Swaying the Future

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 25 September 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)


[Earlier in the service we had sung both Once to Every Soul and Nation and Building Bridges.]

Once to every soul and nation
   Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
   For the good or evil side…

We sang those words together just a few minutes ago. I don’t know how familiar most of you are with that hymn, but for some of you that may have been the first time you sang it, or the first time you’ve heard it.

The first time I sang that hymn was probably about 10 years ago. At that point I had not been a Unitarian Universalist for very long, but I remember thinking “That hymn is not like most of our hymns.” Our hymnal is full of songs about peace,1 and about reaching out — like Building Bridges, the meditation hymn we just sang. We’ve got hymns about recognizing how other nations are just as beautiful as ours, and have citizens just as patriotic as us.2 We’ve got hymns saying how we are stronger together.3 We’ve got songs of struggle and abiding hope, like We Shall Overcome, which speaks of the peace and freedom we shall one day have, after injustice has been defeated. And even our protest songs highlight our gentleness: Hymn #170 is We Are a Gentle, Angry People.

Once to Every Soul and Nation is not like that. Once to Every Soul and Nation says,

There is good, and there is evil. You have to decide, now, which side you are on. And by the way [says the hymn], most people have chosen evil; the people in power have chosen evil; and choosing good may lead to your death.

Those are stong words, and strong thoughts. Where did they come from? How does the hymn fit into Unitarian Universalist history? And how can this good-versus-evil worldview coexist with a Unitarian Universalist commitment to peace and understanding?


The easiest of those questions is “Where did these words come from?” It turns out that they came originally from an anti-slavery poem.

The 1840s were a contentious time in the United States. For years there had been political arguments about whether and how to annex the Republic of Texas. In 1845, on March 1, Congress passed a joint resolution saying that if Texas acted to meet certain conditions, it could be admitted into the Union as a state. The Republic of Texas took those actions, and on December 29, 1845, President James K. Polk signed legislation that formally admitted Texas into the United States. The resulting border dispute with Mexico was one of the causes of the U.S.–Mexico war of 1846–1848.

In the United States, the central conflict about whether to admit Texas to the Union was all about slavery. Texas would be admitted as a state in which slavery was legal, so its admission to the union gave more power to the pro-slavery faction in Congress.

In December 1845, in the midst of all of this controversy and just prior to the formal admission of Texas to the Union, James Russell Lowell wrote a poem that appeared in the Boston Courier.4 Lowell was a young man, the son of a Unitarian minister, and he had become active in abolitionist circles. His poem was titled “Verses Suggested by the Present Crisis,” but afterwards it became known simply as “The Present Crisis.”

The poem is somewhat long: 18 verses of 5 lines each. It begins by saying that when a deed is done for freedom, its effects are felt throughout the world, by everyone; and that likewise, when evil triumphs, that also is felt around the world, because all of humanity is connected in spirit. Then Lowell writes the words that open our hymn: “Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide.” Lowell says that there comes a time to choose between good and evil, and he asks his countrymen whether they have decided. He writes that when you look back over history, it is easy to see what the momentous issues and choices were, and that it is much harder to distinguish important moments as they are happening. But if you listen to your soul, he says, you will find that the question of slavery is one of those momentous issues, and that conscience calls us to abolish it. In the final few stanzas, he writes that instead of spending our time glorifying the freedom-fighters of the past, we should instead carry their spirit forward, and fight for freedom ourselves.


Lowell wrote his poem using mid-nineteenth century poetic language — of course! — and it takes a little effort for a modern reader to untangle the grammar and the allusions. But the ideas he expresses are completely relevant for today.

For example, consider the idea that it’s much easier to tell after the fact what was important, and who was right. And consider, to be specific, the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. Over the years, the Gallup organization has done several surveys in which they ask Americans for their opinion of Dr. King. I think you will not be surprised to find that in August 2011, 94% of Americans had a favorable view of Dr. King. In fact, 69% of Americans had a highly favorable view of him, versus only 1% with a highly unfavorable view.

So looking back, nearly a half-century after his death, we see Martin Luther King, Jr. as a prophet; a prophet who asked America to live up to its ideals; a prophet who stood for good when it was hard to do so.

But what about back then? In August 1966, Gallop asked the same question. And you might expect me now to tell you that Dr. King was a divisive figure in 1966. But you know, he wasn’t divisive. Because Americans mostly agreed; with a nearly two-to-one ratio, Americans had an unfavorable view of him. And nearly half the country — 44% — had a highly unfavorable view of him.

It’s much easier to tell in hindsight who had the moral high ground.5


Lowell’s poem was reprinted in other progressive newpapers in the weeks after its first appearance,6 but over the next few decades the complete poem was reprinted only now and then. However, one particular stanza got quoted a lot: the one that begins “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide…”. And in 1880, three Unitarian ministers took three stanzas of Lowell’s poem — including that one — edited them down to four lines each instead of five, and published them in a hymnal7 mostly used in the Western Unitarian Conference.

Here are the three verses of the original version of their hymn:

Once to every man and nation
   Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood,
   For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
   Offers each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
   ’Twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with Truth is noble
   When we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit
   And ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses,
   While the coward stands aside
Till the multitude make virtue
   Of the faith they had denied.

Though the cause of Evil prosper,
   Yet ’tis Truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
   And upon the throne be Wrong,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
   And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the Shadow,
   Keeping watch above his own!

“Yet that scaffold sways the future.” That is an incredibly powerful line. “Stand up for what is right,” says the hymn. “You may have to die for your beliefs, but your death will influence the future — a God of Justice will see to that!”8


So. That’s one way of looking at the world.

But our meditation hymn gives another way. What does it say?

Building bridges between our divisions,
I reach out to you, will you reach out to me?
With all of our voices and all of our visions,
Friends, we could make such sweet harmony.

This song came from the early years of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, an anti-war protest in England that lasted from 1982 until 2000, originally motivated by the arrival of cruise missiles at an air force base there. The words suggest a different way of effecting change — of working with people you disagree with.


What are the strengths and weaknesses of these two approaches to changing the world — the good-versus-evil, no-compromise approach, and the building bridges approach?

The good-versus-evil approach of Once to Every Soul and Nation provides a very clear sense of purpose: You know what you stand for, and you know that you will not compromise. This clarity can get people to take action, to get off their couches and into the streets.

But it has weaknesses too. For one thing, movements based on this good-and-evil worldview can degenerate into exercises in purity. People can be excluded from leadership if they show any sympathy for positions held by the other side. The good-and-evil worldview tends not to admit doubt, and it can lead to a form of self-delusion: Because we are extreme and unpopular, we must be right. In the end, both sides of the argument can end up holding the most extreme versions of their positions, and moderates are forced out.

And if your side accepts no compromises, and the other side accepts no compromises, and you both have moved towards exteme positions… Then what?9 You’ll either have a stalemate, or you will have to fight. And it’s easy to think that, OK, we’ll fight, and maybe our side will win, but then the question will be decided and then everything will be set right. But it’s easy to underestimate the cost of the fight, and to overestimate the extent of the eventual victory. Here’s an enlightening example of someone who changed her mind about the good-versus-evil approach.

In 1861, Julia Ward Howe wrote a hymn in support of the Union forces in the civil war. I bet most of you are familiar with it. It begins,

Mine eyes have seen the glory
   Of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage
   Where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning
   Of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

You may not be as familiar with the other verses. In fact, the final verse contains an image that is so powerful and so disturbing that most modern versions of the song either skip this verse or change the words.10 It goes:

In the beauty of the lilies
   Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom
   That transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy,
   Let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

“As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” In 1861 that was not just a figure of speech! It makes me think: Going to church in the nineteenth century must have been intense.

But just nine years later, Julia Ward Howe wrote something completely opposed to her hymn. In her Mother’s Day Proclamation of September 1870, she wrote:

Arise, all women who have hearts[…]! Say firmly: […] Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. […] From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: Disarm, disarm!

What happened in the nine years between “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” and “Disarm!”? What made her change her mind? Well, for one thing over a million people were killed in the civil war, more Americans than have been killed in all our other wars combined. That’s not to say that slavery wasn’t worth fighting over; it’s just to say that wars often end up being worse than we imagine — a lesson we apparently have still not learned.


So those are some strengths and weaknesses of the good-versus-evil approach. What about the Building Bridges approach? What about an approach that works within an existing system, and uses compromise?

One of the strengths is that progress can come slowly but regularly. The possibility of reconciliation between the two sides is left open. People on both sides of a question can learn to trust one another through small actions; they can find common ground, and then work outward to solve larger problems.

But there are weaknesses too. For one thing, compromise only works if both sides are willing to do it. And a commitment to working within the system can lead to complacency; it’s the apocryphal “frog in a pot of warm water” problem. Just as the frog does not notice the temperature rising, you may become so entrenched in the system that you can’t see how broken it has become.


I think we’ve answered the second question I asked at the beginning — how this hymn fits into Unitarian Universalist history. What about the third question? How does the good-versus-evil worldview of Once to Every Soul and Nation fit in with Unitarian Universalist values?

Clearly, based on our hymns, we are uncomfortable with the fit. And I have no good answer to give you, other than these thoughts:

▸ The prophetic good-versus-evil approach works best in combination with working within the system, and finding compromises. Civil rights legislation was passed because of the public pressure of the civil rights marches and protests. But while the marchers were marching, people were preparing the legislation that was needed to push the nation forward.

▸ I think that our Unitarian Universalist values demand that when we take a prophetic good-versus-evil approach, we need to at least be aware of the risks and downsides of that approach.


Here is my request of you: Throughout the week, reflect — In what situations do you try to work within the system to fix things bit by bit, and in what situations do you say the system is broken and work to replace it? Do you tend to do one more than the other? What does that say about you?

A few months ago I asked a version of this question of my congressional representative. “How do you decide when to work across the aisle and compromise, and when to hold fast to a principle?” What would your member of congress say? What would you want them to say?


There is still so much systemic oppression in the world, in our own society.11 At some point, I hope that you will think of Lowell’s words:
Once to every soul and nation comes the moment to decide, in the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side. And I hope that you will let that question stir you to action — thoughtfully, responsibly, powerfully — as a Unitarian Universalist.


Image credit: Our Banner in the Sky, by Frederic Edwin Church. More information here.


  1. Like #160, Far Too Long by Fear Divided
  2. Like #159, This Is My Song
  3. Like #157, Step by Step the Longest March
  4. I have not been able to access a copy of the newspaper to verify this. However, the reprint of the poem in the memoirs of the Boston Courier‘s editor indicates it was published there on Thursday, December 11, 1845, and this is consistent with other sources (see below). 
  5. I admit, this may be a tautology. Who we are, and what we view as right, depends to some extent on who won moral victories in the past. 
  6. For instance, on Friday, December 19, 1845, one week after it was printed in the Boston Courier, it appeared on the back page of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. A few weeks later, on Saturday, January 10, 1846, it appeared in The Harbinger, the publication of the Transcendentalist utopian community Brook Farm, which at that point was a Fourierist “phalanx”. 
  7. Unity Hymns and Chorals for the Congregation and the Home, edited by William Channing Gannett, James Vila Blake, and Frederick Lucian Hosmer. See hymn #68, “The Choice”. 
  8. If the hymn is not strong enough for you as the Unitarians wrote it, you might consider the verse (also taken from Lowell’s poem) that the Anglicans added to the hymn around the turn of the century: By the light of burning martyrs Jesus’ bleeding feet I track, Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back; New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth; They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth. 
  9. Here is a beautiful, but meaningless, historical accident that illustrates the idea that our opponents can take good-versus-evil no-compromise positions just as we can. We sing Once to Every Soul and Nation to a wonderful Welsh tune called ‘Ebenezer’ (or ‘Ton Y Botel’), but that tune was first associated to the hymn in 1916, as far as I can tell. Before 1916, the words were sung to other tunes. In 1913, in an updated version of the hymnal in which Once to Every Soul and Nation first appeared, two other tunes were suggested for the hymn. One of them is the melody for Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles. So the anti-slavery words were sung to a tune that many Americans associate with Nazi aggression. 
  10. Here are the original words, from the February 1862 Atlantic Monthly
  11. One form that is on the minds of many people: In the week preceding the delivery of this sermon, Keith Scott was killed in Charlotte and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa. In the week after, Alfred Olango was killed in El Cajon, California, minutes from my home, and Reginald Thomas, Jr. in Pasadena, minutes from our church. 

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