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Wright, Conrad (1917-2011)

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Biographical Introduction

A leading historian of American Unitarianism, C. Conrad Wright has led a movement in the reinterpretation of Unitarian history that has both influenced American historians and literary scholars. He has stressed the indigenous origins of the American Unitarian movements, locating them in the Arminian theology of 18th-century New England. Those liberals who called themselves Arminians did so “not because they were directly influenced by Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), the Dutch Remonstrant, but because their reaction to Calvinism was similar to his,” Wright wrote in his The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (1955).

Thus it was in the reaction to the Puritan Calvinism of the New England churches that liberal Christianity took shape. At issue was their rejection of the doctrine of original sin, a “supernatural rationalism” that stressed the need for both human reason and biblical revelation, and an Arian Christology that rejected the doctrine of the Trinity in orthodox Calvinism.

Wright is the author of The Liberal Christians (1979), Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing, Emerson, Parker (1986), and the co-author of A Stream of Light: A Sesquicentennial History of American Unitarianism (1975). He was also responsible for another monograph, Congregational Polity: A Historical Survey of Unitarian Universalist Practice (1997); two volumes of his collected essays The Unitarian Controversy: Essays in American Unitarian History (1994); Walking Together: Polity and Participation in Unitarian Universalist Churches (1989); and an edited volume of readings, Religion in American Life: Selected Readings (1972).

— Abridged from Philosopedia

A Son’s Appreciation
by Conrad Edick Wright, son of Conrad Wright

Conrad Wright

Conrad Wright. Photo courtesy of Nielson Wright.

I’d like to share a small secret with you. But don’t become too excited at the prospect of the revelation of a transgression hidden deep within some Wright family closet. It has to do with the professional discipline that my father and I both pursue.

The history Ph.D. is, of course, a research degree. It requires course work and a dissertation, and it prepares the recipient for a career as a scholar. But even most history Ph.D.s are unaware that the majority of people in the field never publish and that most of those who do write publish very little, often little more than an article or two or an occasional book review. Teaching, advising, and administration occupy most of the daily working hours for the great majority of college faculty members, who can never quite find the time or the energy to finish long delayed projects. Figures circulated a few years ago—which were so shocking that to this day I have trouble believing them—indicated that something like 5 percent of history Ph.D.s had published anything and roughly half that number had published more than infrequently.

What does this small secret have to do with my father’s life? It is simply this: historians who are active scholars are rare enough; those whose scholarship is enduring, whose scholarship makes a difference, are even more uncommon. My father’s writings have endured—have made a difference—in how scholars and Unitarian Universalists alike look at the Unitarian Universalist denomination.

There are two ways to make an enduring difference as a scholar. One is to write about an ignored subject and show us why we should care about it. In recent years, for example, talented historians have shown us why we should be interested in the stories of such groups as women, African Americans, Native Americans, and gays. From a professional standpoint, the discovery of these groups—how could we ever have ignored their existence?—has resulted in several growth industries, as energetic and committed investigators have explored previously forgotten byways. The other way to make a difference is to show us a new way to look at something that we think we already understand. Here is where we will find my father’s major contribution both to historical scholarship and to his denomination.

Wright family

Silhouettes of the members of Conrad Wright’s parents’ family. Photo courtesy of Nielson Wright.

In this series, we are asked to look at accomplished Unitarians in America between 1936 and 1961, but for the historiography of my father the key dates actually lie much closer together—1955 and 1961. The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America appeared in 1955, and Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism came out in 1961. These books, together with some titles by other authors that appeared at about the same time (notably The Transcendentalist Ministers, by William R. Hutchison, a long-time fellow member of the Divinity School’s faculty) proposed two vital changes in our understanding of the history of American Unitarianism.

Ask a Unitarian parish minister in 1955 to discuss the origins of American Unitarianism, and if he were relatively young the odds are that he (it was almost always a he) would think back to seminary, where he had read Earl Morse Wilbur’s History of Unitarianism. Wilbur’s History, published in two volumes in 1945 and 1952, drew on themes he had first laid out in 1925 in Our Unitarian Heritage. Wilbur’s writings, which drew on quite substantial research in primary sources, primarily traced the history of Unitarian beliefs in Europe, especially Eastern Europe.

Conrad and Elizabeth

Conrad with his wife, Elizabeth. Photo courtesy of Nielson Wright.

When my father’s Beginnings of Unitarianism came out in 1955, perhaps its central objective, at least for Unitarian readers, was to protect misguided enthusiasts from drawing the mistaken inference from Wilbur that to find our roots we had to look somewhere in Eastern Europe. A student of Perry Miller, the great Harvard scholar of American Puritanism, my father recognized the indigenous New England origins of American Unitarianism. These roots lay in the answer that provincial New Englanders offered to a frequently asked question. “What must I do to be saved?” The customary Calvinist answer to this question, informed by the doctrine of predestination, is “nothing.” That is to say, your fate is in God’s hands, and nothing you can do can affect the outcome.

The founders of churches such as the First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts, adhered to traditional Calvinist answers to questions about salvation, but even in the seventeenth century many New Englanders were uncomfortable at the stern and unyielding nature of the doctrines they espoused. The principal accomplishment of The Beginning of Unitarianism in America was to trace the indigenous origins of our movement, which the author found in the reaction of many New Englanders against Calvinist predestinarianism. The key figures in this story, including such Massachusetts ministers as Charles Chauncy, Ebenezer Gay, and Jonathan Mayhew—denominated then and since by the term Arminian—proposed that while the final decision on salvation was God’s alone, men and women prepared themselves for a happy outcome by leading virtuous lives.

In this telling, American Unitarianism grew out of Puritan roots, not from an Eastern European origin. In scholarly circles, it is the account offered in The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America that has won the field of controversy. Outside the pages of the writings of some of our ministers, it is difficult to find anyone today who makes a serious attempt to connect Wilbur’s European research to the origins of the American Unitarian movement.

The second important reinterpretation of Unitarian history in which my father played a central role by 1961 involved the relationship beginning in the 1830s between mainstream Unitarians and adherents to the Transcendentalist movement. Traditional wisdom emphasized the tensions between the two groups, the divisions that sundered them, but in their writings my father and William Hutchison both taught that mainstream and Transcendentalist doctrines nourished each other. In Hutchison’s important 1959 book, The Transcendentalist Ministers, he went on to show that most prominent Transcendentalists also maintained a formal institutional relationship to Unitarianism. To be sure, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the best known of the Transcendentalists, left his pulpit in favor of an independent career as a lecturer, but his case was out of the ordinary. For the most part, leading Transcendentalists remained Unitarian.

The most important consequence of revisionist writings on the Transcendentalists was to recast them not as rebels against Unitarianism but as the reform wing of the denomination. All of a sudden, important links between the two groups became obvious. Perhaps the most important of these connections involved the doctrine of self-culture. In the tradition of the Arminians, who emphasized the individual’s role in preparing himself or herself for salvation, such nineteenth-century writers as Emerson and William Ellery Channing made self-improvement the cardinal obligation of the virtuous man or woman.

Neither of the scholarly developments I have just described was solely my father’s work. Like every historian, he built on the research of others, and he also depended on colleagues and students to engage with him in a cooperative effort to recast our understanding of the Unitarian past. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that in fundamental ways our knowledge of Unitarian history was shaped by his research and writing.

A Tribute to Conrad Wright
by David M. Robinson, Distinguished Professor of American Literature, Oregon State University

Conrad studying

Conrad at his studies, circa 1929. Photo courtesy of Nielson Wright.

A detached observer, who knew something of American religious history but little of contemporary American academic life, would no doubt assume that Unitarian historiography would be teeming with practitioners. After all, here is the richest vein, the most fertile soil. The Unitarians were the theological innovators and risk-takers. The tradition is rich in both speculative theology and ethical reasoning. Their ministers had surpassing erudition, and were among the leaders in the extension of theological premises to social reform. And for rhetorical eloquence and literary attainment, they beat the other denominations all hollow. Yet despite this embarrassment of historical riches, it is hardly the case that the field of Unitarian history is overrun. And it is not because Unitarians burn their evidence behind them, as evidenced by the repositories at Harvard, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Boston Athenaeum, and elsewhere.

Conrad Wright’s distinguished and continuing accomplishment in Unitarian history should remind us of a profound irony—the difficulty of being a Unitarian historian.

If you engage Unitarianism as an historian, that is, as one who is professionally identified primarily with teaching and research in university departments of history, you are cast under the suspicion of the possible use of history for denominational special pleading. If you conduct work in Unitarian history from within the field of religious studies, you are apt to be marginalized for some of the same reasons that Unitarian Universalism itself is marginalized in American Protestantism—suspicion of its tradition of seemingly radical departures from the development of mainstream Protestantism, and even for the fact of the denomination’s small numbers, and presumed lack of influence. If, like me, you approach Unitarian history from a department of literature, where a surprising amount of recent Unitarian history has originated, or from the field of American Studies that has been heavily conditioned by literary concerns, your work may well be regarded by your peers as a groping around in some very dry bones of the past, worse because they are the bones of Boston Brahmins, one of the several categories of elite groups who are very much out of fashion in contemporary cultural wars.

Viewed in the broader context of American religious and cultural history, the Unitarian movement seems inescapably central to any account of key cultural developments in America—the transformation of American Protestantism, especially the decline of Calvinism, the formation of American educational institutions and traditions, the formation of a sustainable tradition of liberalism in politics and social thought, the formation of charitable and philanthropic organizations, and the formation of a secular national literature.

The most distinctive characteristic of Unitarianism, as we view it in the context of other American Protestant denominations, is its declared creedlessness. The creedlessness that marks Unitarian Universalism as the denomination of intellectual freedom, innovation, and theological achievement remains perhaps the most crucial element of its spiritual heritage. But creedlessness can speak only partially to the need for religious self-identity, and when one searches for a more positive and sustaining answer to the dilemma of religious self-identity, the best alternative to a hazy and disengaged relativism, and the only alternative that preserves the principle of creedlessness, is history. Unitarian Universalists must come to know who they are, I would propose, by understanding who they have been.


Young Conrad Wright. Photo courtesy of Nielson Wright.

We pay tribute to Conrad Wright by recognizing both his sustaining role as a historian of Unitarianism, and the larger value that all such historical work potentially entails. Consider the work he has done, I would emphasize three particular insights that constitute the legacy of Wright’s work, a legacy that I judge to be crucial both to American historians and to Unitarian Universalists.

To begin with, Wright has located Unitarian origins and established the context for Unitarian development in the history of New England Congregationalism. Yes, tour Eastern Massachusetts and look at its historic churches, and it is an obvious point. Wright’s classic study, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America, described in precise detail how Calvinism carried its shadow with it to the new world in the form of the heresy known as Arminianism.

As Wright demonstrated, Calvinism’s efforts to purge and renew itself, notably the Great Awakening of the middle eighteenth-century, inevitably strengthened the very object of its deepest concern and fear. The intense effort of Calvinists to reaffirm and revivify their creedal affirmations inevitably suggested the liberal alternative that they were designed to repress. And the strength with which Calvinism struggled to assert and reassert its claims is evidence of the growing influence of the Arminian alternative. Wright’s study reminds us of how alive with dissent the seemingly monolithic Puritan religious culture was almost from the beginning and, in a larger sense, helps us understand the essentially symbiotic relationship between the conservative and liberal strands of the American Protestant tradition.

The recognition of origins that Wright’s book continues to offer us is initially important not because it offers Unitarian Universalists a piece, as it were, of the Mayflower ancestry, but for quite the opposite reason. It reminds us of the bounded and parochial origins of a denomination whose aspirations are often global or cosmic. In this respect, one of the most impressive accomplishments of The Beginnings of Unitarianism is Wright’s communication of a sense of gradual, organic progress which typified the metamorphosis of Congregationalism and resulted finally in the Unitarian schism. Moreover, Wright’s knowledge that Unitarianism is anchored in this congregational past has allowed him to comment with unusual lucidity on one of the most persistent tensions in Unitarianism, the relative roles of the individual congregant and the larger congregation. Wright’s establishment of the emergence of Unitarianism from the larger diversities and instabilities of Puritan Calvinism, often wrongly thought of as monolithic in its identity, generated, I believe, a second important aspect of his legacy, one of particular importance to scholars like me who are engaged in the study of New England Transcendentalism.

Wright’s contributions to the scholarly discourse of Transcendentalism have been salient, chiefly by serving as a counter to the tendency of literary scholars to transcend the historical grounding of their subject. I have an unshakable conviction that literature to be understood thoroughly must be understood historically, and that such an historical grasp of literature is not at all opposed to aesthetic pleasure but one of its crucial elements.

Wright working

Conrad working at home. Photo courtesy of Nielson Wright.

That seems to me powerfully the case with the literature of Transcendentalism, chiefly because so much of it was religious discourse arising out of very specific theological contexts, aspiring to a larger universal status as literature. While such exclusively literary concerns have not been those of Professor Wright, he has helped to open for literary scholars an entire explanatory category for this situation by noting the again obvious fact that Transcendentalism arose from, and should be read as an integral aspect of, nineteenth-century Unitarianism. The impressive thing about Wright’s focus on the Unitarian context of Transcendentalism is that, while it is in some respects a restraining influence, it does not close down the subject, but opens it. Wright’s exemplary return to the historical record is powerfully invigorating, chiefly because that record is itself so rich and surprisingly various.

Wright’s most influential essay for literary scholars, “Emerson, Barzillai Frost, and The Divinity School Address,” advanced a trenchant argument for viewing Emerson’s Divinity School Address, a text whose crucial place in both the American historical record and American literary canon was assured, as rooted in a very determinate local situation, even, one might be tempted to say, in the trivialities of professional rivalry, personal ambition, and Emerson’s vocational indecision. The operative sentence in the essay reads as follows: “It has not been appreciated that crucial passages of [The Divinity School Address] were originally specific criticisms of one particular minister, later generalized and made anonymous for a public occasion.”

Much of what will have continuing value in Wright’s work is exemplified in that sentence, for it suggests the power of careful scrutiny grounded in a body of detailed and particular knowledge.

The effect of the essay was to take Emerson off his pedestal, an act that Wright has performed with I believe some relish in several other places as well. By localizing Emerson’s complaint about dead preaching to the rather special case of his pastor Frost, Wright was able to open the larger question of the tradition of preaching that nurtured Emerson himself. Thus by returning to the historical record to locate Emerson’s remarks within their immediate setting, Wright in the long run helped open the much larger question of what assumptions about preaching, and what examples of it, had formulated Emerson’s own achievement as a preacher and lecturer.

I have been speaking here as an academic trooper in the critical wars, but those of you without a professional stake in the course of American literary criticism or Transcendentalist historiography will appreciate one larger implication of such work for Unitarianism. Insofar as the denomination has had significant historical impact on American culture, and insofar as Unitarianism has significant historical recognition in the larger public mind, it is in large measure through the work of the Transcendentalists. Unitarian Universalists are, that is to say, of the religion of Emerson, Parker, Thoreau, and Fuller. But such a legacy may present difficulties to those Unitarian Universalists who have some awareness of the historical situation of Transcendentalism. Emerson resigned his ministry, Parker was in conflict with influential elements of Unitarianism, Thoreau signed off from the Concord church, and Fuller, as a woman, saw no public or professional place for herself in the Unitarian Church. Unitarians have had to accept Transcendentalism as a legacy of rebellion.

Wright at MIT

MIT faculty photo, late 1940s. Photo courtesy of Nielson Wright.

Wright has warned us of the danger of an uncritical use of the Transcendentalist legacy, and we must bear his caution about destructive individualism in mind. But I am also convinced that Transcendentalism remains one of Unitarian Universalism’s most important intellectual and spiritual resources, one that is more likely to be neglected these days than overused. The Henry W. Bellows legacy of churchmanship that Wright’s work has revived is vital, but appreciation of Bellows requires a certain connoisseurship, born of some deep experience with the care and sustenance of institutions. Bellows may not always be the best ammunition for the minister seeking to engage and, yes, increase a congregation. Preach Emerson, then, even while you run your church like Bellows.

This mention of Bellows leads me to the third aspect of Wright’s achievement, a renewed emphasis on the importance of communal and institutional concerns and traditions within Unitarian Universalism. In a sense, this concern has been the foundation of the earlier points I have made. This emphasis, when applied to the concerns of contemporary Unitarian Universalism, has generated Wright’s most prophetic work, his reexamination of the problems entailed by the privileged place of individualism within American liberal religion, and his call for a renewed doctrine of the church.

Conrad and Elizabeth

Conrad with his daughter, Elizabeth. Photo courtesy of Nielson Wright.

As he argued in his 1979 essay “Individualism in Historical Perspective,” the individualistic strand of American Unitarianism is a particular instance of a problem within the Western intellectual tradition itself. Wright centers his critique on Jefferson and Emerson, but as he explains, they are representative men: “In Jefferson and Emerson, the tendency toward the privatization of religion, and consequently the atrophy of its corporate dimension, was carried further than it was by other religious liberals. Yet Emerson’s atomic individualism is merely a more extreme version of tendencies widely apparent.” The operative phrase in his critique is “the privatization of religion,” and the thrust of this and a good many other of his pieces, now collected in the volume Walking Together is the inadequacy of such a view of religion. For Wright, a religious life must be sustained through a discovery and continual reeffirmation of a shared bond with others. That conviction is perhaps best articulated in the lead essay of Walking Together “A Doctrine of the Church for Liberals,” in which Wright returns to Puritan Congregationalism to expound a concept of the “covenant” as the basis for the church, “by which the members agreed to walk together in mutual fellowship.” Both a voluntary and a binding document, the covenant mediated the demands of individual conscience and social cohesion. As Wright comments, “A church united by a covenant is made up of people who have made commitments to one another.” Those commitments, and the actions and experiences that arise from them, are a crucial aspect of religious experience.

This prophetic dimension of Wright’s work, increasingly evident in the last two decades, is of course closely connected to his historical research, and it is the nature of this connection that deserves a final comment. Wright’s work has invested Henry W. Bellows with much historical authority, for Bellows, as Wright has shown us, understood the corporate and institutional dimension of religion, and worked effectively to bolster it within Unitarianism. The connection between Wright’s historical rehabilitation of Bellows and his call for a reexamination of the doctrine of the church in contemporary Unitarian Universalism should be obvious. But in the organic development of Wright’s work, it seems to me that Bellows was more than a convenient vehicle for Wright’s views.

Wright reading

Conrad reading in the living room. Photo courtesy of Nielson Wright.

Bellows himself had felt the powerful influence of the call of Emersonian self-culture, and had come to his convictions about the institutional grounding of religion after profound struggle, as is evidenced in the confessional qualities of his key sermon, “The Suspense of Faith. ” He was far from a one-dimensional figure. Bellows’s wisdom was bought with the price of experience, and his work was not a rejection of one form of the Unitarian past in favor of a different one, but a building from the past to meet the requirements of new circumstances. As Wright noted in his narrative of Bellows’s work to establish the National Conference, it was not only the radicals of the Free Religious Association who opposed him, although that is the debate which is best remembered, but also some of the most conservative of the Unitarians, who were excessively protective of congregational polity and unwilling to sacrifice any of their ancient authority to a larger body. Bellows’s work of negotiating between Transcendentalist self-culture and the institutional requirements of the modern religious sensibility was complex, and the understanding with which he approached it was similarly complex. None of this is smoothed over or simplified in Wright’s account. To put it more plainly, Wright’s essay shows us that he learned from Bellows, not merely about him.

The essay offers us a clear example not only of Wright’s passion for accuracy in the historical record, but of his stance of humility before his subject. We might think of this as a desire not to “make use” of history, but allow it to mold us and refocus our concerns. Humility is, we must confess, a virtue that has never been in great supply either among historians or among Unitarians. Such humility before one’s subject, a humility that in the deepest sense is open to the experience of history and its transformative possibilities, is an important lesson. It accounts in large part for the impact of Conrad Wright’s work, and explains why it will endure.

— Abridged from of The Proceedings of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society: Essays in Celebration of the Seventy-fifth Birthday of Conrad Wright, Volume 22, Part 2, 1992-1994.

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

The Living Legacy of C. Conrad Wright, papers from a 2011 memorial forum at Harvard Divinity School offered by Harvard Square Library.

“Henry W. Bellows and the Organization of the National Conference,” by Conrad Wright