Monthly Archives: February 2008

What Does Universalism Look Like Today?

Universalism as a specific religious approach did not disappear when the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association combined in 1961. It is not only a broad influence in Unitarian-Universalism, but it also lives on as a specific practice in many historic Universalist churches (now UU), as well as in the hearts of individual Universalists everywhere. However, many people, Unitarian-Universalists included, have never had the opportunity to observe or participate in a service from the traditional Universalist side of our family. Therefore, to give a little taste of what that part of our heritage is like, here is a transcript of one such service, from The Universalist Church of West Hartford, held on Sunday, February 17, 2008. It is a standard service for this church (i.e. the format is usually the same from week to week, including the doxology, affirmation, prayers, etc).

If possible, imagine the setting while reading: the church has pews that seat about 350, a stained glass depiction of Jesus and four of the evangelists behind the chancel, with a pulpit, lectern, and altar table, and behind the congregation in the balcony is the great organ. The is a cross above the chancel, an American flag to stage right and a Connecticut state flag to stage left, next to the baptismal font. This building dates from 1931, but the congregation itself dates from 1821. The order of service handed out at the door includes the procedures of the service, as well as announcements, such as times for the various social action programs the church is running, the weekday gatherings for seniors, and the Buddhist meditation group.

PRELUDE: Kleine Präludien und Intermezzi
-by Hermann Schroeder (performed by the church organist)
(offered by church laymember)

(by the ministerial intern)

HYMN: #10 “Immortal Love”
(in unison)

(by two lay members of the church)

(in unison)

Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law.
This is our great covenant;
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love, and to help one another.

SINGING THE CHILDREN OUT: “We Will Keep a Place For You”
(in unison)

READING: Psalm 31 (9-13, 17-18, NRSV):
(read by the ministerial intern)

Be gracious to me, Oh God, for I am in distress;
my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.

For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away.

I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me.

I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.

For I hear the whispering of many- terror all around! –
as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life…

Do not let me be put to shame, Oh God, for I call on you…
Let the lying lips be stilled that speak insolently against the righteous with pride and contempt.

MUSICAL OFFERING: “O Sing Unto the Lord”
-by Hans Leo Hassler
(sung by Universalist Church Choir)


Call to Prayer: Hymn #123, “Spirit of Life”
(in unison)


(offered by the ministerial intern)

Lord’s Prayer:
(in unison)

Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.

Musical Response

OFFERTORY: “Child of God”
(in unison, led by church member David Rioux on electric guitar, with piano accompaniment. David wrote this new Universalist song; this was its pubic debut.)


When you came through the door did you blend with the wood?
Are you timid or shy, deeply misunderstood?
Wanna tell you right now, you’re a child of God.

Will you take off your mask? Will you show us your face?
Do you think you’ll be judged? Well you’re in the wrong place.
Wanna tell you right now, you’re a child of God.

Might have had your doubts about the human race.
But we can all get through it somehow.
All the answers found are never in one place,
So we’ll go right on searching for now……….


If you’re from uptown, downtown
Or maybe streets that aren’t so clean.
To the house of the Lord, let us welcome you,
If you’re seeking out some peace.
If you’re from inside, outside
Or reaching out from in between.
To the house of the Lord, let us welcome you
And we’ll take you sight unseen….
Child of God.


Were you led to believe that you couldn’t be saved?
That your spirit was flawed for the way you behaved?
Wanna tell you right now, You’re a child of God.

Would you give up the grief that is chained to the past?
When the soul is released there’ll be freedom at last.
Wanna tell you right now, you’re a child of God.

Might have had your doubts about the human race.
But we all get through it somehow.
All the answers found are never in one place,
So we’ll go on searching for now……….

(Repeat chorus)

-by David Rioux, copyright Fishlips Music 2008

(in unison)

Praise God for love we all may share,
Praise God for beauty everywhere,
Praise God for hope of good to be,
Praise God for truth that makes us free. Amen

READING: Prayers of Steel (excerpt) – by Carl Sandburg
(read by the ministerial intern)

Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar.
Let me pry loose old walls.
Let me lift and loosen old foundations.

Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike.
Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together.

Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.
Let me be the great nail holding a skyscraper through blue
nights into white stars.

HYMN: #170 “We Are a Gentle, Angry People”
(in unison)

SERMON: “Radical Hospitality”
(by Craig M. Nowak, ministerial intern)

[The sermon drew on multiple Biblical quotes relating to the incident of Sodom’s destruction. Often used as an excuse to justify bigots’ homophobia, Craig described how it is really a condemnation of people who are inhospitable, especially toward those in need or those who are different. He related this to his own struggles as a gay man in an intolerant culture, and how he feels Unitarian-Universalists must take up true hospitality as a practice if they hope to live out their deepest religious principles. A few quotes taken from the sermon will help to clarify his point]:

“True hospitality is bold; it is challenging; it is scary; it is… radical! Hospitality is radical because it turns conventional wisdom on its head, it asks that we embrace, rather than flee what we fear most; it challenges to take up the hard task of love.”

“Hospitality is a way of relating to each other and ourselves rooted in the belief that we are all children of the divine nature. It is to make your heart a refuge for the weary; it is living at our most human and humane level.”

“Hospitality challenges us to replace the labels we use to describe ‘the other’ with a human face. The ‘illegal’ immigrant becomes a human being; the gay kid becomes a human being; the single mother, prison inmate, and homeless veteran become human beings, all carriers of a divine light; all children of God.”

“Radical hospitality demands we muster the will to demolish barriers that blind us to our kinship with each other and find the courage to hammer away at the very foundation upon which we stand so that we may rebuild the world upon a foundation of inclusiveness; mindful of the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

HYMN: #140 “Hail the Glorious Golden City”
(in unison)


Go out into the world in peace,
Have courage,
Hold on to what is good.
Return to no person evil for evil.

Strengthen the fainthearted,
Support the weak,
Help the suffering,
Honor all beings.

POSTLUDE “Poco Vivace”
-by Hermann Schroeder
(performed by the church organist)


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Universalist Quote of the Day #30

“Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”

–Romans 5:18-19.

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Universalist Quote of the Day #29

“Millions on millions of the human family have never heard even the name of Christ.  They bow down before dumb idols and worship the works of their own hands.  They pay their devotions in temples whose inmates never yet dreamed that such a being as Jesus of Nazareth, even had an existence.  Besides all this, even in Christian countries there are many, very many, who go down to the grave in infancy, or in the early morning of their existence, ere yet their minds are capable of exercising faith in Christ, or of understanding his doctrines.  All these must be lost, if it be true that none but believers can be saved; for they all die without faith.

I ask you–Is there consistency or reason, or even humanity, in a doctrine which teaches that God will curse with endless wo, “the distant islands of the sea,” merely because they did not believe on him, of whose name they have never heard, and of whose religion, the very circumstances in which God has placed them, compel them to be as profoundly ignorant as they are of the inhabitants of the distant stars?  Is it reasonable to curse all who die in infancy, merely because he saw proper to take them out of the world before they were capable of exercising faith in the Gospel?  There are necessary and unavoidable conclusions from the position, that God has made faith a condition of future salvation, and I warn you not to embrace that position, unless you are prepared to go the whole length, and damn all who do not come up to the condition.”

–Rev. I.D. Williamson, An Exposition and Defence of Universalism, in a Series of Sermons Delivered in the Universalist Church, Baltimore, MD. New York: Universalist Book Establishment, 1840: 188-189.

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Why Don’t Your Local Unitarian-Universalist Churches Meet Your Needs?

Still digesting the figures from the Pew study that show many more UUs in America than in UU churches.  A number of reasons for this disparity have already been advanced.  In the comments, Dave Pollard mentions the gap between what type of church a UU wants and what type of congregation is locally available to her.

There seem to be two issues here.  One is theological style.  For example, if one is a classical Universalist, but the only nearby UU congregation is dominated by skeptical Humanism, it may not feel like a good fit.  The other issue is worship style.  For instance, if you prefer a less Protestant model to Sunday service but the local church retains the Lord’s Prayer, organ-accompanied hymns, and everybody sitting quietly in pews while a robed minister preaches from the pulpit, you may find that you’re not having the type of experience you seek.

How widespread are these gaps?  Are you a non- or barely-affiliated UU who stays away because the nearby UU churches don’t reflect your theological or worship preferences?  If so, how do you maintain yourself as a UU in the absence of a gathered community?   Or is it more common that there simply are no UU churches nearby, and the Church of the Larger Fellowship just doesn’t do it for you?  What other reasons account for the gap?


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Universalist Quote of the Day #28

“The wisdom and goodness of God, according to scripture and reason, are universal.  The ignorance of mortals concerning them, on the one hand, makes them no less, and their knowledge, on the other makes them no greater. We must duly regard, however, the evident fact, that the enjoyment of reasonable beings, is extended by the extension of knowledge, which renders acquirements in science and divinity an object of the first magnitude.”

–Hosea Ballou, A Series of Letters in Defence of Divine Revelation.  Boston, 1820: 43.

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Universalist Quote of the Day #27

“In 1799 [Hosea Ballou] came to Reading, Vermont, to preach and was confronted before the service by a deacon from the Baptist Church, who wanted to ask him a question.

‘Are you, said he, ‘the Mr. Ballou who is to preach here this afternoon?’

‘I am,’ replied Mr. Ballou.

‘Well, Mr. Ballou, I understand you are in a great hurry, but I must take time to ask you one question.  Mr. Ballou, what do you think of the case of a man who should go out of the world cursing and swearing, and calling on God to damn his soul?’

Mr. Ballou had be a moment that he could devote to the the man, and he said, ‘Why, deacon, a profane swearer is a very, very wicked man, no doubt; and do you think God will answer the prayer of so wicked a man as that?’

‘No,’ said the deacon, ‘I am sure  he will not.’

‘Well, deacon,’ said Mr. Ballou, ‘you have answered your own question,’ and he passed into the house where the people were waiting for service to begin.”

–Carl Seaburg, “Bring Them Hope, Not Hell,” Salted With Fire.  Boston: Skinner House Books, 1994: 44.


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Replacing or Supplementing the UUA?

The new Pew study shows that 76% of Unitarian-Universalists are not affiliated with the Unitarian-Universalist Association.  In recent years, the UUA has taken an increasingly narrow definition of its purpose and constituency: it serves UU congregations, not individual UUs, not para-church UU organizations, not UU theological sub-groups, etc.  In fact, the full name of the UUA is actually “Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.”

It seems to make little sense, when you think about it, that so many UUs look to the UUA as the “mothership,” the “denominational headquarters,” or “the authority” in UUism.  The famous seven principles of the UUA are not a creed for Unitarian-Universalism.  The UUA is a minority voice in UUism that is representative of less than 1/4 of American UUs, albeit an extremely important voice.  No one is denying that, as Chutney pointed out, UU congregations form the backbone of the Unitarian-Universalist movement in America.  Yet they are still a statistically small part of the story, and no matter how we fidget with the numbers, we can’t deny this.

The UUA was never intended as the Unitarian-Universalist Vatican.   And it is becoming increasingly clear that the UUA does not intend to overstep its mandate.  Therefore, the natural question to ask is whether the UUA should be replaced by a more representative body, or, probably better still, augmented by a second, larger national/international organization designed to serve either those other 76% of America UUs or perhaps all 100%, be they congregation members or otherwise.  This is not meant to denigrate the work of the UUA, but to look at what the options potentially are.

In previous times, the Unitarians and the Universalists had all sorts of corporate bodies, ranging from large autonomous district organizations to national groups composed of individuals to associations of congregations.  The UUA is not destiny or the end of the story, nor is it at all fully representative of who we have been and who we may become.  Rather, it is a product of a particular time and a particular way of thinking about denominational organization.  It is good that the UUA is going through serious consideration of its mission and purpose; all UUs, if possible, should likewise be considering the present and future and wondering if things can’t be done better, perhaps with new organizations to supplement the important work of the UUA.  What would other models of affiliation/association look like?  How would they be run?  Who would they include?  What services would they provide?  What would there functions be?  It seems reasonable to imagine that the UUA could be supplemented with not only one national body, but multiple ones.


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