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Unitarians Drop Jefferson’s Name from Southeast Group

c. 2011 Religion News Service

DURHAM, N.C. (RNS) To many Americans, Thomas Jefferson is a symbol of liberty and religious freedom, the architect of American democracy and a standard bearer for progressive politics.

But to members of America’s most liberal denomination, the slave-holding legacy of the nation’s third president has become a liability.

On Saturday (April 30), delegates to the Thomas Jefferson District of the Unitarian Universalist Association voted overwhelmingly to drop his name from their organization.

Under the change, the district that spans North and South Carolina, as well as parts of Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee, will be known as the Southeast District.


“It’s an issue of how Americans grapple with the heroism of Thomas Jefferson, and at the same time stand for all that comes tomorrow in terms of being an open congregation, growing in our faith and sending a message of love,” said LaTonya Richardson, a delegate from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Winston-Salem, N.C.

Or to put it more succinctly, the district wanted to send a message that it was open to African-Americans and sensitive to those put off by Jefferson’s complex relationship with the institution of slavery.

A motion to change the district’s name failed to get a necessary two-thirds majority in 1997 and again in 2010. On Saturday, fewer than 10 of the 160 people who attended the meeting at the Eno River Unitarian Universalists Fellowship in Durham voted “no,” but those who did spoke passionately.


“We cannot dump Jefferson and claim forgiveness and redemption are part of our spirit,” said Gae Pinschmidt, a delegate from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fredericksburg, Va.

The change to the district’s bylaws had been in the works since 1993. That year, the denomination scheduled a Thomas Jefferson Ball and encouraged members to come in period costume. African Americans objected, asking whether they should wear “rags and chains.”

The Thomas Jefferson District, which includes 62 congregations, began a two-year study that looked at Jefferson’s commitment to liberty alongside evidence he owned hundreds of slaves and fathered seven children with Sally Hemings, a slave he inherited.


It also examined the many reasons Unitarian Universalists claim Jefferson as one of their one — he, like other Unitarians, rejected a belief in the Trinity and said Jesus was a great prophet but not God. Jefferson even produced his own version of the Bible that deleted all of Jesus’ miracles.

Although African-Americans represent a tiny minority of the 200,000 Unitarian Universalists in the U.S. and Canada, the denomination proudly upholds the principle that every person has inherent worth and dignity.

After Saturday’s vote, Anita Lee, a delegate from Richmond’s First Unitarian Universalist Church, said she felt proud to be a member, “I feel like this group of Unitarian Universalists,” she said, “is living up to its principles.”

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    “Or to put it more succinctly, the district wanted to send a message that it was open to African-Americans and sensitive to those put off by Jefferson’s complex relationship with the institution of slavery.”

    It was a recruiting tactic not genuine, a little late by a couple hundred years.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Henrietta22

    Sounds as though the UU has become so left they are swimming in the Pacific.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    ckuck, you have no idea whether it was “genuine” or not! My guess? It is.

    Though slavery was and still is totally wrong, Jefferson was following what was considered acceptable in his time.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    pagan why then did they just get it? can you say strategic?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment buddahbrother

    “Jefferson was following what was considered acceptable in his time.”

    It is this type of moral relativism that makes UU a revolving door.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment nnmns

    It’s a bunch of people trying to figure out what the right thing is, and do it. And they’re catching it from left, right and befuddled so they probably aren’t doing too badly.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    cknuck, can you explain why it took the southern part of the USA (and others too) so long to start treating all Americans, no matter what their color, with dignity and equality? (of course now we’re waiting for the USA to understand that those who are gay and lesbian are also in need of equality in all areas!). No—so this is actutally no different—-things take time. Am glad they did it, but in my eyes, Thomas Jefferson was an extrodinary man. History is what it is.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment cknuck

    pagan the tactic of answering questions with questions attempting to blur and confuse the issue instead of answering the question at hand is an old one that only works on the dull of wit.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment nnmns

    Better, however, than the tactic of answering a question with an attack.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment pagansister

    buddahbrother: What does the comment saying that Jefferson was following what was acceptable in his time have to do with your opinion that the Unitarians are a revolving door? I disagree with your comment, being a UU—but hey! I’m always open to new ideas.

    cknuck—you didn’t answer my question? Why did it take the Southern states so long to give everyone equality? What do ya think? BTW— I did answer your question—- things takes time. Did you happen to read that?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Henrietta22

    I like history, some people did things back there that was accepted. Jefferson contributed to setting up America. I think paying people back for things ancestors did is ridiculous. Personally we would all be doing that all the time, probably, because every family has a black sheep that they have to overcome. Living means progressing and learning from the past. And by the way I’m not sure that all black people in the south have full equality yet, after listening to some of them telling of their experiences, recently.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment LaTonya

    TJ was not a Unitarian or Universalist. Some of the best reasoning I heard is that we’re going to honor someone, let’s honor one of our own. Interestingly too, several people of color saw this issue more from the standpoint of standing as allies with the majority than the other way around. The big picture is that we are a religious body that LISTENS, cares and responds. Sure, it has taken decades but, measured against the progress of the larger society, we’re light years ahead.

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