In the 19th century, Universalism was the working class and rural liberal religion, at odds with the urban, college-educated Unitarianism. Our own church here in Elgin was founded by Universalists in 1866. Universalism has retained its simple distinction: they believe God is too kind to send anyone to an eternity of torment, especially when the sinner doesn’t seem to have been given the ability to escape their circumstances. Universalists believe that in the end, we are all reconciled with God, and no one is left out.
Some of us have her this, the Disiderata so many times it feels stilted, but in the late 1960s, it felt like the proverbial balm of Gilead, like we could take a deep breath and exhale. It was certainly calming in a time of tremendous tension and strife.
We wanted to believe the attribution that it was found at Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore, AD 1692, but anyone who’d read an original document from even the 19th Century, like the Gettysburg Address, knew the Disiderata couldn’t be something from the 17th.
In fact, writer and poet Max Ehrmann, a Hoosier, composed it in the early 20th Century.
The line,” you are a child of the Universe… you have a right to be here,” was especially meaningful to those of us in the 60s who were sensing that human beings were being disrespectful of Mother Earth, and that maybe the human race is a plague, much in the same way the climate change crisis has us again questioning our species’ capability for long-term success. Back then, in extreme cases it could become a kind of self-hatred, and there’s some of that still around. Max Ehrmann’s prose poem resonated with those of us who thought a purposeful rebalancing of humanity and nature was a better way.
For me, on a feeling level, it captures the spirit of gentle, loving, sensible Universalism.
The idea of Hell is ancient and varied. Some traditions have it as a cold place. A strong revival of the fear of hellfire came in the time of Jonathan Edwards and a series of Great Awakenings, the first of which began in the second quarter of the 18th Century. These revivals were in large part a reaction to the Enlightenment making old-time religion less relevant and less powerful.
For centuries, the authorities used the idea of heaven and hell to control the behavior of the common people. Do your job, stay out of trouble, act with Christian charity, and you might get into Heaven. Sin with any sort of regularity and you will be punished in this life, and the next.
Some of us here may have been raised in faiths that taught this doctrine. Some of you may, as children, have had daydreams or nightmares about yourself being literally damned to hell. Well, you do know you’ve sinned, don’t you? And when you sin, you have to be punished, don’t you? This makes sense, doesn’t it?
Seriously, my mother was raised Methodist in the 1920s, and was never able to fully rid her psyche of a sense of inherent guilt and shame. Catholics talk a lot about this too. My friend and colleague, the late Jeremy Taylor, accomplished dream-worker and Unitarian minister, describers Universalism like this:
When I was preparing this talk, I ran across a website entitled “God is not a sadist.” Expanding on that simple, memorable expression, a Christian Universalist friend of mine points out that if we believe in and worship a god that treats people with unspeakable cruelty, might we feel we have permission to treat people cruelly ourselves?
What I found inside that God-is-not-a-sadist website was the homepage of the Universalist Christians Association. It is not associated with the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Like Unitarianism, Universalism has its roots in Greek philosophy and the early Christian Church. For the first 300 years of the Christian era, universal salvation was accepted by everyone, for did not the Apostle Paul write in his Letter to the Romans:
With the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire, the politicians got involved, and soon universalism was condemned as a heresy. The authorities took back the power of the carrot of heaven and the stick of Hell.
It survived in an underground existence, until the wraps were taken off during the initial openness of the Reformation, but soon it was condemned again, by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant leaders. Knowing the ways of the world as we do, we are not surprised, are we?
It went underground again, emerging 200 years later in the safety of the Enlightenment of the 18th Century.
Unitarianism began in Poland and central Europe and England before being transported to the American colonies.
Universalism as we know it began in America. Although English Presbyterian and Dissenting preachers and inspired some of its pioneers, the first Universalist church build anywhere was erected in Massachusetts. For 150 years, Universalism spread across the U.S. but by the 1870’s, Universalism had entered its slow decline. The main reason is that the more liberal Protestant churches began to tamp down the hell-fire and shift focus. One by one, they began adopting some variation of the idea of Universal Reconciliation.
Another factor was Universalism’s weakness of structure. The Universalist faith had never attracted the rich, it was always just getting by, and although its resolute stand in favor of democracy and freedom accomplished much to separate church and state, it was so resistant to authority of any kind that it never developed a strong organization.
At a retrospective of the 1960s that I attended years ago, someone asked one of the panelists, Abby Hoffman, if the Beatles were right that “all you need is love.” And Abby said, “sure, all you need is love. And organization!” Well-organized love is what most of the do-gooder groups we’re associated with are trying to do.
Unitarians and Universalists
Throughout the 19th Century, despite many similarities and shared interests, the Universalists and Unitarians kept their distance. It was said that the Universalists thought the Unitarians “were insufficiently Christian” and the Unitarians thought the Universalists “made light of sin.”
James Freeman Clark had proclaimed the five points of the Unitarian faith:
- The Fatherhood of God
- The Brotherhood of Man
- The Leadership of Jesus
- Salvation by Character
- The Progress of Mankind, onward and upward forever.
As you see, the Unitarians believed in “salvation by character.” The Universalists believed in “salvation irrespective of character.”
There were also difference in class feeling. The Unitarians were disliked for being associated with high-mindedness, with heaps of old money and the superior air of the Boston Brahmin. The Universalists were looked down on for being raggedy, middle class at best, and anti-establishment.
After a long courtship with the Congregationalists, the Universalists negotiated a merger with the Unitarians. Yes! We were their second choice. The merger became effective in 1961, and Universalism was never heard from again – or so we thought.
Although we don’t hear much about Universalism per se anymore, it – like a river that has drawn from many tributaries – has branched out and reunited, braiding with Christian charity and rational religion, diving underground repeatedly only to burst forth again, unexpectedly in our time, helping to power the new Unitarian Universalist spirituality; an impulse which many believe holds promise for the growth, the general strengthening of liberal religion in America.
There is a universal longing to be connected to the Source of All. We may remember St. Augustine’s intuitive cry to his God:
He’s saying we love God and wish to be in the Divine embrace.
This is expressed in a very different way in the poem The Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson, which begins:
It gets better, and at the end there’s a universalistic in-gathering, a redemption.
The Universalists had an original intuition of the goodness of the Creator, or if you prefer, of Creation. They’re saying God (or Creation) loves us, and we can bathe and be uplifted in that – in being cherished.
Creation has given us life itself, plus wine, and sex, and babies, and sunsets, and poetry, and rain, and rainbows. Should not our response be to give thanks and rather frequently? To lean into the gift, to want to be embraced by it? Some religious people praise and thank God constantly. When I am asked to provide a grace before a meal, all that ever occurs to me to speak is of being thankful for everything.
Universalism as an independent religion is dead, and yet it lives. It pops up in sensibilities like Albert Schwietzer’s watchwords “reverence for life.”
May we Unitarians leaven our intellectualism and urgency to right social injustice with a sense of awe for Creation, and an abiding gratitude for this life we have been given.
May we relax and let the humble, gentle Universalists show us paths of righteousness and simplicity.
May we be thusly infused with a full measure of the very best kind of Christian charity, you know, the kind Jesus taught – concern for our soul, and concern for the souls of others and for their condition, beginning with family and moving outward to concern for the souls here, and in our other communities, and finally to everyone, to the billions we don’t know, yet we care. Universal care. We want everyone to be saved, no one forgotten, no one left out, no one burning in Hell in this life or another.
In the 1990’s, as the drive for what would be later known as marriage equality, the New Yorker magazine ran a cartoon showing a middle-aged couple at home reading, and the woman looks up from her magazine and says, “gay people want the right to be married.” And the man says, “haven’t those people suffered enough?”
Let us ask, hasn’t everyone suffered enough? Some may benefit from being humbled, but who needs to suffer more than ordinary life provides? Our duty is to ease suffering. As Universalist Henry Clay Ledyard wrote: