Principles Revisited

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

Opening words

The opening words were the poem “Your World” by Georgia Douglas Johnson.


The first reading is from the book Returning by Dan Wakefield. In this memoir, the author, an avowed atheist, tells the story of how he wound up joining King’s Chapel, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Boston.

“Many of us become wanderers, moving from city to city and job to job (as well as marriage to marriage, even family to family) as part of an accepted nomadic lifestyle, instead of putting down roots in one place…. It is little wonder that many of us become psychically disoriented, in need of medical or psychological ‘treatment,’ and suffer from a spiritual vacuum where our center should be….

“Caught in an escalation of panic and confusion in my own professional life (more painful because so clearly brought on by my own blundering), I joined King’s Chapel in May, not wanting to wait until the second Christmas Eve anniversary of my entry, as I had planned. I wanted the immediate sense of safety and refuge implied in belonging, being a member — perhaps like getting a passport and fleeing to a powerful embassy in the midst of some chaotic revolution.

“Going to church, even belonging to it, did not solve life’s problems — if anything, they seemed to escalate again around that time — but it gave me a sense of living in a larger context, of being part of something greater than what I could see through the tunnel vision of my personal concerns. I now looked forward to Sunday because it meant going to church; what once was strange now felt not only natural but essential….”

The second reading is from the essay “Why I Am What I Am” by Egbert Ethelred Brown. Born and raised in Jamaica, he founded the Harlem Unitarian Church. In this story he tells how he became a Unitarian.

“On a certain day in 1907 I received two letters from America — one from the bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church practically accepting me as a candidate for the ministry of that denomination, the other from the president of Meadville Theological School, [the Unitarian seminary,] accepting me as a student in the school but frankly informing me that there were no colored Unitarian churches in America, and that since at that time no white church in America was likely to accept a colored man as its minister, the school could hold out no prospect of assignment after my graduation….

“Why then am I a Unitarian minister. Because I could not be enchained by the creeds and traditions of the orthodox churches which I had long since intellectually and ethically outgrown. I wished freedom — freedom to be my own self — to express my self as myself, and I believed then as I believe now that a minister of religion must first of all be absolutely loyal to Truth…. Orthodox churches claim that all truths — at least all necessary truths — have already been proclaimed. Unitarian churches on the other hand are dedicated to the progressive transformation and enrichment of individual and social life through religion, in accordance with advancing knowledge and the growing vision of humankind….” (1)

Sermon: “Principles Revisited”

The Unitarian UniversalistAssociation, of which we are a member congregation, has a set of bylaws. Before your eyes glaze over: don’t worry, this will not be a sermon about the corporate bylaws of a nonprofit organization. Personally, I’m fascinated by bylaws and by nonprofit management, but I know this fascination is not shared widely.

The reason I want to talk about bylaws is that the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association contain a section titled “Principles and Purposes.” This is where we get the well-known “Seven Principles” and the “Six Sources” of Unitarian Universalism. If you’re not familiar with these statements, you can find them in the front pages of the gray hymnal.

The seven principles served to introduce many of today’s Unitarian Universalists to Unitarian Universalism. Over and over again, I’ve heard from people who said they were checking out a Unitarian Universalist congregation — either in person, or using the congregation’s website — and when they encountered the seven principles, they said to themselves: Hey, this is what I believe in, these are my moral and ethical values. So the seven principles seem to have led a fair number of people into Unitarian Universalism

We use these seven principles — this excerpt from the corporate bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association — everywhere. Someone rewrote them in kid-friendly language, called them the “seven promises,” and if you go into the Atkinson Room where some of our children meet for Sunday school you’ll see them prominently posted. Actually, what you’ll see is a poster with the “eight promises.” A couple of years ago there was a movement to add an eighth principle, adding another moral and ethical value statement which says that racism needs to be abolished. Our congregation affirmed this eighth principle through a democratic vote, and so now we introduce our children to the eight principles.

So far, this is a story that’s all about rainbows an unicorns. Now we’re getting to the place where conflict emerges.

The bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, or UUA, require us to review the principles and purposes every fifteen years. Ours is a dynamic faith, informed by scientific method and the democratic process. We know that our current understandings of truth are merely partial; no one human being, no single human culture, has yet been able to understand the entire truth of the universe. We Unitarian Universalists rely on a communal search for truth, where each new individual insight is checked and reviewed by others; and slowly, the individual insights are accumulated into a greater vision. This communal search for truth is messy, and leads to argument and constant investigation and sometimes open conflict.

Our communal search for truth is currently messy. The last major revision of the UUA’s principles and purposes came in 1985, when the present seven principles were voted in. This year, we’re reaching the end of a three year democratic process which has proposed completely revising the UUA principles and purposes. These proposed revisions will be voted on this June at General Assembly, the UUA’s annual business meeting, and I think it will be a close vote. (If you want to read the proposed revisions for yourself, look for “Final Article II revisions” on the UUA website.) Our congregation can send a delegate to General Assembly, and we should probably vote at our annual meeting as to how we want to instruct our delegate to vote.

This proposed revision to the seven principles has stirred up conflict. (Look for the “Fifth Principle Project” website if you want to read some of the objections to this revision.) Personally, I have not been following this debate. In fact, I’d like suggest that this is probably not an especially important question.

And to explain why I believe it doesn’t much matter whether we vote to revise the bylaws or not, I’d like to tell you the story of how two very different people came to Unitarian Universalism. Both these people came to Unitarian Universalism prior to 1985, that is, before the current seven principles even existed. And if we look at why they came to Unitarian Universalism, we find that it had nothing to do with bylaws, or statements of faith, or anything like that.

I’ll start by telling you the story of Dan Wakefield. I’m going to start with Dan, partly because he died just last month, on March 13, and partly because he was one of my academic mentors. His story goes something like this:

Dan was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1933. Growing up, he went to church because nearly everyone in the American midwest in the 1940s went to church. But he wanted to be a writer, so he went off to college in New York City. While there, he came to question many of the assumptions he had taken for granted as a Midwesterner. One of the things he questioned was his unreflective Christianity, and he decided to become an atheist. After college, he started working as a writer and reporter. His first big story was covering the Emmet Till trial for The Nation magazine. He went on to write numerous magazine articles and a couple of nonfiction books mostly on controversial topics. Next he published five novels, and in the 1970s went off to Hollywood, where he created a TV series and worked on other projects.

So there he is in Hollywood. He’s made it as a writer. He should be sitting on top of the world. But that’s not the way he feels. This is how he describes it in his 1984 memoir Returning:

“One balmy spring morning in Hollywood, a month or so before my forty-eighth birthday, I woke up screaming. I got out of bed, went into the next room, sat down on a couch, and screamed again. This was not, in other words, one of those waking nightmares left over from sleep that is dispelled by the comforting light of day. It was, rather, a response to the reality that another morning had broken in a life I could only deal with sedated by wine, loud noise, moving images, and wired to electronic games that further distracted my fragmented attention from a growing sense of pain in the pit of my very being, my most essential self….” (2)

He left Hollywood, moved to Boston’s Beacon Hill, and began writing for the Atlantic magazine. And then one Christmas Eve, even though he was a nominal atheist, he decided to go to a church service. Actually, although he called himself an atheist, I would call him more of a rationalist — he did not want to have to believe anything irrational. So when he was debating where to go for Christmas Eve services, he decided on King’s Chapel, a Unitarian Universalist church not far from where he lived. The rationalism of Unitarian Universalism was a good match for Dan’s rationalism. He also wanted a church service that was beautiful. As a writer, he especially apprediated beautiful language, and King’s Chapel uses of the Book of Common Prayer, one of the monuments of English prose style, which was Unitarian-ized by removing all references to the Trinity. Plus, the then-minister of King’s Chapel, Carl Scovel, was arguably the best preacher of any Unitarian Universalist minister in Boston.

You will notice that Dan did not choose which church to attend based on some denominational statement of principles and purposes. Back in 1982, the UUA did have a section of the bylaws that laid out Unitarian Universalist principles and purposes, but that statement did not enter into Dan’s decision. He wanted a community that would support him in his own search for truth. He wanted a community that would support him in his personal struggles. He wanted a community that was filled with beauty. A set of principles and purposes probably would not have swayed him one way or another.

As it happens, Dan moved away from Boston, and away from King’s Chapel. He moved first to New York, then to Florida, and eventually back in Indiana. The last time I saw him was in 2006, when he came to New Bedford to promote a new book titled The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate. At that time, he was not calling himself a Unitarian Universalist. He resisted any denominational labels and called himself “just plain Christian” (3) — I suspect in part to reclaim the label “Christian” from the extremists on the religious right. And you know what, I think of that as a very Unitarian Universalist kind of thing to do. We Unitarian Universalists have always tried to nurture connections to others with different viewpoints; we have always felt that our search for truth was more important than labels. And if denominational labels, or denominational statements of faith, get in the way of our connections of our search for truth — it is truth and connection that should win out.

I’ll end Dan Wakefield’s story there, so that I still have time to tell you about Ethelred Brown, who became a Unitarian as a child.

Egbert Ethelred Brown, to give him his full name, was born in Jamaica, and at a young age doubted the traditional Episcopalian Christian faith in which he was raised. As he later described it, his doubts began as a child:

“I was an inquisitive youngster and a truthful child. I was disposed to ask questions. I remember very distinctly the question I asked my [Sunday school] teacher after the scripture lesson on the falling of the walls of Jericho. ‘Why,’ I asked, ‘did God waste so much time when he could have brought down the walls on the first day.’ My teacher was horrified. So much for my inquisitiveness…. These two characteristics — inquisitiveness and truthfulness — had much to do with the choice I ultimately made to enter the Unitarian ministry.” (4)

Later, even though he really wanted to be a minister, Ethelred Brown decided to leave his church completely. He told the story this way:

“It was on Easter Sunday…. The strangeness of the Trinitarian arithmetic [in the Athanasian creed] struck me forcibly — so forcibly that I decided then and there to sever my connection with a church which enunciated so impossible a proposition.” And, as he later recalled, it was on that same day that he was introduced to some Unitarian literature. Unitarianism did not conflict with either his truthfulness nor his inquisitiveness. He later said he became “a Unitarian without a church.” (5)

Fast forward a decade. At age 32, Ethelred Brown lost his job with the Jamaican Civil Service. He decided to become a Unitarian minister. To become a Unitarian minister, he had to face some extraordinary difficulties. In 1907, he was accepted to the Unitarian theological school at Meadville, but he was warned that given the state of race relations in the United States at that time, no Unitarian congregation in the United States would hire him. So he convinced the American Unitarian Association, as the denomination was then called, to fund a Unitarian congregation in Jamaica. Then with the onset of the First World War, the funding dried up.

In 1920, Ethelred Brown emigrated to the United States where he founded the Harlem Unitarian Church in New York City. This church became known among intellectuals in Harlem, and some of the early members were leaders in race relations, trade unions, and politics (the first African American woman to run for statewide office in New York was a charter member). The Harlem Unitarian Church was also one of the first congregations to welcome African Americans who wanted a religious home without being required to believe in God. Some of the sermon titles will give you a sense of what the congregation was like: “Christianity, Atheism, Agnosticism and Humanism”; “Science and Philosophy”; “Is Religion a Vital Factor in Human Progress?”; and “Can Christianity Solve the Race Problem?” (6) The historian Juan M. Floyd-Thomas has summed up the impact of Both Brown and the Harlem Unitarian Church: “From its humble beginnings in 1920 until its dissolution in 1956, the Harlem Unitarian Church provided all interested parties in Harlem with an extraordinary venue in which to engage in open debate, social activism, and spiritual awakening through a radical brand of Black Christianity deeply infused with humanist principles.” (7)

Yet for all its intellectual influence on the African American intellectual community, the Harlem Unitarian Church rarely had more than about thirty actual paid-up members. Ethelred Brown barely got paid, and he had to work day jobs in order to support himself. For example, for five and a half years he worked full time as an elevator operator, while also serving as the minister of the Harlem Unitarian Church. The American Unitarian Association provided absolutely no funding, and very little moral support, to the Harlem Unitarian Church. Ethelred Brown’s financial situation got so bad that during the Great Depression, in 1937 at age 63, he was forced to receive public relief. At that point, Dale Dewitt, a field staffer for the American Unitarian Association, finally managed to convince the American Unitarian Association to provide Ethelred Brown with a stipend. Two years later, when he turned 65, the denomination provided him a pension. With this minimal financial support, he was able to continue his work with the Harlem Unitarian Church. (8)

When you hear Ethelred Brown’s story, you realize he was not attracted to Unitarianism by some static statement of faith. He was attracted to Unitarianism because he wanted a dynamic religious home that welcomed both his truthfulness and his inquisitiveness. Yes, he was treated shabbily by many Unitarian denominational officials. Yet he realized this was cause by the racial situation in both Jamaica and the United States at that time; it did not reflect the larger truth of Unitarianism. (9) He was able to see beyond the racial situation of his time, to grasp the larger truths of liberal religion.

And those larger truths had to do with a system of inquiry, not a statement of faith. Neither Dan Wakefield nor Ethelred Brown came to Unitarian Universalism based on a statement of faith. They each came to Unitarian Universalism for different reasons, but both of them found a spiritual home in Unitarian Universalism; both of them found encouragement to pursue the truth in community, encouragement to continue to grow as persons. Unitarian Universalism does not pretend to be static religion; ours is a dynamic religion that embraces truthfulness and inquisitiveness.

With those two stories in mind, let’s consider what will happen this June, when delegates to the Unitarian Universalist Association general assembly will vote on whether (a) to affirm the proposed revisions to the principles and purposes outlined in the bylaws, or (b) to retain the current seven principles. Personally, I’ll be content with a vote either way. If the delegates vote to replace the old seven principles, the seven principles are not going to disappear; we can still use them as marketing materials; we can still post them in Sunday school classrooms. Or, if the delegates vote to retain the old seven principles, we can use them or not, as we choose. I like to remember that the principles and purposes are just an excerpt from a set of bylaws. As bylaws they’re important for operating the nonprofit corporation called the Unitarian Universalist Association. But they do not represent the core of Unitarian Universalism.

Whatever the delegates decide in June, it won’t have any effect on the core of Unitarian Universalism. And for the core of Unitarian Universalism, I go back to Ethelred Brown. We are a community based on inquisitiveness and truthfulness. That’s what’s really important to us.


(1) E. Ethelred Brown, “Why I Am What I Am” (circa 1947), reprinted in A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism, Vol. 2: From 1900 to the Present, ed. Dan McKanan (Boston: Skinner House, 2017), pp. 140-143.
(2) Dan Wakefield, Returning: A Spiritual Journey (Doubleday, 1984), p. 1.
(3) My recollection is that this is what he called himself when he gave a talk in New Bedford on April 25, 2006.
(4) Ethelred Brown, “A Brief History of the Harlem Unitarian Church,” typescript from archives on the Meadville/Lombard Theological School website; dated Sept. 11, 1949.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Joyce Moore Turner, “The Rev. E. Ethelred Brown and the Harlem Renaissance, 1920–2020,” Journal of Caribbean History, vol. 54 (2020), no. 1.
(7) Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Juan M, The Origins of Black Humanism in America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
(8) Ethelred Brown, 1949.
(9) The racism and hostility with which the American Unitarian Association treated Brown is covered in some detail in Mark Morrison-Reed, “A Dream Aborted: Ethelred Brown in Jamaica and Harlem,” Black Pioneers in a White Denomination (3rd ed.) (Boston,: Skinner House, 1994), pp. 31-111. Mark Morrison-Reed also gives insight into how Brown’s own strengths and weaknesses contributed to keeping the Harlem Unitarian Church small.

For more about Ethelred Brown, the New York Public Library has a good brief biography online in the finding aid to the Egbert Ethelred Brown collection. See also Mark Morrison-Reed’s book referenced in note (9) above.

For more about Dan Wakefield, his memoir Returning: A Spiritual Journey (Doubleday, 1984) has been reissued by Beacon Press and is still in print. One obituary that captures Dan’s personality can be found at the Indy Star news website.