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A faith for the few?

Unitarian Universalists are torn between pride in our elite history and aspirations to be a religion for all. It’s a tension with deep roots.
By Mark Harris
Spring 2011 2.15.11

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welcome gate (© 2011 Gary Alphonso / 121Art.com)

(© 2011 Gary Alphonso / 121Art.com)

When I tell fellow Unitarian Universalists that I serve as minister of the First Parish of Watertown, Massachusetts, they are sometimes surprised and generally respond incredulously, “I never knew there was a UU church there.”

Unitarian Universalists often assume that UU congregations belong in wealthy suburbs where the grass is greener and the children go to high-achieving schools. This assumption exists alongside the half-defensive, half-optimistic ideology of genuine diversity. Until recently, Watertown was urban, industrial, and populated by working class immigrants. While it is still densely populated, its proximity to Boston has helped the real estate market put a Watertown address out of the price range for most working class people today. Yet one colleague said that his parishioners would consider Watertown a ghetto. This is a minister who would preach that our faith is for all people and should appeal to diverse populations. No wonder we feel confused.

We say we aspire to be democratic and inclusive, but we are comforted by our litany of influential and prestigious forebears. Many Unitarian Universalists are torn between who is actually sitting in our pews and who we wish was sitting there.

The First Parish of Watertown is an ancient parish, one of the five oldest congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was founded in 1630 by Puritan Englishmen who stated in their covenant that they were escaping “the pollutions of the world” to “bring forth our intentions into actions.” This band of “white Anglo-Saxon Protestants” and their descendants helped form many congregations that eventually became the nucleus of an established church, whose membership exerted enormous economic, political, social, and educational influence in Massachusetts. The congregation in Watertown has been home to members of the Coolidge family; the radical Unitarian minister Theodore Parker; Benjamin Curtis, a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; and Lydia Maria Child, the abolitionist remembered for her Thanksgiving song, “Over the River and Through the Wood.” Other members included business leaders, artists, authors, and other cultural and societal movers and shakers.

Then, starting in the mid-nineteenth century, the demographic character of Watertown, like other WASP communities, was transformed. First, the population began to swell with laborers for the Watertown Arsenal, many of whom had fled the Irish potato famine. Then Italians were added to the new ethnic mix. Soon wave after wave of Armenians fleeing the Turkish genocide found employment at the Hood Rubber factory. A substantial Greek population joined them, and Orthodox churches started to appear on the landscape. As Watertown became more industrial and urban, its most venerable institution, the Unitarian church, began to decline. The values of diversity and inclusiveness that UUs celebrate today did not exist in the mid-twentieth century. Unitarians led the march to the suburbs.

By 1966, when the Rev. David Rankin was called to serve his first congregation, he found an “old gray ghost” atop the rising knoll on Watertown’s Church Street, with twelve to fourteen people attending the worship services. Almost every aspect of church life had disintegrated.

In an unprecedented action by Unitarian standards, Rankin went door to door, giving literature to 6,000 families and talking to hundreds about the liberal message of Unitarian Universalism. This evangelical approach worked, at least temporarily. Former Unitarians came back to church, along with ex-Catholics and even a Muslim. Yet it was not enough to save their Gothic edifice. The walls of the meetinghouse had holes, and the floorboards gave way when walked upon. In 1975 it was torn down, and the congregation moved next door to the parish hall, where it eventually grew and today flourishes. At least for now, the congregation is assured of a continuing existence.

At the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, Massachusetts, the Rev. Tom Schade recently delivered a sermon that proposed that every church community is “working through one central issue.” For his congregation that issue was: How should well-educated, sophisticated, and generally prosperous people conduct their religious lives in the changing circumstances of Worcester? Worcester is generally perceived as a working class, industrial city. Yet the people Schade finds at his church reflect a different socioeconomic and educational reality. The church may be in a mixed community, but the membership is drawn largely from the upper-middle class.

Does a liberal faith only appeal to a narrow segment of the population—a liberal, economically comfortable, well-educated elite—or is that simply a self-fulfilling prophecy? Many Unitarian Universalists believe the stereotype that we are only educated suburbanites, but it is clearly not true. My wife grew up as one of six children in a family that struggled to survive economically, yet she is a born UU—and so is her mother. Many Unitarian Universalists live in marginal economic circumstances or do not have college educations. Yet looking back at the Unitarian and Universalist past, we see that the stereotype has old and very real roots. Fortunately, our history also shows us that liberal religion can reach beyond the elite.


Casual students of Unitarian history might look back with pride on the period when Unitarians controlled all the educational, social, economic, and political power in Boston. They might take for granted that Unitarianism has always been liberal—not only theologically, but in literature, politics, and social action as well. On closer inspection, however, Unitarian dominance of mid-nineteenth-century Boston is harder to celebrate wholeheartedly.

Jane and William Pease, who analyzed the demographics of nineteenth-century Boston, report that of the three major sects—Episcopal, Congregational, and Unitarian—the Unitarians were most likely to enjoy political or economic power. (See “Whose Right Hand of Fellowship? Pew and Pulpit in Shaping Church Practice,” in American Unitarianism, 1805–1865, ed. by Conrad E. Wright, Northeastern Univ. Press, 1989.) In the first generation after the Revolutionary War, Unitarian churches included a large membership of farmers, but this changed rapidly with the economy. By the 1830s Unitarians made the decisions that shaped the city’s economy. Compared to other denominations, Unitarians had twenty-two times more lawyers, twenty times the number of bankers, twice as many merchants, and twenty-eight times the number of manufacturers. But they had almost no farmers, craftsmen, or industrial proletariats. In 1850 two-thirds of the wealthiest Bostonians were Unitarians. By 1870, the average Unitarian was thirteen times richer than the average member of any other denomination. By 1870 Boston Unitarians were almost entirely upper-middle and upper class.

What did they do with their power? Ronald Story writes that “middle-period” Unitarians (around 1850) dominated Boston’s intellectual and philanthropic organizations and shaped them not to “melioristic liberalism but to their own exclusive, conservative, and business-oriented values.”

The Unitarians were responsible for the establishment of a number of cultural institutions, but they often kept them private. The Boston Athenaeum, for instance, an independent library and museum, was controlled by proprietors who opposed its public use. They did not want to throw open its doors to the “many-headed” rabble. And, historian Anne Rose argues, the upper classes practiced defensive self-containment in these institutions, excluding those who stepped beyond permissible boundaries as well. After Lydia Maria Child published An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, the Athenaeum revoked her reading privileges. Bronson Alcott later lost his reading privileges, too. Rose says the culture became increasingly insular as the number of immigrants increased.

The expansion of Harvard College best exemplifies this growth of private institutions. The university’s expansion was built upon wealthy, enterprising, politically conservative but theologically liberal families. From 1805 to 1860, thirty-six members were elected to the Harvard Corporation. Thirty-three were Unitarian. Eighty percent of the faculty were Unitarian. By the mid-1850s the student body was three-quarters Unitarian. Elite progeny commonly chose to matriculate there, but a poor person could not afford it. It was the seminary and academy for the inner circle of Bostonians. Harvard students trained to achieve a class status that would keep them from mixing with the rabble. Harvard established its own church after Cambridge acquired its first lower class congregations, including Universalist. The church leaders strove for gentlemanly qualities and regularly denounced the vulgar, the tawdry, and the disorderly—characterized first by rural people and later immigrants.

Not every Unitarian church or minister shared this devotion to upper-class values. The Rev. Arthur Buckminster Fuller, Margaret Fuller’s younger brother, “endeavored to give the Unitarian church appeal to all social classes and championed the important liberal reforms of the day,” writes his biographer Joseph Herring. When Fuller was thirteen, his father died. Arthur worked the family farm, and Margaret helped raise him and ensured that he received a proper education in preparation for college. With limited financial resources, Arthur had to devote some of his time while at Harvard to teaching in local schools to support himself. Before he attended divinity school, he became a lay missionary, preaching over a wide area in Illinois. After his ordination, he served at the New North Church in Boston, where the wife of the famous Methodist preacher Edward “Father” Taylor heard him speak. Apparently Fuller’s evangelical style helped convince her that “others are going to heaven besides Methodists.” Fuller believed in extemporaneous preaching, which was at odds with the more typical manuscript lecture style of his colleagues.

The New North Church was situated in a changing neighborhood, eventually dominated by immigrant Italian Catholics. Fuller characterized expanding the congregation as a Sisyphean task, but he did the best he could rather than abandon the neighborhood. Shunning denominationalism, he was a force behind the church having no sectarian name. He emphasized the growth of the Sabbath School, which took in destitute children. A Baptist colleague in Boston said that Fuller was a “friend of the poor and the outcast.” Herring writes that Fuller believed that workers, farmers, and other “common folk would flock to Unitarianism if they received the word of God in their own simple language.”

Fuller was an advocate of many of the reforms of his day, including temperance, abolitionism, and public education. In his temperance work it was said he was “bringing men of different callings and religious persuasions into friendly nearness.” In 1859 he was called to serve the church in Watertown, but when the Civil War broke out, he resigned and became a regimental chaplain. In 1862, he was killed in the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The lack of place for the poor in Unitarian congregations in Boston was underscored by the work of the Rev. Joseph Tuckerman. His ministry to the poor began as the Ministry at Large in 1826 and continues to this day as the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry. Tuckerman wrote that only the pew proprietors—who owned their seats—were welcomed at worship; the poor “cannot pay for the privilege, in the largest number of our places of worship have at best a very narrow space appropriated for them, and there they must sit apart, as ‘the class of the poor.’”

Despite having an orientation that equated poverty with crime and sinfulness, Tuckerman saw his mission as a parish minister as elevating the masses as to “enable every individual to surmount every obstacle in the way to the highest moral completeness within his attainment.” Thus the “drain digger” and the “scavenger” could be as morally complete as the most exalted. Tuckerman wanted the more favored classes to understand the realities of poverty, but only wished to support the poor through voluntary charity. He feared that public support would institutionalize pauperism. Nevertheless, Tuckerman was disturbed by class distinctions and believed that relationships between the classes would alleviate some of the distance.

Within a year of its founding, Tuckerman’s Ministry had constructed its first chapel at Friend Street. Other ministers replicated Tuckerman’s visitation to people’s homes, and soon more than a hundred volunteers were helping instruct children and adults alike in such skills as reading and sewing. Although Tuckerman was concerned that separate congregations for the poor would reinforce the class structure, the chapels created by the Ministry at Large became important community centers for the poor of Boston.

Others became concerned about class in even more revolutionary ways than mere cordial relationships between the classes. The Rev. Orestes Brownson, a radical who would make the journey from Universalism to Unitarianism to Catholicism, compared wage labor to slavery and rejected the Rev. William Ellery Channing’s view that the working classes needed to seek personal moral improvement. Instead he advocated listening to labor’s demands for economic justice.

The Unitarians tended to sacrifice social justice to their need for harmony, and the idea of one class agitating for power was dangerous to them. Channing was disturbed by Brownson’s essay “The Laboring Classes” and told Elizabeth Palmer Peabody that Brownson had exaggerated the hardships of working class people. They were better off than lawyers and merchants, Channing said, because they did not aspire as high and therefore would be less liable to disappointment when they failed. Channing wrote, “No good can come but from the spread of intellectual and moral power among all classes.”

Brownson eventually converted to Catholicism—a religion most Unitarian clergy saw as a superstitious, authoritarian, foreign faith practiced by poor, unwashed immigrants, whose poverty was directly related to their lack of a frugal, disciplined, and individualistic Protestant work ethic. The ethic of Unitarianism was that of the self-made man. The new self-help literature dealt not with business or accounting but with the development of character, and Unitarian clergy were among the most prominent self-help writers. Channing used the term “self-culture” to reinforce the ideal that the individual could be successful if he or she developed the habits of hard work, frugality, perseverance, and sobriety. The Unitarians wanted to elevate the masses morally to their level and believed that those who would pit classes against one another threatened the stability of society.


If the early Unitarians were especially drawn from elite strata, the Universalists appear to have had a broader base. In Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England, Stephen Marini indicates that Universalists came from all walks of economic life. In Langdon, New Hampshire, for example, Universalists owned slightly above average amounts of property and claimed members who were prominent citizens both economically and politically. While two of their members were among the wealthiest people in town, they could claim some of the poorest people as well. This was in a marginal economy, but the distribution seems to have been a normal representation in various economic rankings.

Even in a small sampling I compiled for New Salem, Massachusetts, Universalists occupied the middle ground economically. They were not the poorest group in town—the Baptists were—but neither were they the wealthiest group, either, a crown worn by the Congregationalists, who were on their way to splitting into Unitarian and Trinitarian factions. An 1811 list of polls and estates for New Salem shows that all the Universalists in the sample owned property, but their holdings were concentrated in the middle of the list, with none of them being especially wealthy. The mean number of acres of land owned was 96, while the mean for the Congregationalists was 187.5. Ten out of the twelve largest landholders were Congregationalists.

Marini says the Universalists and the other sectarian groups he studied (Shakers and Freewill Baptists) were not socially, economically, or politically deviant, but their constituencies were representative of the diversity in their communities. They responded as extended families to new religious ideas transmitted by charismatic leaders in evangelical style. This method of converting family groups by prophetic evangelical preaching represented a distinct difference between the Universalists and those liberal Congregationalists who came to be called Unitarians.

While we know of Universalism’s origins in rural places in New England, it was a town phenomenon as well. The Rev. Elhanan Winchester (1751–1797), a Baptist preacher who converted to Universalism in Philadelphia in 1781, gave Universalism its first vital urban center. Ann Lee Bressler writes that Universalism played an important role in the formation of Philadelphia’s working class. Universalists “spoke of a community of love in ways that echoed the solidarity of tight-knit journeymen’s societies and the mutuality of the larger working class community,” she writes in The Universalist Movement in America, 1770–1870. William Heighton, a shoemaker who became the leader of the Mechanic’s Union of Trade Association and the Workingman’s Party, was a Universalist who organized many meetings in Universalist churches. Heighton led the city’s labor movement for about five years around 1830. He was a working class radical who called the privileged elite parasites that must be overthrown lest the future be a “gloomy one of endless toil and helpless poverty.” The artisans he represented dominated the First Universalist Church, which had been founded by Winchester in 1781, and many of the parishioners were trade union leaders or members.

The Rev. David Bumbaugh says [PDF] that Universalists, whatever their station and wherever they came from, longed for respectability and some degree of educational and economic success. Many were able to achieve this as a kind of rising middle class, although they never attained the elite status of their Unitarian brothers and sisters. They were lesser merchants and shopkeepers as opposed to inherited gentility.

The Rev. Peter Hughes writes [PDF], “It is not that Universalists were never learned or rich. They often became so. While an intelligent Unitarian went to Harvard or some other prestigious school, by right of birth, a bright Universalist, through luck and hard work, might get into a more modest educational institution. More often, the bulk of a Universalist’s culture was achieved almost entirely through his or her own effort. Unitarians, at least in New England, inherited their churches from generations past. With very few exceptions Universalists created their own societies and built their own meetinghouses.”

Capitalism caused deep divisions in Universalism. George Pullman, a Universalist, was a railroad magnate who cut jobs and increased working hours, precipitating a violent strike in 1894. When Pullman died in 1897, his friend the Rev. Charles H. Eaton, a Universalist minister in New York City, said, “The Universalist Church is the child of the people, came up out of the soil, and industry has crowned her if she should be crowned at all.” While some Universalists supported exploitative business practices, others responded to injustices, especially against women and children. A number of Universalists were involved in securing child labor laws, including Charles Leonard, who was the founder of Children’s Day, a special celebration of children that was adopted by the entire Universalist denomination in 1867.

By the end of the nineteenth century Unitarians and Universalists were more and more alike. When the Universalist Leader asked, “What is the Difference between Universalism and Unitarianism?” in 1899, the author, Willard Selleck, noted that a convergence had occurred with respect to class, scholarship, and theology. You could not tell the difference between the two, Selleck observed, except that Universalists were more interested in theology and things spiritual and that a conservative Universalist might be uncomfortable around a radical Unitarian.

Bressler writes that Universalism has suffered by being depicted as Unitarianism’s poor relation. This is unfortunate because demographically and socially Universalists actually lived out the values expressed in their faith of freedom and equality. A diversity of classes participated, and many members, especially before 1850, shared a classless vision of both heaven and earth. Universalist congregations welcomed both rich and poor, businessman and seamstress alike. The elite Unitarians found the embodiment of the tenets of their democratic faith much more difficult, and this remains a challenge to Unitarian Universalists today. How do we live out a faith where all are truly welcome? Who is our message for?

Margaret Fuller once wrote to her Unitarian father, “Your reluctance to go ‘among strangers’ cannot too soon be overcome; & the way to overcome it, is not to remain at home, but to go among them and resolve to deserve & obtain the love & esteem of those, who have never before known you. With them you have a fair opportunity to begin the world anew . . .”

Our theology says this vision to “begin the world anew” must be with all kinds of people, not just with the social circle we create or like-minded liberals. It must be practiced in an ever-intentional manner and in ever-widening circles if our faith is going to be truly transformational. Perhaps this is how Unitarian Universalism can fulfill its democratic vision and become more than a faith for a few.


Adapted with permission from Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History (Skinner House, 2011). © 2011 Mark W. Harris. See sidebar for links to related resources.

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