We Universalists have a founder, largely forgotten. I have preached about him and his unique story a few times. I won’t give you those details today. Suffice it to say that our founder’s name is John Murray. He arrived from England on 1770. Through a variety of strange circumstances he preached his first sermon, the first Universalist sermon in America, on the day after he arrived in a small meeting house on the Jersey shore.
By all accounts Murray was a scholarly man, and a gifted minister. He did suffer from very poor eyesight, but nevertheless served with distinction as a chaplain in the Revolutionary army and later as a minister in both Gloucester and Boston, Massachusetts.
You wouldn’t recognize today what John Murray called Universalism. Murray was, in many ways, what we might consider today an orthodox Christian. He believed in the Bible as the true revelation of God. He believed in the Trinity, miracles, and the necessity of baptism. I’m not sure if he ever wrote down what he thought about the Virgin Birth, but he likely thought it was ok. I also gather from reading accounts that he could be somewhat intolerant of others who did not hold his views.
But Murray made an important and necessary step in the evolution of our faith. He believed that it was the responsibility of each person to read and interpret scripture. And he believed most people got it all wrong. Murray heard the popular theology of the time, especially about the issue of salvation. Theologians has pretty much embraced a doctrine called the salvation of the elect. Certain souls, it was believed, were preordained at creation to go to heaven. Conversely, most souls were preordained for damnation. There was no way around this arbitrary allocation of souls to their final resting places. Some were “elected” for heaven; most were not.
Murray found in his reading of the Bible a radically different interpretation. He believed that scripture said that everyone, that is ALL souls, will eventually go to heaven. Many might suffer in hell for a while to somehow pay for a life of evil, but that, in the end, God will be Loving and Merciful.
Murray never had any intention of founding a separate church or denomination. He thought that if he could articulate the correct (in his view) interpretation of scripture that all of Christianity, or at least all of Protestantism, would accommodate this new belief, commonly referred to as Universal Salvation.
Was Murray wrong! He met with firm resistance on both sides of the Atlantic, and ended up in a separatist church which even today remains outside mainstream Christianity and forbidden from membership in the World Council of Churches.
Today Murray is almost forgotten. His Universalist movement took his methodology of individually interpreting scripture and widened it to mean all religious statements and values. The power of the individual, once unleashed, could never be bottled up again in a church of dogma and creed.
Today the typical Unitarian Universalist would be light years away from John Murray’s ideas, or so in would seem at first glance.
I have a friend whose favorite expression is this: “It’s all in the details.” I’ve never quite figured out what he means by that, but I love the simplicity of the syntax. I’d like to steal from him this morning and give you my version of a simple sentence: “It’s all in the assumptions.”
What I mean is this: We may think, at first glance, that we have little if anything in common with our Universalist Christian roots of over 200 years ago. We’ve outgrown them, or so we might think. Many of us have found, in this very church, refuge from the very kind of orthodoxy that John Murray represented. I think the view that we have outgrown the past is wrong. Oh yes, our theology has changed. But, ah ha, it’s all in the assumptions.
A deeper examination of John Murray and early Christian Universalism reveals that the sometime radical assumptions made by those early pioneers are very much alive and part of our belief system today. Murray continues to influence us, even from his grave.
What are those assumptions? There are three, I believe. Let me tell you a little bit about each one.
Murray believed God was a loving God, in contrast to the cruel and judgmental God of the Calvinists. Today, whatever our practices about how we refer to the deity, we all assume that the order of the universe is somehow one that is nurturing and enabling. God is love was the slogan back then. Today we have no such easy words, but we share an assumption that somehow the world matters, that there is a power beyond our comprehension and outside of ourselves, and that somehow that ground of our being is good, or at least neutral. We are not put on this earth to be eternally punished. In spite of all the evil and pain, we somehow assume that there is goodness and we ought to pursue it. Murray’s assumptions live on.
John Murray also made assumptions about the nature of humankind that differed markedly from those of his day. We are not merely doomed sinners. Somehow we have a purpose and a calling, and that is somehow related not just to God, but to how we treat one another.
Christianity during Murray’s time, as it is somewhat today, focused on matters of salvation and acceptance. Save the world! Believe in Jesus! Be a mission to the message! The ideas of good works, social responsibility, and the Golden rule were somehow lost, or at least dimmed.
Murray reclaimed from the gospels that concept that we have responsibility for the world in which we live and all of its inhabitants. We are not merely on earth as some sort waiting room waiting for the eternity train to arrive. The here and now is important, and we have duties that come with our very existence.
Today we have in our Seven Principles these words: “…[We] affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person; Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” John Murray would be very comfortable with those words, they were part of his assumptions.
Finally, Murray made new and radical assumptions about that place of the individual in determining religious truth. Up until this time there were two main avenues of religious insight: the church and the Bible. Oh yes, both had its individual interpreters, but the pope and the Bible still reigned supreme in the world of Christianity. Murray began to walk down a third avenue as part of the late Reformation. Individuals can look at the Bible and draw their own conclusions. Individual experience and needs, common sense, and personal insight all play a part in determining our beliefs. “You may possess a small light,” wrote Murray, but “use it to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women.”
By no means was he a radical in this matter. Scripture was still paramount. But Murray opened doors that others walked through. His assumption of individual insight is something we would likely all agree with today.
John Murray and his old Christian Universalism live on today. His name may be dimmed, his assumptions are very much still with us. And, after all, “it’s all in the assumptions.”
RETURN TO INDEX
This morning I want to introduce you to two heroes- people who, unusually under adversity, changed the way we live and whose lives continue to influence us today. We’ll come back to talk more about the concept of hero a little later. First, an introduction.
I’d like you to meet a woman named Olympia Brown. Olympia was born on January 5th (happy belated birthday!), 1835 in the rugged Michigan frontier. Her parents were early Universalists and deeply believed in a strong education for all their four children, regardless of sex. Olympia took advantage of a rare opportunity and actually graduated from Antioch College in 1860, at the age 25. During that time her emerging social conscience began. She was active in a movement to change the law so that women could own property. While a student at Antioch, Olympia decided to enter the ministry. Women just didn’t do that sort of thing back then.
After graduation, she wrote all the prominent theological schools. Most of them turned her down flat. Women were not allowed. Only one school expressed even the slightest bit of encouragement, the Universalist school at Canton, NY. She grabbed the chance and moved to northern NY.
It was not an- easy time for Olympia, although she felt she was treated fairly by the school. She did gain some parish experience and did well in her studies. The president of the school spoke openly that he didn’t think women belonged in the ministry. And, interesting, her greatest opposition came from wives of faculty members. The wife of the president warned that soon “women will be flocking to the ministry” with disastrous results. Well, she was half right anyway.
She made it through Canton (now St. Lawrence). But she faced another hurdle- she had to convince the Northern Universalist Association to ordain her. Olympia’s professors were unanimously against ordination. Many warned her that even if she were ordained no church would ever call her.
Olympia addressed the council herself. She pointed out that she had met all the requirements, educational and moral, for ordination. There was nothing in Universalist bylaws which forbade female ordination. She wanted to be judged solely on her merits. In a surprising decision, those northern NY Universalists narrowly agreed to ordination. Olympia Brown became the first woman in the United States to be ordained by a legal body of a national denomination.
Olympia Brown was almost immediately called to a struggling Universalist parish in Weymouth, Massachusetts. She served several other parishes with distinction. At the same time, her career was marked with strong support of the still unpopular women’s rights movement, especially in the area of suffrage. She did marry, but kept her family last name (a precursor of what took well over 100 years to be acceptable).
In 1920, Olympia Brown had the honor that few of the original suffrage movement lived to experience. She voted in her first presidential election. She was 85 years old. Always an idealist, she spoke of the experiences of her life and her service to Universalism by saying:
The grandest thing has been…opening the doors to the Women of America, giving liberty to twenty-seven million women…a new and larger life and a higher ideal.
Now a second introduction, and a personal note.
I grew up in the First Parish in Waltham, Massachusetts, Universalist-Unitarian. The woman’s group has a strange name that for years I didn’t understand. They called themselves “The Phoebe Hanaford Society” in honor of one of the church’s ministers. Let me introduce Phoebe to you.
Phoebe Hanaford did not share in any way a childhood similar to Olympia Brown. She was born in 1829 on Nantucket Island, off of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Her father, not surprisingly, was a ship owner. The family were Quakers.
She was an energetic child. She wrote at a young age, and actually published her first poem, at the age of 13. She married Dr. Joseph Hanaford at the age of 20 and dutifully converted to his Baptist faith. They had two children, but by 1857 the marriage had started to deteriorate. Economic troubles and family moves did not help the situation.
Phoebe’s inquiring mind and fighting spirit remained constant. She published a total of 14 books, adding needed money to the family coffers. She was active in the anti-slavery movement. She also kept reading about theology. Eventually she came to reject her Baptist church and became a Universalist in 1864. It appears she was invited in Nantucket to give a talk on her new Universalist faith. Something clicked. Phoebe decided to become a minister.
Olympia Brown and Phoebe Hanaford met through their associations in the antislavery and temperance movement. Brown invited Phoebe to preach at her church in Canton, Massachusetts. Brown was so impressed with Hanaford that she urged her to enter the ministry, even though she lacked the usual education. Phoebe Hanaford petitioned the high-sounding Committee of Fellowship, Ordination, and Disciplines of the Massachusetts Universalist Convention. The committee gave her a license, albeit at first only for a year. She was the second woman Universalist minister. She also became the first woman minister in her state.
Evidently, Phoebe had tremendous talent both in writing and in the pulpit. She was quickly called to the Universalist Society of Hingham in 1866. Another barrier had been overcome. In 1869 Hanaford needed more income. She stayed in Hingham and also accepted a half time position in Waltham, Massachusetts, my hometown. She received $1,000 per year. I must admit that history records that a least one man left the Waltham church in disgust over a woman minister saying that “if I had a hen that crowed [like that], I’d cut its head off.”
Hanaford went on to several other churches in her career. She separated from her husband, although they never formally divorced. In the course of her career she had numerous firsts in her life, as the first woman to perform many traditional male clerical roles. To her death she was a strong advocate for woman’s rights, the cause of peace, and the temperance movement.
She spent the final days of her life with her niece in Rochester. She died at the ripe old age of 92 and is buried in Orleans, NY, a village northeast of Canandaigua.
The road pioneered by Brown and Hanaford has become more well-traveled, both within the Universalist movement and within Protestantism in general. In the 1850’s women ministers were unheard of. By 1920 there were 88 ordained Universalist women. Today over 50% of the ministers in fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association are women.
Heroes- Olympia Brown and Phoebe Ann Hanaford…but not always.
For years their contributions were ignored. Prominent histories of our movement failed to even mention them. For awhile Hanaford’s grave was even unmarked. After their deaths, these women sunk into obscurity. It is only in the last 25 or so years that their contributions have been rediscovered and their stories of courage in the face of adversity retold.
What message does this bring to us today? I think there are at least three:
1. There are trailblazers working today, heroes if you will, that we are not even aware of. They labor often in obscurity, spreading a message that is often unpopular or, at best, accepted in a lukewarm fashion. The sacrifices these people make are many. They don’t have the best jobs with the highest notoriety and reputation. The heroes of tomorrow are likely obscured from our vision.
2. If we are lucky enough to know of one of tomorrow’s heroes, we are likely not to greet that person warmly. Brown and Hanaford’s messages were met with opposition or indifference most everywhere they went. Heroes tend to operate on the fringes of a movement. Neither Brown nor Hanaford ever had a big church or were perceived as highly successful ministers. Only today do we appreciate what they contributed to our liberal religious movement.
3. What is the common accepted wisdom of today may not seem quite so wise in the light of history. We see that truth time and time again in the lives of Hanaford and Brown. That should bring to us a certain sense of humility. Are we open to new, fresh ideas or are we stuck in our old, comfortable thought patterns? Do we welcome honest difference, or do we pay lip service to our claims of tolerance and diversity?
Would we have welcomed Brown and Hanaford into our homes? Into our church? Maybe…maybe not.
Today’s heroes are out there…somewhere. New ideas, new causes, new solutions to age old problems, new ways of looking at old practices and traditions. Let’s let our Universalist women heroes remind us to be as accepting as we can. The next Olympia Brown may be on our midst, and we don’t even see her.
RETURN TO INDEX
One of the most satisfying parts of my ministry occurs when a new member or friend of the church says words like this to me: “Oh, I didn’t know about Unitarian Universalism. What a revelation is has been for me! I’m thrilled to find a new religious home. I’ve been searching for sometime, and you were here along.”
As you can imagine such words bring great joy to me. You would be surprised how often I have heard such thoughts; more often than you might think. But along with my good feelings from hearing such words, the cynic in me softly mutters to my consciousness, “So what’s the big deal?” Allow me to explain my cynical side, even if I must apologize for it as well.
I am a lifelong Unitarian Universalist. “Born and bred” is a phrase I sometimes hear. I grew up in the greater Boston area where every city and even most small towns have a Unitarian Universalist Church. Our denomination headquarters stand next to the Massachusetts State House in Boston. Unitarians started our most famous educational institution, Harvard. Universalists founded my alma mater, Tufts University, in a suburb of Boston. I never had a conversion experience; I never “discovered” Unitarian Universalism, it’s always just been there. While I am happy to hear about other’s joy at finding our religious home, sometimes I wonder, “What’s the big deal?”
Ordinarily I would have kept this little peek into the darker side of my personality out of sight. However this sermon series, where you have all three of your religious professionals affiliated with this church speaking on their perspective of our faith, has forced me to bring the “big deal” question out of the closet. Are we truly unique? Do we have something special to offer? What makes us different? What’s the big deal?
My road to answer the “big deal” question has been filled with diversions and potholes. But now I do believe I understand. Our big deal has many different aspects, but in the end it boils down to what might be considered the most elementary of theological questions: how do we know? . Who is the final decision maker in the religious journey we are all on? Who decides?
Various religions have various answers.
For Roman Catholics, the ultimate authority of religious truth rests with the church headed by the Pope. The church traces its origins back to the words of Jesus spoke to Peter. Jesus said:
And so I tell you Peter, you are a rock and on this rock I will build my church, that not even death will be able to overcome it. I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 16:18-19
How’s that for authority? For Roman Catholics their faith is sure- they are part of Peter’s church. Do as the church says and the doors to the kingdom of heaven will be unlocked. Guess who hold the key?
Unfortunately the church abused its standing; the Protestant Reformation resulted. Protestants answered the question of religious authority in a very different way. We must return to the Scriptures. The Bible is the Word of God; Read it, study it, accept it. It is the truth! Religious truth resides not in a church, but in a collection of books. We hear this message today very strongly from Protestant fundamentalists.
As Protestantism matured, it naturally splintered. Men and women read and interpret passages differently. Cultural differences emerge. Should the Sabbath be on Saturday or Sunday? Should baptism be done an infancy or in early adulthood? Should church government be a hierarchy or should power rest with local congregations? Should church members be required to buy a pew? Protestants of good faith answered these questions differently, each returning to Scripture to find evidence for their particular opinion. Churches around this historic square here in Albion emerged as different groups answered these questions differently. Fragmentation was the obvious result, but the foundation of the assumption of the Bible as the final authority of truth remained constant.
We Unitarian Universalists came from this tradition of scriptural examination. Initially we Universalists were founded based on our interpretation of scripture in favor of the idea of eventual salvation for all God’s creatures. Early Unitarians started with an examination of scripture to reject the idea of the Trinity as unbiblical.
But we have moved beyond
There’s a funny thing about allowing individuals to examine religious questions for themselves. Eventually those same individuals arrive at the conclusion that they, themselves, must make final religious decisions for themselves. An important shift occurs, just as it occurred in the 19th century of our religious movement. No longer is any one scripture or church the exclusive font of understanding. Inspiration comes from many sources. Transcendentalists saw God and truth in nature. Rationalists insisted that truth lay in rigorous examination through the filter of common sense. More recently, some members of our movement have insisted that truth lies within what some would call our inner flame.
No longer does a church or a book wield full control. For many questioners like ourselves, we end up believing that each and every one of us can decide issues of religious truth for ourselves. From this principle of individual autonomy and authority, the rest of our religious values and beliefs have emerged.
What are some of these values and beliefs? You’ve heard me speak of them before in a variety of ways, and I’m sure the sermons by our other ministers have covered them as well. I’ll provide only an overview.
We value human dignity. Earlier Universalists used a phrase in their 1935 Avowal of Faith that sums this up well: “the supreme worth of every human personality.” We believe no person, government, church or creed has the right to encumber any individual’s search for religious truth and practice of belief.
We value individual responsibility. Not only do we have the freedom to make up our minds, we have the obligation as well. Freedom does not allow us the option of opting out of seeking meaning and truth. Understanding, both on a personal and a cultural basis, comes only with continued and ongoing examination and refinement. We are part of that process.
We value tolerance. We understand that all the answers are in our basket. We understand that different cultures, races, and even sexes will, over time, come to differing conclusions. Rather than be frightened by this diversity, we welcome it, or at least try our best to remain welcoming. We strive not for conformity or unanimity, but rather openness and acceptance.
We value the future. Our faith, while we hope respectful of the past, seeks not only preserve old words and thoughts, but to encourage new. We are among the few religious movements who believe, to use the words of Samuel Longfellow, that “revelation is not sealed.” That is Longfellow’s way of stating a simple yet profound principle: “we don’t have all the answers.” Unlike other religious faiths reinterpreting old stories or ideas, we humbly acknowledge that we don’t always know where the future will lead us.
We value “reverence.” By reverence I mean an appreciation for all this is around us- the gift of life itself, the ongoing stream of creation, the power of love. While we possess the power and responsibility of religious judgment, there is much that goes on around us that we but vaguely, if at all, understand. We stand reverent not for what little we know and understand, but the vast spheres of our world we don’t understand. Some of us call that unknown God, others prefer a different term. Sometimes forget our reverence; we don’t stay humble; sometimes we become puffed up with our own power, but we keep trying.
We value community. If we are reverent to the world around us, we certainly ought to be reverent to those in our midst. We UU’s are few in number. Our dollars are stretched. We certainly can, however, show care and concern and we travel the often bumpy road of everyday living. We honor one another, especially in times of trouble or times of life’s special moments.
A few years ago this very congregation, with many of the faces present here this morning, engaged in a unique process. We set out, in a very organized and structured fashion, to determine what beliefs and values held us together. We asked ourselves what is the metaphorical glue that binds us. Can you imagine any other church attempting such a task? I can’t.
In my humble judgment we were successful in our goal beyond my wildest expectations. We arrived a statement we call our Church Covenant. We read it together every Sunday that I occupy the pulpit. We do that in part because I am so impressed with how well we captured ourselves, and how well we were able to come away from the process living out our goal of tolerance. The words bear repeating once again, as a summary of who we are:
Enriched by our unique legacy, we come together:
To encourage personal spiritual growth in an open, democratic environment,
To search for truth and meaning in our lives,
To model together our values of love and respect,
To advocate in a spirit of optimism for freedom and tolerance in our community.
What’s the big deal? I guess for some of us who are used to this sort of thing, we don’t understand very well the emotions of others who have just discovered us. But I’ll try to summarize what I think other feel.
The big deal is this: that you can find a religious home where you are empowered to think for yourself; where you are encouraged to doubt, to ask questions, to experiment. The big deal is further that there is a religious community, imperfect at times, which will foster and nourish your questions AND your answers.
These homes are hard to find. I dare to say that there is no other community in Orleans County where such an atmosphere exists. We can be proud; we are Unitarian Universalists: it’s a big deal!
Embedded in our hymnbook are these closing words by James Villa Webb:
Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace
To seek truth in love,
And to help one another.
“A Masterpiece in Our Midst”
Rev. Richard E. Hood
December 8, 2002
It’s hard to believe we have a masterpiece in our midst. I am referring, of course, to our Tiffany windows, especially the window in our west transept, which is considered the most significant of the group, showing Christ with his hands outstretched toward us, as if giving us consolation. In addition to its fine craftsmanship, this window was signed by Tiffany…most unusual.
I must confess I never thought much about this window; in fact I have consciously ignored it for many years. It is only from recent Sundays when I have sat in a pew that I have begun to appreciate the masterpiece in our midst.
This beautiful window depicting Christ wearing a crown of thorns and a glow emanating from the top of his head is a good representation of the state of Universalism in the 1890’s. We were then a solely Christian movement, which emphasized a God so loving that He would, in the end, return all his creatures to the joyful bliss of heaven. Jesus was His Messenger, the Bearer of the Good News of God’s redemption to all.
Our beliefs have grown and changed in the past 100 years, as you well know. No longer does the window seem to represent who we are as a worshiping community. In fact, for many the window has come to represent the orthodoxy we have rejected. Some of us, myself included, have been uncomfortable with the window. We prefer to pretend sometimes that it’s not even there.
My personal attitude has changed in the past few weeks as I have had time to contemplate the window from a perspective other than in the pulpit. The window has messages and meanings still vital to our liberal religious movement here in Albion.
First is certainly the whole idea of gift giving for future generations. Try for a moment to get inside George Pullman’s head. He knew certainly that the church was going to outlast all those who he knew who came to the dedication. He understood that this building and that this church as an organization would be here long after the organized cast of characters had perished. He really did, I think, have US in mind, you and I! Not other people, just this small band of people of who we are.
We have been given this great treasure, just a few of us! I think he knew that the church would live for centuries. He knew back then that there would be men and women long after his death that occupied this room for worship and that looked at this window for inspiration. He was giving for many, many generations. We are today’s recipients. It’s almost hard to comprehend the magnitude of that gift. Given to a very few people. Us!
What gifts are we giving? Oh, I don’t think we are going to be in the situation of calling up Louis Tiffany having him bring up another window. We don’t own a railroad car company. Yet when we look at the gift that has been given to us, the inevitable question comes up: what gifts are we giving- not just to the people around us, not just to the faces that are familiar, but to the future generations? Just as George Pullman gave us an artistic masterpiece, what are we doing within our means for people not yet born? This window forces each of us to ask questions about own gifts to posterity. Will we leave the world a better place? This window reminds us that the yardstick by which we will be measured are not the gifts we give one another around this time of year, but by the gifts to generations yet unborn.
There is another message, I believe. We don’t use the verb “console” much. Somehow it’s gone out of style. We console, perhaps, only at the time of death. Jesus in our window reminds us of the power of the simply act of consolation, not just at the end of one’s life, but throughout it. It is so easy yet so powerful to let another know that you care about their burdens, that you have genuine concerns about the troubles they bear. We can reach out in simple way and console one another. It is truly a gift we can share with each other.
So may we look at our 10 foot Jesus with a new vision. He’s been standing in the window looking down at us in this room for since 1895, a span that includes three separate centuries. What narrow dogma concerns we have about the window seem to fade in the perspective of history. The window can still speak to us, if we will but listen. There is a message of caring, of consoling, and of concern for the future. Those messages are in fact part of our liberal Unitarian Universalist faith today and I assume will be in the future.
We have been entrusted with an object of great beauty, and the lessons of that object still ring true over a century after its creation. We can but say, “Thank you, George Pullman.”