Universalism for Beginners (Universalism 101)
This sermon was prepared by the Rev. Scott Wells for the Universalist National Memorial Church pulpit for August 19, 2001.
The first time I was introduced as a nineteenth-century Universalist, I was left speechless. This was in the 1990s, not the 1890s, after all . At the very least, I didn’t feel that old. Indeed, another young minister was shocked to meet me because from my reputation, she thought I had to have been in my eighties, which, still wouldn’t be old enough, if you’re counting. On the one hand, it isn’t very flattering to be described in glowing terms as an anachronism. But, I suppose the up-side of the description is that in the nineteenth century, most people knew what a Universalist was. Its not because we were a large denomination – we probably never had more than fifty thousand in-the-pews members at any one time and that was the 1870s- but we were known because we were distinctive, and in some people’s minds, a real challenge and a threat to the status quo, which itself wasn’t all that great. Universalists were truly alive in the nineteenth century. But it is also true Universalists were alive in the twentieth century. And we are alive today. And more than simply living, we are beginning to gain some ground and attract twenty-first century Universalists.
What Is Universalism?
So what is Universalism? Universalism is usually defined in dictionaries, encyclopedia, and other independent and detached sources in the most basic and theological terms possible.
A good working definition is that Universalism is a system of theology distinguished by the belief in salvation of all people, and in particular, the Protestant denomination that espouses the belief. Of course, that definition (again) points to the nineteenth century more than the twenty-first. We need more details today, but first a review of where Universalism came from. Far from being a historical curiosity, I believe Universalism has much to offer people today.
A Capsule History
Although modern Universalism first germinated in England, and was strongly influenced by religious movements in what is modern Germany, what we have is essentially an American development. In fact, the last Universalist church in Europe – the London church – closed in 1957 without much fanfare, even among the American Universalists.
Properly, Universalism was one of an assortment of American churches that developed when a number of cultures mixed and were influenced by the optimism of the Revolution and the new Republic, and Enlightenment thought.
John Murray is usually accorded the title “Father of American Universalism” but this title need a bit of explanation. Unlike Episcopalianism or Congregationalism, there was no migration of Universalists to what is now the United States. The people, by and large were here, and the ideas came to feed them.
John Murray’s story is recalled in the second window on the pulpit side, lower level. He was the Irish-born minister who first organized the first Universalist church in America in 1773. He had come to America in despair. Willing to preach but unwise with money, his debts landed him jail. While imprisoned, his wife and only child died. Still in his twenties and certainly embittered, he vowed to leave the ministry – and England. God, as they say, had other plans. Thomas Potter was a radical Quaker farmer in New Jersey, and God – with whom he was on a first name basis – promised him ten years prior a preacher of universal salvation. Murray’s New York bound ship got wildly off course, and was beached in New Jersey – by Thomas Potter’s farm. Indeed, if you look careful in the stained-glass window, it is not at sea, but there’s a sandbar on the left hand side.
The episode, remembered later by Murray, went something like this.
From Potter: “Good, you’re finally here.”
“But I’m no longer a preacher.”
“We’ll see . . . .”
Then the two of them bargained back and forth until Murray agreed that if the ship stays moored from Wednesday until Saturday night, he would preach Sunday morning. There’s no suspence in this story, or this church would be Presbyterian. The ship stayed stuck until Sunday afternoon, and the rest is history.
Another source was the New England backcountry about the time of, and after, the Revolution. This is where Hosea Ballou, the first serious Universalist theologian, came from.
Fewer people know that there were Universalists in Philadelphia, and that they derived from the Baptists. Looking to the prophesies of God’s promises, they looked forward to a time when all would be comforted and welcomed by God.
The German Brethren, often called Dunkers, in the Carolinas are the fourth source. There story is like the Philadelphia Baptists, and were particularly influenced by Anglican priest William Law, who probably held an early form of Universalism. I owe the Universalist-Brethen a debt of thanks. It was during my graduate work at University of Georgia that I discovered these, and with them came into Universalism. Coincidentally, I later ministered to some of the descendants of those Brethren-Universalists.
And now we can take up some of the distinctive features of Universalism as a faith and way of life.
Free in Nature
One of the things that draws people to a liberal church like ours is the prospect of freedom in religious life. We each have the potiential for freedom. But for freedom to be real, it must be made.
If the most conservative churches have anything to answer for, it is the repression of freedom, and most importantly, the freedom to ask questions.
And yet, on the other hand, the most liberal churches – some of which are in the Unitarian Universalist Association – make an idol out of freedom, and in the process under cut any benefit that might come from it.
Freedom, if it means anything, means keeping those gems of faith that are evergreen and true. The Unitarians, for instance, were first rallied by William Ellery Channing’s famous sermon, entitled “Unitarian Christianity,” in Baltimore in 1819. He preached from the text, from the first letter to the Thessalonians “Test all things; hold fast to that which is true.”
Ours is a Christian church, but those whose experience of church is from a Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Episcopalian perspective will note substantial and basic differences. We look and act like mainline Protestants, but there are important differences with these churches, too.
Because Universalism came together from different threads, and has placed a high value on the use of the mind in religious life, it has always cherished liberty for its own members and in the world. We cherish our freedom so much that we have enshrined it in our most basic documents. As far back as , when religious freedom was still far from commonplace, the Universalists added a “liberty clause” in our profession of faith.
And one resons we insist on freedom is because of how we understand the manifestation of truth; that is, Our knowledge of God and spiritual matters is partial, but can grow.
Because “we see only in part” we resist making creeds, or making community on the basis of opinion. Even our well loved Declaration of Faith is no creed, and is not the basis of church membership. It is a witness, not a door.
The great irony about philosophical atheists and Christian fundamentalists is that they each claim more knowledge about the spiritual world than they can prove. The atheist says there is no God; the fundamentalist has a detailed roadmap of God’s will and nature. Both ring false.
Universalists, among others, have understood that holding a middle ground as to understanding the nature of God is anything but weakness. Indeed, reason that Universalists have insisted that God will bring all “into holiness and happiness” is because it works from not only from a biblical study, but from philosophy, and from personal mystic experience. It has also been affirmed in Christian history. Had the throught comes from only one of these, it would have been easy to put aside.
From this last point, we are urged to forbear prejudice and remain tolerant. And tolerance leads to acceptance and understanding. And that leads to greater faith and freedom.
Freedom in Practice
Our freedom is practical, too. For one thing, our church is governed locally. This means we make all the decisions necessary to run the church, and we raise all the money necessary to run it, too. (And it takes a lot of money to run a church.)
One of the distinguishing characteristics of a liberal church is the support of a free pulpit and a free pew. In a nutshell, this means that, as the church’s minister, I have the freedom necessary to speak the truth in whatever shape or form it comes in, and I call on the members of the church to support that freedom, even if from time to time I say something that a number – and potientially a majority – of the congregation disagrees with.
But, in the same way, and for the same reasons, the members of the congregation have “the freedom of the pew.” In too many churches, there is a presumption that the minister has access to come arcane well of secret spiritual knowledge, and that with this knowledge comes an authority that dare not be questioned. We each have the freedom to explore and question here.
God Is One
One point that stands out in Universalist theology is that God is one. Our testimony for the unity of God is not some kind of metaphysical window-dressing. We stand with the Hebrew prophets of old. They preached against the prophets of Baal and their gods of gold and stone the surrounding nations worshipped: gods which are ever reborn in the temptations of wealth and power.
They understood that, unlike the polytheists that surrounded them, our relation to a single God means that life is not divided from death, nor is the natural world divided from human affairs, nor is God more the God of one people than another. Universalists have traditionally concentrated on this last truth, but a universal God is one involved in all things.
As society becomes more secular – that is, as society more clearly defines that which is sacred and that which is not, and gives the non-sacred world priority – only matters directly associated with God or spirituality is thought to be sacred. So the church and temples, the Bible and other scriptures, perhaps some religious teachers are thought to be holy, but little else. Faith gets put on a pedestal, and at the same time becomes belittled and open to superstitious thinking. My experience doing weddings is that people who don’t have a church background have a misplaced notion of what is holy, and are most afraid of doing the wrong thing, or not doing the right thing. Faith is radically simpler than that.
By insisting that God is one, and universal, we profess that God is as present in this church as on I-66. God is as accessable on Monday as Sunday. We each have access to God, for our own needs and on behalf of others.
The church is God’s gift to us, so that we might remember the whole world is holy. We must not forget that, and as Universalists, we take great pains to remember and remind the forgetful this truth.
God Is Love
And yet the phrase that best identifies Universalism is not “God is one” but “God is love.” When the Mystery Worshipper from the online Christian humor magazine Ship of Fools reviewed our church, he or she couldn’t indentify what is carved over the altar. The carvings are a bit of an optical illusion. It is a line for the first letter of John, just read the morning.
God is Love to all, at all times, in all cases. The power of Love is so mighty that we might feel small in comparison to it, and yet it is the Love of God that gives us undying worth. Universalists have always affirmed that the Love of God is an unrestricted gift, and that it goes to all persons, whatever their belief or condition. It is not a gift of any church, to be parceled out to its members, or a chosen few. It is not restricted by custom, lest it become something sweet and sentimental. It is not shallow and only concerned with happy, sunny feelings. Real love gives life, but it also occasions a crisis. The crisis comes from knowing the pain, the needs, the joys, the hopes of another, and recognizing the passionate bond that comes from this sharing. Thus we can hear Jesus’ words: “love your neighbor as yourself.” He did not say just to love ourselves, or to love others at our expense. The life-changing love that comes from God is a gift for all, and is good for all. This understanding of love illuminates another passage of Scripture, that we love God “because God loved us first.” The love of God draws us away from ways which deny (to use an old Universalist phrase) “happiness and holiness” and directs us to live in harmony with one another and with God.
Humanity Is One
Religion is not solely concerned with the nature of God. We have to consider the question of what it means to be human.
Human beings have many common needs. We all need nourishment and shelter; we all need hope and love. Human societies from time immemorial have created systems to address our needs, and make life more meaningful and happy. We have families and friendships; neighborhoods and government; schools and commerce.
Human beings also have religion, indeed, many religions, to ask the questions of “how?” and “why?” in the name of the Ultimate. Religion should create the place where human beings reach their highest potential, but far too often it becomes the refuge for petty interests, and a place where hatred and narrowness is given an aura of holiness. Like all places where human beings meet, religion is imperfect, and each of us must look for a religious expression which seems right, and which has the prospect for improvement. Without hope for better things, we would wither and die, spiritually, if not physically.
In this regard, this Universalist Church shares much with other communities of religious people in the world. We are imperfect, but we strive to be better, for own sake, and for the world. As ours is a Christian church, we follow the path of God as Jesus walked it.In our worship and ethos, we share much with other Christian churches, and yet we have ways that distinguish us from other churches. It would be wrong of us to say that we practice our distinctives perfectly, or that our ways are necessarily better than others’, but we have felt the lure of God, through the Bible, community tradition, reasoned inquiry, and personal experience. It leads us to trust certain ways over other ways towards, we trust, that kind of total community Jesus called “the Kingdom of God,” which is no far-off, heavenly unreality, but instead the joy which we carry in our lives.
The human race is one family. “All men are brothers,” as the saying goes, and all women, too, are sisters. As we come to feel and know that love draws us together, we see that we are of equal worth, with common needs and a common future. We politely disagree with those who say that one faith puts us at an advantage over others. Indeed, how could we hear Jesus, who accepted all, and expressed love for all, and then believe that one person’s opinion about him raises some over others? And if we trust that we are of equal concern to “the Source of all things,” then we can act without fear to express that same concern and care among the living. The Universalist commitment to social ministry and equity comes from our shared theology. It is a practical ethic we can take into our homes, our neighborhoods and workplaces, and share eventually with the whole world.
This is an open invitation to explore this faith. This is not simply an invitation to the people visiting here for the first time, or for the first few times, but for all of those who make this kind of faith their polar star.