UU author wins award

The Before Columbus Foundation (BCF) was founded in 1976 “dedicated to the promotion and dissemination of contemporary American multicultural literature.” Their annual award, the American Book Award, is given by writers to other writers. Though not as well known as the National Book Award, winning this award puts you in august company. Previous recipients of the American Book Award include Edward Said, Joy Harjo, and Toni Morrison. Current members of BCF’s board of directors include Ishmael Reed, Joy Harjo, and other respected writers.

This year’s awards were recently announced. Poet Everett Hoagland won an award for his recent collection of poetry, The Ways: Poems of Affirmation, Reflection and Wonder (North Star Nova Press, 2022); other award winners included Maxine Hong Kingston and bell hooks.

Some of the poems in Everett’s collection appeared in UU World magazine; Everett’s a member of First Unitarian in New Bedford, Mass. I got to see the book in manuscript, and loved it (Everett even invited me to write the foreword). Also, there are plenty of poems here that would work well in a Unitarian Universalist worship service, so if you’re a minister or religious educator you might want to pick up a copy.

Unfortunately, about the only place you can buy the book is through Amazon. My spouse the writer does Not Like Amazon, so I won’t provide a link here. But you can easily find it. Go buy a copy. You’ll be glad you did.

Book cover of "The Ways"

Another take on White Christian nationalism

Andrew Whitehead, who grew up an evangelical Christian, is now associate professor of sociology at Indiana University and Purdue University Indianapolis. In an opinion piece on Religion News Service, he writes:

“After years of examining Christian nationalism as a social scientist, I’m convinced the greatest threat to Christianity in the United States is not outside forces [i.e., feminism, divorce, homosexuality, Secularism or non-Christian faiths]. Instead, it is white Christian nationalism. Over and over, I find evidence that the practical fruit of Christian nationalism is not love; it is power, control, domination, fear and violence.”

Whitehead then identifies the three chief “idols” that White Christian nationalists worship: “Power, Fear, and Violence.” He concludes with a call to “confront” Christian nationalism.

This is one of the best brief summaries of Christian nationalism I’ve seen. Definitely worth reading.

An 18th century covenant

A copy of the original covenant of Second Parish in Hingham — since 1770 called the First Parish in Cohasset — appears in the ministry record book used from about 1741 to about 1796 by ministers of the congregation. Those ministers were Rev. John Fowle (minister from 1741-1747), Rev. John Brown (minister from 1747-1791), and Rev. Josiah Shaw (minister from 1792-1796). That original covenant was adopted in 1721.

Given the current interest in covenant among Unitarian Universalists, I thought I’d post a transcript of this covenant, along with some supplementary historical information from this book. If we’re going to claim that covenant is a key part of our history, we need to understand that history — and what better way to understand that history than to look at some early covenants.

Some extracts of diverse matters, extracted from the records made by Rev’d Nehemiah Hobart [probably copied out of that earlier book by Rev. Josiah Shaw c. 1792]. …

July 13th 1721. I, Nehemiah Hobart, came into this parish, & preached a fast, & continued constantly preaching here, until Decem. 13th 1721, when I was ordained pastor of the Second Parish in Hingham.

Here follows some account of the Church of Christ in Cohasset, or rather as it then was Second-Parish in Hingham — extracted from the Manuscript-Record kept by Rev’d Nehemiah Hobart, first Pastor.

A Church gathered at Hingham Second Parish Decem. 12th 1721. — The Covenenant as followeth viz.:— We whose names are subscribed, apprehending ourselves called of God do unite & joyous together in bands of Gospel Communion & fellowship, for our mutual support & edification, in our Lord Jesus Christ: Under a Soul Humbling sense of our unworthiness of being in Covenant with God, our own insufficiency in, and of ourselves yo keep covenant with him. Humbly relying on free Grace for assistance, & with humble confidence of Acceptance We do in the name of our ord Jesus Christ, in the presence of God & his holy angels explicitly [?] & expressly covenant and bind ourselves in manner & form following — viz — We do give up ourselves unto God, whose name alone is Jehovah — Father, Son, & holy Ghost — To God the Father, as our chief and only good, & as our Lord Jesus Christ, as our Prophet, Priest, and King& only Mediator of the covenant of Grace — & unto the Spirit of God as our only Sanctifier & Comforter. And we do give up ourselves to one another, in the Lord, covenanting and promising to walk together as a Church of Christ, in all ways of his [illegible], according to the prescriptions of his holy word, promising with all tenderness and brotherly love we will with all faithfulness watch over one another’s souls, & that we will freely yield up to the discipline & power of Christ in his Church, & attend those seals & [illegible], & whatever ordinances Christ hath appointed & declared in his word; & wherein we fail & come short of duty, to wait upon him for pardon & remission, beseeching him to make our spirits steadfast in his covenant & to own us for his Church and covenant, people forever. Amen. — Nehemiah Hobart. …

1721/22 Febry 18th. … The persons who signed the Covenant were the following. Nehemiah Hobart — John Orcutt — Stephen Stoddard — Thomas James — John Jacobs — Ebenezer Kent — Jospeh Bates — Elijah Vinal [?].

[A later note in different handwriting states:] The males only, 8 in number, signed the covenant, at the gathering of the church — but about 21 females were immediately admitted [to full communion] — making the church to consist of 29 members.

I notice several things about this covenant:

— The covenant was drafted and signed only after several months of weekly preaching. No doubt there were many conversations between Nehemiah Hobart and the people of Second Parish.

— It appears that the covenant was not written out and signed until a couple of months after the church was gathered.

— The covenant is with their God first, and after that with other humans who follow that God. In other words, the vertical dimension comes first; the horizontal or human dimension comes second.

— Their understanding of their God included a conception of a trinity.

— The covenant does not explicitly state any relationship to other churches. However, there were implicit obligations assumed between the new church and other churches, e.g., the council that examined and ordained Hobart was made up of ministers from nearby churches.

— Women did not sign the original covenant.

Clearly I’m in the wrong job

The Trinity Foundation, a religious watchdog organization, recently released its list of “100 Highly Paid Christian Ministry Executives.” The Foundation based their salary information on IRS Form 990. However, since churches, synagogues, and mosques aren’t required to file Form 990, they don’t have to provide any salary information. Thus, highly paid clergy like Joel Osteen do not appear on this list.

The top earner? David Cerullo, the CEO of Inspiration Ministries (radio and television stations) earned $7,319,371. No. 3 on the list is J.C. Watts, Jr., the CEO of Feed the Children, who earned $1,870,000 (I do wonder how many children you could feed with $1.8 million).

Franklin Graham earned $740,704 as CEO of Samaritan’s Purse, a relief organization. But he is also president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which claims to be a “church,” which means his salary there is not reported to the IRS. I’d bet his total income is well over a million a year (see Mark 10:23).

It’s not just conservative Christians who earn the big bucks. Andrea Kelly, the Head of School at Friends Academy in Locust Valley, N.Y., earned $635,702.

For comparison, the most recent UUA salary guidelines recommend about $113,000 as the top salary for a Unitarian Universalist minister, serving one of our largest congregations in an area with the highest cost of living. I serve a small congregation is a less expensive region, so guess what — my salary is well below that.

Dang. I should have ditched Unitarian Universalist ministry and gone into Christian broadcasting or Christian relief work.

Clearly I’m in the wrong religion

The Trinity Foundation, which monitors religious fraud, has a project called “Pastr Planes” where they track the use of private jets by mega-church pastors, “ministry executives,” and staff of Christian universities.

As far as I know, the best you can do as a Unitarian Universalist minister is to get a plane ticket paid for under an IRS-approved accountable reimbursement plan (often incorrectly called “professional expenses”). I guess I’m in the wrong religion.

On the other hand, flying coach is sinfully bad for the environment. Flying in a private jet, therefore, is a super huge mega-sin. I would not want to be them when the Last Judgement (or whatever their theology calls for) comes and they are called to account for their sinning.

New website for early American sacred music

If you’re interested in early American sacred music (as I am), you might be interested in a new website being developed by Nym Cooke, a well known scholar and practitioner in the field. A friend forwarded me Cooke’s introductory email, which says in part:

“I invite you to explore a new website, Early American Sacred Music, at earlyamericansacredmusic.org. This constantly growing resource includes:
— a searchable database with extensive information on over 2,100 American printed and manuscript sources produced before 1821 (the complete holdings of 22 libraries), and over 10,000 manuscript music entries;
—600 pages of transcriptions from ca. 300 New England town and church histories, containing all that those sources have to say about early sacred music, and farmed out into 22 searchable subject files — with an index of the ca. 1,138 musicians those histories document….”

I’ll point out that this last item implies that anyone doing research on history of 18th century American congregations might find useful information on this website.

Also of interest to me was this statement: “Current inventorying plans include the collections of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library at Yale University; the Newberry Library in Chicago; the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan; the Boston Public Library; the New York Public Library; and a number of town historical societies in New England.” Again, this could make the site a very useful resource for historians as well as musicologists.

Universalist groups in the U.S.

As a follow up to my recent post on Unitarian groups in the U.S., I thought I’d look at a few religious groups that promote or support the doctrine of universal salvation. There are a great many Universalists out there, some of whom belong to a few small Universalist denominations, though many individual Universalists remain affiliated with existing denominations.

Christian Universalist Church of America

The Christian Universalist Church of America (CUCA) claims it was founded in Florida in 1964 by Universalist congregations who decided to opt out of the new Unitarian Universalist Association. By 1967, the new denomination ceased to exist (this story is briefly told in Russell Miller’s history of Universalism, The Larger Hope). The present organization was incorporated in 2001 in Indiana. Given the 34 year gap, it’s tempting to call the present CUCA a new organization. However, they still use the 1803 Winchester Profession as their statement of faith, so in that sense they are an inheritor of classic U.S. Universalism.

Their website contains almost no information about their current activities.

Primitive Baptist Universalists

The Primitive Baptist Universalists (PBU) grew out of the Primitive Baptist movement. PBU churches and people were well documented in Howard Dorgan’s book In the Hands of a Happy God (Univ. of Tennessee: 1997). Dorgan believed, but could not document, that early Primitive Baptist Universalists were led to Universalism by Hosea Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement.

PBU churches gradually separated from other Primitive Baptists over the doctrine of universal salvation in the early twentieth century. (In fact, next year, 2024, will be the centenary of the formation of the PBUs.) PBU churches are located almost entirely in the Appalachians. Like all Primitive Baptists, no musical instruments are used in their churches; their churches are plain and unadorned; preaching is the center of the worship service, and is always extemporaneous.

(I admit to real fondness for all Primitive Baptists. Quite a few Primitive Baptists sing at Sacred Harp conventions, where I have enjoyed meeting them and singing with them. Some day, I hope to visit a PBU church and meet some PBUs.)

Universalist Christian Association

The Christian Universalist Association (CUA) holds to a belief system they name “Christian Ultimate Reconciliation theology.” This theology appears to be similar to Restorationism, an important theological strand of the Universalists who later became part of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The CUA statement of faith is fairly detailed, with long-ish statements on “divine justice and life after death,” “universal salvation,” and “the Golden Rule.”

The CUA aims to cast a broad net, welcoming all Christian Universalists, including “Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Unitarian Universalist Christians, and non-denominational Christians.” Several Unitarian Universalists have served on their board of directors.

Considered as a denomination, the CUA appears to be fairly small. Their website currently lists just four in-person congregations as formal affiliates of the CUA. However, they describe themselves at times as an ecumenical organization, and they make a deliberate effort to include clergy and laypeople from many different denominations. They have ordained about 32 clergy since their founding in 2007.

Universalism and Universalists in other denominations

Universalists may be found in many denominations. For one example, I met a Rellyite Universalist in Alabama who has remained a member of his Methodist church. Evangelical Quaker ministers Phillip Gulley and James Mulholland have written books laying out their Universalist beliefs. Carlton Pearson left his Pentecostal denomination when he professed a belief in universal salvation, and has since found a home in the United Church of Christ (though he also retains a connections to a Unitarian Universalist congregation).

There are a number of Christian denominations which seem most likely to tolerate Universalists. This is especially true of denominations that use some form of congregational polity, where congregations have greater autonomy than in more hierarchical polities. More liberal congregations in the United Church of Christ, the American Baptist Church, and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) seem most likely to be welcoming to individual Universalists. Some local Pentecostal congregations may be receptive to Universalists.

There are also denominations which appear to affirm some view of universal salvation. Unity Church (formally known as Unity), a New Thought group, is one such organization. The Latter Day Saints (Mormons) tend towards universalism. Connections with Universalists may also be found through several websites; the Wikipedia page on Christian Universalism provides links to several such groups.

Universalism today is both diffuse and diverse. It’s probably impossible to find out how many people in the U.S. believe in universal salvation. Calling yourself “Universalist” can still cause certain amount of social stigma, and there are probably many Christians who believe in universal salvation who simply won’t use the term.

Non-Christian Universalism

Although Universalism is usually associated with Christian or post-Christian beliefs, there are non-Christian religious groups that affirm some sort of universal salvation. Some Pure Land Buddhists maintain that everyone may reach enlightenment. Some Muslims affirm universal salvation. There are Jews who call themselves Universalists, e.g., the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute.

Another Unitarian group in the U.S.

Todd Eklof — a former Unitarian Universalist minister who was removed from fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) over disagreements on approaches to anti-racism and other matters — is the new president pro tem of the recently-organized North American Unitarian Association (NAUA).

The NAUA joins the American Unitarian Conference (AUC) as a group that has broken away from the UUA over political and theological disagreements. Here’s an introduction to a few U.S. Unitarian groups, including the NAUA and the AUC…

North American Unitarian Association

The North American Unitarian Association (NAUA) website states that the group is “dedicated to courageously fostering and protecting the principles and practices of liberal religion: reason, tolerance, democratic process, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and expression, and the inherent worth and dignity of all people.” Membership is open to congregations and to individuals. They provide the following services: monthly online worship; an online newsletter; online courses; monthly support sessions for NAUA-affiliated ministers; a “ministerial clearinghouse”; and a few other odds and ends. Congregations may affiliate with the NAUA while retaining their membership with the UUA.

The NAUA program strikes me as quite ambitious for a new organization. They do seem to have a fairly full leadership roster, mostly drawn from Todd Eklof’s hometown of Spokane, Wash. So they might be able to keep up all these new initiatives.

American Unitarian Conference

The American Unitarian Conference (AUC) formed in 2000. The founders decided to break away from the UUA for reasons I can no longer remember, nor can I remember the people who were involved in the founding of the group. The Wikipedia article on the AUC says it “was founded in 2000 by several Unitarian Universalists who felt that the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) had become too theologically liberal and too political.”

The AUC seems to have morphed into the Unitarian Christian Church of America (see below), or has been absorbed by them. The old URL, americanunitarian.org, now returns an error message saying the hosting account has expired. I checked the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and the last version of the AUC website they have is from August 20, 2022.

Unitarian Christian Church of America

The Unitarian Christian Church of America (UCCA) appears to be a small group, based on their website. It may be that they’re the successor group to the American Unitarian Conference (AUC; see above). In any case, Shannon Rogers, head of the UCCA, is now the admin of the AUC Facebook page.

Assuming the UCCA and the old AUC are somehow linked, we might look at the the AUC Facebook page to get a sense of both organizations. This Facebook page has gotten recent comments critical of the UUA — “Unfortunately, my experiences with the UUs seemed to always have a thread of Progressivism in them” — and supportive of political conservative positions — “You can NOT be protected if guns are banned!” At the same time, the UCCA now provides children’s Christian education curriculums from ProgressiveChristianity.org. Some of their materials sound cautiously supportive of Black Lives Matter.

In short, it sounds like the UCCA is trying to become a “purple” denomination, welcoming to all political persuasions. Given that the UUA has pretty much given up trying to welcome Republicans (except for a few individual congregations), and is fairly unwelcoming to Christian Unitarians, I’m glad the UCCA provides a spiritual home for Christian Unitarians across the political spectrum.

Unitarian Christian Alliance

The Unitarian Christian Alliance (UCA) is a group of Biblical Unitarian Christians. On their website, they describe themselves as follows: “While holding to various beliefs in other areas, UCA members all agree that the God of the Bible is the Father alone, and that Jesus is his human Messiah. The mission of the UCA and its growing membership is two-fold: to promote unitarian theology and to connect like-minded believers across the globe.

The UCA claims both individual members, and nearly a hundred affiliated churches and groups. While most of the affiliated groups are in the U.S., they have affiliated groups on nearly every continent, including the countries of Brazil, Greece, Singapore, Kenya, and Australia. Interestingly, looking at the web page showing their Board of Directors, their leadership team consists of four middle-aged white men and one woman who does not have a photo.

As far as I can tell, the UCA has never had any connection to the UUA.

Spirit and Truth Fellowship International

Spirit and Truth Fellowship International (STFI) is a “non-denominational ministry” that engages in many activities. STFI issued a Unitarian version of the Revised English Version translation of the Bible. They have an active Youtube channel where they post recordings of their Sunday Morning Gatherings and their Tuesday Night Fellowship. They have a STFI app for iPhones. They also maintain a website called “Biblical Unitarian.”

As far as I can tell, STFI has never had any connection to the UUA.

Other Unitarian (Small “U”) groups

There are other denominations and groups that reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity on various grounds. These include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter Day Saints, Oneness Pentecostals, Christadelphians, etc. Note that these denominations do not have “Unitarian” as part of their name, and they might not identify as Unitarian per se.

Historical American Unitarian Groups

1. The most notable American Unitarian group from the past is, of course, the Free Religious Association (FRA). Though the FRA is sometimes classified as a “freethought” group, most of its members were either former Unitarians, or people who maintained dual membership with the FRA and the American Unitarian Association (the predecessor to the UUA). For most of its history, the guiding spirit behind the FRA was William Potter, the minister of the Unitarian church of New Bedford. When Potter left the FRA, it quickly died, which makes me wonder if the FRA was really just a one-man project.

(I have to admit my bias against the FRA. I’m a former minister of the New Bedford church, and while there I did some research into Potter. I felt that Potter got too wrapped up in the FRA, and perhaps neglected his own congregation. On the other hand, I was so put off by his writing that I didn’t want to spend much time researching him. After learning something about Potter, I lost all interest in the FRA.)

2. In the early nineteenth century, the Christian Connexion (variously spelled) was unitarian in theology, and even cooperated with the American Unitarian Association. A few Unitarian ministers served Christian Connexion churches. But by the second half of the century, the two groups had gone their separate ways.

3. The Swedenborgians were vaguely unitarian (small “u”) in theology. However, as I understand it, their unitarianism made Jesus Christ into a god, with God-the-Father and the Holy Spirit as aspects of Jesus Christ. There are still Swedenborgians around (with at least one Unitarian minister serving a Swedenborgian congregation) but I know nothing about their theology in the twenty-first century, so can’t comment on whether they still can be considered theologically unitarian.

Christian nationalists in the U.S.

Religion News Service (RNS) reports that a recent poll finds that 10% of United States residents are hard-core Christian nationalists, and another 19% are fellow travelers. On the other hand, 29% of U.S. residents reject Christian nationalism. Another 39% are skeptical of Christian nationalism. You can read a detailed report of the PRRI survey here.

Are you a Christian nationalist? If you’re reading this blog, I sincerely doubt you are. Nevertheless, if you strongly agree with all of the following statements, according to PRRI you are indeed a Christian nationalist:

  • U.S. laws should be based on Christian values.
  • If the U.S. moves away from our Christian foundations, we will not have a country anymore.
  • Being Christian is an important part of being truly American.
  • God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.

That last statement is the one that really creeps me out. Unitarians and Universalists got kicked out of the U.S. Christian club a century ago, when the National Council of Churches wouldn’t let us join. So even if you’re a Christian Unitarian Universalist, the Christian nationalists want to exercise dominion over you…tell you what to believe, probably.

This is worrying because the Republican party has become dominated by Christian nationalists. Last summer when RNS asked fifty prominent Republicans whether their party should become a Christian nationalist party, only two of them responded to say, contrary to Christian nationalist rhetoric, that they supported the separation of church and state (Senator James Lankford and Representative Nancy Mace). All the other Republicans refused to answer, probably because they were too scared to say anything.

The year in review: Unitarian Universalism

These are a few of the things I’ve been watching in the Unitarian Universalist (UU) universe here in the United States:

Article II Study Commission

The commission charged with revising Article II of the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) released draft wording of a revision. From the few reactions I’ve seen online or heard in person, I suspect most Unitarian Universalists (UUs) were expecting minor revisions to the existing wording. But the draft represents a major rewrite — mostly new wording, no more seven principles, no more six sources. Kudos to the Article II Study Commission for attempting a much-needed major rewrite.

The real question, however, is whether we can build consensus around this particular rewrite, or if this reqrite will evolve into something that we can build consensus around. Personally, I’m ready for the Purposes section of Article II to be rewritten, but I’m not excited by the new draft version. What will the lovers of the “seven principles” think of this major rewrite? Will they vote for it? And if there is consensus among the usual General Assembly attendees, a tiny percentage of all Unitarian Universalists in the U.S., will the new wording be widely accepted by the rank and file? I don’t think the answers to any of these questions are obvious.

UU blogs

There aren’t many UU bloggers left. Scott Wells has finally reduced his blogging to just a few times a year. Will Shetterly moved to SubStack, deleting his old blog. People like Patrick Murfin and Paul Wilczynski are still blogging regularly, but they rarely blog about Unitarian Universalism any more. And there are a few long-time UU bloggers barely hanging on to their blogs, like Peacebang — who used to be a blogging machine, but is now down to one or two posts a year — and Doug Muder, also down to a couple of posts a year.

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