Enough With The Emerson Already! Or How To Save Congregational Polity

Recently I’ve heard more than one of my colleagues say that they wish we had bishops.  I confess to these thoughts occasionally myself. But bishops?! We’re Unitarian Universalists! We trace our congregational history all the way back to the Cambridge Platform of 1648! Bishops don’t tell us what to do. Ministers don’t tell us what to do. Nobody tells us what to do. We tell the leadership what to do. We’re Unitarian Universalists.

Ah. Yes. Well, there’s the rub, you see. Nobody tells us what to do. And this is where we get into trouble.

Our polity is congregational. It has been ever since the gathered churches of the Massachusetts Bay Colony got together and covenanted with each other in the Cambridge Platform of 1648. These early proto-Unitarians (and proto-Congregationalists) were fierce in their assertion that it was the people, not the bishops, who had the right to determine what happened in the churches. The churches – the faithful themselves – would call their own ministers. They would determine what was required for membership. They would determine who would be ordained.

But how could they be sure that they would call ministers who would preach to them what they needed to hear and not just what they wanted to hear? To be sure, this is the great weakness in congregational polity. The prophet Micah warned of this:

“If someone were to go about inspired and say deceitfully:
“I will preach to you for wine and liquor,”
such a one would be the preacher for this people!” (Micah 2:11)

Still, the gathered churches understood that they weren’t just getting together for the hell of it (as it were). They weren’t country clubs – they were churches. And as such, they did believe that there was someone who had ultimate authority to tell them what to do. But only one someone, and that was God. And that’s the big thing. Those early churches might have been passionately congregational, but they also had a rigorous theology. These two things cannot be separated without dire consequences.

And then along came Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson, (who ended up leaving the ministry, by the way), who preached a fanatical individualism. And Unitarians, and then Unitarian Universalists, latched on to Emersonian individualism like ticks on a dog. We became all about “me” to the point where some of us have forgotten about “we.” And we’ve even codified this into our Unitarian Universalist Association covenant in the principles and purposes.

The covenant as it is written now in our bylaws lists seven principles – and most of our people can name the first and seventh if they can’t remember the five in-between. But I think our principles are completely out of order.  We’ve placed individualism above all else with our first principle: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote  the inherent worth and dignity of every person;…”

We started…we started with the individuality bit. Not community. Not spirituality. The supremacy of the individual. What could possibly go wrong? Well, I’ll tell you. Way back before the Unitarians and the Universalists merged and before the apotheosis of the individual in the principles and purposes, Unitarians, fed on the diet of Emersonian individualism, were already firing ministers who were speaking uncomfortable truths to the people. Moncure Conway was kicked out of All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, DC for his outspoken abolitionist stance. The people didn’t want to hear that. But the people needed to hear him.

I don’t really think that we need a shift to episcopal polity. But I do think we need to change some things. I think that we can’t have congregational polity without a rigorous theology. We are not the church of “do-as-you-please.” I’ve heard this more times than I care to count from people in our churches, “I come here because you can believe whatever you want here.” Um….no. No. We have other principles in the current covenant that follow that inherent worth and dignity one. Principles such as “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; and  a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Just to name a couple. So no – you can’t believe whatever you want or do whatever you want – that’s not responsible.

So we could start by taking a harder look at our own covenant and holding ourselves to it. And then we might want to consider the form of our current covenant. Perhaps we might want to re-order the principles.  And then we might want to take our spiritual journeys seriously.

We can govern ourselves – but not until we’re ready to put aside the “me first” mentality. Because it’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about all of us and those yet to come. When we make decisions for the church the decisions have to be about what’s best for the church – not about what I think I might want at this very moment. It’s not about what we want, but what we need. And sometimes we need to hear the hard things. Let us remember the covenant. Enough with the Emerson already!

That’s all I’ve got. That’s my mite.


11 thoughts on “Enough With The Emerson Already! Or How To Save Congregational Polity

    • I think this probably applies beyond our own walls, and there are benefits and pitfalls to all forms of church polity – but we can all probably stand to take a look at how we might make things better.


    • Your defense is worthy. My point, however, is not really to discredit Emerson (although I will confess to setting him up a bit here). It is that we have taken his individualism and run with it – often without any underlying rigorous theology (of any flavor). We have turned it into ME FIRST! And then we use Emerson to justify that.


  1. You know, I never thought it was “me, first.” I always thought it was “respect and dignity.” And, for me, that is the most important priority. Respect and dignity must be met before we can fully appreciate all of the other principles. And, after all these years, we’re still learning what respect and dignity means.


    • I don’t disagree that we’re still learning what respect and dignity means. I still think we’ve got our priorities upside-down. In taking my cue from the 10 commandments, first we see that God comes first. We must look to what we worship – what we believe in – however we understand God to be. Then it’s about community – how to behave together – which really does include respect. Observing the sabbath, for example, includes making sure that everyone has rest – not just us. Only when we’ve looked to God and cared for community do we then look to the individual – don’t kill, don’t covet, and so on.


      • The closest we come to an inclusive term for God is our seventh principle. Start with that. The web of all existence then includes experience, relationship, discipleship in small groups and theology follows along with the other 6 principles


  2. I agree the ten commandments are about creating a code for creating community, similar to our principles. We diverge, though, on the priority, and the basis of your argument. As you say, “however we understand God to be.” Atheists don’t believe in God. We believe in how we treat each other because we are responsible for ourselves, our communities, and our earth. As UUs, if our diverse congregations “look to God” for the the cornerstone of our organizational planning, we’ll be all over the map with everyone’s idea of what that is. That’s why we have the principles, with which we can agree to build community. So, in my understanding, respect and dignity for the individual comes first to develop and invite others into an earth-conscious community based upon respect and dignity. We’re learning how to build congregational community everyday through our covenants and interactions, providing safe places for people to grow into themselves. We can’t stop one for the other, as they are both independent and interdependent relationships. But we do have to make sure we’re organizing to support the individual within the community, not just creating hierarchies to herd people for convenience. I ask you to consider that UUism isn’t here to create “WE”; it’s here to make itself no longer necessary. And that’s the future we should be organizing for.


  3. But I understand looking to the philosophy/theology first—what should guide us in creating our principles, our need to organize, our desire to grow both independence and interdependence? And what does “no longer necessary” look like? There’s much to discuss and understand how we’re connecting.


  4. Our individualism is definitely a problem. Blaming it on Emerson, who in my view was far from “preach[ing] a fanatical individualism,” would be unjust to Emerson and counterproductive.

    We have remedies for our worst tendencies right in our own heritage, if we’ll look for them. “The Over-Soul” is a good antidote for hyperindividualism.


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