We recently looked at one of the important persons–prophet, if you will–on the Universalist side of our Unitarian Universalist heritage: John Murray. He preached a doctrine of universal salvation, saying, “Give them not hell but hope and courage.”
Murray fled his native England after his house was burned to the ground by religious terrorists who believed they were doing God’s work; they were convinced that Murray’s preaching was corrupting the youth by removing the fear of eternal damnation. “People are naturally sinners,” they said, “and the only way to get them to be good is to put the fear of hell in them.”
Murray said that people are naturally good, and the way to bring out the goodness is by creating the right conditions with regard to child-rearing practices, economic justice, and so forth.
Murray’s early days were Job-like: he suffered the death of his young son, then his wife. When his house was burned to the ground by the terrorists, he decided to leave ministry altogether and to start a new life in the Promised Land, so he set sail for the Colonies. He was a reluctant prophet, persuaded to preach a sermon–giving them not hell but hope and courage–in the little chapel that Thomas Potter had built. Potter hated the hellfire and damnation preaching of his time and said he would wait for the right preacher to fill the little pulpit in his chapel.
The year was 1770. Murray found a most receptive little congregation gathered in that little chapel, and the word spread and soon he built a church in Gloucester, Massachusetts, which still stands.
During the War of Independence Murray was commissioned as a chaplain in the army by General George Washington.
Universalism with a small ‘u’ is a silver strand that runs through Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is summarized in the oft spoken sentiment: we are all God’s children; therefore all are eventually saved or embraced by the love of God. To suggest that a good, loving, all-knowing and all-powerful God would send some of His children to hell for eternal punishment, is a bad idea; it’s bad theology.
It’s fair to say that there is a unitarian strand (small u) that runs through the major religions, including Christianity. The doctrine of the Trinity, which became official in the year 325 at the Council of Nicaea, marked the separation of Christianity’s from its roots in Judaism.
We trace our Unitarian roots to this time and place. The basic theological doctrine of Unitarianism was the idea that God is one- not three. Unitarianism emerged from the Reformation in the 16th century- the attempt to re-form the Christian religion, which many believed was corrupt.
To say that ‘God is one,’ today, is not simply to distinguish it from the Trinitarian idea, but to say that all life on earth is part of one interacting Whole- the Gaia principle (the earth is like a living organism.) The universe itself can be seen as an entity…a kind of single, interacting whole, or unit. The word Unitarian has expanded beyond the idea of simply being in opposition to old, confusing Trinitarian formula of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
Our Unitarian roots can be traced to the Council of Nicaea which was convened in 325 by the Holy Roman Emperor Constantine. (Notice the word Holy to describe the emperor!)
That Council was called to settle the dispute about the nature of Jesus: was he God (consubstantial) or ‘the Son of God.’
Arius said that there was a time when Jesus did not exist, and therefore he was not one and the same as God.
Athanasius said that Jesus and God were one and the same; the Greek word ‘homoousias’ was used to describe the Jesus-God connection: Jesus was God taking on human flesh. This view eventually won out over what came to be known as the Arian heresy-the idea that Jesus was created by God–to be used for God’s purposes on earth.
Politics had more to do with what took place at the Council of Nicaea than religion. Constantine had political concerns more than any theological interest; he liked the idea of people believing that a human being could be a ‘god.’ After all, he was the holy emperor- a god.
In truth, the old argument about the nature of Jesus never went away. Constantine’s sword simply silenced further discussion.
After the American war of independence, a more independent clergy emerged and William Ellery Channing was designated spokesman for the liberal wing of American clergy. Channing, then, is considered the father of American Unitarianism. He is first, chronologically at least, of the three prophets who are so labeled for the voice they gave during the formative years of Unitarianism in America; indeed, the voice they gave to America itself during the years following the war of independence.
The book, Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism, with an introduction by Conrad Wright, contains the three famous men and their sermons. Wright puts them in the context of their time.
Channing delivered a sermon that was meant to be a ‘shot heard round the world,’ or at least heard in the new nation that was taking shape during those early years of the nineteenth century.
On May 5, 1819, William Ellery Channing delivered that shot at the ordination of Jared Sparks at The First Independent Church of Baltimore. It became known as ‘the Baltimore sermon.’
Channing was chosen as the spokesperson for the American clergy who wanted to revisit the vote that took place at the Council of Nicaea at which Jesus was, in essence, elected ‘God.’ The First Independent Church, as the name suggests, was the right place, and 1819 was the right time.
Discussion and debate among the clergy and teachers at the seminary-Harvard Divinity School-had been simmering, simmering and simmering for nearly two decades. Channing brought it to a boil!
Channing used as his text a passage from I Thessalonians: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.”
That’s precisely what Channing set about doing: to offer proof of the correctness of those who had decided to call themselves Unitarian.
First of all, Channing appealed to the use of reason in his arguments; the need to interpret the Bible- to think carefully about what it says, and what you come to believe its intentions.
Channing was saying, “Think about it! You mean to tell me that you believe that Jesus Christ was one and the same as God? But how could that be?”
Let me put it in Channing’s own words:
(The) authority, which we give to the Scriptures, is a reason, we conceive, for studying them with peculiar care, and for inquiring anxiously into the principles of interpretation, by which their true meaning may be ascertained.
We are particularly accused of making an unwarrantable use of reason in the interpretation of Scripture. We are said to exalt reason above revelation, to prefer our own wisdom to God’s. Loose and undefined charges of this kind are circulated so freely, that we think it due to ourselves, and to the cause of truth, to express our views with some particularity.
Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books.
Now all books, and all conversation, require in the reader or hearer the constant exercise of reason; or their true import is only to be obtained by continual comparison and inference. Human language, you well know, admits various interpretations.
We profess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible.
We reason about the Bible precisely as civilians do about the constitution under which we live…Deny us this latitude and we must abandon this book to its enemies.
Having thus stated the principles according to which we interpret Scripture, I now proceed to the second great head of this discourse, which is, to state some of the views which we derive from that sacred book, particularly those which distinguish us from other Christians.
l. In the first place, we believe in the doctrine of God’s UNITY, or that there is one God, and one only. To this truth we give infinite importance… The proposition that there is one God seems to us exceedingly plain. We understand by it that there is one being, one mind, one person, one intelligent agent, and one only, to whom underived and infinite perfection and dominion belong.
We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that, whilst acknowledging in words, it subverts in effect, the unity of God. According to this doctrine, there are three infinite and equal persons, possessing supreme divinity, called the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Each of these persons as described by theologians, has his own particular consciousness, will, and perceptions. They love each other, converse with each other, and delight in each other’s society. They perform different parts in man’s redemption, each having his appropriate office, and neither doing the work of the other. The Son is mediator and not the Father. The Father sends the Son, and is not himself sent; nor is he conscious, like the Son, of taking flesh. Here, then, we have three intelligent agents, possessed of different consciousnesses, different wills and different perceptions, performing different acts, and sustaining different relations; and if these things do not imply and constitute three minds or beings, we are utterly at a loss to know how three minds or beings are to be formed.
We do, then, with all earnestness, though without reproaching our brethren, protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity.
Channing then goes on to explain their views about Jesus saying,
We complain of the doctrine of the Trinity, that, not satisfied with making God three beings, it makes Jesus Christ two beings, and thus introduces infinite confusion into our conceptions of his character. This corruption of Christianity, alike repugnant to common sense and to the general strain of Scripture, is a remarkable proof of the power of a false philosophy in disfiguring the simple truth of Jesus.
According to this doctrine, Jesus Christ, instead of being one mind, one conscious intelligent principle, whom we can understand, consists of two souls, two minds; the one divine, the other human; the one weak, the other almighty; the one ignorant, the other omniscient. Now we maintain that this is to make Christ two beings… This we think an enormous tax on human credulity.
Jesus, in his preaching, continually spoke of God. The word was always in his mouth. We ask, does he, by this word, ever mean himself? We say never. On the contrary, he most plainly distinguishes between God and himself, and so do his disciples.
He is continually spoken of as the Son of God, sent of God, receiving his powers from God…”
Channing goes on to say that Christ’s purpose on earth was, as ours should be, to bring peace, to appeal to that which we call ‘virtue,’ and appeal to that human ingredient we call ‘conscience.’ Channing repudiated the idea of vicarious atonement- the idea that the death of Jesus on the cross atoned for our sins. “It leads men to think that Christ came to change God’s mind and not their own,” is the way he put it, “…that the highest object of his mission was to avert punishment, rather than to communicate holiness,” and appeal to the human capacity for goodness and compassion.
Most Unitarians today would be surprised to hear Channing’s ideas about Christ’s resurrection as ‘the foundation of our hope of immortality.’
Indeed, the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists in our 1000-plus congregations in North America, do not identify themselves as Christian.
None of us would have trouble understanding Thomas Jefferson’s point, that Christianity had become a religion about Jesus, rather than the religion of Jesus; that people substitute living the kind of life Jesus encouraged people to live with the worship of Jesus as a god.
Channing’s trip to Baltimore in 1819–to deliver the sermon he titled Unitarian Christianity–provided opportunity to preach a similar sermons to other congregations on his way to and from Baltimore.
He preached against the Calvinistic doctrines of the depravity of man, the doctrines of predestination and election- that God chose you for heaven or hell before you were born; and he preached against the theological notion that the death of Jesus on the cross was necessary to placate an angry God. He said, simply, that such theological doctrines were offensive to any rational person- they were absurd and immoral, but more importantly, perhaps, he said that they were unscriptural.
Few Unitarian Universalists today would worry whether some idea or other met the test of Scriptures.
Channing accomplished his mission to Baltimore; his objective was to make a clear, concise statement of that which distinguished the Unitarians from the Trinitarians; and it wasn’t long before a third of the Congregational churches in New England declared themselves–by vote–to be Unitarian in theology.
Eighteen years after Channings famous Baltimore sermon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, on his way out of parish ministry at the age of 35, was invited by the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School to deliver the commencement address.
In this address Emerson would emerge as the most articulate of the prophetic voices- not only for Unitarians in America, but for America itself- the first American philosopher who found his voice in the Unitarian pulpit.
Emerson used the occasion to express his own doubts about religion and the church which had led him to withdraw from ministry. He received the invitation from the students at the divinity school at precisely the time, almost to the day, that he had decided to leave ministry altogether and to devote himself to writing and lecturing full time.
He had left his pulpit at Second Unitarian church in Boston where he had served for several years, ostensibly over a disagreement with the deacons regarding the administration of the Lord’s Supper- he didn’t want to serve communion using the traditional language, but the leaders of the church wouldn’t budge. So he left.
He spent the next few years filling the pulpit at the Unitarian church in East Lexington, named for Charles Follen, where I happened to begin my ministry, spending about the same amount of time there that Emerson had spent, preaching once a month for 2 1/2 years while completing my seminary degree at Boston University.
On March 14 of 1838 Emerson wrote to his mother that he had decided to quit ministry altogether. On Sunday, March 18, a Sunday he did not fill the pulpit in Lexington, he attended services at the Unitarian church in Concord and wrote in his journal:
I ought to sit and think, and then write a discourse to the American Clergy, showing them the ugliness and unprofitableness of theology and churches this day.
That same week, by a strange coincidence, he received a letter from the committee of the senior class of the Harvard Divinity School inviting him to be their graduation speaker the following July. He accepted. Little did they know!
In truth Emerson did not intend to fire another ‘shot heard ’round the world.’ But the sermon he delivered the night of July 15, 1838 created a storm of controversy that raged for years.
Channing was careful to stay within the bounds of Christianity. Emerson didn’t. He used no Biblical text for his sermon- or address, as he called it, which was unusual. Instead he opened with these now famous lines, which any Unitarian minister today would immediately recognize:
In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily.
He then talks about what he calls ‘the sentiment of virtue,’ and says, “…this sentiment is the essence of all religion.”
He begins with a reference to nature, bringing it into the realm of religion or what he calls ‘the spiritual.’ Then he digs into human nature by talking about virtue- our capacity for goodness, for kindness and compassion.
Very quickly he gets to his major point, not only in this address, but in general, when he says,
The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted. He who puts off impurity thereby puts on purity. If a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice. If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being.
As we are, so we associate. The good, by affinity, seek the good; the vile, by affinity, the vile.
This idea leads Emerson to make an almost explosive assertion. Remember the context: it was Harvard Divinity School, and the year was 1838, and Emerson was talking about the religious sentiment as an intuition, which, he said, could not be received at ‘second hand.’
Then he said,
This thought dwelled always deepest in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East; not alone in Palestine, where it reached its purest expression, but in Egypt, in Persia, in India, in China. Europe has always owed to oriental genius, its divine impulses. What these holy bards said, all sane men found agreeable and true.
(religion) “…is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking it is not instruction but provocation that I receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing. On the contrary, the absence of this primary faith is the presence of degradation.
The Buddha said the same: ‘do not believe something because you read it in a book; do not believe something because I said it; believe only what meets with your own experience and reflection.’
Emerson’s address that night has become a classic of American literature- not only religious literature, but of that which articulates what is at the heart of America; what makes America who and what we are.
Conservative Christians, several of whom were in attendance that evening, were furious. All hell broke loose, as they say. They challenged the other Unitarian clergy to either defend what Emerson had said or repudiate it.
So Emerson, as prophetic voice, took another giant step away from traditional Christianity, traditional religion, and made his declaration of theological independence.
He said that theology is, to the human experience, like poetry and music and art. It should not, cannot, and must not be taken in a literal sense. At its best, it is filled with metaphor, imagery, simile and allegory.
We don’t need to dwell on Emerson today, since you know how important he is to this pulpiteer; I didn’t say ‘this pulpit, here,’ I said this pulpiteer!
If you want to know what Unitarian Universalists believe and be able to articulate it, read Emerson’s essays and addresses; read them again and again, not because he will tell you what to believe, but because he has the best way of putting words to the thoughts which brought most of us here.
The third of the three prophets is Theodore Parker.
Parker, as it turns out, was the most courageous of the Unitarian prophets. He paid a high price for that courage.
Just three years after Emerson’s famous Divinity School Address, Parker delivered a sermon at the ordination of Charles Shackford in the Hawes Place Church in Boston. It was not intended to be an occasion like Channing’s Baltimore sermon but it touched off a volcano which kept burning for years–scorching Parker badly.
Parker titled his sermon ‘The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,’ using as his text a passage from the gospel of Luke: “Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my word shall not pass away.”
He opened with this volley:
In this sentence we have a very clear indication that Jesus of Nazareth believed the religion he taught would be eternal, that the substance of it would last forever. Yet there are some, who are affrighted by the faintest rustle which a heretic makes among the dry leaves of theology; they tremble lest Christianity itself should perish without hope.
The least doubt respecting the popular theology, or the existing machinery of the church; the least sign of distrust in the Religion of the Pulpit, or the Religion of the Street, is by some good men supposed to be at enmity with faith in Christ, and capable of shaking Christianity itself.
Parker asserted, in essence, that what is eternally true in Christianity is what is immutably true in the universe, and all the rest is transient.
The religion which calls itself Christianity, he says, changes from age to age, from pulpit to pulpit, and is often filled with superstition and loaded with prejudice and even hatred.
While true religion is always the same thing, in each century and every land, in each man that feels it, the Christianity of the Pulpit, which is the religion taught; the Christianity of the People, which is the religion that is accepted and lived out; has never been the same thing in any two centuries or lands, except only in name. The difference between what is called Christianity by the Unitarians in our times, and that of some ages past, is greater than the difference between Mohammed and the Messiah. The difference at this day between opposing classes of Christians; the difference between the Christianity of some sects, and that of Christ himself; is deeper and more vital than that between Jesus and Plato, Pagan as we call him. The Christianity of the seventh century has passed away. We recognize only the ghost of Superstition in its faded features. We rejoice that it is gone.
Parker asserted that modern theologians make an idol out of the Bible and that ‘modern Criticism is fast breaking that idol to pieces.’
He said that the idea of making Jesus into God, or an idol, is blasphemous; he said there is no Christian sect that does not fetter a man.
He challenged the members of the congregation who were ordaining their new minister by saying,
You may prevent the freedom of speech in this pulpit if you will. You may hire you servants to preach as you bid; to spare your vices and flatter your follies; to prophecy smooth things, and say, It is peace, when there is no peace. Yet in so doing you weaken and enthrall yourselves. And alas for that man who consents to think one thing in his closet, and preach another in his pulpit. Over his study and over his pulpit might be writ-Emptiness; on his canonical robes, on his forehead and right hand-Deceit, Deceit.
Parker painted a very human Jesus, moving away from the Christ portrayed by Channing.
In an earlier time in Christendom, Parker would have been burned at the stake with all the existing copies of this sermon to fuel the fire.
The people flocked to hear him, but his colleagues avoided him, and spent months trying to decide whether to remove him from membership in the Unitarian ministers association. They decided against it because it would set a precedent and soon all Unitarian ministers would be subject to a theological litmus test. But they shunned him, and he died at age 50 in Florence Italy where he had gone for health reasons.
I have felt a deep sense of appreciation for these three prophets of religious liberalism. They would be pleased, I hope, to see the freedom this pulpit allows, and to know the give and take between pulpit and pew in this congregation.
They were my real, live, flesh-and-blood forebears who passed the torch of freedom, reason and tolerance to me, and to you, if you decide to carry it.
It’s important that you have some sense of the ground-breaking work they did, just as it is important to have a sense of appreciation for the women and men who started this congregation back in 1949, and to those who built this building, putting up their own money without any reward of a far-off heaven, but with a vigorous sense of conviction that this is a religion that will feed many a hungry pilgrim in Fairfield County.
The three sermons, delivered by these three prophets, are between the covers of a single book with a wonderful introduction by our foremost Unitarian historian, Conrad Wright. I commend it to you most highly.
We’ll close with the concluding lines from Whitman’s wonderful poem, Song of the Open Road:
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself