Studying Unitarian Universalist Congregations

"One of the best ways to learn about American religious history is to study local congregations," says Dan McKanan, Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity.

McKanan regularly incorporates congregational history projects into courses on American religious history. Before he arrived at Harvard Divinity School last fall, his former students were often frustrated by the paucity of historical records retained by the congregations of their choice. Surviving records were often kept in church buildings or in members' homes. Records stored in churches and private homes are frequently poorly organized and exposed to environmental conditions that hasten deterioration. While preparing to teach the course "Unitarian and Universalist History in the United States," McKanan was "delighted" to learn that the Andover-Harvard Theological Library collects, organizes, and preserves extensive records of Unitarian Universalist congregations and that some collections span several centuries of congregational life, creating opportunities to understand broad religious phenomena, like secularization or revivalism, in local contexts.

Rebecca Benefiel Bijur (MDiv) is a student in McKanan's course. Her semester project focuses on the Unitarian Universalist merger as it played out in Arlington, Massachusetts. At the library, she discovered records of both the First Congregational Parish (Unitarian) and also the First Universalist Society. The records enlivened her understanding of the consolidation of these two congregations in 1965, and the 1961 merger in general. Letters and meeting minutes revealed "every step in the decision whether to merge, voices of real people, and the tone of the conversation between two congregations." Bijur recognized the name of a current congregant in the archival records. This discovery led to a personal interview with a present member.

Students in McKanan's class discuss key moments in Unitarian Universalist history, like the separation of Massachusetts Unitarians and orthodox Congregationalists in the early nineteenth century, Transcendentalism and social reform in the mid-nineteenth century, and the challenges of free religion and religious humanism in the twentieth century. Students then explore congregational records to discover how these episodes were experienced in a particular congregation. "For students preparing for ministry," says McKanan, "the historical study of congregations helps them to see the vocational relevance of this method of study. They will come to their future ministries prepared to dig into the community's records for clues to understanding and solving its present challenges." McKanan reports that his students discover fascinating examples. "We encounter tantalizing clues about the interrelationships of seemingly distinct individuals and groups, such as the fact that the first Unitarian minister of Salem, Massachusetts, donated his personal library to what would become a Methodist college in western Pennsylvania. In short, the resources of Andover-Harvard library have enlivened my classroom with the thrill of discovery."

Because of the library's extensive collection of Unitarian Universalist resources, McKanan expects his students to deeply engage with primary sources. The library's preeminent collection is derived from many sources and makes Andover-Harvard an unrivaled resource for all students and scholars of Unitarian Universalism, and especially for students in McKanan's courses.