Tag Archives: Universalism

Finding Grace

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 22 May 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)


The worship theme here at Throop Church for the month of May is grace. At the beginning of the month we heard Lynn Sexton speak of grace as “ease, help, kindness, and thoughtfulness,” and as a treasure we must learn to accept, and to bestow. Two weeks ago, Reverend Tera asked us to reflect on how well we are able to receive gifts with gratitude and grace; and last week she spoke of grace-filled leadership, grounded in relationship, covenant, and accountability. Just a moment ago we saw a live demonstration of one form of grace!1

Today I also will speak of grace — but I would like to use this exploration of grace as an example of an evolution of ideas. Unitarian Universalism today is a faith tradition that includes people with many different beliefs. We say that our faith draws on a number of sources: direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder; words and deeds of prophetic people throughout history; wisdom from the world’s religions; Jewish and Christian teachings that call on us to love our neighbors as ourselves; humanist teachings that counsel us to trust also in reason and science; and Earth-centered traditions that celebrate the circle of life and the rhythms of nature.

The religious meaning of grace is centered in a very Christian tradition. But I, as a humanist, have found meaning in the concept.

Is this a paradox? Well, this congregation was founded in 1886 by Universalists — Christians who believed in a loving God who finds worth in every person. They built this sanctuary in 1923, and thought it fitting to place images of Jesus and Mary and John the Evangelist and two archangels above the chancel. And yet now, today, here we are gathered — people with many beliefs; with a humanist at the pulpit; in front of these images that represent one strand of our spiritual history.

This is a paradox. And it is who we are.


So what is the Christian conception of grace? For most Christians, grace is God’s gift to humanity of love, mercy, and salvation; it’s a magnanimous gift, given to us despite our flaws.

Catholics believe that God’s grace was granted to people through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, and that people are free to accept or decline this gift of grace. The Calvinist conception of grace is different: it is a gift one cannot refuse. At the beginning of time, God granted grace to a select group — the elect — and no matter what they do while they are on this Earth, the elect will go to heaven. And, likewise, no matter what the non-elect do — no matter whether they devote their lives to good works, no matter how fervent their faith — they will not go to heaven.

Other versions of Protestantism have other variations of this belief. But the one common thread throughout them all is that grace is a gift that humans do not deserve. Whether because of original sin or because of humanity’s total depravity, we do not deserve God’s gift of salvation.

So that’s the definition we’re starting from:

Grace is the gift from God of salvation, which we do not deserve.

How might that definition be adapted to be more meaningful to more of us?


Before we continue to explore this, I’d like to say something about an interesting twist to the “we are undeserving” aspect of grace, relating to the history of Universalism in America.

Most of the early American Universalists were Calvinists; they did believe that God had divided people up into the elect and the non-elect. But the Universalists differed from most Calvinists, because they believed that nobody belonged to the group of non-elect people… they believed that everyone is elect.

And for some Universalists, this idea came from their own sense of feeling undeserving of grace. This was the case, for example, for George de Benneville, a Universalist of French descent who came to America in 1741, after facing religious persecution in Europe. When he was young, de Benneville had a vision of himself burning in hell, because of what he perceived to be his sins, sins he described as “too many and too great to be forgiven.” But later on in life he had another vision, of Christ praying for his soul, and he became convinced that he was saved by grace. He wrote:

[…] having myself been the chief of sinners, and God […] had granted me mercy and the pardon of all my sins, and plucked me as a brand out of Hell, I could not have a doubt but the whole world would be saved by the same power.

In other words: “I was a really rotten guy, and if God has saved me, he must have saved everyone!”

The Universalists took the idea that “we are not worthy”, and viewed it as “we are all equally worthy”, and then deduced that “if some of us are saved, we all are.”


So. Back to grace. Our first definition is that

Grace is the gift from God of salvation, which we do not deserve.

Now, my personal humanistic theology doesn’t include the ideas of God, or of salvation in this sense. So the first step in my personal evolution of the idea of grace changes this definition to be

Grace is a life-changing gift that we do not deserve.

While we sit and ponder whether that might be a good definition, let me ask another question:


Do people ever get what they deserve?

It’s a very compelling idea to believe that they do. And most societies are structured so that people who break the rules will get a comeuppance. But sometimes people do seem to get away with things, and that can be very frustrating.

Our desire for justice can fit into our religious beliefs. For example, in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, there is the idea of karma. The specific beliefs about karma vary among these faiths, but the general idea is that consequences flow from actions. It’s not that some god is sitting in judgement of your actions and dealing out rewards and punishments; it’s that the actions themselves lead to positive or negative outcomes. So, for example, if you constantly lie to other people, you may lose your ability to trust others, or even to trust yourself. I have heard this expressed as “you are not punished for your sins, you are punished by them.”2

Of course, sometimes the outcomes of your actions do not become apparent in your present lifetime; and, likewise, sometimes outcomes in your present lifetime are due to actions from previous lives, according to this philosophy.

This is in contrast to Judaism and Christianity, where an all-seeing God judges, and inflicts consequences, either in this life, or — in Christianity — in an afterlife.

These ideas fit in well with our innate desire for justice. But there is a darker side to thinking that people get what they deserve. When you hear of something bad happening to someone — a car accident, or an illness — do you ever find yourself thinking of reasons why the same thing won’t happen to you? “Oh, they must have been texting while driving.” Or, “I would never walk in a neighborhood like that at night.” Or, “Of course he got cancer; have you seen what he eats?”

I can feel this urge in myself. It’s an urge of denial. It’s not wanting to face the fact that sometimes completely random events beyond our control can completely upset our lives. It’s too frightening to consider the drunk driver crossing over the median and heading right towards us; too frightening to consider the randomness of illness. This is one reason why people think that it is safer to drive than to fly, even though by many measures it is not; with driving, there is an illusion that you have complete control; you’re holding onto the steering wheel, aren’t you?

So I distrust the idea of people “getting what they deserve” in some cosmic sense. And it’s for that reason that in my own mind, I modify the definition of grace. Instead of

Grace is a life-changing gift that we do not deserve,

how about

Grace is a life-changing gift that we were not guaranteed.


Now that brings in the concept of contingency — the idea that things could be otherwise than they are.

Jane Kenyon wrote a poem called Otherwise3:

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.


Grace is a life-changing gift that we were not guaranteed.

That feels like a definition that resonates with me.

Grace is a life-changing gift that could have been otherwise.

I think of good things in my life — of loved ones, of friends — and even though I work to make those relationships strong, there are so many random elements, so many ways that things could have been otherwise, despite all my efforts. If you’re willing, think for a moment of your own life, of a friend, of a partner, of a job you love, of a community that supports you. And think of how your life need not have included that friend, that partner, that job, that community, if things had been different. Grace.


Just over a year ago, Reverend Tera messaged me on Facebook, and asked me — out of the blue — what my plans for a ministerial internship were. I hadn’t even started thinking of internships; I had expected that I would have to wait at least a year, and maybe two, before figuring out how to fit one into my life. But Tera said that Throop was ready for a part-time two-year intern.

I talked with my wife, and we weighed the pros and cons. It was not a slam-dunk decision. We had to figure whether a crazy commute from San Diego would be sustainable. I had to arrange things with my employer. Even after my employer agreed to let me work at 60% time for two years, we had to deal with the indisputable mathematical fact that 60% time at my job and 50% time at an internship adds up to more time than there is. There are so many reasons why this internship might not have come about.

But it did come about. And now, in my life, I have this congregation, and all the people in it. Grace.

This is the last sermon I preach before taking the summer off. I will be here on Thursday for my usual weekday in the office, and I will be here next Sunday assisting with the service, but that’s it until September. I will miss you all, but during the summer I will rest, and do math, and take courses at seminary, and perform a wedding, and I will come back in the fall ready for a second, and even better, year with you.


I’d like to close with a story. The musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson tells of a time she was visiting her brother, an anthropologist, in a Tzotzil village in Mexico. She lived with the women of the village, and helped as best she could with their daily work. She says that the name they gave her — “Loscha” — means, roughly, “the ugly one with the jewels.”

Anderson says4:

Now ugly, OK, I was awfully tall by local standards. But what did they mean by the jewels? I didn’t find out what this meant until one night, when I was taking my contact lenses out, and — since I’d lost the case — I was carefully placing them on the sleeping shelf [in the yurt where everyone slept]; suddenly I noticed that everyone was staring at me and I realized that none of the Tzotzil had ever seen glasses, much less contacts, and that these were the jewels, the transparent, perfectly round, jewels that I carefully hid on the shelf at night and then put for safekeeping into my eyes every morning.

So I may have been ugly but so what? I had the Jewels.

Full fathom five thy father lies
Of his bones are coral made
Those are pearls that were his eyes
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.


May we all see with fresh eyes the grace that is in our lives, the jewels we may take for granted, that in some other universe we might not have.


Image credit: Detail of Botticelli’s Primavera, ca. 1482. Via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. In the form of dancers from the Lineage Dance Company, with whom we were sharing that day’s collection plate. 
  2. See the Fake Buddha Quote web site for a discussion of the provenance of this phrasing. Spoiler: It was not said by Buddha. 
  3. From Jane Kenyon, Otherwise: New and Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1996. Copyright 1996 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon. All rights reserved. Reproduced here by permission of Graywolf Press. For further permissions information, contact Permissions Department, Graywolf Press, 2402 University Ave., Ste. 203, St Paul, MN 55114. This poem also appears in Jane Kenyon’s Collected Poems, and was one of the poems selected for the Library of Congress’s Poetry 180: A Poem a Day for American High Schools
  4. Transcribed by the author from “The Ugly One with the Jewels”, from The Ugly One with the Jewels and Other Stories

Getting the Words Right

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 13 March 2016. Copyright 2016 by Everett Howe.)


Our worship theme for the month of March is evil. Last week, Reverend Tera began our exploration of this topic by recalling the relative innocence of American society in the 1990’s, and how much of that innocence was lost after the school shooting at Columbine, the painfully drawn-out Presidential election of 2000 and its troublesome resolution by the Supreme Court, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001… And she pointed out how Unitarian Universalists sometimes find it difficult to deal theologically with the concept of evil.

Today, I will focus on what I feel is sometimes a weakness of Unitarian Universalists, a weakness that can keep us from seeing evil, or from confronting it when we do see it: A love of words, and a belief that if we can just get the words right, goodness will follow.


But first, let me try to be clear about what I mean today when I speak of evil. Of course, theologians and philosophers have been discussing evil since forever. For philosophers who believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing, good and loving God, the problem is to explain how evil exists in the world. In this context, the evil that exists in the world is often taken to include natural phenomena like plagues, and catastrophic earthquakes and floods.

But I don’t think it makes sense to include natural disasters as examples of evil. Last week, Tera quoted the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote:

Evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of humanity, or the total order of the world.

Niebuhr refers to self-interest, and it seems to me that self-interest implies consciousness. I think that evil is something that people create. In interpersonal interactions, evil usually comes from one person putting too much value on their own desires and ignoring the humanity of others — it happens when people set aside or deny the inherent worth and dignity of every person. On the other hand, in interactions between humans and nature, evil can come from not recognizing the unique and precious circumstances that are necessary to create a living system in the world. So those two things are what I will mean today when I speak of evil.


As I mentioned, last week Tera spoke of the optimism of America in the 1990’s. There have been other times of optimism in America. Let me talk about one such time; let me speak for a moment about Universalism as it was a hundred years ago.

At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the meaning of ‘Universalism’ was undergoing a change. Originally, Universalists were Christians who denied the idea of eternal punishment; Universalists believed that Heaven was universal — open to everyone — although many of them believed that people would undergo some kind of temporary purgatory before being admitted there.

But gradually, Universalism came to mean something wider. Universalists were interested in finding the commonalities of all religion; they were interested in universal truths, so to speak. That is one reason why in 1900 Swami Vivekananda, a religious leader who tied Hindu thought to various Western ideas, was invited to speak here at First Universalist Parish, Pasadena.

Now, Clarence Skinner was a Universalist who was active in the first half of the twentieth century. He is widely regarded by historians to have been the most influential Universalist of his time. A little over a hundred years ago, he published a book called The Social Implications of Universalism.1

In the first chapter, he wrote:

Universalism meets the demands of the new age, because it is the product of those forces which created the new age. It does not send its roots down into a mediæval civilization, interpreting past history. […] Its theology expresses the modern conception of the nature of God and man. Its motive power arises out of the new humanism. […] It is the philosophy and the power which under one name or another the multitudes are laying hold upon to swing this old earth nearer to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is the religion of the people, for the people, by the people. It is the faith of the new world life, sweeping upward toward spiritual expression.

Now, that‘s optimism!

Skinner thought that Universalism would further science, and defeat tyranny. It would support equality under the law. It would create a new social order based on the theological idea that all people are essentially spiritual beings. Skinner wrote:

[This theology] would transform prison systems and shops. It would work its revolution in mine and mill. It would seize upon wars, despotisms, slaveries, and abolish them. It would beget itself in flesh and blood. It would be the most actual, astonishing and manifest fact in the world.

Skinner’s book is a remarkable document, and a quick read. I’ll link to it when I post this sermon on my blog.2 But once you have read it, and heard Skinner’s inspiring vision of a Universalism that will heal the world, you have to think:

He wrote the book in 1915.

1915.

Even as he was writing that Universalism “throbs with hope” and “believes in the world and in its potential goodness,” — even as he wrote those words, World War I had started in Europe. Nineteenth century battle strategies were meeting twentieth century technology, and the result was enormous suffering: trench warfare, the widespread use of machine guns, the introduction of mustard gas… all of this was starting at the very time Skinner was writing that “Never before have we had such basis for our hope that […] there shall be no more misery or sin.” In the 30 years immediately following the publication of Skinner’s book there were two world wars, bracketed by the genocide of the Armenians in the very year the book was published and the genocide of the Jews in the 1940’s.

Of course, hindsight is easy. All I really want to point out, here, is that while we are in the midst of events, it is easy to miss the evil around us; especially if it does not fit into our world view. Like Skinner, I too believe in “the world and its potential goodness” — and I think it is important to believe in this — but in order to address evil, we need to have both optimism, and realism — knowledge of what is really going on.


Let me tell you another story from about the same period of history, a story with a happy ending. It’s March, and March is Women’s History Month. Last year, when I visited Canada for a conference, I learned about an amazing historical event concerning women. Since schools in the United States usually don’t say too much about Canadian history, I’m going to trust that few of you have heard the story of the “Famous Five” — also known as the “Célèbres cinq”.

Some background:

The Canadian political system was set forth in the British North America Act of 1867, now known as the Constitution Act of 1867. Canada has a bicameral Parliament, consisting of the House of Commons and the Senate. People are elected to the House of Commons, but people are appointed to the Senate. Initially Senate appointments were for life, but now Senators must retire at age 75.

Senate appointments are made by the Governor General of Canada, but traditionally the Prime Minister suggests names to the Governor General. The British North America Act of 1867 says:

The Governor General shall from Time to Time, in the Queen’s Name, by Instrument under the Great Seal of Canada, summon qualified Persons to the Senate […].

Take note of that phrase “qualified persons”.

In 1916, Emily Murphy, a women’s rights activist in the Province of Alberta, was made the first female magistrate in the entire British Empire. On her first day on the job, a defense lawyer challenged her qualifications to be a magistrate. He said that women could not legally be magistrates. He based his objection on a forty-year-old common law ruling that had never been officially overturned: it said that “women are persons in matters of pains and penalties, but are not persons in matters of rights and privileges.” In other words, women are subject to all of the restrictions of the law, but get none of the benefits. Being a magistrate is a privilege, argued this lawyer, so Murphy, being a woman, could not legally be a magistrate.

The Supreme Court of the Province of Alberta disagreed with this argument and upheld Murphy’s appointment as a magistrate, but for Canada as a whole the question of whether women were persons was still undecided. Over the next few years, more and more citizens and organizations demanded that women’s names be put forward as appointees to the Senate, but it was not clear whether women could be legally appointed. Finally, in 1927, Murphy and four other women3 — all of them provincial legislators and activists — petitioned the government to have the Supreme Court of Canada settle the question. The government asked the court: “Does the word Persons in […] the British North America Act […] include female persons?”


Perhaps now would be a good time to recall the words of Frederick Douglass from today’s responsive reading: “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never did and it never will.”


In April 1928, the Supreme Court answered: Are women persons? No. No, the court said, women do not count as persons for the purposes of the British North America Act. The Court based this decision partly on the use of male pronouns elsewhere in the Act, and partly on the idea that the men who wrote the Act almost certainly did not intend the word ‘person’ to imply that women could be Senators.

But at that time, the Supreme Court was not the absolute final authority on such matters in Canada; there was still the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England. The five women appealed the supreme court’s decision, and in October 1929, the Privy Council reversed it.

The Council’s decision stated that:

[t]he exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barbarous than ours, but it must be remembered that the necessity of the times often forced on man customs which in later years were not necessary. […] Customs are apt to develop into traditions which are stronger than law and remain unchallenged long after the reason for them has disappeared.

This case — known as the “Persons Case” — had a tremendous influence on Canadian Constitutional law. It had the immediate effect of allowing women into the Senate. But it also established the so-called “living tree” doctrine, which says the constitution is a living document that must be interpreted in light of current circumstances.4


I love this story — both because it has a good ending, and because it demonstrates something important about words and about evil.

Unitarian Universalists have the reputation of caring a lot about words. We argue about how things should be phrased, and we seem to think that if we could just get the words right, then justice will follow.

The Persons Case show just how wrong this idea can be. The British North America Act of 1876 had perfectly fine words: Any “qualified person” could be appointed to the Senate. But even though the words were as clear as could be, justice was still not served, until a new principle of constitutional law was established.


Sometimes, like Clarence Skinner, we are blind to the evil around us.

Sometimes, we can be fooled into thinking that words alone are enough to prevent evil.

How can we maintain our awareness of evil? How can we be sure to take action against it, and not just speak against it?


A few minutes ago I described two types of evil: interpersonal evil, which comes from a person or a group denying the inherent worth and dignity of others; and evil against nature, which comes from a failure to acknowledge the complexity, uniqueness, and precariousness of natural systems.

At Throop Church, we have a significant focus on ecological issues; we have our Learning Garden, and we have the Thirty Days for the Earth celebration and commitment that starts next Sunday. Among other things, we will be working to get Pasadena to ban styrofoam.

What about social evils? We do have some people and groups working for economic justice — for getting a decent minimum wage in Pasadena, for example. But what other social issues? What about systemic racism? What about the social problems that might be hard for some of us to see, given our position in society? How do we awaken ourselves to these issues? And how do we “stay woke”?

I invite you to think about what social evils we might try harder to address. Talk with me, and with Reverend Tera; let us know what is on your mind.


Even though I walk through a dark and dreary land,
There is nothing that can shake me,
She has said She won’t forsake me,
I’m in her hand.
5

With our faith and our community behind us, we can learn to see the evil around us; we can speak out against it; and we can take action to prevent it.

May it be so. Blessed be. Amen.


Image credit: Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson of the Famous Five statue by Canadian artist Barbara Paterson, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Cropped. Used under CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Original here


  1. Here is a scanned reproduction of the book, and here is the text converted to HTML. 
  2. See the preceding footnote. Perhaps I should note that there are also some troubling aspects to Skinner’s book — for example, his casual embrace of eugenics. 
  3. Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie L. McClung, Louise C. McKinney, and Irene Parlby. 
  4. The Famous Five are certainly feminist heroes, but their legacy in other areas is mixed. See their group Wikipedia entry as well as their individual pages to learn more. 
  5. This is from Bobby McFerrin’s adaptation of the 23rd Psalm, whose lyrics were our reading before the sermon. 

Universalist Influences

(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 18 October 2015. Copyright 2015 by Everett Howe.)


(A general note on the sermons I post: While I do lightly edit them and add links and footnotes, they are still basically texts that I wrote with the intention of speaking. Therefore I sometimes use punctuation that is more appropriate for spoken language than for written language. Grammar, too, is different in practice for spoken language than for written language, so if something looks funny to you when you see it written here, try reading it out loud.)


As you may know, at Throop Church we have monthly worship themes. Sometimes these themes are overridden by the requirements of particular services — like the Blessing of the Animals service last week — but in general, there is supposed to be a common theme among the services each month. For the month of October, the theme is “Letting Go.” Now, the title of my sermon today is “Universalist Influences,” and you may well wonder what that will have to do with “Letting Go.” But really, this sermon will be about evolution. Not the evolution of species, but the evolution of ideas, the evolution of theologies — and this evolution involves a continual process of letting go of some old beliefs, and embracing some new ones.

What happens to our history when we let go of old ideas? What do we think of our forebears, when we have moved on from some of their ideas? I’ve spoken several times now from this pulpit, and each time I have brought my perspective as a humanist. As I have said, I am an atheist — by which I mean that I do not believe in anything that I would call “God.” And yet I specifically chose the first hymn we sang this morning — the hymn that begins “Unto thy temple, Lord, we come with thankful hearts to worship thee.”

What kind of evolution can happen that would lead an atheist to ask you to sing those words?


Universalism, of course, is part of the very foundation of our congregation in Pasadena. In 1885, the Universalist minister Caroline Soule held services in Pasadena. In the following year, the Universalist minister Florence Kollock, who was vacationing in California, also preached in Pasadena. Under the guidance of Kollock and our namesake Amos G. Throop, this church was founded as the First Universalist Parish of Pasadena. As far as the State of California is concerned, that is still our name — the First Universalist Parish of Pasadena — although we are “doing business as” Throop Memorial Church and Throop Unitarian Universalist Church.

So what does “Universalist” mean? Those of you who already know this, forgive me — but let me review some history and theology.

When America was founded, the religious elite were mostly Calvinists. One of the basic ideas of Calvinism is that there are two types of people; the “elect,” who will go to heaven, and everyone else, who will not. But the interesting thing is that the determination of whether or not you are one of the elect? Calvinists believed that that decision was made at the beginning of time; it has nothing at all to do with how you behave here on Earth.

For many people nowadays, this theology is surprising. Whether or not you go to Heaven has nothing at all to do with how you behave on Earth? What would motivate a Calvinist to behave well?

Of course, one response — which, as a humanist, I prefer — is that people’s morals are not determined by what they hope or fear for their afterlife. But there’s a psychological motivation that came into play as well. If you were a Calvinist, you really, really hoped that you were one of the elect, one of the people who will go to heaven. You would be looking for signs that somehow indicated this. You might think: How would one of the elect behave? You might think: If I were one of the elect, I would probably behave well; I would probably tithe to my church, and help the poor, and contribute to my community, and do well by my family. And since you really, really hoped you were one of the elect, you would do the things that you thought would confirm this hypothesis.

Now, who were the Universalists? One strand of Universalism was grounded in Calvinism. These Universalists also believed in the idea of the “elect” — they also believed that there are two types of people, those who would go to Heaven, and those who would not — except that they believed that everyone was in the first group. These Universalists could not believe that a loving God would make some of His children suffer for all eternity in Hell.

The name “Universalist” comes from this belief: the belief in universal salvation — the belief that everyone will go to Heaven.

Everyone will go to Heaven… eventually. Universalists in the 18th and 19th centuries had various beliefs about purgatory. Some believed that people would have to suffer some amount of time to “pay for” their sins on Earth before they would be allowed into Heaven. Some Universalists — called “Restorationists” — believed that people would continue to suffer until they were reconciled with God, but that as soon as they were reconciled, they would go to Heaven. And some Universalists, sometimes called the “ultra”-Universalists, denied the whole idea of “paying for one’s sins” in the afterlife; they denied some of the basic tenets of Calvinism.

Oh, by the way: All of this was viewed as heresy by the mainstream churches in America. Even many Unitarians, who felt some sympathy for the Universalists, wanted to keep their distance, for fear of giving their theological adversaries yet another heresy to accuse them of.

For example, in his autobiography, 1 Adin Ballou, a Restorationist (and a younger cousin of the ultra-Universalist Hosea Ballou), wrote about his own installation in 1832 as minister of First Church and Congregation in Mendon, Massachusetts, about 30 miles outside Boston. Among the ministers participating in Ballou’s installation were four Restorationists and four Unitarians. Ballou wrote:

In those days it required no little moral courage for Rev. Mr. Whitman and his Unitarian brethren to unite with the Restorationists in a public religious service like that of my installation.

Writing nearly sixty years after the event, Ballou recognized the courage shown by the Unitarian ministers who attended, but also mocked the prejudices of some of their brethren. Speaking of Unitarians in general, he wrote:

The Unitarians were largely a well educated class of people, and nursed the pride of having a highly educated ministry. But the Restorationists, tried by their standard, were “unlearned and ignorant” — only a trifle better schooled, perhaps, than the humble Nazarene himself and his original twelve apostles, without a [Doctor of Divinity degree] among them, and little better than barbarians when compared with the graduates of Harvard College, and other polished literati. This was quite as objectionable to many of the “grave and reverend seigniors” of the denomination as our peculiar theology.

Some of these stereotypes about Unitarians and Universalists are still with us today!

In the early 20th century, the meaning of Universalism widened — for some, it referred to the idea that there is some kind of universal religion; that religions that are different in their particulars are somehow trying to explain or understand or live with the same ultimate truth — the idea that we would now express with the image of different people feeling the elephant in the dark room, or with the expression “one light, many windows.” This widened view of Universalism is why, for example, Swami Vivekananda — a Hindu religious leader who had been a sensation at the World Parliament of Religion in 1893 — was welcomed in 1900 as a speaker at both Throop Church 2 and at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland. 3


But how is all of this theology relevant to us today? What are some of its influences?

Let me quote Benjamin Rush, one of the founders of the United States — a member of the Continental Congress, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and a Universalist. He wrote: 4

A belief in God’s universal love to all his creatures, and that he will finally restore all those of them that are miserable to happiness, is a polar truth. It leads to truths upon all subjects, more especially upon the subject of government. It establishes the equality of mankind — it abolishes the punishment of death for any crime — and converts jails into houses of repentance and reformation.

Rush’s writing 200 years ago sounds a lot like what Marilynne Robinson said just last month, in the quote I gave as today’s reading: 5

I believe that people are images of God. There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. […] It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level.

The Unitarian Universalist blogger Doug Muder, in a sermon on “Universalism, Politics, and Evil” delivered earlier this year at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois, expands on this idea:

The political upshot of Universalism — which continues in Unitarian Universalism today, even among those of us who don’t believe in God or the afterlife any more — is that since God isn’t writing anybody off, we don’t get to either. We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone, to picture them not as damned or evil or inconsequential, but as people deserving of the same kind of consideration we would like to claim for ourselves.

We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone.” This is not an easy thing to do, but I think it is an important thing to try, even though we are bound to fail. It calls us to remember that even people who we dislike, people who do things that are undeniably evil, are human. It doesn’t mean that we should excuse people for misdeeds — people should be held responsible for their actions — but we need a vision of humanity that includes our failings, and that recognizes that these failings occur in every one of us, to some extent.

We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone.” We are tempted so often to not do this; we are tempted by all of the discourse around us to view so many people as less than human. People who are not like us; people who speak a different language; people whose culture is not our own; people in other political parties; people who disagree with us on moral issues.

We are obligated to try to imagine the full humanity of everyone.” For me, there is a certain political figure who stands out as a particular challenge here. Someone who I think has done great harm, who has damaged institutions I hold dear, who has helped make incredibly bad decisions. [I won’t say who this is, because it doesn’t matter — I’m sure we all have someone we can think of who plays this role for us.] I try to imagine the full humanity of this person, and frankly it is difficult. But I need to keep this in mind, even as I work against policies that this person and others have put in place.


Here is a question: Do Unitarian Universalists believe in equality? You can conduct an experiment during coffee hour, and ask this of the friend sitting next to you. I have not done the experiment myself yet, but here’s a prediction. If you ask a Unitarian Universalist whether they believe in equality, there’s a 95 percent chance that one of two things will happen: Either they will say “yes,” or you will find yourself in a 20-minute discussion of “what does equality mean, anyway?”… and then they will say “yes.”

If we believe in equality, where can we find it in the list of seven UU principles?

The second principle speaks of equity, but equity and equality are not the same thing.

It is my belief that equality appears in the first principle: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.

Where did the first principle come from? The Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961 with the merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Originally, the UUA had a list of six principles. One of them begins:

The members of the UUA unite to affirm, defend, and promote the supreme worth of every human personality.

Here’s one thing among many to notice: The word supreme. I haven’t yet read the records of the time that explain how this principle evolved into what is now our first principle, but I can imagine many reasons for wanting to remove the word “supreme;” for example, it represents a very human-centered view of the universe.

But I think there was an unintended consequence of removing the word “supreme”. The idea is that if I have supreme worth, and you have supreme worth, then we both have equal worth. This is the equality that Benjamin Rush speaks of as a consequence of Universalism; this is the equality that Thomas Jefferson expresses, imperfectly, as “all men are created equal”; this is the equality that I struggle with when I think of certain people; this is the equality that I must struggle with, the equality that is at the foundation of my religious belief.

Removing the word “supreme” has made this concept of equality much less explicit, but I think that it is still there in our first principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It’s not that we all have worth and dignity but some of us get more of it than others; it’s that, as the Universalists would have it, we are all equal in the eyes of God.


Why did this service start with hymn #35? Not because of the first verse; but because of the second:

The common home of rich and poor,
Of bond and free, and great and small;
Large as thy love forevermore,
And warm and bright and good to all.

All humans are created equal.

May we have a Unitarian Universalism that is large enough to recognize and celebrate what we have in common with the Unitarian author 6 of that hymn; a Unitarian Universalism that allows us to open our service singing of a God that some of us have let go of, and close it in celebration of the Universalist love that still influences us.

Please rise, as you are willing and able, as we sing our closing hymn, “Standing on the Side of Love.”


  1. Completed by his son, based on notes he left at his death in 1890. 
  2. On the evening of January 28, speaking on “The Way to the Realization of a Universal Religion.” 
  3. He spoke seven times at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, in February, March, and April. 
  4. Quoted in David Robinson’s book The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985). 
  5. Which is from a fascinating conversation held between Robinson and President Barack Obama in Des Moines, Iowa, on 14 September 2015. For the reading, I gave a slightly longer excerpt. 
  6. The hymn “Unto Thy Temple, Lord, We Come” was written by Robert Collyer, who was a Unitarian, not a Universalist. He was known as “the Blacksmith Preacher” because earlier in his life he had been a blacksmith in England. He put an anvil in a place of honor in Unity Unitarian Church in Chicago (which he founded) because, it is said, he wanted to hammer out the truth as he had once hammered out horse shoes. He wrote “Unto Thy Temple” for the dedication of the building that housed Unity Church after the original church was destroyed by the great Chicago fire. Note that Unity Unitarian Church is now Second Unitarian Church of Chicago; the similarly-named Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Oak Park comes from the Universalist tradition.