Category Archives: Universalism

Coming Soon: An Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions

Mark Harris, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society and author of many books on Unitarian-Universalist subjects, has a new co-written (with Andrea Greenwood) volume coming out next month from Cambridge University Press.  An Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions is the latest offering in the long-running Introduction to Religion series.  While details will have to wait until the book is released, it is clear that Greenwood and Harris situation Unitarian-Universalism as a global religion, with the United States just one (important) site for the religion’s development.  Here is the table of contents:

1. Liberal religion and the foundations of the Unitarian and Universalist faiths
2. The European background
3. Great Britain
4. Early America
5. Unitarians and Universalists in the Republic
6. A religion for one world
7. Polity
8. Theology
9. Worship
10. Science and ecology
11. Architecture, music and the arts
12. Education, welfare and human rights
13. Unitarian Universalism in the 21st century.

Harris has produced many fine books worth checking out, most recently the slim but important Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History.  He also wrote the massive reference volume Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism (hint: available far cheaper in the paperback version with the title The A to Z of Unitarian Universalism).

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19th Century Hymn Tinkering

It is often noted how eagerly and often contemporary Unitarian-Universalists alter hymns.  Usually this is done to remove some aspect of the received hymn that is deemed objectionable; sometimes a more acceptable replacement is inserted, while at other times the offending words, phrases, or concepts are simply excised.  Common targets include male-gendered language, God, and the supremacy of the Christian religion.  At other times, the alteration is made for aesthetic, rather than ideological reasons.

Garrison Keillor of NPR’s “Prairie Home Companion” created a controversy when he–somewhat sourly–observed in  December 2009:

Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that’s their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite “Silent Night.” If you don’t believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn “Silent Night” and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough.

Keillor attributed this religious buccaneering to the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson (who served as a Unitarian minister for a few years, retiring in 1832) and to cultural elites in general.  Emerson is not remembered as a particularly flagrant hymn-tinkerer; indeed, he was himself a hymnist, whose hymns have imparted phrases preserved today in the common culture, such as “the shot heard round the world.”  That one is from his 1836 “Concord Hymn,” which was set to an older tune, a common practice in Emerson’s day and one that continues among Unitarian-Universalists and many others today.

Emerson was by no means the originator of liberal religious hymn-altering.  Nor was it simply a practice of cultural elites.  Consider for example the Universalist Hymn-Book published by Hosea Ballou and Edward Turner in 1821, when the 18-year-old Emerson was still years away from enrolling at Harvard Divinity School.  Ballou and Turner were the greatest Universalist ministers of their generation, but they could hardly be ranked among the true elites of New England.  Neither had attended college, and the largely self-educated Ballou was the son of desperately poor farmers, a not uncommon demographic for Universalists.  Unitarians typically looked down on Univeralists as poor, uneducated bumpkins–Ballou not excepted–and these class divisions were a major factor in keeping the liberal Unitarians and Universalists from cooperating more closely.

Non-elites from the pre-Emersonian era, Ballou and Turner were nonetheless staunch liberal Christians.  Whenever it suited them, they altered received hymns, often for the purpose of making them match the doctrines preached in Universalist churches.  Critiquing earlier Universalist use of partialist hymns, they noted:

The sentiments, that the Deity required an expiring victim, by way of satisfaction to his judgment; that the death of Christ operated to cancel the debt which the sinner owed; and that God died upon the cross and rose from the dead; these, though undoubtedly believed with sincerity by those who composed the hymns in which they are found, are considered as unsupported by revelation, and unapproved by reason; and they are not GENERALLY believed in our societies.

Hymns with such sentiments were excluded altogether, or modified to suit the whims of the editors.  Such liberties should hardly be shocking: the English hymnody tradition as we are familiar with it (starting with Isaac Watts) was little over a hundred years old, and thus had yet to go through the fossilization process of nostalgia and conservative traditionalism.  Watts was a target of Ballou and Turner’s reform, for instance.  His hymn “Let us adore the eternal word,” ended thusly:

Daily our mortal flesh decays,
But Christ our life shall come;
His unresisted power shall raise
Our bodies from the tomb.

But as altered by Ballou and Turner, it ends:

Daily our mortal flesh decays,
But Christ our life shall come;
And by his mighty power shall raise
And take his children home.

The line about the dead bodily coming forth from their tombs has been removed, replaced with a less supernaturalist line that relies on the characteristic Universalist familial imagery. Likewise, another Watts hymn declares:

‘Tis love that makes our cheerful feet
In swift obedience move;
The devils know and tremble too,
But Satan cannot love.

But this is far too supernaturalist for Ballou and Turner, who did not believe in literal devils.  Their version of this hymn reads:

‘Tis love that makes our cheerful feet
In swift obedience move;
Affliction’s bitter cup is sweet,
When mixed with heavenly love.

This is a truly Universalist sentiment, as Ballou so often emphasized in his preaching that God allowed misfortune to occur during life yet the experience of such was transformed by the constant knowledge of God’s ever-present love.

The takeaway from this is that religious liberals have been altering hymns for a very long time–indeed, one could claim that alteration is itself a form of traditional practice–and that it derives in no way from the proclivities of the top of society.  It is the liberal spirit itself, not class prerogatives, that drives such practices, and it has not been confined to the Unitarians or their descendants.

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Dragged Kicking and Screaming into Heaven

Thank you to the various people who made suggestions (at this or other blogs) of material for the Universalism course.  The final syllabus is still months away, so there’s still plenty of time to tweak it.  One suggestion for contemporary Universalist resources was made by Patrick McLaughlin at Dan Harper’s blog: Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed’s sermon “Dragged Kicking and Screaming into Heaven.”  Dan expressed the hope that it would show up online, and others may find it interesting, so here are the pointers:

The sermon in pdf form:

The sermon in mp3 form:


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Draft Sketch of Universalism Course

A commenter asked about the amount of historical material in the Universalism course for Starr King School for the Ministry, and it seems logical to provide the basic outline in case folks want to respond to today’s query about what material they would suggest for the syllabus.  So, here is the rough sketch of teaching units taken from the initial course proposal.  Some of these categories have mostly been determined, while others have room left for more material to be added.  The actual title of the course is “Universalism: History, Theology, Practice,” so all three will receive consideration:

Week 1: The Biblical and Early Christian Roots of Universalism
-material from Origen and other early Christian fathers, etc.

Week 2: Forerunners to denominational Universalism
-material from Charles Chauncey, de Benneville, Relly, etc.

Week 3: The founding of Universalism in North America
-material from John Murray, Winchester, Rush, etc.

Week 4: The maturation of Universalism
-material from Hosea Ballou, the Winchester and other professions, etc.

Week 5: Theological Controversies
-material on Ultra-Universalism vs. Restoration Universalism, fascination/rejection of Spiritualism

Week 6: Social Effects of Universalism
-material on abolition, women’s rights, temperance, welfare, science, utopianism, religious freedom, etc.

Week 7: Universalist Missions
-material on Quillen Shin, frontier Universalism, missions to Philippines, Japan, Canada, seminaries, African-American Universalism, etc.

Week 8: Giants of the New Century
-material from Clarence Skinner, the Humiliati, etc.

Week 9: Expanding the Circle
-material from Kenneth Patton, Universalist Humanism, Universalism as world religion, etc.

Week 10: Moving Toward Consolidation
-material on antecedents to the merger with the Unitarians, consolidation, after-effects, etc.

Week 11: Other Universalists
-material on Universalism in mainline Protestantism, Quakerism, Primitive Baptists, etc.

Week 12: The Dharma of Universalism
-material on Universalist attitudes in Mahayana Buddhism, Jodo Shinshu, Shinran, etc.

Week 13: Rise of Evangelical Universalism
-material from Carlton Pearson, new Universalists, etc.

Week 14: Continuing Presence of Universalism Within UUism
-material from contemporary Universalist services, Universalist influences on Principles, new publications, Cathedral of the World, etc.


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Suggestions for Universalism Syllabus for UU Seminarians

The UU Salon question this month is about Universalism.  As it so happens, your Transient and Permanent host will soon be teaching a course on Universalism for Starr King School of the Ministry, one of the two Unitarian-Universalist seminaries.  This is believed to be the only current academic course on Universalism on the planet, though it is difficult to verify that assumption (there are courses that include some material on Universalism, but apparently none with a specific Universalist focus). Even if–hopefully–there really are other courses on this subject being taught somewhere, it’s undeniable that this is a woefully neglected topic of historical and theological instruction and research.  Luckily, the SKSM course will be offered online, so students and interested parties anywhere in the world will be able to participate.

The syllabus is in the process of being formulated.  Do you have suggestions for material that you think ought to go on the list?  Howabout more contemporary Universalist materials?  No promises, but this is your opportunity to possibly help shape the religious instruction of future UU and other liberal ministerial leaders.


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Universalist Quote of the Day #264

“I was brought up strictly a Methodist, commenced preaching Universalism in 1842, have contended earnestly for the faith ever since then, never wavering or halting; and now, in my old age, I have the extreme pleasure of seeing its glorious truths embraced and cherished by many of the brightest scholars and best men of the age.  ‘Bless the Lord, oh, my soul.'”

–Rev. D.P. Bunn

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Universalist Quote of the Day #263

“That which God’s judgement decrees, his power effects.  That which love demands, justice commends.  As the best possible expression of this perfect nature, Christ uses the term ‘Our Father.’  Take the noblest earthly parent, strong and beautiful in body, with acute and well balanced mind, a soul pure and upright, give him the utmost patience, the exactest justice, the holiest love, and then increase these virtues infinitely, and you have the best suggestion of the God of Christ and the gospel.”

–Rev. Charles Eaton

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Universalist Quote of the Day #262

“Home is where the heart is.  But we cannot keep our dear ones there; our arms cannot hold them.  There are empty chairs in the home; and voices we have loved to hear are silent.  We shall find them all in heaven.  In the churchyard, by gray headstones, in graves fragrant with flowers, and dewy with tears–do you think they sleep there?  No, no.  The body to dust, the spirit to God who gave it.  The home circles will be filled again.  We shall meet our friends there.  And the circle shall not be broken.  With arms extended wide, they will meet us.  Beyond the rushing waters shall we not catch the gleaming of their white robes, as they beckon to us from the other shore?  Shall we not hear them singing the old songs–song of welcome?  Lo!  they crowd to the river’s bank, and watch us with joy as we cross.”

–Rev. G.H. Vibbert

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Universalist Quote of the Day #261

“An important work will be done toward the saving of this world and the saving of every soul in it, when intemperance and licentiousness and gambling, and all forms of oppression, and all the other great moral evils, are done away.  Every dram-shop, every gambling hell, every ally of intemperance, or gambling, or licentiousness that exist, is force working against the cause of universal salvation; and in the degree that we give it any countenance or support we are working against the will of God.  When we profess belief in the final salvation of all; when we declare it to be God’s will, and then give countenance to, or fail to contend against, anything that corrupts morals, or deaden’s spiritual life–is there any great impiety than that?”

–Rev. D.B. Clayton

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Universalist Quote of the Day #260

“What though we bring with us at birth the seed
Of sin, a mortal taint, in heart and will
Too surely felt, too plainly shown in deed,–
Our fatal heritage; yet are we still
The children of the All-Merciful; and ill
They teach who tell us that from hence must flow
God’s wrath, and then, his justice to fulfil,
Death everlasting, never-ending woe.
Oh, miserable lot of man, if it were so!”

–Robert Southey

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