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[Chalice] Universalism: [Chalice]
The Other U

Presented February 15, 2015, by Susan Morrison Hebble

Listen to a recording of "Universalism: The Other U"
26:24 minutes - 24.2 MB - Universalism: The Other U .mp3 file.


"I would hope that each day I live I might, through some encounter, be born again to an awareness and appreciation for the gift of life, the mystery of being, the wonder and the miracle. Not the miracle out there, but the miracle in here,"
-Forrest Church


Humility and awe, two essential handmaidens for a heartfelt Universalism, lie at the root of all direct human experience of the holy."
Forrest Church


"If our religion doesn't inspire in us a humble affection for one another and a profound sense of awe at the wonder of being, one of two things has happened: It has failed us, or we it. Should either be the case, we must go back to the beginning and start all over again. We must reboot our lives until the wonder we experience proves itself authentic by the quality of our response to it. I may not believe as Jesus did, but I should dearly hope to love as Jesus did, to forgive and embrace others as unconditionally as he. The principle challenge of theology today is to provide symbols and metaphors that will bring us, in all our glorious diversity, into closer and more celebratory kinship with one another as sons and daughters of life and death."
--Forrest Church

Unitarian Universalism. Eleven syllables. That's a mouthful. And in 1961, when the Unitarian Universalist Association (that's 16 syllables!!) finalized the union of these two liberal denominations, other names were not really considered. It's no wonder, then, that many of us take the easy way out and abbreviate our denomination's name, saying we are "UUs" or, more likely, "Unitarians."

But we may be doing ourselves a disservice with this abbreviation, this perhaps lazy, or even subconscious, denial of half of our identity. Especially those of us, like you and me, who worship in a church with distinctly Unitarian roots.

This church was founded in 1839; it is one of the oldest established Unitarian churches in the Midwest. That's 122 years as Unitarian, only 54 as Unitarian Universalist. My home church is a bit younger; the Unitarian Church of Hinsdale, was founded in 1887 by William Channing Gannett, a second generation, East Coast Unitarian minister who studied at Harvard's Divinity school. That's 74 years as a Unitarian institution, only 54 as a Unitarian Universalist church. So your church and mine have deep roots in Unitarianism, despite the 54-year marriage between the Unitarians and Universalists.

We were Unitarians first; indeed, my grandmother, Frances Morrison, joined this church nearly 100 years ago. And those distinctly Unitarian characteristics-intellectual vigor, transcendentalist and humanistic leanings, high regard for the teachings from other world religions, a respect for the individual spiritual journey, and tolerance-are embedded in the identity, character, and culture of this church as well as my home church. In fact, I have recently learned that some 15 or 20 years ago, the Hinsdale congregation considered re-naming the church the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hinsdale to reflect the larger fellowship, to reflect that marriage between two compatible and consenting denominations. The congregation at that time voted down the proposal, apparently by overwhelming numbers. This fact is unsettling to me.

I think it was religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs who said "We are what we believe." But I have come to realize that I have sort of ignored the other half of who I am, the Universalist part of me. Now, this is not to say that Universalism doesn't share the Unitarian characteristics mentioned above. In fact, the two religions-both rooted in the Christian tradition, both centuries old, both established in America around the same time-followed (or took?) a similar historical and philosophical path, often shared worship space and ministers, and sort of flirted with each other since the mid-1800s. But we do tend to let the Universalist part of our faith hang out on the edges, often directing our attention instead on the distinctly non-creedal intellectualism and individualized search of Unitarianism.

I would like today, however, to consider what Universalism brings to this marriage of what were two small, struggling denominations. But I must warn you, such a project requires us to use and consider terms not often associated with 21st century Unitarian Universalism, words such as "salvation" and "damnation" and "God" and "heaven" and "hell." Please bear with me . . . .

First, let me read you a bit from a UUA report on the history of our faith:

The Universalist and Unitarian denominations [in America] were founded by theological liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries. Their names are familiar to us: [Universalists] John Murray, Hosea Ballou, George de Benneville, [and Unitarians] William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker are among the best known. Both denominations traced their roots far back into the distant past [in Europe]. Both were founded on hopeful heresies and from the time of their origin have been strikingly optimistic in their understanding of God, human nature, salvation. Both have been strikingly open and inclusive in their attitudes toward the world's varied religions and scriptures. Our churches have always been democratic in organization . . . an inheritance from the "free churches" such as the Congregationalists from which so many of our churches came.

I love that term, "hopeful heresies," and it's worth noting that, as UU minister Donald A. Bailey points out, the term "heresy" comes from the Greek word for "to choose" or "to take"; so "we UUs are 'heretics,' not because we believe in false doctrines. . . . but because we consciously and deliberately 'choose' our beliefs and encourage others to do so."

So both Unitarians and Universalists arrived to the New World seeking religious freedom, or they converted once here. But they generally weren't received well in America. While these liberal Christians had a congenial relationship with the Congregationalists, the Calvinists, Presbyterians, and Baptists vehemently condemned the radical ideas of Unitarians and Universalists, so Unitarians and Universalists were often ostracized, belittled, and labeled as "infidels, heretics, blasphemers." Still, in 1793, the Universalists officially organized what was called the Universalist Church of America. And in 1825, the American Unitarian Association came to be.

While the two denominations shared a liberal approach to Christianity-the specifics of which I'll address shortly-there was, particularly in the early years, tension between the Unitarians and the Universalists, a tension drawn less from orthodoxy than from culture and social status. The Unitarians tended to come from established urban areas, particularly in and around Boston. Like William Ellery Channing, one of the most significant Unitarian figures in the 19th century, Unitarian leaders often emerged from aristocratic and politically powerful families and were intellectual, cultured, and highly educated; indeed, many, like the founder of my church in Hinsdale, were Harvard educated.

On the other hand, Universalists, "it has been said. . . .'began with neither script nor purse,' with only a great theological principle, and gathered their congregations largely from the unchurched, and from dissident elements in the orthodox churches." [Sounds kinda familiar, doesn't it?] In the18th and 19th centuries and even into the 20th century, Universalists tended to be farmers, laborers, or trades-people, who populated small towns and rural areas; many had little formal education, often teaching themselves (and each other) to read with the Bible. For instance, Channing's counterpart, Hosea Ballou, the dynamic leader of Universalism in the 19th century, was born in a log cabin in New Hampshire and had only two years of formal education.

To those brave and bold enough to look beyond the fire and brimstone didacticism that prevailed in Puritan America, both faiths offered a religious alternative based on openness and on the belief that goodness can be found and created on earth. What a relief that must have been!

But what were those religious alternatives?

Unitarianism, as its name suggests, derives from anti-Trinitarian theology, or the radical ideas that Jesus is not God and that there is no holy ghost; rather Unitarians supported the belief in the "toleration of other faiths and the unity of God" (UU Pocket Guide, 8). Take note: in Europe especially through the 17th century, Unitarians were often vilified, arrested, and even executed, like Michael Servetus, a Unitarian forefather who was burned at the stake in 1553. As Unitarian beliefs have shifted and changed over the centuries, what has remained consistent is a belief "in the union of the human and the divine", regardless of how one might define "divine" (Schulz 9).

Universalism, as its name suggests, is centered on the idea that God's love is all-encompassing and therefore that salvation is Universal. In other words, no one could be condemned to Hell because God-as the essence of Love-could never send anyone to Hell. "The substance and soul of the predominant Calvinist theology of the day [was]: God is a distant, angry, and stern judge. . . . humanity a fallen and sinful beast. . . and most men, women and children are doomed to a hell of eternal damnation and misery for all their weakness and wickedness" (Alexander). Especially during the decades of a theology that promised gloom and doom-like that espoused by Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon "Sinners in the hands of an Angry God"-Universalism was a radical and even dangerous idea. For Universalism insisted that the "essential qualities of God were not wrath, disgust and judgment, but goodness, mercy, and love" (Alexander). Universalist leaders, then, preached that all people were both deserving and capable of love.

But how could society function, many argued, if its members were not under constant threat of damnation? What in the world would inspire men and women to behave well and to do good works?

One story illustrates the Universalist response to this puzzle: A man confronted Hosea Ballou, insisting that Universalism would lead to moral corruption. He said, "'Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away, and I'd still go to heaven.' Hosea Ballou looked over at him and said, 'If you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you'" (Alspaugh).

Both Unitarianism and Universalism clearly derived from Christian theology, but they disagreed, at least in nuance, on the issue of salvation. While the Universalists believed in an absolute doctrine of salvation -salvation for all- Unitarians believed in salvation by character. In other words, you had to earn your way into Heaven. And perhaps in part because of their intellectual vigor, the Unitarians enthusiastically explored and adopted transcendental and eventually humanist teachings. However, Universalism evolved less dramatically, maintaining a foothold in more traditional Christianity, taking a more evangelical approach to preaching.

While the Unitarian construct focused on individual human potential and intellectual prowess, the Universalists believed not only in the goodness and potential of all people, but the absolute love of God. Or, as Thomas Starr King articulated it, "The Unitarians believe that [humanity] is too good to be damned, and the Universalists believe God is too good to damn [humanity]."

Indeed, Universalists were active in their insistence that through good works on earth they affirmed not only that "God is love" but that "all are equal before God." Today we would say they "talked the talk and walked the walk." In 1863, Universalists were the first to ordain a woman minister, Olympia Brown (whose words we shared earlier); indeed, by 1920, the Unitarians counted 42 ordained women ministers, and the Universalists 88. And it's well-known that Universalist Clara Barton helped found and lead the American Red Cross, but we may not know that from the earliest days Universalists were also active and adamant leaders in movements to initiate prison reform, to provide free public education, to care for the mentally ill, to abolish slavery, to advance women's rights, to strive for civil rights for the disenfranchised, the maligned, the weak, even the offensive among us.

By the time of merger in 1961, membership in both denominations had waned, and union of the two seemed both a practical and inspired approach to evolving a modern liberal theology. Still, as respected UU minister Marilyn Sewell attests, "The main problem with the merger always lay with the Universalists. They were the smaller of the two groups, with fewer resources and less stability. In fact, at the time of the merger, they brought only 36,864 members to the joint membership, about 25% of the total. But the domination of the Unitarians was not merely numerical . . . . " (Sewell) The class differences persisted, and the "cool and intellectual" worship style of the Unitarians did not mesh well with the "warm and emotive" approach of the Universalists (Sewell).

And while we don't necessarily distinguish between the religious tenets of Unitarianism and Universalism today-just as in a blended family what was yours or mine has become "ours," I suppose-I think we can benefit from considering and celebrating what Universalism brings to our theology:

As with other successful unions, we are in many ways yin and yang-head and heart-intellect and emotion-two tranquil streams that meet and merge.

One might say Unitarianism is inwardly focused, about the personal search for truth and meaning, which is terribly important to who we are becoming. But Universalism, founded in the radical and tenacious idea that love is all-encompassing, requires us to look beyond ourselves, beyond our intellect. It calls for compassion and forgiveness, when compassion and forgiveness may be the last obvious choices; it calls for loving those not apparently love-able; it calls for action in the face of fear or indifference. Or, as Rev. Carl Gregg puts it: "Wheras Unitarianism has sometimes lead down a road to extreme Emersonian individualism (of caring mostly about one's own isolated spirituality), Universalism calls us out of ourselves and into the world to love the hell out of this world--into a world filled with far too much hell that desperately needs the life-saving message that we are part of one another, part of one human family."

Our Unitarian side requires us to question, to challenge, to analyze, all healthy and rigorous pursuits. But the Universalist side of our faith requires us to embrace those who confront the world with meanness and intolerance, to respect those who laugh at our questions, to love those who insist that their way is the only way. We must seek "that luminous field out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing" not only by exercising reason and intellect but also by standing on the side of love and compassion, with humility and awe.


"Go out into the highways and byways. Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God."
-John Murray, father of Universalism in America

Works Cited

©2015 Susan Morrison Hebble

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Hebble, Susan Morrison 2015. Universalism: The Other U, /talks/20150215.shtml (accessed July 7, 2020).

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