Our service this morning is a reflection on the history and character of our religious tradition--Unitarian Universalism. Our reading for today will actually be a hymn--but let me tell you about it before we sing it.
The Unitarian Universalist Association--and with it the religious tradition of Unitarian Universalism was created in 1961--50 years ago this Spring. Our roots are much older--in the separate traditions of Unitarianism on one hand, and Universalism on the other. But in 1961, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged. In honor of the merger, Marion Franklin Ham, wrote the words to the hymn “As Tranquil Streams.” Both Unitarianism and Universalism were progressive congregations, many deeply engaged in social issues of the day--the language of the hymn speaks to the work that lay ahead for the new association--as it does for us today.
“As tranquil streams that meet and merge
and flow as one to seek the sea,
our kindred hearts and minds unite
to build a church that shall be free.
Free from the bonds that bind the mind
to narrow thought and lifeless creed;
free from a social code that fails
to serve the cause of human need.
A freedom that reveres the past,
but trusts the dawning future more;
and bids the soul, in search of truth,
adventure boldly and explore.
Prophetic church, the future waits
your liberating ministry;
go forward in the power of love,
proclaim the truth that makes us free.”
Welcome to Unitarian Universalism 101--a brief history of Unitarian Universalism.
Can any one tell me, from a theological stand point what Unitarian means--what the word means--or what it stands for?
Unitarian comes from the Latin meaning unity--and the term referred to Christians who believed in the unity of God as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity. When we look back over history--we can trace Unitarian thought all the way back to the earliest days of Christianity. Historians of early Christianity, such as Dr. Elaine Pagels, describe Christianity in the first few hundred years after Jesus lived as far more diverse and varied than Christianity today--even though, we think we have lots of different Christian denominations. Yet in those first few hundred years there were many differing opinions about who Jesus was and what his life meant. Different Christian communities used different gospels and different texts as the basis of their understanding. But slowly, Christian orthodoxy--the established dogma and teaching of the church-- was codified. The height of this occurred when Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and thus made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire. The formation of the canon of the bible was a step in the formation of orthodoxy, as choices were made of which of the hundreds of letters, gospels and texts in circulation would be included and which would not. Many of those that were not included were lost to history. Some have been discovered more than a thousand years later, but some will never be. Another big step in the establishment of orthodoxy was the doctrine of the Trinity--the notion of God as three essences--the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit--which was decided by the First Council of Nicea in 325 C.E.--nearly 300 years after Jesus died. Unitarians draw our history all the way back to Bishop Arius and others, who disagreed with the doctrine of the Trinity. Bishop Arius and his followers saw Jesus as fully human--perhaps the most perfect of human beings--but not God. For his views, Bishop Arius was exiled from the Council, in order that they could reach consensus on the doctrine of the Trinity, and Emperor Constantine order all of his books and writings burned so his ideas would be lost. Yet people’s questions about the doctrine of the Trinity continued to arise throughout the history of Christianity. They emerged at Unitarianism during the European Reformation in the 1500’s and again in the early days of United States history. This gives you a snap shot of early Unitarian history.
Universalism: Now, who knows theologically speaking, what Universalism means? Universalism refers to the doctrine of universal salvation, that all people are saved.
Universalists also drew their roots from the early church and in particular to the early Christian scholar, Origen, from the 2nd century C.E. (even earlier that the Council of Nicea). Origen was one of the most distinguished writers of the Christian church. He is thought to have been an Egyptian scholar who taught in Alexandria. He, like many in the early Christian tradition, professed a universalism that taught that all Christians would be reconciled to God. In the early Christian Church, there were many different theological schools within Christianity and many professed universalism. Rome was one that did not, and as with Unitarianism, the rise of orthodoxy and the Holy Roman Empire replaced previous diversity with established dogma, which included the belief in salvation for the faithful and eternal damnation for heretics, non-Christians, and sinners. This gives you a snap shot of the beginnings of Universalism.
Now, let’s skip ahead about 1500 years and across a continent to the United States, where Unitarianism and Universalism emerged separately but about the same time, just before 1800. They were both liberalizing movements within and actually against the dominant religious perspective of the early European settlers, the Puritans. The Puritans and the Calvinism that they practiced held a strict belief in predestination--which said salvation was reserved only for a select few, “the elect”. Membership rules were strict in the early Congregationalist Church--only those who were deemed to be part of the elect, the saved, could be members and could partake in communion. Unitarianism and Universalism both emerged as liberal religious movements against this tradition--and by liberal I mean they both offered a view of humanity, God and religion that was more optimistic, open and more free.
Let’s look a little more in depth at these two traditions and more important the aspects of Unitarianism and Universalism that still inform who we are today and who we are called to be.
First, Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion. Liberal because we have a hopeful or optimistic view of humanity, and we value the capacity of people to directly experience and interpret their experiences of the divine. Two things come out of this perspective. One is an acceptance that religious faith and tradition can and should change. We call Unitarian Universalism “the Living Tradition” because we accept that widening circles of understanding, that new understandings gained from science and psychology, that changes in the world around us will inform our faith. One of the unique things about Unitarian Universalism is that we do not see revelation as something that happened 2000 years, but as something that is always present if the mind and heart are truly open and free. Words of the hymn, As Tranquil Streams, written in honor of merger speak to this. One of the stanza’s reads, “free from the bonds that bind the mind to narrow thought and lifeless creed.” Neither Unitarians nor Universalists ever felt confined by orthodoxy, or traditional teachings of the church. They saw wisdom and truth emerging from bringing science and reason, wisdom from other religious traditions, even doubts and personal experience to bear on religious beliefs.
For example, the great American writer and Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson studied eastern religions like Buddhism and Hinduism which informed his religious thinking. While it actually got him officially shunned by the Unitarian church, he preached that people did not need the church or a minister to get them closer to the divine. He and Henry David Thoreau looked to nature as the most direct link to experiencing the holy. He spoke of wisdom and love as the result of the divine interacting with our lives.
An important aspect of this view is that it does not depend on an hierarchy of authority, but places the experience and understanding of what is good and true--what is God or what is holy--within reach of each person, without a mediator. William Channing who gave the name Unitarianism to this growing religious perspective in the U.S., said that every person had a “spark of the divine” within them--that God had placed in each person an understanding of right and wrong. While early Unitarians did not profess universal salvation, they believed that salvation was open to all who sought to be good. They rejected predestination for salvation by character.
The liberalism in Universalism is most fervently found in the liberating message of universal salvation. Universalists didn’t believe anyone had to have a particular religious belief, culture, race or social status or to receive salvation--Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jew, rich or poor, black, white, brown--we are all part of God’s creation and no one is outside of God’s love and forgiveness. At a time when many Christian ministers were preaching hellfire and damnation, shame and the utter depravity of humankind, Universalist preachers, like Hosea Ballou, reminded people of their goodness, of God’s love, teaching that no one was outside of the reaches of love and forgiveness. This vision of the unity of humanity--that we are all one, not divided between sinner and saint--still grounds our religious perspective today, as does the foundation of love--not guilt or fear--as the core of our faith.
Universalism has always run into the question of what about very evil doers like Adolf Hitler--is he really saved? The most prominent Universalist minister of the 1800’s, Hosea Ballou, took on that question directly. He argued that the people most known for cruelty and abominable acts were raised under religions that used fear of eternal punishment to entice them to be good. He argued that a faith that describes God as vengeful and which casts religion in terms of rewards and punishments makes God nothing worth honoring.
In fact Ballou said, “by having such an example constantly before their eyes, they have become so transformed into its image, that whenever they have had the power, they have actually executed a vengeance on men and women, which evinced (gives evidence) that the cruelty of their doctrine had overcome the native kindness and compassion of the human heart” (quoted in Ernest Cassara’s Universalism in America: A Documentary History of A Liberal Faith, p. 154-155).
To the critics of Universalism who ask how could those who have carried out tremendous evil and terrible atrocities be forgiven, Ballou responded it is religion centered around disparity and division between the saved and the unsaved, and an image of God as vengeful and punishing which has intensified human cruelty by the powerful.
Still today, as Universalists we reject theologies rooted in fear. The firm belief in our common and shared humanity is a call to the inherent love and compassion of the human spirit. This message remains at the heart of our faith and our calling to community and in the world.
Inherent in both Unitarianism and Universalism, and which remains are strong part of our faith today, is a rejection of the doctrine of original sin and human depravity, in favor of a more optimistic and hopeful understanding of mankind. When William Ellery Channing said God placed in everyone a spark of the divine, he was elevating the worth and dignity of humanity. The Unitarians saw the congregation as a place where all people, all souls might grow together. As William Ellery Channing said, “I am a living member of the great family of All Souls.”
Even the concept that people might throw off orthodoxy and come to a greater truth about religion showed a tremendous value and confidence in human wisdom and conscience. For us today, what this has meant is that we are not a creedal faith. If you ask today, what do Unitarian Universalists believe--there is no simple answer. We have kept a commitment to freedom in religious belief--understanding that any claim to religious truth is almost always partial. More important than creed to bind us together, we affirm the value of covenant, which is why we begin our services by reading our covenant--Love is the doctrine of this congregation--an expression of how we try to live together.
For Unitarian Universalists at merger and today, more important than any particular religious belief is the work of trying to live in community, peacefully, together, despite diversity. As William Schulz says,
“This is the mission of our faith:
to teach the fragile art of hospitality;
To revere both the critical mind and the generous heart;
To prove that diversity need not mean divisiveness;
And to witness to all that we must hold the whole world in our hands.”
Because for both Universalists and Unitarians, salvation was a pressing issue, and covenant was more important than belief--both traditions valued the importance of the here and now, this life, over worries of an after life. The belief in human unity and the worth and dignity of every person are touchstones for our faith--then and now. And these touchstones have led many of our leaders and congregations to put their lives on the line to organize for expanded rights and protections for all people. Prominent Unitarians such as the the Rev. Theodore Parker were leaders in the abolitionist movement to end slavery, and Susan B. Anthony was a leader both in abolitionism and in women’s suffrage. Dorthea Dix reformed the conditions of jails and advocated for a holistic approach to the care and treatment of the mentally ill. The Rev. Joseph Tuckerman organized congregations to provide needed services for the poor, and became known as “the father of American Social Work.”
Unitarians and Universalists were leaders in the Temperance movement (which might not be so popular today). In the 1950’s and 60’s, hundreds of ministers and lay people went to Selma to support the Civil Rights movement. The Rev. James Reeb, Jimmy Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo were all Unitarian Universalists who lost their lives, they were murdered, because of the solidarity and support they gave to the civil rights movement. We have been proudly supportive of equal rights for gays and lesbians since the 1970’s and have over the years broadened our understanding and advocacy for bisexual and transgender people and for marriage equality.
Before I make our heads swell with stories of so many good deeds--I must say that the bulk of this exemplary work which we all claim, was done by a few leaders and a few congregations. It was not always widely shared. Given all this work you might rightly question why our congregations are not more well known, or more racially or culturally diverse. There may be several answers, but one is certainly that for all of our sources of pride, we have made mistakes as well.
And some of our missteps may lay directly in our history. Unitarianism and Universalism always held a lot in common theologically, even from the very beginning--in terms of what they believed, but culture and class kept them apart for more than 150 years. Unitarianism grew out of the Congregationalist church--those congregations of the elect, so the early Unitarians were politically influential, socially connected, well educated and often well to do. They were Harvard educated and U.S. Presidents, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore and William Taft. Universalists, however, came from a more varied background. Many came from Baptist churches. Most had little education and were not part of elite society. The early Universalist ministers often taught themselves to read with the only book they had access to--the Bible.
One tradition was much more grounded in the status quo--in powerful society-- the other in a liberating faith emerging from the people, those on the outside of privilege. Even now, almost 50 years after merger, we still straddle this line--between a radical message of love inherent in our theology and a culture that very often looks like the status quo. Religion in general and congregations specifically all face this tension. The greatest prophets of history, from the 8th century prophets of Judaism, to Jesus, to the Buddha, Ghandi, Black Elk, Martin Luther King, have been religious leaders--speaking to justice and equality from their religions. And yet congregations are also community centers, institutions, places where change is not easy or quick. Sometimes for these reasons they often maintain the status quo more than they are able to change it.
As we celebrate 50 years and look ahead to the next 50 years, perhaps what will lead us now is an embrace of the vibrancy of those deep Universalist roots that proclaimed the power of common humanity in the line of the strongest prophetic traditions and a willingness to trust the future that this faith will bring. What that looks like, I do not know fully. But I know it must be multicultural. And I know it must put a greater emphasis on our humility. I know it must be especially mindful of our need to cherish and care for this earth and honor our humble place in the midst of creation.
As the hymnodist Marion Franklin Ham wrote for our merger,
“Free from the bonds that bind the mind to narrow thought and lifeless creed; free from a social code that fails to serve the cause of human need. A freedom that reveres the past, but trusts the dawning future more. Prophetic church, the future waits your liberating ministry, go forward in the power of love, proclaim the truth that make us all free.”