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Why the American Unitarian Conference Had to Be Formed

This article was printed under the title "The American Unitarian Conference" in Volume VII, Number 2 of the Unitarian Universalist  Voice, An Independent Journal of News & Opinion, Fall 2001.  The UU Voice is a quarterly publication of the UU Advance, P.O. Box 3104, St. Louis, MO, 63130.  Subsriptions are $25.00. The Voice provides a spirited and intelligent critique of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

A new association was born September 28, 2000 when it was incorporated in the Commonwealth of Virginia by David Burton and me. The association went public just after Christmas last year. Our organizational meeting was in April. Our website ( has been our primary outreach tool to date but word of mouth and newspaper coverage in a wide variety of major dailies have also helped bring our organization to the attention of many people. We have members from all across the United States and Canada. This new association promises to be an exciting adventure. We hope to renew the American Unitarian tradition in this country and fulfill the Unitarian promise that Thomas Jefferson saw when he said "I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian." Jefferson was apparently quite an optimist.

Why the American Unitarian Conference?

As anyone who has honestly surveyed the UU landscape in this country well knows, Unitarian Universalism is a quite a hodge podge. It has been said that it is a "federation of religions". It is certainly pluralistic, often times within a congregation, and certainly from congregation to congregation. In many congregations, atheists have become dominant and the UUA takes great care not to offend their "humanist" faction. Many congregations are so focused on being open to all points of view that they drain every drop of religion from their congregational life in order to not offend anyone, ultimately not serving the religious needs of any of their congregants. The one thing you can say for sure is that you wonít know for sure what youíll get when you first set foot in a UU congregation. You might get Unitarian Christianity, you might get Paganism, you might get a political lecture, and you might get an intellectual discussion on the writings of some great philosopher. But is this Unitarianism? Is this what William Ellery Channing had in mind? I donít think so. Yes, Unitarianism respected the other religions and was open to insights from many sources, but respecting them doesnít mean we are to embrace them as ours. Unitarianism was not founded to be all things to all people, it was founded as a rejection of the Trinity and Calvinism. It was founded to be tolerant of other faith traditions and to learn from them, not to be replaced by them.

And Unitarianism certainly was not founded as a rejection of God or Christianity. Sadly, all too many UU churches have become anti-Christian and anti-God in their practice, whether they do so overtly or culturally. This void is often filled with "Politics as Religion", substituting salvation by Grace with salvation by legislation.

As David Burton and I commiserated about this sad state of affairs, we came to the conclusion that something must be done about it. We felt strongly that the UUA had squandered the American Unitarian tradition, sapping the meaning out of it until few would identify it as a theistic or God-centered religion. We decided that a Unitarian faith that was anchored in the early tenets of the tradition held as much value for today as it did in 1825. Some ideas are timeless. So we set off developing our religious principles in concert with the American Unitarian tradition, developing a website, doing the necessary legal work (very necessary as events have proven), and preparing to share the good news of American Unitarianism. By no means do David and I think what we have done to date is perfect, nor do we consider it finished. We have tried to lay down a foundation that we and those who join us can build on so that we can build a renewed American Unitarian tradition for future generations.

The AUC is independent of the UUA, a frequent source of question and comment, and a source for conflict as well that I will discuss later on. For many reasons we decided not to affiliate with the UUA. This association was not founded for UUís - it was founded for American Unitarians. It was founded for the tens of thousands of people who have walked into a UU church and walked right back out shaking their heads in confusion or frustration, finding them neither Unitarian nor Universalist, or even religious. It was also founded for the millions of people that have never heard of Unitarianism or never seriously explored it, yet would be shocked to find a religion that taught what they believed all along. And yes, we are confident that many UUís will find value in our association as well. All are welcome who agree with our religious principles.

We are frequently asked why we donít try to become a UUA affiliate and help reform the UUA. There is an inherent problem with that idea that few recognize. Suppose we were actually able to reform the UUA into a monotheistic, apolitical religious association as we envision the AUC? Then where do the atheists, the humanists, the "politics as religion" folks, the polytheists, and everyone else that might not agree with the reforms go? Would they feel compelled to split off and form their own association? Moreover, we believe that promoting the Unitarian tradition within the framework of the UUA would be extraordinarily difficult and limiting. We believe we will be more effective in helping to redirect American Unitarianism and bringing new people to Unitarianism by operating independently. Recent events have made us even more confident that independence is the right path.

Independence, of course, does not mean we cannot cooperate with the UUA. We would hope that as two religiously liberal organizations dedicated to religious tolerance there would be many avenues of cooperation.

What is the AUC?

The new AUC will be a publishing and missionary society as the original was. We will, however, go forward with an eye to the past so that we avoid some of the pitfalls that befell the Unitarian movement as it drifted off course over the years. Our goal is to renew and promote the unique aspects of the American Unitarian tradition, and we will stay focused on that goal. We are a member based organization, with opportunities for individuals and congregations to join as voting members.

We have staked out a specifically God-centered set of religious principles (see below), but left them open enough to embrace the myriad ways in which people come to know God. We believe our principles accurately reflect the Unitarian tradition. The name Unitarian literally evokes a belief in God, and a belief that God is one. The AUC holds to the original meaning of the name Unitarian, rejecting the current mangled popular definition that has been created by the Humanist/Atheist/Pagan shift that pulled Unitarianism off course. We are not an unprincipled association, but rather we are a God-centered association that respects the myriad views of God and respects the various views of God offered by the worlds religions.

We have often been asked about Universalism, almost always by those that view Unitarianism and Universalism as somehow inextricably linked. They are not. The notion that the two are linked simply because two mere corporate entities merged 40 years ago does a great disservice to them both. While the two associations drifted towards a similar philosophical and theological viewpoint as a result of the twists and turns of the 19th. and 20th centuries, in their original forms the two are distinct theologies in and of themselves. The AUC, while specifically Unitarian, is also open to those that are Universalists. Many, if not most Universalists, would embrace the AUC religious principles. Universalism is but one of the myriad of ways in which some Unitarians view God, but not all Unitarians are Universalist, nor are all Universalists Unitarian.

The AUC has not laid down specifically Christian principles, leaving the members to choose their own path to God in true non-creedal fashion. However, the majority of our members to date are Unitarian Christians, and we fully expect to found specifically Unitarian Christian fellowships.

The AUC is independent so that it is free to chart itís own course. Entangling ourselves under the UUA umbrella would have greatly narrowed our scope and needlessly complicated and diluted our mission. We believe that the number of people who express a Unitarian view of God and find value in our association far exceeds what the UUA has been able to attract. We do fully support the right of association, and we accept both individual members and congregations that wish to dual affiliate with the AUC and any other religious body, including the UUA.

One other point worth discussing is the apolitical stance of the AUC. The AUC intends to be a service organization, respecting congregational polity. Our goal is to renew the American Unitarian religion, nothing more. The subject matter of politics is the coercive apparatus of state. Who controls it, to what end is the power of government used, what limits shall be placed on it, who pays for it, who benefits from it and the like. Religion is, or should be, about God, the divine, the spiritual, right and wrong, meaning, purpose and how best to lead our lives.

Individuals and congregations are free to be involved in politics. The AUC fully supports freedom of conscience and congregational polity. The AUC will be involved in religion rather than politics. We will not spend our time and resources addressing the latest legislation, nor will we insist on assessing dues from our members so that we can use them to support particular political agendas. We believe that religion should aspire to rise above the bitter battles of day to day politics. Church should be about God, the spiritual, community, and bringing people together so that they can share and learn from one another, not about winners and losers as politics is.

What the AUC will do

The AUC has developed a Website as our first missionary tool, and the first issue of our Journal is well underway. Through our website and newsletter we hope to not only educate Unitarians on Unitarian history, but to also encourage a free exchange on theology in ways that has not been done within Unitarianism in many years. We plan to promote the Unitarian tradition through earned media and publishing in a variety of publications. We plan to use direct mail, radio and television.

In addition to our annual meeting, we plan to hold spiritual and educational retreats in various locations around the country to strengthen our relationships and knowledge base.

We are developing religious education materials, starting first with Unitarian history, and have plans for a wide variety of other adult and childrenís RE materials. We plan to develop liturgical materials and, in the fullness of time, a hymnal that meets the needs of American Unitarians.

To be a fully satisfying religious organization we must develop fellowships and congregations. Religion is person to person, and church is where your friends and family are. We have numerous AUC fellowships already in the formative stages, and providing them the support they need will be one of our early challenges. The AUC will develop resources for these fellowships, including training for leaders. We will support independent fellowships as well as existing congregations of any denomination that wish to affiliate with us.

As our clergy membership grows, we will be forming a ministerial advisory committee to advise the association spiritually and on matters involving ministerial recognition within the association. While the AUC will reserve ordination for the congregations, there is a need for recognition from the AUC for ministers and chaplains as our fellowships develop.

This is but a small sampling of what the AUC can and will do as our membership grows.

The lawsuit

When forming the association, we chose the American Unitarian Association name. In our view, no other name could evoke the tradition that we wished to promote like the AUA name could. After some careful study, we found that the American Unitarian Association was not incorporated anywhere in the USA that we could determine, certainly not in Massachusetts, the most logical state, nor in Virginia where we wished to incorporate (Our President, David Burton, is an attorney living in Virginia). We also found no evidence of the name being trademarked, nor any commercial use of the name since the merger in '61. The UUA had trademarked the name Unitarian Universalist and variants, indicating their intent to protect that name, but no such trademark had been filed for the AUA name. It was clear to Mr. Burton and I that the AUA name had been abandoned and was in the public domain and we were legally entitled to use the name.

The UUA, nevertheless, filed a lawsuit against the American Unitarian Association as well as David Burton and me personally. Recently, we reached the conclusion that our associationís limited resources could be better spent promoting the Unitarian tradition rather than continuing to devote very significant resources in continuing litigation with the UUA. We sat down with the new UUA leadership and reached an understanding. As part of the settlement agreement, we agreed to change our name. It is our hope and expectation that under new leadership, the UUA and our association can have a cordial and cooperative relationship. The text of the joint press release issued by the AUC and UUA regarding the settlement agreement is copied in a sidebar nearby.

In closing

We invite you to learn more about the American Unitarian movement. Our website address and other contact information is listed below. Feel free to contact us if you have any questions. The coming years will be exciting as we grow and shape this organization. There is much work to be done in all areas, but it will be a labor of love to restore the beauty of the American Unitarian faith. We invite you to join us and be part of this journey.

American Unitarian Conference
PO Box 331
Fenton, MI 48430-0331



Boston, MA and Alexandria, VA. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the American Unitarian Conference announced today that they have agreed to a settlement of the lawsuit filed by the UUA in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, VA. The American Unitarian Conference was incorporated as the American Unitarian Association ("AUA") in September, 2000. In the lawsuit, the UUA asserted ownership of the American Unitarian Association name and mark. The AUA also claimed lawful ownership of the AUA name. Given the uncertainties and costs of litigation, the parties have agreed to settle the lawsuit.

As part of the settlement agreement, the AUA has agreed to modify its name to the American Unitarian Conference.

"Our goal is to promote traditional Unitarianism. That tradition holds that faith in God, freedom, reason and tolerance should be central to the religious experience. We reached the conclusion that going forward under a new name would better enable us to achieve our goals than devoting resources to continuing litigation," said Davd R. Burton, President of the American Unitarian Conference.

"I am pleased that the case has been resolved and I will operate on the assumption that this dispute was among persons of good faith. It was never our intention to oppose the right of the American Unitarian Conference group to exist, only to protect and preserve our historic name and mark. The Unitarian Universalist tradition is broad enough and deep enough to hold many religious points of view," said the Rev. William G. Sinkford, President of the UUA.

"We look forward to a constructive and cordial working relationship with the new leadership at the UUA," said Burton.

For more information, contact

John Hurley, Unitarian Universalist Association. 617-742-2100

David R. Burton, President, American Unitarian Conference. 703-548-5868

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