Words Matter.

Civil War historian Bruce Catton once said that if people are going to agree on something, any words will do, but it is an infallible sign of a coming fight when people argue over the precise wording.

In Syracuse, in late October 1959, the UUA was very nearly an almost thing, simply because of a fight over the wording of the Statement of Principles. As Warren Ross explains in The Premise and the Promise: The story of the Unitarian Universalist Association, there were three factions: traditional theists, who wanted to include references to our Christian heritage; Universalists who wanted references to prophets and teachers from all traditions; and humanists who wanted no God language at all. The first draft from the Merger Commission included God, excluded Jesus, and sounded like a creed.

No one was happy.

And the argument over this one set of words nearly derailed the entire endeavor. Ross says that subsequent revisions were proposed and defeated during an unscheduled session that went late into the wee hours of the morning. Even in the middle of the night, delegates were knocking on each others’ doors with proposals and better wording – finally ending with a very particular, specifically-chosen pronoun: not “our Judeo-Christian heritage” but “the Judeo-Christian heritage.”

Because of a pronoun, the endeavor was saved and the consolidation went forward.


Is it any wonder there is still a great deal of contention within Unitarian Universalism over what seem to be key issues regarding theology? Is it any wonder one of the most painfully fitting jokes about us is that we’re terrible hymn singers, because we’re always reading ahead to see if we agree with the lyrics?

In some ways, Ross’s book points to the very truth Catton spoke of; we have spent the last 52 years quibbling over some pretty big ideas that we are trying to encompass within our expansive denomination… and those fights get expressed in semantics. I recall a floor fight on a motion during the 2005 UUMN conference that was all semantics and ultimately got shelved thanks to some fancy interpretations of parliamentary procedure. We see it all the time within our congregations (“sacred” is okay, but not “holy”).

So what are we really doing? Are we fulfilling Catton’s belief that we have more to fight about than agree upon? Or are we the example that proves the rule – that our constant and abiding fights over semantics make us stronger and more united? I’d like to think our quibbles over language reflect our deep care for expression and inclusion.

It’s not a bad reflection on us. Words matter; let us be masters of our words so we can nurture spirits and help heal the world.



1 Comment

  1. A long time ago! I lived in Syracuse in 1959–the image of the city is from a later time, or at least some of the buildings are from a later time; fun to see in the pic the old Baptist Church (now defunct, but the historical building is there, unused as of last count). It has the squarish steeple; the church had the Mizpah Restaurant and a hotel in the same building, and the sanctuary had stained glass in the ceiling artificially lit from behind, I think. The pointy high steeple is the Episcopal Cathedral, where I went to my first early music concert ever in the 60’s. The old Betts Memorial Universalist Church was still downtown in 1959, but not much longer; the building was sold and torn down for a parking lot, and rebuilt at the edge of town. –as an adolescent I played the organ for the last service in the building, because the long-time organist,, Bertha Mulford, had had a stroke a few months before). The organ was an old pneumatic action instrument the hissed from all the leaks in the pneumatic tubes. Betts Memorial was where I went to church–a congregation very much in a Christian tradition at that time; the congregation and minister (Dr. Ellsworth Reamon) were for God and Jesus words in the debate you mention. I haven’t lived in Syracuse since 1965. Pardon all the reminiscing–but your entry and the pic brought back memories of that debate and my church’s part in it (and, obviously, lots of other things!).


Comments are closed.