While freedom and independence were among the first concerns of those who founded the first Universalist churches and the precursors to the Unitarian churches, so, too, was association. The ideas of freedom and order have been held in tension throughout our history, often reflecting the push-pull to centralize and then again decentralize denominational authority.
Over the centuries, there have been a number of ways Unitarian and Universalist churches have joined together in association. Some ways have been formal, such as national conventions, and some have been informal, such as local ministers' gatherings. Some ways have been ecclesiastical, such as to settle church disputes or to fellowship ministers. Other ways have been administrative, such as to print religious tracts or to raise funds for missionary work.
The Cambridge Platform, the foundational document of the New England Standing Order Churches that would later form the core of Unitarianism in the nineteenth century, called for congregations to cooperate and support one another. No structure was defined for this cooperation, but, early on, ministers' councils gathered to discuss the issues of the day. Over time these ecclesiastical councils took on the work of settling local disputes and assuring fit candidates for the ministry.
In the mid-eighteenth century, the itinerant preachers of the Great Awakening presented a new kind of challenge to the established churches. When ministers not associated with a single, fixed church came to town and preached their version of religion to all who came to hear, local societies could no longer count on orthodoxy of belief among the townspeople or impose discipline. Improved travel presented a challenge to the authority of locally based ecclesiastical councils, as it became possible in times of dispute for a minister or church to gather a council from the societies most likely to support their position. By early in the nineteenth century tensions were rising between liberal and conservative factions in the Standing Order churches. Between 1825 and 1835, some established churches split along Unitarian and Trinitarian lines. The newly emerging Unitarian churches were autonomous. The American Unitarian Association (AUA), headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, was founded in 1825 as a voluntary association of individuals, not congregations. Its goal was simply to provide printed tracts and missionary support to advance the young Unitarian movement. In 1865, at the urging of Henry Whitney Bellows, the National Conference was started as the first Unitarian ecclesiastical body on a national level. The following year, the National Conference organized fourteen districts (known as local conferences), though each local group had its own focus, ranging from discussion to mission. In 1911, the National Conference was renamed the General Conference, and in 1925 was rolled into the AUA, bringing administrative and ecclesiastical functions together in one body.
Like the Unitarians, the Universalists followed a system of congregational polity from the very beginning. The first Universalist church, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, was gathered by covenant. One of their number, John Murray, called to be the minister.
Although the Universalist churches had no founding document like the Cambridge Platform calling them into association with each other, they met on ecclesiastical matters from the earliest days. In 1785, just six years after the Gloucester church was founded, the Universalist churches met at a convention in Oxford, Massachusetts. In 1790, seventeen Universalists representing eight societies met as the Philadelphia Convention and drew up articles of faith and an organizational plan. Similar conventions would be held in the following decades.
The New England Convention of Universalists was the strongest of the several geographically-defined associations, and in 1803 Convention delegates from 35 societies assumed the right to define a statement of belief for all Universalists in the Winchester Profession. The Convention also formalized the plan of church government created at the Philadelphia Convention into a Plan of General Association that called for annual meetings, regular representation by local churches, and the credentialing and discipline of ministers.
Beginning in 1825, state conventions were organized and delegates were chosen from informal local associations. The states in turn sent delegates to the larger area conventions. In 1833, the New England Convention became the General Convention of Universalists in the United States, the single national organization. However, the General Convention suffered from unequal representation and low attendance, and there were calls for increased centralization. In 1865, the Convention instituted its first professional administrative positions to bring stronger leadership to the national level, though in reality the state conventions retained a good deal of power.
The nineteenth century was a time ripe for cooperation not only among congregations, but also in affinity groups that shared common interests or goals. Missionary societies, associations of women, religious educators, young people, and publishing houses arose to unite Unitarians and Universalists alike (for more information see Workshops 11 and 16).
Early in the twentieth century, Universalists began to build a central organization for bureaucratic functions. In 1919 the Universalist General Convention opened its first national headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts, and ecclesiastical and administrative functions were combined in the General Convention. In 1938 the Convention became the Universalist Church of America (UCA).
The consolidation of the AUA and UCA in 1961 retained many of the associational aspects of both denominations. Like both denominations, the new structure had three tiers: autonomous congregations, geographically- based districts, and the national organization providing administrative and ecclesiastical functions. The General Assembly, which transacts the business of the association, continues to be made up of delegates from local congregations. While structure and procedure differ in many ways from what came before, the essential points of congregational polity remain as a heritage from both Universalist and Unitarian denominations.
Unitarian Universalists, thus, continue to live with the natural tension between independence and association, freedom and order. We continue to embody the words of the Cambridge Platform of 1648 that "although churches be distinct, and therefore may not be confounded one with another, and equal, and therefore have not dominion one over another; yet all the churches ought to preserve church communion one with another."