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How old are Unitarian Universalist congregations?

Some date back to the 1600s, but 59 percent were founded in the last sixty years.
By Christopher L. Walton
Spring 2012 2.15.12

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The Unitarian Universalist Association is a movement both old and new. Nearly 60 percent of our congregations were founded in the last sixty years, yet we have congregations dating back to the arrival of Europeans in New England.

Nine percent of the 1,020 U.S. congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association today were founded before 1800. Of these 92 congregations, all but two—in Philadelphia and Charleston, South Carolina—are in New England, where Universalism and Unitarianism have their historical roots. Thirty-five congregations in Massachusetts and one in Maine date back to the Puritan settlement in the 1600s.

Twenty-five percent of today’s congregations began in the nineteenth century, largely following migration patterns of New Englanders into new states and territories. Congregations in 19 states and the District of Columbia were formed in the first half of the nineteenth century; in the next fifty years, they were founded in 33 states and D.C.

Sixty percent of the UUA’s congregations were formed in the twentieth century, but almost all of this growth began after World War II: 59 percent of all UUA congregations were founded since 1950. The decade with the greatest number of new congregations was the 1950s, the heyday of the Unitarian fellowship movement, with 202 still active. Encouragingly, the decade with the next highest number of new congregations was the 1990s, with 106.

Does a congregation’s age have anything to do with its size? The data aren’t clear. Only 25 percent of congregations from the 1600s have fewer than 100 members today, yet half of all congregations founded in the 1700s—and in the 1900s—are that small. Meanwhile, 6 percent of twentieth-century congregations have more than 400 members, but 12 percent of nineteenth-century congregations do, too. None of the congregations founded since 1975 has more than 400 members—at least, not yet.

The data used here were drawn from membership figures assembled by Harlan Limpert for the UUA based on reports submitted in February 2011. Graphic by Kathy Todd.

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