Rediscovering Our Inner Universalist
by Patrick Murfin
Congregational Unitarian Church
For fifty years, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1980s this congregation was known as the Congregational Universalist Church. Beloved and accomplished Universalist ministers filled our pulpit. We sit here today the heirs of a great tradition of a warm hearted and embracing liberal tradition, yet most of us hardly know of its existence apart from the mysterious persistence of the name as the second “U” in the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Many things have contributed to this state of affairs. We will examine them today. Universalism shrank from the seventh largest denomination in the United States in the years before the Civil War to the runt half of the merger with the American Unitarian Association and then was nearly swallowed up by the power of the Unitarians, then in the hay day of Humanist dominance.
Today, even though most members of UUA congregations continue to identify themselves as Humanist, the hard edges of that philosophy have been knocked off. No longer do most congregations rise up in revolt if a minister dare incorporate “God talk” into Sunday services. Just about everyone, Humanists included, yearns for greater spirituality in their lives and embrace those light touches of ritual in worship which comfort our need for a connection to The Greater. Rev. William Sinkford, President of the UUA stirs up some controversy and much discussion when he declares a need to develop “a language of reverence” among us, but he is not driven out with brick bats and torches.
The current move to spirituality among us has many sources. We have rediscovered the Transcendentalism of Emerson, Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. Our emerging environmental awareness has led us not only to the nature writings of New England sages, but to Earth centered traditions from around the world. Feminism has displaced the old patriarchal model of God, that fierce and jealous creature rejected by Humanists, and opens the possibility of a more nurturing spirit. The meditative practices of Eastern religions bring peace to many.
Yet quietly, almost without notice, that homey and wholesome Universalist tradition has begun tore-assert itself. Forty years after the formation of the Unitarian Universalist Association it may be that Unitarianism won the head of the movement, but Universalism has reclaimed and redeemed its heart and soul.
Properly speaking, universalism with a small u is a tendency within Christianity that has sprung up repeatedly and independently like a hearty weed in every corner of Christendom from its earliest days. The basis of this tendency is quite simple. It is the discovery by thinking men and
women that scripture does not validate a vengeful God judging and consigning souls to either salvation or eternal damnation. In general it has held that a loving God would not turn his back on any of his children, but somehow find a way to reconcile all souls to him. The precise mechanisms of this reconciliation may vary according to time and culture, the ultimate result does not.
Nineteenth Century Universalists were eager to show that their faith is rooted in a long tradition stretching to the earliest days of the Church. Their scholars did some of the most important and original research into early Church records to document their claims. The early Church had no settled doctrine of salvation and damnation. There is much evidence that the prevailing opinion, at least among gentile converts in places like Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria and Asia Minor, embraced the idea that Jesus Christ’s sacrifice ultimately redeemed all souls. Among the great fathers of the early church who embraced and expounded this view were Clement of Alexandria, his great pupil Origen, influential bishops like Diodorus of Tarsus and the founders of the Eastern Nestorian sect.
The early church tolerated many interpretations of the message of Jesus. But that began to change as the followers of Paul began to assert theological hegemony over dissenting Bishops.
After Constantine proclaimed the Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, he and his successors determined to force conformity on the Church so as to make it a better and more effective agent of social control. By 544 a Church Council under the control of the Emperor
Justinian denounced the teaching of Origen, the most influential proponent of universal salvation., Subsequent councils made clear that universalism in any guise was rank heresy. The tendency was suppressed ruthlessly, disappearing except at the fringes of Empire and Church control.
But it never really vanished. Over the years many would come to the same conclusions as those early Church fathers. It cropped up in the writings of Archbishop Germanus in the Eighth Century and in the preaching of the early reformer Clement in Germany and France. Adherents found refuge in isolated monasteries throughout Europe.
The emergence of the printing press made the Bible widely available to the laity for the first time. People were able to read and study for themselves, to interpret the Word of God without the intervention of priests, doctrine, or the heavy weight of Church tradition. The Protestant Reformation was the natural result of this new technological revolution.
Soon among the Reformers many were adopting a theology of universal salvation. It spread and took hold among some of the German mystics collectively known as the Anabaptists, the ancestors of the Dunkers, Mennonites, Amish and other sects which settled in new world. It percolated through the Low Countries. In Britain it developed among some Methodists, Quakers and other dissenters. It was popularized in one form by the writing of James Relly in his 1759 book UNION.
In later years universalism would also emerge independently in many places and in many guises. It would pop up among convert people in the great colonial empires, Catholic and Protestant alike. Even today it is being rediscovered and preached by some Evangelicals in America, including some high profile televangelists.
In most places, in most times universalism would remain a tendency within other religions or as with the Anabaptists just a part of a wider dissenting tradition. In America it would become the central identify characteristic of its own denomination.
If you have been around this congregation for a while you may be familiar with the foundation story of Universalism in America. It has been dramatized in Church School pageants and retold from the pulpit. It may be all you know about that side of our heritage. The oft told tale goes like this:
In 1770 a failed and embittered Englishman, a disciple of universalist James Relly, departed the old world after the death of his wife vowing never to preach again. Determined to make a new start, he sailed for the new world. After his ship wrecked off the coast of New Jersey at a place called Good Luck Point, he came ashore and was taken in by a farmer named Thomas Potter. Potter had built a small chapel on his land and was waiting for a universalist preacher to speak there. Murray took this to be an unmistakable sign from God and preached his first new world sermon on universal salvation. From there he went on preaching this gospel up and down the East Coast. He would go on to be appointed by General Washington a Chaplin in the Continental Army, settle in Gloucester, Massachusetts where he would establish the first Universalist Church in America, and found the first Universalist Conventions. He would take as a wife Judith, the beautiful and brilliant widowed daughter of the influential and powerful Sergeant family. Together they would build Universalism into a force in American religion.