Universalist Professions of Faith

October 5, 2003
Mrs. Jackie Magazu

Two hundred years and a little while ago on Sept 22, 1803 the New England Convention of Universalists met in what is today the very small town of Winchester, NH. The very brief document they adopted there has come down to us as the Winchester Profession of Faith. I'll share their words with you later, for I think they help us understand how Universalism informs our UU faith today. And I think Winchester can help us to reclaim the heritage of Universalism that has been inadvertently ignored and almost lost since the Unitarians and the Universalists merged in May of 1961, more than 40 years ago.

As I was writing this, one fact suddenly dawned on me. For many, if not most, of us worshipping in this, to me at least sacred, building this morning, merger is not something we remember. Most of us never worshipped as Unitarians or Universalists. We come to this faith of Unitarian Universalist fully-grown, so-to-speak. But we are not the first to come to this faith we share. Those of us who come to our UU faith from other faiths or no faith at all are called, sometimes not so kindly, come-outers. But our forefathers and mothers were also come-outers. They came out from Methodists, Congregationalists, Anabaptists, Quakers and other faiths. Thus it may help us to define our faith, this sometimes unwieldy thing called Unitarian-Universalism, by looking at where we came from. You know, I hope that if you're reading a road map, it helps if you read it right side up. Otherwise you may not end up where you want to go. You may end up lost! So does our faith need to be looked at right side up lest we too be lost!!

To understand the Winchester Profession of 1803 and the New England Convention that debated it, we need to remember, if not accept, the intertwined structure that mixed church and state at the time. Men were taxed to pay the minister's salary and for the general provisioning of the church. The minister's job was to bring moral discernment to all of the inhabitants of the Parish, what we would call a town, and not just to the members of the church. Most of those churches and ministers were Congregational Trinitarians, the successors of the Pilgrims and the Puritans. The only way to exempt oneself from paying those taxes was to show that you were in fact a member of a dissenting faith, that you were supporting a church other than the standing order churches. When members of some of those dissenting Universalists approached the courts pleading that they were in fact exempt from the church tax, because they were Universalist in religion, the courts held that there was no church, or group of churches called Universalist and no statement of belief from a Universalist group and no stated method of ordaining clergy; thus the Universalists were not members of a dissenting church, but merely dissenters who didn't like paying taxes. This was almost certainly one reason, I doubt it was the only reason, for the Winchester Profession. This is certainly not the last argument about separation of church and state. You can read the daily newspaper for today's argument. The New England Universalists subsequently gained recognition as a church and were exempted from taxation but that's a sermon for another day.

`Let me quote the full test of the Winchester Profession. It is brief, less than 100 words set forth in three articles.

Article 1. [says Winchester] We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

Article 2. We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

Article 3. We believe that holiness and happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works, for these things are good and profitable unto men.

About now you're probably having the same reaction that I had back when I first read Winchester. Words like holy, revelation and god in the same sentence have been known to put good humanist UUs into a state of hysteria or cause them to hyperventilate. Especially in these days when so many who identify themselves as Christian seem to claim that god speaks only to them and in a language only they can understand.

I am particularly fond of Frederic Perkins description of the Winchester Profession, "Its very brevity is a sign of breadth, for only the affirmer can be brief. The denier is voluble. Lest no heresy escape specific condemnation." We might do well to remember Perkins words today. Maybe we should keep our words brief and affirmative, rather than voluble and imprecise, worrying less about present days heresies and concerning ourselves with our own affirmations or professions of faith.

Winchester is the more interesting for what it doesn't say and for how it says what it does say. In the first article, Universalists stated that they believed that the Bible had a revelation about the ‘character of god'. Notice what is not said! Winchester does not claim a revelation from god or about god, but about the character of god. There is no claim that the bible is from god, or about god. There is no claim that what is written in the pages of the bible is always good. Nor does it claim that the bible is the last word, that everything you need to know is within those pages. And let us keep in mind that the Universalists in New Hampshire in 1803 could have said all those things. At a time when the orthodox Christian faiths were making those claims, that is inerrancy and revelation, the Universalists were leaving themselves open to new ideas of faith and worship.

The second article of the Winchester Profession is the more interesting, at least for me. With the commas and qualifying phrases removed it reads, "We believe that there is ONE GOD" In an earlier convention in 1790 at Philadelphia, under the leadership of Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, the Universalists affirmed a belief in one god. The unity of god versus the trinity of father, son and holy ghost had been an ongoing discussion and argument since the earliest days of the Christianity. It was such a hotly contested argument that early church bishops called a church council in Nicea, in Greece, in 325CE to bring the arguments to a conclusion. The vote at Nicea was won by the trinitarians, and the Unitarian argument was declared to be heresy. Don't forget though, that just because we lost the vote it doesn't mean we were wrong! Now in 1803 the Universalists are stating clearly and without equivocation their belief in a single GOD. The argument about the trinity versus the unity of god that the Congregationalists would have in the mid-1800s, the so-called Unitarian Controversary, was a dead issue for the Universalists by 1803. As the Rev. Richard Trudeau minister at Weymouth puts it, "Universalists had dibs on the Unitarian name, but they already had another name that they liked better."

What is most neglected when we talk about Winchester today, is the final clause adopted at that meeting in 1803. It is called the ‘Liberty Clause." I quote "Yet while we adopt a general profession of belief and plan of church government, we leave it to the several churches and societies or to smaller associations of churches, if such should be formed within the limits of our General Association to continue or adopt within themselves such more particular articles of faith or modes of discipline, as may appear to them best under their particular circumstances, provided they do not disagree with our general profession and plan." In other words, just because we meeting here at Winchester say we believe certain things, doesn't mean that all must believe them, now or in the future. We'll leave the particulars to the churches and societies. This is the ‘Liberty Clause' of which the Rev. Dr Peter Lee Scott says and I quote "has probably been as important to Universalism as any of our creeds." I would go further than that and say it may be of much more importance than our creeds, for in the liberty clause one hears the echo of our own present day free faith. The preamble to our principles and purposes reads "We covenant to affirm and promote" Two of our UU principles come directly from the Liberty Clause, our third principle ‘acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth' and our fourth principle ‘a free and responsible search for truth and meaning."

The importance of the debate at Winchester was not so much the wording of the Profession as a debate over whether or not there should be a declaration at all. Universalists were particularly fearful of any creedal test for membership. History taught them that if their creeds could be tested then someone's creeds could be enforced, usually to their detriment. They were a minority sect whom the orthodox, or congregational, thought heretical. And within all of their memories were the stories of burnings and hangings that were so much a part of the protestant reformation and the roman catholic counter-reformation. They would have no creeds that must be accepted. And thank you very much!!!!! And thus while they adopted a Profession in an attempt to bring some organization to their common faith, they also adopted a liberty clause to protect themselves from a required faith.

With all of the things that Unitarians and Universalists had in common, it's a wonder that it took so long for merger to happen. On the other hand, I'm amazed that merger ever happened at all. During my time at General Assembly in Boston this summer, I stopped in at the Arlington Street Church. This is what their historical pamphlet says about Universalists "Initially they were an evangelical, biblicistic, lower-class movement with an uneducated clergy." This pamphlet reinforced my belief that one of the differences between Unitarians and Universalist, the thing that kept them separated, was that of class. Unitarians were city folk, merchants, ship owners, bankers. Universalists were country folk, farmers, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, coopers. Unitarians owned things, Universalists made things. Unitarians owned the ships, Universalists built them and sailed them. Today in our UU congregations, you will find few folk who make things, who are blue-collar workers. I'm continually surprised at how often I find within our congregations that the Unitarians left money to the library or the organ or the Sunday school, or they built a new church, but of course with their name on it. The Universalists left their money for the church as a whole and there seem to be fewer strings to Universalist money.

Also included in the pamphlet from Arlington Street was the old joke that "the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned forever but Universalists believe god is too good to damn them forever." What the Arlington Street pamphlet neglects to mention is that this still popular joke was told by a Universalist, the Rev. Thomas Starr King, serving the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco just before the Civil War. Starr King gets credit for keeping California in the Union, the Starr King school for the ministry at Berkley is named after him. I'd like to see him get credit for the joke too! And let's credit him with being a Universalist.

Actually, I kind of like the Arlington Street Church description of Universalists. Yes, we certainly were evangelical. Hosea Ballou and John Murray were circuit-riding preachers bringing the "good news" of universal salvation to congregations. I find it hard to envision the Harvard-schooled William Ellery Channing riding a circuit. The same type of circuit riding was practiced as people moved west in the years after the Civil War. Many of those circuit-riding preachers were women, for the Universlists were the first denomination to ordain women in 1863. By 1900 the Universalists were the sixth largest denomination in the United States, according to some counts. Maybe we UUs should take up a little evangelizing and preach the good news of our merged faith.

And yes we were biblistic, but not to the exclusion of other texts, sacred and otherwise. The theory of evolution, which threw the orthodox Christian faiths into such a tizzy in the 1860s, [and still has quite an effect on some faiths today] had much less of an effect on Universalism. Since early days, the Universalists had preached that faith must make sense, that a loving god was too good to damn them. Thus, they had little trouble in accepting evolutionary theory as just one more of god's gifts. Their belief in universalism also opened them to truths of other faiths. If Hindu or Mohammedans were also subject to god's universal love, then maybe their holy books contained some of gods work.

And yes the early Universalist clergy were unschooled in ministry. Harvard University was founded to train the orthodox Puritan clergy. Ordination was for the formally schooled and incidentally for those who could afford such schooling. For the Universalist the importance was in reading and interpreting the Bible, the word of God. And anyone could do that. Or as Ernest Cassara says in his history Universalism in America, "The Holy Spirit was perfectly capable of choosing His spokesmen without the intervention of theological schools." And I doubt very much if Harvard would have accepted Universalists to be trained, in any event. We were after all heretics, dissenters!! Universalists to this day seem less hierarchical. There is less a tradition of a schooled, ordained clergy preaching to the unschooled layman and more of an acceptance of the role of laymen and women as being of critical importance to the church. It has always interested me that when financial difficulties made it necessary for the UUA to close two theological schools the two that were closed were St. Lawrence and Crane Theological at Tufts. Those two just happened to be the Universalist schools. When ordination and fellowship were finally formalized by the Universalists, it was within state and regional conventions, not as a national organization. Universalists did not create today's MFC, the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. The Universalists were the first of what I like to call inclusionists. Not for them the dogma of the elect going to heaven and the rest to hell. They knew how it felt to be considered an outsider, a heretic, so everyone was equally valued.

There is much of Universalism in today's UUA. It's just that few talk about it or tell us about it. When we name our heroes and sages, let us remember the faith from which they came. Benjamin Rush who was responsible for the call, in 1790, for the banning of slavery. Clara Barton for her work in public health, P. T. Barnum and Horace Greeley for the founding of the Universalist Publishing House, Olympia Brown for being the first woman ordained by a denomination, Kenneth Patton and Clinton Lee Scott for their courage in promoting the Charles Street Meetinghouse, Adin Ballou, founder of the Hopedale Utopian community, Dr. George de Benneville, Clarence Skinner of Tufts who taught a generation of Universalist ministers. And so many more.

As we come from a long line of heretics and dissenters, let us make room within this religious community for today's heretics and dissenters. Let us stand with those at Winchester who said that "we ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works, for these things are good and profitable unto us."