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Universalists and Unitarians in America

Universalists and Unitarians in America

A People's History

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Beyond presenting Universalist and Unitarian history in America as more than a list of luminaries, Buehrens weaves a historical tapestry rich in color and meaning that will serve to deepen the faith of modern Unitarian Universalists.

Author: John A. Buehrens

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John Buehrens begins his new history with the observation that "Religion is people." While previous accounts of Universalism and Unitarianism have focused on a few great men, this history shines a light on the contributions of many, both exalted and obscure, whose stories illustrate the texture of lived religion. Both faiths are chronicled in parallel development through their consolidation in 1961. Beyond presenting Universalist and Unitarian history in America as more than a list of luminaries, Buehrens weaves a historical tapestry rich in color and meaning that will serve to deepen the faith of modern Unitarian Universalists.

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Introduction

American Independence and the Emergence of Liberal Religion, 1770-1815

The Multiple Origins of Universalism in America

Early Unitarianism in America

The Age of Jacksonian Democracy, 1815-1848

Universalism in the Second Great Awakening

Unitarians and the American Renaissance

The Second American Revolution, 1848-1870

Universalism Seeks Unity of the Spirit

Unitarians: From Reform to Civil War

The Last "Gilded Age" of Inequality, 1870-1905

Universalism's Liberal Mission

Unitarian Parsonages Move West

The Progressive Era, 1905-1935

Unitarian Skepticism and Social Reform

Universalism and Modernity

Liberal Religion and Humanism, 1935-1960

The Unitarian Renaissance

Universalist Humanism and Unitarian Universalist Consolidation

The Unitarian Universalist Association, 1961-2011

The Marriage During the First Twenty Years

The UUA Grows Stronger

Here in America, most early Universalists and Unitarians developed their religious institutions without much imported influence. Their movements were "American originals," arising independently in the era of American independence itself.2 They arose among people reacting against Puritan Calvinism, although in different social contexts. Both sought more humanistic expressions of Christianity. Over time, both became even more inclusive. Both also produced notable leaders and had a disproportionately large influence on American culture and public life, despite never becoming institutionally large themselves.

Most previous histories have treated American Universalism and Unitarianism separately.3 They have also tended to emphasize intellectual or institutional history. This short survey deals with both Universalists and Unitarians in parallel development. It emphasizes the lives of people, because "lived religion" in the past can best be approached through biography. It does not ignore intellectual and institutional developments and their leaders. But it pays attention to some Unitarians and Universalists who did not become well known. Since neither group was ever large, but each produced more than its share of American notables, both groups have taken great pride in their most famous members. Yet the history of Universalists and Unitarians in America is more than a list of luminaries. Just as we look up at the sky and often see only the brightest stars, neglecting the patterns formed among those of second and third orders of magnitude, so we have sometimes overlooked some of the most interesting people in our past.

Praise for Universalists and Unitarians in America

"John Buehrens's people's history is at once a comprehensive narrative of Unitarian Universalist history and an invitation to rethink that history. The big names are all here, but they share space with forgotten feminists, rural radicals, and faith-filled capitalists. By telling many stories, Buehrens invites all Unitarian Universalists to find their place in our tradition's living heritage."

—Dan McKanan, Harvard Divinity School

"John Buehrens has given us a lively and informative account of American Universalism and Unitarianism, and has brought a number of important figures in UU history into well-deserved recognition. Universalists and Unitarians in America provides an excellent and very welcome narrative of the movement in the twentieth century, emphasizing its notable contribution of important leaders such as Mary White Ovington and John Haynes Holmes to crucial progressive political causes. His well-considered explanation of the merger of the two denominations in 1961 is a highlight, and he also provides an indispensable account, both well-researched and experienced first-hand, of the new UU movement that emerged in the later twentieth century."

—David M. Robinson, author, The Unitarians and the Universalists and Emerson and the Conduct of Life

"At last! A vibrant history populated by real human beings, not just dates, ideas, and famous figures. John Buehrens brings the North American Unitarian and Universalist traditions to new life through the stories of people both ordinary and fascinating, all struggling to realize their dreams for liberal religion in the context of their times."

—Susan Ritchie, minister, North Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Lewis Center, Ohio

"In this grassroots chronicle of Unitarian Universalism, John Buehrens takes a number of fascinating roads less traveled by. He moves some of the focus away from men, ministers, and institutions, and introduces us to laypeople, women, and families who shaped our story just as much as our already celebrated heroes did. It is both an engaging complement to, and a useful corrective for, many of our existing histories."

—Peter Hughes, author, The Origins of New England Universalism: Religion without a Founder

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