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Looking Back

Conservative but Visionary Shaper of AUA
By the Rev. David E. Bumbaugh Jr. and Christopher L. Walton

November/December 2000

One hundred seventy-five years ago, a young assistant minister stepped out from the shadow of the best-known champion of the new Unitarian movement in America and took charge of the first institution organized to promote the growth of Unitarianism on this continent.

At age 23, in 1824, the Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett became the assistant minister of Boston's Federal Street Church. The church's senior minister, the Rev. William Ellery Channing, was already famous for his 1819 sermon "Unitarian Christianity." Channing articulated the basic themes of the liberal movement emerging in some old New England churches, but he and many of his contemporaries feared that banding together as a denomination would separate them from the more orthodox congregational churches.

Gannett, on the other hand, believed that Unitarianism needed an institutional home. Only weeks after his 24th birthday, on May 25 and 26, 1825, he drafted the constitution of the American Unitarian Association, which would merge with the Universalist Church of America 136 years later to form today's Unitarian Universalist Association. Channing declined the invitation to serve in the largely ceremonial role of AUA president, but Gannett, his junior associate, was elected the first secretary, and in that role he shouldered the administrative work of the new organization from 1825 to 1831. Later, Gannett served as AUA president from 1844 to 1849.

The American Unitarian Association was Gannett's abiding legacy, and through it he helped give shape and structure to the Unitarian movement. When the AUA began, it was not yet an organization of congregations but of individual Unitarians committed to spreading their religion through missionary work and publications. Under Gannett's leadership, the AUA granted financial assistance to new congregations in Pennsylvania and Georgia, sent a missionary west to assess the potential for Unitarianism along the frontier, and supported the Rev. Joseph Tuckerman's pioneering ministry to the urban poor in Boston.

Gannett's institutional commitment helped insure the growth of Unitarianism, but it made him reluctant to challenge other social institutions in the years before the Civil War. In the early years of the abolitionist movement, Gannett opposed slavery but believed that immediate abolition represented an unacceptable threat to the Union. His reluctant support of the 1850 fugitive slave law alienated him from more radical social reformers. Like many of his Unitarian contemporaries, he came only slowly to recognize that his hope for a peaceful, gradual end to slavery would not be realized. And when he finally denounced compromises with slavery, he alienated important members of his congregation.

Gannett's fundamentally conservative outlook extended to theology. In an 1835 sermon, he affirmed "filial reverence for God, brotherly love for man, a grateful faith in Christ " as the revelation of divine and model of human character." This position made him unsympathetic toward the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who left the Unitarian ministry in 1832, and the Rev. Theodore Parker, Emerson's radical disciple. When Parker seemed to treat even Jesus as a transient aspect of "pure Christianity," Gannett supported the many Boston Unitarian ministers who refused to exchange pulpits with him. Nonetheless, Gannett helped to organize a denominational structure that would, in time, become the transcendentalists' enduring institutional home.

voices from the past


We do not wonder that other denominations should be perplexed by the apparent discrepancies which they find among those who are called Unitarians. They have fixed and definite creeds to which all who join their churches, or at least those who officiate as clergymen among them, must assent. But we have no theological creed. Under this broad canopy of freedom, there will of course be a very great variety of thought on theological subjects, and we can hardly mention a controverted subject on which there are not different shades of opinion among us. We believe that no man yet has sounded the depths of God's truth, that his word is open to all, that whosoever will, may take of the water of life freely, and that with whatever help may be gained from the expositions of those who have gone before, each one is to search the scriptures for himself, and without reference to human creeds is to abide by and live in the truth which he finds there revealed to him

From the Christian Register, Vol. I, No. 1.

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