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Sermon: Unitarian Roots in England and America

The Rev. Sarah Lammert, USR, March 9, 2003

Unitarian Universalism is the outgrowth of two separate denominational traditions, which date back to the Reformation era and even well beyond. Universalism is grounded in the conviction, stated as far back as the 2nd century by Origin, which says that God is all-loving, and that all of creation will ultimately be drawn back into the eternal divine goodness.

Unitarianism, while it draws its name from it's anti-Trinitarian tendencies (which says that God is One rather than three in one), has focused over the centuries on the goodness of humanity, and on the use of reason as well as faith in determining one's religious convictions.

In January, I gave an address on Unitarian roots in the Radical wing of the Reformation, and in April I will finish this mini history series by lifting up our Universalist history. Today I will go over the English and American roots of Unitarianism, covering a period from roughly the mid 1600's through WWII, tying in concepts and theological underpinnings which continue to be relevant, inspirational, and challenging to us all today.

As I said in January, there is no neat line of history that we can follow back through time that defines the Unitarian part of our heritage. Even the Roman Catholic Church has had it's difficult-to-explain splinterings (such as the period when they had three competing Popes) and the Unitarians being in general bright, intellectual, questioning types of people, have often been accused of heresy, their churches burned, their leaders jailed and killed, and their congregations scattered.

After the Renaissance and Reformation movements in Europe, and despite the attempts of the Roman Catholic Church to put a lid on intellectual expansion and freedom through the terrible excesses of the Inquisition, the power of free thought could not be contained.

In the centuries that followed, science, philosophy and the arts continued to flower. In 17th century England, men like John Locke, David Hume, Isaac Newton, and other leaders in the areas of economic reform, scientific discovery, and philosophical pursuits, began to shift in their religious views away from strict doctrinal acceptance of the Christian trinity.

Some of these men, like John Biddle, the first advocate of an openly Unitarian theology, and Joseph Priestley, the scientist who discovered oxygen, became quite outspoken about their radical views - to the point that Biddle was imprisoned for blasphemy for six years, and Priestley's home burned down by an angry mob. Priestley then immigrated to the United States, fearing for his life in England.

Unitarianism continues in small churches in England today, although it is a minor movement, and interestingly, none of those congregations are members of the Unitarian Universalist Association centered in the United States. What is significant about the English Unitarian movement for us was its emphasis on rationalism applied to religious faith - no longer was God or religious doctrine accepted by everyone just because Scripture was quoted, or a church teaching called upon as the authority.

For some, like Locke, rationalism became the sole basis for religion. His views led to what is know as "deism," to which Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and several other of the American Revolutionary leaders and founders of our nation subscribed. In deism, God is often likened to a watchmaker - a creator who wound up our universe and then stood back and let events unfold.

For others outside of deism, it was a combination of scriptural authority and reason that underlay their faith. But these men, just like us, found that they could not simply accept religion as it had been taught in church or Sunday school - and forged out on their own to come up with a religion that fed their minds as well as their hearts and souls.

In the United States, it wouldn't be until 1825 that a formal Unitarian movement was formed under the name of the American Unitarian Associated, or AUA. Already since the 1740's, however, isolated ministers had begun to counter the increasingly Calvinistic tendencies of the Great Awakening, a revival movement that had sparked an extreme religious fervor in New England.

The emphasis in Calvinism is on the fall of Adam - which explains how incredibly depraved human beings are. Only through the grace of God are any of us saved and brought into heaven and, worse yet, that fate is pre-determined before we are even born!

The greatest preacher of the Great Awakening was Jonathan Edwards, and if you shudder when you hear the likes of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson, try this little gem from Jonathan Edwards' sermon entitled "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God:"

The God that holds you over the pit of hell much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked...O sinner, consider the fearful danger you are in; it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath that you are held over in the hands of a God whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you as against many of the damned of hell; you hang by a slender stand...

It's not for nothing that some clergy get the reputation of being fire and brimstone preachers! During the Great Awakening revivals, people were encouraged to fanatical activity, such as shrieking and violent trembling, and having visions of God and Satan.

This emotional and frightening religious furor went counter to the intellectual and cultural movement of the day. Our nation was moving towards independence, and among political, literary and economic leaders, there was a growing optimism about our human potential.

This higher view of humanity clashed with Calvinism's helpless and hapless image of humankind, and a split began to emerge between what were known as the "liberal Christians" who emphasized our power to choose moral actions, and "conservative Christians" who stuck with the doctrine of pre-destination.

Perhaps in reaction to the overly emotional revivals, the liberal Christians tended to worship in a style that was more intellectual, and more serene. When the first wave of Unitarian leaders, people like William Ellery Channing, Samuel Elliot, and Ezra Stiles Gannett, finally succeeded in pulling together the AUA in 1825 with about 120 congregations, the typical Unitarian service would have looked very Christian to our sensibilities - including communion, scriptural readings, long sermons, calm prayers and hymns.

It would be the next generation of Unitarian leaders - the sons and daughters of these early Unitarian leaders - who would radicalize the faith and open it to evolve into the faith that it is today - one which draws from the wisdom of the world religions, as well as the prophetic examples of great women and men, and our own direct experience of the divine.

The Transcendentalists were the baby boomers of the 1800's. Like the sixties generation, they threw traditions to the winds, and focused on their own experiences of the Great Mystery - through experiences with nature, like Thoreau; through communal living, like George Ripley; through social action, like Theodore Parker; and through the literary arts, like Emerson. They even had their own version of encounter groups; then called salons, led by people such as Margaret Fuller; and their own newsletters, like the Dial.

The Transcendentalists accused the preceding generation of being "corpse cold" in their Sunday worship services, and emphasized the importance of the intuition along with the mind in determining one's faith. They opened up what had essentially been a reformed Christian church, and led to the widening of the circle that held Unitarianism together.

The mid-1800's were really in some ways the heydays of Unitarianism. With the commercial and intellectual life centered at that time in Boston, Unitarians for at least two generations were the leaders of our nation - heavily influencing the structure of our government during our Independence, impacting our public educational system through thinkers like Horace Mann, and providing what has become our classical literature through writers like Emerson, Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, William Cullins Bryant, Nathanial Hawthorne, and others.

Since the Civil War, most mainstream Protestant denominations became more socially active, and the Unitarians were among them. The changes after the Civil War in our social structures led to universal suffrage movements, and the beginnings of the women's rights movements, and I'm proud to say that we were among the first to ordain women as ministers.

Some of the famous women Unitarians among the social reformers include Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Dorothea Dix (who transformed care of the mentally ill in our nation).

After WWI, the Unitarians once again took a generational swing towards intellectualism, this time emerging as Religious Humanism. The World War had shattered the fundamental assumptions of nineteenth century liberalism, which held that society would progress onward and upward forever with the blessing of God. If you look at some of the hymns of the time (still in Singing the Living Tradition) you will see a relentless optimism about the perfectibility of humankind.

We'll sing such a hymn by Longfellow in our closing today - All are Architects of Fate. Another is #105: From age to age how grandly rise the prophet souls in line; above the passing centuries like beacon lights they shine...Through every race, in every clime, one song shall yet be heard: move onward in thy course sublime, O everlasting Word...

During the 1920's and 30's, Unitarians maintained a tempered optimism about the potential of humankind, but some shifted the source of that faith to science, education, and the determined building of good will among nations. John Dietrich and Curtis Reese were among the early advocates of the Religious Humanist movement.

Humanism affirmed the scientific method, denied the existence of a supernatural creator deity, and affirmed religious community as a cradle for human self actualization and a place of common striving for the good. Their claims sparked what was known as the "theist-humanist controversy," which had at least one Unitarian Minister "cry to high Heaven that he would rather have his right arm severed from his body than to take God away from the people."[1]

Gradually, through the next decades, religious humanists and theists of many stripes would come to co-exist relatively peacefully in our Unitarian congregations, although the controversy continues over appropriate language and liturgy even today.

Perhaps it is this tension between reason and intuitive or spiritual expression that will forever play its way through the dance of Unitarianism - now Unitarian Universalism since the merger in 1961. How do we use the power of reason - including all that science and philosophy have to offer - alongside the "AHA" of our experiences of beauty, of love, and of mystery. This is the dance we are privileged to sway to, and I encourage us all to step lively, and embrace this free religious journey.

In looking back through our Unitarian roots in England and in America I have just brushed the surface of the story. Behind the surface are the actual lives of women, men and children - people who ate, slept, searched for meaningful work, experienced joy and tragedy, and who looked for answers to the basic questions of living just as we do - why we suffer, why we live, who we are, what it means that we die.

A part of our story as Unitarians has been a breaking with the past - a past filled with orthodoxies, oppressions, and even a shackling of the human spirit. But as Rebecca Parker, president of SKSM warns:

For come-outers, departure means saying "no" to what one inherited. The danger is that we become habituated to saying "no" as the only saving grace, and find ourselves only leaving, only backing away from life, only dissenting. As our identity becomes tied to what we reject, our spirit languishes, and the past is just a cardboard box labeled, "No good."

In visiting our own life stories as well as the larger story - the history - that defines our movement, we need to look for the treasures in our past as well as the things we have rejected. There is a danger not only in saying no to our inheritance, but in ignoring it altogether.

We need to honor the past as a part of who we have become. We may have a lot to say about our own experience, but we do not create our own experience entirely - we are a part of a stream of time and culture, and to know that stream is to know ourselves more fully.

As we look to the present and the future may we remember that we, too, are workers tending the gardens of history for generations yet unborn. What we say, think and do impacts not only ourselves but the entire web of life: a web that bridges place and even time. These are, no doubt, frightening times as we face the possibility of a war as well as grappling with the many social ills of our times. We have both the challenge and the privilege of being alive right now at this critical juncture for our nation and planet.

May we choose to live in such a way that blesses the world and opens our lives and the lives of others to greater possibilities. And in doing so, may we be as gentle, loving, fierce, and wise as our Unitarian forbears, who handed down to us the living flame of this free faith.

[1] Reese, Curtis, "The Twentieth Century: Humanism and Theism in a New Age" in The Epic of Unitarianism by David B. Parke, Boston: Skinner House Books, 1985, p. 138.

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Deism versus Islam

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A Broad Exploration of Deism
Exploring Zoroastrianism


 

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