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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Unitarian history at the Spiritual Progressives forum.

Dean Grodzins, Meadville Lombard assistant professor of history and president of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, kicks off Day Two of the Rockridge Institute's online conference for "spiritual progressives" with a short history of how Unitarians split from Calvinist Congregationalists over a difference of opinion about the "strict father" or "nurturant parent" frame. He points out an often overlooked fact about 19th-century American Christianity:

Theological “liberals,” for example, often took “conservative” stands on political issues, while theological “conservatives” were frequently reformers. So, for instance, in the most important 19th-century American political debate, over whether to abolish slavery—a debate that culminated with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery in the United States (1865)—there were theological “liberals” who defended slavery and theological “evangelicals” who crusaded to abolish it (the reverse was also true).

And yet Grodzins concludes that antislavery activists were motivated by nurturant parent theology. I'm unconvinced. A significant number of Unitarians grew increasingly militant between the 1840s and the 1860s. We've already looked at the support given by the Transcendentalists — the group of Unitarians most involved with abolitionism — to John Brown's violent rebellion. By the start of the Civil War, northern Unitarians were as gung-ho as anyone about the righteousness of the fight. It's hard to read Unitarian Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" without thinking that the parlor religion of the previous generation of Unitarians had evolved into a liberal form of the "strict father" frame. (Later, of course, Howe took a very different approach and launched the Mother's Day of Peace — perhaps reembracing the nurturant parent frame.)

Several forum participants also noticed the disconnect in Grodzins's essay, and point out the historical role of "progressive strict father" framing, including theologically conservative progressive populism and even "liberal apocalypticism." For more on this history, see E.J. Dionne Jr's "Faith Full: Why Liberals—Not Conservatives—Are the True Heirs to America's Religious Tradition, and How They Can Take It Back," New Republic 2.25.05, sub req'd — an essay that could as easily have been titled "What Would William Jennings Bryan Do?"

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 10 May 2005 at 11:26 PM

Previous: Richard John Neuhaus, foe of 'editorial error.'
Next: Interfaith studies in an era of religious conflict.

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