Happy May! Let’s Celebrate Consolidation Day!

By Natalie Briscoe

Seen from high above, a human crowd forms two hands and a heart shape on white background

No, it’s not a thing yet. But I’m definitely going to make it happen!

The creation of Unitarian Universalism as one denomination occurred when the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America joined on May 15, 1961. Once combined, the new Unitarian Universalist Association included a grand total of 141,685 members of 895 congregations.

Theologically AND politically, the Unitarians and the Universalists were very similar: God is loving, no one goes to hell, and the Trinity doesn’t make any sense. If you thought, however, that those fundamental similarities would make a merger between the two denominations easy-going, well, you’d underestimate our love of process.

Among the concerns discussed in the decade leading up to consolidation was a loss of identity. Believe it or not, the Universalists were viewed as quite conservative, and the Unitarians were viewed as the Radicals. Both denominations believed that the other would “tarnish their reputation.” Also, there was the issue of money. The Universalists weren’t poor, per se, but their assets were spread out throughout the western United States, in small endowments, whereas the Unitarian assets were already consolidated in Boston. To this day, there are Universalist endowments held throughout the west that fund the Unitarian Universalist Association on a payment schedule that was devised in these ten years.

In 1953, the Youth of the two denominations joined together into one structural body. Many of the other offices began to join, such as religious education and social justice. The Council of Liberal Churches was formed to plan for a structural merger.

After much negotiation and a fair amount of heartache, at a joint General Assembly in Boston in 1959, the denominations voted to complete the merger with one set of Bylaws for the new organization. An estimated 2000 Unitarian Universalists gathered in Symphony Hall Boston, for a Service of Celebration. Two pulpits were used: that of the Oxford Church in which Ballou had been ordained; and that of the Federal Street Church from which Channing had preached. The principal address was "A New World Faith."

The consolidation was finished on May 12th, 1961, and we were one Unitarian Universalist Association.

The Unitarian Universalism that was formed at the consolidation on May 15th, 1961, is a very different religion than the Unitarians and Universalists that birthed us. In fact, there are still both Unitarian Churches and Universalist Churches that remained in those traditions because they wanted to remain rooted in Protestant Christianity, whereas the religion that was created in the merger left Protestant Christianity all together.

However, Christianity remained in our six sources. There was a question about the origin of our sources, so I’ll say, the story of Unitarian Universalism certainly does NOT stop in 1961. We continue to grow and evolve to this day, and Article II, our Principles and Purposes, our sources, and our growing co-creation of a shared theology are all a part of that evolution.

Article II in the UUA bylaws is a statement of Principles and Purposes of Unitarian Universalism. These do not appear in Article II in the same way that they were originally written in 1961. They have undergone several revisions.

You may recognize the Seven Principles in our current Article II (PDF), which is the covenant between congregations about how we will work cooperatively to incarnate Unitarian Universalism in the world.

The proposed revision of Article II (PDF) is a revision of the Principles and Sources. The revision seeks to bring our shared theology to the forefront. While we won’t lose the Principles and Sources as cultural teachings, the proposed revision of Article II centers the process theology of Unitarian Universalism. Tracing our theology through history, we have, as a culture, decentralizing “god” as a cohesive object which can be the focus and center of our worship. Instead, we have declared truth revealed in many sources and in everyone, and a God that is embodied in the whole of that.

Over the past 60 years, we have gathered as a people, in worship and in service, to center what is of ultimate importance to us. After much information gathering, the Article II Study Commission, a committee of people charged by the UUA board to study these documents, realized that the center of Unitarian Universalism is Love.

And that is the theological statement that Unitarian Universalism offers this time. God is Love, and Love transforms us all. Love heals us, grows us, connects us, and informs us. Love conquers hate and fear. Love is the ultimate force in the universe, and it exists because we, fallible humans, manifest it in the world.

Throughout history, Unitarian Universalism has responded to this great Love, has stood up for it, has fought wars for it, has lived and died for it.

The most important thing to remember during this time of reflection on our shared history and our shared values is how we as a people have always come together in this spirit of Love. The conversations that we have together, the discernment that we engage in, the extravagant invitation to participate in the ongoing co-creation of a Faith which responds to the changing needs of a changing world are what is critical to us as a people of Faith. We aren’t here to argue and berate and criticize and convince. We are here to participate in the process of learning together, speaking our hearts to one another, and listening deeply. We are practicing our covenantal faith that ever grows, ever changes, and ever lives.

In this critical moment, Unitarian Universalism is our responsibility. We are stewards of Faith and warriors for Love, and the rest of the story is up to us.

Happy Consolidation Day!