base, local societies. Most decisions about discipline, fellowship, and ordination were made at the state level, although for a time this power was shared with the associations. (This concentration of power in the state conventions persisted until the merger with the Unitarians in 1961.)

When the Unitarian Controversy ended in the mid-1830s, the two denominations were operating under quite different organizational plans. During the years leading up to the Universalist Centennial in 1870, repeated attempts were made to strengthen denominational structure in general and the General Convention in particular. A period of rapid growth was coming to an end and feeling was widespread that the denomination needed tighter organization and consolidation of its gains. A "Report on the State of the Church" made to the 1858 General Convention stated that "our organization is sadly defective, approaching far more nearly to no organization at all, than to an official denominational unity." Some people argued that the denomination should end the pretense of having a centralized structure and return to a purely congregational polity. A report in 1860 replied, "Whatever be the wishes and predilections of individuals among us, our general policy is not Congregational. The fathers . . . voluntarily departed from Congregational usages many years ago, and adopted the general principles that everywhere mark our polity. A return to Congregationalism, even if desirable, is doubtless impractical." Conrad Wright notes that "this is not as anti-congregational as it may seem, since what is understood here by congregationalism is the isolated autonomy of the local church"; moreover, Universalist churches had always selected their ministers and managed their internal affairs.

In 1865, a new constitution for the General Convention was adopted that asserted the General Convention's jurisdiction over state conventions in matters of discipline and fellowship and established salaried offices. In addition, the General Convention was incorporated, permitting it to collect and disperse funds. Five years later, at the Centennial Sessions at Gloucester, Massachusettes, yet another constitution was adopted in an attempt to strengthen the authority of the General Convention. Local associations were eliminated as an official part of the denominational structure and the liberty clause was removed from the Winchester Profession of Faith. Henceforth all ministers were required to subscribe to the Winchester Profession to retain fellowship, limiting the power of a local church in its choice of minister. The liberty clause was reinstated with the Boston Declaration of 1899, but the loss of the associations was permanent.

The period between the world wars was difficult for Universalism. Organizationally, Universalists were suspicious of centralized power, which made it difficult to mount any unified action. Sociologically, the migration to the cities and the west left many town and village churches without enough members to sustain them. And theologically, the uniqueness of the movement was undermined as the mainline denominations approached a more liberal view on damnation, which had historically separated Universalists from other Christians. By the mid-1930s, Universalists, like their Unitarian cousins, were weak and in disarray.

Fortunately, like the Unitarians, the Universalists found vital new leadership. To promote a clearer denominational identity, they successfully changed their name from the Universalist General Convention to the Universalist Church of America (UCA). They also adopted a new vision of what Universalism should be in the modern world: an uncircumscribed church that would welcome "theist and humanist, unitarian and trinitarian, colored and colorless." Superintendent Robert Cummins repudiated isolationism and called for denominational unity:

A local parish is The Universalist Church finding expression and taking form in a given locality. It is not an independent body; nor is it merely a part or segment of the Church as a whole. It is the whole of The Universalist Church coming to focus within a particular group of Universalists at a particular place.11]

In a real sense Cummins was articulating the reason for the "communion of the churches" that the Universalists in Philadelphia had called for 150 years earlier. Even more, this statement is among the best expressions of why congregational polity is not atomistic and independent.

Before the merger, Universalist churches were governed by a polity that was partly congregational and partly presbyterian. Churches chose their own ministers and controlled their internal affairs, finances, and property; in their ongoing life they were largely autonomous. Ordination and fellowshipping were directed by the state conventions and, in some instances, by the Universalist Church of America itself. It appears that "the communion of the churches" was far from real within the denomination, although sometimes approached at the state convention level.

Gordon McKeeman, a Unitarian Universalist cleric with strong Universalist roots, offered the following description of the two merging movements: "Someone once said in commenting on the difference between Unitarian and Universalist polities that the Universalists were organized like Presbyterians and acted like Congregationalists; Unitarians were organized like Congregationalists and acted like Presbyterians."[12] This comment points to something beyond official policy, namely, culture. The ambiance attributed to Universalism, gentleness and kindness, made the Presbyterian form of organization acceptable, since it did not intrude in local affairs. Among Unitarians, Congregationalism was experienced as cool and shrewd, a means to preserve identity and pursue one's interests. These are stereotypes, certainly, but supported by enough anecdotal evidence to make them at least occasionally true.

Congregational Polity in the Unitarian Universalist Tradition

The Constitution and Bylaws adopted by the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961 reflect a clear choice of the Unitarian model as the Association's guiding principle of governance. Article II, Section 3, affirmed "the independence and autonomy of local churches, fellowships and associate members"; and that "nothing in this Constitution or Bylaws of the Association shall be deemed to infringe upon the congregational polity of churches and fellowships." Although the wording has been changed over the years, the current 1994 Bylaws continue to affirm congregational polity.

After the merger, six study commissions were organized under the heading "The Free Church in a Changing World." The first of these commissions considered the issue of congregational polity in its work. An interim report cited similarities between the two denominations on the three basic principles of congregational polity: both hold that the final authority lies with the individual, both hold to the essential autonomy of the local church, and both hold to the necessity for autonomous churches to come together in free association. These are the principles on which we now unite.

The report further suggested that "congregational polity," like "freedom" and "democracy," is often a stop thought device for us and warned that we must pay sharper attention whenever the phrase is invoked. The principle should frequently be stated. But the practice must be tested by the principle.[13]

The final 1963 report replaced the previous statements with vaguer language and less emphasis on historical background. The report spelled out four explicit rights reserved to the local church: the right to admit members in accordance with its own definition of membership, the right to select its own leadership, the right to control its own property, and the right to enter freely and voluntarily into association with other churches. In addition, the principles underlying congregational polity were restated:

  1. That a local congregation is a complete church with all the powers of a church;
  2. That its being and powers rest upon the free, deliberate consent of the individual members; and
  3. That all business shall be conducted within the church in accordance with accepted rules of order.[14]

The right of the local church to admit members in accordance with its own definition of membership was challenged almost at once. At the 1963 General Assembly in Chicago a constitutional amendment was proposed to require maintenance of open membership by churches and fellowships as a qualification for voting rights in the General Assembly, a move to ensure that Blacks would not be discriminated against. After an emotional debate the proposal was defeated, failing to receive the necessary two-thirds vote. Those opposing the amendment, although as firmly opposed to discrimination as those supporting it, argued that the method proposed for achieving open membership was unworkable and represented an infringement on congregational polity.[15] In subsequent years the Bylaws were amended to affirm the Association's "special responsibility and that of its member societies and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons . . . without regard to race, color, sex, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age or national origin."16] However, as Dr. McKeeman commented:

the efforts to provide fair access to pulpits to women, to homosexuals, to the handicapped has proceeded on the philosophical notion that belonging to the UUA commits local churches to such an effort. But the Association's Bylaws clearly provide that nothing in the Bylaws shall infringe upon the freedom of the local congregation. So we continue to struggle to create a more effective association by trying to ameliorate the most frustrating features of an association.[17]

Current Practice

Tensions between the Association and the local congregation have been felt in recent years as well. The composition of the Board of Trustees, originally elected entirely at large, has been altered so that the majority are elected from districts. Doubtless intended to ensure broader representation by region, the change made districts more significant. The trustees and president are allowed to speak for the Association on social matters without direction from the congregations. Finances of the Association are entirely controlled by the trustees. The Department of Ministry at one time suggested withholding ordination certificates to those accepting ordination before being Fellowshipped. Congregations lack choice (other than refusal) in the placement of extension ministers. These practices, although technically permissible, nonetheless tread upon the perceived liberties of the congregation.

Other policies and practices emphasize local autonomy. Congregations can ordain at their discretion, whether or not the ordinand is acceptable to other clergy or congregations.[18] When a congregation has clearly failed to uphold both the Principles of the Association and its basic rules, the rights of the congregation are at odds with the interests of the Association. A congregation may legally act as it wishes, but is such action consonant with the Principles and Purposes that define the community of congregations?

There is also a variety of experiments that may enhance the community of autonomous churches. Some are old, like The Benevolent Fraternity, which was organized by Boston-area Unitarian societies 175 years ago. Member congregations jointly support a community ministry serving the Boston area. More recently, the North Texas Area Unitarian Universalist Societies have for some years shared responsibility for a large housing development. Congregations in Minnesota's Twin Cities area have created a common coming of age program for their youth. More than twenty years ago the Association sponsored a Renewal in Growth program, which paired congregations in mutual assessment and advice. For many people in our congregations, groups such as the Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation, the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, or the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee serve to broaden identity and knit commitments to Unitarian Universalism.


Thoughout their once separate and now joint experience, Unitarian Universalists have struggled with the ideals of autonomy and community. Unitarians, in particular, chose to err on the side of autonomy, refusing even to become a community of congregations for most of their first century. Universalists were more willing to create communities of congregations, yet even they understood each congregation to be the chief center of religious life.

Each community was also impoverished by the isolation of congregations from each other. Each made attempts to be more cohesive. Each saw a measure of success and failure, and wrestled with resistance.

However, the ideal existed before the actual: The vision of the Cambridge Platform of a devoted community of congregations came into being before many congregations were formed. It governed the aspirations of those who wrote the Platform and those who succeeded them, and it is still an ideal that Unitarian Universalism embraces.


The Free Church in a Changing World (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association), Interim Report, no date; Final Report, 1963.

Charles Howe, "He Lives Tomorrow: Clinton Lee Scott, Revitalizer of Universalism," Proceedings of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, Vol. XXI, Part II.

Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope, Vols. I and II (Boston: UUA, 1979, 1985).

Unitarian Universalist Register-Leader (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association).


  1. Williston Walker, Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1989), pp. 207, 209.
  2. Ibid., pp. 217-218.
  3. Ibid., pp. 230 233.
  4. Ibid., pp 233-234.
  5. After the Cambridge Platform of 1648 came the Half Way Covenant of 1657, the Savoy Declaration of 1658, the "Reforming Synod" of 1679, the "Heads of Agreement" of 1691, the Proposals of 1705, and the Saybrook Platform of 1708. Another four documents followed by 1883.
  6. Walker, Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, p. 461. Ministerial associations were recognized as part of the legitimate structure of congregationalism by The Heads of Agreement written in Boston, 1691.
  7. Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism in Transylvania, England, and America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1945), pp. 470 ff.; Conrad Wright, op. cit.; and conversations with the Commission.
  8. Conrad Wright, "Congregational Polity as Practiced by the Unitarians and the Universalists: A Historical Survey," work in progress, 1995. Centralism may be abetted by congregational individualism. Individual congregations cannot provide for all their needs, notably settling new clergy. Informal structures existed from colonial times, when candidates were most often new graduates recommended by the faculty to local congregations. Ministerial associations served to assure soundness of doctrine and character. Later, denominational leaders often exerted a significant influence on the settlement process.
  9. Richard Eddy, Universalism in America, Vol. 1 (Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1884), pp. 296-302.
  10. Ibid., p. 432.
  11. Robert Cummins, Parish Practice in Universalist Churches (Boston: Murray Press, 1946), pp. 41-42.
  12. Gordon McKeeman, in "Polity Among Unitarians and Universalists," edited by Peter Raible, 1992, unpublished, pp. 1339-1340.
  13. Charles Howe, "He Lives Tomorrow: Clinton Lee Scott, Revitalizer of Universalism," Proceedings of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, Vol. XXI, Part II.
  14. The Free Church in a Changing World (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association), Interim Report, no date; Final Report, 1963.
  15. Unitarian Universalist Register-Leader, Mid-summer, 1963, pp. 10-12.
  16. UUA Bylaws, 1994, Article III, Sections: C-2.3.
  17. McKeeman, Polity Among Unitarians and Universalists, p. 1339.
  18. Ibid., pp. 1340-1341.

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