Between 1948 and 1967, Unitarianism experienced a period of enormous growth, perhaps the most significant increase in numbers for any time in Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian Universalist history. One third of the people who swelled our ranks during these years came through the doors of newly organized "fellowships." The story behind the Fellowship Movement is one of the most interesting in all our efforts at evangelism.
The story begins with American Unitarian Association (AUA) President Frederick May Eliot who, while investigating the denomination's history of growth, rediscovered an early 20th-century plan for "lay centers." Based on this idea, a growth plan was conceived by staff taking into account the experiences of the fledgling Church of the Larger Fellowship, which served isolated religious liberals by mail; the AUA's Extension Department, which helped congregations unable to fully support a full program and professional ministry, and Lon Ray Call, the AUA's minister-at-large who was available "on loan" to congregations in need of short-term guidance. According to this plan, which was launched in 1947, the AUA would grant recognition and offer assistance to groups of religiously liberal laypeople gathered without a minister. Under the guidance of Lon Ray Call, AUA's minister-at-large, and Munroe Husbands, a lay leader who would eventually hold the AUA positions of Director of Fellowship and Associate Director of Extension, the Fellowship Movement proved an excellent vehicle for encouraging interest in Unitarianism in locations unlikely to support a church, as defined by size and professional ministerial leadership. A fellowship was defined as a minimum of ten religiously liberal laypeople who expressed sympathy with the purposes of the AUA, had bylaws, and made an ongoing financial commitment to the AUA. The first fellowship so recognized was the Unitarian Fellowship of Boulder, Colorado, in 1948.
Postwar America, with the Baby Boom and the movement of population centers to the West Coast, the South, the Southwest, and the Midwest, fostered the growth of Unitarian fellowships. Many began in heartland towns where universities were located, reflecting a growing interest among well educated Americans in individualism, humanism, and social activism. The Church of the Larger Fellowship and the Unitarian Laymen's League provided funding for advertising. The fellowships organized across the country were not conceived or intended as "churches in the making." They attracted people who were interested in a strong degree of participation in their local religious community. Historian Conrad Wright reflected that Husbands' work was not to bring these groups under any form of denominational control, but to "facilitate their birth, (allow) them to find their own identity, develop their own style, and produce their own leadership."
By 1958, 323 fellowships had been organized, representing 12,500 members, 75 percent of whom were new to Unitarianism. In the single year 1958-59, 55 new fellowships were established.
In the beginning, fellowships differed from churches in a number of ways. One, of course, was their usually small size. Other characteristics of included greater intimacy, spontaneity, informality, and directness. Do-it-yourself and lay-led, they offered and demanded more personal involvement and participation, more identification with the group, and a greater sense of responsibility for the community's operation. In the words of one observer, "fellowship members 'joined an experience' rather than an institution."
The spirit of individualism that characterized fellowships sometimes undermined efforts to create structures necessary for the group to function, and each year, some fellowships ceased operations. But an extraordinary number survived and even thrived.
The Fellowship Movement's approach to religious experience influenced larger, more tightly structured congregations in the Association. Fellowships understood from the beginning that lay involvement was essential to survival and success. While Unitarian Universalism has a long and proud history of lay leadership, some have seen in the Fellowship movement the birth of "shared ministry." The sharing, though, was among congregants, rather than with a minister. Lay people in fellowships created Sunday services, developed and carried forth religious education programs, and maintained an environment where differing voices might be heard. Lay people managed all the basic functions of a lightly funded organization.
Munroe Husbands noted that many who were first drawn to the fellowships had "developed an antipathy toward the entire religious vocabulary: worship, God, prayer, invocation, benediction." But interestingly, Husbands continued, "slowly the individual divests him- (or her-)self of this negativism, talks out the resentment accumulated over the years, and begins formulating a positive philosophy of religion." Though envisioned by some as a refuge from religion, fellowships were, in fact, also therapeutic, helping members to move through anger and rejection of a religion of the past towards a positive view of religion.
Husbands was the driving engine behind the Fellowship Movement, a tireless advocate, listener, and supporter of fledgling fellowships from coast to coast. When he received the UUA's Award for Distinguished Service in 1973, he was dubbed "circuit rider of mid-20th century, organizer of more Unitarian Universalist congregations than any one person in our history." Husbands' work, and the work of the Fellowship Movement, concluded primarily because of the financial stresses faced by the new UUA after the 1961 consolidation of the AUA and the Universalist Church of America (which had but eight intentionally lay-led congregations). The program formally ended in 1967.
Today opinions vary about the success of the Fellowship Movement. Holly Ulbrich author of The Fellowship Movement: A Growth Strategy and its Legacy writes:
The positive view maintains that the congregations planted as lay-led fellowship between 1948 and 1967 saved Unitarianism from near extinction and converted a regional religious movement into a truly national one. Along with growing the denomination, fellowships brought innovation, vitality, and lay leadership into a religious community greatly in need of fresh air... At the other end of the spectrum is the view that the fellowship movement spawned small, introverted, even hostile groups that did not want to grow or welcome newcomers, did not identify with the larger denomination, and represented Unitarian Universalism in ways that did not reflect the larger movement's self-understanding.