A Revolutionary Religion

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon was actually delivered by Bev Burgess, worship associate, because I was out of town on family leave.


The reading this morning is an excerpt from a biography of Rev. William Emerson, the grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and minister of First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1775. This biography was written by Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, minister of the Concord church in 1975, and published in his book Know These Concordians: 24 Minutes Biographies (1975). Although Greeley was a pacifist, he was also a patriot, and fully appreciative of William Emerson’s military service in the Revolutionary War.

In 1765 William Emerson became the minister in Concord. He seems to have been as conscientious a pastor as he was studious as a scholar; and the indication is that he called constantly on his people, and likewise entertained both people and visitors at the Manse. He was friendly and warm, even if held somewhat in awe by many of his parishioners.

Eight years rolled by before the spirit of rebellion against the oppressiveness of King George III began to come to a head. The Concord minister had been among the patriots who were early spokesmen for the cause of freedom. With Jonathan Mayhew in Boston and Jonas Clarke in Lexington, he had used his pulpit to point out the injustice of the British rule, and to stimulate the imaginations and undergird the moral courage of his listeners. He had plenty of company in the town in support of his views, but he did not fail to exercise a role of leadership. So when the First Provincial Congress met in Concord, having moved there from Salem, it was not strange that as John Hancock of Boston was elected president, and Benjamin Lincoln of Hingham as secretary, so the Reverend William Emerson was elected chaplain. It is said that in the following Spring he watched the battle at the North Bridge from his house (on the 19th of April) and properly recorded it in his diary afterward, although there is also the suggestion that he may have been closer to his men, and encouraging them in the battle, and not just a spectator….

Before we speak of his departure to Ticonderoga, we must mention his going to Cambridge after the battle [at Concord], his constant service with the army, his breakfast and frequent meetings with George Washington, his preaching to the soldiers, and his participation at Bunker Hill. He himself did not distinguish between General Washington and the humblest soldiers. All men seemed to count equally in his sight….

On August 16, 1776, he bade a brave farewell himself to his family and his town, and knew not that he would never return…. He was at Ticonderoga, and then contracted a fatal disease, typhoid or dysentery, and died in Rutland, Vermont…. He had expected his own death, and his letters home were very tender…

The ‘Old Manse’ which he built for his bride, Phebe, and his family, is a continuing monument to him, but so is a bit of the independence of the United States of America.

Sermon: A Revolutionary Religion

We are rapidly approaching the United States of America semiquincentennial, or two hundred and fiftieth birthday. (There are, by the way, several words used for a two hundred and fiftieth birthday, but “semiquincentennial” is what the National Park Service calls it.) Most of the United States will be celebrating the nation’s semiquincentennial in 2026, but those of us who live here in Massachusetts know that the real semiquincentennial anniversary commemorates April 19, 1775, what we call Patriots’ Day.

April 19, 1775, marked the real beginning of the Revolutionary War. The momentous events of that day are sometimes called the Battle of Concord and Lexington, but to use that term ignores the fact that several other towns also saw armed conflict. In fact, the first colonist blood of the war was shed in the town of Lincoln, just after midnight, when one of His Majesty’s troops slashed Lincoln militiaman Josiah Nelson on the head with a sword. And some of the most heated fighting took place in Menotomy, which is now called Arlington. And dozens of towns sent militia men and Minute Men to the battle. But for the sake of convenience, I’ll call it the battle of Concord and Lexington. (1)

As we approach America’s semiquincentennial, I would like us Unitarian Universalists to remember that our co-religionists were right in the thick of the Revolutionary War from the very beginning. Both Unitarians and Universalists were deeply involved in the American Revolution.

The first major engagement on the morning of April 19, 1775, was in Lexington, where at sunrise several hundred Redcoats fired at a small interracial company of colonial militiamen, killing eight and wounding several more. This engagement took place on the town green, right next to the church. The congregation that met in that building is still in existence, and is now called First Parish in Lexington, and it later became a Unitarian Universalist church. The commander of the Lexington militia was a man named John Parker, who famously said, “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” But John Parker should also be remembered because the small company he commanded included both Black and White militia men. (2)

John Parker did not live long enough to hear the name “Unitarian” applied to his religion, though we usually consider him to have been a Unitarian on the basis of his church affiliation. But the succeeding generations of the Lexington Parkers were very definitely Unitarians. One of John Parker’s grandsons, Theodore Parker, was a Unitarian who inherited his grandfather’s revolutionary spirit, in more ways than one. Theodore grew up to become a Unitarian minister, a Transcendentalist, and an abolitionist. As an abolitionist, he sheltered people escaping from slavery in his own house, and later recalled that at times he had to keep a loaded pistol on the desk beside him as he wrote his sermons, in case the slave catchers came to his door. (3)

To return to the events of April 19, 1775 — After marching through Lexington, His Majesty’s troops continued on to Concord, where their spies had informed them that the colonists were storing ammunition, cannon, and firearms. Realizing that they were greatly outnumbered, the colonial forces withdrew from Concord center. This was a strategic withdrawal, for they knew that the alarm was being spread throughout the countryside, and that soon militia companies and Minute Men from other towns would swell their numbers. At about ten o’clock in the morning, they marched down a hill and engaged a small unit of Redcoats guarding the North Bridge that lead back into Concord center. Right next to this bridge stood the house of Rev. William Emerson, the patriotic minister of the Concord church, about whom we heard in the reading this morning. William Emerson made sure his wife and family were safe in their house, then went on to join the colonial troops. (4)

And here comes another Unitarian grandchild connection. One of William Emerson’s grandchildren was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who became a Unitarian minister, then left ministry to pursue a career as a public intellectual. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the famous “Concord Hymn” to commemorate the events of April 19, 1775:

“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard ‘round the world.”

Emerson fired his own shots heard round the world, with his electrifying essays on topics like self-reliance, and nature. He was not as physically combative as his contemporary Theodore Parker — he never kept a pistol on his desk, nor did he help fugitive slaves escape to Canada (though his wife might have) — but Emerson was intellectually combative. He made clear the crucial importance of each individual. When we talk about the radical concept of the inherent worth and dignity of every human personality, much of what we say comes straight from Emerson. And with his disciple Henry Thoreau, who also grew up a Unitarian, Emerson helped lay the foundations for the modern environmental movement, another revolutionary movement that carries on American ideals.

The Emersons and the Parkers are just two examples of the connections between Unitarianism and the American Revolution. I could also mention Kings’ Chapel in Boston. King’s Chapel started out as part of the Church of England, but by 1775 they were a congregation of Patriots who felt compelled to sever their ties with anything British. And when they severed their ties to the Church of England, they found they also wanted to sever their ties to the doctrine of the Trinity. So in 1785 they became the first avowedly Unitarian congregation in the new United States of America.

Now let me turn to the Universalist side of our heritage. I’ll begin with a brief mention of Benjamin Rush, one of those who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. While Rush never joined a Universalist church, he was a firm believer in the central message of Universalism, that all persons would be saved. Universalist historian Charles Howe writes, “Rush’s shift from Calvinism to universalism was profoundly influenced by the social changes of the Revolutionary era. He embraced republicanism as an essential part of” his religious outlook. (5) Thus, to embrace the political doctrine that all persons are created equal, lead Rush directly to the equivalent religious doctrine. We could only wish that today’s Christian nationalists would follow Benjamin Rush’s example.

Another Universalists who was in the thick of the Revolution was Rev. John Murray, the first prominent Universalist minister in British North America. He converted to Universalism while a young man in England, then after the death of his wife came to the New World in 1770, where he began preaching the happy religion of Universalism. By 1774, his preaching had attracted the attention of a group of wealthy merchants in Gloucester, Massachusetts. They had become convinced Universalists and wanted to find a Universalist minister. Murray was as interested in them as they were in him, but the Revolutionary War intervened before he could go to Gloucester. In order to support the Patriots’ cause, John Murray entered military service as the chaplain to the Rhode Island Continental Army during the defense of Boston.

By March, 1776, Murray was apparently part of the inner circle of the Continental Army. On March 10, James Bowdoin, a member of the Massachusetts Council, recorded that “Mr. [John] Murray, a clergyman, din’d with the General [George Washington] yesterday, and was present at the examination of a deserter, who upon oath says that 5 or 600 [British] troops embarked the night before without any order or regularity….” (6) There are two things of interest to us in this passage. First, John Murray was close enough to General Washington to dine with him. Second, John Murray was intimate enough with General George Washington that he was able to be present as they were finding out crucial military intelligence. Perhaps Murray’s military service included military intelligence work as well as chaplaincy.

Nor was John Murray the only Universalist or Unitarian clergyman who helped with military intelligence. The Rev. Dr. Samuel West, minister of the Dartmouth church which later became First Unitarian of New Bedford, was also involved in military intelligence. After the Battle of Bunker Hill, West joined the American army as a chaplain. The details of his service as a chaplain have been lost, except for one incident. While in the army, he assisted General Washington by deciphering a letter written in code by Benjamin Church, an American officer who was suspected of being a spy. In the eighteenth century, it was not uncommon to encipher personal correspondence since there was no formal postal service, and letters were not secure; therefore, just because the letter was enciphered was not evidence that Church was a spy. Washington needed to have the cipher broken, and the brilliant Dr. West was one of only three men who were capable of doing so. West worked alone, the other two worked together, and then their deciphering was compared. Their versions agreed perfectly, and through the efforts of West and the two others, Church was revealed as a British spy. (7)

So you can see that both Unitarians and Universalists were deeply involved in the Revolutionary War. In the United States today, the Christian nationalists claim that they are the only religious patriots. We Unitarian Universalists have a far better claim to being religious patriots, not just because of our historical connections (which the Christian nationalists lack), but because our religion upholds the Revolutionary ideals of democracy and equality of all persons (ideals which the Christian nationalists constantly subvert).

I wish we Unitarian Universalists would reclaim our patriotic identity. But sometimes I feel that we Unitarian Universalists have lost sight of our Revolutionary connections. When we issued a new hymnal in 1993 — that gray hymnal which we still use — all the patriotic hymns got left out. I can understand leaving out “America the Beautiful,” because the whole rhyme scheme of the first verse depends on rhyming the word “brotherhood,” which goes against our Revolutionary ideals by excluding women. But I do think we could have left in “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” if for no other reason than the last phrase of the first verse: “Let freedom ring.” Every time I hear that phrase, I can hear Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., using that phrase in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Martin Luther King, Jr., upheld the Revolutionary ideals of our country by calling for freedom for all persons, regardless of race. Thus when I sing “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” I hear King’s call for ongoing justice in America.

If we were to bring patriotic hymns back to our hymnal, we might also consider “The New Patriot,” which we sung as our first hymn. This hymn was included in the 1977 hymnal that was published by First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, and it captures some of the essence of today’s Unitarian Universalist patriotism. We Unitarian Universalists value our own democratic country, but we also value world community. We owe allegiance to the United States, upholding the high ideal that all persons are created equal — but we also want to extend that high ideal to all persons everywhere.

This should be the broader vision of Unitarian Universalism. We should continue to uphold our patriotic support of the United States; at the same time, we should continue to hold the United States accountable when our country falls short of living up to its highest ideals. We should continue to uphold our country’s sovereign rights; at the same time, we should continue to work towards world community. And both here at home and abroad, we should continue to promote not just our democratic ideals and our ideals of equality, but also things like our ideals of environmental protection.

Another way to say all of this: We should continue to be patriots. We should continue to display the American flag inside our Meeting House, upstairs in the gallery. And we should continue to hold our country accountable to our high ideals of equality for all persons, for example by flying the rainbow flag from our Meeting House. And we should also be the “New Patriots” spoken of in the final hymn, patriots “whose nation is all humanity.”

As we approach the semiquincentennial of the beginning of America, perhaps we will also want to find other ways to show our Unitarian Universalist patriotism. I don’t know what that would look like for us here in Cohasset, but I’ll tell you a little story of how another Unitarian Universalist congregation showed its patriotism.

When I worked at First Parish in Lexington, the church of John Parker and Theodore Parker, they still celebrated communion once a year, even though the majority of the congregation were atheists who had no interest in traditional Christian communion. But they had a different approach to communion. On the Sunday nearest April 19, they retrieved a few pieces of ancient communion silver from the local history museum. Some people would show up that Sunday dressed in 18th century garb (mind you, they left their muskets at the door of the church building, just as the Lexington militia did when they went to Sunday services back in 1775). Celebrating communion on Patriots’ Day was both a historical re-enactment, and also a public affirmation of the ideals of equality and democracy that are central both to Unitarian Universalism and to the United States.

I don’t think we should start holding Patriots’ Day communion services in our congregation. Cohasset is not Lexington. (8) But I do think we should remember that our ancient Meeting House was the scene of stirring events during the American Revolution. The old church records show that some sort of hiding place was made somewhere in this building to hide firearms and ammunition during the Revolution. (9) And then, in 1776 Rev. John Brown, then the minister of our congregation, gave a stirring reading of the Declaration of Independence from this very pulpit.

As we approach the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the United Sates of America, we owe it to ourselves — we owe it to the town of Cohasset — we owe it to our country to commemorate these stirring events, and to renew our commitment to the highest ideals of democracy. I’m looking forward to opening our Meeting House more often to visitors, with people from our congregation serving as docents to talk about our Revolutionary history. I’m looking forward to commemorating John Brown’s stirring reading of the Declaration of Independence this July, on the Sunday closest to Independence Day. And perhaps you will think of other ways we can celebrate our history, celebrate our patriotism, celebrate the semiquincentennial of the United States. So together we can keep alive the highest ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality.


(1) The information about the Battle of Concord and Lexington comes from standard reference books, esp. Frank Warren Coburn, The Battle of April 19, 1775, in Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Arlington, Cambridge, Somerville, and Charlestown, Massachusetts (Lexington, Mass.: privately printed, 1912), and Robert A. Gross, The Minutemen and Their World (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976).

(2) For an excellent detailed account of one Black militia man, see: Alice Hinkle, Prince Estabrook: Slave and Soldier (Pleasant Mountain Press, 2001). My copy is signed by the man who for many years acted the part of Prince Estabrook during the annual re-enactment of the Lexington engagement.

(3) For the story of the loaded pistol, see Albert Réville , The life and writings of Theodore Parker (London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1865), pp. 112-114; and Francis E. Cooke, The Story of Theodore Parker (London: Sunday School Association, 1890), pp. 100-101.

(4) In his book Know These Concordians: 24 Minute Biographies (Concord, Mass.: privately printed, 1975), Dana Greeley gives the oral tradition sources which state that William Emerson joined the soldiers; I find Greeley’s argument convincing. William Emerson’s diaries are published in Amelia Forces Emerson, ed., Diaries and Letters of William Emerson, 1743-1776 (Boston: privately printed, 1972).

(5) Charles Howe, “Benjamin Rush,” Unitarian Universalist Dictionary of Historical Biography, https://uudb.org/articles/benjaminrush.html

(6) Quoted in J. Bell, “I hear that General How said…”, Boston in 1775, March 6, 2023 entry,

(7) This story is told in my book Liberal Pilgrims: Varieties of Liberal Religious Experience in New Bedford, Massachusetts (New Bedford, Mass.: privately printed, 2008).

(8) So there is no confusion, I should say that I, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, would politely refuse to officiate at communion services, for much the same reasons that Emerson gave in his famous sermon, “The Lord’s Supper,” available online at https://emersoncentral.com/texts/uncollected-prose/the-lords-supper/

(9) Eric Kluz, a retired architect and long-time member of First Parish, told me that during a 1980s renovation of the east wall of the Meeting House, a late 18th century firearm was found hidden in the south east corner in the wall, at about the level of the pew back. The town records show that a “closet” was built in the Meeting House to hide arms and ammunition; perhaps this closet was made behind the pews in the southeast corner of the building. That firearm was donated to the Cohasset Historical Society.

Universalism for Such a Time as This

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.


The first reading is from the book Foundations of Faith, by the Universalist minister and theologian Albert Zeigler, published in 1959. Gendered language has been updated:

“The power of traditional Universalism was that, in its teaching of universal salvation, it spoke to every person of their infinite value. As the ancient Hebrews saw themselves to be of divine importance, rescued and chosen by God; as the orthodox Christians found their eternal significance in the sacrifice of the Son of God for their welfare; so the Universalist saw humanity’s divine stature and destiny in the unfailing love of God. If [the phrase] ‘universal salvation’ does not today carry that message to us, we must find another way to sing the great gospel, that every person and what they do and how they do it is of ultimate concern, of infinite significance.”

The second reading is by Hosea Ballou, one of the founders of Universalism in the United States, from his 1805 book Treatise on Atonement.

“The belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creatures to such a degree that nothing but the death of Christ or the endless misery of mankind could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers for many centuries. The error has been fatal to the life and spirit of the religion of Christianity in our world; all those principles which are to be dreaded by men, have been believed to exist in God; and professors of Christianity have been molded into the image of their Deity, and become more and more cruel! … It is every day’s practice to represent the Almighty so offended with humanity, that he employs his infinite mind in devising unspeakable tortures, as retaliations on those with whom he is offended…. Even the tender charities of nature have been frozen with such tenets, and the natural friendship common to human society, has, in a thousand instances, been driven from the walks of man.”

Sermon: “Universalism for Such a Time as This” (1)

When I was in my teens, I used to go with my parents to serve as one of the ushers at our Unitarian Universalist church in Concord, Massachusetts. On one particular Sunday, the other person on our usher team was a long-time member of the church named Bob Needham. I immediately liked Bob because he talked to me the same way he talked to adults; he didn’t talk down to me, as too many people do when they talk to teenagers.

Now this was only a dozen or so years after the Unitarians and Universalists merged, and many people still considered themselves either Unitarians or Universalists, rather than Unitarian Universalists. My mother had been brought a Unitarian. Our minister was a life-long Unitarian. Our church was a Unitarian church. I guess I was a Unitarian too, because while I knew what it meant to be a Unitarian, I knew nothing about Universalism.

Bob Needham, on the other hand, was a Universalist. As we stood there doing all the usual things ushers do — handing out orders of service, ringing the bell, holding the door open for people — Bob told me that just a few years earlier he had celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of Universalism in North America. That was the first I had ever heard of that anniversary. Bob didn’t really tell me much more about Universalism, but I learned a lot about what it means to be a Universalist by seeing the egalitarian way he treated me. That made me curious; I wanted to learn more about this religious tradition that was a part of Unitarian Universalism. Several years later I learned that after Henry David Thoreau resigned from the Unitarian church, he said the only church in town he’d want to be part of was the Universalist church, because of its strong abolitionist position. More years went by, I learned more about Universalism, I found I liked it more and more, until I finally decided that I was a Universalist more than I was a Unitarian or a Unitarian Universalist. And this morning I’d like to talk with you about why I think Universalism is a religious approach well suited to our time.

But first let me give you a little bit of history. You probably already know that here in New England, Universalism arose as a reaction to the old time Calvinists who claimed that human beings were tainted with what they called “original sin.” Those old time Calvinists believed that human beings were so sinful that nearly all of us would go to hell, where we would suffer eternal torments. A few human beings, said those old Calvinists, were predestined from the beginning of time to be saved from hell and go to heaven. Because of this predestination, there was nothing you could do in this life to affect whether you went to heaven or to hell. However, we could probably tell which people would go to heaven, because the people who were predestined from the beginning of time to go to heaven would lead better lives than the rest of us. In practice, of course that meant that people who were more financially secure, who were higher in social status, were the ones going to heaven.

I know this sounds kind of silly to some of us here today. But before you feel smug and dismiss those old Calvinists as irrelevant, let me point out two things. First, in the first one hundred years that First Parish existed, many of its member were Calvinists. Second, today in the United States there are still a great many people who believe in heaven and hell and predestination.

Universalists turned Calvinism on its head. First of all, they pointed out that heaven and hell are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Next, the old Universalists pointed out that a God who was truly all-loving would not condemn the vast majority of humankind to eternal punishment. Some of the old Universalists thought there might be a limited time of punishment after death. Others of the old Universalists thought that God’s love was so powerful that everyone, even the very worst people, would be forgiven as soon as they died. But all Universalists were sure that in the end, everyone would wind up in heaven. To say anything else would put limits on God’s love, and would put limits on God’s power.

The Universalists infuriated all the other Christian denominations in the United States. Nearly everyone else wanted to believe that God would punish evil-doers. Nearly everyone else wanted to condemn evil-doers to eternal punishment. The Universalists pointed out the uncomfortable fact that the other Christians denominations were governed by fear, which of course infuriated their opponents.

Fast forward a hundred years, and by the late nineteenth century Universalism had grown and changed with the times. P. T. Barnum, the great circus impresario, was a Universalist and in 1890 he said this about his religion:

“It is rather absurd to suppose a heaven filled with saints and sinners shut up all together within four jeweled walls and playing on harps, whether they like it or not. I have faint hopes that after another hundred years or so, it will begin to dawn on the minds of those to whom this idea is such a weight, that nobody with any sense holds this idea or ever did hold it. To the Universalist, heaven in its essential nature is not a locality, but a moral and spiritual status, and salvation is not securing one place and avoiding another, but salvation is finding eternal life. … Eternal life is right life, here, there, everywhere. … This present life is the great pressing concern.” (2)

Now we can fast forward another century or so to the present day. If we look around, we can see that many people in the United States still believe in variations of this old myth of eternal punishment and retribution. Perhaps the most prominent variation of this old myth can be seen in our prison population. According to the U.S. government, “The U.S. penal population of 2.2 million adults is by far the largest in the world. Just under one-quarter of the world’s prisoners are held in American prisons. The U.S. rate of incarceration, with nearly 1 out of every 100 adults in prison or jail, is 5 to 10 times higher than the rates in … other democracies.” (3)

While there are many causes for the high rate of incarceration in the United States, in my opinion one of the causes is a modern day variation of that old Calvinist myth of predestination. At a mythic level, our desire to punish so many people is linked to our Calvinist belief that most people are going to go to hell anyway. If someone is predestined for hell, why not stick them in prison now, and keep them there for as along as possible?

And this old myth of predestination and eternal punishment seems to me to be linked to the ongoing racism here in the United States. When I look at all the times traffic stops involving Black men have wound up with the innocent Black man being beaten or even killed by police officers, this seems to me another variation of the old predestination myth. We’ve known about this problem at least since the beating of Rodney King, yet somehow we never manage to do anything about it. It’s as if many Americans have this strange unconscious belief that African American men are predestined for punishment. No wonder, then, that I’m a Universalist.

Beyond repudiating these old myths of eternal punishment, Universalism has many other things to say to our contemporary postmodern multicultural world. I’d like to point out four.

First, many people in the United States still retain a literal belief in hell and damnation and eternal punishment. Some of those people may be a part of your life. For example, I’ve had parents tell me about people who said to their children that the children were going to hell because they were not Christians. When you have relatives like this, mostly you don’t want to get into religious discussions with them, but I think it’s helpful to know that the old Universalists could quote the Bible proving that hell does not belong in any Christian religion. (Actually, I think this kind of thing is harder on parents than on children. Unitarian Universalist children have told me about their relatives who told them they were going to hell, and uniformly the children dismissed them as holding bizarre outmoded beliefs, similar to believing the earth is flat.) I think it’s also helpful to know that many mainstream Protestant churches in the United States today don’t believe in hell, or they think of hell metaphorically but not as a literal place. Thus the oldest Universalist argument, against a literal belief in hell, is still important today.

And second, if you’re looking for a more updated Universalist message for our world today, look no further than the first of the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism. That first principle states that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. This can be stated in other ways, one of which we heard in the first reading by Universalist minister Albert Ziegler: “Every person and what they do and how they do it is of ultimate concern, of infinite significance.” We live out this Universalist principle over and over again — when we help people who are hungry or homeless; when we help people who are victims of domestic violence; when we strive for full equality of all persons regardless of race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, and so on; when we offer financial support to a child in Guatemala so that she may receive an education. Many of the things we do in the world, to make this world more fair and more just, stem directly from our Universalist belief in the worth and dignity of every person.

Third, I feel Universalism has a great moral teaching for us today: Universalism tells us that love is a more powerful tool for establishing morality than is punishment. Universalism learned this originally from the teachings of Jesus, but all the great religions and philosophies of the world contain the same central message. This is also quite pragmatic. Think about the three year old who hits another child at preschool. If you, the adult, respond by spanking that child, you’re teaching them that hitting someone is an appropriate response. Now obviously we’re enlightened enough that we’re not going to engage in corporal punishment, but other kinds of punishment easily carry the same message; punishment is meant to hurt the offender, and so the child learns that hurting someone is an appropriate response. Instead, what we aim to do is to teach that child that hurting other people is wrong, and teach them ways to manage their behavior so they don’t feel a need to hurt other children. This is the pragmatic side of Universalism’s great dictum that love is a more powerful tool for establishing morality than is punishment.

Fourth and finally, Universalism offers us a great resource for our own personal spirituality. The Universalist tradition is a happy tradition. When we know that love is the most powerful force in the universe, then we can look forward to a future where love prevails. This may not happen in our lifetimes. But we can hold on to a confident belief that love will somehow prevail; somehow love will overcome all obstacles. And this might be the most powerful Universalist message of all.


(1) The sermon title comes from an old UUA pamphlet, dating back to the 1970s if I recall correctly. Way back in the 2000s, I once preached a very different sermon under this same title. Several other Unitarian Universalist ministers have also used this as a sermon title, including an old friend, Greg Stewart.

(2) P.T. Barnum, “Why I Am a Universalist” (Boston: Universalist Publishing House, 1890).

(3) “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences,” National Institute of Corrections, United States Department of Justice — https://nicic.gov/growth-incarceration-united-states-exploring-causes-and-consequences

The Disabled God for Unitarian Universalists

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.


The first reading is from The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability by Nancy Eiseland.

“For me, epiphanies come too infrequently to be shrugged off as unbelievable. … I had waited for a mighty revelation of God. But my epiphany bore little resemblance to the God I was expecting, or the God of my dreams. I saw God in a sip-puff wheelchair — that is, the chair used mostly by quadriplegics enabling them to maneuver by blowing and sucking on a straw-like device. Not an omnipotent, self-sufficient God, but neither a pitiable, suffering servant. In this moment, I beheld God as a survivor, unpitying and forthright. I recognized [God] in the image of those judged ‘not feasible,’ ‘unemployable,’ with ‘questionable quality of life.’ Here was God for me.”

The second reading is from the 2022 book The Future Is Disabled by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

“It’s radical to imagine that the future is disabled. Not just tentatively allowed to exist, not just: ‘OK, I guess there’s one white guy with a wheelchair, cool — diversity.’ But a deeply disabled future, a future where disabled, Deaf, Mad, neurodivergent bodyminds are both accepted without question as part of the vast spectrum of human … ways of existing, [and] where our cultures, knowledge, and communities shape the world….

“Some people have scoffed at me when I broached the idea of a majority disabled future — surely I don’t mean this literally? But I kind of do….

“We are in the third year of a global mass disabling event — the COVID-19 pandemic — where, as I and many other disabled activists and people have noticed and stated, the world has been [disabled]. The entire world has been immersed in a disabled reality for the past two years. Masking, hand-washing, long-term isolation, awareness of viruses and immune vulnerability, the need for disabled skills of care … are just a few of the disabled ways of being that everyone, disabled and not, have been forced to reckon with.

“The COVID-19 virus and the failure to create a just global public health and economic response to support people undergoing it is also creating a disabled world in that mass numbers of people are becoming newly or differently disabled because of getting COVID, long COVID, and/or long-term complex post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental disabilities from the grief, loss, and stress of the pandemic….”

Sermon — The Disabled God for Unitarian Universalists

Let’s start with some statistics. The statistics around disability in the United States are attention-grabbing numbers, and help us understand why disability is so important for us to talk about.

The Center for Disease Control issued a report in August, 2018, with the imposing title, “Prevalence of Disabilities and Health Care Access by Disability Status and Type Among Adults — United States, 2016” [Catherine A. Okoro et al.]. Using data from 2016, the authors of the study determined that one in four adults in the United States, or an estimated 61.4 million adults, reported a disability.

The study covered six categories of disability. Most prevalent was mobility problems, that is, serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs, with 13.7% of adults reporting this as a disability. Cognition disability, or serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions, was reported by 10.8% of adults. Disability affecting independent living, that is, difficulty doing errands alone, was reported by 6.8% of adults. Serious difficulty hearing was reported by 5.9% of adults. Serious difficulty seeing was reported by 4.6% of adults. And finally, disability affecting self-care, that is, difficulty dressing or bathing, was reported by 3.7% of adults.

Those figures are based on data gathered in 2016, data from before the pandemic. I would expect that the numbers of adults reporting cognitive disabilities would be somewhat higher today. We’re seeing an epidemic of mental illness that appears to be a direct result of the pandemic, including anxiety disorder, depression, and other ailments; this would tend to increase the numbers of adults reporting a cognitive disability. Then there’s long COVID, which can affect both cognition and independent living. As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in today’s post-pandemic world, something more than one in four U.S. adults with some form of disability.

When you listen to these statistics, you come to an obvious conclusion: disability is a normal part of life. Disability is normal, yet our society tends to think of disability as somehow abnormal. I remember hearing a disability rights activist say that those of us who consider themselves to be able-bodied should really be thinking of ourselves as temporarily able-bodied. Most of us will be disabled at some point in our lives. If we’re not disabled ourselves, someone close to us will be disabled and there’s a good chance we’ll wind up helping care for for that person. Disability is a normal part of life.

Somehow we have to get ourselves to remember that disability is normal. Religion is a powerful tool for telling ourselves stories to make sense of life. So what stories might we, as a religious people, tell ourselves to remind ourselves that disability is normal?

First of all, we have to let go of the old religious stories that say disability is always something to be cured, something to be gotten rid of. This is, unfortunately, a regular part of Western folk religion. While it is true that sometimes disability is something that can be cured, more often disability is simply a part of who we are. We are a certain gender, we are a certain race or ethnicity, we are a certain biological sex, we have a sexual orientation — these are all aspects of who we are.

This is why what Nancy Eiesland says in the first reading is so profound. Eiesland asks: What if God is a quadriplegic? What if God is disabled? What if God is disabled in any one of the many ways human beings are disabled? A central part of the teachings of Western religion is that human beings are made in the image of God. The clearest statement of this comes in the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Genesis, chapter 1 verse 27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Later on in Genesis, there’s another story of how God created male human beings first, then created female human beings from ribs of the male human beings. But this later passage gives us a story that is, not to put too fine a point on it, a little weird; I prefer the story in Genesis 1:27. In that first story, God creates humankind in God’s image, both male and female human beings, God creates in God’s image. (As an aside, this implies that God is actually, to use current jargon, non-binary gender; but that’s a sermon for another day.) So if all human beings are created in the image of God, then logically disabled human beings are also created in the image of God. This is Nancy Eiesland’s profound insight.

Eiesland’s insight is extremely important to Western cultures, like our culture here in the United States. Even though not everyone here in the United States is Christian or Jewish, our Western culture contains has an unexamined assumption that this story of the creation of human beings is somehow true. The Declaration of Independence of the United States claims that all men (to use the gender-specific language of the late eighteenth century) are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. We human beings are created equal by God. We human beings have human rights. And the justification for human rights in the West derives in large part from the Torah, from the book of Genesis, from this story that God created all human beings in God’s image. To be able to have human rights — this is a great gift we have received from the Bible, and it’s one of the reasons we religious liberals need to reclaim the Bible as our own.

(Now at this point, those of you who are atheists, or heretics, or Buddhists, or nothing-in-particularists are saying to yourselves: This is all very fine and good, but I don’t believe in that old story. The God of the Israelites, the God of the Jews, the God of the Christians — that is not my god. But please remember we’re not talking about personal, individual beliefs here. We’re talking about the big widespread myths that underlie a shared Western culture in which we all participate, like it or not. So even if you don’t believe in this myth personally, this is a myth we want to claim for ourselves. This is one of the myths that gives us human rights in the West — surely, we can work with this, even if we personally don’t believe in it. So even for those of you for whom the Bible is not your bag, there are solid pragmatic reasons why we religious liberals want to retell this story as the shared inheritance of anyone living in our Western culture.)

To return to Nancy Eiesland: If God created all human beings in God’s image, then clearly God also created disabled people in God’s image. In other words, God is disabled. In other words, disabled persons have human rights just as able-bodied people have human rights. We all have human rights.

This is a surprisingly important conclusion. The Center for Disease Control tells us that one in four adults in the United States is disabled. If disabled people did not have full human rights — if, according to one of the founding myths of our Western culture, God did not create disabled people in God’s image — then one in four adults would not have full human rights. Clearly, we could not tolerate such a situation. Instead, we say: all people have human rights, regardless of ability.

This conclusion is surprisingly well aligned with the Universalist tradition of which we are the inheritors. The old Universalists pointed out that if God is actually as good as everyone says, God is not going to condemn anyone to an eternity of damnation in hell. Instead, the old Universalists said that all human beings are equally worthy of God’s love. Now apply this old doctrine of universal salvation to people with disabilities: all persons are equally worthy of God’s love. This is an important corrective to an unfortunate strain of the Western Christian tradition that said people with mental illness were demon-possessed, or that people with physical disabilities were either sinners or somehow cursed by God. Nonsense, we Universalists would reply. That is ridiculous. All persons are worthy of God’s love. No demons are involved, no sin is involved, and no cursing is involved. If you believe that kind of stuff and nonsense, you’re the one who is sinning. Disabilities are not marks of disfavor from God, since everyone is loved equally by God. A disability is simply that: a disability. (This notion of universal love, by the way, is one of the chief reasons I’m proud to say I’m a Universalist, even if I don’t have quite the same conception of God as the old-time Universalists had.)

All this might tend to have personal importance for the one in four among us today who happen to be disabled. But it’s also likely to be of personal importance to all of us at some point in our lives. Remember, there’s a very good chance that most of us, probably all of us, are going to be temporarily or permanently disabled at some point in our lives. I know people who have contracted long COVID, and who haven’t been able to work or to function normally for months; that would be considered a temporary disability. The pandemic has apparently caused an epidemic of mental illnesses, and some of these mental illnesses are serious enough to be considered disabilities. As I noted earlier, it seems likely that if the CDC researched the rate of disability in the United States today, more than one in four United States adults would report themselves as being disabled. This is what Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha means when they suggest that we might be headed towards a majority-disabled future.

When I think about a majority-disabled future — or even a future where one in three adults in the United States are disabled — my big concern is how we’re going to care for one another. As a whole, our society provides inadequate support for persons with disabilities. Anyone among us who are caring for an aging partner, or an aging parent, has direct experience of this. Anyone among us who has had to fight for accommodations for a child with disabilities has had direct experience of this. Anyone among us who has had to explain to an employer why we are not able to work as much as usual because of long COVID or Lyme disease has had direct experience of this — actually, while I was recovering from a pulmonary embolism a few years ago, I had to explain to the congregation I was then serving why I could no longer work fifty hours a week, but had to drop back to working just forty hours a week.

Since our society provides little support to persons with disabilities, we’re going to have to figure out how to care for one another. This is part of what Leah Piepzna-Samarasinha means when they say that disabled people’s “cultures, knowledge, and communities [can] shape the world.” People with disabilities have had to learn how to care for one another; they have had to learn skills of interdependence. We can learn skills of interdependence from the disabled community.

Actually, here at First Parish we already work on our interdependence skills. We have the Caring Circle, where we help each other out when someone is ill or needs meals or other help. And we provide to each other not just physical care, we also give each other spiritual care. We talk to each other about our health problems or disabilities, we listen to one another, perhaps most importantly we are simply there for one another. We do that spiritual care for one another when we go to social hour after the service and talk with one another; or when we pick up the phone and call someone who can’t make it here on Sunday mornings; or when we send cards or texts or set up a videoconference call with someone who is stuck at home.

Here at First Parish, we’ve already started caring for one another. Yet we can learn more about caring for one another from the disabled community. I’ll give you one example of how we can learn from the disabled community — and I almost hesitate to say this, because I know what a hot-button issue this is — but each of us might consider wearing masks more often. I know how annoying it is to wear a mask, but wearing a mask can serve as a form of mutual aid and caring that supports the health of other people, particularly people who are immune-compromised. This is one way we can support interdependence.

And as a liberal religious people, there is another small task we can take on. We can reclaim that old story in Genesis where God creates all persons in God’s image. (Remember that this is a central myth in our Western culture; you may not believe in God yourself, but the majority of people in our society do.) If we happen to hear anything that sounds like someone is casting disabled people as less than human, we might gently challenge them. In the words of the Torah, “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them.” However you conceive of God — as a myth or metaphor, as a cultural inheritance, as a living presence in your life, as something else altogether — whatever your conception of God, we can think of God as disabled because God created all humankind in God’s image. Or to put it in more familiar language, we are all endowed with certain inalienable rights.