“Our Story, Part 3: An American Faith”

Kevin M. Carson

A sermon given at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, November 4, 2018

To appreciate our inclusive and diverse religious tradition, I believe it is important to understand our history.  Over three Sundays, we will explore the fascinating story of our Unitarian Universalist faith. Part three traces the development of the Unitarian and Universalist sides of our family tree in America, and how we eventually became the Unitarian Universalist faith we see today.

In my last sermon, I talked about some of the key players and events in the Unitarian Universalist story during the bloody period of religious turmoil in Europe that marked the 15th through the 17th centuries.  The Protestant Reformation was not a singular event; rather, it was a diverse and prolonged period of upheaval and religious innovation, with many people being executed for simply having beliefs outside the often shifting mainstream. In the middle all of this, one of the most pivotal moments in world history occurred, when Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and landed in the so-called “New World,” and this is where we begin today.

We can argue about whether Columbus truly “discovered” America, but what is undeniable is that his arrival began a period of unprecedented European colonization of North and South America, and an equally unprecedented period of devastation for the indigenous peoples who lived here first.  It is believed that roughly 500 First Nations existed at the time of European contact, with possibly 15 million people.  Like all people, they had religious practices and spiritual beliefs, but since their spirituality was more nature-oriented and intertwined with the routines of daily existence, few Europeans who arrived during the first few centuries of contact recognized anything they could identify as “religion” based on their own experience.  Coming from the land of cathedrals and parish churches, there were almost no identifiable religious centers beyond a few temples in Mesoamerica and earthen mounds in the Mississippian culture, and nothing in the New World resembled the corporate worship common to the Abrahamic faiths in the Old World.  The prevailing attitude was that Native Americans were simply a bunch of godless heathens who needed to be converted.  It would be late in the twentieth century before even Unitarian Universalists began to truly appreciate Native American spirituality.

As colonists began to arrive, the dominant religion in each colony reflected their country of origin, and sometimes the benefactors of their settlement.  Catholicism came along with Spanish, French, and Portuguese, and Reformed Protestantism with the Dutch.  The English were split mostly between Anglicanism in places like Virginia, and Puritanism in New England.  Some colonies, like Plymouth, had a strong religious identity and sense of purpose, while others were primarily focused on commerce with little interest in religion. Within a couple of centuries after Columbus, America was already becoming a religiously diverse place, at least with respect to varieties of Christianity, and many dissidents from the Old World, such as Quakers and Anabaptists, sought refuge in America, hoping to find a more tolerant atmosphere, or at least enough room to escape into the wilderness and be left alone.

The Unitarian story in America really begins with the Puritan churches in New England, despite the severe Calvinist theology that dominated the early churches.  The Puritans who settled in New England were either “separating Puritans” like those who founded Plymouth Colony, or “non-separating” like most of the Massachusetts Bay settlers.  “Separating Puritans” believed there was no hope for reforming the Church of England, while “non-separating Puritans” still held out hope that the Church of England could be purged of its corruption and a “pure,” original Christianity restored.  Neither group had any use for other religious sects of any stripe.  

If you thought they would be more tolerant after years of persecution in Europe, you would be wrong.  I think it would be fair to compare Puritan New England to Taliban Afghanistan or perhaps modern Saudi Arabia.  Setting aside the craziness of the witch trials, just consider the hanging of Mary Dyer on the Boston Common in 1660.  She was banned from the colony for being a Quaker, and when she kept coming back, they hanged her.  She was one of four Quakers hanged in Boston.  Or consider the case of Roger Williams.  Once admired as a brilliant young Puritan minister, and offered the pulpit of Boston’s First Church, he was about to be clapped in irons and sent back to England for probable execution for his crime of spreading “new and dangerous ideas” – ideas that included “liberty of conscience” about religion – when he escaped to live among his Narragansett Indian friends and found the colony of Rhode Island. 

Theologically, the Puritans believed in a Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the idea that only the “elect” chosen by God would be saved and there was nothing you could do about it.  You could tell who was among the elect by their godliness, of course, so Puritans obsessed over whether or not they were truly among the chosen.  One of the signs was to have a genuine conversion experience, and the first churches required public testimony of such for membership.  We have long abandoned that theology, but one thing we retained from the Puritan churches was their Congregational Polity.  Polity refers to how churches are governed, and unlike churches with an Episcopal Polity (meaning governance by bishops), or a Presbyterian Polity (meaning governance by Elders), the Puritan churches were considered independent congregations and were free to call whom they pleased to serve as ministers.  This is still the case with our UU congregations today.  

The other aspect of Congregational Polity which is still with us is an abject fear and loathing of anything that resembles ecclesiastical authority.  The Puritan churches were wary of churches, or even local ministers, forming any kind of association or partnerships lest they fall prey to the temptation to become hierarchical.  Fortunately, in 1648 they managed to come together just enough to create the Cambridge Platform, a document which served as an early “constitution,” outlining the polity of churches and civil government of New England, and establishing a mutual support network for the Congregationalist churches.  Going forward, I will use the term “Congregationalist” to describe the churches that would become the ancestors of congregations that are now either Unitarian Universalist or United Church of Christ, and a rare few that are both.

Over the next hundred years, two major influences helped shape the trajectory of the Congregationalist churches in New England.  One was the Enlightenment, which produced the scientific method and new philosophical thinking.  The other was a period of spiritual revival and evangelical zeal in the 1730’s and 40’s known as the Great Awakening, when the individual, emotional experience of religion (often called “enthusiasm” at the time) was seen as more important than doctrine.  In 1741, for example, Jonathan Edwards preached the famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in Enfield, Connecticut.  His sermon reinforced Calvinist doctrine about the sinful nature of humanity, and salvation through grace alone, but he did so with imagery and language that touched on deep emotions.

Then as now, such religious emotionalism was not to everyone’s taste, and one of the fiercest critics of the Great Awakening was the Rev. Charles Chauncy, of Boston’s First Church, who in 1742 wrote a pamphlet, Enthusiasm Described and Cautioned Against.  He was the leader of the so-called “Old Lights” who rejected “enthusiasm” in religion. Heavily influenced by the intellectual rationalism of the Enlightenment, he later published two anonymous tracts, Salvation for All Men (1782) and The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations (1784), arguing for the innate moral sense in man, free will, and universal salvation.  The latter tract was published two decades after he finished it, since his logical conclusions led him away from the orthodox Calvinist views he continued to preach publicly.  He is considered by many to be a proto-Unitarian or even a proto-UU.

By the early 1800’s a number of Congregationalist ministers were beginning to preach Unitarian ideas, and a split between them and the Trinitarian orthodoxy was becoming inevitable, especially among the faculty and students at Harvard Divinity School.  There was also an influx of European Unitarian ideas from publications and from people like Joseph Priestly, who immigrated to America in 1794 and settled around Philadelphia.  Already a familiar figure to the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and Thomas Jefferson, who shared common interests in science and theology, Priestly helped further the spread of both Unitarian and Universalist ideas in America.

By the 1820’s Unitarian and Trinitarian congregations across New England were beginning to split apart, with one group often starting a new church just down the street or across the town green.  In 1825, Unitarian-leaning ministers formed the American Unitarian Association, which was originally strictly a minister’s association but later evolved into the Unitarian denomination.

But, before I continue with the Unitarians, let me back up and catch up the Universalist side of the story.  Universalist ideas developed in small pockets among a number of colonial religious sects, including some Baptists and the Ephrata community of Pennsylvania, but it got a tremendous boost when John Murray arrived in America in 1770, settling in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and founding the first Universalist church in America there in 1774.  For this, and for his work organizing the denomination into the Universalist Church of America, which held its first General Assembly in 1793 in Philadelphia, he is rightfully called the “father of Universalism in America.”

With its hopeful message of God’s inexhaustible love and universal salvation, the Universalist Church of America attracted many converts away from the prevailing dismal Calvinism in the colonies, and after the Revolution it would experience a prodigious period of growth and church-planting, especially in rural America.  Universalist ministers spread out on horseback from the Deep South to the backwoods of New England, and by the onset of the Civil War, there were perhaps as many as 600,000 Universalists in America.  This church in Chester is a good example of how Universalists established churches in many small farming communities, while the Unitarians were mainly focused on larger towns and the growing urban population in cities.

Though merger was still over a century away, even in the first decades of the 1800’s most Universalist ministers were also Unitarian in their theology.  Many Unitarian clergy, though, saw Universalism as less intellectually vigorous and irrational, and were frankly very classist in their opinions.  The famous Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, whose famous 1819 sermon “Unitarian Christianity” helped give identify to the Unitarian movement,  once described, “the growth of Universalism as the most threatening moral evil in our part of the country.”  Perhaps it was just jealousy at their success.

As the 19th century progressed, both denominations were influenced by the new era of biblical criticism coming largely from German scholars, along with access to translations of Eastern religious texts such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Sutras of Buddhism.  A nascent humanism was already creeping into the mix as well.  All of these would combine with the Transcendentalist movement that emerged from Concord and Boston intellectuals such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, and things would never be the same.  The “corpse-cold” Unitarianism that Emerson derided would become more open to Nature and the direct experience of the sacred, and less focused on establishing some ultra-rational form of Christianity.  Universalists, too would feel the influence of these trends, and begin a march toward a more pluralistic faith beyond the boundaries of Christianity.  

In 1852, feeling that too much authority was coming out of Boston, Unitarians in the Midwestern states formed the Western Unitarian Conference, and Chicago became an intellectual hub for very progressive theology for more than a century afterward.  With the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, both Unitarians and Universalists began to embrace an even stronger scientific Humanism and, with notable exceptions, began to drift away from more traditional Christianity.  By 1886, the trend was so strong that more conservative Unitarians grew alarmed, and over the next few years, the Western Conference in particular debated the need to reassert a definitive Christian identity.  A consensus was never reached despite several attempts at statements of faith.

In 1893, Unitarians and Universalists were instrumental in sponsoring the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, which was a watershed moment for opening the eyes of Americans to the richness of other religions. The highlight of the Parliament was the introduction of Hinduism to America through the charismatic figure Swami Vivekananda.  For Universalists, the Parliament was indicative of a growing interest in world religions and the universality of religious truth.  They too were beginning to wrestle with the question of how distinctively “Christian” their denomination remained.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the number of Universalists had shrunk significantly, and there were open talks of merger with either the Unitarians, or with the Congregationalists and other small Christian denominations that would eventually merge to form the United Church of Christ.  The First World War was difficult too, as Universalists lost some of their pre-war optimism about the progress of humankind onward and upward forever in the wake of the millions of deaths in Europe, and the horrifying advances in ways to mutilate and kill the war produced.  Unitarians were divided in their support of the First World War, and the American Unitarian Association came down hard on ministers and congregations who voiced pacifist beliefs in a time of fervent patriotism, even withholding financial assistance.  

Universalist decline and further talks of merger continued between the wars.  Humanism gained a tremendous influence in the wake of the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933, which was a document that outlined the basic tenets of religious humanism.  It was a remarkable document crafted by many elite thinkers of the age that called for a new science-based religion of human ethics and morality to supplant all other religions, and it viewed any form of supernaturalism with disdain.  Most of the thirty-five signers of the Humanist Manifesto were Unitarian ministers or scholars, and one was a Universalist minister.  What strikes me about the original Manifesto (there have been two others since) is that the language is remarkably arrogant and reflects a naive faith in science and technology, but this was the age of electrification and new pesticides and herbicides that would help us to feed the world.  This was also the age of Eugenics, when many people, including some leading Unitarians, thought we could breed a better humanity through science and eliminate undesirable traits like mental illness and criminal behavior. Humanism would remain the dominant influence in our tradition through the present time, but after the atrocities of the Second World War, and the environmental movement afterward, most of the blind faith in science and technology for our salvation has been rightfully tempered.

By the 1940’s Unitarian and Universalist youth groups were regularly meeting together, and in some ways they led us further along the path to consolidation.  In 1957, several small denominations merged to form the United Church of Christ, and by this point, the Universalists had become too humanist and too liberal to realistically consider joining them. Being snubbed for membership by the National Council of Churches twice (once in 1942 and again in 1944) for not being “Christian” enough was probably the final blow.  Universalist membership declined to its lowest point, unlike the Unitarians who were seeing a post-war boom from 350 churches and around 60,000 members at the end of World War II, to 1000 churches and over 150,000 members by the time of merger in 1961.  For many Universalists, the greatest fear was that a merger would see their historic identity swallowed up by their much larger cousin.  Other Universalists worried that too much “head” would take over the more “heart” tradition of Universalism.  Both fears were justified in hindsight.  On the Unitarian side, some on the far left opposed the consolidation for fear that the Universalists would drag the movement back to more conservative theological views, but this never came to pass.

In 1953, a Joint Commission to Study Federal Union was appointed, and that same year, the youth groups of both denominations were formally dissolved and merged into the Liberal Religious Youth.  The following year, the Council of Liberal Churches (Universalist-Unitarian) was formed to continue the process of consolidation.  From this latter group, a Joint Merger Commission was formed, and in 1958, they presented a proposal to both denominations titled Merger and Alternatives.  In this document, two basic alternatives were put on the table for consideration: complete merger of the two denominations, or an expanded Council of Liberal Churches.  

Approximately three-fourths of the congregations voted for the merger, so a more detailed plan for consolidation was developed in time for the 1959 annual General Assemblies of both denominations.  The plan retained the congregational polity and autonomy common to both traditions as well as the non-creedal basis for membership.  In final negotiations that grew intense at times, the name Unitarian Universalist Association was affirmed.  A last-minute contentious debate over the language of the merger document was resolved by changing “our Judeo-Christian heritage” to “the Judeo-Christian heritage.” (Remind anyone of the Early Church Councils?) The plan proceeded forward, and on May 23, 1960 in Boston, delegates from the two denominations met in separate, simultaneous General Assemblies and approved the merger.  The Unitarian Universalist Association would officially come into being in May 1961 at the next General Assembly.  So here we are.

When I decided to tell our story over the course of three sermons, I knew it would be a challenge.  There is so much history that it is hard to pick and choose topics into a narrative that does our faith justice, but I tried to highlight some of the key moments in the larger story, and I hope I whet your appetite to learn even more.  There are so many individual stories of triumph and tragedy and fascinating lives.  And though we should be proud of our record on issues like women in ministry, Civil Rights, and LGBTQ acceptance, there were also missed opportunities when Unitarians and Universalists could have shone even brighter, but instead succumbed to the endemic sexism, racism, classism, and other moral failures that have plagued American society since the beginning.  Someday, I might do an entire sermon on “what might have been,” perhaps for Yom Kippur or some other time of atonement.  

I hope you appreciate how complex the story really is, from ancient roots and centuries of theological speculation in Europe, to American innovations and openness to new ideas and sources of spiritual inspiration. Too often, Unitarian Universalists think of our faith, like the old joke says, as believing in the “fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston.”  Or as I like to say, Unitarian Universalism was not handed down on stone tablets to Thoreau on the summit of Mt. Katahdin, nor did it spring fully-formed from the side of Emerson’s head like some Greek goddess.  It is a faith rooted in reason as well as the direct experience of the sacred, and it took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to become the diverse liberal tradition we are today.  I want us to boldly claim the whole story of our faith.  We represent what the theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith called a “cumulative tradition.”  There are many streams that flowed into the river of our story, and I have only touched on a handful.

Every few years, someone writes a book pronouncing the death of organized religion, and well ... something comes along and reinvigorates it.  It is well-known that organized religion is in decline overall, with the demographic group “spiritual but not religious” seeing the largest growth in recent years.  We have seen essentially flat growth as a denomination, with some parts of the country seeing some modest growth, but I remain hopeful that our diversity and inclusiveness will align well with the attitudes of modern spiritual seekers.  What I am more certain about goes back to the very beginning of my first sermon: the impulse to spirituality and religion is fundamental to being human.  As long as we are able to experience awe and wonder in the world, and enjoy the support of being in a community of fellow travelers in the mysterious journey of existence, our story will continue.


Opening Words

“Touch Not My Lips with the White Fire” by Alfred Storer Cole (1959)

Touch not my lips with the white fire

From the glowing altar of some peaceful shrine.

Thrust not into my hands the scroll of wisdom

Gleaned through the patient toil of the centuries;

Give me no finished chart that I may follow

Without effort or the bitter taste of tears.

I do not crave the comfort of the ancient creeds,

Nor the sheltered harbor where the great winds cease to blow;

But winnow my heart, O God; torture my mind

With doubt.  Let me feel the clean gales of the open sea,

Until Thy creative life is my life and my joy;

One with the miracle of Spring and the blowing grain,

The yearning of my fellowmen and the endless reach of stars.


excerpt from the sermon “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” by Rev. Theodore Parker (1841)

Real Christianity gives men new life. It is the growth and perfect action of the Holy Spirit God puts into the sons of men. It makes us outgrow any form, or any system of doctrines we have devised, and approach still closer to the truth. It would lead us to take what help we can find. It would make the Bible our servant, not our master. It would teach us to profit by the wisdom and piety of David and Solomon; but not to sin their sins, nor bow to their idols. it would make us revere the holy words spoken by "godly men of old," but revere still more the word of God spoken through Conscience, Reason, and Faith, as the holiest of all. It would not make Christ the despot of the soul, but the brother of all men. It would not tell us, that even he had exhausted the fullness of God, so that He could create none greater; for with Him "all things are possible," and neither Old Testament or New Testament ever hints that creation exhausts the creator. Still less would it tell us, the wisdom, the piety the love, the manly excellence of Jesus, was the result of miraculous agency alone, but, that it was won, like the excellence of humbler men, by faithful obedience to Him who gave his Son such ample heritage. It would point to him as our brother, who went before, like the good shepherd, to charm us with the music of his words, and with the beauty of his life to tempt us up the steps of mortal toil, within the gate of Heaven. It would have us make the kingdom of God on earth, and enter more fittingly the kingdom on high. It would lead us to form Christ in the heart, on which Paul laid such stress, and work out our salvation by this. For it is not so much by the Christ who lived so blameless and beautiful eighteen centuries ago, that we are saved directly, but by the Christ we form in our hearts and live out in our daily life, that we save ourselves, God working with us, both to will and to do.


excerpt from the sermon “New Wine and Old Bottles!” by Rev. Brainerd F. Gibbons (1949)

“While fully aware of its Christian heritage, many equally sincere Universalists maintain that an inherent spirit of inquiry has carried Universalism beyond Christianity.  A new type of Universalism is proclaimed which shift the emphasis on universal salvation from salvation to religion and describes Universalism as boundless in scope, as broad as humanity, and as infinite as the universe.  Is this Universalisms answer: a religion, not exclusively Christian or any other named brand, but a synthesis of all religious knowledge which passes the test of human intelligence, a truly universal religion?

Every Universalists realizes that Universalism has changed considerably since the days of its New England forebears and many Christian dogmas have been gradually supplanted.  Even the sketchiest summary reveals the vast differences between then and now.  Divine revelation has been replaced by human investigation, ignorance by knowledge, superstition by reason, the closed mind by the open, stagnation by progress, celestial nonsense by common sense.  Hence, Universalists today consider all religions, including Christianity, expressions of human spiritual aspirations, not God-founded institutions; the Bible, a marvelous work of man, not the miraculous handiwork of God; Jesus a Spiritual Leader, not a Divine Savior; man’s fate in human hands, not supernatural clutches; faith the projection of known facts into the unknown, not blind creedal acceptance; the supernatural merely the natural beyond man’s present understanding, not a violation of nature’s laws.”