Unitarian Triumphs in Year’s Past

Today is Palm Sunday for us Western Christians, a time for recognizing the error of honoring religious leaders as secular deliverers.  Tomorrow night marks the first Seder of Passover, when Jews sit down to recognize the role of a single heroic leader in the same role.  Nowhere could these cautionary tales be more appropriate than in today’s Unitarian Universalist Association, which wrongly characterizes its historic self as some kind of modern Harriet Tubman for anyone who sees themselves as victims of oppression by a mythical US middle class cultural juggernaut.  The UUA staff has recently summarized this false self-understanding in a new document on strategies for the future of our ministry, which opens with an appalling wrong statement of both Unitarian and Universalist history:

Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors were notable for always getting into trouble.
They raised a ruckus in their time by loudly questioning outworn religious thought and
working to bend the arc of the universe toward justice.

Now, it is perfectly true that SOME Unitarians and SOME Universalists prioritized this bending of the arc as a religious priority.  But they formed no majority in the Unitarian or Universalist communities of which they were a part.  Nor were those Unitarian and Universalist communities unique in producing these social prophets — for which I, like many Americans, am profoundly and perfectly grateful.

So what were the silent majority of Unitarians and Universalists doing on all those Sundays, for all those centuries?  Most of them, of both sects, pursued typical lives for their times, using freedom of conscience and support for spiritual growth to quietly draw their own conclusions about a few theological details contained in the creeds of other Christian religions.   They also used their reflective gatherings to pursue the wisdoms we honor is our diverse sources of knowledge — science, world religions, listening to each other.

Perhaps the most amazing discovery I made while researching the history of First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vermont, it was the role of secular politics in diminishing rather than reinforcing sectarian divisions.  Here in one of the last major stops to Canada,  the Calvinist ministers waged a lively campaign against the respectability of Unitarianism, despite the fact that the Calvinist ministers themselves agreed on the importance of anti-slavery legislation, and were, in fact, leaders in the local Underground Railroad.  In fact, from the Society’s very beginnings, during the Unitarian Controversies era (early 1800s), Unitarian membership appealed to thoughtful and pragmatic individuals who disagreed with more theologically conservative (fear-based) family members.

So, if it wasn’t this Harriet Tubman function by which Unitarians and Universalists distinguished themselves, what was it?

Over the years, I have seen anecdotal reference to two aspects of Unitarian worship which attracted new members, both as individuals and as families.  One was the style of prayer.  In the 19th century, Christian prayers often emphasized praying for the leaders of the church, or for the special topics and occasions which had been hierarchically handed down.  Saints and their days.  Particular virtues and vices.  Unitarian and Universalists, by contrast, specialized in what are called “Prayers of the Day.”  What’s on our minds right now?  But far from the unsophisticated and undirected “Joys and Concerns” of modern congregational life, these were carefully written out by the ministers, using the twin lenses of traditional and non-traditional wisdoms.  Over the course of many ministries, many congregations chose to collect these offerings for sale to individuals in their personal reflections.  Far from being mere sentimental memorabilia, some of these collections are useful today.

Our second major attraction was open reverence for diverse world religious sources.  Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1838 Address to the Senior Class at the Cambridge Theological School lifted up a newly translated Hindu image of God and sacred energy, as a body of water connecting all shores it washes.   Communion disappeared from Massachusetts Unitarian churches not in the twentieth century but in the same era, and following a definitive sermon, “The Lord’s Supper,” by the same Rev. Emerson, to the Second Unitarian Church of Boston in 1832.   The earliest collection of Prayers from all over the world which I have seen from the Unitarian presses dates to 1867.  A funeral manual prepared by Christopher Rhodes Eliot and Charles Jason Staples in the 1870s also used prayers from many religions, and became the standard manual for Unitarian ministers, by a sort of acclamation.   The two compilers originally had put it together for their own use, and so many colleagues requested copies that it went through numerous editions for many decades.

What both these attractors have in common is that they centered on God and the time-honored functions of religion, namely spiritual growth and spiritual healing.  It was no stretch to catch the politically liberal undertones of inclusivity and mutual respect, but that was not the final ground of either attention or agreement.  Rather, these worship documents — of which I have read countless versions, from U and U congregations all over this continent — testify to a certain humility within the larger community that shares those secular visions.  Sunday was time for attending to a particular set of inquiries and answers about sacred questions; there were other times and places to be political.  U and U forebears strongly advocated separation of church and state.

What the UUA staff calls “raising a ruckus” was the last thing these U and U forebears sought to do as a religious central goal. It is true that Unitarians and Universalists were often forced to stand their ground religiously under attack from more conservative evangelical attacks.  But our forebears responded not with political messages, but with clear, Biblically-documented and more widely-referenced explanations of our collective theological common beliefs.

I don’t know what happened to bury our belief in religious comfort and community– rather than “raising a ruckus” — as our central mission.  I do know that ever since I came in, as one of the public ruckus raisers in 1969, our ranks have been pruned dramatically with each new political cause we espouse.  I know that more and more of the folks who are left want to hear about the stuff which attracted our 19th century adherents –comfort and dignity from inclusive but spiritual and religious sources.   I know that we still get calls for funerals and memorial services which haven’t changed that much since Staples and Eliot put together their collection of Biblical, world religious and poetic literatures, combined with simple prayers.  And whereas I used to feel obliged to hide my love of the Bible and the message of Jesus, more and more of our families want to hear more about them.

So on this Palm Sunday, I lift up again the message that Jesus was loathe to raise.  He said that if people wanted a secular king, he would play to their need and give them that momentary celebration.  I say, we cannot afford to do that any more.


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