STRANGE AND WONDROUS PARTNERS
A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on May 6, 2001
At the beginning of Christianity, some say, there was the Bible, and God presumably looked at it, and said it was good. Then came the Church, which found it necessary to interpret the Bible in absolute ways, and adopted the Nicene Creed in 325, making the divinity of Christ the official orthodoxy of Christianity. As if that weren't bad enough, fifty years later it added the holy spirit to the formula, giving the Christian religion the awkward trinity as a basic tenet of belief. I would like to think that God was no longer so pleased.
It did not take long for others to begin to react to this political interpretation of the Bible, and the roots of both Unitarianism and Universalism go way back to some of the earliest dissenters. Unitarian forebears looked at the original text, and decided that "pure Christianity was being drowned in a sea of metaphysics." Early American Unitarians described themselves as "pure Christians" - pure as in following the teachings of Jesus, before the church messed things up with the divinity and the trinity.
There was a long history of mystical universalism in Europe, which was transplanted to America with the Shakers, Quakers, Dunkers, Mennonites and other offshoots of the Radical Reformation. But it was the English Universalists who looked at the Bible and decided that the "original gospel of Christianity" taught that the death of Christ freed all souls; his atoning death granted universal salvation- hence the name Universalism.
Both the early Unitarians and the first Universalists firmly believed in God, in the Bible, in Jesus, and in the sinfulness of humankind. Both spoke of the need for redemption, and the theme of salvation was strong in both groups. Both came about as a reaction to Calvinism. But it was the question of salvation that also separated them.
As you know, Calvinism taught that everyone deserves to go to Hell forever because, ever since the original sin of Adam and Eve, people have been incapable of doing good; they only do evil. Except, of course, for a few lucky people, called the "Elect", who will be saved because Jesus' death persuaded God to let a few people in to Heaven anyway. Nobody knows who the elect are, but since God has already chosen them by some mysterious method, there is nothing we can to earn our way into Heaven if we are not one of the special preselected.
Hogwash, said the Unitarians - people can do good - not often enough, maybe, or courageously enough, but we do, sometimes, manage to do good, and with practice and hard work, we can get better at it. By doing good, we can become people of character. And for God to send people of character to hell forever would be unjust, so we know God wouldn't do that. Thus the Unitarian doctrine of "salvation by character" - we can earn our way into Heaven, we can become people of character, worthy of salvation. Jesus' teachings were often used as the basis for the high ethical standard by which Christians should live, if they were to earn salvation.
The Universalists responded to Calvinism in a different way. They said, there is one God, whose nature is love. A God possessing the attributes of love, power, and wisdom would not want humans to suffer. Such a loving God would finally bring all souls into harmony and would save everyone, because God was kind and understanding and merciful.
Interestingly, the Universalist position caused the most furor. Universalists were accused of believing that even the worst of sinners would go to heaven along with the choicest of saints. "What is the use of being good," people asked, "if the wicked can get to heaven anyway?" This attack caused what is known as the Restorationist Controversy among Universalists. All agreed that everyone would eventually go to Heaven, but they did not agree on how much time would be required for arrival. One group thought there should be some punishment after death for the sins committed in life, in order to cleanse the soul -- the time to vary depending on the seriousness of the sin. Another group, led by Hosea Ballou, held that sin brought its own punishment, that all sins were "worldly", and thus there would be no incentive for sinning once one was free from the temptations of the flesh, so there would be no need for future punishment; all the punishment and pain necessary would be experienced here on earth.
It is hard for us to recognize these early ideas in our present day UU religion. Salvation, which was the issue back at the beginning, is hardly mentioned now. But behind these differences, there were some similarities between even the earliest Unitarians and Universalists, especially in America. One was that they were both willing to change and evolve. This came out of another shared belief - that while the Bible was the basis of Christianity, it was only one of many forms of revelation, and it should be studied critically. If you study it carefully, you notice that there is no mention of the trinity in it, so you believe, as the Jews did, in only one god. And both did. Also, if you encourage people to study the Bible critically, then it follows that you expect them to use logic and reason, and to rely on scientific methods. And they did. And, if you allow different interpretations, then you have to grant individual freedom of belief. And they did.
And whether you believe in "salvation by character," as the Unitarians did, or that bad deeds resulted in punishment during life, as the Universalists did, in either case you need to do good things while here on earth. And they did. Both Unitarians and Universalists have been very involved in social action, ethical behavior, and moral considerations. Furthermore, if you put a focus on being and doing good, then humanity becomes very important in organized life, and you come to believe that humans are what make things happen and you depend less on God. And they did come to believe that. And, if you use the teachings of Jesus as the basis for making ethical decisions and doing good, then you emulate Jesus' life as a man, not as divine. And they did.
So, as both religions evolved, they became closer and closer in theology. There were other similarities as well. Both had their headquarters on Beacon Street in Boston. Both believed strongly in congregational polity, and the democratic method. Both became involved in Japan, and had missions there in the early part of the century. And so on.
There were differences, also, but they were more organizational and demographic than theological. The Universalists began teaching their doctrine well before 1800, fighting the dark unreasonable dogmas which they felt dishonored God, obscured the teachings of Jesus, and denied the worth of humans. They began with "neither script nor purse", with only a great theological principle, and they gathered people from among the unchurched and from the dissident elements in the orthodox churches. Membership was recruited from small tradesmen, farmers and wage-earners. Their ministers had scant formal education, and little besides their faith to support them, as they rode circuit around the country, planting missions in small towns with no consideration for their prospects for survival.
The Unitarians, on the other hand, passed through no weak and toddling infancy, but like the Goddess Athena sprang full grown into being. They started on a high intellectual and cultural level. Their members had social standing, and their ministers had the advantage of university training. When there was a partition in the Congregational churches, one hundred and fifty established congregations, complete with churches and property, immediately became Unitarian. Thus the Unitarians began their separate career with church buildings, congregations, ministers, and in many cases, substantial endowments.
Just as their theological differences have come closer and closer together, so has there been a leveling in other ways; Universalists have had their share of persons of intellectual quality, and Unitarians count among their members persons in humble circumstances. Each has had periods of growth and vitality surpassing the other, although the Unitarians never exceeded 100,000 and the Universalists at one time swelled to over 6 million, making them the 7th largest denomination in America.
It is not strange, then, that on both sides there have long been those interested in closer relations, and those who believed that the mission of liberal religion could best be served by uniting these two liberal bodies into one association. As early as 1865 the Universalists held a convention to which the Unitarians were invited; out of this gathering came the "Free Religious Association", in an effort to bring the liberal forces together. It appealed only to the more radical ministers, however, and did not receive enough support to accomplish its purpose, although in some areas they began to cooperate in various ways. In 1895, polite gestures of comity were made, and a commission of the two groups was appointed to look into closer relations. Nothing much except words, some not very kind, came out of it.
In 1908 the National Federation of Religious Liberals was formed "for cooperative effort among the friends of Liberal religion regardless of denominational lines." Both Unitarians and Universalists were very active in this, along with reform Jews, Hicksite Quakers, Freethinkers, and others. But it was only a cooperative organization; the separate groups still existed as primary.
Then in 1931 delegates to the annual Unitarian May meetings voted to appoint a commission "whose duty it will be to look into the practicability of uniting these two communions for the common good." This proposal was enthusiastically received by the Universalists. Within both groups there was a rising tide of expectation that, at last, they would unite. A joint committee was formed, which seemed to get carried away by its enthusiasm, and decided that "mere merger" was not enough - they wanted nothing less than a fellowship of all religious liberals. They recommended a third organization be created - to be called the Free Church of America. Much effort was spent in organizing the Free Church - so much effort, in fact, that there was none left to making it work, so it died.
In the meantime, Unitarians and Universalists continued to work together. They joined in producing a new Hymn book, Hymns of the Spirit, and creating curriculum material for religious education. By 1953 the departments of Education, Publications and Public Relations were working for both denominations, and that year the American Unitarian Youth and the Universalist Youth Fellowship merged into the Liberal Religious Youth, or LRY.
Finally, in 1955, a Merger Commission was established, which reported favorably to a joint assembly held in 1957. In 1961, after all the details had been worked out, each group met separately to vote to "consolidate," and the Unitarian Universalist Association was formed. The next year, Jerry and Sarah Oelberg, representing the Universalist Church of the Good Shepherd in Racine Wisconsin, now the Olympia Brown UU Church, packed baby Brian and our army surplus tent into our station wagon and headed off for Washington, D.C. to attend the first General Assembly of the newly formed UUA. We pitched our tent in Potomac Park (you could do that in those days) and headed off each morning for the fancy hotel where the meetings were held. I have been a GA junky ever since.
At the time of the merger, there was, we are told, some hesitation on part of the Universalists because they were afraid they would be swallowed up by then larger Unitarians, and some hesitation on the part of the Unitarians because they were afraid of indigestion. There is still some feeling on both sides that their fears were justified.
The Universalists, from the very beginning, were suspicious of denominationalism, centralization, and "Popery". Probably a major reason for their decline was because they resisted any national organization until 1942, by which time they had dropped from the sixth largest group in America to one of the very tiniest. Since the Unitarians had been well organized since 1825, the Universalists were afraid their identity and history would be lost in the merger. At least, they fought hard to retain the name - and we are forever stuck with this cumbersome Unitarian Universalist Association. The Unitarians insisted that their name come first, and the Universalists finally agreed, because they realized that Unitarian then became merely an adjective describing Universalist!
In an attempt to keep their spirit alive, the Universalists still publish their own monthly newspaper, the Universalist Herald, "The oldest continuously published liberal religious periodical in the world", and they still hold convocations every year. When the UU World completely ignored one Universalist convocation but devoted extensive coverage to a coven of witches, the Universalists were convinced their worst fears had come true. They worked hard to make sure their 200th anniversary was well publicized, and you remember we had a singing, shouting, celebrating service here to honor it.
The Universalist part of our merged tradition has much within it that needs to be kept alive: the affirmation of love as the foundation of theology; the requirement of thoroughgoing democracy as the method of church government; the assertion of the supreme worth of every human personality; the conviction that liberal religion should speak to all sorts and conditions of people; the insistence on the equality of women and men in both church and society; the recognition that liberal religion requires emotional warmth as well as intellectual rigor; and finally, the holding up of that great vision of inclusiveness implied by the Universalist name.
Ah, but there is the rub - or the bellyache - for some Unitarians. Inclusiveness - Universalism in the sense of the universality of truth - that truth is not sectarian, different for a Christian, Buddhist, Jew, Pagan, or anyone else - truth is universal, as it said in the Responsive Reading. There are some Unitarians who would prefer to remain sectarian - they, too, are proud of their heritage, and wonder whether it isn't being lost in a religion which welcomes diversity to such an extent that people whose primary religion is something other than Unitarian or Universalist are included. While Unitarians have always worked toward cultural, racial, ethnic and sexual diversity, they have a problem with such manifest theological diversity. In short, they are not sure that they believe that everyone has as good a truth as theirs. And the Pagans, New-Agers, psychics, Theosophists and others who have embraced UUism for its support of individual freedom coupled with a strong religious community, do give some Unitarians indigestion.
There is no question but what the merger was, on the whole, a good thing. Without it, Universalism would be even less visible than it is within it. And Unitarianism would be more elitist, urban and intellectual and less spiritual and emotional than it is. The mix is beneficial to both groups. And, as time goes on and the "original" Unitarians and Universalists die, leaving only those who have experienced UUism after the merger, I think it will be better yet.
On the other hand, there is no denying that there are frustrations, hurt feelings and doubts about the merger, and what it has done to good old Unitarianism and Universalism. Perhaps that is necessary; probably it is good, for it keeps people on their toes, and keeps the strands of the old traditions alive. Unitarian Universalism's greatest strength is probably its belief that the journey of the human spirit is one that each person must take for oneself. Thus, the essence of the new liberal religion is personal responsibility for one's beliefs and the actions these beliefs stimulate. The range and the future of Unitarian Universalism is limited only by the seemingly infinite variety of human characteristics. It is good to be a part of such a religion, for in the realization of the potential of humans lies the salvation of the world in the future.
That is the 21st century version of the age-old question of salvation--salvation not of individuals, but of the world. Through the efforts of those of us who believe that it is inherent in our religion--both of them--to save the world. This is modern UUism: salvation through works, salvation for the future.