Universalists and Feminists Saving Paradise
by Joyce Beck

One of the highlights of the First International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Women held in Houston in late February of this year was Rebecca Parker’s talk, “Singing for Our Lives.”  Two cultural movements, she said, have kept her going through a difficult time of patriarchal backlash against feminism and liberal religion.  These are the women’s music movement and feminist theology—which share most of the same purposes.

The music movement is one calling us back to what she names the “space of primal connection and love.”  She has heard voices “singing out a counterpoint to patriarchy’s harsh and grating sounds, soothing our ears with sweet strains of amazing grace and affirmation, nourishing our hearts to find joy, courage, and abundance here and now.” She continued, we have been singing, singing for our lives for a long, long time—nothing can keep us from singing.

A second highpoint of the Convocation was singing with Carolyn McDade, and hearing her tell the stories of her songs’ composition.  Many of these songs take us to a place of spiritual origins and mystery, one which is evoked, for example, in “This Ancient Love”:

Long before the night was born from darkness Long before the dawn rolled unsteady from fireLong before She wrapped her scarlet arm around the hills
There was a love, this ancient love was born.

But as Parker reminded us that night, we have been singing through the ages.   She then began a chant, “She who has come before us, rise up and call her name.”  It is from a song that Carolyn McDade originally wrote asking us to “Rise Up and Call Her Name,” which formed the basis for a curriculum originally published by the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation and currently made available through UU Women and Religion.

By chanting, “Rise Up and Call Her Name,” Rebecca Parker was calling up, specifically, her own grandmother, but also, all those late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century feminist women who had a positive regard for life, and with it for women’s lives. It was her grandmother, a Methodist minister’s wife, a woman who had studied liberal religion in college during the 1920s, who had taught her that feminist theology is not really new. Rather, it is like Quakerism, or Universalism, in that it looks to the authority of our own inner life; it makes our own experience the foundational authority for religion.

It was early in the twentieth century, Parker reminded us, that our Unitarian Universalist foremother Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in her work His Religion and Hers, advocated a revolution in religion, a religion that arises from women’s bodies, one which is centered upon women’s experiences of caring and childbirth, rather than men’s experiences of violence and war (although Parker points out that Perkins Gilman was somewhat under the influence of essentialist thinking; that caring is not only the province of women, nor violence of men).  

As such, she offers us a sense of fresh hope, of something coming, of God as a Mother, a Life Giver, a God of service.  She advanced the “revolutionary” notion that caring for life in this world should be the chief purpose of religion and spirituality.

This is also the central premise of Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock’s new bookSaving Paradise.

They were surprised to discover that Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “revolutionary” premise was not actually so new.  For during the first 1,000 years of Christianity, Christ was not constantly pictured as dead on the cross.  Rather, in their travels through ancient holy lands, Parker and Brock found instead pictures of beautiful and abundant life.  To enter an early Christian church was to enter the garden of Paradise. But this was not an other-worldly paradise available only in an afterlife.  

Rather, it was this world lit up by the spirit of life filling all things.

This led Parker to ask a central question at the ICUUW Convocation in Houston, “What is the alternative to violence centered religion?”  She answers it the way she believes not only her grandmother, but our Universalist and Unitarian foremothers, have answered it through the ages:  

Life centered religion and the struggle to defend it, the purpose of which is to care for this life, in this world, with love.  Early Christian theologians expressed a theology of joy, one which urged us to taste and see the

goodness of the divine.  They were primarily concerned with what she and Rita Nakashima Brock call “saving Paradise.”

Among those most dedicated to saving Paradise in the past, Parker and Brock count Universalists: “Commitments to God’s generous justice and love began with the Universalists, whose roots extend back to Seventeenth century England” (Saving Paradise, 389).   

They single out a number of Universalist and pre-Universalist women, as well as several men.  

Leaders such as the prolific writer, mystic, and church founder Jane Leade (1624-1704), they affirm, laid the groundwork.   In her journals, published in 1697, Leade, “offered a spiritual vision of paradise as a realm in this life.  She saw the church as the renewed garden of paradise, in which humanity’s ‘beautiful diversity’ flourished, and she taught that salvation was ‘accomplished through the life-giving power of God’s love which embraced all people’” (389).

They also mention other English Universalists, such as John Murray (1741-1815), who brought their ideas of God’s inclusive love to New England in the second half of the eighteenth century.  

Judith Sargent (1751-1820), who married Murray after he came to America, became a leading voice for both Universalism and women.

Although Sargent risked being accused of arrogance, heresy, and licentiousness for stepping outside the traditional gender role for women by teaching theology, she nevertheless made bold to argue that all souls belonged to God and that all would be saved.  As a foretaste of a future feast for all people, she taught that Communion celebrated the connectedness of all human beings now and to come—that none were left outside or cut off.  Furthermore, such inclusiveness obligated human beings to treat one another, both women and men, justly (389).

Hosea Ballou (1771-1852) followed Sargent Murray a generation later.  A circuit-riding preacher in rural New England, he became a leading proponent of Christian Universalism, who taught that no matter how much sin and death abounded, grace was greater (390-91). As Ballou suggested, God’s goal was human joy, in this life and the next.  Paradise was available here and now, manifest in beauty, and marked by relationships of justice and care.  The Universalist alternative to atonement theology, Parker and Brock argue, emphasized God’s all-embracing love and the beauty of Christ, who drew people to acts of justice and mercy and to happiness (392-93).   

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Universalism was a flourishing religious movement which, unlike Calvinist Puritanism, embraced reform work that was aimed at fulfilling the prayer, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  As a manifestation of their emphasis on acts of justice and care, they advocated women’s rights as a way of making paradise available “on earth as in heaven” and were an early denomination to ordain women—Olympia Brown (1835-1926), Phebe Hanaford (1829-1921), and Augusta Jane Chapin (1836-1905) (393).

Rebecca Parker, like Hosea Ballou, emphasized a feminist Universalist religion of beauty, justice and joy in her talk at the ICUUW Convocation that night in Houston last February.  

Such a religion of Life, one which is celebrated in Carolyn McDade’s hymn, “Spirit of Life,” would engage in acts of caring for ourselves and for each other in this world. From a deep, fierce love we would find the resources to seize joy.  So, I suppose, a religion of beauty, justice and joy is one that Rebecca Parker and the feminists, Hosea Ballou and the Universalists, Carolyn McDade and singing choruses of women and men everywhere can all still share with the world today.  

Joyce Lorraine Beck has a B.A. degree from the University of Maryland and Ph.D. in English Language Literature from the University of Michigan.  She has taught in the English Departments at North Park College in Chicago, the University of Texas at Arlington, and Texas Christian University--where she also teaches courses on women writers and women’s spirituality in Extended Education.  She has been a friend of Westside UU Church in Fort Worth, TX, for many years.


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