Seaburg, Carl

Carl Gerrard Seaburg
Carl Gerrard Seaburg

Carl Gerrard Seaburg (October 21, 1922-December 16, 1998) was a minister, scholar, writer, editor and long-time member of the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association. He is best known in church circles as a hymn writer and as an editor and anthologist of liturgical materials.

A son of Henry and Eva (Gerrard) Seaburg, he was raised in a Universalist home in Medford, Massachusetts. His mother was active in the local church and in the wider movement. After graduation from high school Carl attended Tufts University. In 1943 he earned an A.B. degree, with majors in history and music, and in 1945 a B.D. degree from its School of Religion.

Seaburg was student minister at the Universalist Church in North Montpelier, Vermont and at All Souls Universalist Church in East Boston; he was ordained at the latter church in 1945. Following ordination, he accepted a call to the First Universalist Church of Norway, Maine and served there with distinction for eleven years, 1945-56. In Norway he organized and led a community-based theater, began writing for Universalist publications, and in 1948-49 served as national president of the Universalist Youth Fellowship.

He then returned to Medford. For the next fifteen years he did supply preaching, wrote poetry and a popular history of Boston, edited Great Occasions, the first of his anthologies, and briefly served as an editor at Beacon Press. In 1971 he was appointed Director of Information and Archivist of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a position he held until his retirement in 1985. Thereafter, he continued writing and editorial and scholarly work, as well as involvement in denominational and community affairs.

A member of several historical societies, he served for several years as president of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society. He joined the Fraters of the Wayside Inn in 1986, a ministerial study group, and made many contributions through presentations and critiques, leadership in worship and piano accompaniment of songfests. He was also a member of the Greenfield and Cedarhill ministerial study groups.

Seaburg believed firmly in the importance of a scholarly ministry. The quantity and breadth of his historical and biographical publications attests to his own commitment. He once took his colleagues to task for their lack of scholarship. They were, he wrote, “too often content with a Norman Vincent Peale approach to theology and a Fulton Lewis, Jr. intellectual attitude. . . . The Universalist ministry needs scholars today more than it needs salesmen or repair men with their specialties of ‘parish management,’ public relations, business administration, and constant high-cost renovations on the church plant.”

Seaburg compiled and edited four liturgical anthologies. First, and best-known, was Great Occasions: Readings for the Celebration of Birth, Coming-of-Age, Marriage, and Death, 1968. There followed Celebrating Christmas, 1983; The Communion Book, 1993; and Celebrating Easter and Spring (with Mark Harris), 2000. The UUA hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, 1993, includes seven hymn texts either written or adapted by him. One of these is “Rank by Rank Again We Stand,” sung each year as the processional hymn of the Service of the Living Tradition at the UUA General Assembly, a service in which new ministers, retiring ministers, and those who have died are recognized.

With his deep interest in music, drama, and poetry, Seaburg’s theology can be described as a lyrical Universalism. “Is it not our business to be artists of the spirit?” he once asked. He envisioned “one united world, one cooperating human race, one enriching love, one common religious impulse.”

In 1991 Meadville/Lombard Theological School honored him with the degree of Doctor of Divinity in recognition of his many and continuing contributions to Unitarian Universalism and to the world. The citation read, in part: “An exemplar of courage, compassion, humor, and service, you provide us a model for what it might mean to be a minister to that greater fellowship of liberal religion that unites many people around the globe.”

Carl Seaburg never married but had close family ties to his brother, Alan, his sister, Nancy, and their children. He cared for an aunt, Agnes Peterson, for more than 30 years. One of his volumes of poetry, Uncle Goose, 1963, was written for his nieces and nephews. He died in December 1998, while visiting family in Apex, North Carolina. A memorial service, held the following April at the First and Second Church of Boston, included readings and music of his composition. The closing words he had written for his mother’s memorial service forty years earlier.

Down, gently down
Softer to sleep
Than the bed of night
From the littleness
Go Down, gently down
Wider to wake
Than need of sun
Into the greatness

His ashes were interred in the family plot in the Magnolia cemetery at Gloucester, Massachusetts. His family and colleagues established a scholarship in his memory at Meadville/Lombard Theological School for students preparing for the parish ministry.


Research on Carl Seaburg can be done at the Universalist Collection, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts and in the archives of the Fraters of the Wayside Inn. There are obituaries by Alan Seaburg in the Unitarian Universalist Association Annual Directory, 1999-2000 and in the Annual Report for 1998, Massachusetts Historical Society. The story of the Seaburg family is told in Alan Seaburg, At the Fair: The Boston Immigrant Experience (1990). See also Russell Miller, The Larger Hope, volume 2; Carl Seaburg, “Digging Bait,” Christian Leader (January 1949); and “For my Brother” in Alan Seaburg, Cambridge on the Charles (2001).

Seaburg’s biographical writings include Inventing a Ministry: Four Reflections on the Life of a Colleague, Charles Vickery, 1920-1972 (1992); “Clarence Skinner: Building a New Kind of Church,” in Charles A. Howe, editor, Clarence R. Skinner: Prophet of a New Universalism (1999); Merchant Prince of Boston, Colonel T. H. Perkins, 1764-1854 (with Stanley Paterson, 1971); and a biography of Frederic Tudor, The Ice King (with Stanley Paterson, 2003). His historical writings include Boston Observed (1971); Medford on the Mystic (with Alan Seaburg, 1980); The Incredible Ditch: a Bicentennial History of the Middlesex Canal (with Alan Seaburg and Thomas Dahill, 1997); Nahant on the Rocks (with Stanley Paterson, 1991); 1799-1949: First Universalist Church, Norway, Maine (with Carrie Tucker, 1949), and Dojin Means All People: the Universalist Mission to Japan, 1890-1942 (1978). His short apologetic writings are A Ministry for Tomorrow (1979), Moving Against the Drift (1980), Wendell Berry and the Unsettling of Liberalism (1983), and “A Seed From Which Great Things Can Grow,” from Charles Howe, editor, Universalism: For Such a Time as This (1993). Some of Seaburg’s poetry has been published as The Voyage and Other Poems (1961), Bombing Concrete (1967), and A Boston Brew (1984).

Article by Charles A. Howe
Posted November 28, 2001