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January 17, 2010: “Part I-Unitarians: More Than the Head”

During his ordination examination, a Presbyterian seminary student was being asked a series of doctrinal questions by an elderly conservative minister. He came to this question: “Do you believe in the Doctrine of the Total Depravity of the Human Soul?” His immediate smiling reply: “Yes, but I find it very difficult to live up to!” —

 While many of us may act like we know everything, none of us do, of course. One of our patron saints, Albert Einstein, who wasn't actually a UU or a saint, once said, "Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge in the field of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods."

  Most of us don't know a lot about our history; indeed we might not think it very important and probably don't even know how you once could tell the difference between a Unitarian and a Universalist.  I think it's important because it's part of who we are; it's how we evolved, remembering that, after all, Unitarians invented evolution!  Not only was Darwin a Unitarian, but so was Clarence Darrow, the defending Lawyer!

But one of the main reasons it is important is to give us credence among our religious brothers and sisters; we have a long and distinguished history too! We are not some new cult, but can claim a history, and I believe it’s important for us to know it and affirm it. It will also help us with those arguments with family members who worry about our souls because we left traditional religion! Indeed, we inherit the mantle of those who long before us also found that they, too, could no longer believe in the old orthodoxy and felt called to a different way to express their religious dimension, their spiritual journey.

 When I finally discovered Unitarian Universalism, I felt like I had found my true religious self, and even more importantly, a religious community to which I could give my life serving.  I found a new meaning and purpose to my life, enough to go back to school in mid-life and enter into ministry by a 95 credit Master of Divinity degree. Yes, I always chuckle when I, a mystical humanist, have a degree called Master of Divinity! Surely there should be a super-hero by that name somewhere!

 The Unitarian journey has always begun, it seems, by questioning a tradition which no longer makes sense, and in Christianity, it starts by doubting Biblical miracles, church doctrines like the Trinity-the divinity of Jesus.

. Traditional language calls it Father, Son and Holy Spirit- The Father God, Son Lord Jesus, and the Holy Spirit all being one yet different. Jesus as being wholly divine and wholly human was not a teaching of Jesus, but one of those doctrinal questions which eventually would require the bishops from Europe and Middle East to be called to Church Councils and creedal doctrine created really by vote of the majority, as the Apostles Creed, The Nicene Creed, The Athanasian Creed, and so on.

 The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century would open the floodgates of protest, dissent, and some religious thinkers even said that the doctrine, the explanation of the trinity is to be found nowhere in scripture. So, no trinity. If there's no trinity, what then is the relationship of Jesus to God?  Some early Unitarians thought Jesus still divine, but not fully God.  Jesus was referred to as the Son of God in the Bible therefore must be different than God the Father. And of course, the Bible itself is not clear nor is Jesus and one must wonder why for such an important issue. Surely God would want us to know the truth once and for all, unless, God wanted to make us figure it out for ourselves!  What other conclusion can we draw? Well, of course, that's not what the orthodox conclusion was! But for what I will call the searchers who are the Unitarians, the Universalists and all others who don't fit the mold, who are the UN-orthodox not out of choice, but because they find their minds think, question, doubt, and come to different conclusions. There have always been different groups within Christianity from the very beginning to the present who interpret scripture and revelation very differently but drawing from the very same sources and words!

 The more famous Unitarian Martyr was the Spanish physician and theologian, Michael Servetus, often referred to as the Father of Unitarianism. Perhaps since his brother was a priest, he had early been interested in religion and reading the Christian Bible, found no teaching of Jesus or Paul about the church doctrine of the. His book called,' The Errors of the Trinity' became quite controversial, though there were others who held similar beliefs. He was eventually tried and convicted for heresy, then

burned at the stake under orders of John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland in 1553. It should be noted, however, that the first recorded Unitarian martyr was an elderly white-haired woman named Catherine Vogel, who was burned at the stake in Crakow, Poland, in 1539, for refusing to recant her denial of the Trinity.

 Eastern Europe became host of many heretical groups, and it was in Transylvania, what is now part art of Romania that the  first great edict of Toleration was  issued by the only Unitarian  King, John Sigismund of Transylvania, converted by Francis David and  influenced by his mother, in 1568,  and the first and  oldest Unitarian church in the world still meeting  is in Koloszar, Transylvania.

  If I had more time I would also tell you that the largest Unitarian church in the world would be in Poland where the Socinian heresy had been rife, and in the 20th century Norbet  Kapek, once a Baptist minister would convert to Unitarianism! That's another sermon!

 Our Unitarian heritage came primarily from England where the first Unitarian churches started in the late 1500's, but were not permitted to worship openly until the Act of Toleration in 1701. Before that, of course, the Pilgrims and the Puritans came to this country, as did other Dissenters. They started their own churches, primarily what came to be known as the Congregational church, many of which would eventually become Unitarian churches by the late 18th century. In the 1740's a religious movement called the "Great Awakening" took place and began to divide the New England churches, predominantly into liberal and fundamentalist or unorthodox and orthodox. Many of the ministers in the Boston area who were liberal Christians started to band together more, though not thinking of any real organization. But liberal Christianity usually meant not taking the bible and Christian doctrine literally. It also meant rejecting the trinity and seeing Jesus not as the same as god, rejecting Calvinism and original sin and the depravity of human nature, and the use of reason and the intellect- the head!

 David Robinson, in his book, The Unitarians and the Universalists, says: 'They had become profoundly convinced,' he wrote.' that God is a benevolent deity, whose first concern is the happiness of his creature.' Joseph Priestly would also argue for a Socinian rather than Arian Christology. He wanted to argue for the 'simple humanity of Christ' rather than Christ as being beneath the father but still supernatural/ Jefferson called Priestly's works the basis of his own!

 Interestingly, Octavius Brooks Frothingham would write; 'a faith rather than a creed, a sentiment more than dogma, not sharp in outline, but full of emotion and charged with conviction, slightly illogical perhaps, but firm- a religion of the heart.'

 They would stress Unitarian Rationalism and Natural Theology that I will argue will evolve later into Transcendentalism, and then Humanism, and then the present creation spirituality or earth-centered movement. I think today most of us are just not interested in defining our particular theology over and against someone elses; indeed I think most of us don't know how to or what our theology is!

They would quote the English poet Alexander Pope’s poem
Nature and Nature’s laws hid in eh Night
God said, Let Newton be! and all was Light!’

 After the American Revolution, liberal Christianity, which would become Unitarianism, began to spread more quickly. In 1782 King's Chapel, which had been the first Anglican Church in New England, became the first Episcopal Church, called an 'avowedly Unitarian minister' and became the first Unitarian church in America.  In 1794, Joseph Priestly escaped persecution in England and founded the first named Unitarian Church of Northumberland, and First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia in 1796. The church of the original Pilgrims, the Plymouth Church became Unitarian in 1802.

 It was not until 1819, that William Ellery Channing's sermon entitled 'Unitarian Christianity,' that Unitarians came out of the religious closet, so to speak.  Finally the American Unitarian Association was founded in 1825 in the vestry of Channing's church to "diffuse the knowledge and promote the interests of  'pure and practical' Christianity", made up not of churches, but of individuals.  Channing and other liberal ministers from the very beginning were adamantly against doctrinal creeds. Little effort was made, as Robert Hempstreet says, in his book, Some Notes on Unitarian Universalist Creedlessness, to extend Unitarianism 'west of Worcester.'

 Instead of creeds, early Unitarains used Bonds of Union or covenant agreements of behavior, within a religious community,  not belief.-The earliest New England covenants were simple statements of agreement to walk together. The Salem covenant of 1629 is only one sentence long:  'We Covenant with the Lord and one with an other; and doe bynd ourselves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his Blessed word of truth.'

 By 1820 the conflict between the liberals, that is the Unitarians and the orthodox which were the Congregationalist, though neither were denominations, yet came to a boil and some of the churches began to split. The Dedham, Mass church split and took the church silver with them (made by Paul Revere also a Unitarian), those who stayed behind sued for the property and the courts upheld the congregation who stayed behind were the owners of the church property!  The Congregationalists liked to joke, 'They kept the furniture, but we kept the faith!' The Dedham church, a Pilgrim church, by the way, became a Unitarian church, though the majority left.

By 1825, a number of liberal ministers met at Channing’s Boston Federal St. church (now Arlington St.) and started the American Unitarian Association because the other orthodox Boston ministers would no longer swap pulpits with them. They did it out of self defense, you might say, but it was really the beginning of denominationalism. The purpose was to “diffuse the knowledge and promote the interests of ‘pure and practical’ Christianity”, made up not of churches, but of individuals. Channing and other liberal ministers from the very beginning were adamantly against doctrinal creeds. 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

 Boston was the hub of the universe at this time, at least of this country and also of Unitarianism; it does seem like most of the well educated were Unitarians and it is surprising, I think, that we didn't grow more. It and Massachusetts is where both Unitarianisn an Universalism started in this country and still has the highest UU population.

 From 1835 to 1865 was known as the "Golden Age of Unitarianism", and saw the rise of Transcendentalism under the leadership of Emerson, Theodore Parker, Louisa May and her Father Bronson Alcott, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, all Unitarians. Transcendentalism was a reaction against what Emerson called "Corpse-cold Unitarianism" which had become too rational and conservative. It was Transcendentalism, due to its influence from Hinduism, English romanticism, and German idealism that began the move away from being explicitly Christian, and relying more on personal spiritual intuition than on the Bible. One Dictionary of Philosophy said that the adjective, 'transcendental", was commonly linked with any philosophy considered to be "enthusiastic, mystical, extravagant, impractical, ethereal, supernatural, vague, abstruse, or lacking in common sense." It's interesting to me hoe similar to the counter culture movement and the hippies of the 1960's it was with The quote walking to the beat of a different drummer on everyone's dorm room!. Thoreau and Walden and Emerson patron saints of the hippie generation! Much of the Nature part of Transcendentalism seems also to be a reflection of the earlier part of Unitarian leaning on the book of natural theology of the 18th century!  Indeed, the new movie 'Avatar' can be seen to have been influenced by Unitarian thought as well!

      In some ways, Transcendentalism, though never an organized church, set the stage for present day UUism, especially to the neo-pagan and/or more spiritual movement that we are experiencing.  Also as younger settlers brought Unitarianism to the west, it became even more liberal and then evolved into Humanism.  In other words, Unitarianism has always been in this country a liberal religious search for meaning and truth, but because it has never established creeds, there have always been theological disagreements that I think have prevented us from growing very big.

 It should be noted that these different movements caused much conflict and nd hurt among ourselves as one might imagine even as we preached tolerance we often had a difficult time practicing it! Unlike today!  Now granted, church disputes are more often over ego and the color of the curtains in the minister's office that real theological issues, but occasionally theology does matter.

  So during the 19th century different conferences were started

In 1852 was the Western Conference. Jenkins Lloyd Jones and William Channing Gannet who were at odds with the more conservative Eastern AUA wanted ‘creedless religion tied to an ethical basis rather than a theological dogma. Finally in 1994 they had another conference where they came to a unanimous definition – Things commonly believed among us.

 In 1865 The National Conference of Churches, organized by Henry Whitney Bellows, minister of All Souls Church In NYC, (Where Forrest Church served and now the 2nd largest UU church) was an attempt to keep out some of the more radical, especially the transcendentalists.  Bellows was trying for a creedal kind of group and of course, while some like it, many didn't. But it was an attempt to keep Uism within the boundaries of Christianity by basic beliefs-in God, miracles, etc.

 In 1867 many of the transcendentalist folk, especially Emerson, started a new group called the 'Free Religious Association' made up of Unitarians, Universalists, some Quakers, liberal Jews, and even Spirtualists, also a precursor to today's diversity in UUism. The vice president was Caroline Severance from Cleveland, by the way!

 Did a lot for social justice early abolitionists-Feminists like Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony as well as Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Fuller, Julia Ward Howe. There was Horace Mann, the great initiator of universal, non-sectarian, public schools, Samuel G. Howe starting the first school for the blind, Henry Bergh who started the SPCA, William Curtis, YMCA, a U minister in Dublin, NH, started the first library free to all inhabitants. John Haynes Holmes, who helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People NAACP as well as the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU,

 The 20th century saw the rise of humanism become the predominant theology but not until the last half. There was a struggle called the humanist theist controversy, which became quite heated in many corners. Again. we often forgot to be tolerant with one another, forgot to be liberal with each other. The Humanist Manifesto was published in 1933, signed by Unitarian and a few Universalist ministers

 In 1943 the great Washington DC minister, A Powell Davies would come up with the Five Principles which would be used as common statement-

Individual freedom of belief

Discipleship to advancing truth

The Democratic process in Human Relations

Universal brotherhood, undivided by nation race or creed,

Allegiance to the cause of a world community

 Historian Earl Morse Wilbur said that Unitarianism is :'a movement fundamentally characterized . . . . by its steadfast and increasing devotion to these three leading principles: first, complete mental freedom in religion rather than bondage to creeds or confessions; second, the unrestricted use of reason in religion, rather than reliance upon external authority or past tradition; third, generous tolerance of differing religious views and usage's rather than insistence upon uniformity in doctrine, worship or polity.'

 I like to think of Unitarians as religious searchers who took truth serum for communion and were then asked to say the Apostles Creed! These were pilgrims all right who sought the spirit where it led them and expressed it the way they felt it should honestly be expressed and discussed. Yes discussing religion was important! To get other viewpoints, other interpretations, for surely Jesus taught in parables so we could discuss them, not so everyone could come to the same conclusion else wise he would have made a simple declaration and been done with it!

 The early Unitarians DID emphasize the head, the mind, the reasoning power, the rational way of interpreting the Bible and the what God was trying to tell us, what moral life should be and that we were all capable of living one, all capable and responsible for living up to our divine potential and living in moral harmony with nature- a very contemporary message really. Jesus was the way-shower, the great teacher and rabbi, guru and sage, but we are saved by character, not by a sacrificial lamb.  We can reason together, religiously search and love together. Love one another, Jesus taught because God is love and love is the transformative power that calls us to work together to make a better world.   So let us love, Let us love. Let us love.

Amen, Peace, 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 with me greets the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and 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.’