Seven principles

I don’t usually put sermons on the blog (I feel they’re too long for the blog format, and besides sermons are for listening to, not reading). But since I have been sounding off recently about the “seven principles” of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and since today’s sermon was in effect a more sustained and more systematic critique of the “seven principles,” I thought it would be fun to share this sermon with readers who don’t live in New Bedford. Hope this provokes some critical discussion.


The first reading this morning comes from the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the association of which First Unitarian is a member congregation. While excerpts from bylaws are not usually read as a part of a worship service, this particular piece of bylaws has taken on the status of an affirmation of faith among many Unitarian Universalists. This is section C-2.1, titled Principles.

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to 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.

The living tradition which we share draws from many sources:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love;
  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;
  • Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.

The second reading is another excerpt from the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which immediately follows the first excerpt we heard. Although rarely quoted, personally I consider these of equal importance to the more familiar principles.

Section C-2.2. Purposes: …The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions and implement its principles.

Section C-2.3. Non-discrimination: 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.

Section C-2.4. Freedom of Belief: Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.

Sermon: “Seven Principles”

As you may or may not know, one widely-used statement of faith among Unitarian Universalists is commonly called “the seven principles.” We heard these “seven principles” in the first reading this morning, and as commonly used they are:

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.

It’s an admirable statement of faith. And unusual, for that matter. As I said when I introduced that first reading, this statement is an excerpt from the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association. How many religions do you know of that use an excerpt from their bylaws as a statement of faith? As someone who is fascinated by institutional structures — I suppose you could call me a “bylaws geek” — I am tickled to think that many Unitarian Universalists use an excerpt from a set of bylaws as a statement of faith. What better way to merge the personal and the institutional, linking the individual with the communal.

But even though these seven principles may make an admirable statement of faith, they cannot serve as a final statement of faith among us. One of the grounding principles of Unitarian Universalism is that we have no final answers when it comes to religion. Revelation is not sealed, that is, there is plenty more revelation to come before we’re done. Unitarians and Universalists have revised our statements of faith many times over the years; I expect that we shall revise our current statement of faith before too many years have gone by.

Another way of saying this is that we are a critical, argumentative people. And we like it that way. We thrive on disagreement, because we know that disagreement can lead to constructive dialogue, and from that constructive dialogue we might get just a little closer to truth. In fact, the story of the how the seven principles came into being is indeed a story of constructive dialogue that led us closer to truth.

What happened was this:

Back in 1961, when the Unitarians and Universalists consolidated together, we had to write new bylaws for our new Unitarian Universalist Association. I am too young to remember any of this, but as I understand it the debate about the principles grew so contentious that it almost put a stop to consolidation. I have been told that the debate went on all day and all night. Somehow, compromises were reached, and a set of six principles was enshrined in the bylaws of the new Unitarian Universalist Association. As a child, I vaguely remember seeing a copy of those principles framed and hung on the wall of my childhood church somewhere. They actually don’t sound all that much different from our current seven principles — but as I read them, see if you can pick out the glaring differences:

1. To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship; 2. To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man; 3. To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships; 4. To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice and peace; 5. To serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships, and to extend and strengthen liberal religion; 6. To encourage cooperation with men of good will in every land.

You probably noticed the the glaring differences between these old principles, and the current pricniples:– the old useage of the word “men” to mean all human beings, and the old useage of the word “brotherhood” to mean common humanity. Back in 1961, though, no one gave a second thought to sexist language like that.

Within a few years, by the late 1960’s, feminism began to creep into Unitarian Universalist congregations. Many women, and not a few men, began to realize that Western religion pretty much left women out of the religious picture. By the 1970’s, groups of women (with a few men) had gathered in various Unitarian Universalist congregations to see whether Unitarian Universalism suffered from sexist bias. The widespread conclusion was that yes, it did. The next question was: What shall we do about it?

One of the women who had been investigating gender bias in religion was Lucile Shuck Longview, a member of the Unitarian Universalist church in Lexington center, Massachusetts. Lucile Longview decided that there should be a resolution introduced at General Assembly, the annual gathering and business meeting of Unitarian Universalists. She drafted a resolution that she called the “Women and Religion” resolution. Her resolution said in part:

WHEREAS, a principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association is to ‘affirm, defend, and promote the supreme worth and dignity of every human personality, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships’; and, WHEREAS, some models of human relationships arising from religious myths, historical materials, and other teachings still create and perpetuate attitudes that cause women everywhere to be overlooked and undervalued; and WHEREAS, children, youth and adults internalize and act on these cultural models, thereby tending to limit their sense of self-worth and dignity;

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: That the 1977 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association calls upon all Unitarian Universalists to examine carefully their own religious beliefs and the extent to which these beliefs influence sex-role stereotypes within their own families; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED: That the General Assembly urges the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association to encourage the Unitarian Universalist Association… to make every effort to: (a) put traditional assumptions and language in perspective, and (b) avoid sexist assumptions and language in the future.

That sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Well, it wasn’t. It may be hard for us to realize it now, but in 1977 this was a pretty radical resolution. And the part that called on Unitarian Universalists to “avoid sexist assumptions and language” would prove to be quite radical, for it would cause us to revise our 1961 statement of principles.

Years later, Lucile Longview recalled how the Women and Religion resolution came to be passed at the 1977 General Assembly. She wrote:

I conceived of and wrote the resolution and sent it to 15 associates around the continent, soliciting feedback. They encouraged me to proceed, and offered suggestions. At First Parish in Lexington, Massachusetts, six other laywomen, one layman, and I sent personal letters to members of churches, with copies of the petition to place the resolution on the agenda of the 1977 General Assembly. We received more than twice the requisite 250 signatures. The Joseph Priestley District submitted the resolution directly, with some text revisions. Both versions were placed on the GA Final Agenda. We lobbied friends, GA delegates, and presidential candidates to support the District’s version, which passed unanimously.

In other words, the Women and Religion resolution was the result of non-hierarchical, grassroots effort. And it passed unanimously. That contentious, argumentative Unitarian Universalists could pass anything unanimously indicates to me that we saw a new truth in the statement that we needed to remove sexist attitudes from our religious stories and myths.

Of course, one of the first places to look for sexist language was in the six principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. After the passage of the Women and Religion resolution, who could help noticing that the six principles referred to men but not to women? And so a movement arose to revise the six principles.

It took seven long years to revise the six principles into something that nearly all Unitarian Universalist congregations could agree on — seven long years, and lots of arguing. A seventh principle, respect for the Earth as sacred, was added as well, based on the emerging feminist idea that human beings are not disembodied beings and cannot be separated from the world around them. An initial draft of the revised principles was brought to General Assembly, but it was criticized for completely leaving out the word “God,” which many people felt was tantamount to pushing theists and Christians (many of whom were strong feminists) out of Unitarian Universalism. Finally, in 1981 the General Assembly formed a committee to reach out to every Unitarian Universalist congregation for suggestions and comments and criticisms.

This grassroots effort paid off:– in 1984 and 1985, the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association finally approved a new improved statement of principles, the one which you heard in the first reading this morning. The vote to approve these new principles was not quite unanimous, but it was pretty close to being so.

So here we are, 21 years later. We have this great set of principles. Many people feel deep affection for our statement of principles. Quite a few teenagers and young adults have grown up in our churches having been taught those seven principles — some churches even have their children memorize the simplified version of the seven principles that we read together as a responsive reading this morning. Everyone seems happy with the seven principles.

There’s a provision of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association that requires us to review the principles at least every fifteen years, and make any revisions that might be necessary. We are just beginning that review (six years late, which means we’re in violation of our own bylaws, but those things happen). Many people are saying that this only needs to be a cursory review;– for after all we’re all pretty happy with the seven principles. Right?

Well, not quite everyone. After all, we are an argumentative people.

No, we’re not all happy with the seven principles as they now stand. A small number of people — and I count myself as one of them — feels that it’s time for the principles and purposes to be revised. I personally would like to see a substantial revision. I personally am fairly unhappy with the current principles. To tell you why, I have to tell you a little story about the evolution of feminism.

As I told you, the principles as we now have them grew out of the feminist movement of the late 1960’s and the 1970’s. We can call that feminist movement “second wave feminism.” “First wave feminism” was the feminist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a movement that perhaps reached its high point in legal reforms like women winning the right to vote. Within Unitarianism and Universalism, first wave feminism resulted in the first ordinations of women as ministers.

Second wave feminism came about when middle class white women realized that although they had won the right to vote, and a few other legal rights, sexism was still rampant and widespread in our society. Second wave feminism pointed out, for example, that women earned less than men for the same work, and also pointed out how few women served prominent political offices or other positions of power. Within Unitarian Universalism, second wave feminism led to the eventual result that half our ministers are now women, that women now fill some of our most prominent pulpits, and that the last five moderators of the Unitarian Universalist Association have been women.

Then along came third wave feminism. Thoughtful women of color began to realize that second wave feminism did not adequately represent the particular circumstances of women who didn’t happen to be white. Thoughtful working-class women began to realize that second wave feminism assumed the kind of access to money and influence that many working class people, both men and women, just didn’t have. These women, and some like-minded men, began to ask why it was that middle-class white women seemed to be making so much more progress towards equality than women of color and working class women. To put it bluntly, second wave feminism did not deliver the same equality to all women.

Many third wave feminists are younger women who came of age in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and some of them feel as though they are supposed to be “dutiful daughters” who follow the old second wave feminism without question — but then they ask, isn’t that exactly the kind of hierarchical thinking that the second wave feminists were trying to break away from? An increasing number of women who call themselves feminists are not Westerners, and they point out that second wave feminism almost requires a woman to adopt Western ways of doing things. Third wave feminism has led to a deeper questioning of second wave feminism.

Religion has become something of a bone of contention among North American feminists, too. Many of the second wave feminists rejected all religion as inherently demeaning to women, while other second wave feminists rejected Western Christianity or Judaism in favor of Paganism. But now younger women are coming along who are questioning the ways in which second wave feminism has rejected religion. Some of them are saying: You know what, I can believe in God and still be a feminist.

As you can see, lots of people are having lots of arguments about feminism these days. Loving to argue as much as we do, those arguments have even crept into Unitarian Universalism. The questions that third wave feminists have posed have caused people like me to question how we Unitarian Universalists do feminism. As a result, a few of us have begun to question those wonderful seven principles, principles which emerged from the insights of second wave feminism.

Speaking for myself, in the past few years I have grown unhappy with the seven principles. [At this point, someone raised to hand, wanting to say something, but I asked for us to save the arguments until after the worship service was over.] …To say that I affirm “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations” sounds very fine indeed. Of course I want to be treated with justice, equity, and compassion. But when I remember how many women have to live with domestic violence, I’m not sure those fine-sounding words are quite strong enough. When I remember that far more women and children live below the poverty line than men, particularly women of color, I find I really want a stronger statement of something which I can affirm.

In the second reading this morning, you heard what might be just such a stronger statement. The second reading this morning gave the rest of the principles and purposes of the Unitarian Universalist Association, the parts that are rarely quoted, the parts that don’t appear on the little wallet cards we have at the back of the church. I am particularly fond of this statement: “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….”

Those of you who come here regularly on Sunday mornings have probably noticed that the welcoming words that we hear each week at the beginning of the worship service include a similar statement:

Here at First Unitarian, we value our differences of age, gender, race, national origin, class, sexual orientation, physical ability, and theology.

Isn’t this a stronger statement than to say that we long for some abstract notion of justice, equity, and compassion? Isn’t this a stronger statement than to say merely that we value the inherent worth and dignity of every person? The seven principles are easy to affirm if you’ve already got some measure of justice, equity, and compassion in your life, if you’re already treated with inherent worth and dignity. But I’d rather affirm that I have a special responsibility to value the differences between people; and I’d rather be reminded of quite specific differences that I should be paying attention to;– those differences that historically have resulted in certain groups of people being pushed to the margins of power and influence; that have resulted in people being pushed to the margins of religion.

As I say, this is a debate that is going on right now in Unitarian Universalist circles. Within a couple of years, the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association will be asked either to affirm the principles and purposes as they now stand, or to make changes. You’ve heard my opinion — I think I’d like to see some changes, though I couldn’t tell you exactly what those changes might be. You probably have your own opinion. Perhaps you would prefer that our principles and purposes remain as they are now. Perhaps you have some good ideas for specific changes that should be made. Perhaps you will be the next Lucile Shuck Longview, and start a new grassroots effort that will change Unitarian Universalism for the better.

Whatever your personal opinion, our shared faith of Unitarian Universalism requires all of us to talk these things over; we are required to remain in critical dialogue with each other and with our shared statement of faith. Ours is not a religion for complacent people. We can’t just come and sit in church once a week for an hour, and say that is the extent of our religion. The search for truth and goodness draws us ever onwards, into deeper and more careful reflection. The search for truth and goodness isn’t a part-time affair, but it permeates every aspect of our lives; and any affirmation of faith that we make must be regarded as provisional and subject to revision.

In short, go forth and think deeply — and argue!


The sermon indeed provoked some dialogue after the worship service.

A member of the worship committee pointed out, “Not enough verbs in the seven principles. The one about ‘justice, equity, and compassion’ needs a verb or two. Because of that, they’re hard to remember.” I had never thought of that, but it’s true.

A professor of English in the congregation said that he felt the 1961 principles were better written, and besides that it would have been easy, in his opinion, to simply degenderize that language. When you read both the 1984/85 principles and the 1961 principles out loud, you realize he’s probably right — the 1961 principles are more concise and sound more vigorous.

A couple of people threatened to start some kind of grassroots discussion group on the seven principles here at First Unitarian. We’ll see what happens.

3 thoughts on “Seven principles

  1. kim

    You said, “Ours is not a religion for complacent people.” I think that’s the real reason
    there aren’t more UUs in the world. People are complacent — look at how few Americans vote.

    As to the seven principles — some more poetic language would be nice. And section C-2.3
    needs to add the term “gender identity”. We tried to do that at GA a couple of years ago,
    and Gini wouldn’t even let us talk. Some people seemed to think that “gender” included
    “gender identity” but there are legal precedents saying no, it doesn’t. Since a lot of gay
    and lesbian people are strongly prejudiced against transgendered people, they are not
    necessarily the ones to consult about this.

  2. Administrator

    Bill — Yes.

    Kim — I’d also quibble about using “economic status” instead of “class” in C-2.3 — they are really two different things.

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