The Growth of Unity
In 1903, just one year after William James (1902) said that the religion of healthy-mindedness "must now be reckoned with as a genuine religious power" (p. 94), the Fillmores incorporated the Unity Society of Practical Christianity. The Fillmores specifically stated that it was not a church and encouraged people to maintain their membership in their own churches while attending Unity's educational meetings in the evening. Despite this original intention, the Fillmore's movement took on the characteristics of a church, with meetings on Sundays and Wednesdays, as well as Sunday school for children. Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, along with seven other Unity teachers, were ordained as Unity's first ministers in 1906. Guidelines for Unity centers were developed in 1925 by a group of Unity teachers who wanted to control what could be taught under the Unity name. Freeman explains that the regulations were prompted by numerous groups which met throughout the country to discuss Unity literature.
Often those who led (Unity) groups knew very little of the teachings of the Fillmores. They held seances, cast horoscopes, told fortunes, read palms, and practiced numerology. The Fillmores themselves did not believe in any of these things and spoke out against them in their magazines. Still, they were reluctant to tell other teachers what to teach — even when the teachings were put out under the name Unity (Freeman, 1965, p. 185-86).
The Unity School of Christianity was incorporated in 1914, and today is the home of Unity School for Religious Studies which operates a continuing education program as well as a ministerial education program. The movement attracted more followers and thus more churches, and the Unity Ministers Association formed in 1946. The Association of Unity Churches, which is only loosely affiliated with the Unity School, was formed in 1966. While the Unity School's primary responsibilities are Silent Unity and publishing, the Association is a separate entity which works to meet the needs of individual churches. The two organizations work together to provide ministerial training, with Unity School holding the primary responsibility for this task. While the different goals of the two organizations sometimes create tensions, the overall benefit is that by working together they are able to reach a wider range of people in their ministries. The difficulties and benefits of this situation will be discussed in the concluding chapter.
A concerted effort by the Association to multiply the number of ministries accounts for the steady increase in the number of churches since 1966. According to Unity press information, in 1996 there were more than 700 Unity centers or churches, 590 of which are in the United States. In addition, there are more than 175 satellite groups and over 120 informal study groups, for a total of almost 1,000 ministries. The Unity School of Christianity now hosts twelve retreats throughout the year, which are attended by more than 2,000 people. About 1,500 students attend the ministerial and continuing education programs each year. The number of licensed and ordained Unity ministers has grown from about 185 in the 1940s to more than 1,000 in 1996. Almost 600 of those ministers were active in 1996. Furthermore, more than 800 laypersons have taken the courses to become licensed teachers (Unity School of Christianity, 1997).
© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.