Daniel McKanan Named to Emerson UUA Chair

April 11, 2008
Daniel McKanan Named to Emerson UUA Chair
Dan McKanan / Photo: Justin Knight

The theologian and historian Daniel Patrick McKanan has been named the inaugural incumbent of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Chair of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School.

McKanan, who has taught at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, since 1998, will hold the title Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity, as of July 1, 2008.

"I am extremely happy that we have been able to select an exciting young scholar who will bring to Harvard Divinity School a truly wide-ranging, creative approach to studies in liberal religion, especially the Unitarian Universalist tradition, which is so vitally entwined with our institution's history," said Dean William A. Graham in announcing the appointment.

McKanan, a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard College in 1989 (under the name Daniel Buchanan), earned a master of divinity degree at Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1993 and a PhD in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago in 1998. He was a Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology in 2004-05.

He is the author of several books, most recently The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation, just published by Liturgical Press. Another recent book, Touching the World: Christian Communities Transforming Society, was published last year by Liturgical Press. In 2002, Oxford University Press published his Identifying the Image of God: Radical Christians and Nonviolent Power in the Antebellum Period, an account of how antebellum liberal theology led to political activism in response to the abuses of power within chattel slavery. He is currently working on a book titled Prophetic Encounters: The Religious Left in American History, which will be published by Beacon Press.

"This appointment is a thrilling opportunity for me to participate in the renewal of liberal religious scholarship, both at HDS and around the country," said McKanan. "This is an exciting moment for Unitarian Universalist scholarship, with increasing numbers of young Unitarian Universalists pursuing doctoral studies and a comparable number of more advanced scholars, including myself, gravitating to Unitarian Universalism from other religious traditions. As more and more Americans seek a spirituality that fits with their commitment to fighting oppression and fostering sustainability, moreover, I hope to help foster a vigorous dialogue between Unitarian Universalists and the various communities of the 'religious left' that have been the focus of my research."

The creation of the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Professorship of Divinity was announced on May 25, 2003, the 203d anniversary of the birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson. At that time, a two-decade effort on the part of Harvard Divinity School and the Unitarian Universalist Association culminated, as two gifts totaling $500,000, from W. Lowell Steinbrenner (MTS '87) and his wife, Janice, and from the late Rev. Dr. J. Frank Schulman (STB '54) and his wife, Alice, provided the final funds needed to establish the professorship.

These gifts built on previous donations from the UUA, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, on Long Island, N.Y. (formerly the North Shore Unitarian Universalist Society), the Liberal Religious Charitable Society, and other individuals and organizations.

The Emerson professorship is the result of a relationship between HDS and Unitarians that dates to the early days of the School's history. In fact, the Address of Dedication for Divinity Hall in 1826 was presented by William Ellery Channing, who a few years earlier had become the acknowledged leader of what he called "Unitarian Christianity."

Much of the subsequent ferment of Unitarian culture and, indeed, the broader ferment of nineteenth-century transcendentalist thought, were played out at the School. Although HDS has always remained firmly interdenominational, it is recognized by the UUA as one of three principal schools providing theological training to Unitarian Universalist students preparing for ministry.

The UUA represents the interests of more than 1,000 Unitarian Universalist congregations. The association grew out of the consolidation, in 1961, of two religious denominations: the Universalists, organized in 1793, and the Unitarians, organized in 1825. There are approximately 220,000 Unitarian Universalists in the United States today.

Naming the professorship in part for Ralph Waldo Emerson is a gesture to honor a historical figure who had a significant influence on both the Unitarian tradition and Harvard Divinity School. A Unitarian minister from 1826 to 1832, Emerson, a Harvard College graduate who had pursued further studies at the University's just-forming graduate school of theology, did much to formulate the philosophy of transcendentalism in his essay "Nature" (1836), and, further, in his Harvard Divinity School Address of 1838. In that address, he called for a fresh religious inspiration: "Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil."

—by Jonathan Beasley