Derek McAuley, President of the Unitarian Historical Society, contributed to the Unitarian Universalist Studies Network Convocation “Widening the Circle of UU Studies” held in Chicago and online, 23 -26 March 2023. He spoke at a session on “Reckoning With Marginalised Communities in International U/U Histories”.
I am pleased to bring a British and Irish perspective to this exploration of what a “Reckoning” with our shared past might mean? Whilst I am President of the Unitarian Historical Society, like most of those involved in the Society, I am not a professional historian. British Unitarianism has, however, in comparison with our overall size, a significant group of professional ministers and lay people with historical interests. The Society has promoted the Reckoning Project and three of our Council members attend the organising group. Rev Andrew Hill was a respondent at the first webinar and I was a presenter at the second.
The Reckoning Project that highlighted that there has been very little sharing across our national boundaries. For example, the respective journals are rarely read elsewhere and are difficult to source.
From a British and Irish perspective there has always had a “Foreign” element. After all it was the name of one of the national organisations until the General Assembly was formed in 1928 – the British and Foreign Unitarian Association. However, this has to be seen in the context that Unitarianism was at its greatest strength when the UK was at the zenith of its imperial power with all its ambiguity for progressives. For example, a novel, based on fact, “When Things Come to Light” by Liz McManus, has recently been published in Dublin which shows how one family of radical Irish Unitarians participated in the business of Empire in India, and includes meeting the great British Unitarian 20th century hero, Rev Margaret Barr in Shillong.
We need to reckon with our past because to be authentic as a faith and to speak the truth to power you need to be grounded in your own truth. This means a constant search for meaning in all aspects of our past. As we study our histories we will find that “the past and the present speak to each other” to quote a recent UK book “What is History, Now?”
We do this by bringing neglected voices and topics into the “mainstream”. For example, the General Assembly, in conjunction with Harris Manchester College Oxford, has undertaken an archive project on LGBTQ+ people and British Unitarianism. It will be launched with the exhibition at the UK General Assembly Annual Meetings in April.
We are beginning to explore neglected issues. The Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society recently published two articles on the connections between philanthropy and funds generated by slavery. Rory Delany wrote about Thomas Wilson, owner of enslaved people and funder of Dublin Unitarian Church and memorialised in a window. I wrote about Rev George Case, who created a fund to support free inquiry. At least some of this wealth may have its origins with his grandfather, a merchant and slave trader from Liverpool. In both cases it is challenging to learn how abolitionists and owners of enslaved people co-existed in congregations and in society.
Another area for exploration is the connection between family history – often seen as not “real” history” – and institutional history. This can bring to light new information and new voices, especially of and about women. I was surprised to discover the obituary of Matilda McAuley, a distant family relative, in the Unitarian newspaper “The Inquirer” of 1 September 1928. She was the daughter of Rev Robert Hall, a Unitarian Minister, and was remembered for her “generosity and hospitality.” Sadly, The Inquirer is not yet available digitally.
In exploring the figure of Rev Henry Wreford, a Unitarian minister who lived in Italy for much of his life, I have also used other databases, such as Ancestry, to follow individuals and locate them within the wider and close-knit Unitarian community generating surprising insights. This brought to life his wife and daughter in their own right and not simply in relation to him.
Looking to the future the relationship between UK and American Unitarianism should be a topic to explore together as we approach the 200th anniversaries of the American Unitarian Association and the British and Foreign Unitarian Association in 2025.