Carlton Pearson is dead

Carlton Pearson, the evangelical Christian preacher who in midlife came to accept the happy teachings of universal salvation, died on Sunday. At his death, Pearson was probably the most widely known and most influential person affiliated with Unitarian Universalism.

When Pearson announced to his Tulsa, Oklahoma, congregation that he was a Universalist, many members of the congregation left. He eventually found a home for the remainder of his congregation — and for himself — at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Tulsa.

Back in 2009, I remember hearing Pearson speak at General Assembly. The GA Web Team wrote an excellent account of that event. I remember thinking he was a charismatic, riveting, and convincing speaker. The GA Web Team’s report quotes him as saying, “Jesus didn’t come to protect us from God, but to reconnect us to God.”

Even if Jesus and God aren’t at the center of your religion, this remains a powerful statement in our Western culture. It is a concise refutation of the widespread Western belief in retributive justice. When we drift away from the ultimate goodness of the universe, instead of retribution we need to be reconnected to that goodness.

I don’t recall that Carlton Pearson made much of an impact on General Assembly attendees in 2009. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister at All Souls, was Pearson’s co-presenter at General Assembly, and Lavanhar talked about how difficult it was for a White upper middle class church to welcome in well over a hundred non-White Universalists, a welcome that included changes in the worship style of the congregation. The Web Team reported:

“Unitarian Universalist churches, Lavanhar said, ‘have a corner on a very small slice of the NPR listening audience.’ He worries that UUism might become so parochial that it dies out. But Tulsa’s second service [with Pearson’s followers] attracts a different, younger, more racially diverse set of people, who come both for the spirit of the service and the message of Unitarian Universalism.”

Pearson continued to espouse Universalist theology for the rest of his life. He remained an affiliated minister at All Souls in Tulsa, and went on to serve at other congregations as well. In the years after his presentation at General Assembly, the majority of Unitarian Universalists — many of whom are White NPR listeners — mostly ignored Pearson. Unitarian Universalists seem to have a difficult time connecting to, or respecting, Pearson’s message of universal love. This, despite Pearson using the theology of universal love to stand up for LGBTQ rights. This, despite (or perhaps because of) Pearson’s ability to reach beyond Unitarian Universalism’s core White upper middle class audience.

So it is that Carlton Pearson, whose spirit-filled happy teachings about universal Love have touched tens of thousands of people, has had little impact on Unitarian Universalism outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

But he had an impact on me, and I find I’m deeply saddened at his death.

Carlton Pearson quotes

Pearson, both as an author and a speaker, is eminently quotable. In his memory, here’s a brief selection of his words:

I don’t fear God and if I was going to fear anybody, I’d fear some of [God’s] so-called people because they can be some mean sons of biscuit eaters, as my brother used to say. — Quoted in The Guardian.

God is not angry with humanity. — Quoted in Christianity Today.

Belief compelled through fear is not belief, it is blind and forced obedience. — God Is Not a Christian, Nor a Jew, Muslim, Hindu (2010), p. 32.

I’m the heretic, and I enjoy that, wear that like a badge these days. … It’s like a tattoo that I can’t wash off. — Quoted in Christianity Today.

Fear of God creates more harm than good for the human race. God isn’t angry with [hu]mankind. But because of erroneous concepts of God, most human beings are secretly angry with God. — The Gospel of Inclusion (2009), p. 149.

We do not need to be saved from God; we need to be saved from religion. We need to be saved from perceptions of God that portray Him as an angry deity with a customized torture chamber called hell, managed by a malcontent called the devil, where we may be forever consigned because we didn’t believe, didn’t believe correctly, or didn’t obey. — The Gospel of Inclusion, p. 6.

Christianity (though not exclusively) has become a kind of survival-of-the-fittest ideology. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, particularly the hypothesis about the adaptation to the environment, in many ways reflects the dynamics of most religions. It is one thing to adapt to a hostile environment be developing webbed feet, as the Galapagos Islands lizards did; and another thing to resist the environment by attempting to change, confront, or retaliate against it. Religion does both. It attempts to adjust to the hostility it encounters (in this case, the perceived attacks of science or the refusal of more enlightened people to tolerate its sanctioning destructive acts) by changing its story (creationism becomes intelligent design, for example), and at the same time, it promotes a virulent theology in which we must placate not only an angry, violent God but also Her equally vicious and sinister devil. The result is predictable: intelligent, open-minded people of a spiritual disposition are driven away by blind extremism, and what remains are the cowed and the clueless, more terrorized and enslaved than ever. — God Is Not a Christian, Nor a Jew, Muslim, Hindu (2010)

That idea of a ubiquitous, angry God has created a lot of mental illness on Earth. If there’s one thing I wish I could expel from people’s consciousness, it’s the idea of an angry God, that he hates people, not just wants to punish, but as Genesis says, regrets that he made us. That’s a very human-concocted entity that has never existed for a moment. If there is a devil, it would be that God. — Quoted in UU World magazine.

If I say everybody’s going to heaven, then I can’t raise money from you to get me to keep people out of hell. — Quoted by ABC News.

Jesus didn’t come to protect us from God, but to reconnect us to God. — Quoted by the GA Web Team, 2009.

Says it right in the Bible

Conservative Christians in the U.S. are lining up to tell us that the Israel Hamas war is a harbinger of the End Times. A number of Bible-based preachers are telling their followers to get ready for the Apocalypse.

Robert Jefress of First Baptist Church, Dallas, Tex., recently said: “We are on the verge of the beginning of the End Times…. Things are falling into place for this great world battle, fought by the super powers of the world, as the Bible said. They will be armed with nuclear weapons….”

Actually, nuclear weapons are not mentioned in the Bible….

Greg Laurie of Harvest Riverside Fellowship, Calif., recently said: “The Bible predicted hundreds of thousands of years ago that a large force from the North of Israel will attack her after [Israel] was regathered and one of the allies with modern Russia, or Magog, will be Iran or Persia.”

Well, actually, Russia is not mentioned in the Bible….

John Hagee of Hagee’s Cornerstone Church, San Antonio, Tex., recently said: “Israel is God’s prophetic clock; when the Jewish people are in Israel, the clock is running. When the Jewish people are out of Israel, the clock stops.”

Um, actually, the Bible says nothing about Israel being a clock….

Each of these three people claims belief in the literal truth of the Bible. I assume each one of them also honestly believes what he preaches. While I respect their belief that they are doing a literal reading of the Bible, looking at what they say from the outside I don’t see that any one of these three people shows evidence of a literal belief in the Bible. From my perspective, they are each engaged in substantial reinterpretation of the Bible. Their interpretations veer farther from the Bible’s text than any of the progressive Christians I know. So I think I would argue that they have actually started a New Religious Movement. While this New Religious Movement was originally based on Christianity, it now includes a large proportion of anachronistic beliefs that have little to do with Christianity.

Pure Land

I got interested in the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) after reading Jeff Wilson’s book Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South. Ekoji Temple, the one Wilson writes about in this book, was founded by Rev. Takashi Kenryu Tsuji in the 1980s. Tsuji had retired as a bishop of BCA, and Ekoji Temple was one of his retirement projects. In his book, Jeff Wilson quotes Tsuji extensively, and I found I resonated with what Tsuji had to say. As in this passage from Tsuji’s book The Heart of the Buddha-Dharma: Following the Jodo-Shinshu Path:

“Shinran Shonin and the teachers before him explained that the Pure Land was situated in the western corners of the universe, zillions of miles away. It was pictured as a very beautiful place, free of suffering, where everyone is happy. Philosophically speaking, however, the Pure Land does not refer to a specific location out there somewhere. Rather, the Pure Land is symbolic; it symbolizes the transcendence of relativity, of all limited qualities, of the finiteness of human life. In this transcendence, there is Compassion-Wisdom, an active moving, spiritual force. The Pure Land ideal is the culmination of the teaching of Wisdom and Compassion.”

First of all, Tsuji makes Pure Land Buddhism sound a little like Universalism. The old Universalists, coming out of the Christian tradition, said that everyone gets to go to heaven. Similarly, Pure Land Buddhists said that everyone can can enter Buddha’s Pure land, that is, everyone can achieve Buddhahood. We Unitarian Universalists translated the old Universalist ideas into modern terms, and that’s what Tsuji does for Pure Land Buddhism in this passage: “The Pure Land ideal is the culmination of the teaching of Wisdom and Compassion.”

What I like is that both groups have not only translated their religious traditions into Modernity, both groups say that all persons are radically equal. Maybe this is because I know I’m not good enough to be one of those Christians who gets into heaven, and I lack the self-discipline to become one of those Buddhists who reaches Enlightenment. Whatever the reason, I prefer the radically egalitarian religious groups.

What is religion, anyway?

I’ve been doing a deep dive into the question: What is religion, anyway? It’s pretty clear that “religion,” as we use it today, is a concept that really arises fairly recently in human history, during the European Enlightenment. From what I can see, the concept of “religion” arose from more than one source.

On the one hand, as nation states emerged in the early modern era, there was a general cultural move to make a strong distinction between “religious” and “secular.” “Secular” meant the emerging nation states, which had control over armies, warfare, coining money, imperialism and colonialism, etc. “Religion” was a new category, or perhaps a radical redefinition of medieval Western Christianity. “Religion,” especially in Protestant nation states, was conceived as inhabiting voluntary associations (local congregations and larger groupings of congregations called “churches”), and as being a matter of personal experience. “Secular” meant public spaces; “religious” increasingly meant personal spaces, or spaces inhabited by small bounded communities.

On the other hand, at the same time that Europeans were beginning to distinguish between “religious” and “secular,” they were also sailing all over the world and colonizing other lands and other peoples. As Europeans encountered other peoples, they experienced a bit of culture shock: people in the Americas, in Africa, and in southern and eastern Asia didn’t have anything that looked at all like Christianity — nor like Islam or Judaism, the other two traditions that Christian Europeans knew best. For example, at first Europeans had a hard time knowing what to do with peoples in the Indian subcontinent; then the Europeans decided to subsume a diversity of traditions under the heading of “Hinduism,” arguing that all “Hindus” actually worshiped the same transcendent god, named Brahma, who was sort of like the Christian god; and Hindus all traced there lineages back to sacred texts like the Rig Veda. Before the Europeans colonized the Indian subcontinent, “Hindu” was mostly an ethnic descriptor, people who lived around the Indus River; after colonization, “Hindu” became an adherent of “Hinduism.” So Hinduism is, in a sense, a creation of the colonization process.

The European Enlightenment also challenged traditional European concepts of the Christian God. As the Enlightenment progressed, various people began doubting the truth of the Christian God. By the late nineteenth century, a robust tradition of atheism emerged in Europe and in (European-colonized) North America. From what I can tell, this European tradition of atheism knew little about, e.g., much older traditions of atheism in the Indian subcontinent. That still holds true today, so that what we call “atheism” is really mostly the narrow tradition of Euro-American atheism. I call it narrow, because it was heavily influenced by Protestantism. This is not to say that Euro-American atheism is somehow a kind of super-Protestantism (although it can seem that way at times), but both traditions are clearly the product of the same broader Euro-American culture. As a result, Euro-American atheism can look a lot like Euro-American Christianity, with an emphasis on: personal belief or non-belief; conversion stories; proselytizing or the seemingly similar activity of actively encouraging people to leave religions; etc. Again, it’s not that Christianity and atheism/secularity are two sides of one coin; but rather that they’re both products of the same culture, and seem to take up much the same sort of cultural space.

That’s a brief summary of what an increasing number of scholars agree upon. My deep dive into the topic? I’ve been reading a whole bunch of books.

One book I’ve found helpful on this topic: The Secular Paradox: On the Religiosity of the Not Religious, by Joseph Blankholm (NYU Press, 2022). The book is a sociological study of people who are not religious, and who are part of organized secular groups. One of the fascinating things Blankholm finds is that organized secular groups in the U.S. seem to be dominated by older white men from vaguely Christian backgrounds. Blankholm interviews Black atheists, Hispanic atheists, formerly Jewish atheists, “Muslimish” atheists, etc. — people who often don’t fit neatly into the organized secular groups. So how come the old white guys get to dominate U.S. atheism? Blankholm has some good things to say about this.

Another book I’ve found super helpful is: Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept by Brett Nongbri (Yale Univ. Press, 2015). Nongbri is a scholar who specializes in the Ancient Near East. He also argues that “religion” is a concept that didn’t exist before the European Enlightenment. Thus, when we talk about “ancient Egyptian religion” or “ancient Greek religions,” we are using anachronistic terminology. Even when we talk about early Christianity or early Islam as “religions,” we are using anachronistic terminology. Nongbri goes into some textual analysis showing how modern translators use the word “religion” to translate ancient terms that do not carry our contemporary meaning. In other words, to say that Jesus of Nazareth (or Paul of Tarsus, depending on your theology) founded a “religion” is an anachronistic way of framing that history. Jesus may have founded something, but it was not what we mean today when we say “religion.”

If we take Nongbri and Blankholm (and many other scholars of religion) seriously, we find something rather disconcerting. The word “religion” works best to describe Western European Christianity from the early Modern period onward. That implies that “religion” does not work so well to describe the so-called “world religions.” And indeed, if we look closely, we see that the concept “religion” has been imposed on many phenomena that weren’t religions before colonialism, e.g., “Hinduism” wasn’t even a thing until after the British colonized India. Nor does “religion” work so well when applied to anything before the Enlightenment.

Which in turn implies that “religion” is not a universal concept that applies to all human cultures in all times and all places. This is something that scholars have been saying for some years now, e.g., Jonathan Z. Smith in “Religion, Religions, Religious” (1998). And if “religion” is not a timeless and universal concept, then neither is “secular.”

The practical effect of all this? Well, for us Unitarian Universalists, we are definitely part of a religion, since both Unitarianism and Universalism started out as Christian heresies. But at an institutional level, we got kicked out of the Christian club a century ago. You can be a Christian Unitarian Universalist, but Unitarian Universalism can’t really be considered Christianity. Which means the term” religion” when it is applied to us is not going to be a perfect fit. In fact, it might be argued that these days we look more like organized secularism than organized religion. And given the apparent complicity of organized religion in colonialism, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Deconstruction and reconstruction

“…The term ‘postmodern’ had been used sporadically by process [theology] thinkers since the 1960s. The later French movement that gave ‘postmodernism’ wide currency reinforced many Whiteheadean criticisms of modernity, but it concluded on a ‘deconstructive’ note. Whiteheadians [and other process thinkers] joined with other constructive critics of modernity in emphasizing reconstruction.” — John B. Cobb, Jr., “Process Theology,” in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Religion (Routledge, 2007), p. 561.

Unitarian Universalists are in the direct lineage of process thought, through the contributions of thinkers like Charles Hartshorne and Bernard Loomer, both of whom were members of Unitarian Universalist congregations. And for many years, our thinking emphasized the reconstructive aspects of postmodernity. More recently, though, I’ve been feeling that we Unitarian Universalists (and I include myself in this critique) have been following the French postmodernists by emphasizing the deconstructive aspects of postmodernity. This is due, I think, to our adoption of liberal political discourse, which currently emphasizes deconstruction over reconstruction — liberal politics tends to default towards breaking down stereotypes and attacking the sacred cows of the existing social order, as opposed to trying to construct a better social order. We who ally ourselves with liberal politics know what we are against, but we sometimes find it difficult to articulate what we are for.

Speaking for myself, to get out of reactive deconstruction, it’s been helpful to think about process thought. But the process thought of Hartshorne, Loomer, et al., seems a little dated these days. Maybe for us Unitarian Universalists, the work that Dan McKanan is doing around ecospirituality is one way to be reconstructive rather than deconstructive. Although, finding myself still in a deconstructive mode, I can’t help but keep looking for someone who isn’t a Western white male….

LGBTQ+ and religion

Here are a few things I’ve come across recently on the topic of religion and LGBTQ+ issues:

1. A statement signed by some 300 prominent Muslim scholars and clerics titled “Navigating Differences: Clarifying Sexual and Gender Ethics in Islam” interprets the Quran as asserting that “God explicitly condemns sexual relations with the same sex”; and further, that “as a general rule, Islam strictly prohibits medical procedures intended to change the sex of healthy individuals, regardless of whether such procedures are termed gender ‘affirming’ or ‘confirming.'” While acknowledging that there are Muslims who interpret the Quran as fully supportive of LGBTQ+ rights, these Muslim scholars and clerics say that public schools should not force their Muslim children to hear any messages that support what they call “LGBTQ ideology.” These Muslim scholars and clerics join many conservative/evangelical Christians, many Orthodox Jews, and many other religious subgroups in saying that their religion does not affirm LGBTQ+ rights.

2. Three social science scholars realized that U.S. research on LGBTQ+ and religion tends to focus on the attitudes of non-LGBTQ+ people towards LGBTQ+ persons. But there isn’t much social science research on how LGBTQ+ persons themselves relate to religion. So last month, they did a survey of LGBTQ+ persons to ask them about their relation to religion. While they admit that their survey is not representative, the results are still of interest:

“Our findings suggest that the relationships LGBTQ+ people have with religion are more complicated than most media headlines portray. Many LGBTQ+ people are religious… 36% of participants report a religious affiliation; about the same percentage say they attend religious services at least once a year…. A full 80% of survey respondents were raised religious. Of those who no longer identify religiously, nearly 1 in 3 say they nonetheless continue to feel a connection to their religious heritage.”

Let’s hope this preliminary survey eventually leads to published research on this topic.

3. Sarah Imhoff, professor of religious studies at Indiana University, has written an essay for The Conversation titled “Nonbinary genders beyond ‘male’ and ‘female’ would have been no surprise to ancient rabbis.” She says in part:

“As a scholar of Judaism and gender, I find that people across the political spectrum often assume religion must be inherently conservative and unchanging when it comes to sex and gender. They imagine that religions have always embraced a world in which there are only men and women. But for Judaism – and for many other religious traditions, too – history shows that’s just not true.”

My favorite part of this essay is when Imhoff points to interpretations by ancient rabbis, found in the Jewish Midrash, where Genesis 1:27 is interpreted to mean that the first human created by God was both male and female — not exactly what we today would call transgender, but definitely a human who did not have binary gender.

What the Southern Baptist vote means

A few days ago, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to expel some local churches that had women as pastors. They kicked Rick Warren’s huge Saddleback Church, and they also kicked out a small church where as woman has been serving as pastor for three decades. If they’re suddenly kicking out a church where there’s been a woman as pastor for three decades, that makes it clear that this is not a situation where suddenly women are becoming Southern Baptist pastors. It’s the denomination that has changed its opinion.

Rabbi Jeffery Salkin, who writes an opinion column for Religion News Service, makes this observation:

“This is a war the right wing is waging: roll back women’s rights…. If you are looking for the symptoms of incipient fascism in this country, pay attention to the signs: the growth of antisemitism, a parallel growth of misogyny and a powerful growth of anti-LGBTQ hatred.” Salkin adds that this new rise of fascism doesn’t look like 1920s Germany so much as it looks like 1950s United States of America.. That was the decade, according to Salkin, of “women who did not work outside the home … queer folks in the closet … an America where Blacks were still in the back of the bus and where Jews and other ethnic and religious outsiders faced serious restrictions.”

I’m inclined to agree with him. The fascism of Trump, DeSantis, and others should not be compared to Nazi Germany. They are not trying to impose a new type of fascism on the U.S. Instead, they want to go back to a time when conservative White men were firmly in control of U.S. society. We don’t like to think of the 1950s as a time of fascism, but it was — not Nazi Germany fascism, but a distinctly American kind of fascism. Nor was it only Blacks, LGBTQ+ people, and women who were targets of this uniquely American fascism — Joe McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Affairs Committee also targeted White men whose politics happened to be anywhere to the left of the John Birch Society, destroying their careers and sometimes sending them to jail.

And this week’s Southern Baptist vote shows just one of the ways conservative White men (and the women who submit to love them) are trying to make 1950s U.S. fascism return. Get those doggone women out of the pulpit before they mention that Phoebe, a woman, was one of the leaders of the early Christian church — i.e., get rid of the women before they reveal that 1950s U.S. fascism was not rooted in Christianity at all, but instead springs entirely from the fevered imaginations of conservative White men who want to retain their ill-gotten power.


Someone left a comment asking me to ordain them as a minister in their own made-up religion. Uh, yeah, no. An easy web search would have revealed that only Unitarian Universalist congregations (not individuals) can ordain. Another easy web search would have revealed lots of websites that will ordain you upon request. So I deleted the comment, because I’m guessing it’s one of the spammers and scammers who attack this blog on a daily basis.

But this does raise the interesting question of the meaning of ordination. There is not a universal understanding of what it means to be ordained.

Unitarian Universalists in the United States have our own understandings of what ordination means. Not only that, our understandings may differ from congregation to congregation. And U.S. Unitarian Universalist understandings of ordination differ substantially from Unitarian Universalists in, say, Romania or the Philippines.

That’s just within one religious tradition. Beyond that, Unitarian Universalist understandings of ordination may differ greatly from other religious traditions. For example, Roman Catholics understand ordination as a “sacrament” (honestly, I’m not quite sure what a sacrament is). In another example, some Buddhist groups ordain people into monastic orders, which is a different thing than ordaining someone to be a leader of a congregation consisting mostly of lay people. Then there are all those religious traditions that do not have ordination rituals.

This brings us to the interesting point about ordination. In a multicultural, multi-religious society like the United States today, ordination can only be understood in relation to a specific religious tradition — or even only in relation to a specific local religious community. What you mean by ordination might not be what I mean by ordination. This is not to say that ordination is meaningless. Ordination does have meaning, but only in relation to a specific religious tradition.

Deconstructing “covenant,” pt. 2

…My point in the previous post was to deconstruct “covenant.” But why do we need to deconstruct “covenant”?

Unitarian Universalists today love to talk about covenant as if it has a long history. I’m arguing that covenant was a mid-twentieth century invention by Conrad Wright and James Luther Adams. It does not have a long history. And that’s a good thing. The history that Conrad Wright invented for covenant has too many negatives for me to feel comfortable.

When we deconstruct in the Conrad Wright conception of covenant, here are some of the things that we begin to understand:
— Historically, covenant was designed to promote theocracy;
— it was dependent on patriarchy;
— it was rooted in enslavement of Africans and Natives;
— and it supported British imperialism and colonialism.
Plus the Wrightian history of covenant ignores our Universalist heritage.

These are some of the things that Wright either wasn’t aware of or ignored. I don’t think we can remain unaware of these things, or ignore them, any longer. We have to deconstruct “covenant” so we can reconstruct it without quite so many negative aspects.

Since the time of Wright and Adams, others have tried to articulate a vision for Unitarian Universalist covenant, most notably Alice Blair Wesley in her Minns Lectures from the year 2000. But all these visions for covenant start with the assumptions laid out by Conrad Wright and James Luther Adams, and don’t really question those assumptions. I feel that none of these new visions for covenant adequately addresses theocracy, patriarchy, enslavement, or colonialism. And in my opinion, none of the visions for covenant takes Universalism seriously enough. To put it succinctly — none of these new visions of covenant adequately deconstructs the underlying assumptions of “covenant.”

Deconstructing “covenant” in this way has helped me to understand why I’ve been feeling increasingly uncomfortable when Unitarian Universalists talk about “covenant.” When we talk about “being in covenant,” we have to start listening for echoes of patriarchy, colonialism, enslavement, and so on. When we accuse others of “breaking covenant,” we have to start have to listening for echoes of the old Puritan practice of public shaming of church members. When we think of covenant as an organizing principle, we have to ask ourselves why we are ignoring the Universalist tradition.

If we’re unwilling to deconstruct “covenant” — how are we going to reconstruct “covenant” to remove the lingering taint of sexism, enslavement, anti-democratic theocracy, and colonialism? Perhaps deconstructing and then reconstructing “covenant” would allow us to make some much-needed progress in our anti-racism work, our ongoing efforts to get rid of patriarchal structures, and our beginning efforts to understand the role of religion in colonialism

If we’re unwilling to deconstruct “covenant” — how are we going to include Universalism once again in our central organizing principles? I’m afraid the answer here might well be that most of us don’t care about Universalism any more. Perhaps it would be better if we’d openly acknowledge this, because we’re “sitting on the franchise,” getting in the way of other groups trying to spread the happy religion of universal salvation. Or perhaps it would be best if we re-engaged with our Universalist heritage, with its incredible diversity of belief and practice; perhaps that would help us more than an attempt to unify ourselves with a tainted vision of “covenant.”

Deconstructing “covenant,” pt. 1

Unitarian Universalists talk a lot about “covenant.” We didn’t used to talk about covenant. As near as I can tell, our mild obsession with covenant came about during the merger of the Unitarians and the Universalists, a process which began in the 1950s and continued for years after the legal consolidation of the two groups in 1961. We were thrashing about trying to find something that held us together. The Universalist professions of faith weren’t acceptable to the Unitarians, and the Unitarian affirmations of faith (like James Freeman Clarke’s Five Points of the New Theology) weren’t acceptable to the Universalists.

Two Unitarian scholars, James Luther Adams and Conrad Wright, had long been talking about the importance of covenant to their Unitarian tradition. Wright was a historian who interpreted the entire history of Unitarianism in the United States as centering around covenant. This was a problematic interpretation, since by the early twentieth century many Unitarian congregations didn’t have written covenants. I’m not sure, but Wright may have felt that the Unitarians kind of forgot covenant, and that forgetfulness led to the decline of Unitarianism in the 1930s. In any case, he saw the re-establishment of covenant as central to the revitalization of Unitarianism in the mid to late twentieth century.

Wright continued to trumpet covenant after consolidation with the Universalists. While his primary area of expertise was in Unitarian history, he dipped into Universalist history and claimed to find that the Universalists were pretty much like the Unitarians when it came to congregational polity and the centrality of covenant.

I don’t find Wright’s interpretation of the historical facts to be terribly convincing. Covenant was in fact central to most Unitarian congregations that began life as Puritan churches in New England. Covenant was also important to some nineteenth century Unitarian churches which had been founded by New England settlers moving west. But in my research in the archives of local congregations, covenant becomes less important as an organizing principle beginning in the nineteenth century and through the early to mid-twentieth century.

In many eighteenth century New England congregations, there were two parallel organizations, the church and the society. The society owned the real property and managed the finances; the church consisted of the people who signed the church covenant and stood up in front of the congregation and confessed their sins. Membership in the society was typically through buying a pew and contributing annual rental for your pew (often restricted to males, since there were legal limitations about females owning property), and generally speaking only males could take on leadership roles in the society. It appears that on average significantly more women than men signed the covenant to become a part of the church. People of African or Native descent could join the church, but may have been barred from owning pews or serving in leadership roles in the society.

Thus the entire system of covenant was bound up with discriminatory distinctions between males and females, and between persons of European descent as opposed to persons of African or Native descent. Nor is this an accident. Covenant in the New England Puritan tradition was a means for upholding a theocracy that placed white males at the top of the social hierarchy (note that I’m being sloppy here by including the Pilgrims in the umbrella term “Puritan”). Today, some might call this racism or white supremacy, though some historians would argue that these are anachronistic concepts when applied to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; a better way to put this is to simply say that the New England Puritan tradition was inextricably linked to enslaving people of African and Native descent. On the other hand, we can say with some certainty that this Puritan social hierarchy was patriarchal and sexist. In addition, Puritan theocracy was also tied in with the larger project of British colonialism; not quite as blatantly as in the resource-extraction economies of the southern plantation colonies, but the British empire clearly say the value of exporting religious dissidents to “tame the wilderness” thus opening up the area to somewhat “softer” economic exploitation by the empire.

In short, covenant was bound up with patriarchy, colonialism, and slavery. This is not to say that covenant is forever tainted by its origins. But these are parts of the story that Conrad Wright passes over. If we’re going to put covenant at the center of our religious tradition, at the very least we need to acknowledge that covenants were part of a theocratic political structure that was rooted in the oppression of the majority of people in the society.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the distinction between society and church seems to have slowly been forgotten; along the way, covenants often seem to have disappeared as well. So, for example, when I was doing research for the 300th anniversary of the Unitarian church in New Bedford, Mass., I found evidence for the existence of a covenant in the congregation’s eighteenth century archives, now stored at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. By the late nineteenth century, during the long ministry of William Potter, one of the leaders of the Free Religious Association, I found no evidence for the existence of a covenant. The distinction between society and church continued into the 1940s, since the ministers were not allowed to attend the annual meeting of the congregation — it appears that in the eighteenth century the minister was charged with oversight of the church, the lay leaders with oversight of the society — but with the end of pew ownership in the 1940s, that distinction finally dissolved. By the early twenty-first century, there was no distinction between church and society, or more precisely the church withered away leaving only the society.

In another congregation I researched, the Unitarian church in Palo Alto, Calif., which existed from 1905 to 1934, I found no evidence at all for the existence of a covenant. From the research I’ve done in local congregational archives, I’ve mostly found no evidence for a covenant in the early twentieth century. The only exception is the Unitarian Society of Geneva, Ill., which still maintains the covenant originally written and signed by the founders of that church — who were all emigrants from New England to what was then the frontier. That covenant was substantially revised circa 1900, to shorten it, and to remove all mentions of God or the Bible. The church almost went moribund in the early twentieth century, until Charles Lyttle, professor of church history at Meadville Lombard Theological School, stepped in to rebuild the church for use as a training congregation for his Unitarian theological students. Perhaps it is due in part to Lyttle’s academic influence that the Geneva covenant remained active (and one wonders if the historian Charles Lyttle helped draw the attention of the later historian Conrad Wright to covenant).

Thus covenant appears to have mostly disappeared from Unitarian congregations in the nineteenth century. But Conrad Wright also argued that Unitarian churches were bound to each other through congregational polity, which was another sort of covenant. The most important document here was the Cambridge Platform, a seventeenth century Puritan document that outlined how Puritan churches were supposed to relate to one another. The Cambridge Platform looked to the Bible as revealed scripture (the Word of God) to determine how churches related one to another. The Cambridge Platform was outdated almost as soon as it was written — it called for every church to support both a preaching minister and a teaching minister, which proved to be economically impossible — but it also simply didn’t apply to some Unitarian congregations.

Take, for example, King’s Chapel in Boston, which became Unitarian in 1785. It was originally affiliated with the Church of England, but became independent during the American Revolution; at which point, it removed all references to the trinity from its Book of Common Prayer, and became Unitarian in theology. King’s Chapel came from a tradition of episcopal polity, and the Cambridge Platform formed no part of its history until, at the earliest, it affiliated with the American Unitarian Association sometime after 1825. Or take the Icelandic Unitarian churches of Canada, which came out of Lutheranism, another religious tradition based on episcopal polity. Perhaps we could argue that the Unitarian tradition of covenant in North America is syncretic, taking in various influences, and transmogrifying them.

But I think it’s more accurate to say that twentieth century Unitarian covenant was something that Conrad Wright made up, using historical materials. Covenant is not an old tradition among us, it’s a newly made-up tradition. That being the case, I’m not sure I want to use a made-up kind of covenant based on Puritan theocratic patriarchal concepts rooted in colonialism and slavery.

Furthermore, as someone who thinks of myself as more of a Universalist than a Unitarian, I’m trying to figure out why we should use a made-up kind of covenant that pretty much ignores Universalism. Conrad Wright did extensive research in Unitarian covenant, but it’s clear from his writings that his knowledge of Universalist history was not very deep. James Luther Adams, the other co-creator of twentieth century Unitarian covenant, knew his Unitarian tradition quite well but did not know Universalism nearly as well.

Whether or not the Unitarians were always actually unified by covenant (or if it was something that Adams and Wright invented in the mid-twentieth century), it’s quite obvious that the Universalists were not unified by covenant. The Universalists were unified by a common theology of universal salvation, which was expressed in affirmations of faith. Because the Universalists differed so radically in the details of their universalist theologies, their affirmations of faith had to be very broad, and mostly were quite brief. Unitarian documents, such as church covenants and the Cambridge Platform, tended to be quite wordy — the Cambridge Platform fills up a small book — but the Universalists’ “Winchester Profession” of 1803 comes in at fewer than 100 words. Not that the Winchester Profession, or any later profession of faith, actually served to unify the Universalists; they’ve been an almost anarchistic group from the start; the point is that they did not have covenants in the way Unitarians had covenants. Thus the concept of covenant, as promoted by Adams and Wright, was a Unitarian thing, but it was not important to Universalism.

My point here is to deconstruct “covenant.” More on this tomorrow….