Revolutionaries? Unitarians? Since When?

On the denominational level, historical awareness is often boiled down to a list of important “firsts” or various progressive stands on social issues. This string of successes is important and inspirational, but it can also become a way of disowning past sins and errors that are still folded into current realities. Most denominations end up with a baseball-trading-card approach to history—they highlight singular achievements but don’t explore larger complexities. I suspect this aversion is one reason why the historical memory of [mainline] denominations seems to stop somewhere after the Civil War and pick up again in the 1960s. The long intervening decades, marking mainline Protestantism’s glory days and its deepest crises, are virtually unknown territory.

from “The past isn’t past” by Margaret Bendroth in the Christian Century–Feb. 9, 2010

The word revolutionary seems to have come up a number of times at GA. Pardon the cynic in me, but when have U.S. Unitarians ever been revolutionaries? Unitarians and their forbears were members of the establishment. And establishments hate/loathe/detest/despise/spurn/etc. revolutionaries and the revolutionary impulse. Establishments benefit from the status quo—the same status quo that revolutionaries are fighting.

Now don’t get me wrong, there have been revolutionary Unitarians (yes, I am being very specific about Unitarians…the Universalist side is different)…Theodore Parker and John Haynes Holmes to name a couple. But the collective….not so much.

Are we following the way of other denominations and looking at our history only through the “firsts or various progressive stands on social issues”? What do we lose if we don’t look at it in the whole?

So were Unitarians really revolutionaries? Or are we looking at our history through rose-colored glasses?

Nothing can change unless truth is acknowledged. And while revolutions and revolutionaries have their place, they must have support from institutions for the change they represent to bear fruit. What institutions does UUism have to support the revolutionaries in its midst? Or are the present-day revolutionaries doomed to the same treatment as previous Unitarian forbears?


6 thoughts on “Revolutionaries? Unitarians? Since When?

  1. The ‘Secret Six’ (the money guys behind John Brown) were mostly Unitarian. I’m always of mixed feelings about these guys. Of course, Unitarians as a denomination did not support them.

    • Actually Unitarian Universalist “firsts” are not always progressive or positive developments. . .

      I am pretty sure that I am the very first person of inherent worth and dignity to have the distinct honor and privilege to be (falsely) accused of the archaic if not “obsolete” crime of blasphemous libel by the UUA, for allegedly blogging “unfounded and vicious allegations to the effect that ministers of the Association engage in such despicable crimes as pedophilia and rape”. . .

      How “progressive” is *that* Big Fat U*U First?

  2. To the UU History Listserv’s credit, they did review many Unitarians support of the Eugenics movement in the 30s. I wasn’t on the list then, but the moderator mentioned it. Most UU’s (including a few recent grads from ML I’ve met) ignorant of U and U history. We’re not historially minded Churches although we’ll cling to the buildings, but we’re not really too focuses on what was preached in them years earlier.

  3. To my knowledge, Unitarians and Universalists have never had complete consensus or agreement on any public policy, justice issue, political or economic question. But I do believe that, at least compared to many religions and denominations, ours has acknowledged the need for progress and acted to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice. And I think we’re doing it today.

    “The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.” Alice Walker

    Walker’s words – written in 1988 and provocative to even today’s conventional standards – appear in her foreword to The Dreaded Comparison – Human and Animal Slavery. With searing words and images this thin book by Marjorie Spiegel details the many similarities between the oppressions that U.S. slave owners inflicted on their human “property” in yesteryear and those that we inflict on other beings today.

    Are Unitarian Universalists taking a progressive stand against the currently accepted brutality and cruelty of animal agriculture and the other animal exploitation industries? Large numbers are, and increasingly so.

    The Ethical Eating Statement of Conscience, approved at GA in 2010, advocates that we move towards a plant-based diet. Chapters of Unitarian Universalist Animal Ministry ( are forming in congregations throughout the U.S. and Canada. With film screenings, book discussion groups, compassionate potlucks, sponsored speakers and other means they are raising consciousness in their churches and communities.

    Melanie Joy, author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows has been speaking to receptive audiences at UU congregations over the last year or so. After she spoke at mine in February, one of our ministers decided to go vegan and has thrown her support behind a church group for vegetarians and the veg-curious that has gained much interest and support in the short time since it’s been formed. You can see Joy’s one-hour presentation here

    Yes, historically not all Unitarians or Universalists have supported the moral imperatives of their day. It seems to me, though, that enough of them challenged the traditions and group-think that rationalized and institutionalized cruelty and injustice that today we can be both justifiably proud of our progressive heritage and inspired by it.

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