Studying Unitarian and Universalist liturgy: fixing a point of departure

One of the highlights of my childhood was the discovery of fossil known as Lucy. An example of Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy pushed forward our understanding of human origins by pushing back the clock. And from that day to now (when I think about the new version of Cosmos) I’ve come to expect the figure of a forked family tree, and a journey back to some critical node that separates our own path from the ones not taken.

And so it is with this exercise in Unitarian and Universalist liturgies, except that we’re only going back a couple of centuries, not millions of years, and the branches have a habit of lapping back on to themselves at a later point. And the Unitarians and Universalists grow along side of each other, one not eradicating the other. Think song birds, not hominids.

And we don’t have to go to the Rift Valley in eastern Africa, but to Boston. The place is King’s Chapel; the year, 1785.

I choose the first edition of the King’s Chapel prayer book¬†not because King’s Chapel still uses a prayer book (in a later, 1986, edition) or even because it is the best known of the Unitarian or Universalist prayerbook churches, but

  1. because it is the earliest American Unitarian or Universalist prayerbook
  2. because it has a direct inheritance from the 1662 Church of England Book of Common Prayer,
  3. this inheritance is acknowledged, and
  4. because it influenced the production of the first United States Episcopal Church prayer book, in 1789.

We’ll see the parallels between Morning Prayer in the 1662 and 1785 books next, and after that comes the divergence.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. Fascinating! When I worked in evolutionary paleonotology we did things like this – creating trees of branching nodes. This was phylogenetic systematics – and relied on linking common ancestries, and patterns of both divergent and convergent evolution, based on mathematical calculations of simmilarity.

    So let’s take this evolutionary exploration a step further. In evolutionary paleontology we would next be concerned about examining how form fits function. When forms diverge into differing species, what changes in function are taking place? How do these functional changes relates to changes in environment?

    How are the prayer book functions changing when we compare related “species”? What environmental changes might be driving the changes in function?

  2. Will you at some point do a horizontal comparison with the Bay Psalm Book? I suspect that its radically colloquial rhyming scheme was what laid the foundation for the Unitarian commitment to plain-speech liturgy and preaching. We often trace this to the Friends, because they are better known, but given the enmity between the two faiths’ theologies and polities in Unitarianism’s formative New England years, Bay Psalm Book is the more likely source.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.