May 18th, 2021

how long

The times they are always a-changing

It may surprise some of you to learn that Unitarianism was once the dominant theological movement in America. Looking at the miniscule Unitarian Universalist denomination of today, you might wonder what happened to them. Well, listen, my children, and you shall hear . . .

Unitarianism came in with the early Enlightenment. In the late Eighteenth Century, it was the doctrine of all the leading Congregational ministers in New England. It was taught at Harvard (back when Harvard was a leading institution preparing clergy). It was considered sophisticated and up-to-date. And it lurked about in many other contexts as well. It was the “liberalism” of its day, the teaching that made the Gospel acceptable to the Spirit of the Age.

Unitarians continued to feature prominently in the early Nineteenth Century. Much of New England culture, including many of the Christmas customs we think go back to the Middle Ages, and the Thanksgiving rituals we think go back to the Pilgrims, were heavily shaped and promoted by these folk. They also applied their bent for social tinkering to various good causes, including the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, care for the poor (especially orphans), and public education.

But when Unitarianism founded its own denomination, it didn’t prosper quite so well. It turns out that theologically, Unitarianism is pretty thin soup. Good causes for social betterment it had in plenty, but when left to sustain religion by itself, well, most people who are looking for a church are looking for something that sounds more like church. As a parasite within a host organism, it could thrive, but on its own it didn’t attract many people.

Something of the same sort of situation has been going on in mainline Christianity for some time. Liberalism (which became progressivism, and has now morphed into woke-ism of every kind) has prospered while contained within historically orthodox denominations. But those denominations are all dwindling away, some faster some more slowly. Those of us on the traditionalist side of things generally attribute the decline to the weakness of the Gospel offered in our churches. Morally Therapeutic Deism has been the sophisticated theology offered from many pulpits, though all the bishops in the world can’t seem to fight off the advent of more radical theologies taking over our institutions. And so, when The United Methodist Church finally splits, in a year or two, I expect the progressive wing of the church, despite all its advantages, to accelerate in its decline. Without traditional religion to support it, the vine cannot climb, and it will rot on the ground.

Now, please don't take this analysis for a sneer. There are lots of good, well-meaning liberals/progressives out there. They love God and love the church. And they want to do good in the world, and have many successes to show in effectively loving their neighbor. But all the best stuff in their ministries tends to come from the residual tradition they picked up from their upbringing within the denomination, not the sophisticated exegesis they learned in their fashionable seminaries.

And it remains to be seen, of course, if the traditionalists leaving The UMC can find a common identity and forge a common message that will enable them to revive their exiting remnant. Success is not guaranteed, though I think they’ll do all right. But the Church of the Passing Fad will fade away and join the UUs at their reserved table in the pub. And they won’t need to reserve many seats, either.