another congregation in november and hope to have it in a shape I'm happier with by then.
“NOT HELL, BUT HOPE AND COURAGE”
A Sermon Delivered September 2, 2012,
to Dakota Unitarian Universalist Church
I want to ask you to open your hymnals to the page that explains who we are. There’s no page number but it’s after the table of contents and the preface and then the title page. The lower part reads “The Living Tradition we share draws from many sources.” Paul Gaugin famously said that every tribe asks themselves “Who are we? Where have we been? Where are we going?” Today’s sermon is an attempt to answer two of those questions.
Back in 2004, when I attended the Unitarian Universalist Leadership Camp in Beloit, Wisconsin, one of the staff members was a minister names Richard Beal. Richard, who’s retired in Maine now, was then serving Thomas Jefferson UU Church in Lexington, Kentucky, but he didn’t identify himself as a Unitarian Universalist. Every time one of us made some mention of UUs, which we often shortened, as a lot of us do, as “Unitarians,” Richard would make a “u” of the crook between thumb and forefinger of one hand, and then join it to the “u” made from the other hand. He identifies as a Universalist, maybe one of the last remaining Universalist ministers.
The Universalists have a long American history and I’m almost tempted to say they’re a uniquely American religion, as much as the Scientologists, the Church of Latter Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists, except that John Murray, long considered the founder of Universalism, was not native American like the founders of these other faiths, but British and traced his theology to the ideas of another British writer, James Relly. Relly was a radical Calvinist who “held that Jesus Christ had so thoroughly identified himself with humankind that he became completely tainted with humanity’s sins, and that, through his death on the cross, he had atoned for both his own sins and the sins of all humankind, past, present, and future. Relly argued that God the Father could not have possibly forced His Son to die on the cross for sins he had not committed, for that would have been patently unjust.” Historian Charles Howe calls Relly’s and Murray’s theology a “radical Calvinism…in which the concept of the elect was expanded to include all people.” It was “likewise Trinitarian…where Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were simply different manifestations of the One God rather than three distinct personalities.” A century later Thomas Starr King would explain the difference between Universalists and Unitarians as “Universalists thought that God was too good to damn them forever, while the Unitarians thought that they were too good to be damned.”
Charles Howe is also the source for the famous words ascribed to Murray that are written in our hymnals (#704) and taught to our new members: “Go out into the highways and byways of America…Give the people, blanketed with a decaying and crumbling Calvinism, something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men. Give them, not hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”
But as we read in the current issue of UU World, the words are not really Murray’s at all. They appear initially as an exhortation by a fictional Time Spirit conjured up by Alfred Cole in his 1951 pamphlet, Our Liberal Heritage, from which it was transposed as if it was a quotation from Murray into a 1962 Sunday school textbook, Unitarians and Universalists, by Henry Cheetham, and from there added by Howe to his The Larger Faith: A Short History of American Universalism, from which it’s been accepted into conventional lore as something Murray wrote or said.
Still, even if it is not an actual quotation, it is as accurate a condensation of Murray’s Universalism as someone who isn’t Murray can get. And it was this notion, that people deserved “hope and courage” rather than the threat of damnation, that helped both the spread of Universalism and, ultimately perhaps, it’s nigh-disappearance.
Like all new ideas, Universalism mutated and not all the changes were acceptable. The Universalists tried several times to get a rein on their increasingly more-Unitarian-like free-range faith by becoming creedal. One such, created during the lifetimes of both Murray and Hosea Ballou, was the Profession of Belief, later known as the Winchester Profession. It asserted that Universalists believed “that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind…[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…[and that] holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order, and practice good works…” It laid Universalism very solidly in the Christian camp where it was to remain almost to the present day. Only in the mid 20th Century, 1943 exactly, during a bloody World War, would Universalists try to become as interfaith as their name suggests, contending that “Universalism cannot be limited either to Protestantism or to Christianity, not without denying its very name. Ours is a world fellowship, not just a Christian sect. For so long as Universalism is universalism and not partialism, the fellowship bearing its name must…[make clear] that all are welcome: theist and humanist, Unitarian and Trinitarian, colored, and color-less. A circumscribed Universalism is unthinkable.”
Perhaps not unthinkable, at least not historically. There was, in fact, a long period of what Howe calls conservative Universalism by which he means a Universalism of the status quo. While the denomination’s General Assemblies were universal in condemning slavery, for instance, it was generally left to individual congregations to take the temperature of the local climate and determine who ought to say what. This led to the declaration in 1841 of the South Carolina Universalists against “any interference with the subject of Negro slavery by…people…where it does not exist,” and eventually to the schism between the northern and southern universalists over the Civil War which did not fully heal, if it can said ever to have, until the merger between Universalists and Unitarians. Similarly, it was often suggested that the many Biblical injunctions against profit and riches be toned down so that the wealthier congregants in major cities of both the north and south were not convinced to make their donations elsewhere.
One of the few Universalist jokes I know survives from this period and plays off the conservatives’ intransigence in the face of change. Three men wake up in hell in a boiling cauldron and start talking. It turns out they’re all clergymen and so talk gets around to why they’ve ended up where they have. One admits, “I was a priest and I guess I was a bit of a ladies’ man.” The second nods sagely and confesses, “I was a rabbi and one temptation I couldn’t avoid was a good pork sandwich.” The third stoically stares at them, saying nothing. Finally, the other two say, “We just admitted our foibles to you, admit what you’ve done to end up here.” Finally the third barks, “I am a Universalist minister, this place is not hot, and I am not here!”
Howe attributes one of the changes from this conservative, timid Universalism to a more robust, questioning faith to minister Herman Bisbee of the St. Anthony Universalist church here in Minnesota. In 1864 he began to preach “Emersonian ‘natural religion.’ Religion, he said, is ‘the effort which man makes to perfect himself, not the effort God makes to perfect him.’ His views were soon condemned in the denominational press as being in ‘the high and oracular fashion of our Boston Free Religionists’”, which was a way of accusing him of being religion-free. Suggesting that such free thinkers might be better regarded among the Unitarians, widely considered to have left Christianity, he was called a “thoroughgoing infidel” who mocked the Bible and the Minnesota Universalists were urged to remove him from fellowship. “The Universalist Church is a Christian Church, unqualifiedly so,” the press thundered; “No man has any business in its ministry who is not also a Christian”. Bisbee made a clear distinction that, in accord with Universalist principles, he accepted the Bible as containing a revelation without accepting it as literally true or infallible. The Minnesota Committee on Fellowship, Ordination, and Discipline eventually charged and found him guilty of heresy for uttering “doctrines subverting Christianity, and entirely contrary to the principles of the Universalist church” and ordered him out of the denomination. Bisbee resigned but the St. Anthony congregation not only elected to have him continue as its minister but changed its name. Howe concludes “Bisbee [forced] the Universalist denomination to face up to the issue of freedom of belief…[In]1899 the General Convention adopted [a new creed]…the Boston Declaration [which] identified ‘the five essential principles of Universalism: The Universal Fatherhood of God; the spiritual authority and leadership of his Son, Jesus Christ; the trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God; the certainty of just retribution for sin; and the final harmony of all souls with God.’”
Bisbee’s influence can be clearly seen in the predominant Universalist theology of the 20th Century, most clearly associated with Clarence Skinner of the Community Church of Boston. Skinner’s theology, “though expressed in marginally Christian terms, was at heart a social action-oriented global humanism that stressed ‘a spiritual interpretation of the whole of life’ that gave ‘insight into the unities and universals’ of religion…[A] truly universal religion had to be ‘founded upon a twentieth century psychology and theology, a religion which is throbbing with the dynamics of democracy, a spirituality which expresses itself in terms of humanism, rather than in terms of individualism.’”
A sermon in 1947 put it plainly: “Is Universalism a Christian denomination, or is it something more, a truly universal religion? This issue…[strikes] at the very base of its religious foundation, for Christianity and this larger Universalism are irreconcilable.”
“Larger Universalism” was a misnomer. Universalism was always a tiny denomination. For the previous 55 years, starting about the time of the World Parliament of Religions, the Universalists had considered merging with the Congregationalists, the Liberal Quakers, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and even, for a while, the Baptists—there remains in some parts of the south a small sect known called Primitive Universalist Baptists, a reform movement numbering about 2000 in 2005—but by the time they merged with the Unitarians in 1961, the first real census was taken. Prior to 1958 a Universalist census was always a good idea that never seemed to get beyond the guesstimate stages, but when the actual merging became a reality, just like with any corporate takeover stock had to be taken of what the two units brought to the table. The Universalist Church of America was comprised of nearly 300 congregations and almost 37,000 members. In contrast, the American Unitarian Association had 606 active congregations comprised of nearly 107,000 members. One later president of the UUA would report of this discovery, the Universalists “met the Unitarians and found that Unitarians are, more or less, just like the Universalists except that there are more of them and they make more noise.”
Despite the inflated numbers that Universalists had bandied around between themselves for a century and a half—sometimes claiming as many as 150-200,000—the number of Universalists probably never exceeded 60 or 70,000, even at Universalism’s most popular era, the early 1800s. One reason Howe touches on for this dilution over the years but doesn’t delve into is the assimilation of the most specific Universalist belief—that the elect is everybody—by mainstream Christianity. Related to the “Is God Dead?” stories of the late 60s was an essay in Time magazine in April, 2011, asking “Is Hell Dead?” Time’s story was a review of and interview with Pastor Rob Bell, the minister of Mars Hill Bible Church, a megachurch in Grandville, Michigan, whose book, Love Wins, is a bestseller among both evangelicals and secularists.
I've read Bell's book. It's not a hard or lengthy read: I finished it in less than a day. Bell writes books in a style probably like he writes his sermons, a breezy, companionable, folksy style, sometimes looking like a prose poem with flights of verse. None of this means what he says isn't important or profound. Much of the Bible is written in the same way.
Bell is pretty controversial in evangelical circles and I understand why. Reading Love Wins and reading about the reaction to it is probably similar to reading a Universalist text a century ago and its response. Bell's message is similar: God is too just to damn someone eternally for sins he or she committed during a finite part of an infinite existence. God, in Bell’s estimation, is too large, too audaciously hopeful, to accept someone’s rejection as final. He asks, “Is God like the characters in a story Jesus would tell, old ladies who keep searching for the lost coin until they find it, shepherds who don’t rest until that one sheep is back in the fold, fathers who rush out to greet and embrace their returning son, or, in the end, will God give up?” The suggestion, of course, and the answer the Universalists provide, is no, God will not give up.
Such a message is damaging to a theology for which the only thing holding people back from committing all manner of atrocities is the promise of eternal punishment. I’m sure Bell is aware of the example of Bishop Carlton Pearson, the black Pentecostal minister who lost his congregation and status for his heretical Gospel of Inclusion, a variant of universal reconciliation based on an epiphany he had while contemplating the Rwandan genocide. Bell and Pearson are often castigated in the fundamentalist and evangelical press not for what they believe, because I think if you press most Christians, mainstream or no, they will admit to a similar belief, but for saying it out loud and making it an element of their dogma. As Bell puts it, “God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it.”
Universal salvation, also called universal reconciliation, and emphasizing substitutionary atonement—the idea that God so loves people that any debt for past or future sins has been wiped out by Jesus’ efforts on our behalf—has become so ubiquitous among Christian congregants as to bleed out what need there was once was having to emphasize it.
Murray and Relly, heretics in their times, would today be welcomed by most mainstream Christian denominations, by which I mean nearly everyone to the left of the Jack van Impe ministries.
Universalist minister Richard Beal is right to emphasize that Universalists proudly remain among us. Howe identifies seven elements Universalists brought to the merger: a theology founded on love; democratic church polity; social justice rooted in the worth of individuals; the belief liberal religion can speak to every person’s condition; female equality in church and politics; the melding of intellectual rigor with emotional warmth; and a vision of inclusiveness. He locates the First Principle, with its emphasis on the inherent worth and dignity of everyone, as a Universalist principle informing all the others.
Who are we? Where have we come from? We are Unitarian Universalists and we come from a segment of liberal Christianity all but subsumed by the modern realization that God, however we imagine God to be, is more interested in unity than punishment. To paraphrase words spoken the other night by our president, our path is hard and long but we travel it together. We don’t turn back. We leave no one behind. We pull each other up. But for me, what Universalists remind us of is this. It’s in this spirit we recognize an old Buddhist truth that might as easily have come from a Universalist pamphlet. Heaven and hell are the same place, a long table heaped with food and at which people are seated at places with 6-foot long forks and spoons. In hell the people are miserable and frustrated, trying to feed themselves. In heaven, the people feed each other across the table.