Our Three Best Stories
Rev. Douglas Taylor

It has occasionally been quipped that Unitarian Universalists think the movement began about six weeks before they found it. But history is of value in defining who we are and who we are becoming. Our history matters as a touch-point for our values and our identity. But we don’t need to go over the whole history of Unitarian Universalism. I can tell you just our three best stories and that will be enough to have a sense of what our faith is all about.

My first story is from Transylvania over four hundred years ago. Time-wise this story happens in the heart of the Protestant Reformation, but geographically the events are tucked a little out of the way in Eastern Europe. The primary character in our story is Francis David, a priest and preacher from Kolozdvar in the early 1500’s. At this time there were public religious debates that served almost as entertainment for people – they were events for people. There were judges who would declare a winner. And I imagine in today’s culture there would be trading cards and statistics people would follow religiously. Anyway, David was a top debater.

He started out Catholic because that was pretty much the default. But when David learned of Lutheranism, he found it to be sensible and was convinced of the arguments. So he converted to Lutheranism. He became a debater for Lutheranism and when he debated against a preacher from the Reformed tradition – that would be Calvinism which in the United States we know as Presbyterianism, David technically won the debate but the ideas struck him as sensible. He soon became convinced of the arguments and converted to Calvinism. And he was then a debater for Calvinism, and in that capacity he came up against the ideas of Unitarianism. He found Unitarianism to be sensible and was convinced of the arguments. So he converted to Unitarianism. Then, a few years later he won a debate in the presence of the king of Transylvania, King John Sigismund who then converted.

Sigismund is known as the only Unitarian king in history. But more, he is known for issuing the Edict of Torda in 1568 – it is broadly recognized as 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.  In the upheaval of the Reformation, people did experience sudden conversions because a king would convert. When a king converted he would change the state sanctioned religion and thus everyone would need to also publicly convert as well. But Sigismund did something different. The Edict of Torda allowed that “that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. … No one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone … For faith is the gift of God.” This edict allowed diverse beliefs, protected minority opinions, and kept the peace.

Now, it was limited. It claimed there were four ‘received’ religious: Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Unitarian. Others were not accepted – it didn’t allow for Jews or Muslims or Eastern Orthodox traditions. But it was still remarkable for its time. But that’s not the end of the story. When King Sigismund died a year later of a “hunting accident”, and a new king (not in sympathy with Unitarian beliefs) took the throne, the old court preacher, David, was dismissed. David was tolerated only so long as he advocated no innovations in doctrine or thought or practice.  If you remember what David was like at the beginning of the story you see where this is going. 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.  His heresy was to suggest that we could pray directly to God rather than praying through Jesus to God. He died in the dungeon of Deva for the crime of heretical innovation in 1579.  He scratched the Hungarian phrase “Egy Az Isthen” (pronounced Edge Oz Eeshten), “God is one” on the wall of his cell as his last testament.

My second story is from only a little over two hundred years ago and a little closer to home: New Jersey to be exact. This is the story of the founding of Universalism in America and it is the story of a sermon. But it starts in England in a Methodist church with a preacher whose life was about to fall to pieces. John Murray had bumped into notions of universal salvation while trying to correct a fallen-away parishioner of her errors and instead she planted the seed of this great heresy in his heart. Universalism slipped into Murray’s preaching over time and when it grew too obvious and too much, the church ejected him. At around that time, his child grew ill and died, his wife also suffered an illness, and debts began piling up around him. Following the death of his wife and some time spent in debtor’s prison, John Murray found no solace in religion or in community. He considered suicide but opted instead to travel to America where he could “bury himself in the New World”

So in the summer of 1770, Murray booked passage on a ship and left religion and preaching behind for good. But things did not go as he had planned.  They were bound for the port of New York but learned it was closed; they made for Philadelphia only to later learn that New York was open. They turned north and headed thence with all due has only to end up stuck on a sandbar off southern New Jersey.  The captain tapped John Murray to head up to the farmlands near the shore to find provisions for the ship while it waits for the winds to change; something bound to happen within a day or two.  Well, Murray knocks on the door of a farmhouse and man who answers the door is Thomas Potter.

Let me pause to tell you a little about Thomas Potter. Potter was an illiterate though deeply religious farmer. He had built a meeting house on his land for itinerant preachers and would welcome into his pulpit any who wished to preach, but he had not yet invited any of those preachers to stay. Potter was waiting for the right preacher. And here came Murray knocking on his door. Potter said to Murray, “Are you the preacher whom God has sent to preach in my pulpit?”  Murray says, “No, I’m the one the captain has sent 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?

By Saturday evening the wind had not changed and Murray was preparing a sermon. He decided to not hold back, to give full voice to the heresy that had caused him to be ejected from his earlier pulpit. Murray preached a sermon of universal salvation entitled “Give them not hell, but hope and courage.”  Even after all he had been through, all the grief and loss and doubt, he dared to tell of how strong God’s love truly is. Following the sermon Murray received word that the wind had changed and with the rising of the tide his ship would soon be on its way. This is considered by some the one miracle story of our tradition. Potter invited Murray to remain and occupy the pulpit of this meeting house permanently. And indeed Murray felt his own calling renewed again but that day Murray returned to his ship and his journey north. Over the subsequent years, Murray founded the first Universalist 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.

My first and second stories here are ‘founder’ stories – stories of our beginnings. This next one is similar in that it reflects a seminal experience at the beginning of our newly merged Unitarian Universalist faith. My third story is from nearly 50 years ago, a mere four years after the Unitarians and the Universalists joined into a single faith. And the story takes place in Selma Alabama; deep in the heart of the Civil rights Movement. And it exemplifies the best qualities of our activist spirit as a movement.

We begin with a reminder of March 7, 1965, a day otherwise known as “Bloody Sunday.” There are over a dozen events over the past century or so that are known as “Bloody Sunday” – five of which are part of Irish history. The event I refer to, though, is the only one when 500 civil rights marchers attempted to cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge as part of a voting rights protest. The marchers were met by state troopers with billy clubs and tear gas.

Dr. King issued a call to white northern clergy to come down to Selma to march with the black southerners in their bid for civil rights. Hundreds of people responded, including dozens of Unitarian Universalist clergy. Among them was Rev. James Reeb. On March 9th two and a half thousand marchers made a second attempt to cross the bridge but were again thwarted. The marchers pulled back before violence broke out this time. But later that violence caught up with some of them. Three white ministers who had come to march were attacked and beaten with clubs. Those three ministers were Unitarian Universalist ministers and one among them was James Reeb who sustained a fatal blow.

The Selma public hospital refused to treat Rev. Reeb and he was taken to the Birmingham University Hospital two hours away. He died two days later. King did his eulogy. And a national outrage finally took root. Later that week President Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act to congress. A week after that many thousands of marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin the five-day march from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights for blacks. Over 500 Unitarian Universalists marched. Of the estimated 500 clergy in Selma, nearly 200 were Unitarian Universalist. That is roughly 20% of all our UU clergy at the time including the entire UUA board of trustees. Our Own Rev. Harry Thor went to Selma. There was some bitterness that the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black southerner, warranted barely a mention in the media while the death of Rev. James Reeb was all over the news and commented on by national leaders of the day. But the fact remains, Reeb’s death galvanized the nation around King and the civil rights protestors. Reeb’s death was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement.

These three stories, I contend, exemplify the best of our movement. These three stories offer us a sense of what our faith is all about. Ours is a whole faith for the whole person: head, heart, and hands. In our first story we learn about our commitment to freedom of conscience and the evolving nature of faith. We learn to trust our curiosity and to ever seek after truth. In our second story we learn about our dedication to courage as an ever-present opening in life and the hopeful nature of faith to be ready even after disappointment, heartbreak and loss. We learn to trust our deep knowing that we are beloved of God. In our third story we learn about our pledge to live out our faith in the world and that we have the power together to make a difference. We learn to trust our longing for a better world made more beautiful by our efforts toward equality, liberty, and justice.

These stories tell us about who we are and about what Unitarian Universalism is all about. These are stories, not full history. What I’ve offered is closer to myth than fact. Not that what I’ve said is untrue. What I’ve offered is close to true with some embellishment.

The story of David is more complicated than what I offered. Religious Tolerance was a not unknown in Hungary. King Sigismund’s Catholic mother, Queen Isabella had actually issued an edict of toleration for Lutherans and Calvinists ten years earlier than the more famous Edict of Torda. Isabella’s edict was one of tolerance that allowed religious debates to occur, her son’s edict moved beyond tolerance to establish four ‘received’ religions in Transylvania. And I haven’t even hinted at the influence of Dr. George Biandrata from Poland or the books by Michael Servetus that David read. The history is a very complex muddle of politics, religion, nobility, and power.

And John Murray’s story, where did I stray in the telling of that? Well, I give sort shrift to influence of George De Benneville and the seeds of universal salvation already planted in America by Quakers and some Baptists at that time. Also, we have no why of knowing, for example, the title of Murray’s original sermon. “Give Them Not Hell, But Hope and Courage,” is popularly considered the title and that was a “fact” circulating a few decades back, but there is no research to back it up.

My third story is far more factual that the other two, eyewitness accounts are possible today at a level unheard of in the 1700s or 1500s. Where I stray from history into story is more in that parts I leave out. The history is incomplete if all I tell you is about how we showed up in Selma while skipping the part of how we stumbled over the question of Black Power from within, a mere three years later.

But I am not sharing strict history this morning. I am feeding you on the deep stories of who we are. I offer you history with the hints of myth entwined. Can you have the strength of conviction and curiosity to chase down the truth as you know it wherever it may lead … as David did? Can you have the strength of faith to trust life even when it leaves you lost and alone, stuck on a sandbar off new Jersey with a new life about to unfold … as Murray did? Can you have the strength of spirit to live out your faith in the world and act on your beliefs for the greater good … as Reeb did? Listen for the deeper message of who we are and what we value. Find other stories from our history that speak to you and whisper lessons about who you are and who we are.

In a world without end

May it be so

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Suggested Sermons Douglas Taylor has preached about Unitarian Universalist History

These are all available online at www.uubinghamton.org

Wineskins and Watersheds October 2, 2011

About the past 50 years since merger

How to Avoid Getting Burned at the Stake October 26, 2008

About Michael Servetus and his theology

Hope and Courage September 23, 2007

About John Murray and Universalism

Our Common Story August 20, 2006

About the story of Unitarian Universalism

Profiles in Courage February 20, 2005

About vignettes of several interesting UU figures from history

Emerson’s Reformation October 26, 2003

About the history and theology of early American Unitarianism


Unitarian Universalist History: An abbreviated UUA Bookstore Reading List

1-800-215-9076 • http://www.uua.org/bookstore

Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History David E. Bumbaugh

An accessible overview of Unitarianism, Universalism and Unitarian Universalism from their beginnings in Europe to the end of the 20th century.

For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe Charles A. Howe

Lucid and readable account of the origin and development of Unitarianism in Europe, from the Reformation until the 20th century.

The Larger Faith: A Short History of American Universalism Charles A. Howe

Spans from the first gatherings of American Universalists in 1793, to the consolidation with the Unitarians in 1961, to present-day Unitarian Universalism. Includes bibliography, appendices and an index.

The Premise and the Promise: The Story of the UUA Warren Ross

The tale of two like-minded but separate religious bodies electing to unite and move into the future together. Features important figures in Unitarian and Universalist history and chronicles significant aspects of the work of the UUA since 1961.

This Day in Unitarian Universalist History Frank Schulman

Marks the significant anniversaries and milestones in Unitarian and Universalist faith heritage for every day of the year. Spans six centuries of liberal religion.

A Stream of Light: A Short History of American Unitarianism Conrad Wright

Unitarian thought from 1805 to 1961. Essential for any UU historical library.