Unitarians and the Bible
I walked in the door of First Free Church with a friend from school. It was a Wednesday night, and we walked up to a table in the hallway. She signed in, and one of the ladies behind the table asked me to fill out an informational card. Name, address, parents’ names, church . . . I asked out loud, “How do you spell Unitarian Universalist?” The looks on the ladies’ faces were either of confusion because they’d never heard of it, or maybe complete surprise that such a heathen had walked into their church. Neither were able to help, so I sounded it out in my head and probably got it right. I don’t know if First Free still offers CCD on Wednesday nights, nor do I even know what CCD stood for, but my friend in the fourth grade had been insistent that I attend with her. The evening started with simple running around games in the gym, then it transitioned to study time. We went downstairs with a group of other children our own age, were given little booklets, and spent the next hour memorizing bible verses. I don’t remember whether they were around a specific theme or out of a certain book. I remember that kids who passed tests of memorization were rewarded. And, I remember being confused by the whole thing. I could not understand the point of memorizing sacred texts without discussing what they mean. Shouldn’t we pay attention to what is going on around these single verses? Couldn’t we take time to consider why they are important or how they impact the ways in which we live our lives? It wasn’t the point of the evening, however. Our task was memorization. We apparently only needed to know the words.
I didn’t go back.
I was being raised in a place where we were taught to question, where we expected things to make sense, where the meaning has always been more important than the words. I was raised here, as a Unitarian Universalist. And, I was not by any means the first Unitarian to ask critical questions about how Scripture is used.
When William Ellery Channing took the pulpit on May 5, 1819, he knew there would be no turning back. He took a deep breath, looked out over those assembled, the members of the brand new congregation – The First Independent Church of Baltimore – the Rev. Jared Sparks who they were assembled to ordain and install as their minister that day, his colleagues mostly from Boston on behalf of whom he was about to speak, and the assembled clergy of Baltimore, most of whom he knew wouldn’t like what he was about to say.
And those congregated waited for him to begin. The members of the church were looking for some direction and a word of hope from this well-known preacher. Their congregation was so new, and they must have known that their decision to form a church and to call this brand new minister was in its own way daring. And yet, in order to have become a new church, they had to have been firm in their faith. Maybe they wanted to be bolstered, to be told that everything was going to be fine, to hear praises sung of their new minister, that what they were doing in establishing their church wasn’t anything of true concern.
The about-to-become Reverend Sparks, we can only imagine, was on pins and needles. Did he know that the day of his ordination would be remembered for centuries not for him or the steps he was about to take as a minister, but for the sermon Channing was about to preach? I anticipate that he did know this on some level. He knew that the date and the place for what Channing would say had been chosen carefully, as had Channing. Sparks must have been devoted to the liberal thought to sacrifice his day, which still had him trembling as he thought of the vows he was taking and the commitment to ministry that he would never be able to shed.
The liberal clergy from Boston were ready, and they waited with anticipation. For decades the debates had continued among their colleagues, and they knew that the stand they took that day with Channing would demonstrate that they were on to something. The church had to change, and their ideas on what was most important in Christianity – Christ as an example and the opportunity to follow his lead – must be the way. They had already upset so many people, and they knew that this day would draw a line in the sand, but they were ready to defend it. The auspicious occasion held for them such anticipation.
It is hard to say what the local clergy and other attendees of Baltimore might have expected. They must have known that this new congregation espoused a version of the faith that was strange and different, that the decision to bring this Boston preacher 400 miles to Baltimore to preach at the ordination and installation of this new minister had to be significant. But, what would he say? How heretical his words?
It is without doubt that there was a buzz in the air as the hush fell over the sanctuary of the First Independent Church of Baltimore. Channing cleared his throat, took a deep breath, and uttered a silent prayer for strength.
What Channing was about to preach was not actually new. Decades had shaped the realm of thought both in Europe and the United States – which were not yet thirty years old. We can toss around historical concepts that you might recognize – The Great Awakening with Jonathan Edwards and his “Sinners in the hands of an angry God;” The Enlightment, the Age of Reason, with the promises of science and rational thought to explain the world. Theologically, everything was already a mess. The new country had been founded on principles of freedom of religion, although the concept had not really applied in all of the previous colonies. New ideas spread like wildfire, itinerant preachers, revivals, and a fear among the old guard that religion was simply getting out of hand.
Massachusetts had been settled by Puritans, you likely remember, and the churches that still held great religious sway, the Congregationalists, were their theological descendants. The whole revival movement that had made such a stir rubbed the ministers the wrong way, for how could any large, emotional outpouring of religious sentiment, bent entirely on a moment of conversion, be true religion? They strongly held to Calvinism, the belief that all people were born only with the capacity to sin, irredeemable, except by the grace of God, who selected the few elect who would be saved despite their inherent, sinful nature. Does “Predestination” ring a bell? It doesn’t matter what actions you take during your life; people are sinful and only those already selected by God would enjoy heaven.
A new idea had arisen among a few liberals among the Congregationalists known as “Arminianism,” which essentially gave people a chance. God is on everyone’s side, trying to help them to choose a life of goodness, free from sin. It’s not easy, and there are always trials, but with discipline and care, sin can be overcome. Those who followed this way of thinking became the liberal Christians over time, those who Channing was about to represent as he started his sermon.
For decades, all of these ministers – the orthodox and the liberals – still generally got along, even though divisions had formed theologically. They had a practice of getting together and talking minister things (not unlike our current UU ministers who gather for cluster meetings and retreats and trainings in order to support one another), and of exchanging pulpits. Pulpit exchanges (which we still do, but in a more limited manner) allowed preachers to essentially take some time off. If they always preached in the same church, a new sermon was absolutely required every week. However, if they switched pulpits with a colleague, both of them could re-preach a previous sermon to a congregation that had not yet heard it, and neither had the responsibility of writing something new that week. So, these ministers remained collegial for some time, knowing that they disagreed on important theological topics. Until 1805 when Henry Ware (a liberal) was elected to a professorship at Harvard. The orthodox found this to be too much – Harvard had been corrupted by these liberals – and so they, led by Jedidiah Morse of Chrlestown, decided to completely shun the liberals to keep them from taking over. And so, the split occurred, and years of heavy bickering occurred, the public opinion the prize. Morse stumbled across a biography of a famous English Unitarian (note that English Unitarians were thought despicable) that included some theology that seemed not unlike what those liberal ministers were preaching. And so, since the main ammunition in a theological war at that time was pamphlets, Morse published a pamphlet with a chapter from this biography and introduced it to attach the name Unitarian to the liberals. Name-calling at its worst, especially since the anti-trinitarian thought among the liberals was far from the most important thing that they preached – that split between Calvinism and Arminianism was the crucial thing.
Names stick, however. The group of liberal Christians found in the years following that maybe they really had become something separate, and just as many the LGBT community have re-claimed the word Queer, Channing decided to claim the slur Unitarian when he titled this important sermon he was about to preach “Unitarian Christianity.”
It was too late for him to back down. It’s not like he hadn’t preached these ideas before. He had been preaching them for years. But, this time, he was in Baltimore, far from his own Federal Street Church in Boston. This time had been set up to make a splash, to have this religious movement take the stage and claim recognition. They had already been in this for so long, Channing knew what the arguments were against them. He had read the pamphlets that blithely claimed that he and his colleagues placed reason above all else, even revelation from God. He knew when he had written the manuscript before him, the handwriting clear in places and scrawled in others (although he knew these words too well to be worried about reading his own handwriting), that he needed to take care, to demonstrate that reason is not more important than anything, that the Word of God as encountered in holy Scripture was at the root of the new theologies.
Those orthodox Congregationalists were looking at scripture all wrong. They, like everyone else it seemed, never considered the text in its fullness, they only pulled out single verses that met their needs of somehow maintaining traditions and theologies that just didn’t make sense. They didn’t make sense in general, and they didn’t make sense when you read the scripture as a whole. It was obvious when he poured over page after page of the Bible that it had been written by various, distinct voices. As this was God’s text, God must have meant it to be done that way, God must have inspired the authors to write truth, but they would of course do it in a way that made sense to them in their time and with what was happening around them. How was it possible to understand God’s word fully without fully understanding the circumstances of its writing? Without considering it also as a product of people, people who throughout literature had utilized metaphor and figurative language to express especially the most important, yet least concrete, realities of their world. And yet, those orthodox ministers swore up and down that the Bible must be the literal word of God, each word a truth all by itself, somehow meaningful without being connected to the words around it.
Channing shuddered, considering what his words were about to stir once again. But, he had to be right. This had to be the way to read and understand Scripture. And so, making eye contact with Sparks, about to be ordained, he began: “The peculiar circumstances of this occasion not only justify, but seem to demand a departure from the course generally followed by preachers at the introduction of a brother into the sacred office.”
And so, Unitarianism in America began in earnest.
The truth of the matter is that all of this happened because of the Bible. Unitarianism as we know it began because of new approaches to reading Scripture, applying reason and literary criticism to sacred texts in order to “make use of what is known, for explaining what is difficult, and for discovering new truths.”
Truly, this openness to new truths has made our tradition what it is today. It may be difficult for us right now to hear our own roots in Channing’s words, but they are there. After he set forth the new approach to scripture (much of which you heard in our reading this morning) he made five important theological points, which he claimed were based on the new biblical interpretation (which I’m sure they were) although he never offered scriptural proof. (Although many scholars critique him for this, maybe he wrote it in this way to demonstrate the scriptural approach – how could he lift out specific verses as proof without falling into the same trap of proof-texting of which he accused his opponents?) The five points were groundbreaking at the time, but you might recognize some of our current tradition in them:
- Belief in the unity of God, for the Trinity has no scriptural evidence,
- Belief in the unity of Jesus Christ, for scripture does not claim him divine,
- Belief in the moral perfection of God, for God must be good and right to all people,
- Belief that Jesus’s role was one of providing an avenue to salvation through his example of right life, and
- Belief that people inherently have the ability to live moral lives through a sense of duty and conscience.
Yes, Channing’s words are still influential, even if not so ground-breaking anymore. In my seminary classes, I attended a liberal mainstream seminary, we studied the Bible in the way that Channing suggests. Everything was about the context of the texts, what was happening where and when they were written, how they were written, why they were written, who probably wrote them. We concentrated on the structures and the forms of scripture and were taught never to pull verses out of context. What was so new and controversial nearly two hundred years ago is commonplace now. I think Channing would be proud.
And, yet, I bring Channing’s story and words to you this morning because so often we as Unitarian Universalists disregard the Bible as a useful text. It is true that we have new texts now, that the realm of sacred text has been thrown open to include the secular, for all of human experience has become holy. And, this is a good thing. We must open ourselves to the richness around us, we must claim inspiration wherever it may lie, and it is our duty to follow our conscience to what is true and right in life.
I do not want us to forget our roots, though. We work hard to separate ourselves from religious traditions, doctrines, and practices that have done so many in our congregations and beyond harm. We define ourselves more often by what we are not than by what we are. And, the reality is that when we distance ourselves from Christianity, from the Bible, we distance ourselves from our rich past. Unitarian Universalism is a tradition with strong biblical roots. The very act that declared a distinct tradition in 1819 was one about biblical interpretation. I am not saying that the Bible is everything. I am saying that it is still important today – it is important in the society in which we live; it is important to who we have become. Let us not forget this important piece of our past.
The debate over biblical interpretation is far from over. Yes, mainstream Christian clergy are being trained to read the Bible the way that Channing did, but Biblical literalism has not disappeared. We must reconnect to our scriptural roots and speak out through texts that have been sacred within our culture for millennia. Our message began there, and we have the duty to continue to engage the conversation that Channing and his colleagues started. Uphold the goodness of humankind and the moral conscience.
That night in fourth grade when I sat around a table trying to memorize Bible verses that had no meaning to me, when I questioned the worth of the task and the approach to scripture, I did not know that what sparked in me was exactly what sparked in the hearts and minds of the founders of Unitarianism. But, their legacy worked through me, through the teachings I received in this church, and they continue to shape the tradition I hold dear and the lives that we all live. May we never forget our roots, turn our eyes to Scripture every now and then, and continue to use reason to make use of what is known, for explaining what is difficult, and for discovering new truths.