MINISTERIAL CAREERS IN THE 19TH CENTURY AMONG THE UNITARIANS AND UNIVERSALISTS

Avery (Pete) Guest

This paper will study the careers of Unitarian and Universalist ministers who were born in New Hampshire in the 18th and 19th Centuries. It emphasizes two types of careers: professional and populist.

Professional careers are based on the assumption that ministers need to develop superior intellectual and personal skills that are typically learned by attendance at colleges and divinity schools. The assumption is that the minister must be an intellectual and social leader relative to his congregation — knowing more than they do about the nature of religious issues and being able to communicate advanced ideas about the relationships of individuals to God.

In contrast, the populist model holds that the minister is simply first among equals in the congregation. The primary goal of the minister is using the reference points and normal methods of communication among the parishioners to achieve an empathy that leads to trust and respect. The minister becomes more a conduit of the holy spirit than a leader to educate the congregation.

The nature of ministerial careers may be measured by whether the individual attended a college and/or divinity school. True populist ministers did neither, generally depending on personal apprenticeships with already established ministers or by life experiences such as gradually becoming an expert in speaking to audiences about religious issues. In the contemporary 21st Century, most ministers have “professional” training. In the past, however, many denominations such as the Baptists and Methodists relied heavily on populist ministers.

The data for the paper are drawn from Rev. Nathan F. Carter’s encyclopedia of the life histories of over 2,500 ministers (New Hampshire-born) from all denominations, published in 1906. Carter reports that he spent over 30 years in an obsessive effort to collect the material. The individual histories typically report vital information about the minister, the names of his parents, educational histories, and records of career settlement (with dates). For my purposes, I will focus on the approximately 110 ministers who identified with the Universalists and the 80 ministers who considered themselves Unitarians. All the individuals were practicing ministers at some point in the 19th Century, although some careers involved the previous and subsequent centuries.

I find that roughly half the ministers (90 out of 190) were “populist”, having never attended college or divinity school. At the other extreme, only 34 were truly professional, following the contemporary strategy of attending college and then becoming certified through formal training at a divinity school. There are quite striking differences by age and denomination. In particular, the older ministers in the Universalist denomination were strikingly populist, although this changed dramatically in the 19th Century. Unitarian ministers were more uniformly professional throughout the 19th Century.

After delineating these types, I will be concerned with understanding their determinants. Besides age and denomination, I know some other possible determinants such as the occupations of their fathers, the size and industrial bases of their home communities in New Hampshire, and the nature of their non-ministerial careers before becoming ordained. In turn, these characteristics and their ministerial type will be used to study the nature of the ministerial career, including the types of communities where they preached, the geographical dispersal of their ministerial assignments, and the tendency to move among church assignments.