Tapestry of Faith: Resistance and Transformation: An Adult Program on Unitarian Universalist Social Justice History


As the Unitarian denomination should be ashamed of its antislavery conduct as a religious body, so it should be justly proud of the men and women who as individuals chose love of freedom over thoughts of expediency. — Douglas Stange, in "Patterns of Antislavery among American Unitarians, 1831-1860"

This workshop explores how Unitarians and Universalists responded to the issue of slavery in the mid-19th century. Although in modern times, we have come to praise the Unitarian and Universalist leaders who were outspoken in their support of abolition, the Unitarians and Universalists of the era were, in fact, very divided on the issue of slavery. The Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing struggled with his growing unease over the issue, and although he spoke out against slavery, he advocated a gradual approach. Other Unitarians and Universalists had different ideas; the Unitarian minister Theodore Parker and the Universalist minister Adin Ballou advocated radically different responses to the question of emancipation. This workshop will present examples of how Universalists and Unitarians answered a fundamental question in social justice work: How do we resist and redress state sanctioned violence and injustice?

Theodore Parker was known for his fiery abolitionist preaching and his willingness to take up arms in resistance to slavery. Adin Ballou, convinced that there was no way to participate in society at large without being complicit in the slave trade and yet unwilling to resort to violent revolution, attempted to create an entirely alternative culture. Channing sought a balance between condemning the absolute moral wrong of slavery and offering pragmatic solutions that might appeal to all sides. Using the models for social justice work explored in the Workshop 2, this workshop will explore Channing's confidence in a pragmatic, gradual solution, the utility of Ballou's work in creating an utopian institution, and Parker's efforts at prophetic leadership.

To ensure you can help adults of all ages, stages, and learning styles participate fully in this workshop, review these sections of the program Introduction: "Accessibility Guidelines for Workshop Presenters" in the Integrating All Participants section, and "Strategies for Effective Group Facilitation" and "Strategies for Brainstorming" in the Leader Guidelines section.


This workshop will:

  • Introduce three strategies that 19th-century Unitarians and Universalists used when wrestling with how best to respond to the institution of slavery
  • Encourage participants to connect these strategies with their own experience of social justice work
  • Raise the question of how modern sensibilities influence views of the past.

Learning Objectives

Participants will:

  • Understand different positions antebellum Unitarians and Universalists took in response to slavery
  • Identify each of these responses with the prophetic, parallel, and institutional strategies outlined in Workshop 2
  • Learn how these positions demonstrate the patterns of many debates and struggles that take place around social justice issues
  • Consider how the choices they make in doing social justice work reflect these patterns of engagement, and how they do not.