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.

John Murray Spear, Universalist and Abolitionist

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is rather long, and is from a sermon preached in 1774 by Elhanan Winchester, one of the earliest Universalist preachers in this country — he was preaching Universalism before John Murray arrived from England.

“There is one abomination… that prevails in this country, that calls aloud not only for sighing and crying, but for a speedy reformation and turning therefrom, if we desire to prevent destruction from coming upon us; I mean, the SLAVE TRADE….

“The very principle upon which it is founded, from which it springs, and by which it is carried on, is one of the most base and ignoble that ever disgraced the human species:

“WHICH is, Avarice. This mean and unworthy passion certainly had has a principal hand in this disgraceful traffic; no one can pretend that benevolence ever had, or ever can have, a hand in such a most infamous commerce. Avarice tends to harden the heart, to render the mind callous to the feelings of humanity, indisposes the soul to every virtue, and renders it prey to every vice. Ought we not to be ashamed of such a commerce, that has it rise from no better principle than mere selfishness or covetousness?…

“HAVING considered the principle from whence it originated, and to which its existence is owing, I pass to mention the horrible manner in which it is carried on. And here almost every vice that blackens and degrades human nature is employed; such as, deceiving, perfidy, decoying, stealing, lying, fomenting feuds and discords among the nations of Africa, robbery, plunder, burning, murder, cruelty of all kinds, and the most savage and unexampled barbarism.

“BLUSH… to think that ye are the supporters of a commerce that employs these, and many other vices to carry it on! Could you but think seriously of the disgraceful and cruel manner in which slaves are obtained, methinks you could not attempt to justify the horrid practice. Numbers are stolen while going out on their lawful business, are never suffered to return home to take leave of their friends; but are gagged and bound, then carried on board the vessels which wait for them, never more to see their native land again, but to drag out a miserable existence in chains, hunger, thirst, cold, nakedness, hard labour, and perpetual slavery.

“THINK, O ye tender mothers, how you would feel, if, when ye should send your little boys or girls to fetch a pitcher, or calabash of water from the spring, you should never see them return again! if some barbarous kidnapper should watch the opportunity, and seize upon your darlings, as the eagle upon its prey! should gag your sweet prattling babes, and force them away! how would your souls refuse to be comforted! such is the pain that many mothers feel in Africa, and God can cause it to come home to yourselves, who contribute to such an abomination as this.”

[From Universalism in America: A Documentary History of a Liberal Faith, edited by Ernest Cassara. Capitalized words found in this edition.]


The second reading is quite short, and it comes from an address which John Murray Spear gave to the Universalist Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. After summarizing Elhanan Winchester’s anti-slavery sermon, Spear said, “[Universalists should] oppose all monopolies, despise all partiality, break down all unnatural distinctions, elevate the despised classes, and introduce a system of perfect equality.”

[Quoted in Russell Miller, The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770-1870, p. 594.]


This is the first in a series of occasional sermons about the history of our congregation. We are the direct institutional descendants of three congregations:– First Congregational Society (Unitarian) of New Bedford; First Universalist Church of New Bedford; and North Unitarian Church (Unitarian). 2008 will mark the three hundredth anniversary of the oldest of our three antecedent churches, First Congregational Society, later First Unitarian; in honor of that anniversary, this fall I plan to tell you about several unsung heroes and heroines from all three of our antecedent churches.

And I decided to start off with the most remarkable minister who ever was called to serve in one of those three churches. John Murray Spear was the first minister of First Universalist Church, when that congregation was formally incorporated in 1835. John Murray Spear was a remarkable man in many ways, both good and at times not-so-good. On the not-so-good side, later in his life he got so far into eccentric and far-out beliefs that he managed to alienate most of his old friends. But on the good side, he was a staunch Garrisonian abolitionist who advocated an immediate end to slavery as early as the 1830’s, when that was not a popular stance; he attracted African American members to First Universalist Church in a day when integrated churches were almost unimaginable, in a day when the Unitarian church in New Bedford kept a segregated pew for African Americans; and history indicates that he befriended and encouraged Frederick Douglass not long after Douglass escaped slavery and came to New Bedford, before Douglass become famous for his oratory.

But let’s begin at the beginning, and our beginning is to understand a little bit about Universalism. As you probably know, or could figure out, Universalism originally was the belief that all souls get to go to heaven; it was the belief that a benevolent God would be too good to allow the existence of hell.

Once the early Universalists in North America reached that conclusion, they quickly went a step further. They pronounced themselves egalitarians, that is, they asserted their belief in the essential equality of all humankind. This radical egalitarianism has stuck in Universalism, and in Universalists, down to the present day. Those of us who call ourselves Universalists today may or may not believe in God, but we most certainly believe in the infinite value of every human being.

It comes as no surprise, then, that early Universalists became active in cause of liberty during the American Revolution. Caleb Rich, one of the earliest Universalist preachers, fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, became a prominent Universalist. In 1791, Benjamin Rush wrote, “A belief in God’s universal love to all his creatures… leads to truths upon all subjects, but especially upon the subject of government. It establishes the equality of mankind.” Historian Ann Lee Bressler tells us that Benjamin Rush’s Universalism was “a rational and ultimately cheerful faith well-suited to a free and democratic society.” [Bressler, p. 19] What was true of Benjamin Rush was no less true of other early Universalists.

And those early Universalists were not afraid to apply their egalitarian principles to difficult subjects like slavery. As we heard in the first reading this morning, the Universalist preacher Elhanan Winchester spoke out against slavery in a strongly worded sermon as early as 1774. Along with John Murray, Winchester was one of the two towering figures of 18th C. Universalism; thus his sermon against slavery had a large influence. The sermon was widely distributed, influenced many of his contemporaries, and wound up influencing later generations as well.

Between the late 1700’s and the 1830’s, however, Universalism lost some of its early egalitarianism. By the mid-1830’s, a fair number of Universalists actively supported slavery. Not surprisingly, many of them lived in the Southern states, but there were plenty of northern Universalists who distanced themselves from applying egalitarian principles to enslaved Africans and African Americans. Even among the Universalists who did oppose slavery, many refused to take the hard-line stance of the abolitionists, saying that they didn’t want to anger the southern Universalists, didn’t want to promote divisiveness in the country or in the denomination. Maybe we can better understand this attitude if we remember that through much of late 18th C. and even into the 19th C., Universalists were reviled by the orthodox Christians; to proclaim yourself a Universalist was to risk being ostracized by friends, community, even your own family; to preach Universalism meant risking bodily harm, for there were orthodox Christians who physically assaulted Universalists to prevent the Universalist doctrine of love from being preached. I don’t mean to excuse them, but by the 1830’s, Universalists had begun to achieve a measure of respectability, and so perhaps some Universalists of that time preferred to avoid controversial topics like abolitionism.

Some Universalists may have preferred to avoid controversy, but not John Murray Spear. John Murray Spear was named after the great Universalist preacher John Murray. In fact, as a baby John Murray Spear was dedicated by no less a person than the great John Murray (remember that because of his Universalist beliefs, John Murray did not baptize children to cleanse them of original sin, instead he dedicated them to the highest purposes in life). The great John Murray was willing to take great risks to proclaim his Universalist faith; and perhaps some of that willingness rubbed off on the little baby John Murray Spear, because when that little baby grew up, he turned into a man who was willing to proclaim abolition of slavery at great risk to himself.

(Since this is the first day of Sunday school, I might add here that those of you who are raising your children in this church should be aware that even today Unitarian Universalist kids wind up being staunch egalitarians, who do things like pass up high-paying jobs in favor of work that pays far less but creates justice for all, and spreads good in the world. Consider yourself duly warned. But I digress….)

When John Murray Spear came to New Bedford in 1835, he discovered that New Bedford was notable for its racial tolerance. I will not say claim that it was a fully tolerant city; there was distinct legal and personal discrimination by white folks against people of color; but for its time, New Bedford was a remarkably tolerant place. People of color could earn a decent living in the whaling industry. People of color were accorded a higher level of freedom and respect by white people than in most other places in the United States. And fugitive slaves discovered that the city was a safe harbor for them, where they could blend in to a racially mixed populace, where they could find friendly help, and where they could find secure work.

Spear was already an abolitionist when he came to New Bedford. But he went further than just being an abolitionist; he got to know prominent members of the African American community in New Bedford. For example, Spear got to know Nathan Johnson. Nathan Johnson was a prominent African American citizen of New Bedford who represented the city for a number of years at the annual convention for free people of color; and his house was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Indeed, Nathan Johnson is best known for his role in the Underground Railroad, because in 1838 he took in an escaped slave named Frederick Johnson, and it was Nathan Johnson who helped the now free man to decide to change his name to Frederick Douglass.

The historian John Buescher recently published a biography of John Murray Spear and his brother Charles, and Buescher tells us this about John Murray Spear’s time in New Bedford: “One of Spear’s church members in New Bedford was Nathan Johnson, the gentleman with whom Frederick Douglass lived when he settled in the city after his escape from slavery. In his church one day, Spear found Douglass debating with members of his congregation. They were arguing for universal salvation, and Douglass was arguing for the existence of eternal punishment. Spear was much impressed with Douglass’s abilities and encouraged him to become a public speaker.” [Buescher, p. 171]

This short little anecdote tells us three very important things about this history of our own First Universalist Church. First, we have an important connection to Frederick Douglass, because John Murray Spear was one of those who very early on encouraged Douglass to become a public speaker. Second, Douglass actually came to our First Universalist Church, and although he was misguided enough to insist on the existence of eternal punishment, it is of some interest that he came at all. Third — and this is the most interesting bit of information — Nathan Johnson was at that time a member of First Universalist Church. I’m quite impressed that our own First Universalist Church welcomed African American members that early; to the best of my knowledge, that didn’t happen in First Unitarian until much later.

All this tells us that those early New Bedford Universalists were people of whom we can be proud. They had a religious belief in egalitarianism, and they lived out that belief. Indeed, history tells us that they sometimes became frustrated with other Universalists. By autumn, 1841, the New Bedford church was one of only two Universalist churches in Massachusetts which had adopted official resolutions supporting the abolition of slavery. The New Bedford Universalists publicly expressed their frustration when the local association of Universalists refused to even consider the matter of abolition. And when the Universalist Anti-Slavery Convention, of which they were founding members, proceeded more slowly than they liked, they shrewdly invited Frederick Douglass to accompany them to a meeting of the convention in the fall of 1841. When the convention wavered at the thought of voting for a resolution aimed at the Southern Universalist congregations which supported slavery, Douglass spoke up, and the power of his oratory so convinced the delegates that the resolution passed unanimously.

We can only imagine what it must have been like to be a part of that congregation. Universalists in those days were still fairly pugnacious, still willing to speak out loudly and publicly against the doctrine of eternal punishment; and Universalists in New Bedford made no bones about wanting to abolish slavery. And even though First Universalist had a white minister and a majority of white church members, it appears certain the congregation welcomed both black and white people into their church. I think I would have liked to have been a part of that congregation; they sound like my kind of people.

Unfortunately, John Murray Spear was forced to leave New Bedford in 1841 as a direct result of his abolitionist activities. Sometime in the summer of 1841, a southern slave-holder traveled to New Bedford accompanied by an 18 year old slave named Lucy Faggins. Under an 1836 law, Lucy Faggins technically became free the moment she stepped onto Massachusetts soil. So Rev. Thomas James, minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and some other members of the New Bedford Anti-Slavery Society went and attempted to tell her that she was free. Then James and John Murray Spear took out a writ of habeus corpus, with the claim that Lucy Faggins was being unlawfully restrained by her master. The case ended well for Faggins, who achieved her freedom; but it ended badly for John Murray Spear. Susan Taber, who lived in New Bedford at that time, wrote about how once Lucy Faggins had been freed, the pro-slavery faction in New Bedford became determined to ruin John Murray Spear — they threatened Spear with arrest and prosecution, and made his life so difficult that he had to resign his pulpit here and move to the Universalist church in Weymouth. So ended a glorious ministry for First Universalist Church in New Bedford.

After he left New Bedford, Spear continued to work hard for the abolition of slavery. By 1844, Spear was sharing the lecture stage with Frederick Douglass in the “One Hundred Conventions” campaign of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Spear also went on to work with his brother Charles for prison reform. His life embodied the Universalist principle of true egalitarianism.

And so I will end this sermon about John Murray Spear with a quizzical observation: here is a minister from one of our antecedent congregations, a minister who embodied our highest values, and yet his name appears nowhere in this building. We have on our walls here the names of many lesser ministers, and even the names of one or two forgettable ministers. But I would suggest that the story of John Murray Spear as I have told it this morning offers us at least two splendid opportunities as we approach the celebration of the 300th anniversary of the founding of First Unitarian. We could think about how we might celebrate John Murray Spear and the other ministers of First Universalist Church. And we could think about how we might celebrate the fact that Nathan Johnson was an early African American member of First Universalist. I don’t quite know how we will make use of these opportunities. Will we try to get the names of First Universalist’s ministers on the walls of this sanctuary? Will we name one of our rooms after Nathan Johnson? I don’t know how to answer that, but I do know that this congregation is able to come up with amazingly creative ways to take advantage of opportunities like these.

Universalism for Such a Time as This

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading comes from “Treatise on Atonement,” written in 1805 by the Universalist minister and theologian Hosea Ballou. Ballou visited New Bedford in the late 1820’s, and his preaching led to the establishment of First Universalist Church, which merged with this congregation in 1930. In arguing for the truth of the doctrine of universal salvation, Ballou wrote:

“I would argue again, from a reasonable idea, admitted by all, namely, that mankind, in their moral existence, originated in God. Why, then, do we deny his final assimilation with the fountain from whence he sprang? The streams and rivulets which water the hill-country run in every direction, as the make of land occasions. They are stained with various mines and soils through which they pass; but at last they find their entrance into the ocean, where their different courses are at an end, and they are tempered like the fountain which receives them. Though man, at present, forms an aspect similar to the waters in their various courses, yet, in the end of his race, I hope he will enjoy an union with his God, and with his fellows.”

[Treatise on Atonement, 3rd edition, 3.iii.]


The second reading this morning comes from the book “Foundations of Faith,” by the Universalist minister and theologian Albert Zeigler, published in 1959.

“The power of traditional Universalism was that, in its teaching of universal salvation, it spoke to every man of his infinite value. As the ancient Hebrew saw himself to be of divine importance, rescued and chosen by God; as the orthodox Christian found his eternal significance in the sacrifice of the Son of God for his welfare; so the Universalist saw his and all men’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 he does and how he does it is of ultimate concern, of infinite significance.”


We call ourselves “Unitarian Universalists,” a cumbersome name that came about in 1961 when the American Unitarian Association merged with the Universalist Church of America. These days, many of us leave off the second half of our name — instead of saying “Unitarian Universalist,” we just shorten our name to “Unitarian.” We call ourselves “Unitarian” not just because it’s a shorter name, but also because some of the old Universalist ideas seem thoroughly outdated.

Take, for example, the idea of universal salvation — the idea for which Universalism was originally named. Back in the 18th C., most people living in British North America, later the United States of America, believed that if you were good you’d get to go to heaven when you died, but if you were bad, you’d spend all eternity in the torments of hell after you died. But in the middle part of the 18th C., a few radical preachers in North America began to question the doctrine of eternal punishment for sin. These radical preachers, people like George DeBenneville in Philadelphia and Caleb Rich in Massachusetts began to teach that God is loving, and therefore God would not condemn anyone to eternal torment; they said that everyone gets to go to heaven. In short, they preached the idea of universal salvation, that everyone gets saved.

When the Universalist preacher John Murray arrived in the New World in 1770, this radical new idea began to spread more widely British North America. John Murray preached about universal salvation through the mid-Atlantic states and New England, greatly raising the profile of the emerging movement.

Murray and other early Universalist preachers faced ridicule and scorn for daring to preach that everyone would be saved. The more orthodox Christians believed you had to threaten people with hell and damnation to get them to behave well; they said that Universalists would destroy society be teaching that hell doesn’t exist — for if the people didn’t believe in hell, then they would indulge themselves in evil and sinful behavior. To which the Universalists drily replied that there was plenty of evil and sinful behavior in spite of the threat of hell, and they pointed out that in general Universalists behaved better, or at least no worse, than the rest of society. The early Universalists were great debaters; they had to be; for wherever they tried to start a new Universalist church, the orthodox Christians would challenge them to a debate.

On one memorable occasion, John Murray was telling a crowd about Universalism when his opponents began throwing stones in the windows. In his autobiography, Murray later recalled, “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 me. Had it sped as it was aimed, it must have killed me. Lifting it up, and waving it in the view of the people, I observed: This argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.”

The Universalist movement in America reached its peak in the middle of the 19th C. At one time, it had perhaps the fifth largest membership of any denomination in the United States. But then a funny thing happened. The other Protestant churches began to leave behind the idea of hell. The other Protestant ministers stopped preaching hellfire and damnation, at least, in the larger, more powerful denominations. After 80 or 90 years of debating, the Universalists basically won the debate, and it killed them.

Because of this, because there wasn’t much to distinguish Universalism from other mainstream Protestant denominations, Universalism began a long, slow decline. The denomination declined greatly in power and influence, and in the 1930’s began cooperating more and more with the Unitarians, until finally in 1961 the Unitarian and the Universalist denominations merged.

By the time of that 1961 merger that created the Unitarian Universalist Association, Universalism seemed almost irrelevant. In 1961, the big theological debates were about the death of God, not about hell and damnation. By 1961, probably half of all Universalists were humanists and didn’t believe in God anyway, let alone believe in damnation or salvation. To many Universalists, Universalism seemed little more than a pleasant tradition, a traditional holdover from times long past, charming but more than a little antiquated. Maybe they felt that the belief in hell was disappearing.

But here we are 46 years later, and belief in hell has not disappeared. In a Gallup Poll conducted in May, 2007, 69% of the American population reported that they believe in hell. The current president of the United States and many of our other elected representatives believe in hell, and believe in damnation. If these people believe in hell, that says to me that they believe in a God who is vengeful enough to condemn some human souls to eternal misery and torment. These are people who believe in the power of vengeance, who may believe that vengeance is as acceptable as diplomacy, and who may believe that vengeance is stronger than love and compassion. I sometimes wonder if such beliefs have an influence on foreign policy decisions — I suspect they do have an influence, although it seems to be an indirect influence, an unconscious influence.

And while I cannot prove it, I suspect the widespread belief in hell affects domestic policy decisions as well. Someone who believes in hell believes that some people are disposable. Hell, by definition, is a place where God disposes of some non-trivial number of souls, implying that at least some souls are disposable. If your religion tells you that some people are disposable, I would tend to think that such a belief could influence your decisions regarding domestic policy.

But because I don’t believe in hell myself, I have to admit that I don’t know how such a belief would affect a person’s actions. The real point is that hell has made a come-back in popular culture in the United States. Therefore, I believe it is time for us to dust off our old Universalist beliefs, look them over, and see what parts of Universalism could be useful to us in such a time as this.

Let us begin be stating Universalist beliefs in positive terms. Instead of saying that Universalists don’t believe in hell and eternal damnation, let us state what it is that Universalists believe in. And we may wish to use different language to state our beliefs positively. In 1959, Albert Ziegler said that if the phrase “universal salvation” no longer has much meaning for us, we need to find another way of saying the same thing. With that in mind, let me offer three positive statements of Universalist belief, and then apply them to a current issue in our community.

Albert Ziegler gave one positive statement of Universalist beliefs when he said, “The power of traditional Universalism was that, in its teaching of universal salvation, it spoke to every man of his infinite value.” Today, we would remove the gender-specific language, saying that Universalism speaks to every person, to all people, of their infinite value. A second statement of Universalist beliefs may be found among the so-called seven principles of Unitarian Universalism, the principle that states that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. We could put these two statements together, saying: Each and every person is of infinite value, and so we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. There are no disposable human beings.

And here’s a third way of restating and updating traditional Universalist beliefs: all human beings share in the same final destiny. We heard one statement of that in the first reading this morning. Originally, the phrase “final destiny” was meant to refer to heaven, or final union with God. Today, when we are worrying about the effects of global climate change, when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set its Doomsday Clock a little closer to midnight, when we are engaged in a war that seems to be out of control — today, the term “final destiny” may take on a somewhat different meaning. If our species is going to survive, we had better figure out how to treat each other, and treat the earth, better. As the saying goes, we had better all hang together, or we will all hang separately.

Now let’s apply these issues to a current issue in our community, an issue that has particular relevance to our church. Our church bylaws specifically state that we will not discriminate against persons because of their gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical ability. And each week when I read the welcoming words before our worship service, I say, “Here at First Unitarian, we value our differences of age, gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, and theology.” On one level, this is simply another way of saying that we value the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. But on a deeper level, this is a pretty radical statement.

Our community, the greater New Bedford region, is a community that, on the surface, is relatively peaceful and tolerant. But like much of New England, there are deep divisions between the people who live in our community. We are divided by age — our youth are divided from older people, sometimes in very public and acrimonious arguments; our elders are often divided from younger people. We are divided by race — while we don’t have much outright racial violence, you can still find lots of racial division and racial discrimination in our community. We are divided by national origin — with the current uncertainty around immigration, and the recent raid at the Michael Bianco plant, our community is divided by national origin. We are deeply divided by class — with physical divisions between wealthy and not-so-wealthy neighborhoods, and psychic divisions because lower income people feel politically voiceless.

I could go on, but you get the point: we have some significant divisions in our community. I hasten to assure you that our community is fairly peaceful, certainly more peaceful than some other cities in Massachusetts. And I hasten to assure you that we a relatively tolerant community; compared to much of the United States, we are quite tolerant indeed. So compared to the rest of the world, you could truthfully say that we’re doing quite well.

And within our church, I think we manage to do better than even the surrounding community. Compared to the surrounding community, First Unitarian is a relatively tolerant place. No, we’re not perfect — far from it — but compared to the rest of the world, you could truthfully say that we’re a fairly tolerant and welcoming place.

But as a Universalist, I want to go further than that. If our community is relatively tolerant compared to the rest of the world, why not take it to the next level? If our church is relatively tolerant compared to our community, why not take it to the next level? We may be good, but surely we can be better. As a Universalist, I am an incurable optimist. I know every person has inherent worth and dignity, and I want to try to live my life as if that’s really true. And I want to hold this up as an ideal for the whole community.

I may be an optimist, but I also want to know how we could make this idea into reality. Speaking realistically, I know we’re not going to completely erase racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, ableism, or other forms of discrimination in the greater New Bedford area. Nor are we going to completely erase all discrimination within our own church.

Yet I do believe it is possible for us to get better at acting as if each and every person has inherent worth and dignity. I don’t have any final answers, but I believe it would be helpful to talk more openly about the divisions that do exist in the surrounding community. Not that we should indulge ourselves in guilt and shame, for in my experience guilt and shame are not particularly effective ways to change people’s behavior. But we do need to be able to talk openly about continuing racism in our community — discrimination such as racism, sexism, homophobia, discrimination based on economic status, and so on. Thus a key skill for us to practice will be to listen deeply and carefully to one another — for it is impossible someone to talk openly unless the rest of us listen deeply and openly.

I believe that we have to spend more time talking about and examining our religious and theological reasons for ending discrimination. We have some compelling religious reasons to do away with discrimination, not just from our Universalist side, but also from our Unitarian side. I believe, too, that we have to be able to clearly state, in religious terms, why we believe each person has inherent worth and dignity. Once we can talk about our faith, once we can clearly articulate what we value and who we are, it is but a few short steps to living out our values in day-to-day life.

I believe that in this church we have to act always as if all people are valuable. Perhaps this is one of the first steps we can take towards living out our religious beliefs:– to practice living out our religious beliefs here in a relatively safe church community. Racism and sexism and homophobia and classism have been around for centuries, and we’d be naive to think we can put an end to them tomorrow. But as a first step, perhaps we can put an end to them for a couple of hours each Sunday, while we’re here at church.

And so we wind up facing the age-old question: How do we live out our deeply-held beliefs? How do we live out our most cherished values? As you would expect, I don’t have any firm and final pronouncements to offer — no person can tell person exactly how to live out his or her values. But I raise this as an important issue, a key issue for us. And I do believe that the religious insights of Universalism have much to offer us. We know that all persons are of equal value, we know that there are no disposable human beings, we know that all human beings share in the same final destination. Once we are clear about those religious values, all we have to do is figure out how to act upon them.