A month ago Rachel Tedesco and I attended a very interesting event and program at the First Universalist Church in Stoughton. It was the first Annual Meeting of The New Massachusetts Universalist Convention. We heard three interesting speakers who talked about various aspects of Universalist history and theology past and present. One of the things we learned was that though Hosea Ballou and William Ellery Channing, (the 19th Century namesakes of our own Ballou-Channing District of UU Churches in Southeastern Mass. and R.I.), lived only a few blocks away from each other on Beacon Hill in Boston, they never met nor formally communicated. Channing was a Harvard educated Unitarian minister. Ballou was a self-taught Universalist pastor. Theologically, they were not that far apart. Hosea Ballou had published the first systematic Unitarian Universalist theology with his Treatise On Atonement, in 1805, but Channing was frankly not comfortable with Ballou’s advocating of universal salvation for all after death. He wanted to hold out for some form of punishment or retribution for sin, though he was no advocate of eternal damnation. The reason it took the Unitarians and Universalists around a hundred and fifty years or more to finally get together in 1961 was more social and economic than theological. The Unitarians were the upper class educated intellectuals, the Universalists were the blue-collar lower class working folk. The Universalists were by and large more enthusiastic and emotional than the Unitarians. What was needed was to find a way to get the head and the heart together which we are still trying to do nearly two centuries later.
When the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association most of the Universalist State Conventions ceased functioning and gave their assets to the new denomination. A few held out and still control their old Universalist investments, such as the Rhode Island Universalists, and the Universalists of N.H. and Vermont. There were fears that the Universalists, who were much smaller in numbers than the Unitarians, would be absorbed and devoured by their larger Unitarian cousins, much as Sears eventually absorbed Roebuck when the two department stores merged many years ago. But as my colleague, Richard Trudeau in South Weymouth noted (and he was quoting me when he said it), "We are what we eat.” The truth is I first heard it from Darrell Berger, former minister in Scituate. In any event, Universalism is very much a part of what we are today though we may have forgotten who it was who nourished us over the centuries. Thus, the reason for the establishment of The New Massachusetts Universalist Convention. It is an attempt to reclaim and to remember who we were so that we may better understand who we are.
The gathering in Stoughton covered a lot of ground in the three presentations, but the focus was on two sources of our Universalist heritage, the Universalist symbol of the Circle with the Off-Center Cross, and the Universalist Declaration of Faith from the General Assemblies of 1935 and 1953. The Off-Center Cross was adopted as the symbol of Universalism by the Massachusetts Universalist Convention in 1947. The Circle was drawn as a symbol of infinity and represented “the all-inclusive faith of universalism, which shuts no one out.” The Cross is the symbol of Christianity, out of which Universalism grew, but it was placed off-center to indicate that Christianity is but one interpretation of infinity or God. It leaves room for other symbols and other interpretations. It was felt that universalism “is not the product of any one cultural or religious tradition, but is in fact implicit in all the great faiths.” Thus, the interest of many Unitarian Universalists in the essential teachings and insights of the world’s religions—Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and others. The off-center cross was eventually replaced by the Flaming Chalice of Unitarian Universalism, but its symbolism and meaning is included in the latter.
The Universalist declaration of faith, which we recited earlier in the service, was the last and final statement of Universalist beliefs, which were put forth at the 1935 General Assembly and reaffirmed once again at the 1953 Assembly. The declaration begins with the statement “We avow our faith”—another way of saying we affirm our faith. The dictionary defines the word “avow” in the following terms: “To declare openly, as something one is not ashamed of, or as something believed to be true or right.” Thus the declaration begins on a note of positive affirmation. Unitarian Universalism has sometimes been characterized as the most “protestant of all Protestant faiths”, meaning we are more interested in declaring what we don’t believe, than what we do. We say we are a noncreedal religion, in the sense that we do not require adherence to unchangeable doctrines and dogmas, which is true enough. But when you dig into the historical roots of our faith you will discover a much wider source of “affirmations of faith” than in nearly any other religious tradition. We have had many and they have changed and developed through the centuries to fit the times.
The first affirmation from the 1935 Universalist declaration is a statement of faith about ultimate reality, namely, “in God as eternal and all-conquering love.” We need to recall that Universalism was born in reaction to the Calvinist belief in a God of punishing wrath who predestined most of the human race to eternal torment in hell because of original sin. Even those who lived good and decent lives by human standards were subject to condemnation unless God in his mercy chose to save some. They also were predestined to heaven before they were born. Thus, human beings could in no manner contribute to their own salvation. It was all pre-determined by God.
The Universalists rightly perceived that the idea of infinite punishment for finite transgression was neither fair nor just, and unworthy of a loving God and human beings at their best. It leaves no place for growth, for moral development, for change and maturation or improvement. Universalists were referred to with scorn, as “Anti-Hellians”, which they certainly were, not because they were against raising a little hell, but because they wanted to elevate all souls to the divine, and to bring heaven down to earth.
John Murray said it well in his first sermon on these shores in 1770: “You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to human hearts and minds. Give them, not Hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.” It was that kind of view that prompted the poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to say that Universalism was the most beautiful word in the English language because it was the most inclusive and fully embracing in its sentiments. By linking God with the sentiment of love Universalism was saying that “people are in harmony with the divine when they are in loving relationship with one another.” God is human love at its best writ large. The only “all-conquering” force in the world is the power of love in human relationships. And that applies equally to relationships between cultures, races and nations. As Hosea Ballou said, “If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury; but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good. Let us endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.”
The second Universalist affirmation is faith in “the spiritual leadership of Jesus.” It should be noted that the affirmation refers to Jesus the man, not Christ the Messiah or Son of God who died for our sins. The Jesus of Universalism is the historical Jesus rather than the theological Christ. This Jesus is an exemplary prophet whose teachings about love and justice represented the best in his Hebrew religious heritage. Jesus is a leader worth following because he himself sought to live to the fullest what he taught. His teachings have authority not because he taught them, but because they are intrinsically valid and true, and he gave his life to make them so. If Jesus were a God we could excuse the absence of love, forgiveness, justice and mercy in ourselves. We could say, “We cannot follow his teachings because he was not such as we.” But we cannot say this because he was such as we, and he does not lead us where we cannot go. As Emerson said of Jesus, “When God makes a prophet he does not unmake the man. One man was true to what is in you and in me.”
The third Universalist affirmation is faith in “the supreme worth of every human personality.” This is the source of the first of our current UU Principles, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” It certainly cannot be proved that every human being has inherent or supreme worth and dignity. It is the counterpoint to the belief that we are born with original sin and that we are inherently selfish and evil and deserving of punishment. If there is such a thing as original sin, then there is also such a thing as original goodness. If we treat one another as if we had inherent worth and dignity then we help to actualize that potential. It’s that simple and that difficult. Napoleon “Bill” Lovely, a former minister of this parish, wrote in a pamphlet, “In every person (however dissipated, forlorn, or different form yourself) you must look for the divine potential, and to the extent of your ability you must offer every person help in realizing his or her potential divinity. It is not easy to believe that ordinary people who go about their ordinary tasks, that even the criminal and vicious and the alien can order their lives by reason and love. But that is what we ask you to believe.” It makes a difference what we believe about the inherent worth and dignity of the human person. It makes a difference in how we perceive and treat others and ourselves. It makes a difference in the world.
The fourth Universalist affirmation is faith “in the authority of truth known or to be known.” Religious, spiritual or moral truth is truth like any other kind of truth. It is constantly growing and evolving and needs to be tested and tried and discovered anew in every generation and in every person throughout the course of his or her lives. The truth known is the rich heritage, which has been bequeathed to us not only in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also in all the religious and spiritual traditions East, and West. Though our historical origins derive from Jewish and Christian sources we are not confined to those sources in our search for spiritual truths to live by. We can learn from pagan philosophers, native mystics, Hindu and Buddhist sages, no less than from Hebrew prophets and Christian saints. Moreover, Unitarian Universalism does not restrict its search for religious truth to the heritage of past ages, however noble that heritage. It also recognizes that we must discover new truths to fit the times in which we live. This is the truth “to be known” which we are called upon to seek with all our hearts and minds.
The fifth and last Universalist affirmation of faith is belief in “the power of persons of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and progressively establish the kingdom of God.” You might say that this is the collective and social application of the previous affirmation about the supreme worth of every human personality. The kingdom of God is a religious symbol expressing the grand vision of a Universal Community of human cooperation and sharing. It is an affirmation that takes the long view and trusts the dawning future more than the obstacles and difficulties at hand. This is not a naïve belief in the inevitability of progress. It recognizes the fact of evil and the need for persons of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome that evil. It won’t happen by itself. Suffering and personal failure may well be the price of future progress made by others.
In 1917 the Universalist Church, in its Social Service Commission Report, spelled out the full dimensions of this Grand Affirmation in the following terms: “First, an economic order which shall give to every human being an equal share in the common gifts of God, and in addition all that persons shall earn by their own labor. Second, a social order, in which there shall be equal rights for all, special privilege for, none, the help of the strong for the weak until the weak become strong. Third, a moral order in which all human law and action shall be the expression of the moral order of the universe. Fourth, a spiritual order, which shall build out of the growing lives of living men and women the temple of the living God.” As you can see this Universalist vision of the kingdom of God says very clearly that there can be no individual Gospel without a social Gospel. The kingdom of God implies a politics of justice and compassion embodied in human law and social relationships.
I for one am pleased that The New Massachusetts Universalist Convention has been established. We have much to learn and to be grateful for in the vision and affirmations of our Universalist forbears. Universalism is no Roebuck to be forgotten in a Unitarian Sears department store. It is a heritage to be recalled and revered and applied anew in this millennial age. After all, we are what we eat, and we have been well nourished by our Universalist heritage.
May the gentle and persuasive power of that Eternal and all-conquering love transform our hearts and minds into a likeness of itself so that we may seek the truth and practice love in all our endeavors. So be it. Amen.