21 December 2007

Competently crafted history of the UU denomination, with emphasis on Unitarianism

Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History
David E. Bumbaugh
Meadville Lombard Press, 2001

On the first page of this book, author David Bumbaugh explains that the UU denomination is peculiar in that it is bound together by a shared history, rather than a shared theology or set of doctrines. He then spends the next 200 pages outlining the histories of the two foundational denominations, the Unitarians and Universalists, from their beginnings in formative Christian discourse to their merger in 1961 to the new challenges facing the secular humanism that has dominated UU since the mid-20th century.

This book should be on the bookshelf of every UU, since it provides an easy-to-read overview of our denominational history. Because Bumbaugh does such a thorough job of discussing the various theological actions and reactions of the Reformation, this book is also recommended reading for Christians of all denominations who want to know more about the formation of their faith. After all, as Bob Marley pointed out, "if you knew your history, then you would know where you're coming from."

That said, my sole criticism of this history is that it provides much more information on Unitarianism than it does on Universalism. As the author notes in his section on the May 1961 merger of the two liberal post-Christian denominations, the Universalists often feared being subsumed into the larger Unitarian milieu, and this history suggests that those fears were justified. While the author acknowledges that Universalism as a denomination did not really exist in Europe, he also does not go into a detailed exploration of the roots that it DOES have, whereas he spends scores of pages describing proto-Unitarian trends in European Christendom. Perhaps there really is a paucity of information available on pre-18th century proto-Universalist ideas, and that dearth explains its under-representation in the book.

All in all, a good book for historians of Christianity and UU and also for those interested in liberal religion in general.

(This review was originally written on August 10, 2006.)

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