A sermon by Kevin Carson for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on June 15, 2008
Fathers of Unitarian Universalism
Today is Father’s Day, and it is a day when we are supposed to reflect about and honor our fathers—and the idea of fatherhood. In this spirit, I want to reflect on a small sample of the men who could justifiably be called fathers of Unitarian Universalism. There were certainly notable mothers of Unitarian Universalism too, but today I will focus on the fathers.
For those of you who don’t know much about our history, it is important for me to point out that there was no such thing as a Unitarian Universalist until 1961, when the Universalist Church of America (founded in 1793) merged with the American Unitarian Association (founded in 1825) to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Prior to 1961, you were either a Unitarian or a Universalist; although, the essential theologies of the two movements had become somewhat similar. The merger in 1961 was not driven by theology or doctrine but by the need to unify two small denominations into a larger one in order to remain viable.
I mention this because I see the "founding" of our denomination as not so much a singular historical event, but as a series of major influences that produced the movement we see today. The three men I will speak about this morning represent three such influences. There are many other "fathers" who I could have chosen, but I only have about 20 minutes.
Like any father, I experience the joys and sorrows, the triumphs and tribulations, and the successes and failures that come with the mantle of fatherhood. I also know that as a father, there are times when I must take on different roles for the nurturing and teaching of my child.
Am I the gentle, loving father or the enforcer of rules?
Am I the playful dad, or the tireless bread-winner who sacrifices personal desires for the family?
Should I display my true emotions for all to see, or remain stoic in the face of adversity?
Should I be content with my condition, or must I make a courageous stand on some issue—even if it is an unpopular choice—to demonstrate the strength of my resolve?
These are but a few roles among many that fathers may assume, and I believe these roles hold true for fathers of movements.
The first father I present is the Rev. John Murray who is often called the father of Universalism in America. John Murray lived from 1741 until 1815, and as a young man in England, he displayed a keen intellect, a talent for public speaking, and a religious calling that led him first out of traditional Anglicanism into Methodism, and later into Universalism in the classic sense that a loving God could never damn someone for eternity. In London, he joined the liberal congregation of the famous minister, the Rev. George Whitefield, who would play such the central role in the First Great Awakening in America.
As he trained for the ministry, he began to embrace the Universalist teachings of James Relly, and when Whitefield’s congregation found out, he was summoned before an inquisitional committee and dismissed. Not long afterward, his wife and infant son became ill and both perished. Out of work and unable to pay for the medical care they received, he was arrested and thrown into debtors prison. He had certainly reached the darkest hour of his life as a young father and minister.
Once released from prison, he decided to leave England for a new start in America, and at this point, his story takes on an almost biblical character. Like Jonah, he turned his back on God and his ministry, and like Jonah, he would soon find himself metaphorically vomited forth onto the American continent. The story of his arrival in America is truly amazing.
Murray booked passage on the brig Hand in Hand bound for New York. They were diverted first to Philadelphia, and working their way back to New York along the Jersey coast, they ran aground on a sandbar near Barnegat Bay. The captain sent Murray ashore, in charge of a small crew, to purchase supplies while they waited for the wind and tides to cooperate. Once ashore, Murray was directed to the home of a local farmer named Thomas Potter.
Potter lived in the area of Good Luck, New Jersey on Barnegat Bay. Though he was illiterate, he was very intelligent and inquisitive. As the story goes, after hearing the Bible read to him, Potter became a convinced Universalist. It is probable that he was also influenced by Universal Baptists and Quakers who lived around him. He was an extremely pious man determined to spread the Gospel of Universal Salvation, so he built a meeting house on his own land and trusted that God would send him a preacher.
In his memoirs, Murray recalled that as the two men met, Potter said simply, "I have longed to see you. I have been expecting you a long time!"
After Potter confirmed that Murray was indeed a minister with Universalist beliefs, he was convinced that this was the preacher sent by God in answer to his prayers. Potter invited Murray to preach the next Sunday in the meeting house on his farm. Murray protested that he was no longer a preacher, but Potter would not be convinced. Potter reportedly said, "The wind will never change, sir, until you have delivered to us, in that meeting house, a message from God."
Murray agreed that he would preach the following Sunday if the ship was still stuck. On Sunday, September 30, 1770, the ship was still stuck. Murray preached a sermon on Universalism in Thomas Potter’s meeting house, and as he finished the sermon, the wind rose, and the brig Hand in Hand was free to depart.
Murray departed but soon returned to live in the area for some time. Freshly inspired, he began to preach Universalism in local towns and villages throughout the Northeast, and he married the author and early feminist Judith Sargent. He established the first Universalist church in America in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1774, and he was instrumental in organizing the denomination at the 1793 General Assembly.
The miraculous—or at least uncanny—circumstances of Murray’s story are remarkable and demonstrate the love, despair, redemption, and resolve of this father of our movement.
As Universalism gained traction in the early nineteenth century, they encountered hostility on a number of fronts. Some of the most vocal critics were those Congregationalists heretics who had begun to split off from their more conservative brothers and sisters, and had begun to be called "Unitarians."
The famous Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing called Universalism an "irrational doctrine" and added, "the growth of Universalism is the most threatening moral evil in our part of the country." Clearly, the idea of merger was a long way off, but Channing is the next father I present this morning.
William Ellery Channing was born in Newport, Rhode Island in 1780 and lived until 1842. As the son of an affluent family, he attended Harvard and became a Congregationalist minister in 1798. In 1803, he was called to serve what is now the Arlington Street Church in Boston, and his liberal theology soon elevated him to a leading role among the young liberal clergy.
As the so-called Unitarian Controversy churned among the theological elites in Boston, Channing was right in the thick of the debate. Channing tried to balance Enlightenment rationalism with deep convictions about humanity’s relationship with a loving God. In 1819, he gave a sermon titled, "Unitarian Christianity," which is often called the Baltimore Sermon because it was given there.
This sermon was widely reprinted and distributed in the weeks to follow, and in it, Channing defined the essential theology of Unitarian Christianity in this period. He rejected the idea of the Trinity as biblically and rationally unsupported; he expressed a profound faith in the essential goodness of humanity; and, he proposed that all theology must withstand the test of reason.
In a another famous sermon titled "Likeness to God," given in Providence in 1828, he elaborated further on the theme of humanity’s essential goodness and suggested that we are all capable of becoming like God through our good works. He also promoted the idea that the divine could be revealed through reason and not solely through scripture. These were bold ideas that met with predictable opposition. Nevertheless, they are ideas that still resonate in the Principles and Sources that we express in our movement today.
Channing was one of the great theological minds of the nineteenth century, and he was a teacher and exemplar for the early Unitarians. Because of his bold theological positions, it’s hard to criticize Channing, but one common criticism surrounds his failure to make a stand against slavery. He wrote about it, but like many of his fellow Unitarians, he disapproved of the radicalism of abolitionist groups and did not see Africans as true equals.
If Channing rattled the cages of his more orthodox critics, his friend and my last founding father, Theodore Parker, blew the doors right off the hinges. Parker was born in 1810 and lived until 1860, when like so many of his family before him, he died of tuberculosis.
Parker was a brilliant intellect who eagerly studied both the latest biblical criticism coming from German scholars such as David Friedrich Strauss, and the works of Transcendentalists such as Emerson. In sermons such as "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity," he pushed the envelope of liberal Christianity to the point that many critics labeled him as non-Christian. Though he retained a general belief in God, he rejected traditional concepts such as the divinity of Jesus, the reality of miracles, and the authority of the Bible.
He believed that if any religion could be called "true" then its intrinsic truths must transcend the boundaries of its own scriptures and prophets with a universal message for humanity. Even by today’s standards, he would be firmly on the cutting edge of liberal religion. Unitarianism would never be the same.
If his theological work was the end of the story, he would rank among the most influential theologians in the history of our movement. But Parker was also a major force in the social justice movements of his day. When you consider that his congregation in Boston included such notables as Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, it’s not too surprising that Parker became a champion for abolition, temperance, and prison reform.
He sometimes harbored fugitive slaves in his own home for the underground railroad, and legend has it that this dangerous practice led him to keep a loaded pistol on his desk while he worked on his Sunday sermons. In the years just before the Civil War, Parker secretly supported John Brown and sent money to anti-slavery groups in Kansas.
It would be nice to say that the Boston Unitarian establishment recognized the prophetic voice of Theodore Parker and hailed him as a hero, but unfortunately the opposite was true. He was seen as too radical and too heretical, and many of his fellow clergymen ostracized him publicly. They did everything they could to alienate him from pulpits and associations, but over time, his reformation of Unitarianism started to attract significant attention, and it is easy to see the signature of Parker in modern Unitarian Universalism.
The three men whose stories I touched on were all fathers in the traditional sense with families of their own, and who could fault them had they chosen a more peaceful, ordinary life. Instead, they overcame the obstacles of failed ministries, personal tragedies, and sometimes public humiliation, and persevered to bring their guidance and love to our religious movement in its youth.
It is right that we honor them as fathers today.
As we enter a new century of Unitarian Universalism in America, it is my hope that new fathers and mothers will emerge to provide the guidance, nurture, and resolve we need. With their help, I believe we can bring our unique message of hope to the vast numbers of Americans who wander in the desert of consumerism and yearn for something more.
If history holds true, it will probably be the rabble rousers of our denomination who will ultimately guide us on the right path, and like rebellious children, we will likely condemn them for their efforts.