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The Anonymous Association

Paul Yonge


In 1824, a movement by young Harvard Divinity graduates was called to the attention of the Anonymous Association that was a "conversation" club of which William Ellery Channing was a member. The resulting favorable discussion on "the practicality and expediency of forming a Unitarian convention or association, to consist of clergymen and laymen, to meet annually or oftener" led to the meeting of a committee the following year. There was less than unanimous agreement as to the course of action to be taken in the promotion of Unitarianism but, undaunted by that situation, the young ministers met four months later to form the American Unitarian Association (AUA) that marked the separation of Unitarians from Congregationalists.In "The Epic of Unitarianism", David Parke noted that the AUA’s earliest main activities consisted of sponsoring publications and traveling "agents".

In 1981, Carl Scovel delivered a sermon at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. Its title was "What’s a Good Christian Like You Doing in this Denomination?" It reflected his concern over the direction in which the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was headed. He observed that there were three basic faith positions that had a rightful place within the Association: Christian, theist, and humanist. According to Scovel, however, the humanists did not share this charitable viewpoint of pluralistic co-existence. He said, "You may remember the triumphal claims of early humanism: ‘Christianity is the faith of the soul’s childhood; Free Religion is the faith of the soul’s manhood; and the time has passed for theism.’ Such claims assume that humanism would inevitably supersede Christianity and theism, which were viewed as stages on the way to a higher humanist faith.Such humanism did not assume that Christianity and theism were peers and partners in a truly pluralistic association of churches. No, they were way stations on the way to humanism."

Scovel recalled that the Commission on Planning and Review predicted that the 120,000-member American Unitarian Association, when combined with the Universalists into a new dynamic faith, would grow into a 500,000-member denomination by 1980. Actually the UUA membership did grow to 177,000 in 1968 and then decreased to 137,000 in 1980. (The UUA web site indicates that the membership in 2000 was slightly fewer than 156,000.)To Scovel, the numerical loss was derived from the failure of the UUA to be a lively religious force.

Could Channing have foretold this turn of events when he declined the presidency of the AUA? Conrad Wright, in "A Stream of Light", reports that Channing wrote the following to a friend: "I distrust sectarian influence more and more.I am more detached from a denomination, and strive to feel more my connection with the Universal Church, with all its good and holy men. I am little a Unitarian, and stand aloof from all but those who strive and pray for clearer light, who look for a purer and more effective manifestation of Christian truth."

In May, the American Unitarian Conference (AUC) will hold its second annual meeting in Newton, Massachusetts to determine the proper way to restore the Unitarian tradition and heritage after the AUA "put into port" with the formation of the UUA.We need to determine a "doable" course of action given our level of resources. We have had enough discussion over the relative forces of Christianity, theism, and humanism.Scovel observed that there was room for all faith positions in the UUA.Why not also in the new AUC?

The early AUA activities of sponsoring publications and traveling "agents" makes one think of the present-day parallel activities of the Westar Institute. Similar activities by the AUC seem doable as we "set sail" in the start of our journey to ensure that we do not ourselves become an "anonymous association."


- Parke, David B. (1957). The Epic of Unitarianism. Boston: Beacon Press, Pages 100-104

- "What’s a Good Christian Like You Doing in This Denomination?"Unitarian Universalist Christian, Volume 51 (1996-1997), Pages 126-132

- Wright, Conrad (1989). A Stream of Light.Boston: Skinner House Books. Pages 30-32

© 2002 American Unitarian Conference