Contents: UU World November/December 2002
November/December 2002

Focus on history

by Christopher L. Walton

Also in Bookshelf: Hungry for freedom by Rosemary Bray McNatt and The American Creed reviewed by Tom Stites

First-rate books about Unitarian and Universalist history are rare these days. What a treat, then, to see three major contributions by non-UU scholars in a single year. Together with new books by Unitarian Universalist historians, their work challenges our assumptions and expands our appreciation for the spiritual and intellectual vitality of our tradition.

Unitarianism in the Antebellum South
Unitarianism in the Antebellum South: The Other Invisible Institution. By John Allen Macaulay. Univ. of Alabama Press, 2001; $32.95.
John Allen Macaulay's Unitarianism in the Antebellum South: The Other Invisible Institution challenges the belief that Unitarians played only a minor part in Southern society in the half-century before the American Civil War. Macaulay tells the story of the rise and fall of liberal churches in the South, but the real insight of the book is Macaulay's portrait of the "less visible forms of Unitarian life" that existed alongside the churches. Southern religious liberals, largely urban professionals, developed an informal network of charitable organizations, publication societies, and civic institutions that persisted even after all but two of their churches dissolved.

The history of Unitarian ideas has attracted considerable attention over the years from non-Unitarian scholars, but Universalism has not often been taken so seriously. Thus Ann Lee Bressler's The Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880 arrives like a breath of fresh air. Bressler examines the early theology, social context, and transformation of Universalist Christianity. I knew the Universalists taught that hell was no one's ultimate destination; what I didn't know was how truly radical this idea was in post-revolutionary America. For Universalists, Bressler writes, "one's lot was cast with the rest of the human race; personal will and character, in the end, mattered not at all. These were not entirely glad tidings for an age of self-made men."

The Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880
The Universalist Movement in America, 1770-1880. By Ann Lee Bressler. Oxford Univ. Press, 2001; $35.
Unlike Unitarianism or revivalism, which embraced different kinds of individualism, "Universalism was the only genuinely popular teaching that sought explicitly to anchor itself against the tidal religious movement of the age — the glorification of the free individual under the moral government of God." This version of Universalism had a short life, however. Bressler argues that Universalists in the second half of the nineteenth century grew uncertain about their core message. "As Universalists came to depict heaven as a grand celestial university from which one never really graduated" — giving people an eternity to shape up — "they implicitly pushed the doctrine of universal salvation into the background." By 1880, Bressler says, Universalists had lost their distinctive voice.

As refreshing as Bressler's book is, we can be grateful that the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society has published a new edition of George Huntston Williams's American Universalism (1971, Skinner House Books 2002; $14), which brings the history of Universalist ideas forward to the creation of the UUA in 1961. The Universalism of Adin Ballou "was already a museum piece" when the Universalists celebrated their centennial in 1870 — Bressler's conclusion, too — but Williams helpfully describes three other theological outlooks that had emerged among the Universalists and explores their views on war, temperance, prison reform, capital punishment, gender, and missions. Williams, who died in 2000, was a renowned historian of Christianity and an ordained Unitarian minister.

Making of American Liberal Theology
The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900. By Gary Dorrien. Westminster John Knox Press, 2001; $39.95.
The most significant new book is Gary Dorrien's The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805-1900, the first in a three-volume series exploring the history of liberal theology through the biographies of its leading figures. The Rev. William Ellery Channing embraced the name "Unitarian" in 1819, but Dorrien shows that his influence extended far beyond those who called themselves Unitarians. In America, the story of a "progressive Christian 'third way' between the authority-based orthodoxies of traditional Christianity and the spiritless materialism of modern atheism or deism" begins with Unitarianism, which Dorrien explores primarily through the lives of Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Parker. But, he says, liberal theology's Unitarian roots "proved to be a mixed blessing." Why? Because Parker, a quarrelsome genius and Emerson's primary disciple among the Unitarians, pushed Unitarianism to the edge of Christian identity, if not beyond.

For many Unitarian Universalists, the theological encounter with Christianity ends here — or with twentieth-century Humanism. But Parker's was not the last word in liberal theology. Other liberal Christians in the nineteenth century embraced evolution, began to think of scripture as metaphoric, championed social and economic reform, and developed academic models for thinking critically about religion — without following Parker into abstract Transcendentalism. Dorrien presents their stories sympathetically and critically, helping us see how nineteenth-century liberal theologians responded to the challenges of their times. They were human, some embarrassingly so. But Dorrien sees them — Unitarians and liberal Christians alike — as part of "the most creative and influential tradition of theological reflection since the Reformation." I can't wait to follow the story through the next hundred years in Dorrien's second volume.

I'm also looking forward to Dean Grodzins' biography of Parker, American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2002; $39.95), due out in December. Grodzins is assistant professor of history at the UUA's Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago and editor of the Journal of Unitarian Universalist History.

Other recent history titles by Unitarian Universalists include:

Transient and Permanent
Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts. Ed. by Charles Capper and Conrad Edick Wright. Massachusetts Historical Society, 1999; $24.95.
Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts. This anthology of recent scholarship about the famous religious and literary movement includes contributions from a number of leading Unitarian Universalist scholars, including Dean Grodzins, Philip Gura, Robert D. Richardson Jr., David Robinson, and Conrad Edick Wright.

Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History. By David E. Bumbaugh. Meadville Lombard Press, 2000; $15. This engaging, accessible, and succinct history spends equal time on the European roots and American development of our two liberal traditions. The author is associate professor of ministry at Meadville Lombard Theological School. Although trapped inside an amateurish cover, this excellent book is also the first publication of the Meadville Lombard Press, the imprint of the UUA-affiliated seminary.

Seven Sons: Millionaires and Vagabonds. By Theodore A. Webb. Trafford Publishing, 1999; $22.91. The seven sons of Israel and Martha Washburn of Livermore, Maine, proved to be extraordinary public figures in the nineteenth century. Three served in Congress and as governors; another was secretary of state; yet another became a prominent newspaper editor. All were dedicated Universalists. This book describes a remarkable family's history and influence. The author is a retired Unitarian Universalist minister.

A Saloonkeeper's Daughter: A Novel. By Drude Krog Janson. Translated by Gerald Thorson. Ed. by Orm Øverland. Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2002; $18.95. Young Astrid Holm's comfortable life in Norway is thrown into turmoil by her family's bankruptcy in 1879. She finds herself living above a saloon in Minneapolis, struggling to find her vocation. In time she discovers her true calling, as a Unitarian minister! First published in 1887 — in Norwegian — by the wife of the Rev. Kristofer Janson, a Unitarian minister, this novel appears for the first time in English.

Christopher L. Walton is senior editor of UU World.

 Contents: UU World November/December 2002
UU World XVI:6 (November/December 2002): 74-75

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