At the emotional worship service that celebrated the vote to create the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston in 1960, the Rev. Donald Harrington, a Unitarian, described the consolidation of the two faiths as "partly a new birth, partly a commencement, partly a kind of marriage." Looking back over the long journey to that historic moment, one can see threads of all three rites of passage.
Prior to the formal courting of one denomination by the other, ministers, members and churches from both faiths had, according to Universalist historian Russell Miller, "innumerable instances of friendship, collaboration, and harmony as well as antagonism, separateness, and discord." The differences and similarities were both legion, leading the 19th century minister Thomas Starr King to quip that "the only reason that the Unitarians and the Universalists haven't already joined that they were too closely related to be married." Indeed, the two traditions had similar, although not identical theological stances. Larger differences existed in church organization, the educational background of clergy, and the socio-economic status of their respective memberships. These differences proved far more difficult to overcome than the theological ones.
In the late 1840s, Henry Bellows, a prominent Unitarian minister in New York City, visited a number of Universalist churches in New York State. He found the Unitarians and Universalists in many places "drawing towards each other." He believed an eventual union was inevitable. In 1865, Bellows helped establish the National Council of Unitarian Churches, which, as one of its first pieces of business, passed a resolution "looking to union with the Universalists." Nearly 30 years later, the Universalist General Convention echoed that overture. Twice in the 1890s, the convention introduced, but tabled, motions calling for greater cooperation between the Unitarians and the Universalists. Meanwhile, some congregations did not wait for their denominations' blessing. In 1878, the first local merger took place in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, where Unitarian and Universalist congregations formally joined for the first time.
Resolutions continued to be written and passed by both denominational bodies, but there was little real action until 1931, when a Joint Commission was created to "consider possibilities" of joining together. By this time, both traditions were considering what they might have in common not only with one another, but with other liberal Protestant churches. In the 1930s, a broad group of liberal Christians attempted to forge closer ties through the Free Church Fellowship, but motivation soon waned.
While the two denominations tentatively approached the idea of consolidation, Unitarian and Universalist religious educators continued their history of collaboration, which began in 1903 when both Unitarians and Universalists were among the early members of the Religious Education Association. In the early 1930s, two members of the staff of the Universalist General Sunday School Society joined the Unitarian Curriculum Commission to begin a collaboration on curriculum. In 1937, the American Unitarian Association appointed Sophia Lyon Fahs as curriculum editor for a comprehensive series of curricula and support materials, the New Beacon Series in Religious Education. Both Unitarian and Universalist congregations used the materials.
The 1950s proved to be the charmed decade for the on-again, off-again process. In 1953, the American Unitarian Youth and the Universalist Youth Fellowship joined forces to create Liberal Religious Youth. In 1954, the Council of Liberal Churches was created. This time, substantive joint work was accomplished in the spheres of education, publications, and public relations. In 1955, the Joint Interim Committee recommended that the Unitarians and the Universalists determine a step-by-step process for "union." Also in 1955, The Unitarian Education Directors' Association, which had been founded in 1949, was renamed in recognition of the collaborative efforts of Unitarian and Universalist religious educators; the Liberal Religious Education Directors' Association (now Liberal Religious Educators Association, LREDA) was born. And in 1956, the Joint Merger Commission was established to guide the process itself.
That process was arduous, comprehensive, and inclusive. In 1959, the Commission's final report presented the "state of health" of both the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America; a plan for consolidation; and a full accounting of advantages and disadvantages of joining together. While the formal reports communicated the facts to the concerned memberships, there was much "side conversation" that reflected long-standing prejudices and fears on both sides. Unitarians were concerned that the Universalists were simply too different from them to forge a successful relationship. Universalists feared the more centralized, high-profile Unitarians would subsume them. These concerns were the same ones that had slowed joining for 100 years, yet now the time seemed right to take the next step.
In 1959, the final negotiations were worked out in Syracuse, New York. Over the next year, a plebiscite of congregations was called. Ninety-five percent of Unitarian and Universalist congregations participated; 88 percent of Unitarians said "yes," as did 79 percent of Universalists. In 1960, the separate but side-by-side annual meetings of the AUA and the UCA voted "yes" to consolidation. A special worship service was held at Boston's Symphony Hall with the pulpits previously used by William Ellery Channing and Hosea Ballou.
A marriage? Perhaps, but one that has had much in the way of differences to negotiate. A birth? Yes, but with plenty of pre-history brought into the newness of the moment. A graduation? Maybe, inasmuch as a graduation is both an ending and a beginning.