The history of Unitarian Universalism in the United States intertwines with the history of American religion, politics, and culture. Many of our nation’s founders, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, embraced Unitarian principles of rationalism towards religion and respect for science as they constructed the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. A number of of America’s greatest thinkers and creators have identified as Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian Universalist. The list includes Paul Revere, Julia Ward Howe, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ray Bradbury, Buckminster Fuller, and Morris Dees, to mention a few. In East Alabama, the Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (AUUF) provides a sanctuary of Unitarian Universalist values and a place to put these values into action.
Two historically Christian denominations, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association, consolidated in 1961 to form Unitarian Universalism. Today, Unitarian Universalists draw from a variety of religious traditions. Because of Unitarian Universalism’s flexible, creedless approach to spirituality and faith development, personal spiritual practice is a matter of individual choice for congregants.
In the early 1790s, Universalism emerged as a denomination of Christianity in the United States. Eventually, it would be called the Universalist Church of America. Christian Universalism denied the doctrine of everlasting damnation, proclaiming the belief in a loving God who will redeem all humans. Early American advocates of Universal Salvation such as Hosea Ballou, Elhanan Winchester, and John Murray taught that all souls would achieve salvation, sometimes after a type of purgatory. Prominent American physician and statesman Benjamin Rush was a proponent of the Universalist creed. During the nineteenth century, Universalists advocated for spiritualism, women’s rights, and the abolition of slavery.
The Unitarian movement had European roots but began primarily in the Congregational parish churches of New England, which were part of the Massachusetts state church. These churches’ buildings may still be seen today in many New England town squares. In the late 18th century, conflict grew within some of these churches between two factions: Unitarian (those who believed in a benevolent, humanistic and singular God) and Trinitarian (those who believed in the traditional holy trinity). In 1805, Unitarians gained key faculty positions at Harvard University. In 1819, minister William Ellery Channing preached an ordination sermon for Jared Sparks in Baltimore in which he outlined the Unitarian position. Then, in 1825, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) was founded as its own denomination.
In the 19th century, under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who had been a Unitarian minister) and other transcendentalists, Unitarianism began its long journey from liberal Protestantism to its present pluralistic form.
Today, Unitarian Universalists look to six sources for religious and spiritual growth:
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
- Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
- Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
In 1961, the same year as the creation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, twenty-two charter members formed the Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Auburn, Alabama. After meeting in various places, such as the Presbyterian Church and the Army National Guard Armory, the fellowship acquired a house on Cox Street in 1964. Soon after that, the fellowship assisted in the establishment of an Auburn Head Start program by renting it the fellowship building. Members of the fellowship have long been active in civil rights and other social action movements and involved in various community organizations.
The Fellowship purchased the former Ebenezer Baptist Church, a restored historic building, from the Auburn Historical Association in 1981. Freedmen and freedwomen built the structure from hand-hewn lumber around 1870. It is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Fellowship’s Sunday services now take place in this building, while the house behind is used for religious education classes. The minister’s office, library, and additional meeting rooms for AUUF’s many activities are located in the Busch Center at 504 Auburn Drive.
After a series of extension ministers throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the congregation, in 1993, hired the Reverend Diana Jordan Allende as a half-time contract minister. The congregation was generally pleased with Rev. Diana’s services, and, in 1997, called her as our first settled minister. During her time as minister, the congregation saw extensive growth and visibility in the area. Rev. Diana served the congregation for twenty-three years, retiring in 2015. Shortly after, she was named Minister Emerita by the congregation.
Following Rev. Diana’s retirement, from 2016 to 2018, the congregation was served by Rev. Pamela Gehrke as interim minister. This was followed by Rev. Marti Keller as half-time contract minister from 2018 to 2019. Both Rev. Pam and Rev. Marti helped the congregation set priorities and prepare the way for our next settled minister.
In 2019, the congregation called Rev. Chris Rothbauer as our second settled minister. Rev. Chris brings a passion for social justice, community building, and spiritual development.
As AUUF prepares to celebrate our sixtieth anniversary in 2021, we look optimistically to the future about the possibilities ahead for our Fellowship and our larger community.
For more on the general history of Unitarian Universalism, see http://www.uua.org/beliefs/history/our-historic-faith
Sources available upon request.