Why the Pilgrims Became Unitarians, Rev. Arthur G. Severance

Start Date

This joke is not part of sermon and was not told from the pulpit!

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One sunny day in January, 2009 an old man approached the White House from across Pennsylvania Avenue, where he'd been sitting on a park bench. He spoke to the U.S. Marine standing guard and said, 'I would like to go in and meet with President Bush.' 
The Marine looked at the man and said, 'Sir, Mr. Bush is no longer president and no longer resides here.' 
The old man said, 'Okay', and walked away. 
The following day, the same man approached the White House and said to the same Marine, 'I would like to go in and meet with President Bush.'
 The Marine again told the man, 'Sir, as I said yesterday, Mr. Bush is no longer president and no longer resides here.' 
The man thanked him and, again, just walked away. 
The third day, the same man approached the White House and spoke to the very same U.S. Marine, saying 'I would like to go in and meet with President Bush.' 
The Marine, understandably agitated at this point, looked at the man and said, 'Sir, this is the third day in a row you have been here asking to speak to Mr. Bush I've told you already that Mr. Bush is no longer the president and no longer resides here. Don't you understand?' 
The old man looked at the Marine and said, 'Oh, I understand. I just love hearing it.' 
The Marine snapped to attention, saluted, and said, 'See you tomorrow, Sir.'  
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    A New Yorker Thanksgiving cartoon captures the real meaning of Thanksgiving. It showed one Pilgrim saying to another as the Mayflower was putting in to Plymouth Harbor, Religious freedom is my immediate goal, but my long-range plan is to go into real estate.

    We all know that so much of history and religion is clouded and intertwined with myth and sometimes propaganda even. Certainly the story of the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving should not be studied from the Longfellow poem of The Courtship of Miles Standish in which he took many historic liberties, let us say. He was also a descendent of John Alden! Remember too there was a difference between Puritans and Pilgrims, though both are in our history. Massachusetts was made up of two separate areas, the Cape Cod area was the Plymouth Colony where the Pilgrims landed and lived. They were English Separatists, who wanted to separate from the church of England because they thought it too corrupt, too papist (catholic), and wanted freedom to worship simply in their own way. The Puritans wanted to purify the church from within and settled the Mass Bay colony including Boston and the rest of Massachusetts, the larger and majority.

    Susan Vowell says in her new irreverent history of the Puritans, The Wordy Shipmates, comparing them to the Pilgrims, I admire the Mayflower Pilgrims uncompromising resolve to make a clean break, and their fortitude, so fundamental to the American national character that Sinclair Lewis called one of our core ideals Plymouth Rock in a sleet storm.

    Then talking about the Puritans leaving England in 1630 as being very different than the Pilgrims-...Because, unlike the Plymouth Separatists, the nonseparating Bostonians left England pledging to remain as English as beheadings and clotting cream.

     I am thankful that the Pilgrims became Unitarians then Unitarian Universalists.  Most of us know the story of the Pilgrims, that they were driven out of England, though their church was founded in Scrooby England in 1606.   . One of my Colleagues and good friend, Michael Leduc, was minister of the Pilgrim church, and I asked him back in 1994 to send me a Thanksgiving Proclamation that I could read for Thanksgiving. I sent him a proclamation from our church of the historic Alamo city. I enjoyed his church letterhead:

First Parish Church in Plymouth
Unitarian Universalist
Founded by the Pilgrims
Gathered at Scrooby, England -- 1606
Compacted on the Mayflower -- 1620
Town Square, Plymouth, MA 02360 1994

    Here in Plymouth, he wrote, we are alive with the history of our forbears and the spirit of that first Thanksgiving of 384 years ago. We are reminded of the sacrifices, the struggles, the toil and the difficult times had by those first settlers seeking freedom to practice their faith as their consciences dictated. We are ever aware of how these people were fleeing from persecution and the intolerance of state mandated religion.

    The spirit of those Pilgrims is alive for those of us who have chosen the path of seeking truth wherever it may be found, and striving for an interpretation of religion that shall be in harmony with modern knowledge while satisfying the spiritual and intellectual cravings of today�s people. At this time of thanksgiving may we be ever grateful for this liberal heritage handed down to us by that small band of tolerant and faithful people.

    Greetings to fellow pilgrims and pioneers. May we be together in understanding the nature of ever unfolding revelation as expressed in the farewell admonition of John Robinson, the spiritual leader in Europe of the Pilgrims, who said, The Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.

May all your Thanksgivings be celebrations of abundance, joy and love. Happy Thanksgiving, Michael R. Leduc

    You might also like to know that there is a UU minister that just retired from one of our churches in St. Louis by the name of John Robinson. Part of that Compact referred to as being drawn up on the Mayflower was a church Covenant, simple statements of agreement to what they described as to walk together which became a tradition in the Pilgrim churches. The Salem Pilgrim s covenant of 1629 is only one sentence long: We Covenant with the Lord and one with another; and doe bynd ourselves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his Blessed word of truth. The Salem church also became UU, by the way. In fact, about half of the Pilgrim churches became UU, and the other half, Congregational, which then became United Church of Christ. The Boston covenant of 1630 is also simple, yet profound: to walke in all our wayes according to the Rule of the Gospell, and in all sincere Conformity to His holy Ordinances, and in mutual love, and respect each to other, so neere as God shall give us grace.

    There is a sense to these covenants that there is a theological  openness that Gods revelation to humankind is not over, and has not been sealed from 2000 years ago. The early Unitarians were Congregational clergy who became more liberal thinkers Congregational Churches have the polity, or church governance that each church is independent and may call its own minister as well as ordain them. We still have that, too. There were no Bishops or Popes to hand down the rules. from religious hierarchy  Jesus was never about religious rules!

    It is fascinating that the arguments in the early churches in the colonies were about salvation and how you get there or more accurately actually, about how you are saved by God, because the basic premise seemed to be that YOU CANT GET THERE BY YOURSELF! NO MATTER HOW GOOD YOU ARE! I will spare you the details, partly because not only would you not understand them, I don�t understand them either. You heard some of the terms in the readings. The problem is that Scripture is just not clear on how we are saved and once Protestantism starts relying on scripture for authority, we then have to rely on someone to interpret that same scripture and the history of religion is the history of disagreeing with whoever is set up to interpret it by someone who thinks they have a different interpretation!

    In one of our more readable books on our history, Challenge of a Liberal Faith, 3rd Edition George Marshal writes, It would not be completely fair to say that the first church organized in New England-the Pilgrim church of Plymouth, Massachusetts in 16220- as Unitarian from its inception; however one cannot deny some degree of Unitarian influence. The church became Unitarian when it called the Rev. Nathaniel Kendell as minister in 1801 and revised the Calvinistic covenant of 1786 reasserting the strong liberal, Arian, Arminian, and UU influences that operated in this old Congregational establishment. In 1656, the Plymouth church was chastised for its lack of a pious orthodox ministry...so that the flood of error and principles of anarchy and ministry.... will not be long kept out... Earlier, the Plymouth church had petitioned the Massachusetts Bay General Court(1645) to grant full and free tolerance of religion to all men that will preserve the civil peace unto the government so that there will be no limitation or exception against Turk, Jew, Papist, Arian, Socinian, Nicolaitan, Familist, or any other.

    Ironically, in 1822, a schism took place and the Universalists separated and started their own church, claiming to be the true Pilgrim faith. George Marshal now says: Ina more mellow age, we say today, that they Mayflower faith was a shared faith not only of Unitarian Universalist and Congregationalists, but of all who seek freedom for themselves and others.

    The beginnings of Unitarianism really began as a result of religious fervor in the early to mid 1700s called The Great Awakening. It was almost a Pentecostal, Holy Roller, revival, and perhaps the most famous or infamous example was Congregational minister Jonathan Edwards, whose sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Northampton, Mass. 1741

    William Ellery Channing, minister of Federal Street (Now Arlington Street) Congregational church, was the one who first officially preached Unitarian Christianity in 1819; it was reprinted and sold widely in pamphlet form, second only in popularity to Thomas Paine's Revolutionary period piece, "Common Sense". It was a huge Best Seller of the time!

     And yes, Paine was also a Unitarian, besides being a political rabble rouser. Channing�s sermon was also a call for what I would describe as Religious Common Sense. There is a statue of Channing on the Edge of Boston Common, across the street from the present Arlington UU Church which says He breathed into theology a human spirit and proclaimed anew the divinity of man. I will argue that we are doing that still. In 1825 Channing and other Congregational ministers, many from the Pilgrims churches, decided it was time to start an association, the American Unitarian Association, since many of the so-called orthodox ministers would no longer exchange pulpits with them, considering them heretics.

     They decided not to have a creed, but instead, the early leaders of the AUA said: "...We value our doctrines only so far as they evidently are of the revelation of the will and character of God and so far as they tend to improve the religious, moral and intellectual condition of mankind...The great end of this association is the promotion of pure morals and practical piety." (Lyttle,23)

    UU minister, Robert Hemstreet describes them :

      "All acknowledged the Bible as the basis  of religious authority, subject only to rational interpretation. All considered themselves Christian, although they had their differences on the exact nature of Jesus. All rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and the Calvinist notion of the innate depravity of man. Belief in a benevolent Deity was unquestioned, as was a pleasant and peaceful afterlife for all, rather like a quiet Sunday afternoon in Boston. All were concerned mightily with personal righteousness and morality, which Channing extended broadly to social questions. In political and social matters, most were extremely conservative. And in matters of church government, they were stalwart Congregationalists. As such, they recognized no binding creeds, leaving it to each church to set membership requirements for itself by adoption of a brief 'Covenant' or 'Bond of Union.'"

    Not long after, Emerson would rock the Unitarian world (Boston was believed to be at the hub of the country) with his Harvard Divinity School Commencement which took theology further and decreed the biblical miracles to be metaphor and not factual He talked about how irrelevant and boring many U sermons were, and issued  a call to the new U seminary graduates to preach from their own experience and their religious intuition rather than depending on the Bible, as it was to be most liberally interpreted. It was the beginnings of Transcendentalism, again a theological evolution made up primarily of U ministers, with some women included, rare in that time; it was the first American religious movement to move beyond Christianity and openly deny the literalness of the Bible, miracles, resurrection, and even the virgin birth!

    As Uism spread West, it became more liberal, almost more transcendentalist and eventually humanist, though that name as such wouldn�t be used until the early 20th century. After the  Civil War,  There was a movement by some of the Unitarians to organize a denomination really, called the National Conference, but also to draw a theological line against the more radical Unitarians, especially the transcendentalist and other more liberal thinking beyond Christianity. So another new religious movement arose, really an evolution from Transcendentalism called the Free Religious Association which was really the beginning of humanism. There were then these three theological threads, Unitarian Christianity, Theism of some kind, or Humanism of some kind in the late 19th, and into the 20th. About 15 years ago, another movement evolved nature-centered religion which included feminist theology and the Goddess and, paganism or neopaganism became fourth threads. Let�s call them the 4 directions. This is oversimplifying, I know, because nowadays there seems to be even more theo- or thea-logies of many different hyphens including Buddhist, etc.

    I am thankful that I my religious thinking also evolved, because I, too, started out as a Congregationalist in New England, in New Hampshire, but eventually saw the light and became UU. Indeed, my religious my liberal religious search for truth, meaning, community, spirituality, and perhaps even God continues to evolve. If forced into a theological corner I call myself a mystical humanist, but I usually try to stay out of being forced into theological corners; I much prefer what I might call a theological or even better a spiritual continuum.

    Unitarianism was a way to hear and attempt to follow the great and wise teachings of Jesus rather than the human-constructed supernatural doctrines of God as three in one. Universalism would teach about a loving and compassionate God that would not send his children, or even his adults to eternal punishment because they were born in the wrong century or country, or couldn�t believe obvious contradictions. Many Universalist churches would remain liberal Christian, but very influenced by Humanist Unitarians and especially liberal social justice movements.

    UU historian David Robinson writes about some of the surveys and commissions about UUism. Although the content of religious belief varied widely, the commission saw a greater consensus on the form or style of liberalism, which they summarized under four categories:  (1) this-worldly concerns, (2) strong ethical responsibility,  (3) deep commitment to democracy,  and (4) a belief that true community is religiously based.

    I am thankful that these 4 styles still call us to a religious vision of the future. Indeed, if the world could be called to this-worldly concerns, and give up the destructive notion of a martyr�s heaven for terrorism, would we all be better off? Are not strong ethical concerns what all religion should teach? Don�t we all want an equal vote, an don�t we all want true community, one world at peace, with justice, as well as  economic, religious, gender, sexual orientation equality? This past election demonstrates how much the world needs our message as well as how important to us our liberal religious search and our beloved community is to our lives! What do we believe in common? Here's some ideas; see if they resonate with you.

We believe:

In the transforming power of love-in loving our neighbors, ourselves, and the world; that includes helping one another, ourselves, and the environment;

In a tolerant and reasonable religious and/or spiritual search; that all religions and their writings contain great wisdom from which we can learn;

In living the Golden Rule; that includes family life, work, and nations.

In laughter and love, peace and justice, good and evil, in celebrating Life.

In the importance of a free, creedless religious community in our lives and in the community.

In religion that brings the world together, not separates it into true or false religions.

In social justice for all.

In economic justice for all.

For sharing what we have with the world; allowing no one to go to bed hungry while there is plenty of food to go around.

We only have this world and this time to get it right, to live our lives to their religious fullness while helping others as well.

    I often say when asked if UUs are Christian that most of believe in the teachings of Jesus but not in the teachings ABOUT Jesus, that we believe in the doctrines of love and try our damndest, and yes the pun is intentional,  to live up to them, but not because we are worried about being dammed, but because we believe it that to love is the best way to live, and the golden rule the only way that makes sense in the long run for the worlds survival. Most of believe that we must work together to save the world than to come to church to save our souls, and that what we believe should be obvious by how we behave not what we say or what church we belong to. Most of believe that there are many paths to religious wisdom, many ways to define the name or concept of God, including the one that says he, she, or it does not exist!  and wish everyone would  respect one another�s opinions of those!

    Most of believe we are still pilgrims, small p, on religious pilgrimage, journey, search, exploration. Let us hold hands and walk together, helping and loving each other that we might not be alone through those difficult valleys through which we all must travel of tears or sorrow, of fear or depression, of illness or pain, of worry or despair, of anger or jealousy, until we come out on to the plains of love and joy, justice and deep community. Let us learn these thing in our hearts and in our minds and reach out to those who need what we have found and cocreated here in religious community.  

Amen, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. Vaya con Dios is Spanish for Good-bye, but literally is Go with God, SO I adapted it to say Vaya Con Su Dios, Go with your idea or interpretation of God.  

Event type
Worship Service