Two hundred years ago, Andover Theological Seminary was established by Congregationalists who felt that Harvard College, then the center of theological education, was too liberal. In 1806, a growing split within the Congregational churches, known as the “Unitarian Controversy,” came to a full boil on the campus of Harvard College.

The appointment of the Hollis Professorship of Divinity at Harvard had been put off for many years because of tensions between liberals and the more orthodox Calvinists. This theological battle soon divided many of the oldest churches in Massachusetts and began to impact church polity and the hiring of ministers.

When the Harvard Overseers appointed a well known liberal, Henry Ware, to the Hollis Chair in 1805, the Calvinists withdrew to organize and found a new school, Andover Theological Seminary, in 1807. This act, covered widely in the national press, was one of the significant events that contributed to the split in the denominations.

In the present day, Congregationalists are mainly represented by the United Church of Christ (UCC) and Unitarians by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). In 1957, the United Church of Christ formed through the organic union of the Evangelical and Reformed Church with the General Council of Congregational Christian Churches. In 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Association was formed by the union of the American Unitarian Association (founded in 1825) and the Universalists (founded in 1793).

In 1965, Andover Theological Seminary formally merged with Newton Theological Institution to become Andover Newton Theological School.

On October 25, 2006, Andover Newton Theological School hosted an historic dialogue between the national leaders of the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The event was moderated by the Rev. Dr. Nick Carter, President of Andover Newton.

Dr. Elizabeth Nordbeck, Moses Brown Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Andover Newton set the stage for Rev. John Thomas, General Minister and President of the UCC. Dr. John Buehrens, minister of First Parish in Needham (UUA), author and former president of the UUA, introduced Rev. William Sinkford, President of the UUA.

Speaking to a standing room only crowd, the panelists debated each other amicably, recognizing that religious pluralism is a blessing rather than a curse and that progressive religion needs to understand itself better. Amid good natured ribbing and a fair amount of laughter, serious attention was paid to the challenges and opportunities facing the UUA and the UCC both jointly and individually. Both men challenged Andover Newton to nurture that dialogue as it approaches its own bicentennial year.

The brainchild of the moderator, Andover Newton’s President, the Rev. Dr. Nick Carter, the forum served as an inspiring prelude to the Andover Newton bicentennial year as the school continues to refine its curriculum with an emphasis on religious pluralism and border crossing. Long known as the nation’s oldest school of graduate theological education, Andover Newton is also becoming the newest as it seeks new strategies to give the next generation of church and community leaders the necessary tools to work in a divided and suffering world.

Indeed, in an irony of history, the pendulum appears to be swinging back as the Andover Newton student body now includes a large number of Unitarian Universalist students. But while many were anxious that the forum itself indicated the possibility of a merger, the outcome of the debate seemed to center on collaboration rather than amalgamation; on constructive plurality, rather than lowest-common-denominator unity. Both seek to support a strong liberal religious voice, but compared that voice to that of a family with a common ancestry but a variety of members.

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