Berry Street Essays: 200 years of UUism

THE THROUGH LINE: 200 Years of the Berry Street Essay, edited by Kate R. Walker (2021).

In 1820, the Rev. William Ellery Channing, minister of Boston’s Federal Street Church, was the proponent of a heretical theology called unitarianism.  He called together fellow unitarian ministers to hear a lecture entitled, “How Far Is Reason to Be Trusted in Explaining Revelation?” and to talk about the new ideas.

They agreed to meet the following year, and they and their successors have met every year down to the present.  The talks are known as the Berry Street Lectures because the building in which they originally met opened on Berry Street; the meetings currently are held in a different place each year.

They are of interest not just to us Unitarian Universalists, but to anyone interested in the trajectory of religious liberalism.

The Rev. Kate R. Walker found that the present-day record of the Berry Street Essays was woefully incomplete.  She and her helpers did a great service to history and to Unitarian-Universalism by tracking down missing texts.  The archive now includes roughly three-quarters of the original essays, some of them in the form of summaries or reports.

Her new book, The Through Line, consists of reviews of the essays during 13 different periods of history, plus texts of essays for 19 different years, and an introduction and conclusion by herself.

Two essays are by UU ministers I personally know and greatly esteem, the Rev. Richard S. Gilbert and the Rev. Mark D.  Morrison-Reed.

The essays are interesting snapshots of liberal religious thinking, past and present, but the reviews don’t add much.

The reviews are marred by “present-ism,” aka “the whig interpretation of history.”  UU ministers of the past are condemned for not sharing the present-day understanding of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, etc., not to mention most of them being white, male and members of the New England elite.  

It would have been better to omit the reviews and include more essays, at least one more for each era reviewed.

Fortunately the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association has created a web page with links to all the known essays.

You can browse through them on the Ministers’ Conference at Berry Street: Essays web site.  In my opinion, you’d get as much or more out of checking out the complete series of essays on-line as by reading the book.

The essays begin at a time when Unitarianism and its sister movement, Universalism, were the leading edge of American religious liberalism.  

The original Unitarians preached that God was a unity, not a trinity, implying that Jesus was a great prophet and not a supernatural being.  The original Universalists (not included in the essays) preached that all human beings would be saved, and none would go to an eternal Hell.  

What made the two movements distinctive was that they were creedless.  There was no dogma to which you had to assent in order to be included.  This was their distinctive strength, and also their weakness. 

For Channing, there were two types of religion, the orthodox, which accepted some authority or text without question, and the liberal, which encouraged individuals to evaluate authorities and texts in the light of reason.  He had no doubt that liberal Protestantism would triumph.

For the Rev. Frederic Henry Hedge, speaking in 1851, there were two poles of Christianity, the authoritarian pole, represented by the Roman Catholic Church, and the liberal pole, represented by Unitarianism.  He had no doubt that liberal Christianity would triumph.

For the Rev. Robert Zoerheide, speaking in 1961 at the time of the Unitarian-Universalist merger, Unitarian-Universalism had the potential to become a “fourth American faith,” standing alongside but separately from dogmatic Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism.

All their hopes were realized, in a way.  Liberalism did triumph.   Liberal Protestants, liberal Jews, even liberal Catholics believe the same things that Unitarians believed from Channing’s day to Zoerheide’s day.  

Religious liberals don’t worry about whether the Book of Genesis is scientific fact, or whether morally good non-believers suffer eternal damnation.  Even many so-called conservative Christians are liberal by the standards of earlier eras.

Religious liberals aren’t dogmatic.  They try to keep up with the times.  They emphasize making the world a better place rather than  preparing for an afterlife.

I don’t say that the old Unitarians brought about this change all by themselves.  They were part of an overall movement.  

Unitarians do deserve credit for leading the way.  But the rise of religious liberalism has happened largely outside Unitarian-Universalist churches.  

Our membership, as pointed out by the Rev. Frederic J. Muir in 2012, has been static (in terms of numbers) or declining (as a percentage of the population) since the 1961 merger 

The Unitarian-Universalist Association is much in the position of the March of Dimes after the Salk and Sabin vaccines for polio.  Its original mission is accomplished.  What next?

What this reflects, it seems to me, is the inherent difficulties and contradictions in liberalism.  This is an issue not just for us Unitarian-Universalists, but for liberals in general.  

Liberalism defends your right to think freely, speak freely, associate freely and determine the course of your own life.  But, in and of itself, it does not tell you how to make your life meaningful.  That is up to you.

Many people experience the requirement to figure out everything for themselves as a burden, not a liberation, especially nowadays, when so many of us are at the mercy of economic forces we do not fully understand.  Living in a society with no fixed guideposts can be a fearsome thing.

Some of the 21st century ministers represented in this collection appear to think UUs have to repudiate their past and start anew with different values.  Others, more wisely, see the record of the past as a resource for building for the future.

One thing I took away from these essays is an appreciation of the loneliness and difficulty of the minister’s life.  Mark Morrison-Reed’s essay, among others, dealt with this in a profound way.  Ministers are people who advise and console others in their struggles and disappointments, but have few that they can turn to for advice and consolation themselves.  They serve a congregation, but are a part of the congregation.

The book includes two different essays about sexual misconduct by UU ministers.  The Berry Street group is to be commended for inviting these talks, and Rev. Walker for including them in the book.  It shows they value the truth over the reputation of the UUA.  However, these essays have been taken down from the web site at the authors’ request.

I got a deeper understanding of how damaging ministerial misconduct can be to a congregation, and how the scars linger on.   And from this I got a deeper appreciation of the minister’s role.  

At the same time I was reminded of the danger of making a cult of a ministers personality. We the members expect ministers to be philosophers, therapists, administrators and fighters for social justice, not fallible human beings with their own unique strengths and weaknesses.

This essay collection shows Unitarian and UU ministers, alike in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, as well-meaning people responding to the problems of their eras as best they can.  That’s as much as we have a right to expect. 


Ministerial Conference at Berry Street: Essays.  The complete archive.

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4 Responses to “Berry Street Essays: 200 years of UUism”

  1. davidgmarkham Says:

    Thank you Phil for the great reference to the Berry Street Lectures. Thank you also for your commentary.

    Unitarian Universalism in its insistence on individual theology has missed the boat in providing a shared mission and vision. Without a vision the people perish.

    The next step in the growth of UU and liberal religion is what some people are calling “evolutionary spirituality.” This involves nurturing the continued development of human spirituality bringing salivation to all people which is when everybody loves everybody all the time and we have a celebration of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

    In our post modern age we have wallowed in narcissistic nihilism for too long. We must find ways to promote the common good and health of each other and our planet.

    What UU needs is theologians who can articulate a meta narrative that people can support. This metanarrative resides in the realm of the mythic and aesthetic not in reason. Reason is beneficial as far as it goes but it is limited in its ability to inspire and create. Goodness and beauty cannot be reasoned but must be embraced by the heart as much as by the head. Reason has its place but will not get us to the promised land.


  2. drdavidewhite Says:

    “If our secrets define us” is a famous lecture by Gail Seavey (2016)
    The original text is at:

    Click to access 2016_IfSecretsDefineUs.pdf

    “If Our Secrets Define Us” Gail Seavey,The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville Berry Street Essay, 2016 Delivered at the Ministerial Conference June 22, 2016 Columbus, OH
    and here with commentary:
    and another commentary on the case here has the video
    The redacted version is at:
    The official UU site says only this:
    2016 Rev. Seavey has withdrawn permission to post her redacted essay “If Our Secrets Define Us.”
    Dan Harper has some remarks on transparency and redaction:

    Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      Thank you for this, David

      I had not questioned the statements that Rev. Gail Seavey’s and Rev. Deborah J. Pope-Lance’s Berry Street essays had been removed from the UU Ministers Association at their request.

      Rev. Dan Harper says he heard it is because they refused to make changes requested by the UUMA. However, the book, which contains their lectures, has been released into the wild.

      Here are links to his specific posts about this.

      The issue evidently was naming abusive ministers. This is a tough topic. Aside from questions of libel, you wouldn’t want to ruin somebody’s career unless you were absolutely certain you were right. Rev. Seavey accused then UUA President William F. Schulz of brushing off her comments; the book includes his reply, which shows that she almost certainly must have misremembered the incident.

      The #MeToo movement has shown how sexual abuse by people (mostly men) in authority exists on all levels of authority. We as a society don’t have a good means of handling this. A good friend of mine falsely accused of child abuse and, although he was vindicated in the end, he lost his house and his life savings defending himself.

      None of this detracts from the merit of The Through Line or the value of the UU Ministers Association’s Berry Street archive.


  3. davidgmarkham Says:

    I thank you too.


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