That Other U -- Universalism

Judy Butler

Sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Community of Cambria

August 20, 2017


Those of us here and in other UU communities tell people we are UUs or Unitarian Universalists.  But how many of us even know what a Universalist is?  I know I didn’t and I’ve been around UUism for many years.  The multi-syllabic name we have – Unitarian Universalist (10 syllables – count ‘em!) suggests the two branches of our history:  The Unitarians and the Universalists.  Before those two traditions merged, each had distinctive cultures and beliefs. 


So who were these Universalists?  Let’s go back a few years:  On September 4, 1793, a group of people who called themselves Universalists gathered in the village of Oxford, Massachusetts for a day of preaching, prayer, fellowship mutual support and organization business.  Although they could not have known it at the time, their meeting marked the beginning of a new denomination.  So, from an obscure and homely beginning was born an organization that would endure as a separate entity for the next 168 years and that finds itself today as an integral part of the Unitarian Universalist Association.


At that meeting was the man called the “father of Universalism,” John Murray.  On that day in September, it had been exactly twenty-three years since he arrived in the New World. In England he had been a follower of the Methodist minister James Relly who taught the salvation of all.  He left England to start a new life for himself after a series of personal tragedies –Murray was excommunicated from the Methodist church for heresy, the deaths of his son and wife, and a term in debtor’s prison.  He had been a lay preacher but had become thoroughly disenchanted with institutional religion.  I find his arrival on our shores as very prophetic.  First the ship he was on ran aground on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey and he went ashore at Good Luck (really it was Good Luck) to look for provisions.  There he met a farmer named Thomas Potter, an uneducated but deeply religious man who had built a chapel on his property and invited itinerant ministers to preach there.


Murray was invited to deliver a sermon the following Sunday.  He at first refused to give in to Potter’s persistent urging but finally accepted provided the wind wouldn’t change and he wouldn’t miss his ship’s sailing.  So Murray preached a sermon on universal grace.  By the time he had finished, his reservations about preaching had vanished.  Then the wind changed direction and the ship was ready to sail.  Both Murray and Potter regarded the chance meeting and postponement of the wind’s change as a sign of God’s Providence – it was perhaps the only miracle in Universalist history.  Murray then sailed on to New York city, preached there to an enthusiastic congregation, and was soon traveling up and down the northeastern seaboard, sowing the seeds of Universalism wherever he went. 


What differentiated these Universalists from the local Unitarians?  For starters, then Unitarians were Christians who denied the Trinity and asserted that Jesus was essentially human, not essentially divine. The Universalists initially were Christians who were Trinitarian with an evangelical bent and asserted that Christ came to save all – all – even those who were not Christian.  So everyone, Christian, non-Christian, atheist alike, all go to heaven.  That is the textbook definition of historic Unitarianism and Universalism. 

While these beliefs each represented heresy in traditional Christianity, each group was at the margins of the traditional Christian community anyway.  However, they were very different in each of their cultures.  One minister of the 19th century captured it concisely:

       “The Universalists think God is too good to damn them forever,

        The Unitarians think they are too good to be damned forever.” 


But, let’s look deeper:  First the Unitarians –They were the liberal wing of the Congregational/Puritan churches of early America.  (You may remember from an earlier talk I did that Christmas was not celebrated by these Puritan types and they were not a joyous group.) When they split from the Congregationalists in 1825 they were largely urban, highly educated and well-placed in society.  Basically, they were Privileged.  The great Rev. Channing, the leading minister of the American Unitarian Assoc. espoused his core concept that Salvation was by Character.  It was God working through our human capacities that was our salvation.  The focus was on the self-development of the individual human. This was understandable given the privileged social place of most Unitarians.  Theologically, these early Unitarians focused on the human creature.  They saw Jesus as a great moral teacher, and the Apostle Paul as the great corruptor of a pure and ethical Christianity since Paul emphasized salvation through Christ.  They didn’t need the concept of Jesus the Savior when it was understood that we could save ourselves.


What about the Universalists?  They were rural, in small towns and small cities.  They were of more common stock: farmers, shopkeepers, tradespeople.  They believed that God was so loving that God would not condemn anyone to any sort of hell (thus the name, Universalist).  They had a powerful and hopeful theology: that regardless of religion, regardless of personal profession of faith, regardless of how good or bad we acted – all, and the meant ALL, were saved.  I was curious about where this idea of Universal salvation started.  In the first five or six centuries of Christianity, there were six known theological schools, of which four (Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea and Edessa) were universalist. Universalism was taught by Origen, one of the most important theologians of the time (185-254 A.D. ) but was declared heresy by the Council of Constantinople in 543 A.D.  Much more about the theology of universalism is in the two books I mentioned. 


If you know Methodist history, you know of the Circuit Rider who would ride from town to town holding meetings and revivals, telling people the good news of Jesus Christ, including how Christ would save you from hell.  Less well known are the circuit-riding Universalists who were often right behind the Methodists, doing the same thing, except reminding the people, with extensive Scriptural quotation, that everyone is saved.  It is not up to us!  God does it. They were criticized by traditional Christians who said if there’s no hell, what’s the point of being good?  The Universalists responded by saying, “so it takes the concept of eternal punishment to make you do good things?  We do good things as a response of the great love of our Creator.” To many, universal salvation was a shocking idea.  Without the fear of hellfire, why should people do good. In several states, Universalists were not allowed to give testimony at trials or to serve on juries because it was felt that they would have no motive to be honest. Universalists responded that God wants to make people happy, they said, not only in the afterlife, but also in this life; so God gives us such a nature that we find doing good to be deeply fulfilling.  If someone is in trouble, others will gather round to help, because the nature God has given us impels them to do so; and the result is that not only is the one in trouble helped and so made happier, but those helping are fulfilled and so also made happier.  Doing good is the way to be happy now. 


I love this exchange between Hosea Ballou, leader of the Universalists in the first half of the 19th century and a Baptist who he met when he was a circuit riding preacher in his early years.  The two met on the road and to pass the time of day discussed theology.  The Baptist was horrified to learn the Universalists didn’t believe in a God who would condemn people to hellfire.  The Baptist said “I could knock you over the head, ride off with your money and horse, and have nothing to worry about.”  “If you were a Universalist“ replied Ballou, “the thought would never occur to you.”


What is so often forgotten today is the discomfort between the Unitarians and the Universalists in the 19th century.  Part of that was cultural: the highly educated, urban Unitarians with the less educated, rural Universalists.  But, part of it was theological.  While Unitarians proclaimed Salvation by Character, the Universalists – in an obvious snub – affirmed (in these words) salvation in spite of character.


The entire Universalist denomination had gone on record as opposing slavery and making them only the second denomination after the Quakers to do so.  The Unitarian’s never went on record as opposing slavery.  Probably due to the fact that many of the well to do members owned slaves.  However, many in the denomination became quite active in the abolitionist movement. 


I do like the fact that the Universalists led the way in ordaining women.  The first two women ordained as ministers were Universalists.  You might remember Olympia Brown from my talk on UU women.  She was the first.


Although the Universalist Church as a denomination never fully embraced Spiritualism, many Universalists were sympathetic to this nineteenth-century movement. Spiritualism was preached with some regularity from Universalist pulpits in the middle decades of the 19th century and some ministers left the denomination when their Spiritualist leanings became too pronounced for their peers and congregations.  I remember those old movies with the seances, levitating tables, and contacting dead loved ones.  I can see where the Unitarians would have looked askance at all that going on.


One interesting aspect of the differences between the two is that the Unitarians tended to describe their faith in traditionally male terms: active, rational, patriarchal, progressive.  The Universalists expressed their faith in traditionally female ways:  God was nurturing, supportive, caring, loving, emotive.  It has been said by many that our Unitarian heritage reflects the “head” and our Universalist heritage the “heart” of our merged tradition.


But, of course, there were similarities between the two traditions.  Both were not traditional Christians and were rebuffed by traditional Christian communities.  Both had less restrictive, more open and liberal Christian doctrines.  And because of that, into the 20th century, both evolved to the realization that Christianity did not hold all the truth, that religious truth could be found in other religions, as well as in reason and the scientific method.  The Unitarians did this far earlier, and some Universalists were reluctant to let go of their explicit Christian heritage, even up to the time of the merger. 


But what happened to the Universalists after the merger in 1960 – 61? When the Unitarian and Universalist denominations combined, the Universalists – less prosperous, less educated, less confident, and outnumbered five to one – were afraid of being swallowed up. At the time of merger, the Unitarians were larger and more dominant.  So the culture of Unitarianism became dominant in the new UU Association.


          A major disappointment to many from the Universalist side of the consolidation was the closing in the mid – 1960s of the existing two Universalist seminaries.  The loss of the two schools caused great bitterness among many from the Universalist backgrounds.  Many felt they were being “run over roughshod” at meetings by those from Unitarian backgrounds.  Those from the Unitarian side of consolidation sometimes accused those from the Universalist side of paranoia; they in turn were themselves accused of arrogance, elitism and a failure to appreciate the Universalist tradition. At the same time many people from both traditions embraced consolidation with enthusiasm, others at least accepted it with resignation and still others barely noticed it.  With the passage of time much of the uneasiness over consolidation has disappeared.


The two groups evolved to the point that they consolidated in 1961 into what we are today, a tradition that comes out of the Judeo-Christian experience and yet finds truth in a multi-religious context.  So what is the tragedy of Universalism in this merger – that its culture and ideas were lost?  Maybe not -  the hope of Universalism has lain dormant for a while and is beginning to emerge.  We are even learning to evangelize.  Witness our “Standing On the Side of Love” branding and messaging that has become a public affirmation of our inclusiveness in the public arena.


The Universalists proclaimed that all humans were connected to the source and wellspring of all existence, that all humans have a relationship with the whole of creation This is the hope of Universalism for our day. Their message was one everyone could understand and it spoke to the heart.  Religion is about learning to accept love, and loving, in this life.  It is a message the world still needs today.



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