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Class and UU History

By Mark W. Harris, First Parish of Watertown, Massachusetts

There is a pervasive stereotype about the class of people attending Unitarian Universalist congregations in America. This stereotype suggests that UUs are a wealthy, highly educated, urbane elite. It is often presumed that all Unitarians in 19th century Boston were an educated and wealthy elite who controlled the factories, the politics, the culture, and most especially Harvard College. These Unitarians created a rational and unemotional faith that emphasized salvation by education. Individual success and status became important signs of salvation. Furthermore, the belief is that Unitarianism expanded west through outposts where the movers and shakers in new communities could establish churches like the one in Boston.

But the picture both historically and now is much more diverse and complex than the mere replication of the Boston stereotype all over the country. Think of your own experience in our congregations today. In terms of income and class background we seem more diverse than the elite stereotype, and yet, compared to other religious groups, we ranked very highly in the 1990 National Survey of Religious Identification in terms of education levels, median income, home ownership, and suburban lifestyles. Our profile was an exact match for an L.L. Bean mailing list. We have the social and environmental conscience, too.

My book Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History looks at different aspects of UU history from a class perspective. In England, class distinction was a result (not a cause) of religious belief. Unitarianism was against the law even after 1688, when most other dissenters were given the right to assemble for worship. Catholicism and Unitarianism remained illegal in Britain until 1813, and there were attempts to seize Unitarian property almost until the mid-19th century. Being illegal prevented them both from organizing as a religion, and from attending university. This meant that any profession that required a degree, such as law or medicine, was not a possibility for Unitarians. Shut out from the learned professions, they entered trades, became business people, and created a new kind of rising middle class.

Nevertheless, British Unitarianism was plagued by a desire to be accepted by the Anglican Church. Their most famous 19th century leader, James Martineau, wanted to simply broaden the established church so that those who didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus would be accepted. He shunned the working classes, hoping to gain social status and be identified with the Anglicans. Other Unitarians were far more interested in ministering to everyone, such as William Gaskell whose wife Elizabeth used stories and novels to critique the stratification of society and highlight the plight of the very poor.

In America, early Unitarianism tended to emphasize the idea that God is pleased by material success if earned by right morality. Thus they valued order, harmony, and the freedom to be rich, not the freedom to be equal. One minister who advocated for a Unitarian faith that would appeal to all classes was Arthur Buckminster Fuller, whose sister Margaret Fuller used her newspaper columns to raise the consciousness of the American people about the social conditions of a broad range of people. Arthur tried to reach a broad audience by preaching in an evangelical extemporaneous style.

Meanwhile, Hosea Ballou promoted a classless heaven of Universalism. His theology is, I think, especially appealing to UUs today. He gave us grounding in the idea that God’s love embraces the whole human race, regardless of who you are. This has widespread implications in terms of class differences, but also race, gender, and sexual orientation. In addition, it is a theology based on grace, and not merit. Worth is based on love, not whether you went to the best school or not, or make the most money.

The mid-20th century Fellowship Movement provided the most profound Unitarian growth in our history. However, the communities specifically targeted for growth were white, primarily wealthy neighborhoods, while cities with large concentrations of immigrants and African Americans were specifically avoided. This may be part of what led some congregations to abandon cities and move to the suburbs. However, other existing urban congregations continued to maintain a downtown presence.

The Rev. David Rankin objected to the trend to move to the suburbs and away from cities. In 1967 he was minister of my present church in Watertown, Massachusetts, a congregation that had declined precipitously as the city became more and more industrialized, urban, and full of immigrants. Rankin responded to the UUA Committee on Goals report that year by noting that the denomination did not support “with any intensity the inner-city churches, nor did it recruit into the ministry those who understand or who are able to deal with the problems of the city.” He claimed the UUA was biased towards the suburbs and showed “a strong class orientation that cannot be concealed by such phrases as ‘emerging religious liberalism’ and ‘universal free faith.’” He said the report “reflected a profound class prejudice that has always characterized Unitarianism. A religious movement that represents only a small segment of a small percentage of one class in a total population cannot be expected to develop broad sympathies and understandings. A class church is a narrow church. Survival takes priority. The weak are eliminated.” (David Rankin, “The Cry They Do Not Hear,” The Unitarian Christian, Fall 1967).

I have often wondered how we could reconcile the rhetoric of a universal free faith with the reality of our present class-bound composition. In this era of widening gaps between rich and poor, scapegoating others, and looking out for ourselves, we need to make personal connections with all those who might find meaning in our liberal faith regardless of class background, and promote a vision for the common good, a vision not for a perfect, successful individual, but for a world village where we take care of each other. Do we welcome everyone to our congregations? — not just those who own their homes, but those who rent, those who suffer from mental illness, those who live in group homes, those who are lonely and need our caring friendship, those who have lost their jobs, have huge credit card debt, but also retired bank presidents, restaurant workers, and college professors, carpenters and cab drivers. I think will be more diverse than we have ever been before, as soon as we stop asking who belongs here or who is one of us.