UU Minute #110

The Free Religious Association

1865. It was a time when new ways of understanding were breaking out. On one front, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species had just come out. On another front, English translations of Hindu, Buddhist, and Daoist texts were newly becoming available, and many Unitarians were reading them. Minds were being blown right and left.

So when, that year, the first Unitarian national conference was held and adopted a denominational constitution with a preamble that said Unitarians were "disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ" devoted to “the service of God and the building-up of the kingdom of his son" there was some opposition to that.

In 1866, in Syracuse, at the second National Conference of Unitarian Churches, the radicals renewed their argument against the statement about Jesus, which they said was a creed. They moved to have the statement dropped, but were outvoted 2-1.

A number of them subsequently met in Boston and, in 1867, formed the Free Religious Association – the FRA. Its purposes were:
(1) promote interests of pure religion;
(2) encourage scientific study of religion;
(3) increase fellowship of the spirit.

“sought the universal element in all religion and grounded that search in a scientific approach to human nature and the external world.” (William Schulz)
The first one to sign the membership list was Ralph Waldo Emerson himself.

The FRA members who had been Unitarian continued to be Unitarians – they didn't leave that behind. But the FRA also included nonUnitarian members – a smattering of Universalists, Quakers, and at least one Jewish rabbi. Through their publications and meetings, the FRA was a voice for radical religious thought – though it never established churches or developed a program.

Slowly, the FRA grew. And the controversy around the Unitarians’ Christian creedal statement continued.

NEXT: The Year-Book Controversy

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