(continuing the series on the local Unitarian congregation by Sandra Maze)
Unitarianism took form in Transylvania in 1568 after splitting from the Reformed Church. After receiving approval from the Prince and many in the nobility, Unitarianism became one of the four recognized religions and spread rapidly. Then there was a change in government and the movement was oppressed for about two centuries.
Universalism is based on the premise that all will finally be saved. This doctrine is ancient in origin. During the middle ages it became neglected. It was revived in the 18th and 19th centuries and developed in England. It was taught in the colonies by Mystics, Anabaptists, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists.
The history of our religion is rich and much too long to go into in this article. There are books in our UUFC library and articles on the UUA website.
In America the Universalist and Unitarian denominations were founded in the 18th and 19th centuries by such theological liberals as John Murray, Hosea Ballou, George de Benneville, William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Parker.
There were theological differences. Thomas Starr King, one of the earliest Unitarian Universalists and minister, put the differences as follows “The one thinks God is too good to damn them forever - the other thinks they are too good to be damned forever”. In other words the Universalists put more stress on the love and grace of God, and the Unitarians put more stress on man’s natural goodness.
With the events of the 19th century, which included the Civil War, the differences between the religions seemed to become fewer. The social, cultural and economic differences lessened.
We know that the Unitarian and Universalist merged in 1961 but this was not the first and last meeting regarding this issue.
The World’s Parliament of Religions was held in Chicago in 1893. There was also the First Congress of Liberal Religious Societies which included Unitarians, Universalists, Reform Jews, and Ethical Culturists also held in Chicago that same year. The Unitarians and Universalists began moving closer together. Speakers such as the Unitarian Jenkin Lloyd Jones saw their separation as impeding the growth of religious liberalism.
At a General Convention of Universalists held in Meriden, Connecticut, in 1895, a motion calling for the cooperation of Universalist-Universalist cooperation was made and then tabled. It was again tabled in 1897 at a Universalist Biennial Convention in 1897 in Chicago.
In 1908, the National Federation of Religious liberals was formed “for cooperative effort among the friends of Liberal Religion regardless of denominational lines.” They were active until the 1930s. In 1908, the Missouri Universalist Convention introduced a “memorial on organic union with the Unitarians”. It was concluded that the “organic union be left to make its own way as the divine spirit of truth and Christion Brotherhood may move our hearts.”
By the 1930s, cooperation became stronger. In 1951, a Joint Commission was appointed to by both the Unitarians and Universalists to consider methods of union. At that time, a merger was not recommended but closer cooperation and fellowship of the two denominations. The Free Church of America was created which later became The Free Church Fellowship.
The Unitarians held a Biennial Conference in 1947. Another Joint Commission was appointed. As a result of the Joint Commission, 75% of Unitarians and 72% of the Universalists “authorized the formulation and presentation to the two denominations of a plan for federation”. In August of 1955 , a Council of Liberal Churches was established to work jointly in the field of Education, Publications, and Public Relations.
In the 1950s, 36 local congregations merged and became Unitarian Universalists. They strongly recommended a merger of the two denominations. In 1956 the Joint Merger Commission was appointed and the merger was accomplished in 1961.
In looking through the old Newsletters and Annual meetings, it was found that The Unitarian Congregation of Fort Wayne did not change their name to Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fort Wayne until after The Articles of Incorporation were signed on October 26, 1980.
The Encyclopedia of Religion Edited by Vergilius Fern copyright 1945
Unitarian Universalist Merger 1961-1975 UUA.org