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