In 1969 the Universalist Historical Society (UHS) engaged Russell E. Miller, University Archivist and Dickson Professor of English and American History at Tufts University, a United Church of Christ layperson, to write a modern history of Universalism in America. In undertaking this vast project it pledged “a large proportion of its treasury to finance the research and writing” and gave him “an absolutely free hand” to tell the story as the sources revealed it. The motion to begin was made by Carl Seaburg, chair of the society’s Fund for Universalist Studies Committee, which had been charged with commissioning a new history and raising the necessary funds, and passed unanimously by the Directors of the Society.
The result was a detailed comprehensive institutional study in two volumes – reminiscent of Richard Eddy’s massive two-volume history of the denomination written a century earlier, and also supported by the UHS. After careful editing by Carl Seaburg, The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770-1870 came out in 1979 and The Larger Hope: The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1870-1970 in 1985. While both bore the imprint of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), they were published for the Universalist Historical Society and its successor organization the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. Funding came from the UHS endowment and the support of individuals and Unitarian Universalist churches and organizations.
The author, Russell E. Miller (1916-1993), was born in Bloomington, Minnesota and grew up in Florida. He attended the University of Florida at Gainesville, earning a B.A. in education, 1937, and an M.A. in political science, 1939. His early teaching was at the University of Florida. He served in the United States Army Air Corps, 1942-46.
After the war, at Princeton University, he earned his second M.A., in history, in 1958. He joined the history department of Tufts University while continuing his studies at Princeton for his Ph.D., 1952. He spent the rest of his teaching career at Tufts. In 1980, when he retired, he was chair of the history department, Dickson Professor of English and American History, and university archivist. Tufts made him an Emeritus Professor the next year and in 1983 gave him an honorary Doctor of Letters degree.
His Princeton thesis, on Abel Parker Upshur, was a study in antebellum social and political philosophy. His first book, co-authored with Ruhl J. Bartlett and Mary Williams, was The People and Politics of Latin America, 1958. In 1964, due to his interest in American higher education, he was appointed university archivist. He then wrote a two-volume history of the university: Light on the Hill: A History of Tufts College 1852-1952, 1966, and Light on the Hill: A History of Tufts University Since 1952, 1986.
Tufts had been founded by the Universalist denomination and the Universalist role in the University’s development occupied a large portion of its history. This was Miller’s introduction to Universalism. As he did his research he published two articles in the Annual Journal of the Universalist Historical Society: “Hosea Ballou 2d: Scholar and Educator”, 1959, and “Universalism and Sectarian Education Before 1860”, 1962. In 1984 The Proceedings of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society published his “A History of Universalist Education.” This was the first draft of his account of Universalist theological education endeavors, which, in the second volume of the The Larger Hope, was cut about fifty percent. As part of the 200th anniversary of American Universalism, in 1972 he gave the main address, “Universalist Contributions to Social Change,” at “A celebration of Heritage and Hope” sponsored by the UHS and other groups at the Arlington Street Church in Boston.
Miller took a leave of absence from his Tufts duties for the school year 1970-71 to work full-time on the project. The UHS underwrote his financial needs for this period. After this year, he returned to his Tufts’ responsibilities, and devoted part of his time to the history. During this period he was also researching and writing the second volume of his history of Tufts.
While on sabbatical Miller made three trips outside of Boston to visit libraries, local churches, ministers, and laity. He wrote reports on each of these fact finding tours: “We are all riding into history”; “Report on second southern trip (March 28-April 13, 1971)”; and “UHS Mid-Western trip, May 12-June 14, 1971.” From the beginning of the project it was his practice to attend all regularly scheduled meetings of the Board of Directors to report on his work and activities and to answer questions.
After the 1976 transfer of the UHS Library from Tufts to the Harvard Divinity School Library, Miller spent one day a week at Harvard working in the office of its Curator of Manuscripts. He became an “honorary member” of the library staff. Those visits continued even after the second volume was published. Indeed, upon that occasion, the library gave him a public reception attended by Jean Mayer, the president of Tufts. Mayer, a Unitarian Universalist, praised Miller for his accomplishment.
The Larger Hope received thoughtful reviews in Unitarian Universalist and general scholarly publications. In the UU World, the official UUA journal, Dorothy Tilden Spoerl noted that it was an excellent book for scholars but felt that the general reader would probably be “lost in the forest of minutiae.” Nevertheless, she concluded, “our UU ministers and directors of religious education, will be derelict in their obligations if they do not read” it. Charles Howe, Unitarian Universalist minister and historian, in the independent Unitarian Universalist quarterly Kairos said, “In writing this book, Dr. Miller has rendered a great service not only to all those interested in American church history, but to all Unitarian Universalists as well [for] it is the product of careful, competent scholarship.” In The Proceedings of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, William C. Saunders, while noting that the book was “a treasure chest” and “a marvelous compendium” of names, dates, and facts, regretted that the study lacked “the sweep of Universalist history . . . the broad insights, the grand theses and the interpretive excitement that provides the foundation for great history writing.”
Conrad Wright of the Harvard Divinity School, reviewing it for Church History, commented: “Conceived on a generous scale and written with the detachment of an informed outsider, it takes its place as the one indispensable book on American Universalism for insiders and outsiders alike.” He observed further that “denominationalism remains one of the basic organizing principles of American religious life, and so good denominational histories are essential. We have none too many of them. This volume is a useful addition to the number.”
Another Unitarian Universalist historian, Sidney E. Mead, in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, observed that the book is essentially a series of “relatively independent articles, each dealing with one controversy, movement, organization, or person. The result is a comprehensive reference work, made usable by copious notes and a detailed index. It reflects extensive research and is characterized by fair organization, good writing and a normal number of errors.” Writing in American Historical Review, Robert T. Handy of Union Theological Seminary, New York, said that while “stronger on institutional than of theological history, this book makes an important contribution to liberal denominational history.”
What Miller and the UHS had hoped to accomplish was too difficult for a single historian or even a small group of scholars. Therefore what Miller accomplished is nearly a miracle. What redeems the inevitable errors is the careful endnotes which allow the scholar who reads The Larger Hope to retrace Miller’s footsteps. These notes more than redeem the errors, and make the book the best tool available and the essential starting point and guide for any further Universalist historical research.
The second volume also received a wide scholarly response. In American Historical Review Michael D. Clark of the University of New Orleans wrote: “This book is an impressive scholarly achievement, not of interpretation or in exploring the ‘larger questions’ of religious history but for thoroughness of research and the careful ordering of information. The result is a coherent, trustworthy account of a small but significant religious body.” Russell E. Richly of Duke University concurred with this verdict in Church History. “These two volumes,” he pointed out, “provide a magnificent illustration of traditional denominational history at its best and, of course, a superb estimation of Universalism.” The last General Superintendent of the Universalist Church of America, Dr. Philip R. Giles, declared that “This volume should help safeguard our institutional memory.”
The Larger Faith, a short popular history of American Universalism written by Charles A. Howe with Miller’s full approval, is an epitome of The Larger Hope, enriched by Howe’s own extensive knowledge, experience, and understanding of Universalism. It was dedicated to Russell Miller.
There is a file, “The Larger Hope, 1979-1984,” in the Unitarian Universalist Special Collections at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. This includes photocopies of the unedited versions of The Larger Hope and a photocopy of the final version of volume one as edited by Carl Seaburg. There is an obituary for Russell Miller in the World (May/June 1993).
Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted September 21, 2005