Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Lecture #6: "A Short History of Universalism"

[This lecture is number 6 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

Let’s begin this lecture with an exercise that is similar to the exercise we used with my earlier lecture on Transcendentalism. For each of the following statements, please respond with either a “Yea!” or a “Nay!”

Yea or nay? You identify yourself more with Universalism than Unitarianism.
Yea or nay? Universalism is more Christian than Unitarianism.
Yea or nay? Universalism is more diverse than Unitarianism.
Yea or nay? Universalism is a religion of the heart while Unitarianism is a religion of the head.
Yea or nay? Universalists still feel like merger was a bad deal.
Yea or nay? The most famous Universalist in America is an African-American Pentecostal preacher who studied under Oral Roberts and now serves a New Thought church in Chicago.

Many of you know about Bishop Carlton Pearson because you listen to NPR’s This American Life. A few years ago, NPR ran a story about Carlton Pearson, a Pentecostal preacher from the streets of Southern California who studied under Oral Roberts. Oral Roberts referred to Pearson as “his black son,” which I think we can agree is a creepy way to describe someone. Pearson then founded a multi-racial mega-church in Tulsa, grew the church to 6,000 members, and along the way he won a Grammy for Gospel music thanks to his powerful voice and musical talent.

The story does not end there. Pearson went through a religious conversion and began preaching Universalism. He may not have really known that Universalism existed when he began preaching it. He called his theology “The Doctrine of Inclusion.” After coming out of the closet as an "Inclusionist" if not a Universalist he was shunned by the evangelical community and his congregation lost over 5,000 members who disagreed with Pearson’s new heretical theology. The sharp decline in membership forced him to sell the building because he could no longer afford it. The remnant of his congregation went on to rent from an Episcopalian Church in Tulsa in the afternoon, and then during the summer of 2008, All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa offered them free use of their building on Sunday mornings. (During the Summer, All Souls holds only one service instead of two.)

But that is not the end of the story. A young minister who was Carlton Pearson’s protégé and heir apparent died tragically from cancer. At this point, Pearson decided to dissolve his congregation, to join All Souls as a member, and to recommend that all of his parishioners join as members as well. When the summer came to an end, All Souls went back to their two service format. The sermon would be the same at each but the early service would follow the form that the congregation was used to while the late service would be a jumping gospel service. Speaking in tongues* occurs from time to time during the second service. Carlton Pearson recently accepted a call to the Christ Universal Temple, a New Though mega-church in Chicago. Many of his former parishioners continue to attend All Souls in Tulsa.

If you read about Carlton Pearson’s theological conversion to the Doctrine of Inclusion, it bears an uncanny resemblance to The Treatise of Atonement from almost 200 years ago. The Treatise on Atonement is a theological work by Hosea Ballou, maybe the most famous Universalist preacher. The Treatise on Atonement is based upon scripture; the text is full of notes pointing readers to passages in the Bible that support the arguments in The Treatise. The text argues for a scriptural justification for the theological idea of Universal Salvation, a theological position that holds that everyone goes to heaven. Carlton Pearson is sometimes asked how he feels about being compared to Hosea Ballou and other early Universalists. He answers, “I’d never even heard of those people. I’ve been called a lot worse.”

Early Universalist theology was based on scripture and biblical interpretation as well as on the idea of a loving, merciful God. Pearson’s contemporary version of argument goes something like this. The Bible says that Jesus Christ died on the Cross to save humankind. Was Jesus successful? Did Jesus die to save all of humankind or just some? Pearson argued that it is insulting to the Savior to say that Jesus’ death was ineffective at saving some people. What is interesting is that in this theology of Universalism, you still have the “U” and the “I” of TULIP. You still have Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace. Your salvation is not contingent on anything within your power. You don’t have to do anything to be saved and you are saved whether you like it or not. The major difference is that in Pearson’s theology, just as in Hosea Ballou’s theology, there is no “L”, no Limited Atonement. There is no such thing as a “No Vacancy” sign in heaven.

A lot of research has been given to how Universalism began in America. There were Universalists in England who helped to bring this theological system to America. Some argue that Universalism was founded in America by one man, John Murray, and the story of his coming is a true story, but also the stuff of legend. According to the true story, Murray, a Universalist preacher, was on a ship traveling up the East Coast when his ship got stuck on a sandbar on the coast of New Jersey. A nearby farmer had been searching for a minister to fill the pulpit of a chapel he had erected on his property. The farmer invited Murray and Murray agreed to preach if the boat was still stuck on the sandbar come Sunday. Come Sunday the boat had not been lifted off the sandbar by the tide and Murray preached Universalism on American soil. Murray would later go on to serve as the minister in Gloucester, Massachusetts where he would wed the daughter of the wealthiest member of the church, a common practice in those days. (I know several ministers who wouldn’t mind returning to this practice.) Several of those with us this week are on the search committee for a new minister in your home congregation, so I invite you to consider this practice as an enticement to attract more applicants. Just kidding!

Despite the story of Murray being a great story, historians now contend that Murray was not singlehandedly responsible for bringing Universalism to America. Historians point out that Universalism originated organically in Western Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont as a response to the anxiety generated by "five point" Calvinism. Other historians point out that Universalism was not just a Northern phenomenon; Universalism also originated organically in the Southern states like Georgia, and North and South Carolina. Indeed, still today there are small Universalist churches in the rural south that are not a part of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

I offer these tidbits of history not to deny the role of John Murray. It is beyond dispute that Murray became a leader of Universalism in America. Instead, I share with you the idea of organic Universalism as both a word of hope and a word of caution. Carlton Pearson did not discover Universalism by going to a theological school library. He did not discover it by trying a variety of search words on Google. He did not even discover it at the UU church in Tulsa. In fact, when I heard him speak, he said that whenever he drove by the UU church as a Pentecostal he would, quote, “try to cast the devil out.” He discovered Universalism in his own heart and through his own wrestling with scripture and his own relationship with Jesus. When I heard Pearson speak at this last UUA General Assembly his co-presenter, Marlin Lavanhar, said something interesting. Lavanhar said that “Unitarian Universalism may die, but Universalism will never die.” As leaders of Unitarian Universalist churches, this is an idea for you to ponder.

In the time remaining in this lecture, I’d like to quickly fly through some key events, starting in 1803 and ending up around the time of merger. I want to start in 1803 with the Winchester Profession. In 1803 a gathering of Universalists convened in Winchester, New Hampshire to hold a church council which produced a creedal statement, the Winchester profession of faith. It reads,
Article I. We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

Article II. We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

Article III. We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.
There are a couple of words that are worth noting in the Winchester Profession. First, it is interesting to note the shortest word, “a.” In the first article, they say that the scriptures contain a revelation, not the revelation. Second, the last phrase of article II is very interesting; the Winchester Profession states that God will finally restore the whole family mankind. Note the word “finally.” These are Universalists who actually believed in Hell. It is just that they believed that Hell was not eternal. They believed that some people would receive a finite period of punishment in the afterlife before eventually going to heaven after they had done their time. This position was later debated fiercely in the early 1800s. A position called “Ultra-Universalism,” that held that there was no Hell and not even a finite period of punishment, won out over those who held that the afterlife contained a period of finite punishment. So, maybe we should call ourselves UUUs. Ultra Unitarian Universalists. Or maybe not.

It would only be just to spend some time examining the life of Hosea Ballou. Born in 1771, Ballou converted to Universalism at age 18 and began preaching the gospel of Universalism at age 20. At a Universalist gathering in 1794, the presiding minister, Elhanan Winchester, called Ballou forward, thrust a Bible against his chest, and spontaneously ordained him. For the next 40 years or so, Ballou would minister, preach, and write. His most famous work was the aforementioned biblical defense of the doctrine of Universal Salvation but a later work of his argued the Ultra-Universalist position. A quote from that text reads:
“It is well known, and will be acknowledged by every candid person, that the human heart is capable of becoming soft, or hard; kind, or unkind; merciful or unmerciful, by education and habit. On this principle we contend, that the infernal torments, which false religion has placed in the future world, and which ministers have, with an overflowing zeal, so constantly held up to the people, and urged with all their learning and eloquence, have tended so to harden the hearts of the professors of this religion, that they have exercised, toward their fellow creatures, a spirit of enmity, which but too well corresponds with the relentless cruelty of their doctrine, and the wrath which they have imagined to exist in our heavenly Father. By having such an example constantly before their eyes, they have become so transformed into its image, that, whenever they have had the power, they have actually executed a vengeance on men and women, which evinced that the cruelty of their doctrine had overcome the native kindness and compassion of the human heart.”
Let’s jump ahead and move a little more quickly. I want us to remember that Universalists were involved in the causes of social justice just like their Unitarian brothers and sisters. Most famous among these was Clara Barton, founded of the American Red Cross and a civil war nurse. However, while Barton is perhaps best known of the early Universalist reformer, a distant relative of Hosea Ballou, Adin Ballou, may have had an even greater impact. There is no denying that he is a fascinating character. Adin Ballou was an ardent pacifist, a founder of an attempted utopian community in Hopedale, Massachusetts, and carried on an epistolary relationship with Leo Tolstoy on theories of non-violence.

If we want to feel really proud of our movement I ask you to consider this: The writings of both Adin Ballou and Henry David Thoreau (who wrote about civil disobedience after spending a night in a Concord jail for refusing to pay his taxes because he did not want his tax money to support a war that he deemed illegal and immoral) made their way to Russia where they influenced Leo Tolstoy. Gandhi, in formulating his own theory of non-violent resistance, turned to the writings of Tolstoy for inspiration. In turn, Martin Luther King studied Gandhi in formulating his strategies of social justice and non-violent protest which included boycotts, marches, and lunch counter sit-ins. There is a direct line linking principles of non-violence and civil disobedience between Thoreau and Ballou and Martin Luther King’s leadership in the Civil Rights movement.

Alas, there is far more to say and little time to say it. How could I possibly forget to mention that the Universalists were the first American denomination to recognize the ordination of a woman, Olympia Brown. Following her service as a parish minister at a number of different churches including the one in Racine, Wisconsin that is named for her, Olympia Brown became a key organizer in the women’s suffrage movement. Many of her sisters in the struggle did not live to see women gain the right to vote. Olympia Brown lived to see the passage of the 19th amendment.

In 20th Century Universalism two movements that are worthy of special mention. The first was the liturgical developments of Ken Patton. David Bumbaugh wrote about Patton, "It was he who taught a monotone rationalism how to sing; it was he who taught a stumble-footed humanism how to dance; it was he who cried 'Look!' and taught our eyes to see the glory in the ordinary."

By the time Patton came around, parts of Universalism had changed from a faith based in Christianity to one heavily influenced by Humanism. Patton was a poet and a worship innovator. He began his ministry as a Unitarian, serving the First Unitarian Society in Madison, Wisconsin. Seven years later he moved to Boston being recruited to serve as the minister of newly created Charles Street Meeting House, an attempt to re-establish Universalism in Boston.

Behind the pulpit at the Charles Street Meeting House there was painted an image of the Milky Way galaxy. In the church were hung symbols of all the world’s religions cast in bronze as well as symbols of science and humanism. The Charles Street Meeting House failed to take hold as a congregation but Patton was successful in generating lots of poetry and worship resources that we still use today. After the Charles Street Meeting House failed, the bronze symbols were rescued and can be found today hanging at the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California.

In one of the more interesting chapters of Universalism, a group of young Universalist ministers in the late 1940s and early 50s formed a monastic order known as The Humiliati. They were interested in bringing a sense of spiritual renewal to Universalism. The article on the history of The Humiliati found on the Dictionary of UU Biography web-site explains, “They called it ‘emergent Universalism’ which they described as at once ‘functional, naturalistic, theistic and humanistic.’ They moved away from [an] emphasis on the Social Gospel, having becoming convinced that growth and renewal of the spirit must precede ministerial social action.” The Humiliati also adopted the practice of wearing clerical collars. They created a new symbol for Universalism, a circle with a small, off-center cross positioned inside the circle but in the lower, left corner. The movement went defunct by the mid to late 1950s, feeling that they had succeeded in their reform efforts.

So, there you have it: 200 years of Universalist history in 25 minutes!

Reflection Questions:
1) Did this lecture challenge any of your preconceived notions of Universalism?
2) Marlin Lavanhar said, “Unitarian Universalism may die, but Universalism will never die.” How do you react to this statement?

[* The image of speaking in tongues at a Unitarian Universalist Church may seem startling to some UUs. I love the way that Marlin Lavanhar answered those who greet this practice with discomfort. Lavanhar argues that in our Building Your Own Theology classes, participants are asked to remark about a “peak” spiritual experience. Class participants frequently claim experiences that may include feelings of awe created by an experience of the beauty of nature, the experience of giving birth, the experience of holding your grandchild, or feeling moved by a work of art, music, or literature. Lavanhar then asks, rhetorically, why we claim that these peak experiences have merit, but feeling the Holy Spirit does not have merit. He asks us to examine our own prejudices that allow us to claim that some experiences are legitimate and acceptable but others are illegitimate and unacceptable.]