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.

Why the Seven Principles Must Change

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, at 10:00 a.m. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.

Sermon — “Why the Seven Principles Must Change”

I’ll be talking this morning about Section C-2.1 of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, or the UUA. That section is titled “Principles,” and I’ll be talking about the first half of these principles, which have come to be known as the “seven principles.” If you’d like to see these principles while I speak, you can find this section of the UUA bylaws in the gray hymnal, on an unnumbered page just after the preface.

Let me tell you a little bit of the story of how the seven principles came into being. The first set of UUA principles were adopted in 1961 when the Unitarians and Universalists consolidated. In the 1970s, the feminist revolution swept through us Unitarian Universalists, and we came to realize the extent to which we had always envisioned liberal religion in male terms. By the late 1970s, it had become clear that the old UUA principles were clearly sexist in their language, and even in their assumptions. It was time to revise them.

In 1981, a revised version of the principles was presented to General Assembly, which is the annual meeting of elected representatives from congregations. This first revision had removed gender-specific language and, not surprisingly, given the preponderance of humanists within the UUA, had also removed all references to God. As you might imagine, this revision ignited one of the innumerable battles between humanists and theists, which threatened to mire the whole process in endless and acrimonious debate. So General Assembly voted to create a special committee to come up with another revision of the principles. That special committee sent out innumerable questionnaires, got lots of good suggestions, developed another revision of the principles, and then sent out that revision to be reviewed again, and got more good suggestions. They presented their findings at the next General Assembly, in 1982, and they led scores of small group discussions. They wrote another draft, sent that draft out to all congregations, created a new draft that was debated at the 1983 General Assembly, and then finally presented a final draft to the 1984 General Assembly, which was amended. Their painstaking attention to process paid off when General Assembly approved the revised principles in a nearly unanimous vote. Since this was a revision of the UUA bylaws, a second vote was required at the next General Assembly in 1985, and again the revised version of section C-2.1 of the bylaws passed with a nearly unanimous vote.

Since then, the revised principles have served the UUA reasonably well. But ten years ago, in 2001, Rev. Walter Royal Jones, who chaired that committee charged with drafting the new principles, noted that the principles might be due for some revision. Jones said, “We should not be surprised at some restiveness. On the one hand, some are uneasy with what they see as a kind of creeping creedalism in the way we use [the principles]. On the other there is a perception of incompleteness, with important, arguably necessary, empowering assumptions about cosmic reality and our particular place in it” that were left unsaid. Jones goes on to note that some people are dissatisfied with an overemphasis on with the emphasis on the individual, such that “the creative nature of community and interdependence are only tardily and inadequately acknowledged.” (1)

Or you might think about it this way. The 1980s was a decade when the selfish “Me Generation” of the 1970s was moving into the selfishness and extreme individualism of the 1990s and 2000s. Notions of some greater good to which humanity should aspire were replaced by naked greed and extreme individualism, and that naked greed and individualism led to crises like the savings and loan crisis of the 1990s, and the financial meltdown and Great Recession of the late 2000s. We adopted the revised UUA principles with the best of intentions in 1985, but they were a product of their times. So let us cast a critical eye upon them, and think whether they might need revision yet again.


1. Let me begin my gentle criticism by talking briefly about the literary quality of the seven principles: they haven’t any. The prose style reminds me of those mission statements that get generated by committees — you know, long involved mission statements where you try to please everyone, and include every suggestion that is made so that no one is offended. Of course, that’s exactly how the UUA principles were created: by a committee, who over a period of years tried to include every reasonable suggestion that was made so as not to offend anyone.

A lack of literary quality in such documents is not necessarily a bad thing. The seven principles are really a part of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and we expect bylaws to have a certain legalistic quality to them. Reading bylaws should be like reading the book of Leviticus in the Bible — the legalistic precision necessary to set forth rules and regulations should result in a document which will put you to sleep when you’ve got insomnia. When you’re writing bylaws, you expect to sacrifice poetry for legalistic precision.

Unfortunately, the seven principles try to combine poetry into the necessary legalistic precision. The result is a document that can sound mildly impressive when you read it out loud, but the attempt at poetry interferes with legalistic precision, and so the principles never seem to call us to account. The mix of poetry and legalism leads to a long, involved, and imprecise statement.

Compare the seven principles to the five points of Unitarianism set forth in 1886 in a sermon by Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke: “The fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and progress onwards and upwards forever.” (Clarke’s five point of Unitarianism, although never officially adopted by the American Unitarian Association, were adopted by many Unitarian congregations, and continued in use for most of a century.) There’s no vagueness in Clarke’s five points of Unitarianism. He says what he means with clarity, precision, and real depth of thought. Mind you, I would argue with every point he makes — I would never affirm the masculine fatherhood of God, for example — but I can admire the precision and economy with which he affirms that we have to refer to something that is greater and better than we are as individuals, and I can admire that he doesn’t beat around the bush. By contrast, I find a good deal of beating around of bushes in the seven principles.

Perhaps the primary virtue of Clarke’s five points of Unitarianism is its brevity. The problem with the seven principles is that they go on for so long that I always forget some of them; to make it worse, the seven principles are only half the matter, and then you have to read the six sources — the other half of that section UUA principles — as well. Because the seven principles go on for so long, it’s really hard to remember any of them. Usually, the only one we all remember is that one that says something about the inherent worth and dignity of each individual, which unfortunately tends to get reduced to, “MY inherent worth and dignity, and don’t you forget it!”


2. This brings us to my second gentle criticism of the seven principles. Walter Royal Jones put it this way: in the seven principles, “the creative nature of community and interdependence are only tardily and inadequately acknowledged.” I would put it this way: the seven principles come across as overly individualistic and selfish.

I will admit that a good bit of the selfishness of the seven principles comes from the uses to which we put them. I have witnessed more than one fifth grader say that they should get to do whatever they want because of their inherent worth and dignity. I have witnessed more than one adult say that their congregation should bow to their individual wishes because affirming the democratic process means they get to have their way. And that principle that encourages of spiritual growth in our congregations often gets interpreted to mean that other people should grow so that they can reach our lofty spiritual level. In short, much of the selfishness in the seven principles comes from the way we misinterpret them.

But this problem in turn arises because of the ease with which the principles are misinterpreted. Compare the seven principles to the Washington Declaration of the Universalist General Conference of 1935, which ends with the bold statement that we avow faith “in the power of men of good-will and sacrificial spirit to overcome evil and progressively establish the Kingdom of God.” This is a short, bold, and unambiguous statement that is more difficult to interpret for selfish gain; I would love it if the seven principles said that we are people of good will would are willing to sacrifice much in order to overcome evil.

Actually, Section 2 of the UUA bylaws does include one distinct and direct call to action, which sadly never gets quoted. That call to action comes in Section C-2.4, the non-discrimination clause, and it reads as follows: “The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.” If we took this clause seriously, we would be a different congregation. For example, if we took this clause seriously, every door and every room on this campus would be accessible to wheelchairs at all times. Right now, they are not. Until we revise the seven principles, we would do well, I think, to pay far more attention to this non-discrimination clause.


3. This brings me to my final point today: the seven principles don’t adequately address what I might term the Miss Marple philosophy of life. Miss Marple is a fictional detective, the literary creation of mystery writer Agatha Christie. In Christie’s books, Miss Marple directly confronts evil and what she calls “wickedness.” Here’s a brief taste of the Miss Marple view of life, taken from the novel A Pocketful of Rye:

“‘It sounds rather cruel,’ said Pat.

“‘Yes, my dear,’ said Miss Marple, ‘life is cruel, I’m afraid.’”

Miss Marple knows that often life is cruel, that evil and wickedness are abroad in the world, and that it is up to persons of high moral and ethical standards to do battle with evil and wickedness. Miss Marple understands that life might be a little less cruel if we would all stand up to evil and wickedness.

Actually, I think all of us would agree that evil and wickedness are abroad in this world, even if we wouldn’t use Miss Marple’s terms. This is why so many of us in this congregation work so hard for social justice. I’ll give you some examples of how people in this congregation fight against evil and wickedness in the world. Homelessness is an evil, and every September our congregation fights homelessness by hosting Hotel de Zink, an emergency shelter for people who are homeless. Global climate change is an evil caused by us human beings, and our congregation fights global climate change through our Green Sanctuary program — and you will notice that we now have photovoltaic panels on our roof to help reduce our carbon footprint. Loneliness and lack of human contact are an evil endemic in today’s isolating society, and we fight those evils together with our various small groups and our caring network. So you see, in our congregation, we are already fighting evil and wickedness.

While the seven principles do include weak statements to support our existing work of fighting evil and wickedness, I would prefer a stronger statement. If Miss Marple were rewriting the first of the seven principles, she would say:

“…It’s very wicked, you know, to affront human dignity.”

Or we could simply make a more general statement, something along the lines of the Washington Declaration of the old Universalists: “We affirm the power of people of good-will and sacrificial spirit to fight and to overcome evil, and to progressively establish an earth made fair and all her people one.”

Fortunately, we do not have to wait for the seven principles to be revised. Here in our congregation, we have our own unofficial affirmation of our faith, our own reason for being. We say that we aim to transform ourselves, each other, and the world. We take it as a given that we are transforming ourselves, each other, and the world, for the better. In Miss Marple’s terms, we are standing up to evil and wickedness in the world. But we also aim to strengthen our selves, and we aim to support and strengthen those around us. This fight for a better world, for an earth made fair and all her people one, is not an easy fight. It requires strength and courage.

If you find the seven principles to be useful to you as you fight against evil and wickedness in this world, I hope you’ll continue to rely upon them for strength and courage. We need to draw on strength wherever we can; my gentle criticisms are not intended to do away with the seven principles, but rather to revise them so that they may strengthen and encourage us even more. We are all in this together — you, me, and even Miss Marple — we are all standing up against evil and wickedness, we are all drawing courage from one another, we are all struggling together for that earth made fair with all her people one.


(1) History of adoption of the seven principles from Warren Ross, The Premise and the Promise, Boston: Skinner House, 2001, pp. 91-100. Jones quotes on pp. 99-100.

(2) Miss Marple quotes taken from Agatha Christie, A Pocketful of Rye, 1953.

The Eighth Principle

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.


I chose the readings this morning because I wanted you to hear the voices of non-white people who are Unitarian Universalists. And I’ll be reading publicly-available writings by two people I happen to know, Kon Heong McNaughton, and Alicia Roxanne Ford.

The first reading is by Alicia Roxanne Ford, poet, Unitarian Universalist minister, who also happens to be a black woman born on the Caribbean island of Tobago.

“At thirteen I sat on the beach watching the sun set. Do you know that moment… the moment when the sun first meets the horizon? The kiss lightly ‘hello’ — then the embrace begins? That moment when sun and sea seem to melt seamlessly into one effortless creation… new every evening and at the same time birthing dusk — if you are observant, careful — you will see the moon and maybe, just maybe a brave star. Depending on your angle, it will seem as though the coconut trees are offering a blessing — and the waves are humming a prayer. At thirteen — just for one evening, one private moment, I had the right angle and there was an instant in all of this that I could not tell where I began/ended — it was not the sun, but I who melted seamlessly…and it was I who nodded my lean body offering a blessing… my tears were waves praying for World. In that one moment, god was everywhere in all things and beyond all; transcendent and immanent — in that one moment, I heard the sea calling…. Calling. And without knowing why, I gave myself.

“…At the cornerstone of that calling and my own theological outlook is ‘respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part’ as well as a deep appreciation for the ‘direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder…which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.’ Coming to this ecclesial body has been a blessing… in many ways, it had to be this one free church movement and no other. While the Unitarian Universalist movement remains a work in progress, what is significant at this time for me is that we remain so — willing to engage and live into what it means to be wholly alive, struggling with race/class/gender/sexism/religious pluralism/political conflict and so on — all of which shapes us as we seek to shape and influence them. As challenging as it often is, what draws me and keeps me here is the opportunity to wrestle in community — as well as opportunities to live out my authentic theological praxis.”

[Ellipses are Alicia’s., accessed 25 October 2007]

The second reading is from “Why I am a UU: An Asian Immigrant Perspective,” by Kok Heong McNaughton. Kok Heong writes:

“I am an ethnic Chinese born and raised in Malaysia….

“I first heard the word ‘Unitarian’ in 1976 from a Taiji student of mine who was a member of the Unitarian Church of Los Alamos. This was back when transcendental meditation was the ‘in’ thing. I was comparing Taiji as a meditation in movement with transcendental meditation and this student said to me, ‘Oh yes, we meditate in our church.’ This intrigued me. What kind of church does meditation? She said, ‘Unitarian Church.’ I said, ‘Never heard of it.’ I looked in my Chinese-English dictionary and I couldn’t find a translation of the word.

“Talk about miracle! I heard the word for the second time that week when I met a young woman at the Newcomer’s playgroup who also attended the Unitarian Church. When I indicated an interest, instead of giving me an earful, she simply called up the church office and put me on their newsletter mailing list. Through reading the newsletter, I followed the activities of this church for several months before attending my first service.

“This was a service about Amnesty International. It blew my mind. Back home in Malaysia, I grew up without political freedom. As students, we were told to avoid any involvement in politics. Our job was to study. Leave politics to the politicians. Accept the status quo. Don’t rock the boat. You’ll be OK. Try to make trouble? You’ll mysteriously disappear and rot in a jail somewhere. Here I was flabbergasted because here’s a group of people whose passion was to free political prisoners in third world countries! I never knew about Amnesty International. I suddenly felt this connection of humankind for one another, that there are people here in the free world who care enough to fight against injustices in the world. I never knew of a church that would take a stand on human rights issues. I had thought that all one does in a church was to sing hymns, praise the Lord, pray for one another’s salvation, and put money in the collection basket.

“After that first service, I returned again and again. The more I found out about Unitarian Universalism, the more it fitted. I particularly appreciated the use of science and reason to explore and to determine for oneself what is the truth, what are myths, what to accept and what to reject in building one’s own unique theology. I didn’t have to take everything on blind, unquestioning faith. Another aspect of Unitarian Universalism that makes me feel special as an Asian American is the emphasis on cultural, ethnic and religious diversity. I didn’t have to check a part of me at the door and to pretend to be who I wasn’t. My ethnic differences were not only accepted, but they were affirmed and upheld. People were interested in what I had to share: I teach Taiji and Qigong, I taught Chinese cooking classes, I bring ethnic foods to our potlucks, I even share my language with those who were interested. I am often consulted about Taoist and Buddhist practices and readings, and asked if I thought the translations were accurate. My opinion mattered. This not only gives me pride in my culture, but it also encourages me to dig deeper into my own heritage, to find out more in areas where my knowledge and expertise are lacking. It helps me to look at my heritage with fresh eyes.”


Each fall, I try to devote at least one sermon to the so-called “seven principles.” For those of you who have never heard of the “seven principles,” they come from article 2.1 of the Bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We are a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and as such we have agreed to affirm and promote these seven principles. And for those of you who may not yet be familiar with them, here are the seven principles:

We affirm and promote: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

Mind you, these seven principles are not a creed, nor are they a statement of religious belief. As Unitarian Universalists, we’re not particularly concerned with what you believe; but we do care about what people do with their lives. As I read them, these seven principles are a call to action. As we live our lives, we aim to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves; to promote justice, equity, and compassion; to accept each other and encourage one another in spiritual growth; to always engage in a search for truth and meaning; to affirm and promote democratic process; to work towards the goal of world community; and to respect our planet earth.

We often talk about these seven principles, but it seems to me that there’s at least one more principle, an eighth principle if you will, that we need to talk about. If you read a little further in Article 2 of bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, you will come to section 2.3, which reads as follows:

“The Association declares and affirms its special responsibility, and that of its member congregations and organizations, to promote the full participation of persons in all of its and their activities and in the full range of human endeavor without regard to race, ethnicity, gender, disability, affectional or sexual orientation, age, language, citizenship status, economic status, or national origin and without requiring adherence to any particular interpretation of religion or to any particular religious belief or creed.”

This is what I call the eighth principle. Each week, we read a slightly modified version of this eighth principle at the very beginning of our worship services. It lies at the very core of who we are as a congregation here in First Unitarian in New Bedford. Although it is related to the other seven principles, this eighth principle goes beyond those other seven because it tells us that we have a “special responsibility” to live out the ideals of justice and equality for all persons in our congregations and in the wider world. This morning, I’d like to focus on one way in which we Unitarian Universalists have tried to live out this “eighth principle” of ours. And to do that, let’s go back in time….

A few forward-looking Unitarians and Universalists have always been at the forefront of racial justice. Our own John Murray Spear, the first minister of First Universalist church, one of our antecedent churches, helped form an interracial congregation here in New Bedford in the 1830’s. Unfortunately, we had our share of segregationists, too, and an even bigger number of people who didn’t care one way or the other. But by the 1950’s, there was a growing awareness among Unitarians and Universalists that racial equity and racial justice lies at the heart of our religious tradition.

I’ll give you one minor example of how that growing awareness played out in the 1950’s. My mother, who was not a particularly unusual Unitarian, was a schoolteacher, and in the early 1950’s she got a job working in the Wilmington, Delaware, school system, teaching in an integrated school. She told us how one day she was walking down the street holding the hands of two kindergarteners, when a man drove by and shouted a racial epithet at her — both of those children happened to be African American children, and that man shouted “nigger lover” at her, a truly offensive thing to say where those children could hear it. I’m sure that man didn’t care much about giving offense. But when he called her a lover, he spoke some truth: she was a lover of her fellow human beings: as a typical Unitarian of her day, my mother followed the moral principle that you should love your neighbor as yourself; and she also followed the growing moral awareness that you should fight racism in the wider society.

Well, that is just one tiny incident among many others. A few of our churches became integrated and even truly inter-racial: First Unitarian in Chicago, Arlington Street Church in Boston, and others besides. The Unitarians and the Universalists merged together in 1961. Then in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King sent his famous telegram to the leaders of all denominations, asking them to come to Selma, Alabama, to support his non-violent efforts to desegregate that city. Over one hundred Unitarian Universalist ministers, and more than one hundred Unitarian Universalist laypeople, heeded Dr. King’s call and traveled to Alabama. Proportionately speaking, this was a large number of Unitarian Universalists, since we have always been a numerically small denomination — numerically small, but influential beyond our numbers.

One of the Unitarian Universalist ministers who heeded Dr. King’s call was James Reeb. On March 9, Reeb and two other Unitarian Universalist ministers walked out of a cafe in Selma, and were attacked by some white men who called them “niggers,” and badly beat them. James Reeb died of that beating two days later. Of course black Americans were being beaten and killed with alarming frequency, but James Reeb’s death galvanized many people in the white establishment: that a white minister might be beaten to death because of his efforts to fight racism forced white America to confront some of the violence and hatred that racism spawned. Within days of Reeb’s death, the president of the United States made a special statement supporting civil rights.

The Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association was meeting when they heard that James Reeb had died, and they adjourned the meeting and immediately flew to Selma, where they reconvened their meeting. Rev. Victor Carpenter said of this action: “What a symbol! No other denomination could or did make such a profound statement of denominational solidarity with teh Civil Rights movement or such an affirmation of the movement’s black leadership.” [1983 Minns lecture]

I tell you this story so that you can hear about the high point of Unitarian Universalist anti-racist work. Unfortunately, in the late 1960’s, we Unitarian Universalists lost a great deal of momentum when our denomination was rocked by what has come to be known as the Black Empowerment Controversy.

By 1967, African Americans constituted about one percent of all Unitarian Universalists enough so that African American Unitarian Universalists started to connect with one another. On October 6, 1967, at a Unitarian Universalist gathering called “The Emergency Conference on the Black Rebellion,” 37 African American Unitarian Universalists got together and framed a plan of action. They called for African American representation on key denominational committees; subsidies for African American ministers; and a new social justice organization to be called the Black Affairs Council which would staffed entirely by African Americans and would be financed by the Unitarian Universalist Association in order to further justice for African Americans. You will notice that their central goal was to increase numbers of African Americans in leadership roles within the denomination.

To make a long story short, the Black Affairs Council was accused of being a separatist group. The notion of empowering African American ministers and lay leaders was difficult for white Unitarian Universalists to understand. The denomination voted to fund the social justice initiatives of the Black Affairs Council, and then when the budget got tight in 1969, funding was cut without adequate explanation. It is estimated that half of all African American Unitarian Universalists quit our denomination because of this controversy. For example, a young African American man named Bill Sinkford, who was president of the national youth organization in the late 1960’s, left Unitarian Universalism out of frustration.

It took us a couple of decades to recover from that controversy. Let me give you a vivid image of our recovery. I told you how young Bill Sinkford quit Unitarian Universalism. Two decades later, he decided to come back; he became a Unitarian Universalist minister; and in June, 2001, he was elected to the presidency of our denomination, the first African American leader of a historically white denomination in the United States. I would argue that Bill Sinkford’s leadership has been the most inspiring since the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in 1961.

While Bill Sinkford was away from our denomination, two other movements for full equality and full inclusion swept our denomination. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the feminist movement changed Unitarian Universalism: we got rid of the old sexist language in our hymns and in our bylaws, we changed our principles and purposes and included a seventh principle based on ecofeminist thinking, and we encouraged women in leadership roles until now half of all Unitarian Universalist ministers are women. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, we moved towards full acceptance of all persons regardless of sexual orientation, and we have gotten far enough in that effort that more than half our congregations are officially recognized as open and welcoming to gay, lesbian, and transgender persons, and we have gotten to the point where it is possible for a Unitarian Universalist minister to be openly gay, lesbian, or transgender.

And finally, in the last ten years, I have sensed a move back towards making racial justice a priority, the way it was for us in the 1960’s. I think two different things are causing us to move in this direction. On the one hand, racism is on the increase in our wider society: schools are becoming more segregated, prisons are disproportionately filled with people of color, we’re even starting to see new attempts at poll taxes to keep people of color from voting.

On the other hand, many people in their twenties and thirties, and even up to those of us in our forties, have come to expect a truly multiracial society. It is our positive ideal. I’ll speak for myself for just a moment: I feel more comfortable in multiracial settings, to the point where I really don’t want to be a member of an all-white church. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Lots of people who grew up as Unitarian Universalists were brought up believing in the ideal of a multiracial society — lots of other people who didn’t grow up as Unitarian Universalists were brought up with those same values — we truly believe in a multiracial society. So here we all are, and one of the first things we want to do is make our churches multiracial.

Notice that I said “multiracial.” Since the days of the Civil Rights movement, we have come to recognize that racism takes many different forms. There is racism against African Americans, but there is also racism against Asian Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and so on. Recently, we have people like Tiger Woods and Barack Obama pointing out that they come from mixed-race backgrounds. While we have to recognize that the legacy of slavery has caused a unique set of problems for people of African descent, we also know that racism takes on many insidious forms. Indeed, we can go beyond racism and say that oppression takes on many different forms: the oppression of women, the oppression of sexual minorities, the oppression of people who don’t speak English as their native language, the oppression of people who didn’t happen to be born here in the United States. All these different kinds of oppression are kinds of evil that we must fight.

I would like to suggest to you that the fact that we can recognize the religious dimension of all these different kinds of oppression offers us an amazing religious opportunity. As a religious people, we know that we are called to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We read it in the Hebrew Bible, and the Christian scriptures, in the Confucian Analects, indeed in all the great religious literature. We hear it from all the great religious and moral leaders down through the ages: Buddha, Jesus, Mother Ann Lee of the Shakers, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King. And we know from our own reasoning processes that this is a great moral truth. In our time, in these United States, racism is one of the greatest issues that confronts us and requires us to act. As a religious people, we are concerned with what we do with our lives. So it makes sense that we should apply our religious principles to the issue of racism.

And here in First Unitarian Church, we are already doing that. Our church is in fact multiracial — I’d prefer it if we were more multiracial, but there is no way can anyone can say that we are a totally lily-white church. Less visibly, we also incorporate a diversity of ethnic groups. If English isn’t your native language, no one minds; if you were born in another country, no big deal. We are also at the forefront of fighting discrimination against gay, lesbian, and transgender persons. We are a church that is truly living out the “eighth principle” of Unitarian Universalism.

To put it most positively, we like diversity; and we are willing to actively work towards becoming an even more multiracial, multiethnic, diverse congregation. We know that means that we’re going to be involved in anti-racism and anti-discrimination work at many different levels: here in our church perhaps, certainly in the wider New Bedford community, in the country as a whole.

We know it won’t be easy at times. But it is an essential part of our religious values, and so we will persevere; and we will, my friends, we will overcome.