Sunday, January 27, 2013

Unitarians Plant a “Seed in the Wilderness”

The Independent Congregational Church in Meadville, Pennsylvania provide a first home for a new school.

Today there are only two recognized seminaries affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)—Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkley, California and Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago.  Both of them have struggled to stay alive in recent years battered by high operating costs, the high cost of seminary education resulting in the need for scarce scholarship and fellowship money for students, and a movement by some on the UUA board to de-fund the schools in favor of giving aid to individual ministerial students, most of whom now train at non U.U. schools
 The theological school most identified in the public mind with Unitarian long ago abandoned ties to it for until last year went for over a decade without a Unitarian holding a tenured professorship.  Despite that many U.U. ministerial students continue to study there and the pink gown of a Harvard Doctorate of Theology still puts its graduates on the fast track for prestigious pulpits and leadership positions in the Association.  That puts ambitious students at the denominational (I know, I will be scalped for calling the UUA a denomination) no matter how gifted at a disadvantage in an environment where many more candidates are emerging from theological schools of all stripes than there are pulpits to fill.
But a lot of us feel that the affiliated schools play a role in preserving UU history and theology through their libraries and collections and in preparing students for the challenges of the UU ministry, which is very different than those of even the most liberal of Protestant Denominations.
The Chicago school traces its roots far from the gleaming building on Michigan Avenue where it now rents space from the Jewish Spertus Institute.
By the 1840’s Unitarianism was well established, if still controversial among conventionally orthodox Christians.  They were firmly ensconced in the Boston, the Hub of the Universe and its nearby environs and among their ranks counted the cream of the very active New England Renaissance.  They had spread across most of New England and into New York State.  Boston merchants had even established congregations in the ports, trading centers, and political capitals—New York City; Baltimore, Maryland; Washington, D.C.; Charleston, South Carolina; and New Orleans, Louisiana.  Hardy members of the New England diaspora had even founded congregations inland on the great rivers—Cincinnati, Ohio in 1830 and St. Louis, Missouri in 1835.
But the rest of the great continent stretching west of the Appalachians was utterly devoid of Unitarian worship.  But that same territory was being flooded by fervent evangelical missionaries as the country was plunged into one of its periodic Revivalist Frenzies. Methodists, Baptists, Universalists, and home grown sects led by Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell were saving souls at every village, cross roads, and riverboat landing in the west.
The high minded ministers in Boston were aghast that these folks could not hear the good news of a calmer, more rational religion of the cultivated mind.  But neither they nor any of the new graduates of Harvard were personally willing to forgo the comforts of civilization and plunge into the “wilderness” like the saddle-bag evangelists of the other denominations.   
Then suddenly, as if manna from heaven itself, an unexpected donation by Dutch born businessman Harm Jan Huidekoper made it possible for to establish a new theological school west of the mountains just for the “rustics.”  Raised a Calvinist Huidekoper was a late “convert” to liberal religion and Unitarianism.  Earlier he had helped move the Independent Congregational Church of Meadville, Pennsylvania, which his family had helped found in 1830, into theological Unitarianism.  Now he was prepared to donate a substantial sum of money if the Unitarians in Boston would agree to establish a seminary in his town.  The Congregationalist Church would provide its first home and support such as lodging for masters and scholars.
On January 27, 1844 James Freeman Clarke, one of the leading Unitarian ministers in Boston, announced the launching of the new Meadville Theological School.
In addition to the local congregation the new school had one more initial partner, the infant denomination known both as the Disciples of Christ and The Christian Church, made up of the followers of Stone and Campbell, also wanted a formal school for their ministry, which had never had on before, relying on lay preachers ordained by consensus when they had proved worthy.  This group was relatively religiously liberal although evangelical in style.  But like the Unitarians, they fancied themselves beyond denominational divisions, re-creating the community of brotherhood of the early church.
The association did not last past the earliest years of the new school.  The theology of the Unitarians and the Disciples was too different and for a tradition that espoused universality, the Campbellites, as their detractors called them, showed a remarkable talent for schizmatizing over minor points such as the use of instruments for worship music or whether to support missionary societies.  Eventually the main body abandoned Meadville and established their own school at Hiram, Ohio.
The new school struggled, but persisted.  Unitarian congregations in the East failed to subscribe to regular appeals for support and the loose American Unitarian Association consisting of individual members interested in tract ministry and missionary work struggled to make annual contributions of support.
But the school did its job, and in a few years its graduates were filling new pulpits dotting the old Northwest Territory—Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and across the river into Iowa.  But graduates were looked down upon by the Harvard educated elite in the east few, very few, were called to pulpits on the Coast.  And when they were it was generally to congregations too poor to support a gentleman minister and his family or ones in crisis and turmoil.
In 1852 there was enough growth in the West for the establishment of the Western Unitarian Conference to support congregations and reduce reliance on Eastern “charity” for support.  Ironically the leader of the movement and its first President was William Greenleaf Eliot the minister of the prestige pulpit in St. Louis, a Harvard graduate, and a member of the extended Eliot and May clans that would cut such a wide swath through Unitarian.  Eliot was one of the most conservative of Unitarian ministers and fought encroaching heresies like Transcendentalism and the freethinking of the rebellious Free Religious Society tooth and nail.
Unfortunately for Eliot, it was a battle he was destined to lose, big time.
That was largely the work of one man, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a Welsh born Union Army veteran who graduated from Meadville in 1870 at the age of 28.  5 years later while serving a congregation in Janesville, Wisconsin he took on an additional part time job as Missionary Secretary of the Western Conference and by 1880 was working there full time.  He also energetically founded Unity a parallel organization for discussion and exploration of social ideas whose chapters usually met on weeknights at Unitarian churches and launched Unity, a magazine of radical ideas and reform and a publish house which was soon turning out hundreds of tracts an pamphlets on religious  and social reform issues.  Under Jones’s long leadership the Western Conference became not only more independent of Boston, but pushed the theological boundaries of Unitarianism beyond Christianity and embraced activism on behalf of the poor and oppressed—a muscular reading of the social gospel.
Theological training at Meadville adapted to preparing ministers for this new kind of vision and Jones would help match them to congregations.  By the turn of the 20th Century Meadville graduates were changing Unitarianism forever.  I have long argued that UUism of today with its emphasis on progressive activism and its comfort with many religious traditions beyond liberal Christianity owes more to Jenkin Lloyd Jones and the Western Conference than to the Broad Church respectability of the respectable eastern establishment.
Whatever its successes in filling hungry pulpits with I-mean-business liberals, the little school at Meadville with no endowment to speak of was always skating on thin ice. Crises came and went with alarming regularity.
After years of acrimony and holding each other off at arm’s length, the Western Conference and the National Conference, the Unitarian body made up of congregations rather than individuals, finally reunited in in 1894, although the mostly Midwestern congregations retained their distinctive liberalism and style.  The National Conference was able to raise contributions from member congregations, most of which it turned over the AUA to use in support of missionary work, tracts and publications, and support for the education of ministers.
With the rise of central authority in the person of Samuel Atkins Eliot II, first executive President of the old AUA, Meadville found itself mortally endangered.  Eliot was a classic Brahmin who wanted Unitarianism to conform the supposed meritocracy of the Eastern elite. That meant pressure to get into line for the scruffy, independent westerners nearly matched by his mission to drive women from the ministry.  Since the AUA was a primary funder for the seminary, this was an existential threat.
In 1925 Elliot completed his mastery of the Unitarian universe by merging the AUA with the National Conference, retaining the older name and organizational style and imposing it somewhat clumsily on an association of congregations.  Elliot stayed on as the powerful President of the new AUA.  That meant Meadville would be doomed unless it could upgrade to what Elliot considered the professional standards set by his beloved Harvard.
In 1926 the school abandoned its old Pennsylvania home and relocated to Chicago where it was granted the status of an affiliate theological school with the already sufficiently prestigious University of Chicago.  As a further inducement to move the State of Illinois offered the school a nifty break “full tax-exempt status in perpetuity for all college-owned property”, a status shared with only two other schools, Monmouth College and Northwestern University.
Work soon started on Meadville’s new home, a handsome gray stone building across the street from the “Unitarian Cathedral,” First Unitarian Church of Chicago.  Enrolment surged. 
But the reborn school did not blindly follow the Eliot’s vision.  It still retained the scrappy independence of the old Western Conference.  It became the primary source of newly minted Humanist ministers who over the next twenty years would overwhelm traditional theists and come to dominate Unitarianism for two or three generations.
The Crash of ’29 and subsequent Great Depression plunged Meadville back into crisis mode. 
It was even harder on a downstate Illinois Universalist school.  Lombard College, founded by the Universalists in 1853 in Galesburg was perhaps best known at poet Carl Sandburg’s alma matter.  When it collapsed in 1930, Meadville absorbed its seminary, the Ryder School of Divinity and a comfortable purse of Universalist endowment.  Re-Christened the Meadville-Lombard School of Theology was thus officially the first school to train ministers in both liberal denominations.  But it must be said that the Universalists quickly took a back seat, and as would happen again and again, the Unitarians took the money and took over.
The AUA and the Universalist Church in America consolidated into the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961.  The new organization suddenly found itself with “too many seminaries.”  After a still controversial study, the UUA decided to close the Universalist schools Crane Theological School at Tufts University and the theological school of St. Lawrence University in Up State New York leaving on Meadville-Lombard and Starr King with unaffiliated Harvard Divinity School an unspoken elephant in the room.
In the 1950’s and early ‘60’s despite over 100 years of history and the rise of Humanists to almost unquestioned domination among Unitarians, Meadville graduates were still passed over for plumb pulpits and denominational leadership.  It was not until the election of O. Eugene Pickett as President of the UUA in 1979 and his successor William F. Schulz in 1985 that graduates finally entered the top ranks of denominational leadership.
Both of the surviving schools have fallen on hard times lately under the pressure of possible de-funding by the UUA Board.  Meadville-Lombard floundered and desperately sought partners.  A proposed merger with California based Starr King fell through when both parties withdrew from talks in 2006.  Latter a proposal to create a new theological university in cooperation with the United Church of Christ’s and American Baptist’s Andover Newton Theological School with other possible partners in the wings collapsed in 2011.
There has been much descent among faculty, students and alumni as the school seemed to be teetering on the edge of extinction.
After years of study, the school announced a new curriculum called the Meadville Lombard Educational Model which began for students entering the Masters of Divinity degree program in Fall 2009. The model de-emphasized residential study with options of distant learning and blends traditional rigorous academic learning with experiential learning in community and congregational settings.
Some feel that the reduction in traditional class time will weaken the rigor of academic preparations.  Others feel that the hands-on-in-the-field approach will better prepare ministers for the demands of the modern religious environment.
With reduced residency and the high cost of maintenance of an 80 year old building, Meadville-Lombard decided to sell its Hyde Park campus and move into two rented floors of the new Spertus Institute building earlier this year.
After years of dizzying change and dissent, a venerable institution looks forward to supplying ministers for a new kind of wilderness. 

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