Call and Response: Journeys in UU Lifespan Faith Development

Where Are We Now... in UU History?

By Jessica York



I am taking a UU history class with the Starr King School for the Ministry. But to you, my colleagues and friends, I’ll admit a secret: I’ve never been fond of history.

In high school, history seemed to be a long list of dates and monarchs and wars. Classes improved in college when, forced to fulfill a history requirement, I took a course in the history of science. As a science major, I hoped I would finally encounter history that engaged me. I was right. Following the lines of scientific thought across the centuries was more meaningful than any previous history course because it led, eventually, to me and my identity as a scientist.

In the UU history class, we follow the threads, whirlpools, and cycles—a watercolor painting of religious thought—that laid the foundation for present day Unitarian Universalism. Again, this history leads to me and my identity. I don’t think I will ever love history for history’s sake. I admit to less interest in preserving traditions than forging new paths. For me, the most interesting question to be asked is “What from our UU past can help us deal with the inevitable changes of the present?”

Recently, I blogged about changes in Unitarian Universalism. I’m wondering about how religions change. Yes, religions are born of a particular time, place, and people. Are there predictable cycles in the lives of religions? Are there transitions all religions must manage to survive? Where are our faith’s “growing pains” and how can we nurture Unitarian Universalism through them?

James Martineau was a minister some historians consider the most important person in 19th century British Unitarianism. Martineau served congregations and taught at a college which voiced a Unitarian theology, yet he never joined a Unitarian church or accepted the label. In For Faith and Freedom, author Charles Howe says many Unitarians condemned Martineau for thinking Unitarianism too narrow. In the 1860s, he tried to form a union that was inclusive of all liberal churches on a “spiritual basis regardless of doctrinal differences.”

“Sweet!” I thought. At a time when many were busy catering to a nascent Unitarianism, here was Martineau pushing the faith out further, testing the limits, looking “beyond.” Yes, I immediately thought about our current Congregations and Beyond initiative and our interfaith work. Martineau failed to form the union he envisioned, but other aspects of his theology—including his belief that we should move “not only beyond Biblicism, but also beyond rationalism, scientism and materialism toward a “religion of the Spirit”—are still alive in our faith today. As I read more about Martineau, I will ask myself what in his life’s work leads to me, my identity as a UU, and the work before me.

We would like to hear your comments in response to this (and every) blog post.

Do you think religions have predictable cycles? If so, in what cycle is modern Unitarian Universalism? Do you see cycles operating in other religions?

What have UUs experienced in the past that can help us with the challenges of today?

What lived experiences from the past inform your present hopes and dreams for our faith?

Next Steps!

For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe by Charles A. Howe is indeed fairly short and quite readable. (out of print)

Read about James Martineau in the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography.

In a paper entitled "Congregations and Beyond," the Rev. Peter Morales, President of the UUA, offers a vision of the opportunities and challenges that face Unitarian Universalism as an international movement. He presents a strategic direction for Unitarian Universalism consistent with our core values and historic willingness to push beyond pre-determined boundaries. On the UUA’s Congregations and Beyond website, you will find President Morales’ video and a discussion guide to help UUs become a part of a UUA initiative to lower congregational walls.

About the Author

Jessica York

Jessica York is the Director of Congregational Life at the Unitarian Universalist Association. During her fifteen plus years as a religious educator she has served on the Liberal Religious Educators Association’s Integrity Team, the MidSouth District’s RE Committee, and the...


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