Universalism Today


 Universalism Today

Presented by Rev. Peter Connolly

at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, Kentucky

on October 4, 2009

The theme of the Bowling Green International Festival this year was “One World, Many Faces” and the large contingent from this church that made it to the festival can testify to that theme’s appropriateness. There were indeed many faces and many kinds of faces from an international contingent that represented such places as Burma and Thailand, Tibet and India, Vietnam and Cambodia, Bosnia and Serbia as well as Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Australia and many, many more, of course.

One of the blessings of living in a place such as Bowling Green is that we are exposed to a variety of cultural traditions, expressed on that day primarily through modes of dress, music and dance, and, of course, lots and lots of food. One of the short-comings of membership in a church such as ours is that so few of those faces can be seen among us. Perhaps it is inevitable. After all, people from other cultures share traditions indigenous to their places of origin and often want to preserve those traditions; this is best done by building church communities around established traditions and practices. So long as this is true, it is vital for us to continue participating in such ventures as the International Festival and to seek out other ways of interacting with the international community, doing our best to contribute to its survival and its vibrancy. In diversity of cultures as much as species, the survival of a healthy world depends.

The religious tradition that we call “Universalism” likewise honors diversity, the diversity of religious outlook rather than cultural presence. At least, that’s what we’d like to think. In reality, the origins of the Universalist movement are rooted in the Christian tradition. The presence of Europeans on North American soil was coincident with the planting of Christian ideals as filtered through various Protestant interpretations and pieties. Catholicism arrived with the Spanish settlement of Florida; the Puritan strain of Protestantism provided as strong a spiritual nourishment to English settlers in Massachusetts as their corn and potatoes provided nourishment for the body. And the stern discipline that provided the structure for making a life in harsh surroundings derived from a Calvinist interpretation of the Bible, a view that held that mankind is inherently sinful and must constantly be called to account. It was a view that held that only the “elect” would be saved, that no one knew in advance of the afterlife just who those “elect” were and so all must labor under the yoke of discipline of the body and spirit, striving to build God’s kingdom here on temporary Earth so as to enjoy an eternal reward of joy with God in Heaven—if they were so fortunate enough as to find themselves among the “elect.”

We may find it hard today to make sense of such a theology— or the theology being preached at this moment in a number of other churches in this city that does not differ much from that of pre-colonial America. Some of our Christian forbears also found little sense in it; their reading of the gospels and other Christian texts did not convince them that theirs was a vengeful God, holding them, as Jonathan Edwards said, on a filament above the burning fires of Hell. Such a vision made no sense to them and in fact seemed an abomination, a horrible distortion of the Christian message of salvation through the sacrifice of a loving God. Theologies, though, are a product of their times. The hard soil of a New England winter nourishes the belief in a God who is likewise hard and demanding and exacting. False hopes in too easy a path for survival or for a prosperous crop could lead to no good end. The experience that life was hard and the belief that God was exacting were complementary. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Life was hard and it could crush you. And that was the experience of John Murray in England in the mid-18th century.

Unitarian Universalists consider ourselves heirs to Enlightenment thinking, which, in large part, we are. The discoveries of this period of history allowed for a transformation in the ways of thinking throughout Europe. If the Earth is not the center of the solar system, if it revolves instead around the sun; if it is just one of a number of planets which do so, it gets harder to believe in the story which envisions the creation of Earth the high point of a six-day explosion of Divine activity because it provides a home for mankind, the epitome of creation. There is a shift from absolutism to relativism; there is evidence for the evolution of alternative viewpoints. The genie is out of the bottle, the wizard is exposed behind the curtain, the unassailability of an all-powerful God becomes patently suspect, a revolution in thinking cannot but be afoot.

There is no action without reaction, of course. With the spread of “Enlightened” ideas about how the world works and man’s place in it (to say nothing of women’s place-—and little was said), came a predictable response among orthodox religious thinkers and their followers. That response came in the form of an “evangelical revival.” Sound familiar? In Britain, one of the leaders of this kind of thinking was the Rev. George Whitefield, who preached the Calvinist doctrine that God died to save only the “elect.” A Methodist minister, James Relly, trained, himself, in Calvinism, after exploring the issue, found himself at odds with the doctrine. No, he reasoned, if all had sinned in Adam and Christ had taken on the burden of Adam’s transgression as his own and sacrificed his life so as to obliterate the consequences of that sin, did it not follow that all are already saved? This made sense to James Relly, but was an affront to his minister, George Whitefield, so the predictable occurred: ousted he was from the London Tabernacle, left to lick his wounds or start his own church. We have no record of the wound-licking, but we do of the church’s founding by the group that became the Rellyites, believers in a more universal salvation.

John Murray was a Calvinist preacher in Ireland around this time. Upon his arrival to London, he got wind of this affair and a consequent development from it. He heard tell (as Kimberly French tells the story in a recent edition of the UU World magazine) that a “young woman ‘of irreproachable life, remarkable for her piety and highly respected by the Tabernacle’ had joined Relly’s congregation.” Murray believed that she had been “ensnared’ by a deceiver and a blasphemer.” He determined to save her and with a small group in tow, paid her a call with that purpose in mind. They exchanged pleasantries and she “expounded on Relly’s reasoning,” proving her knowledge, intelligence and insight. Her argument, as Kimberly summarizes, went like this: “If Jesus is not the savior of unbelievers, then isn’t asking them to believe in him a lie? And if you were once an unbeliever, did Jesus never die for you until you believed?” Murray found himself “confused and embarrassed into silence.” He “took his leave. ‘From this period,’ he wrote, I myself carefully avoided every Universalist.'”

This is not the end of the story. Murray had one of those minds that responds to argument by ruminating more on what he’s learned rather than slamming shut his mind’s door to something that does not fit the predetermined pattern—the predetermined plan of God by way of Calvinist doctrine, in this case. He read Relly’s principle work, a volume entitled Union: Or a Treatise of the Consanguinity and Affinity between Christ and his Church, more than once. He found the arguments against it weak and hollow (Cf. K. French). He went to hear Relly preach, began attending Relly’s church on a regular basis and found himself converted to this line of reasoning.

Soon after his conversion, Murray experienced a series of tragedies. His young wife and year-old son became ill; as a result of their illnesses, both died. Three sisters and a brother died in fairly quick succession. He fell into debt and was imprisoned for it under the peculiar system in place in Britain at that time. His family and religious colleagues, opposed to his views, failed to support him. He was excommunicated from the Methodist church. He became depressed; there is some evidence that he considered suicide. Eventually, he had enough and determined to leave it all behind, including the life of preaching and religion itself; he would go to America.

John Murray’s story from that point on is the stuff of legend. You may block your ears if you are not fond of the miracle story. (Alternatively, you may offer your own interpretation during the discussion period.)

Murray sailed on a ship called Hand to Hand. On its way to the North American continent, the ship met up with another sailing in the opposite direction; from that ship word was received that the harbor in New York was closed. The ship determined to sail to Boston. As they sailed closer to the continent, the Hand in Hand made contact with another ship saying that, no, the New York harbor was indeed open. Adjustments were made, but Murray’s ship, approaching land, ran aground on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey. Murray was commissioned by the ship’s captain to go ashore on a smaller boat to search for food and water, though the area was far from any town.

Wading ashore, Murray found himself on the farm of a man named Thomas Potter. Potter was a deeply religious man who had, in fact, built a chapel on his land for the day when a minister would arrive whose message he could accept. He’d invited a series of ministers to preach there, but was unsatisfied with what he’d heard. When he found out that Murray had been a preacher himself, he encouraged him to come give a sermon. Murray insisted that his preaching days were in the past, but Potter persisted. Murray relented to this extent only: if the wind had not changed and the ship was still stranded on the sand bar on Sunday, several days thence, Murray would deliver a message from the pulpit. Potter assured Murray that the wind would not change (“Old Farmer’s Almanac”? Amateur meteorologist? Hand of God?). The wind, in fact, did not change.

Murray arrived to preach on that Sunday, September 30, 1770, (Thursday was the anniversary) according to his autobiography, to a chapel which housed Potter and his family, a small group of his friends and a number of neighboring farmers, Potter’s eyes shining in anticipation. Murray had fretted about what to say on the days and nights before the sermon (a problem common to all ministers) and determined that he would trust in the Lord to inspire his speech. He would speak from the heart. He delivered his message of a loving God who had no intentions of harming his children, a message of universal salvation. It was warmly received, but he had no chance to give thanks for the reception (or to initiate a discussion period) because “at the moment that the sermon ended” a messenger from the ship came running in to tell him that the wind had shifted and the ship must be off. In The Larger Faith, Charles Howe refers to this as “perhaps the only miracle in Universalist history!” The place where the ship ran aground was called, by the way, the Cape of Good Luck. Howe finishes the story this way: “Murray sailed on to New York City, preached there to an enthusiastic congregation, and was soon traveling up and down the northeastern seaboard, sowing the seeds of Universalism wherever he went.”

Murray is not credited with bringing Universalism to these shores; George de Benneville did that, preaching to a number of congregations in and near Philadelphia beginning in 1741, to an audience receptive to this interpretation of the gospel, but de Benneville founded no church and Murray did, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a congregation that still exists as the Independent Christian Church Universalist, so Murray is credited with starting the first Universalist church in the U.S. Besides, de Benneville’s story cannot match Murray’s.

The first convention of Universalist societies was held on May 25, 1790, the Philadelphia Convention. There were 17 delegates representing eight societies, including John Murray from Massachusetts. They met for a full two weeks and worked their way through an ambitious agenda. By the end of that time, they had agreed on Articles of Faith, a Plan of Church Government, and resolutions on “War, Going to Law, Holding Slaves, Oaths, Submission to Government.”

There were five articles of faith. I will read them in their entirety, asking you to meditate upon them to determine which of them you could give your whole-hearted approval to if they were to come up, say, at the next annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Sec. 1. Of the Holy Scriptures—We believe the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to contain a revelation of the perfections and will of God, and the rule of faith and practice.Sec. 2. Of the Supreme Being—We believe in One God, infinite in all his perfections; and that these perfections are all modifications of infinite, adorable, incomprehensible, and unchangeable Love.

Sec. 3. Of the Mediator—We believe that there is One Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, in whom dwelleth all the fullness of Godhead bodily; who, by giving himself as a ransom for all, hath redeemed them to God by his blood; and who, by the merit of his death, and the efficacy of his Spirit, will finally restore the whole human race to happiness.

Sec. 4. Of the Holy Ghost—We believe in the Holy Ghost, whose office it is to make known to sinners the truth of their salvation, through the medium of the Holy Scriptures, and to reconcile the hearts of the children of men to God, and thereby to dispose them to genuine holiness.

Sec. 5. Of Good Works—We believe in the obligation of the moral law, as the rule of life; and we hold that the love of God manifest to man in a Redeemer, is the best means of producing obedience to that law, and producing a holy, active, and useful life.

Perhaps after two weeks, we here gathered could come to an agreement on five principles of Universalist theology, but I think it is highly unlikely that they would be these. It raises the question, does it not, of what it means to profess Universalism in this day and age? We claim Universalism as fully half of our theological heritage; luminaries such as James Relly, John Murray, George de Benneville, Hosea Ballou, Mary Livermore and Lydia Jenkins suffered in some degree—and sometimes terribly—for principles that helped form this religious tradition that we hold dear, yet who among us would battle today to defend these principles? So—what does it mean to be a Universalist today?

The recently departed and still lamented Rev. Forrest Church, long time minister to All Souls Church in New York City, offered his answer in an essay called “Universalism, a Theology for the 21st Century” published in the November/December, 2001 issue of the UU World. In it, he offers the symbol of “the world as a vast cathedral…as ancient as humankind; its cornerstone is the first altar, marked with the tincture of blood and blessed by tears. Search for a lifetime…and we shall never know its limits.” I can’t here read the article in full, but I will commend to you the November/ December, 2001 issue of the UU World.

Here is a section from that article, an extended metaphor at the heart of the essay:

The builders have labored in this cathedral from time immemorial. Daily, work begins t hat shall not be finished in the lifetime of the architects who planned it, the patrons who paid for it, the builders who construct it, or the expectant worshipers. Nonetheless, throughout human history, one generation after another has labored lovingly, sometimes fearfully, crafting memorials and consecrating shrines. Untold numbers of these today collect dust in long-undisturbed chambers; others, cast centuries or millennia ago from their once-respected places, lie shattered on the cathedral floor. Not a moment passes without the dreams of long-dead dreamers being outstripped, crushed or abandoned, giving way to new visions, each immortal in reach, ephemeral in grasp.Above all else, contemplate the windows. In the Cathedral of the World there are windows beyond number– some long forgotten, covered with many patinas of dust, others revered by millions, the most sacred of shrines. Each in its own way is beautiful. Some are abstract, others representational, some dark and meditative, others bright and dazzling. Each tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death. The windows of the cathedral is where the light shines through.

“The light,” Rev. Church says elsewhere in the essay, is, in his vision, the light of the Unitarian God or Truth or Being itself. And so, we have a complete vision of Unitarian Universalist theology in the extended metaphor of light and colored glass and the labor in constructing and maintaining a church.But the story of Universalism is the story of a people seeking salvation. Forrest Church brings us to the brink of that vision, but does not elaborate on it. Let us look a little bit more closely at the penultimate sentence of his vision: “Each (window) tells a story about the creation of the world, the meaning of history, the purpose of life, the nature of humankind, the mystery of death.” Where is the message of universal salvation?

Elsewhere in the essay, Rev. Church says “I don’t disbelieve in an afterlife; I simply have yet to experience an afterlife, and therefore have little to say concerning one.”

For most, not all, Universalists today, salvation is not found in the afterlife, either by following the five principles passed at the Philadelphia Convention in 1790 or through any other theological or ecclesiastical construct. For us, most of us, salvation, to the extent that it is a meaningful term at all, must be found in the present life. Here and now.

When Rev. Church posits “the mystery of death,” I am aware of that reality that marks the end of my Earthly striving for meaning and purpose in my life and the life of my church. When he raises the phrase “the nature of humankind,” I am aware of the pulse of life that animates my days, the practiced routines of my day, the rhythms that I seek and that make themselves manifest to me by, sometimes, an unknown grace.

When he says “the creation of the world,” I say yes, the world that we are still creating through the process of our civilization-making which at the same time dismantles and destroys the natural balance of an ecosystem long in the making, quick in the destroying.

When he talks about the meaning of history, I see that meaning buried in the striving one against another for advantage in a competitive society, a competitive world, and I see the hope that grows from striving together to meet the challenges we face in the joy that meaningful struggle produces.

And in that short phrase “the purpose of life,” I see the central tenet of it all: Salvation for us Universalists today consists in finding that purpose in life, that purpose that is achieved when we raise healthy children in healthy spiritual community and with those children do the things which make inroads in the shaping of the culture around us. I see purpose in naming those things which oppress the human spirit and joining my energy, knowledge and desire with others so inspired to change them, even if it is by one step at a time. I see purpose in celebrating achievements, acknowledging milestones, welcoming children into the world, visiting the sick (which in time will be all of us), and in teaching the hard-won lessons from generations past and being open to the revelations of new knowledge as it makes itself known to us. I see salvation, in short, in satisfying that craving in my soul for a purpose-filled life.

I see salvation in the life of this church, quiet and meditative at times; joyful and exuberant at others, unafraid of being a voice for change in a world that is going mad by degrees, stupefied by distractions in the face of enormous challenges. I see salvation in your faces and in your bodies. Each of us sees the light through the stained glass of the window in a way that may coalesce into meaning. Each of us provides a light for every other one of us to see our way, to make the pattern in the glass more clear. Let us go forth into the world with our own message for redemption, for salvation, in the good that we speak, the good that we do and the spirit we impart to one another: Love is our doctrine and service is our prayer.


  • Charles Howe, The Larger Faith by Charles Howe, Skinner House Books ©1993.
  • Forrest Church, “Universalism, a Theology for the 21st Century,” UU World, November/December, 2001.
  • Kimberly French, “John Murray’s Conversion to Universalism,” UU World, Summer, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.