Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence

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The Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence is an institution that practices Unitarian Universalism (UU), a pluralistic liberal religion that welcomes and accepts people of all religious identities into its congregations. There are, as of 2019, 192,820 members of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), the governing body of the religion [1]. The UUA is the offspring of two Christian denominations: the Unitarians, who believed that God was one whole unit instead of three parts, and the Universalists, who believed that all people could achieve salvation. Unitarianism finds its roots in progressive Christian thought, with leaders who opposed some of Calvinism’s core beliefs (especially predestination). Universalism has its origins in German and English religious philosophies, and it came to Boston in the 18th century; the Universalists are most known for founding various American universities. The Unitarians and Universalists merged in 1961 to form Unitarian Universalism, after both religions’ populations declined in the first half of the 20th century.

Even though the UUA was formed by the merger of two Christian groups, UU no longer identifies as a Christian denomination and instead operates as an organized religion with secular principles. UU’s main beliefs are the Seven Principles, which do not impose one way of faith or reaching enlightenment on members. Instead, the Principles stress the idea that there are multiple paths to discovering meaning in one’s life and encourage practitioners to find their own truths, regardless of their religious affiliations [2]. These shared agreements are intended to inform communal decisions, as opposed to streamlining the beliefs of practitioners; they are not creedal in the Catholic sense. Because of the open-ended beliefs, anyone of any religious (or non-religious) background can be a Unitarian Universalist. Similarly, UU does not subscribe to any one holy book or an official deity—UUs offer prayers about human growth, rather than God-centered growth, recited at every worship service. Their services are focused on character values, including forgiveness and civic engagement, and promote the acceptance of different religions’ traditions through prayers, hymns, and discussions led by the clergy-people. Though they do not have many rituals, the lighting of a special lamp called the Chalice is a ritual practice common to most UU congregations. Overall, UU is focused on reason and personal understandings of spirituality; subsequently, it attracts mostly converts. Most importantly, UU is dedicated to social justice; it is a “hands-on” religion, where activism is an integral part of the religious experience. Soon after UU’s formation, the UUA leaders became involved in the civil rights, feminist, and LGBT rights movements. The UUA members codified their acceptance of racial and sexual minorities and women into its theology.

The Second Congregational Society of Northampton was established in 1825, and it was an important break from the Puritan and Calvinist traditions that had dominated the area. The Free Congregational Society of Florence was formally established in 1863 by a manifesto. In 1874, two members of the Congregational Society “financed the building of a grand meetinghouse called Cosmian Hall,” where such important liberal thinkers as Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and Susan B. Anthony gave speeches [3]. The Northampton congregation was generally more conservative and smaller than the Florence one was. Similar to the Unitarians and Universalists as a whole, both the Northampton and Florence congregations dramatically decreased in numbers through World War II (when both churches had a total membership of 50 people). In 1944, both churches voted to merge with each other. The merger as the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence was finally completed in 1975. The current Northampton congregation is more active than ever: “Our building bursts with activity on Sundays and throughout the week, with visitors, newer folks, and longstanding members who are eager to ensure our continued role in nurturing and sustaining the vitality of the congregation and supporting our active participation in the greater community” [4]. It is currently a member of the broader UUA, and it is self-governed [5].

[1] “UUA Membership Statistics, 1961-2016,” UUA.org (Unitarian Universalist Association, April 8, 2019), https://www.uua.org/data/demographics/uua-statistics

[2] “Unitarian Universalist Principles.” LICF.org

[3] “History,” Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, 2018, https://www.uunorthampton.org/our-congregation/our-congregation/history

[4] “History,” Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence.

[5] Melinda Shaw, About USNF (Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, 2018), https://www.uunorthampton.org/our-congregation/our-congregation/about-usnf