From an editorial at a UU website:
Yet, most Boston Unitarian ministers supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which set up federal commissioners to catch and return escaped slaves. And many of the Boston Brahmins at the core of Unitarian membership were, in fact, industrialists who profited enormously from slavery: New England textile mills used slave-grown cotton from Southern plantations. As abolition gained ground among Unitarians, many industrialists left the denomination. Many Southern Unitarians—who owned slaves—also withdrew.
Unitarian Universalists are torn between pride in our elite history and aspirations to be a religion for all. It’s a tension with deep roots. [. . .]
Does a liberal faith only appeal to a narrow segment of the population—a liberal, economically comfortable, well-educated elite—or is that simply a self-fulfilling prophecy? Many Unitarian Universalists believe the stereotype that we are only educated suburbanites, but it is clearly not true. My wife grew up as one of six children in a family that struggled to survive economically, yet she is a born UU—and so is her mother. Many Unitarian Universalists live in marginal economic circumstances or do not have college educations. Yet looking back at the Unitarian and Universalist past, we see that the stereotype has old and very real roots. Fortunately, our history also shows us that liberal religion can reach beyond the elite.
Casual students of Unitarian history might look back with pride on the period when Unitarians controlled all the educational, social, economic, and political power in Boston. They might take for granted that Unitarianism has always been liberal—not only theologically, but in literature, politics, and social action as well. On closer inspection, however, Unitarian dominance of mid-nineteenth-century Boston is harder to celebrate wholeheartedly.
Jane and William Pease, who analyzed the demographics of nineteenth-century Boston, report that of the three major sects—Episcopal, Congregational, and Unitarian—the Unitarians were most likely to enjoy political or economic power. (See “Whose Right Hand of Fellowship? Pew and Pulpit in Shaping Church Practice,” in American Unitarianism, 1805–1865, ed. by Conrad E. Wright, Northeastern Univ. Press, 1989.) In the first generation after the Revolutionary War, Unitarian churches included a large membership of farmers, but this changed rapidly with the economy. By the 1830s Unitarians made the decisions that shaped the city’s economy. Compared to other denominations, Unitarians had twenty-two times more lawyers, twenty times the number of bankers, twice as many merchants, and twenty-eight times the number of manufacturers. But they had almost no farmers, craftsmen, or industrial proletariats. In 1850 two-thirds of the wealthiest Bostonians were Unitarians. By 1870, the average Unitarian was thirteen times richer than the average member of any other denomination. By 1870 Boston Unitarians were almost entirely upper-middle and upper class.
What did they do with their power? Ronald Story writes that “middle-period” Unitarians (around 1850) dominated Boston’s intellectual and philanthropic organizations and shaped them not to “melioristic liberalism but to their own exclusive, conservative, and business-oriented values.”
The Unitarians were responsible for the establishment of a number of cultural institutions, but they often kept them private. The Boston Athenaeum, for instance, an independent library and museum, was controlled by proprietors who opposed its public use. They did not want to throw open its doors to the “many-headed” rabble. And, historian Anne Rose argues, the upper classes practiced defensive self-containment in these institutions, excluding those who stepped beyond permissible boundaries as well. After Lydia Maria Child published An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, the Athenaeum revoked her reading privileges. Bronson Alcott later lost his reading privileges, too. Rose says the culture became increasingly insular as the number of immigrants increased.
The expansion of Harvard College best exemplifies this growth of private institutions. The university’s expansion was built upon wealthy, enterprising, politically conservative but theologically liberal families. From 1805 to 1860, thirty-six members were elected to the Harvard Corporation. Thirty-three were Unitarian. Eighty percent of the faculty were Unitarian. By the mid-1850s the student body was three-quarters Unitarian. Elite progeny commonly chose to matriculate there, but a poor person could not afford it. It was the seminary and academy for the inner circle of Bostonians. Harvard students trained to achieve a class status that would keep them from mixing with the rabble. Harvard established its own church after Cambridge acquired its first lower class congregations, including Universalist. The church leaders strove for gentlemanly qualities and regularly denounced the vulgar, the tawdry, and the disorderly—characterized first by rural people and later immigrants.