Campus & Community

HDS, UUA create new professorship

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Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Professorship established

Emerson statue
Staff file photo Rose Lincoln/Harvard News Office

Less than a month after the 203rd anniversary of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s birth, Harvard Divinity School (HDS) and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) have announced the completion of funding for the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Professorship of Divinity at HDS. In recognition of the historical importance of Harvard Divinity School in preparing ministers in the Unitarian Universalist tradition and of a contemporary responsibility to educate the next generation of scholars who study this distinguished tradition, the professorship will advance studies in liberal religion, with particular attention paid to Unitarian Universalism.

Two recent financial commitments from W. Lowell and Janice Steinbrenner and the late Rev. Dr. J. Frank Schulman and his wife Alice have provided the final $500,000 to endow the professorship fully. These funds will be combined with previous donations since the late 1980s from the UUA, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, on Long Island, N.Y. (formerly the North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society), the Liberal Religious Charitable Society, and other individuals and organizations.

“This new professorship will enable Harvard Divinity School to devote much-needed scholarly attention to Unitarian Universalism and related religious and philosophical traditions, especially in North America, and will bring to HDS a scholar who can share her or his expertise and insights with our students and with the broader field of religious studies,” said William A. Graham, dean of the Divinity School. “We are honored to accept this joint gift, and look forward to appointing a scholar of distinction to this position.”

The Rev. William Sinkford, president of the UUA, said, “The creation of the Emerson professorship not only recognizes the historic relationship between Harvard Divinity School and Unitarian Universalism but will also be a foundation on which that relationship can deepen as we look to the future. Unitarian Universalism has always been committed to the development of a learned ministry for liberal religion, and the generosity of the Shelter Rock congregation and the Steinbrenner and Schulman families significantly advances this commitment. And there is no better place than Harvard Divinity School to carry on Emerson’s legacy of incisive and wide-ranging scholarship.”

The Emerson Professorship is the result of a relationship between HDS and Unitarians that dates to the early days of the School’s history. In fact, the Address of Dedication for Divinity Hall in 1826 was presented by William Ellery Channing, who a few years earlier had become the acknowledged leader of what he called “Unitarian Christianity.” Much of the subsequent ferment of Unitarian culture and, indeed, the broader ferment of nineteenth-century transcendentalist thought, were played out at the School. Although HDS has always remained firmly nondenominational, it is recognized by the UUA as one of three principal schools providing theological training to Unitarian Universalist students preparing for ministry.

A search committee for the inaugural Emerson Professor will be convened later this year, with an appointment targeted for the fall of 2007 or soon thereafter.

Schulman was a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and served in churches in Ohio and Texas during a ministry career that spanned more than five decades. He died on January 4, 2006, at the age of 78. Steinbrenner is a 1987 graduate of the School, and is the founder and former chairman of Contours Ltd., a steel company in Orrville, Ohio. He is also the founder of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Wayne County in Wooster, Ohio.

The UUA represents the interests of more than 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations. The association grew out of the consolidation, in 1961, of two religious denominations: the Universalists, organized in 1793, and the Unitarians, organized in 1825. There are approximately 218,000 Unitarian Universalists in the United States today.

Born May 25, 1803, the great American author and thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson was an HDS student and a key figure in the history of Unitarianism. His career in ministry lasted from 1826 to 1832, and included pastoral roles at several churches in the Boston area. He formulated the philosophy of transcendentalism in his essay “Nature” (1836), and, further, in his Harvard Divinity School Address of 1838.