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Sleepless in Syracuse

As consolidation neared, feelings ran high. Though polling of congregations clearly showed most Universalists and Unitarians favored merger, some still questioned its advisability. Would consolidation dissipate resources that could be better used to strengthen congregations? Would merging churches mean lessening the presence of liberal religion in many communities? What would each denomination give up of its character, values, and traditions?

Doubts came to a boil in Syracuse, New York in 1959. Approximately 1,000 delegates gathered to vote on the Plan to Consolidate offered by the Joint Merger Commission. After a short time together, the Universalists and the Unitarians broke into separate sessions to consider the plan. The agreement was that as each group found something that required amendment, they would propose an amendment and send it to the other group for their consideration, for, in the end, both groups had to agree to the same plan. Fifty-seven amendments were made and voted on in this back-and-forth manner.

But the most contentious point, the only one that brought the assembly to a halt, was the wording of the Purposes and Objectives of the yet-to-be association. The wording the Commission first proposed read:

To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in their essence as love to God and love to man.

The Universalist delegation overwhelmingly adopted this wording, and then waited for their Unitarian counterparts to do likewise.

But in the Unitarian assembly, the reaction was intense. Some wanted the clause struck as coming too close to a creed. At the other end of the spectrum, others were offended that the wording made no mention of the religion of Jesus or the "Judeo-Christian" heritage. A new version was proposed:

To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by Jesus and the other great teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, and prophetically expressed in the Judeo-Christian tradition as love to God and love to man.

This set off a debate on the very nature of Unitarianism. It was a debate that dated back to the 19th century. Did Unitarianism stand firmly in the tradition of Christian churches, or did it offer a new, universal religion for all people? Ultimately, the statement proved too narrow to be accepted.

Another version was offered, removing the reference to Jesus but retaining the phrase "our Judeo-Christian heritage:"

To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in our Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man.

This, too, was unacceptable to the Unitarians who felt it placed the religion firmly in the stream of Protestant Christianity. The vote to reconsider the new wording failed by seven votes of the 600 delegates present.

The meetings ran late into the night. With no agreement at hand, the assembly and the merger were at deadlock. Still, most of the delegates stayed in their seats. Unitarian Donald Harrington, then minister of the Community Church of New York, later wrote about that night in Syracuse:

I felt very discouraged and went to bed. About one o'clock, somebody pounded on my door. It was Percival Brundage (an AUA leader) saying, "Don, can't we do something about this?" and he showed me wording that he and some others had continued to work on. I said I agreed but that since we'd already lost the vote to reconsider I didn't know what could be done. At about three o'clock, there was another knock on my door. It was one of the leading Unitarian Christians and he said, "Don, we've got better wording. Are you still with us?" And he explained that he had persuaded the Universalists to reconsider, which meant that the rules permitted the Unitarians to vote again, as well.

The new proposal passed, with only one word changed. "Our" became "the," and the Unitarian Universalist Association was created "to cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man."

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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