On Tuesday, April 17, at 4:30 p.m. the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) will award the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award to author and Harvard Divinity School Senior Lecturer Dr. Daniel McKanan for his book, Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition.
McKanan's groundbreaking, definitive work treats the histories of religion and the Left as a single history, showing that American radicalism is a continuous tradition rather than a collection of disparate movements. Emphasizing the power of encounters—whether between whites and former slaves, between the middle classes and the immigrant masses, and among activists themselves—McKanan shows that the coming together of people of different perspectives and beliefs has been transformative for centuries, uniting those whose faith is a source of activist commitment with those whose activism is a source of faith.
"Dan should be congratulated for his stunning explication of how faith groups in America have been at the forefront of social activism,” says the Rev. Peter Morales, President of the UUA. "Understanding the religious involvement in social justice work inspires us to continue our work as Unitarian Universalists. His historical analysis is an outstanding achievement, and it is in this look back that we are inspired to move forward."
McKanan challenges simple distinctions between “religious” and “secular” activism, showing that religious beliefs and practices have been integral to every movement promoting liberty, equality, and solidarity. From Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the nineteenth century to Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and Starhawk in the twentieth, American radicals have maintained a deep faith in the human capacity to transform the world. This radical faith has always been intertwined with the religious practices of Christians and Jews, pagans and Buddhists, orthodox believers and humanist heretics. Their vision and energies powered the social movements that have defined America’s progress: the abolition of slavery, feminism, the New Deal, civil rights, and others.
Frederic G. Melcher was a Unitarian Universalist whose contributions to the publishing industry, including extensive work with Publishers Weekly and the creation of the Caldecott and Newbery Medals for children's books, led to the establishment of the Frederic G. Melcher Book Award in 1964. The award is given annually to the work “which is judged to have made the most significant contribution to religious liberalism.”
McKanan joined the Harvard Divinity School faculty in July 2008 as the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity. Before coming to Harvard, he served as department chair and associate professor of theology at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University, where he began teaching in 1998. He studies religious movements for social transformation in the United States from the abolitionist era to the present.
Prophetic Encounters is McKanan's fourth book.
The citation reads:
MELCHER BOOK AWARD
Dr. Daniel McKanan, your book Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition has been awarded the Melcher Book Award for the past year’s “most significant contribution to religious liberalism.” The Melcher Book Award recognizes books that have made important contributions to “racial justice, liberation movements, international peace, and civil liberties.” Prophetic Encounters covers the waterfront on those topics!
Dr. McKanan, your scholarship has both breadth and depth. Your “Resources for Further Study” or the footnotes in Prophetic Encounters alone qualify a reader for an advanced degree. Sharing stories about heroes from Frederick Douglass to Dorothy Day to Starhawk, your narrative of radical prophetic encounters reminds us of the value of both introspection and action; of both individual and collective struggle in the quest for liberty, equality, solidarity, and peace. In delineating the “tangled mix of success and failure” progressives have wrought in the United States, you demonstrate decisively that “when human beings encounter one another deeply, in the midst of their struggles for freedom and equality and community, prophetic power is unleashed.”
Your book is so much more than a history. From the “Working Men” of the early nineteenth century to the Queer Manifesto, you focus on the successes and challenges of liberal religious social justice work as they have never been focused on before, reminding us that forgetting “our predecessors’ work is not only to risk repeating their mistakes, it is to lose their wisdom and inspiration,” and demonstrating that United States history does not support the status quo. By so doing, you offer hope and direction both to those who have struggled long in the wilderness and to those newly packing for the journey. This is not a book for the shelf but for the rucksack.
Dr. McKanan, for exploring the rich tradition of radical prophecy; for going to the very roots and sources of liberal religious social justice—both what we have done and what we have left undone; for showing us how we can “unleash power through fresh encounters with one another by telling our stories and sharing our lives”; and most of all, for demonstrating how we “can glimpse the face of the divine and change the world,” your book Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition was chosen as the winner of the 2011 Frederic G. Melcher Book Award.
Presented this 17th day of April 2012
by the Melcher Book Award Committee
Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations