What Happened in Baltimore?

June 1, 2003
The Reverend Victoria Weinstein


Over the years I have met with Unitarian Universalist youth groups to do an exercise that is intended to help them better understand, and claim, their religious heritage. I post up some sheets of newsprint and I ask them to answer the question"what is a Christian?" And then they inevitably respond with comments like this:

•A Christian is someone who believes that Jesus died for our sins, and that if you don't accept him as your lord and savior – if you're not saved -- you'll go to hell.

•A Christian is someone who believes in the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

•A Christian is someone who believes that the Virgin Mary was impregnated by God and remained a virgin all her life: even after she gave birth, and that she eventually ascended into heaven to live with her Son and pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death.

•Christians do this ritual called Communion where they drink and eat the blood and flesh of Jesus ("weird!").

•Christians think that Jesus literally rose from the dead.

And there our kids go on, always defining Christianity by the most historically orthodox articles of faith. Adults do this too. I recently saw one of the members of this church wearing a little cross pin on his lapel, but sideways. Thinking it an unintentional error I righted the pin, but he cheerfully brushed my hand away. The pin, he said, was his father's and he wore it out for sentimental reasons but sideways, "because I don't believe in the Trinity." Just as cheerfully, because we're friends, I turned the cross upright and said to him, "Listen, you have every right to wear that cross if you like, and you don't need to believe in the Trinity to do so, either. The way has been cleared for you!"
Let me explain.

Returning for a moment to that exercise with the newsprint, what I do after the kids list all the things they believe defines being a Christian, is take a big red marker and and check off each item on their list, commenting "not necessarily" for each one. It's an impressive moment. I then let the youth know that every single one of these articles of faith have already been argued-- and argued persuasively-- by both their Unitarian and their Universalist forebears. In other words, these beliefs are not required for one to be a Christian. We stand in a heretical tradition. They may as well find that out now. As may you.

So, I tell them, if you feel an attraction to the gospels and to the religion OF Jesus (as opposed to the religion ABOUT Jesus), Jesus and the religion he founded can belong to you. Furthermore, I tell them that every single one of their theological objections to the Christian faith as they have just defined it has been shared by other questioning Christians across the ages. Many (not all, but many) of those liberal Christians through the ages have been what we would now refer to as Unitarians and Universalists.

If you're wondering why your new minister has spent quite so much time in the 19th century this year, part of it is because there are two important bicentennial anniversaries to celebrate in the spring of 2003, (the bicentennial of the birth of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the bicentennial of the ordination of William Ellery Channing) but more importantly, it is to impress upon you, in case you aren't already well aware, that the discomfort you may feel about religion you may have been acquainted with in your past, is not original discomfort. It is has been addressed, brilliantly, by those who have shared and do share your questions and concerns -- those who, like you, prefer to embrace a religion that has intellectual as well as spiritual integrity for them. One of those was William Ellery Channing. [ biographical information provided by the Reverend Stefan M. Jonasson, "The Reluctant Radical", a sermon given at Arborg Unitarian Church, April 7,2002]

At first, men like Channing were just considered the liberals within their religious circles. It wasn't meant as a compliment. The liberals were characterized by an openness to interpreting Scripture and God's ultimate purposes for them, and they were deeply influenced by the a new intellectual approach to religion; quite "taken" by a sense of possibility through the powers of the mind, and of Reason!

The orthodox, I would remind us, were committed to right practice (ortho-praxy) and right belief ("ortho-doxy" = right thought or belief). In this worldview, what has been handed down is not to be tinkered with. Souls were at stake, as they are today.

Channing was at the center of this exciting time in Boston. Tensions between the religious liberals and the orthodox Calvinists had been steady for at least a hundred years, but some major events caused the simmering pot to boil, like the election of the liberal Henry Ware Jr. (from Hingham) to the key post at Harvard Divinity School in 1805.

The Enlightenment had swept through Europe, and the scientific method was turning many old, cherished notions on their heads. Humankind, though still deprived and depraved in many areas, was feeling pretty puffed up about itself. The Dark Ages seemed to be over. Medical advances had been made. Technology was going great guns. The Industrial Revolution had begun to change the way the world worked. Democracy and human rights were primary concerns in a way that previous generations had only dreamed of. It was heady stuff, and our Unitarian (and Universalist, too, but that's a story for another time) forefathers and mothers felt that God's hand was in all of this, and in the miraculous workings of their own prolific minds.

These were folks who believed in the improvability of human beings, onward and upward, "growing into harmony with the Divine."

These were folks who worried that the Calvinist "born-into-sin, probably-going-to-hell" doctrine could twist and warp and contort a person's character -- even literally make him or her crazy. You could say they were the early pioneers of the self-esteem movement. As I say, souls were at stake.

In 1812, in the early murmurings of all this liberal, optimistic theology, an English gentleman by the name of Thomas Belsham wrote a little book that contained a chapter warning about the evils of this new American strain of religion, which he called "Unitarianism." To get the full effect, you kind of have to spit or sneer when you say it. "Unitarianism!"

So life in the theological fast lane was heating up around this time, and the "Unitarian" heretics started to faction off and form liberal Christian congregations in some places. Sometimes there were bitter battles over this issue; congregations divided over the doctrine of the Trinity and Christ's divinity and church factions stomped off across the town green to form the Trinitarian Congregationalist church of Wherever, or Trinity Church Such-and-Such, fuming that they couldn't take the communion silver with them. In at least one famous case, the court ordered that the communion silver be left behind with the Unitarian infidels!

In other cases, existing congregations (like this one), quietly and without any fuss became more liberal -- more Unitarian – in the theology that they professed and preached -- although no churches took the name yet. That was still to come. Most of this was happening around Boston, but a group of folks got a liberal congregation going down in Baltimore, the First Independent Church (now known as First Unitarian, and worth a field trip if you're ever down there). They found themselves a building and eventually invited a talented protegee of William Ellery Channing's to be their settled minister. This was young Jared Sparks. Sparks accepted, and invited his mentor Channing down to Baltimore to preach at his ordination in 1819.

Now let me make it perfectly clear to you that this was definitely a calculated strike on behalf of the liberals. They weren't going into this with typical expectations; this was gonna be Big Time Statement by one of their superstars. And so it was.

This ordination sermon became known as "The Baltimore Sermon" –– a less than creative name, of course, but a powerful declaration of Unitarian Christianity that split the Unitarians and the Calvinists for once and for all. In the days before television, cable and the Internet, this sermon was extremely popular -- it was printed up right after Channing delivered it and remains one of the most widely-read and influential pamphlets in American history.

It's a good thing the pamphlet got published, too, because the lousy acoustics in the church made it impossible for anyone sitting past the third row to hear a word. Nowadays they have a nice sound system. But a local conservative minister at the time told his congregation, ' There has been a new Church erected in our city for the dissemination of pernicious doctrines, but by the grace of God, nobody can hear what the minister has to say.1

What did he have to say?

Listen carefully, for the religious landscape of this Puritan-founded nation has so changed since 1819 that we hardly think of Channing's ideas as radical anymore. But they were at the time, and I think that they still comprise the foundation of our free faith today, no matter how we take them for granted, avoid or deny them:

First off was a section on how to read the Bible. "We profess not to know a book," he said, "which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible." This was a nervy proclamation, indeed, and although Channing was far from the first to make it, this part of the Baltimore sermon is still an important landmark in promoting an approach to Bible study that takes into account the Good Book's historical and cultural context. Today, when Unitarians and other religious liberals study the Bible at all, we certainly take Channing's words to heart. And we still have plenty of religious critics who think we're grievously mistaken for doing so.

What else did Channing say that day?

"We object strongly to the contemptuous manner in which human reason is often spoken of by our adversaries, because it leads, we believe, to universal skepticism."

Channing thought God intended us to actively exercise our intellectual prowess in religious matters and not just accept truth second-hand out of naive piety -- a concept that Emerson later picked up and expanded greatly.

Here, Channing put forth a concept of God as the ultimate "wise teacher," who, like any wise teacher, delights in the expanding capacities of his or her students, not in "perplexing them with what is unintelligible . . . distressing them with apparent contradictions . . . [and] filling them with a skeptical distrust of their own powers."

This idea of God's delight in us is central to Channing, who passionately wants you and me to know that God loves us too much to make inner peace, spiritual wholeness and consoling faith an unattainable, complicated proposition.

There are many more important theological arguments in the Baltimore sermon about Unitarian theology over and above Trinitarian theology, and there is some very convincing material on the nature of Jesus and the death and sacrifice of Jesus, and there is quite a bit of material that would very likely feel archaic and 19th century to you, that you would not necessarily agree with and so forth, and it is important material that I hope you all take an opportunity to study someday. Nine of us did so this past Tuesday night and it was wonderful.

But since I, unlike Channing, do not feel sure that you would particularly appreciate it if I preached for an hour and a half,

I want to stop and focus on that central idea of a loving God and an exalted humanity, for it is in this aspect of faith that Channing truly reaches out through the centuries and grabs at us:

God --- that eternal and mysterious spiritual source that God is -- meant us to be thoughtful, meant for us to use our amazing brains to explore the boundaries of moral responsibility, meant for us to puzzle and ponder and even suffer grave doubts in our minds in the process of developing faith. This isn't something that we do to be rebellious, it's somethhing we do to be human, and to be faithful.

"We object," Channing says, speaking for his liberal community, to a God who is punitive, who aims to trick and confuse His/Her creatures, who is unworthy of love and trust. We were created, he says, to love God -–– created "for union with the creator," and in the love of God is the first principle for our happiness and well-being.

It's an extremely optimistic worldview. It felt like real spiritual emancipation to the congregation in 1819, and not long after Channing delivered this sermon, a critical mass of excited religious liberals made a commitment to coming out of the closet as Unitarians, as it were, and organized the American Unitarian Assocation not long after that. And the theology made a huge impact on American religious thought, but did not grow a big, vibrant denomination, as some hoped it would. Maybe some other time we can talk about why that didn't happen. There is a tiny sad note here, and that is that Channing never, ever wanted to help spawn a new denomination. He was devoted non-sectarian who deeply believed in a Christian brother and sisterhood that would transcend denominational labels and brand names.

But here we find ourselves today -- part of that small number of people who consider themselves direct religious descendants of Channing. Our religious landscape is far different than in 1819 and I wonder, in fact, if Mr. Channing would recognize or claim Unitarians of today as his own people. Would he be befuddled by the wild variety of spiritual paths, religious language, cultural influences and political realities that comprise Unitarian Universalism today? Or would he sense that the instincts and yearnings that animate us today are much the same as those that energized him in the early 19th century?

Oh, I think he would. I think he'd be fascinated our diversity while feeling very much at home with our ongoing and sincere search for truth and meaning. And he would remind our ministers, as he charged the newly-ordained Rev. Jared Sparks: "You will remember, that good practice is the end of preaching, and will labor to make your people holy livers, rather than skillful disputants."

If I could stitch, I'd stitch that on a sampler!

This is my final Sunday in the pulpit until September, and I thank you for your attentive and open minds and hearts as we have explored a variety of subjects here together through the seasons. It is my fervent hope that what we do together as a worshiping community will make more holy livers of us all. I know I am made a more faithful person by our regular gathering in this sacred space – and I hope the same quiet but clear influence is something you can claim for yourself. I hope the spirit of this community will continue to sustain us all in what I hope is an absence that makes the heart grow fonder over the summer months!

P.S. Jared Sparks didn't stay long in the ministry. He left the Baltimore church in 1823, much to the disappointment of his congregation, and went on to become a much-admired writer, editor, history professor, and president of Harvard College. He died in March 137 years ago, leaving three daughters and a son. Channing, of course, was preserved in Unitarian posterity while Sparks was not; not really. But as you know, that was far from the end of the story. Here we are, and the story goes on. How it will all turn out, we don't yet know. We stand on the threshhold of great possibility, thanks be to God.

1 Channing: The Reluctant Radical. A biography by Jack Mendolsohn. Boston. Skinner House Books, Unitarian Universalist Assocation, 1971.