Our Common Story

A sermon about our Unitarian Universalist History

August 20, 2006

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Rev. David Bumbaugh wrote in his book

Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History

“Unitarian Universalism is a peculiar religious tradition

in that what binds it is not so much a shared theology,

or even a shared response to the experience of the sacred,

as it is a shared history.”

Unitarian Universalism is an evolving faith.  Who we are and what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist has changed over time.  Many individual Unitarian Universalists tell a story of breaking away from an old set of beliefs; this rejection is perhaps an echo of the broader story of Unitarian Universalism.  The pattern for our tradition began by breaking away – rejecting old ideas and practices, casting out useless and worn out creeds – breaking away, then struggling with a new identity based on a minority opinion of conscience, followed by eventually joining together with others in a community based on religious freedom, acceptance, and shared discovery.  Not every person shares that pattern, not every step in our long and diverse history can be fit into that pattern of breaking away, struggling with a new identity, and eventually joining together as a community in religious freedom, acceptance, and shared discovery.  But this pattern is common enough and holds largely true on almost a mythic level for Unitarian Universalist.  The themes of rejecting the old, identifying as a minority, struggling to be understood, and finally finding a place of acceptance and shared freedom and encouragement, are themes that are familiar to many.

In short, ours is a chosen faith.  People choose to be Unitarian Universalist.  Even one such as me who comes from a long line of Universalists chooses this faith.  That I am a Unitarian Universalist is not merely an accident of birth; though to be sure that played its part.  That I also grew up attending a Unitarian Universalist church shaped the possibilities, but that too was not in itself the determinant in my being a Unitarian Universalist today.  I made a choice to be a part of this tradition; I stepped forward and pledged myself to this faith.  I had considered other options.  But I saw that this faith was big enough for me to change and grow.  This faith is big enough for me to evolve in my personal faith and understanding because Unitarian Universalism as a whole is an evolving faith.  This means each person experiences this freedom to mature in understanding and faith on a personal level; but it also means that the whole tradition evolves over time, shifting, changing, growing, and maturing!  Ours is a forward-looking religion, not shackled to the past.  Our hymns speak a lot about trusting the dawning future and facing the beaconing future.

I say that not to discount our history or to proclaim it unimportant.  Indeed, my sermon today is to highlight our common story, our Unitarian Universalist history, and the power which this story bequeaths to us.

Unitarian Universalism began as two separate traditions that joined together as one in 1961.  Universalism as a tradition dates back 1770 in the United States (or what would in a few more years become known as the United States.)  It began based on the doctrine of universalism or universal salvation: the belief that all souls would be united with God in heaven.  Unitarianism as a tradition dates back through several lines, the oldest of which is over 400 years long in Transylvania, which was a region in modern Hungary.  Another line is traced briefly through Poland, also during the Reformation time.  A third line arises through England in the 1600’s.  And the line, through which we in this room are most strongly connected, comes from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s New England Congregational tradition.  Unitarianism is based on the doctrine of the unity of God rather than the trinity of God, rejecting the divinity of Christ.

A complete telling of our common story, even one that merely skims across the surface, would include an exploration of the three lines of European Unitarianism beginning over 400 years ago, more than 200year of American Universalism, nearly 200 years of American Unitarianism, and of course our current Unitarian Universalism of the past 50 years.  So let me give that a try.

To begin, the oldest Unitarian tradition is from Transylvania where Francis David became the court preacher in the mid-1500s to the only ever Unitarian king in history, King John Sigismund of Transylvania, (which is now known as Romania and Hungary.)  I suppose it must be admitted that about a generation before David and Sigismund, a book entitled On the Errors of the Trinity by Michael Servetus, was circulated throughout Europe, but the majority of these books were collected and destroyed and its author, Servetus, was burned at the stake in 1553.  No tradition or community grew up from Servetus’ work.  Which leaves the community in Transylvania with the designation of oldest tradition.

Francis David was educated as a Catholic priest, but converted to Lutheranism, then Calvinism, and finally to a form of anti-Trinitarian belief later known as Unitarianism.  His rigorous commitment to truth and reason compelled him through this succession.  Through a series of open religious debates, David so ably defended the Unitarian position that it persuaded the then-Catholic King Sigismund to become Unitarian.  Sigismund issued what is known as The Edict of Torda, which is the first law of tolerance from that time.  The Edict simply said that the people did not need to all convert to the religion of the king.  Instead, it allowed that “each person maintain whatever religious faith he wishes, with old or new rituals, … just so long, however, as they bring no harm to bear on anyone at all.”  This was a most remarkable decree seeing how much intolerance was on display throughout Europe.  This edict allowed diverse beliefs, protected minority opinions, and kept the peace.  When Sigismund died, and a new king (not in sympathy with Unitarian beliefs) took the throne, the old court preacher, David, was tolerated only so long as he advocated no innovations in doctrine or thought or practice.  Francis David’s conscience, of course, could not be contained.  David was committed not to a particular doctrine, but to truth and his unfolding understanding of it.  He eventually died in the dungeon of Deva for the crime of heretical innovation in 1579.  Unitarianism survived through that time and subsequent persecutions, plagues, famines, crusades, and the Soviet totalitarian rule that threatened all religious communities.  And now there are 400-year-old Unitarian churches in Hungary.

A generation or two later, John Biddle, who has been called “the father of English Unitarianism,” was born in 1615.  Biddle new the New Testament by heart in both English and Greek; and through his study and research, concluded that the doctrine of the trinity had no scriptural support.  When he was 29 years old he was called before a magistrate to defend himself against the charge of heresy.  He wrote a satisfactory confession of faith, was released, felt dissatisfied with his confession of faith and began writing a new essay entitled Twelve Arguments Drawn out of Scripture refuting the doctrine of the trinity.  He was again taken in, imprisoned, bailed out, his trial was postponed, and he was then held under house arrest for five years – during which time he finished his Twelve Arguments.  Promptly following its release it was burned by the public hangman, which may have contributed to it being run for a second printing before the end of the year.  Meanwhile, Charles the 1st was executed, Oliver Cromwell took over and Biddle was released.  However within three years, he was back in prison by rule of a London judge.  In 1652, Cromwell issued the Act of Oblivion granting amnesty to all those accused of crime, thus freeing Biddle once more.  Biddle published a catechism in which he rejected the doctrine of the trinity and the deity of Jesus.  Needless to say, he was promptly imprisoned, and his books were seized and burned.  After a few months, he was released and he set to work organizing a debate with a Baptist preacher focusing on the deity of Christ.  When word spread of the debate, the authorities immediately arrested John Biddle.  Finally Oliver Cromwell, felling pressure to deal with Biddle’s case, banished Biddle to the Scilly Isles.  Undeterred, John Biddle secured his return across the channel and began meeting with his friends and supporters again.  In 1660 Cromwell, who had generally been seen as tolerant in religious matters, died and Charles the 2nd was enthroned.  Biddle tried to keep his non-conformist worship quiet, but he was found out, arrested, fined, and imprisoned.  This time, however, he was unable to pay the fine and remained in prison for quite some time.  While in prison he became ill, and died two days after he was finally released in 1662 at the age of 48.  But the seed had been planted and tended.  The ideas took root and the community grew.

Indeed, one of the interesting things to note is the relative lack of interaction between what was happening in England and what was happening in Transylvania.  A Unitarian community in Poland flourished for a time, but eventually the community was suppressed until it ceased to exist.  There were certain connections between the Transylvanian and Polish Unitarians, but the English movement knew little of either.  And likewise American Unitarianism, while experiencing a few undercurrents form the English movement, developed independently from New England’s liberal Congregationalism.

It is generally agreed that American Unitarianism began with a sermon preached by William Ellery Channing in 1819.  In this sermon, which Channing preached in Baltimore for the ordination of a colleague, Channing basically said, “Yes, we are Unitarians and here is what that means.”  Prior to that there were a good many liberal Congregationalist who had been accused for years of being Unitarian in their beliefs.  This is why we claim the presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as Unitarians, despite that fact that both served their terms well before 1819, and indeed both died in 1826 (as an interesting aside, they both died on July 4th 1826 – having been political rivals, they reconciled and maintained correspondence over the years which included discussing there differing views of Unitarianism.)  But let me get back to that sermon delivered one hundred and eighty-seven years ago.  Channing declare that God is one rather than three, that Jesus is fully human rather than fully divine and fully human, and that humanity has the freedom and capacity to choose between right and wrong rather than being predestined and held in the bondage of the will…radical stuff.  Channing based his arguments on the authority of scripture and the use of reason.  At one point in the sermon he said God had given man the capacity of reason and we would be held accountable to use it.  Channing’s sermon gave the Unitarians a strong platform on which to organize and grow.  The American Unitarian Association was formed six years later in 1825.

Well, before I get carried away and start on about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, Octavious Brooks Frothingham, and Margaret Fuller from the American Unitarian tradition, let me tell you a few stories about our Universalist heritage.  Universalism began as, and largely continues to be, a uniquely American religious tradition. The churches in Transylvania are not Unitarian Universalist, they are Unitarian.  The churches in Canada are also Unitarian churches.  In the Khasi Hills of India there is a Unitarian community.  There is a rather large and indigenous Universalist church in the Philippines, which serves as the huge exception to my generality.

Universalism in America, like American Unitarianism, marks its beginnings with the preaching of a sermon.  John Murray was ordained as a Methodist minister in England, converted to Universalism, was ejected from his Methodist pulpit, suffered a series of devastating personal losses, and finally decided to quit the whole business.  He booked passage on a ship going to the new world, leaving behind his pains and trouble, as well as his ideas of ministry.  Things did not go as he had planned.  Instead of arriving in New York harbor, Murray ended up stuck on a sandbar off southern New Jersey.  Murray is sent up to find provisions for the ship while it waits for the winds to change; something bound to happen within a day or two.  Well, the farmer Murray meets is Thomas Potter who has built a church on his property.  He says to Murray, “Are you the preacher whom God has sent to preach in my pulpit?”  Murray says, “No, I’m here to get provisions for our ship stuck just off the coast.”  Potter presses, and Murray admits to having been a preacher before, but now he is just a traveler whose ship will be leaving in a few days, and could he please have provisions for the crew.  Potter presses again, and Murray agrees to preach in Potter’s church on Sunday IF he is still here, which is unlikely as the wind would likely change any day now.  And Potter said, “The wind will not change, and your ship will not leave the sandbar until you have preached in my pulpit.”  Well, you see where this is going, don’t you?  The wind did not change, and Murray preached a ‘no-holds-barred’ sermon of universal salvation entitled “Give them not hell, but hope and courage.”  Murray went on to found a church in Gloucester, MA and helped create the denomination that at one point was reported to have been the sixth largest denomination in the United States.

And I want to tell you about Hosea Ballou and Clarence Skinner, Clara Barton, and James Luther Adams, and Humanist movement, and the Social Gospel movement, and the influence of German Higher Biblical Criticism on our Children’s Religious Education curriculum, and the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists in 1961.  But all those stories must wait for another day.  For now I must leave with just one story, our common story; the story of our evolving faith that binds us together as a people.

As David Bumbaugh wrote in the opening line of our reading this morning (from Unitarian Universalism a narrative history, 2000), “Unitarian Universalism is a peculiar religious tradition in that what binds it is not so much a shared theology, or even a shared response to the experience of the sacred, as it is a shared history.”  The diverse list of theological stances taken in the name of Unitarianism, Universalism, and Unitarian Universalism over the years leaves any rational onlooker flummoxed as to what might be the common element.  Indeed it would seem there is, as Bumbaugh contends, no shared theology among us.  Rather we have a history, a common story, which speaks of a journey.  Our story is a journey with a breaking away from the old, a struggle toward deeper understanding even though that understanding be a minority view, and finally an arrival home in a faith community of acceptance and shared discovery such as the one you now find yourself.

To be a Unitarian Universalist is the share in our common story.  Welcome home.

In a world without end, may it be so.