In the Beginning: The Puritan Origins of Today’s Unitarian Universalist Process of rCredentialing and Ordaining of Ministers

Judging from three different Facebook threads, as well as some changes proposed to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s bylaws (on which I have absolutely no opinion), some folks would like a short, snappy, easily-shared timeline of where our polity came from.

When the Puritan elders of Massachusetts Bay received a royal charter to found a constellation of parishes throughout the wilderness of New England in the 1630s, they defined their vision with ample reference to the Hebrew Bible. Like Moses, they were taking God’s covenant into a wilderness (which, as in the Hebrew Bible, already belonged to somebody else, but that’s another issue; still, attention must be paid) and setting up an interlaced network of communities which would nourish, educate, and, occasionally, correct each other. The secular affairs of these communities would be run through democratic self-government by the men of the village, meeting weekly in Town Meeting. The religious affairs would fall under the purview of theologically educated, publicly supported ministers.

The mutual nurture, education, and correction would take place through free travel among marketplaces and social institutions in the best road system of the original thirteen colonies. The mutual nurture, education, and, occasionally, correction of these same towns assembled for religious purposes would be accomplished by having the ministers preach weekly not only to their own congregations but weekly to one other town as well. This system was so different from what we today call “pulpit visits” that I strive to rename the system as “pulpit rotation.” For a minister would indeed come around again — over two to four decades of service, he would come to know the neighboring towns as thoroughly as he knew his own. There were no hotels, so he would sleep, eat, bathe, and sometimes be sick in the homes of parishioners all over the colony. And there were no secrets, because someone in his own congregation would welcome a diverse but not distant collection of his ministerial colleagues, week after week.  Seminarians and new graduates took part in the rotation, so that by the time a congregation wanted to elect one to a vacant pulpit, or add him as relief for an aging pastor, the entire Standing Order had an opinion. To exercise their vested interest, delegates of neighboring congregations were called to vote on the ordination immediately before it would take place.

There were no Sundays off.

When ministers visited each others’ parishes, (King’s Chapel apparently joined the rotation sometime after its Loyalist majority absconded during the War for Independence) they kept their eyes open for “promising youths” who might fill pulpits in later years. Both Theodore Parker and Henry Ware, Sr were poor young men of good lineage who received encouragement for the ministry from their own and other ministers. Unlike Ralph Waldo Emerson, a PK many times over, Parker and Ware, Sr. simply had a chance to show their interest, and, like Emerson, receive opportunities that let them work towards and through Harvard.

They also kept their eyes open for women who would make good ministers’ wives. In the 1830s, when Henry Ware, Jr lost his first wife and was distraught that he had to house his young children with his sister until he could find another wife, his colleagues arranged that his pulpit rotation hospitality included suitable potential partners. And one of them, impoverished but able, did indeed become the wife who maintained his ministry during both his illnesses and his denominational absences.

By this social process — codified but not identified in The Cambridge Platform of 1648 — the Standing Order could both encourage the freedom of individual consciences and yet center the town’s identity in its First Parish. It is therefore a mistake to attempt to transplant the dictates of the Cambridge Platform without reference to the changes in social environment. The system lasted until October 1830.

So whence came The Boston Ministers’ Association, that forerunner of the UUA’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee? It early arose, as sort of a town meeting for ministers, and met faithfully. Still does. And you can find its records in the Massachusetts Historical Society, so don’t take my word for it.

In the Massachusetts Historical Society you can find the incessant journaling of Rev. Dr. John Pierce of Brookline’s First Parish. He never missed an ordination, dedicated many a meetinghouse (including the one where I currently worship, which required a week of hard travel in a New England January) and kept notes on practically every meeting that was held among the congregational ministers who found themselves transitioning from quiet village preachers into the leaders, thinkers, and victims of the Unitarian Controversies.  Dr. Pierce’s journals are a one-man NSA of that era.

“Mode of Introduction to the Pulpit Among the Congregational Clergy of Boston and Vicinity” Memoirs of John Pierce, Vol III pp. 483 – 493

“Till within a few years it was the practice of students of Divinity to commence preaching without any form of examination or license.  When a young man wished to become candidate for the ministry, he was invited into the pulpit of some friend; and in this way, he became known as a candidate for settlement, and was accordingly invited to preach on probation.

                “At length by the exertion of Dr. Morse and others, who wished to introduce not only the system of examining candidate, but also the Church government subsisting in Connecticut, into this state, it became a vote of the Convention of Congregational ministers in Massachusetts, that no young man should be encourage to preach, but such, as obtained the approbation of some Association.”

The Reverend Dr. Jedediah Morse of First Parish, Charlestown, MA, was the Newt Gingrich of the Unitarian Controversies: not for him the mystic chords of unity; he tolerated only — and engineered finally — the polarity of theological clarity. He combated the Unitarians’ most prominent independent scholar, Miss Hannah Adams of Medfield, who published the first dictionary of all religions, past and present, as they described themselves in their own words.

As the Great Awakening of the 1730s suffused into the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s, councils before ordinations became very tense; congregations began inviting only clergy and congregations they knew shared their sympathies.  Salvation-minded parties  withdrew from formerly town-wide congregations. 

On the 15th and 23rd of October, 1830, Henry Ware, Jr, took a theological hatchet to the pulpit rotation system in his Introductory Address to the Cambridge Theological School as its first Parkman Professor of Pulpit Eloquence and the Pastoral Care. In “The Connections Between the Duties of the Pulpit and The Pastoral Office,” he called for a preaching integrity not of theological argument but settled pastoral relationships.  It was not that he disliked the pulpit rotation system — indeed, he so generous with his ministerial presence that his health suffered and he died young –but the Industrial Revolution had caused congregations to crave stable ministers, messages, and worship rituals to anchor their rapidly-disintegrating social realm.

Cut off from their neighbors by theology, now looking inward to their pulpit, modern parishes had no friendly confidants to take them aside with cautionary or tutelary information about potential ministers. If a candidate misjudged his suitability for ministry, the comforts of that stable parish could buoy him for quite some time, to the parish’s eventual detriment. Ware and his colleagues began by sending forth their own students, properly credentialed through Boston’s Ministerial Association, because there was no other guarantor for transplanted New Englanders in search of religious continuity.

I tell this story with sympathy for the impulse to protect these parishes from the dangers that arose with their isolation from each other. But that sympathy was misplaced. The denomination’s single, centralized Ministerial Fellowship Committee, symbolized by the late, lamented headquarters at 25 Beacon Street in Boston, followed Jedediah Morse’s secretive, judgmental model (which, ironically, has been democratized by the denomination which carries on his theological views). What Morse advocated, as Pierce explained, was not the Cambridge Platform of Massachusetts, but the Saybrook Platform of Connecticut. To remain true to Massachusetts Bay, our denomination would have done better to replicate the collegiality not only among ministers but also among congregations, on regional and local bases. It is no accident that voices clamor most strongly against the MFC and the clerisy it credentials in the wake of strong UUA efforts to enhance and empower regional organizations.