UU Generation Shift in Historical Perspective: Can we learn from the Past?

(a paper I see as an initial draft of a history chapter for an on-going book project)

Rev. Dr. Linda Weaver Horton

We often hear that the pace of social change in our time is unique. Perhaps it is no longer true that if we do not know our past we are doomed to repeat it?

Since my Sabbatical in 2013 I have been studying generation shift in our congregations and beyond. I began from a sociological perspective, but my reading quickly led to a multi-disciplinary approach.

A primary resource for my Doctoral project on “Subjective Religious Experience among UUs by Generation and Gender” was Strauss and Howe’s Generations: the History of America’s Future.               They argue we can learn much from the past, and identify a pattern of 4-generation cycles. Unitarians and Universalists are named, especially in the cycle stage called “Idealist.” Franklin’s generation, the Transcendentalists, and those who were young adults in the Social Gospel era are portrayed as precursors to the current cycle’s Boom generation.

Harvey Cox, in The Future of Faith, claims we are in a distinctly new age. He suggests that history cannot give us much direction. Diana Butler Bass, in Christianity after Religion, sees our times as the “fourth Great Awakening,” and finds lessons to be learned from the past. These periods of “awakening” are roughly parallel to Strauss and Howe’s “Idealist” generations.

The second “Great Awakening” caused consternation among our Unitarian ancestors. Yet at each of these points in history, these ancestors were part of the cultural ferment. For this study, I look at three “Idealist” generations preceding the present “Boom” generation and their relationships with the “Civic” generations that followed them. Key members of Franklin’s generation mentored and inspired leaders of Jefferson’s generation. The Missionary generation that came of age in the early 1900s supported a Civic generation that had to deal with the challenges of a Depression and World War II. But Strauss and Howe see the Transcendental generation as different. There was no ”Civic” generation in the Civil War cycle- no alliance of idealism and pragmatism that created a sense of optimism and accomplishment, despite successfully ending slavery. They suggest this is, in part, the result of the Transcendental generation’s tendencies towards individualism rather than community and polarized, often inflexible values. This is not how we tend to see the Transcendentalists. Is there truth to this perspective? If so, how does it impact our understanding of our Tradition’s history and present challenges? We need the inspiration of our idealists – at the same time, we need to build and sustain community.

If two preceding Idealist generations formed a mentoring partnership with their “Civic” juniors to the benefit of both our Tradition and society at large, and one did not yet passed on a legacy of inspiration, what about the Boomers? We see evidence of individualism and polarized thinking. Could these historical patterns give us some guidance? Theodore Roszak, in The Making of an Elder Culture, is optimistic about Boomers’ ability to become elders who support community, mentor Millennials and contribute towards making our world a better place. Can we encourage and support this direction?


The Rev. Dr. Linda Weaver Horton completed degrees in History, Anthropology, Sociology and Divinity before completing a Doctor of Divinity degree with a specialization in Religion and Society. She has recently retired from settled parish ministry after 24 years (18 of them in Canada). She was a primary author of the UUA Commission on Appraisal’s report Engaging our Theological Diversity, and in 2011 edited the Canadian Unitarian & Universalist Historical Society’s book of essays and excerpts titled Guarding Sacred Embers.