Since the middle of the 1800s, there have been several attempts to merge the Universalist and Unitarian Churches.
In 1908 the National Federation of Religious Liberals was formed. Its membership included the Unitarians, Universalists, Religious Society of Friends, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The organization ceased its existence with the advent of the Free Church of America in the 1930s and was of minor significance in Unitarian-Universalist relations.
In 1923 the Universalists received overtures from the National Convention of Congregational Churches. Each body established a Committee on Comity and Unity. In 1927, the Universalist Committee met with an interested group of Unitarians with the thought of establishing a Congregational-Universalist-Unitarian structure, but the whole move was defeated by Universalists, who felt that the best course would be Universalist-Unitarian.
In 1931 a Joint Commission of the two churches was formed and began meeting, but this commission soon concluded that the time was not ripe for merger. Instead, in their May 1932 report, they recommended that an organization be formed that would include all liberal churches. This resulted in the formation of the Free Church of America, which was incorporated in Massachusetts in 1933. The Free Church movement did not attract as many liberal churches as hoped, and it held its last annual meeting in 1938.
In 1935, the two youth groups of the AUA and UCA approved a union between their organizations, but this move was defeated by the Universalist General Convention. However, the two youth groups continued to move toward a merger, and their efforts facilitated the merger between the AUA and UCA. See the history of Liberal Religious Youth for more details.
At the 1947 AUA General Conference, a motion was passed to explore the possibility of union, which was also approved by the UCA business meeting. A Joint Commission on Union was formed, and their 1949 report laid the groundwork for Federal Union. In 1951 this commission presented a plan that called for federal union of religious education, publications, and public relations. This plan was ratified, and from it the Council of Liberal Churches was formed.
In 1953, the Council of Liberal Churches was established and entrusted with the task of drawing the religious education and public relations work of the two bodies into a single operation. It was hoped that the CLC would be the vehicle through which the AUA and UCA would be completely merged. A Joint Interim Commission was established at the 1953 Joint Biennial Meeting at Andover, Massachusetts, to evaluate the work of the CLC and to study and recommend the next steps in federal union. This commission reported that the CLC was successful in developing a religious education program.
On August 25-29, 1955, the Biennial Conference of the AUA and UCA, held in conjunction with the Council of Liberal Churches, was held at Wayne University in Detroit, Michigan. It was at this meeting that the delegates decided that a federal union was no longer desirable, and that the two organizations should merge. That year, a Joint Commission on Merger, consisting of six persons from each denomination, was formed. This commission was charged with guiding a study process which would culminate in a final vote by delegates in October of 1959 and a celebration in 1960 if it were approved. "The Free Church in a Changing World" was the name of the report of the results of this study process
In October 1959, the first General Assembly of the two organizations was held in Syracuse, New York. "The Plan to Consolidate the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America," presented at this General Assembly, was approved, and it set forth the constitution and bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association and provided the general framework of organization of that new association. Included in the plan was provision for "creation of the necessary Interim Year special bilateral committees whose task would be to study and make recommendations concerning several highly important functions."
On May 23, 1960, the concurrent business meetings of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America were held in Boston. At this meeting, five interim study committees were created in order to study five functions concerning the merger: a) the nomination procedures, b) the mode of organization, c) fund-raising, d) regional organization, and e) ministry.
A Coordinating Committee on Consolidation was also created at this 1960 meeting, to coordinate the work of the five committees, to undertake additional studies and planning, and to cooperate with and report its activities to the AUA and UCA during the interim year and make a final report to the UUA. This report of the CCC was issued at the Organizing Meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston, Massachusetts, in May 1961.
An Information Manual for the use of Unitarian and Universalist Churches, Societies and Fellowships in Considering the Question of Merger or Alternatives to Merger. Prepared under the auspices of the Joint Commission on Merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, September 1958.
An Oral History of the Consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America and the Creation of the Unitarian Universalist Association. David H. Cole, Project Administrator, 1997.
The Report of the Coordinating Committee on Consolidation, March 1, 1961.