The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has long been involved in internationalism. Collegiality with Unitarians and Universalists around the world; the call to education, service, and aid; and the increasing globalization of the neighborhood and world are among the factors that have motivated our efforts. The inevitable convergence of our polity-particularly when interpreted in a provincial way that questions whether we should extend any effort or assume any responsibility beyond our walls-with the very tangible, expanding, and complex reality of internationalism raises significant questions about who we are as a religious body and what our vision is for the future. This section describes international efforts of the American Unitarian Association, the Universalist Church of America, and the Unitarian Universalist Association; explores tensions that arise in the interface between congregational polity and internationalism; and suggests directions that the Association might take to enhance its work as an intentional religious movement, committed to excellence at home as well as abroad.

Why a section on internationalism belongs in a study of congregational polity is a legitimate question. For if we apply a narrow concept of congregational polity in which our form of government is limited primarily to the politics of autonomous local congregations, then the Unitarian Universalist Association's policy and practice with regard to internationalism is insignificant and only individual ventures in "encounter and response" are meaningful. However, if we grant the shortcomings of this constricted view of polity and understand the need to legitimize and develop the relations among autonomous congregations, especially in light of international missteps taken by the Association, then internationalism deserves our full attention and commitment. For, as the Principles and Purposes state: "We . . . covenant to affirm and promote . . . the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. . . . The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles."

The American Unitarian Association

The American Unitarian Association (AUA) maintained independent relationships with congregations abroad and international interfaith organizations. For example, beginning in the 1820s and continuing for a century, American and British Unitarians had missions to Calcutta, Madras, and the Khasi Hills of India. The Reverend Dr. Spencer Lavan described the mission as one of "encounter and response" and documented it extensively.[1] Key players included the "Father of Modern India," Rammohun Roy, and westerners, the Reverends William Adam, Charles Dall, and Jabez Sunderland. Lavan states, "Most Unitarians do not realize that throughout the nineteenth century the American Unitarian Association believed that, within the scope of its financial limits, it should propagate its form of Christianity among those not ordinarily able to hear it."

In 1900, the AUA under the leadership of president Dr. Samuel A. Eliot became a founding member of an interfaith organization that was named the International Council of Unitarian and Other Religious Thinkers and Workers (now known as the International Association of Religious Freedom or IARF). Its goal was nothing less than "the federation of nations, the brotherhood of mankind, and the peace of the world."[2] The International Council nurtured relations with other Unitarian organizations, such as those in Great Britain and Transylvania as well as with the Hindu reformed group, the Brahmo Samaj, in India.

In 1913 the AUA tried unsuccessfully to support the establishment of a mission church in Montego Bay, Jamaica, under the ministry of the Reverend Egbert Ethelred Brown, an African-American Unitarian.[3]In the era after World War I, President Eliot declared, "We are creating a new internationalism."[4] Indeed, in 1918 the AUA helped to call world attention to the dire plight of the Transylvanians under Romanian rule. In the early 1920s American and British Unitarians provided funds for the purchase of the Mission House in Budapest (now the second Unitarian Church) to be used as housing for ethnic Hungarians fleeing Romania. In 1921 the AUA supported the efforts of Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk, the wife of the president of Czechoslovakia, and the Reverend Norbert Capek and his wife to establish a Unitarian church in Prague. The AUA provided funds for the purchase of the building.

The Reverend Louis Cornish was president of the AUA from 1927 to 1937. In his history of Unitarianism, A Stream of Light, Conrad Wright provides a capsule of Cornish's presidency:

Cornish excelled in international diplomacy. He traveled to distant congresses, there to mingle with representatives of other world religions. He loved the international protocol of robed processions, honorary degrees, and engrossed resolutions of greeting, never failing to inform the directors of an anniversary in Hungary or Japan.[5]

Cornish liked to travel abroad, but was not an effective administrator at home. He did, however, initiate an early version of the Partner Church project as well as publish on the dilemma of ethnic Hungarians living in Transylvania, which is still an issue today. (See Section 3, "Comparative Congregationalisms," for a discussion of the polity and history of the Unitarian Church of Transylvania.)

The presidency of Frederick May Eliot from 1937 to 1958 was characterized by a sobered sense of internationalism and great attentiveness to the Unitarian Service Committee (USC). During World War II, the USC worked primarily in Spain and France, helping refugees to escape from the Nazis and resettle safely. Following the war the USC sponsored work camps for youth in Europe, notably in Czechoslovakia and Germany. The American Unitarian Youth and the Universalist Youth Fellowship had extensive contacts with European counterparts such as the International Religious Fellowship.

The Universalist Church of America

The establishment of a Scottish Mission from 1876 to 1896 under the direction of the Reverend Caroline Soule marked the Universalist Church of America's first noteworthy engagement with internationalism. Previous questions about missionary work were apparently overshadowed by domestic issues. Henry Bowen, publisher of the Universalist Magazine, stated that he did not see much value in sending missionaries abroad when there was so much to be done in the United States. In 1821 he wrote, "Surely the soul of a native American ought to be as precious in our view, as the soul of a native of Hindoostan or the Sandwich Isles."[6]When B. Bowser, an African American Universalist, wanted to establish a mission in Cape Palmas in West Africa in the 1850s, Sylvanus Cobb, editor of the Christian Freeman, was supportive. He encouraged the denomination to "send a band of well-qualified Universalist missionaries into heathen lands."[7] But no such support for Bowser was forthcoming.

According to historian Russell Miller, the Universalist Church of America continued to struggle with its commitment to mission in spite of a belief in "the oneness of the human family," but a supportive vote was taken at a General Convention meeting in 1882. Eventually, a "conversion of the converters"[8] began, evidenced at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893 in Chicago and again in 1907 with the establishment of a Commission on Foreign Relations and attendance at the International Congress of Unitarians and Other Religious Thinkers and Workers. The Commission reported that "instead of being simply a small and obscure church," the Universalists had become "part of a great world movement which has for its object religious freedom and human progress."[9]

After the opening of Japan, the General Convention of 1887 led by the Reverend Dr. James Chapin explored establishing a Japanese mission. Shortly thereafter funds were raised with enthusiasm from conventions and individuals. In 1890 the Reverends George Perin and Wallace Cate along with Margaret Schouler began their ministry in Japan. Perin wrote soon afterward: "I shall aim to multiply just as fast as possible through men [and women] who can speak the Japanese language. We must have Japanese preachers. I fancy the success or failure of our missionaries hinge here."[10]The Universalist Church of America in Japan was registered as Dojin Shadan, translated as the "corporation for all people," and experienced 35 years of moderate, though uneven, success. In 1928 Ryongki Jio, a Korean Universalist who had been educated in Japan, tried to start a Sunday school and social service center in Seoul. The center lacked financial support, however, and it is unclear what finally happened.[11] After World War II the Association of Universalist Women contributed greatly to the Universalist Church of America's rebuilding effort in Japan. Miller sums up the work of the mission:

As small and even as insignificant as the Japan mission conducted by the Universalists since 1890 might have seemed, especially to those outside the denomination, it was indeed an "investment in Universal Brotherhood" of which Universalists could justifiably be proud. Always underfinanced, usually understaffed, and suffering from the slights and barbs of other denominations for most of its history, the Japan mission doggedly held on. The fruits of its efforts are difficult to measure, but at least to some Universalists they were worth all the effort and even sacrifice that had been expended.[12]

Despite occasional reluctance the UCA became involved with several significant missions as well as social service projects. Poor administration and lack of funding, however, seemed to obstruct their longterm success. Apparently the UCA never sought to convert its partners abroad in the narrow sense, but to confer a broad-minded, non-sectarian Christianity and to model the essence of its teachings.

Patterns of Internationalism at Merger

At the 1963 General Assembly, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Reverend Dr. Dana McLean Greeley, received support to open the first Office of Overseas and Interfaith Relations. The Reverend Max Gaebler was selected as its first director and was followed by the Reverend Max Kapp. Greeley and Gaebler traveled to Japan, the Philippines, India, and the Vatican, and to the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) Executive Council meeting in Europe. One result of their visit to the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, as it was called then, was the appointment of Devison Marbaniang as the first Church Visitor in 1965. It may be argued that his appointment has continued to play a positive role in the growth of the movement in the Khasi Hills to the present. Gaebler visited North American congregations to speak about the Association's international involvements. Greeley and Kapp also established an advisory committee.[13]During this period the UUA contributed up to two-thirds of the IARF's budget. In 1970 with encouragement from Greeley, the World Conference for Religion and Peace was established with the Reverend Dr. Homer Jack serving as its first director.

Of the Office of Overseas and Interfaith Relations, Greeley has written:

From studies that were made we knew that the denomination as a whole regarded the Overseas and Interfaith Relations Department as a very low priority, or as not a priority at all, which seemed to me tragic, and symptomatic of a pathetic provincialism. If I hadn't wanted to keep the department for the wonderful work it was doing, I would have wanted to keep it to educate the denomination, or to counteract our provincialism.[14]

It is clear that internationalism played a significant role in Dr. Greeley's commitment to and vision of the inclusiveness of the Association. Some have said that he even took the Association "to an unprecedented high" in internationalism.[15]

In the late 1960s the office was closed for budgetary reasons and its work reverted to the UUA president. It appears that the Association's international response, beginning with the administration of President Robert West in 1969 and for the next decade, varied according to the policies and practices of the incumbent president and the respective boards of trustees and their level of funding. During this period the UUA president continued to be invited to serve on the board of trustees of the IARF, based first in Holland, then Germany, and now Great Britain. (The first full-time executive director of the IARF, the Reverend Dr. Diether Gehrmann, was hired largely with UUA funds.) Issues arose and were dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) and Meadville/Lombard Theological School carried heavy international responsibilities in their respective ways.

The Eighties

Interfaith and international involvement increased with the administration of President O. Eugene Pickett in 1979. From the beginning of his presidency Pickett displayed an openness and interest in the church growth movement. Perhaps part of the reason was that his administration had gained additional funds to allocate to internationalism through the Holdeen bequest. He served as an active member and president of the IARF through the late 1980s, encouraging formal UUA attendance at the meeting of the World Council of Churches in Vancouver, Canada.

The Reverend Dr. William Schulz, UUA president from 1985 to 1993, introduced a more aggressive stance toward internationalism. In 1988 he promoted a change in the Bylaws to admit overseas congregations, resulting in the admission of the UU Church of the Philippines. While the debate on the floor of the General Assembly polarized simplistically between those who professed to support global Unitarian Universalism and those who cautioned against potential "religious imperialism," the Bylaws were amended by the necessary two-thirds vote.

In 1988 Schulz and the director of the Department of Extension recommended to the UUA Board of Trustees the creation of Project India, largely funded by the Holdeen bequest. This program was to be based in Calcutta and directed by the Reverend Dr. Sunrit Mullick, a member of the Brahmo Samaj in India and a 1988 graduate of Meadville/Lombard. Project India was to coordinate the work of the Brahmo Samaj as well as the Indian Unitarians of the Khasi Hills, Madras, and Hyderabad. However, the project lacked congregational support without even an official UUA committee. By 1989 a quarter of the work of the Advocate for Racial Justice was devoted to international work. Internationalism was later shifted to the Department of Extension. Throughout there was no consistent recordkeeping or evaluation of Project India and the program was terminated by the next administration in June 1995.16

With the overthrow of the Communist Romanian regime in 1989, the Unitarian Universalist Transylvania Sister Church Project, founded for the spiritual and financial support of beleaguered Unitarians in western Romania, gained momentum and was coordinated by Moderator Natalie Gulbrandsen. Soon afterward the Association announced the gathering of overseas congregations in Prague, Warsaw, and Moscow. The Unitarian churches of Auckland, New Zealand, and Adelaide, Australia, which belonged to the British General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, also applied for membership in the Association. As a result the UUA Board of Trustees began to address issues of membership standards and international policy. President Schulz convened a World Summit of Unitarians in April 1993 in Budapest, Hungary, though without substantial input from those who had been calling for such a meeting. After five years without a written policy, the Board of Trustees in its last meeting with outgoing President Schulz in June 1993 approved a brochure entitled "International Policies of the UUA."

The Nineties

In 1993 with the election of President John Buehrens, a more decentralized stance on international policy and practice began to emerge. The position of special assistant to the president for interfaith and international relations, reminiscent of the post established by Greeley in the early sixties, was instituted and filled by the Reverend Dr. Kenneth Torquil MacLean. A de facto moratorium on international memberships was established by the UUA Board of Trustees. The International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), chaired by the Reverend David Usher, was established in 1995 by the UUA to deal collegially and bilaterally with the issue of international membership and global Unitarianism and Universalism. The ICUU was created to share the responsibility with the UUA of deciding whether to admit Unitarians and Universalists in other countries to membership. The constitution of the ICUU declares its purposes to be "to serve . . . to affirm . . . to facilitate . . . to promote our ideals and principles around the world . . . and to provide [appropriate resources thereto]."

The IARF, which includes non-Unitarians and non-Universalists, was reorganized not only to support its executive director in the United Kingdom, but to enlist a United States coordinator, based in New York City. The IARF seeks to develop grassroots involvement in international efforts. When the administration gave indications of abandoning the Sister Church Program, the not-for-profit UU Partner Church Council (PCC) was formed in 1993 to serve not only the churches in Romania but also in Hungary and the Czech Republic. The Reverend Dr. C. Leon Hopper was elected as president and Dr. Judit Gellrd as first executive secretary. Of the PCC, which now holds an Independent Affiliate status with the UUA, the Reverend Dr. Hopper says: "I believe that the Partner Church Council is unique among UU organizations in that it is grounded on individual church connections and activities. It is church to church, truly grass roots."[17]

Present Efforts

Internationalism continues on the upswing, accompanied by a shift from the administration's centralization of authority and decision making to a more decentralized approach. According to Partner Church Council member, the Reverend David Keyes:

As the mission field . . . moves closer to the local parish, the relationship of congregation and judicatory shifts. Congregations no longer look to headquarters for leadership and administration of international programs, or anything else. Rather, they look to headquarters for assistance and reinforcement in the agenda they have decided to set.[18]

In the last 30 years the UUA has continually been represented at meetings of the IARF. In addition, the Holdeen India Fund, under the directorship of Kathy Shreedhar, is dedicated to improving the conditions of the poorest in India. The Reverend Dr. Max Gaebler, who on behalf of the UUA visited India in 1995, writes:

I was deeply impressed with Kathy Shreedhar's basic strategy in organizing and administering the program. She is always seeking, as she puts it, for people rather than projects. . . . [She] looks for individuals who already have something going, people of imagination and demonstrated ability whose commitment to "empowering the poorest of the poor" is abundantly evident. The grants she proposes are intended to provide organizational infrastructure and, in some cases, additional staff to enable these partners to pursue their chosen goals more effectively.[19]

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which has noteworthy projects around the world, also acts independently and serves primarily non-Unitarian and non-Universalist constituencies.

In addition, about 20 people from various international religious groups associated with the IARF have studied at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, Starr King School for the Ministry, and Harvard Divinity School. Meadville/Lombard has had international students as far back as 1920.[20] The Reverend Dr. Gene Reeves, former president and chief executive officer of Meadville/Lombard, comments about these international connections:

Very often these actions by the schools . . . were a positive reaching out to establish long-term relations with people in other countries, especially Japan. . . . This was not done for the schools alone, but, in some sense I think, for the UUA. Of course, these were not actions by 25 Beacon, but I have never been willing to concede that "the UUA" means "headquarters." The UUA includes its members, including its closely related theological schools. The simple fact of the matter is that from an overseas perspective to send a student to Meadville/Lombard is to have a relationship with American UUs, and therefore with the UUA.[21]

The Church of the Larger Fellowship, which is affiliated with the UUA, has also tried to be accessible to its international members, pointing them to the nearest Unitarian or Universalist societies or to the International Council of Unitarian Universalists.

Congregational Polity and Internationalism

How has congregational polity affected internationalism in the UUA? In general, the president has made decisions, with the approval of the Board of Trustees, as to who will represent the UUA at international events and public meetings. In addition, when congregational input to international issues has been weak, administrative authority has been stronger and more autonomous. When there has been more international funding, as through the Holdeen Fund, there has been more activity and service work. With the current position of special assistant to the president for international and interfaith affairs, responsibilities may be brokered more easily between the UUA president and other groups such as the Partner Church Council and the International Council of Unitarian Universalists. The extent to which a wider network of Unitarian Universalists-such as those who are not part of the international network or cannot afford to attend international meetings and events-will be invited to participate is an important and as yet unanswered question.

Leadership in social service and advocacy has been lodged in the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, the Holdeen India Program, the International Association for Religious Freedom, the International Association for Liberal Religious Women, the World Conference on Religion and Peace, and more recently in the Partner Church Council. In fact, the current executive secretary of the IARF, the Reverend Robert Traer, has made more social service initiatives a priority and has encouraged IARF branches around the globe to do the same. In 1995 the PCC issued a "Call for Action for Human Rights in Romania" concerning the denial of native language education to ethnic minorities. With an annual flow of $100,000 earmarked for Transylvania, this project may represent, to paraphrase the 1995 UUA presidential statement, "the greatest UU social activism since the Civil Rights movement." To the extent that individual Unitarian Universalists and congregations become involved in these associate member and independent affiliate organizations, they also become involved with international issues and projects of the Association.

The establishment of new churches and administrative programs has been the area of international work in which congregations have been least involved. Radical congregational polity seems to have worked contrary to, and continues to militate against, broad-ranging and ongoing concern and support for such international projects as the Reverend Egbert Ethelred Brown's church in Montego Bay, the Reverend Ryongki Jio's school and social service agency in Seoul, and the Reverend Dr. Sunrit Mullick's organization in Calcutta. After only a few years the projects of these clergy, who were duly fellowshipped by the AUA, the UCA, and the UUA, respectively, and who chose to minister in their homelands, were terminated for lack of financial support. Few individuals and congregations protested or perhaps even noticed the administrative terminations in these developing countries. The results might be considered racistand evidence of the continuing parochialism disparaged decades ago by Greeley.


The current administration has initiated a number of constructive changes for the decentralization of power and greater grassroots involvement with internationalism, for example, the endorsements of the Partner Church Council and the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.

The main congregational polity question is how issues about internationalism are to be decided. In the past it has primarily been by administrative initiative. Will the priorities be decided piecemeal by the General Assembly through resolutions presented by interest groups, or by the Board, or by the administration? How does our organizational form keep us from developing a coherent program?

The following questions need to be addressed:

  1. To what extent do the congregations that compose the UUA want the Association to engage in international work? Do they prefer that this work be done by other organizations?
  2. What are the UUA and congregations' relative priorities for international assistance (UUSC, Holdeen), extension (ICUU), and relationship (IARF, ICUU, PCC)?
  3. Do the congregations support the administration and Board in moving away from admitting overseas congregations and toward building the capacities of the ICUU? Is it realistic to expect the ICUU to carry out international extension efforts?
  4. Will existing overseas UU congregations be encouraged to create new associations or join existing ICUU members? Do we want to be internationally diverse?
  5. At present, almost no UUA funds are spent internationally, except for support of the Special Assistant. Funding is from the UUSC, Holdeen and other bequests, and individual congregations through the PCC. Is the UUA to be primarily a representative to international bodies, like the ICUU and IARF?

In the future the increased coordination of efforts by the UUA, between the administration and its constituents, among and within congregations themselves, would embody a broader, more democratic and humane congregational polity. To quote Samuel Eliot, it would signal the long-awaited birth of a truly "new internationalism."


  1. The UUA should retain and strengthen the position of the special assistant to the president for international and interfaith affairs.
  2. The UUA should create an international committee, separate from the UUA Board of Trustees task force on internationalism, and including the special assistant as an ex officio member and experts in the international field. The committee should be empowered to act as an advisory group to the Association, to offer links with congregations, clergy, and laity, to educate congregations and institutions, and to keep the issues of internationalism at the forefront of our religious vision.
  3. The UUA should encourage international committees at the district level, composed of members of congregations, the Partner Church Council, and the US and Canadian Chapters of the International Association of Religious Freedom. The committees should be charged with advising UUA trustees, district trustees, and executives; educating congregations on current international and interfaith issues of concern; and coordinating projects when needed.
  4. The UUA, the ICUU, and congregations should provide longterm joint support to ensure more effective egalitarian missionizing models. Consistent record-keeping and written evaluations of the work should be maintained. An International Chalice Lighters program could be initiated in consultation with the ICUU to support international congregational and institutional efforts.
  5. Issues of racial and ethnic diversity in the UUA should be examined in relation to our international work and should involve people with experience and knowledge of cultural contexts, language skills, intercultural and anti-racism training. "Ugly Americans" who have no serious interest or ability in engaging empathetically and deeply can obstruct internationalism in our Association.
  6. The UUA Department of Ministry and denominationally affiliated seminaries should identify students who have the training and talent to do international work and who want to study abroad for limited periods of time. They should locate resources for them to do so.
  7. Congregations and members should support the decision of the Board of Trustees to create the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists. Congregations and members should be involved with and keep informed of UUA representation to the ICUU. They should call for regular reports about the work of the ICUU through UUA trustees and the special assistant.
  8. Congregations and individuals should support the Partner Church Council and encourage its expansion to other regions, especially East and South Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa. Congregations and individuals should increase financial support of the Partner Church Council to alleviate the need for PCC board members to pay their own expenses to attend business meetings other than UUA General Assemblies.
  9. Congregations and individuals should support the work of the board of trustees of the US and Canadian chapters of the International Association of Religious Freedom as well as the establishment of new North American branches of the IARF in addition to those in Boston, Berkeley, Chicago, and New York. Congregations and members should attend the triennial IARF congresses and provide financial aid to encourage more multiracial and multiclass participation, not only from North America but from member groups around the world.
  10. The UUA should promote significant growth in grassroots funding for the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, the Partner Church Council, the International Association for Religious Freedom, and other international and interfaith organizations in addition to the Holdeen bequest.


Material in this section has been gathered from interviews and correspondence with: Richard Boeke, John Buehrens, Max Gaebler, Dr. Judit Gellrd, Donald Szantho Harrington, C. Leon Hopper, Jr., Homer A. Jack, David Keyes, Spencer Lavan, Kenneth Torquil MacLean, Sunrit Mullick, Abhi Prakash, Gene Reeves, George Williams, and David Usher.


  1. Spencer Lavan, Unitarians and India (Boston: Beacon Press, 1977).
  2. Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope, Vol. II (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1985), p. 127.
  3. Mark Morrison-Reed, Black Pioneers in a White Denomination (Boston: Skinner House, 1980), pp. 51-56.
  4. Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Jr., Samual Atkins Eliot, 1862-1950 (n.p., Claremont, CA, 1974), p. 13.
  5. Conrad Wright, Ed., Stream of Light (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1975), p. 120.
  6. Universalist Magazine, 3, November 3, 1821, p. 75.
  7. Christian Freeman, 23, July 5, 1861, p. 38.
  8. Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope, Vol. II, p. 417.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Christian Leader, 62, May 28, 1891, p. 2.
  11. Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope, Vol. II, pp. 452-53.
  12. Ibid., pp. 458-59.
  13. Richard F. Boeke, letter, March 23, 1996.
  14. Dana McLean Greeley, 25 Beacon Street and Other Recollections (Boston: Skinner House, 1971), p. 58.
  15. Gene Reeves, letter, April 5, 1996.
  16. Sunrit Mullick, interviews, 1994 and 1995.
  17. C. Leon Hopper, Jr., letter, July 1996.
  18. David P. Keyes, letter, March 27, 1996.
  19. Max D. Gaebler, letter to John Buehrens, June 13, 1995, p. 2.
  20. Spencer Lavan, letter, March 25, 1996.
  21. Gene Reeves, letter, April 5, 1996.

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