Remembering Conrad Wright’s Universalism

Conrad Wright was the reason I went to Harvard Divinity School.  I may have contacted him before I went up, just to warn him that I intended to carry on his work — which is still what I try to do.  The memory of our first meeting is as clear as the teapot sitting beside me.  It was the day students traipse around chatting with faculty, to see whether there might be a match.  Richard Neibuhr, Sharon Welch, Margaret Miles — those were the stars pulling UUs into orbit in 1986.  It astounded me that in his humble Divinity School Library office, Conrad was sitting alone, reading and writing as if it were still summer.  He smiled realistically, wryly commenting that others were in greater fashion.  We talked for a good half hour.  It was a match.

Those conversations continued every Friday for most of my four years of seminary.  We had trouble intersecting, because he was an early morning riser, while I seldom ventured out before ten.  However, he gradually accustomed himself to the pushy woman who arrived every Friday to interrupt his writing.  I would ask what he was working on, and he would ask the same.  We were both working on UU history.  It wasn’t a total match: my interest lay in the broad sweeps of intellectual history and theology, liturgy, while he preferred the detailed administrative construction of organized religion.  He would tell me which dead white men — and a few women — had pursued or developed whatever I was exploring, and I would go home and read them.  The next week, I would give him my response, interweaving it into previous discussions.

In those days, my ADHD was indiagnosed and untreated — although anyone could have guessed it was happening — and Conrad would listen to some *masterful presentation* (lol) and then respond with a mild statement that I had confused 1832 and 1835, and certain intervening events made the distinction important.    Gradually, I learned to count certain centuries down a year at a time, a feat made possible by the complete inattention to almost anything outside of Greater Boston Unitarianism.

A lot of people didn’t like Conrad.  He had his views, and those were his views.  He approached history like a drill sergeant, requiring us to memorize the Cambridge Platform definition of a congregation, and explain why it wasn’t a church.  He didn’t give much appearance of laughing, and I am not sure he cracked many jokes.  Yet he attended the ordinations of all his students (read scripture at mine) and it was sitting side by side at one that I heard him crack the only real joke I can remember.    As the first speaker launched into a profuse introduction of the person being ordained, as well as embellishments on the value of the occasion, etc etc etc, Conrad leaned over and whispered, “We’re going to be here all afternoon.”   Then he settled in and smiled approvingly for several hours.

Many folks had a more fundamental conflict with Conrad, and it was one I shared: he underplayed the value of theology in our religion.   It led him to insist that Unitarianism was a uniquely North American religion, a view now recognized to be wrong.  European Unitarians and Universalists have different polities, and a stronger emphasis on Jewish Christian continuities, but they are our kinfolk all the same.  So for other aspects of our faith learnings, I spent time with the passionately theological George Huntston Williams and the casually brilliant James Luther Adams.  George and Conrad didn’t really speak, or have much respect for each other, that I could tell.  I scrupulously avoided quoting them to each other, even though I interworked both of their themes into my one.   They knew what I was doing, but didn’t participate.  On paper, it was the last golden era of Unitarian Universalism at Harvard, but in person, they had as little to do with each other as possible.  (In fairness to JLA and George, JLA had been one of George’s professors once, and the two mentioned this from time to time in a mutually respectful way.)

It probably didn’t show, but over the years, Conrad softened.  In writing his last book, he was quite proud to show me extensive research into Universalist polity and heritage.   His desk was neatly burdened with Universalist books.  Once, when we both had a question about something Universalist, for which we could find the answers in the archives, I went back to lunch; when I came back, he was already looking it up.  Now he was the eager graduate student and we Universalists were his critical readers.  He gave me a typescript to read on the subject, and  I loved how good it was.  I marveled that he could ferret out so much new stuff at such a late age; he read himself as critically as he read any of us, while still in draft.

I am not sure when I became aware that Conrad was not going to cut me down as sharply as my academic parents and grandparents tended to do.  He gave me an A- on consolidation, even though my research refuted several statements with which he was closely associated.   He looked at my footnotes, and said, “very interesting” in what might be called a “poker voice.”   I still have that paper, as well as the others I wrote for him.

There was another place where Conrad the Harvard historian softened a bit.  It began with his central commitment to congregational covenant.  When it came to congregational historians, he cautioned me, they were not paid, not often trained in formal scholarship, but they had deep love of their subjects.  He pointed out with affection that he saved every congregational history that was sent to him, no matter how humble, and he urged me to do the same.  “They don’t come up to the same standard,” he said, “but they are vital.”

There will be many tributes to Conrad, I suppose, and they will probably dwell on his covenant theology.  That is too bad, for as great as he was in his profession, to me, he rose far above that as a person.

For a picture of the person I describe, use this link:

To see, and learn more about, the formal Unitarian so many remember, and who did so much for our community of faith, check Herb Vetter’s tremendous Harvard Square Library:

Either way, both ways, as we say at King’s Chapel,

May Light Perpetual Shine Upon Him.


5 thoughts on “Remembering Conrad Wright’s Universalism

    • I remember you telling me some of these things over the years, and I’m glad you wrote them down. I actually remember Conrad as having a lively, if bone dry, sense of humor. As when he taught students how correctly to spell “millennium,” with two n’s: He explained the word meant “a thousand years” and he wrote on the blackboard, “mille annus”–and then he crossed out the second n. Again, after the Quaker funeral service for his friend and colleague Bill Hutchison, he commented, “It took the Spirit eighteen minutes to move anyone to speak.” One of the last times I saw him was by chance, in Harvard Square. I asked how he was doing. “Deteriorating slowly.” I shall miss him.

  1. I loved him too. For Halloween in 1986, CW visited my freshman proctor group in Matthews South and told us ghost stories from Harvard’s history. I wish I wrote them down.

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