Family tree for Unitarian Universalism

Drew asked about a “family tree” for the Unitarian Universalism, and as it happens I had drawn one back in 2003, so I revised it and sent it to him. It might be of interest to others:

Simplified family tree of the Unitarian Universalism

This family tree is based on a revisionist interpretation of Unitarian Universalist history, and therefore some explanation is in order.

First, this family tree shows Transylvanian Unitarianism as quite separate from North American Unitarianism. This is based on my reading of Earl Morse Wilbur’s history of European Unitarianism; Wilbur dearly wanted to connect Transylvanian and North American Unitarians, but the few connections he documents may be summed up as: maybe a few English-speaking Unitarians read a few books about Transylvanian Unitarianism. When you look at the two Unitarian groups today, some of the differences are more pronounced than the vague theological similarities: the Transylvanians have bishops, their religion seems more narrowly ethnic, etc. Thus, I depict the two groups as quite separate.

I understand North American Unitarianism and Universalism as being reactions against aspects of Calvinism. Thus I show both groups as having roots in Calvinism.

North American Unitarians came in large part from the New England Standing Order churches; there wasn’t enough room to show the small but important influence of Joseph Priestley and a few other early Unitarians who brought their Unitarianism from England, rather than getting it from Boston. Thus I show the major event in the beginning of North American Unitarianism to be the split between the conservatives — people like Jonathan Edwards — and the liberals — people like Charles Chauncy, a split which took place after the Great Awakening. However, the first openly Unitarian congregation in North America was King’s Chapel; originally affiliated with the Church of England, it became Unitarian in 1785, long before any of the Standing Order churches openly declared themselves to be Unitarian.

The beginnings of North American Universalism are a little more tangled. John Murray and George DeBenneville brought their Universalist beliefs from England when they came to live in the coastal cities of the New World; that history is well known. But there’s another history, well documented by scholar Stephen Marini and others, of how Universalism also arose in central New England, often in formerly Baptist churches. Thus I show Universalism as having some roots in Baptist traditions; this is perhaps most evident in the institutional structures (or lack thereof) of early Universalism. Then too, it is important to mention John Murray’s marriage to Judith Sargent; she came from a prominent and wealthy New England family, and both her family connections and her own intelligence contributed a great deal to John’s eventual success as a Universalist standard-bearer.

By about 1825, both Unitarians and Universalists were well established in North America. But the boundaries of both denominations remained somewhat porous. In the early nineteenth century, Unitarians sometimes cooperated with the Christian Connexion denomination (not show in the family tree). In the late nineteenth century, a small group of ministers split from the Unitarians to form the Free Religious Association, and in a few cases they brought their congregations with them; some of those congregations reportedly never rejoined the Unitarian denomination (though I’ve never been able to document that myself). Then around 1900, some Icelandic Lutheran churches in the prairie provinces of Canada switched to the Unitarian denomination; at least one other formerly Lutheran church, Nora Church in Hanska, Minnesota, also joined the Unitarians.

However, Unitarian boundaries were not completely porous. When William Jackson, an African American Baptist minister, tried to join the American Unitarian Association in 1860, bringing his congregation with him, he was carefully kept out.

In Universalism, the porous boundaries become most evident in the late nineteenth century, a time when many Universalists became enamored with spiritualism. Then spiritualism became an organized religion, and some Universalists, such as minister John Murray Spear, left Universalism to become Spiritualists. But again, the boundaries of Universalism were not completely porous. A splinter group of Primitive Baptists (Baptists who, among other things, refuse to have musical instruments in church, relying instead on a capella singing) adopted Universalist beliefs, probably after having read books by Hosea Ballou, the great Universalist theologian. But there has been very little interest in exploring the commonalities between Primitive Baptist Universalists (PBU) and Universalists, or for that matter Unitarian Universalists (the PBU-UU connection between may seem more robust theologically than the connection between Transylvanian and North American Unitarians; but the class difference is far greater).

As for the racial boundaries of Universalism, they were slightly more porous than those of the Unitarians. The Universalists accepted Joseph Jordan, an African American and former Baptist minister, into fellowship and ordained him in 1889. However, the racial boundaries were not all that porous: there remained little denominational support for African American Universalists outside of a couple of congregations in Virginia, and individual Universalist congregations in the South remained explicitly segregationist up into the mid-1960s.

The late nineteenth century saw a growing number of connections between Unitarians and Universalists ; this is symbolized on the family tree by Eliza Tupper Wilkes; she was ordained a Universalist minister, but worked for both groups at different times, and founded both Universalist and Unitarian congregations. There were also strong connections between both the Unitarians and the Universalists with the Congregationalists. During the early twentieth century, there were Universalist congregations that merged into Congregationalist congregations, and both Universalist and Unitarian congregations that federated with Congregationalist congregations. Some of the federated congregations still exist; they are one congregation in real life, but on paper they also exist as two separate congregations, and when you join a federated congregation you decide if you’re joining as, e.g., a Congregationalist or a Unitarian.

In 1961, the Unitarians and the Universalists consolidated (the legal term is “consolidated,” not “merged”). This now seems inevitable to us here in North America, but groups like the Khasi Hills Unitarians in India, or the Universalist churches in the Philippines, had no corresponding group to merge with.

Finally, it is worth remembering that several features of contemporary North American Unitarian Universalism which today seem diagnostic in helping to identify who’s a Unitarian Universalist are actually recent innovations. The “seven principles,” the widespread use of the flaming chalice in worship services, the water communion service — all these grew out of the feminist revolution of the 1980s, a revolution led by people like Natalie Gulbrandsen. Feminist theology has helped drive us further away from groups like the Primitive Baptist Universalists, while driving us closer to the United Church of Christ (UCC), a very liberal Christian group that is the inheritor of the old conservative New England churches from which the Unitarians split in the early nineteenth century. The UCC and the UUA today are close religious relatives, sociologically, politically, and demographically. The UCC and the UUA cooperated to produce the innovative “Our Whole Lives” comprehensive sexuality education program; politically, UCC churches are often to the left of UU churches; demographically both groups a dominated by white college-educated professionals. The only big difference today is that more UCC members believe in God than do Unitarian Universalists; though that too may be changing, as a friend of mine who’s a UCC minister says that most of the children and teens in her church are professed atheists.

PDF of the family tree.

Saving Universalist theology

(Be forewarned: this is a blog post about theology. Some of us enjoy theology, but if you don’t, this will not be fun for you.)

Mark Morrison-Reed, in his lecture “The Black Hole in the White Psyche” (online here, and in the fall, 2017 issue of UU World magazine), asserts that Unitarianism appealed to members of the African American intellectual elite through the late nineteenth and twentieth century, citing the Unitarian affiliations of people like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Whitney Young. Universalist theology, on the other hand, did not appeal to African Americans:

“Universalism … was difficult for African Americans to embrace. A loving God who saves all is, for most African Americans, a theological non sequitur. Why? In an article entitled ‘In the Shadow of Charleston,’ Reggie Williams writes about a young black Christian who said, during a prayer group following the murder of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in 2015, ‘that if he were to also acknowledge the historical impact of race on his potential to live a safe and productive life in America, he would be forced to wrestle with the veracity of the existence of a just and loving God who has made him black in America.’ This is the question of theodicy: How do we reconcile God’s goodness with the existence of evil? In the context of Charleston, the context of Jim Crow, the context of slavery, what is the meaning of black suffering? Why has such calamity been directed at African Americans? If God is just and loving there must be a reason. If there is no reason, one is led to the conclusion that God is neither just nor loving.”

What Mark says is clearly true. Yet there were a tiny handful of African American Universalists during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. What drew them to Universalism? Continue reading “Saving Universalist theology”

How to fight therapeutic technological consumerist militarism

The current issue of Geez magazine (“Contemplative Cultural Resistance”) just arrived in my mailbox from Canada, and the issue opens with a quote from Walter Brueggeman’s 2005 essay “Counterscript.” Geez had to abridge the quote, but here’s the original:

———

“The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.

“I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.

“I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved.

“I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that ‘if you want it, you need it.” Thus there is now an advertisement that says: ‘It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.’

“The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.

“It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated.”

———

Later in the essay, Brueggeman goes on to say that this script has “failed,” for “we are not safe, and we are not happy.” He points to the complicity of the Christian church in “enacting” this script, adding:

“It is the task of the church and its ministry to detach us from that powerful script.”

Unitarian Universalism got kicked out of the Christian church more than a century ago (a fact we’re now kind of proud of), but like many Christian churches we too are enacting the script of therapeutic technological consumerist militarism. We firmly believe that we can find ways to live our lives with no inconvenience. We firmly believe that we can find a fix for every problem.

The next two points may not be as obvious, and will require some explanation.

We may protest that we fight consumerism, but we live our lives as though resources are ours to exploit. We cut down on our oil use, but we firmly believe that the sun and wind are ours to exploit for energy. We say we are anti-racist, but the financial health of many of our congregations can be traced back to seed money accumulated through exploitation of people of color: land appropriated from Native American peoples, labor appropriated from persons of African descent, etc.

We may protest militarism. Many of us may be peaceniks, and some of us have been arrested protesting militarism. But in the end we depend on systems that protect therapeutic technological consumerism, and so we protest that upon which our livelihoods depend.

Brueggeman goes on to say: Continue reading “How to fight therapeutic technological consumerist militarism”

New edition of “A Treatise on Atonement”

Now in print: a new reader’s edition of Hosea Ballou’s classic statement of universal salvation, A Treatise on Atonement.

This new edition has been edited for clarity and ease of reading. I broke up long paragraphs, modernized punctuation, and added section breaks where there was a logical break in the text. I also added an extensive general index that references names, topics, etc., and also references Ballou’s entertaining illustrations and parables. Scriptural references have been added in the text where missing, and there is a full scriptural index. An appendix has a brief biography of Ballou, written by Thomas Whittemore a year before Ballou’s death.

This project started almost a decade ago, when I couldn’t find an adequate online edition of Ballou’s Treatise. Scott Wells, Russell Allen, and Steve Rowe all helped produce the Web edition, which went online in 2011. This new print version represents a complete revision of the online edition, with added indices and appendix.

Why bother with a new print edition when the classic Ernest Cassara edition, published by the Unitarian Universalist Association, is still in print? Most importantly, the text of the Cassara edition retains the crazy-long paragraphs of the early nineteenth century editions; adding new paragraph breaks makes the book much easier to read. Then too, I’ve long felt that the index to the Cassara edition was inadequate. Finally, after Cassara’s death earlier this year, there was no longer any hope that he might revise his edition.

The new 2015 edition of A Treatise on Atonement is available now through Lulu.com for $12.99 plus about $3.99 for shipping. In approximately 8 weeks, it will also be available direct through major online booksellers, as well as through bookstores via Ingram distributors, at a retail price of about $12.99 (the minimum price I can set that allows such wide distribution).

Treatise on Atonement, thumbnail of cover

Peace Pilgrim and universalism

Peace Pilgrim, the woman who achieved some small measure of renown for traveling “25,000 miles on foot for peace,” was a pacifist deeply rooted in Western religious traditions. Not surprisingly, she held a universalist theology (note the small “u”; I’m speaking of her theology, not implying she was a member of the Universalist denomination). In the collection of her writings, I find this brief response to a correspondent who asked her, “Do you believe there is both a heaven and a hell?”

Heaven and hell are states of being. Heaven is being in harmony with God’s will; hell is being out of harmony with God’s will. You can be in either state on either side of life. There is no permanent hell. — Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, 5th compact edition (Shelton, Conn.: Friends of Peace Pilgrim, 2003), p. 150.

In the first two sentences, Peace Pilgrim expresses sentiments that can be found in such classic Universalist writers as Hosea Ballou; really, this is a notion that extends back in Western thinking at least to Plato.

The third sentence is at odds with Ballou’s Universalism; for Ballou, God’s power is such that you get saved and put in heaven after death whether you want to be there or not, whether you’re worthy of it or not. By contrast, for Peace Pilgrim your freedom of will continues after death, and remains strong enough to go out of harmony with God’s will. In a sense, Peace Pilgrim is somewhat like the Restorationist Universalists who allow for a time of punishment after death; at least, insofar as moving oneself out of harmony with God can be considered a form of punishment.

The final sentence is a clear statement of universalist theology: “There is no permanent hell.” Whatever denomination they may belong to, universalists all affirm this truth.

Ballou on the brain

After spending something like 36 hours editing Hosea Ballou over the Thanksgiving weekend, I’ve got Ballou on the brain. So I can’t resist posting one more Ballouvian quote. This time, I’ve edited and updated the language somewhat. You shouldn’t go reposting this and attributing it to Ballou, but I think my edited version does capture the essence of his meaning for early twenty-first century readers:

The ideas that sin is infinite, and that it deserves an infinite punishment; and that God took on a natural body of flesh and blood, and actually suffered death on a cross to satisfy God’s infinite justice and thereby save human creatures from endless misery; — these are ideas which appear to me to be unfounded in the nature of reason, and unsupported by the Bible. Such notions have, in my opinion, served to darken the human understanding, and have rendered the Bible a subject of discredit to thousands who, I believe, would never have condemned the scriptures had it not been for those gross absurdities….

Online Treatise on Atonement finally complete

Back in 2005, on the 200th anniversary of the publication of Hosea Ballou’s Treatise on Atonement, I decided to put the entire text of the Treatise online. Although I thought it would take me about a year to complete this project, it proved more time-consuming and more difficult than that. But, after spending twenty or so hours on it over the long weekend, I’m finally done, the full text is now online, and you can find it here. Continue reading “Online Treatise on Atonement finally complete”

The search for wisdom

I’ve been working my way through A Treatise on Atonement by Hosea Ballou, the great Universalist minister and theologian of the early nineteenth century. I like Ballou’s commitment to the use of common sense and reason in religion, as exemplified in passages like this one:

We feel our own imperfections; we wish for every one to seek with all his might after wisdom; and let it be found where it may, or by whom it may, we humbly wish to have it brought to light, that all may enjoy it; but do not feel authorized to condemn an honest inquirer after truth, for what he believes different from a majority of us.

This could be a central motto for religious liberals.