A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism, Volume 2

1900 to the Present

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Dan McKanan
  • Boston, MA: 
    Unitarian Universalist Association
    , May
     588 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Unitarians, Universalists, and, since the 1961 merger, Unitarian Universalists have been people rarely at a loss for words. Well known for their contributions to the arts, science, government, and movements for social change, these shapers of an uncommon and evolving faith have also been conspicuously literary—for centuries working out their visions of a better world in print and speech. This well-designed collection of primary sources, capturing a broad spectrum of voices in the living Unitarian Universalist (UU) tradition, offers a wide-angle view of diverse minds and hearts that in different times and places have consistently sought the rewards of greater freedom for themselves and for others. 

Two volumes of about five hundred pages each trace the development of UU words from the third century to the present. Dan McKanan, Emerson senior lecturer at Harvard Divinity School, along with an editorial committee and a team of contributors representing mainly academics and clergy, has arranged the nearly three hundred chosen documents in chronological order, beginning with selections from ancient “precursors” (I: x) such as Origen and Arius and concluding with a 2015 sermon by Colombian-born minister Lilia Cuervo. The authors range from well-known to obscure and represent not only official members of the tradition but also unaffiliated friends and in some cases critics. Genres include letters, novels, scholarly treatises, autobiographies, creeds, constitutions, catechisms, manifestos, resolutions, bylaws, and some of the greatest sermons of all time. Each selection is preceded by a preface placing the text and author(s) in historical context and offering resources for further reading. 

What are generally recognized as classics punctuate the full sweep of the history. Readers looking for Emerson, Servetus, either Socinus (Laelius or Faustus), or men named Ware, Channing, or Eliot will not be disappointed. The showcasing of putative classics, however, is not the organizing principle of the project, and to their credit, the editorial committee and contributors grapple in good faith with the problematic notion of canons and the power structures that define and defend them. Multiple pieces from James Luther Adams, passages from A. Powell Davies’s The Faith of an Unrepentant Liberal (1946), and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1965 eulogy for murdered activist James Reeb give contemporary readers a good sense of the scope and substance of the UU vision in vogue a generation or two ago. Side by side with these texts, Norbert Čapek’s hymns in time of war and the prophetic insights of The Liberal Woman of Today (1948) reveal the multi-dimensional character of UU intellectual life at midcentury.

In the UU tradition, future classics are rooted in controversies, and internal debate has advanced the movement’s literary heritage more than any other factor. From the early 19th-century “Unitarian Controversy” within New England congregationalism to the rise of the humanist alternative, the argument over denominational consolidation, and open-ended soul-searching over Vietnam, racism, sexism, and gender, honest questioning inside the UU community has generated some of the most significant documents in the tradition’s legacy. Texts such as the Debate over World War I at the Unitarian General Conference (1917), Walter Donald Kring’s “Case against Merger” (1959), the Black Caucus Report (1967), and the General Resolution on Discrimination against Homosexuals and Bisexuals (1970) dramatically portray a movement never ceasing to read the signs of the times and ever seeking reasons to renew its trust in the human spirit.

The generous assembly of UU women’s words is one of the most valuable features of this ambitious project. Enduring texts on subjects such as ordination and suffrage—from Mary Wollstonecraft, Antoinette Brown, Olympia Brown, and Julia Ward Howe—stand out as unforgettable milestones, but they do not overshadow more fundamental efforts linking feminist critique and construction to spiritual alternatives farther along the bending arc of the moral universe. Testimonies from religious educator Shirley Ann Ranck, UU administrator Jacqui James, seminary president Rebecca Parker, and Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley, a founder of the African American Unitarian Universalist Ministry, bear witness to the almost non-stop series of revolutions that have transformed the UU tradition over the course of the last four or five decades. Laurel Hallman’s call for “language that connects us with the yearning of humankind” (II: 460) points to a deep spiritual hunger still present in the fellowship. Thandeka’s personal narrative, arguably one of the most engaging items in the whole collection, identifies what may be the principal threat to the future flourishing of liberal religion: “disembodied thinking” (II: 503).  

Any documentary history attempting to chart the development of a religious tradition in its own words is haunted by unacknowledged partiality and competing notions of collective identity. Such a scholarly enterprise, favoring those with pulpit privileges and publishing contracts, tends to be naturally biased against the poor, the young, and those whose education does not align with a supposed mainstream. This project, grounded in conscious awareness of the snares of selection and assumed consensus, succeeds in avoiding many of the all-too-common pitfalls. It is balanced, fair, elegantly produced, and eminently useful (with bibliographies and indices of titles, authors, genres, and themes). Still, readers of the volumes could easily imagine Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists as people who are addicted to prose, seldom sing, and almost never laugh or pray. “The book,” Virginia Woolf once said, “has somehow to be adapted to the body.” What would a documentary history fully dedicated to Thandeka’s quest for embodied thinking sound or feel like? Right now, words cannot say.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter A. Huff is Professor of Theology at the University of Mary and a member of the Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society.

Date of Review: 
June 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dan McKanan is the Emerson senior lecturer at Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of five books, most recently Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition (Beacon Press, 2011) and Eco-Alchemy: Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy and the Environmental Movement (University of California Press, 2017). A member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford, he lives with his spouse and daughter in Somerville, Massachusetts.


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