Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Leader Resource 4: Evolutions of Ordained Ministry


In the list of men who subscribed to the 1637 covenant of community of Dedham, Massachusetts appear the names John Allin and John Hunting. In 1639, the people of Dedham followed the convention of congregation polity that would later be recorded in the Cambridge Platform to elect from their number a minister and a ruling elder. John Allin was chosen to the minister; John Hunting to be the ruling elder.

On April 24, 1639, a simple ceremony formalized the appointments. Allin and two lay members of the congregation ordained John Hunting as elder by a laying on of hands, and Hunting and two members ordained Allin as minister by the same method. Allin's sermon was based on I Corinthians 3:9, "For we are laborers together with God." Although we do not have the text of that sermon, we can surmise from this founding text that its tone was about the work that the congregation would do together. Allin and Hunting were elected by the people, but not separate from the people. While ministers and members from neighboring churches were invited to the ceremony, their only role was to express their "love and approbation of the proceedings of the church by giving to the officers chosen the right hand of fellowship." The Dedham church was welcomed into community of churches; the focus was on the work of the congregation.

This egalitarian view of ministry was to change as, by the end of the century, ministry became a profession. A look at the ordination of Ebenezer Parkman in Westborough, Massachusetts on October 28, 1724 highlights some of the changes. At Parkman's ordination service, the prayers, sermon and right hand of fellowship were all offered by local ministers who welcomed Parkman into a professional group rather than welcoming Westborough into a community of churches. Parkman described the occasion as his "Solemn Separation to the Work of the Gospel Ministry." The focus became the relationship of minister to vocation, not the relationship of minister to congregation.

Where once the lay members of a congregation recognized their choice of religious leader with ordination, ordination now involved other members of the clergy, and emphasized a "Solemn Separation of (a) person to the Work of the Sacred Ministry." Where once a church might operate for many months until a minister was found, now churches locked their doors when they lacked a minister to fill the pulpit. No longer did ministers serve the congregation that ordained them until retirement. Instead, a minister might serve several parishes throughout a career.

In the early seventeenth century, as the Standing Order churches took root, it was the province of societies to select and ordain their own ministers. By the dawn of the eighteenth century, it was the province of local ecclesiastical councils to recommend candidates for the ministry and to become involved in matters of discipline. By the turn of the next century things would shift yet again. As the Unitarian Controversy broke down networks of cooperation, especially among ministers, the ecclesiastical councils waned in their authority. It was not until the founding of the National Conference in 1865 that the Unitarians would have a national ecclesiastical body. Fellowshipping of ministers remained a rather haphazard affair until a Committee on Fellowship was established in 1878.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the definition of ordained ministry gradually widened beyond parish boundaries to include those categories of ministry that we would today call community ministry. Professors in theological schools and ministers working in social services came to be known as Reverend just as their parish counterparts were.


Like the first Puritan churches, early Universalist congregations, being accustomed to Baptist farmer/preachers, made little distinction between minister and laity. But unlike the Puritans, the Universalists had ecclesiastical organizations almost from the beginning. State and General Conventions ordained ministers, and were involved in matters of discipline. As early as 1800 the New England Convention had a formal Committee on Ordination. Even after the formation of the General Convention in 1833, the state conventions continued to hold so much power that congregations could call only those ministers in fellowship with the state convention. Churches that defied this rule could lose membership in the Convention. This remained one of the largest differences between the Universalists and the Unitarians, as the Unitarians continued to recommend, but not insist, that churches call ministers who were in fellowship with the denomination. Additionally, Universalist polity did not allow its ministers to hold dual fellowship with another denomination until 1917.


Approaching the denominational consolidation in 1961, fellowship in the Universalist ministry was conferred by the Universalist Church of America (UCA) (formerly the General Convention) or the state conventions. Fellowshipping of Unitarian ministers came under the purview of the Committee on Fellowship of American Unitarian Association (AUA) beginning in 1925 when the AUA and its ecclesiastical counterpart, the General Conference, merged. Upon consolidation of the UCA and AUA, a single Fellowship Committee was formed to see to credentialing and discipline of ministers. The Unitarian Universalist Association Department of Ministry was created to oversee matters of ministry, from education to settlement.