Unitarian Universalists are more regional than we'd like to say

I wasn’t quite sure how to put the title — “Unitarian Universalists are more regional than we’d like to say” — and I’m still not satisfied. Our New Englandish habits come out and surely some people — probably in New England — like it that way. Or maybe it’s just me.

I thought about this blog post at the Sunlight Foundation TransparencyCamp a couple of weeks ago, in a session about mapping, and particularly how misleading bad maps can be. And that sometimes the best data map isn’t a map at all. And Dan Harper has recenly blogged about membership distribution.

One takeaway is obvious, but should be stated: of course, California (and New York and Illinois and Texas) is big.  So, take a look at the demographic map of the UUA, dating back to the printed directory days. There are a lot of Unitarian Universalists in California, but of course there are; it’s the largest state.

I thought a plain ol’ bar graph would be better than a map to show relative density of Unitarian Universalists. The sources of information: most recent Unitarian Universalist membership, sorted by state, and 2012 US Census population of those aged 18 and greater, via Kidscount.org. The best mapping of adult membership I could manage. The figure on the right axis and on each bar is number of Unitarian Universalists per 100,000 adults. The United States average is in orange.

I knew that New England was the “homeland” and you are more likely to find a small-town churches there; I was still shocked to see the disparity between New England states and everywhere else. I had thought earlier Universalist missions,  the Fellowship movement and subsequent population drifts had smoothed out the distribution.

The Delaware and District of Columbia numbers are the exceptions that prove the rule, each being very small jurisdictions with a single church much larger that its peers. If All Souls, Washington (982) had 550 members (the entry point for the large church class in the UUA)  D.C. would drop to 141.73 per 100,000: still high, but behind New Hampshire. If First Unitarian, Wilmington (425) was as big as the second-largest Delaware congregation, the UU Fellowship of Newark (203), Delaware would drop to 100.42 per 100,000, more like neighboring Maryland. And Connecticut is the New England outlier: too far out for the colonial and Federal-era church growth, and too big, due to its proximity to New York.

As for the other states, it’s harder to comment with certainty, except this: if every state in U.S. had the density of Massachusetts, the UUA would have an aggregate membership of over a million and we’d have different problems today.

No solutions here, but just another lens to see our situation through.

Click the chart to see it in its legible glory!


The neighborhood of Boston, mapped and planned…

From the October 20, 1921 issue of the Unitarian Register.

Unitarian churche within 25 miles of Boston, 1921.


The map is familiar; the idea of a program launching after a 90 minute meeting is pheonomenal. But why should it be so? What might a group of people, meeting over a long lunch say, accomplish or at least propose?

The Boston Circle

The twenty five mile circle drawn around the Boston State House contains two elements of profound significance: first, it has the largest permanent population of any similar district in the States; second, it has more Unitarian churches than any similar area in world. What is the obligation of churches to this population?

To answer that question the ministers of the twenty five mile circle were called together May 25. After an hour of discussion it was voted that the chairman, Rev. Eugene R Shippen appoint a committee of seven to promote an intensive membership campaign…

A map of British Unitarian churches forthcoming

The annual meeting of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches took place recently, and (to mark the occasion) I have taken to reading the annual report (for 2012, PDF). Minister and blogger Stephen Lingwood referred to it in early March. Grim numbers. So little wonder I had a parallel concern with the persons interviewed in the UUWorld magazine (“British “Unitarians rally to save faith from extinction” by Donald E. Skinner) about the fate of British Unitarianism. I had already been putting together a map, not unlike the one I created for UUA member congregations last year.

And I discovered is how difficult it would be for a newcomer to find many Unitarian churches, based on their web sites. There’s often plenty of information about teas and their seventeenth-century history, too many lack basic directions, maps, visitor expectations, parking or transit information. So I hope my map in addition to being a visual tool for understanding prospect for new church development — see my earlier concern about a lack of a church in Milton Keynes — can also be useful in helping newcomers find a church that already exist. A good website isn’t everything, but why make it harder for vistors than it needs to be?

And because as was suggested in UUWorld article I believe what’s happening with the British Unitarians is a bellwether of what’s to come in the United States. We’re larger, but by no means large and the same thing can happen to us.

The map is quite a labor but I hope to have it up later this week.