Universalism for Such a Time As This


We are in the midst of a struggle for the moral center of our society. A struggle much like the one 200 years ago when Universalism arose in response to deep societal conflict. Ours is a tenacious, courageous and hopeful faith, one for such a time as this. Come to renew your courage and your hope.

Reading One: “One Man’s Vision and the Birth of Universalism”

On Sept 30 1770, the first Universalist sermon was preached in this country by the most reluctant preacher. In a story that suggests divine providence, the preacher, John Murray landed in what is today Murray Grove New Jersey after the ship that was to deliver him to New York City grounded off the coast. John Murray remembers the day, the water smooth, passage pleasant, when a dense fog rolled up and a sloop sailed nearby. We asked “how many miles to Sandy Hook?” Seventy was the answer, but seven was what was heard, the crew tacked, and the vessel promptly struck upon the bar. The captain, offloaded some cargo to the sloop, and asked me to be the person to be its guard. The plan was if in the morning the boat unlodged, the sloop would follow. Morning came, the boat was gone, and just as the sloop was preparing to leave, the wind shifted, leaving us in the bay. Stranded I went off looking for food. The owner of a tavern nearby, Thomas Potter welcomed me and said “my friend, I have longed to see you, I have been expecting you a long time.” Amazed, I said “What do you mean?”

Potter goes on to say “I am unable to read and write, but I am capable of reflection, the sacred Scriptures have been often read to me and from what I gather, there is a great and good being to whom we are indebted for all we enjoy. So I decided to build a meeting house in the woods in gratitude for all that I have been given. When my neighbors asked “who will be your preacher, I told them God would send me one, and of a very different stamp from those who have heretofore preached in these parts.” Potter goes on to say, “ Baptists, Quakers and Presbyterians all applied, but said “No, as I firmly believe, that all people are equally dear to God, and so shall all be equally welcome to preach in this meeting house which I built.”

Potter looks at John as says, “The moment I beheld your vessel on shore, it seemed as if a voice had audibly sounded in my ear. “There Potter in that vessel, cast away on that shore is the preacher you have been so long expecting.”

Now John Murray was understandably astonished for in Europe he had been a minister and recently converted to Universalism. Shortly after the death of his wife and other family tragedies, he sailed to America to start anew, promising never to preach again. Thomas Potter sensed he had been preacher and asked “Has not god lifted up the light of his countenance upon you? Has he not shown you his truth?”

John, nodded “I trust he has”

Potter said “how dare you hide this truth? Do men light a candle to put it under a bushel?”

In one last effort to absolve himself of preaching, John reminded Potter that he was responsible for valuable cargo and as soon as the wind shifts, he would have to go.
Potter said confidently “The wind will never change sir until you have delivered to us in that meeting house, a message from God.”

John had a sleepless few nights, for he knew how Universalist preachers had been treated in England and he was sure the same hardship would befall him. He writes “One moment my resolution to refuse would give way, and the path seem to brighten before me, and the next, the difficulties from within and without obscured the prospect, and I relapsed into a firm resolution to shelter myself in solitude from the hopes, and fears, and contentions of humanity.”

But the wind didn’t change And so he preached that Sunday, Sept 30 1770, a day for Thomas Potter that was the happiest day of his life, and as for John, after the service he ran and fell before the thrown of grace, pledging his life to the loving God he knew, feeling both relieved and tranquil for he had power given to him to trust , and to stay upon what he knew to be true of salvation.

He went on to preach in new York and in Boston often at great personal risk. Once preaching to a large crowd in Boston, he recalls how “at length a large rugged stone, weighing about a pound and a half was forcibly thrown in at the window behind my back, it missed. Had it sped as it was aimed, it must have killed me. Lifting it up, in the view of the people I observed, “This argument is sold and weighty , but it is neither rational nor convincing.” He eventually served the congregation in Gloucester which paved the way for the state recognition of Universalist churches and he was as well a chaplain to General Washington troops in the Rev War. He brought the light of love to the darkness of his day. His courage, his call, and his conviction inspire us to do the same.
Source: A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism: Volume One, From the Beginning to 1899

Reading Two: “Imagining Salvation” by Rev. Rebecca Parker

Some people imagine salvation as personal escape from divine punishment in hell. Rescued by belief in Christ’s sacrificial death, the saved look forward to eternal life in heaven.

Others imagine salvation in social and worldly terms such as the realization of racial harmony and justice, the alleviation of poverty and the end of war. The liberation of the oppressed and the overthrow of tyrants and unjust structures of power are accomplished through acts of nonviolence guided by the teachings of sages that came before us, all whom teach the promise of God’s salvation can be realized now.

Another vision of salvation goes beyond hope for either heavenly reward or earthly success. It recognizes salvation as the gift of full aliveness, here and now, the restored and enlivened capacity to be in the world with wisdom. Such wisdom is not a personal accomplishment but an achievement together in human communities that foster astute attention to life in the present, that celebrate beauty and goodness, and that resist evil. In this third vision, salvation is fully arriving in this life, turning our faces toward its complex realities and engaging our whole being in creative compassionate loving interactions with what is at hand. Salvation is not something one possesses individually, it is something one participates in communally, including with those who have come before. “Do you want to know how I believe we are saved?” My grandmother once asked me. “We are saved by the communion of saints. They shelter us, and we have the opportunity to be in their number now.”
Source: A House of Hope

The Sermon

As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t talk about salvation much but back in the day, our ancestors did. Our Unitarian ancestors talked at length about getting right with God by what they did, they believed in faith by character. Our Universalist ancestors, rocked the theological world by saying God loves everyone no matter what. Because of our Universalist influence, we today open our worship “Love is the spirit of this church.” I am heavily invested in the second more unitarian vision of salvation, the one in which we work to dismantle unjust systems of power. But sometimes the vision doesn’t sustain me. Especially when life gets hard. When what I hear and see breaks my heart. Then I turn to the third more universalist vision that finds salvation in the ways in which we communally hold the complexities of life, affirming beauty and the power of love to resist evil. For it seems like is a new crisis roiling our nation nearly every day, a new allegation of corruption, a new wave of repression at our border, violence in our common spaces, another nod to white nationalism or blatant misogyny. The congressional hearing for the supreme court nomination being the latest. Heartbreaking on so many levels. I have listened to some of your stories and my heart breaks not only for the pain of so many for whom this hearing triggered personal trauma, but also for the heartbreak of when what you trust fails you. When the body that we elected so utterly fails to hold values that place our humanity front and center. And who if not them will uphold these values? Perhaps it is us, perhaps it is left to us to live and lift up the preciousness of our humanity.

It’s not just the failure of our elected officials, I’m also talking about the hate groups that have made their way into mainstream politics. The Southern Poverty Law Center is tracking 100 federal candidates in 40 states who either hold extremist beliefs or have documented connections to extremist groups.1 I read in this month’s Atlantic Magazine that scholars are beginning to wonder if democracy is dead, citing that too many people have simply gotten out of the habit of democracy. In 2011, nearly 25 percent of millennials polled by Gallup said democracy was bad or very bad way to run a country.2 But what concerns me the most is the tribalism in our protests, that we see each other as the enemy. This breaks my heart too. Erza Klein of Vox says that by 2045 non-Latino whites will be the minority in this country and “how one feels about America’s growing diversity is at the very center of our political and cultural divide.” Professors at both Yale and Harvard have documented how when white American’s hear about the majority/minority shift or when they are gently exposed to diversity, their views shift towards conservative anti-immigration agendas.3

In the past the vision of our democracy as expressed by our elected officials has sustained me. But Historian Yuval Noah Harai says the once global vision of liberal democracy, human rights, free markets and welfare services has been replaced at our federal level intentionally by nihilism.4 Lacking a unifying vision, racist policies flourish unabated and disenfranchised people blame each other for their injustices. You are probably wondering to yourself now where is the hope? I am going to switch gears on you now. Bear with me-

In the Hebrew Scriptures there is a story told, not based on an actual historical event, but a story meant to illustrate how the righteous are able to defeat evil. The righteous person in this story is Esther, the queen of Persia, who, unbeknownst to her husband, is a Jew. The evil person is Haman, the King’s Prime Minister, who persuades the king to issue an edict stating that all the Jews in the land are to be killed. When this edict becomes known, the people tear their clothes and the sound of great weeping and wailing is heard throughout the kingdom. Esther hears this and wonders what is happening, so she sends a message to her Uncle Mordecai. He replies by sending her a copy of the king’s decree and tells her that she must go to the king and plead with him to change his mind and save her people. But Esther is afraid and sends the following message back to Mordecai:

(Esther 4: 11-14) “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that if any man or woman goes to the king inside the inner court without being called, there is but one law: all alike are to be put to death, except the one to whom the king holds out the golden scepter that he may live. And I have not been called to come in to the king these thirty days.” And when the messengers told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to return to Esther and say, “Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” Esther’s inclination was to maintain a low profile, keep her mouth shut. But Mordecai reminds her that she won’t be able to remain hidden. She will surely perish. And besides, he says, perhaps this is the reason why fate has decreed that she be queen of Persia—so that she would be there for such a time as this. In the story, Esther does gather up the courage to intervene with the king and she ends up saving her people. It is the evil Haman and his ten sons who perish instead.

When we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Universalism in this country in 1990, a time when radical hate groups were growing in prominence, the theme that was used was drawn from this story of Esther: “Universalism: For Such a Time As This.” Back in day of the American Revolution, Universalism arose in a time of deep societal conflict. A time when the grim doctrines of 18th Century Calvinist Puritanism justified social inequities in the terms of sin and in the name of God. Universalism’s life blood was the spiritual insistence that evil and pain we see in our world need not be a permanent and pervasive part of the human condition. The early Universalists dreamed a larger hope and passionately believed the natural inclination of God, humanity, creation itself is toward the good. To many in the new nation, the idea that some had been elected by God to be saved and everyone else was condemned just didn’t fit in this new democracy where all men (white men that is ) were equal. To the Calvinists, this doctrine was devilish. For if there is no hell, there is no punishment and if there’s no punishment then there’s no reason to fear, and thus no reason not to sin. One of my favorite stories is about Hosea Ballou one of the greatest Universalist preachers of the 19th century. It is said that one day when he was out riding his preaching circuit he was accompanied by an itinerant Baptist preacher and as they rode together, they argued theology. At one point the Baptist preacher said “Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist, and feared not the fires of Hell, I’d hit you over the head and steal your horse and saddle. Hosea Ballou looked at him and replied, “My brother, if you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you!”

There is no question people were thirsty for the Good news of Universalism back then, for in the 1840’s it was the 6th largest denomination. But what of now? We seldom preach about God being a loving God instead of that angry judgmental one of the Calvinists. We tend to preach today in ways in which we are all ultimately connected and that somehow we need to find ways in which to overcome the divisions among us. We preach respect for the differences among us, that truth is to be found in many places, and that what we believe is grounded in the lens through which we view life itself and that a loving heart is what we should strive towards.
I had lunch last week with my mentor, Carol Rosine. She is being treated for lung cancer and every moment with her is precious. We were talking about Universalism and she said to me and I am paraphrasing “You know, there can be a dark side to all of this respect, love, and basic kindness, because sometimes our hope to be this good, can paralyze us, prevent us from speaking out or acting when confronted with those spewing something very different.” And she is right. As early as 1845, when asked to sign a protest against slavery 300 of 666 Universalist ministers refused to do so believing that as large shares of the population entered the domination they would adopt a personal philosophy of God’s love, a philosophy required before any social change.5

It is interesting that in the story of Esther and her Uncle Mordecai, God is not mentioned, which is unusual for the Hebrew Bible. God isn’t the one who threatened the Jews with death. The edict that they were all to be killed originated with an evil man, Haman. In the same way, it was not the intervention of God that prevented their death. It was the courageous action of Esther that accomplished that. God does not get the blame or the credit. The blame and the credit rests with the human characters instead. One lesson of the story is that if evil is to be defeated, it is up to those who are courageous enough to overcome their fear and confront evil head on.

It’s hard to listen to the story of Esther and not think of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and hope beyond hope for the same happy ending. Yet with the help of Wendell Berry I realize just by speaking she has saved so many of us, no matter what the outcome. Wendell Berry writes

“Protest that endures, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.” 6 A hope inspired by an abiding love that accepts the risks that come with an active commitment to the ancient covenants of life. Perhaps, this is the beginning of salvation, acting to preserve the qualities of heart that would be destroyed by our silence. Not a solo act, but one that we do communally. Kerry Alexander and I are taking one small act to preserve the qualities of our hearts by inviting women who need to share their stories, to find their voice, to join us this Thursday at 6:00 in my office. Healing is in the hearing.

Rev. Parker’s grandmother told us in our reading that we are sheltered by our universalist ancestors who believed in the relational power of creation, a love that holds all fears, a love that increases in power as we each of us open up to it, for none are saved until all are saved. This abiding love for others empowers us to accepts the risks that come with an active commitment to the ancient covenants of life. This is the power they brought to a nation just forming, Can we draw on their courage to make Universalism relevant for such a time as this, to bring hope to a people, and salvation to a nation of so worth saving?

1. [SPLC Report, Fall 2018]

2. [“Losing the Democratic Habit” by Yoni Appelbaum, The Atlantic Magazine October 2018]

3. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbjciJvacXY]

4. [Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, pg. 11]

5. [The Journal of Unitarian Universalist History, Special Issue 2013 pg. 136]

6. [Wendell Berry, What Are People For, An Essay: A Poem of Difficult Hope]