Wednesday, June 11, 2014

U is for Universalism and Unitarianism

Under normal circumstances, the local Friends Meeting would have not have asked someone living twenty miles away from the new Unitarian church to join the Quaker delegation at the dedication ceremony, but a number of Friends had scheduling difficulties on the night in question. I felt honored to attend, and not only because of the similarities in outlook between Unitarians and many unprogrammed Meetings. My maternal grandfather was a Universalist minister —the Universalists are the other part of the “UU’s,” the joint Unitarian Universalist Association in the US. Admittedly, he left religion altogether around the end of World War I, but he was an exception. The First Universalist Society of Hartland, Vermont, was founded in 1802. My ancestors were in the town at the time of the American Revolution and were long-time members before my grandfather came along.  Members of the church were helpful to a relative who was a conscientious objector during World War II. My maternal grandmother, the last “card-carrying” member of that congregation, was a devoted Universalist until her death in the late 1970’s. I could only regret that she was not alive to hear about the occasion. 

First Universalist Society, Hartland, Vermont
©Kristin Lord 2014

Although some time has passed since that gathering, and the church in question moved to larger quarters a few years ago, the spiritual and cultural familiarity of that evening has stayed with me. In my case the cultural associations were indirect, though my grandmother and her oldest sister rather than my parents. Because there was never a UU church available at a time when my parents were moving to a new community (in one town, the church had closed, while in another, one opened about a year after my parents had settled in somewhere else), I have never personally been a member of that Association. The connections were nevertheless there, waiting to be aroused from hibernation.  The approach to worship, the choice of lyrics in the music, even the decor —the minister was sitting in a virtual clone of my grandmother’s favorite wing chair— all were familiar. The initial lines from one of my favorite poems of William Blake, “The Divine Image,”  formed one of the hymns: “To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love/All pray in their distress;/and to these virtues of delight/Return their thankfulness.” (Blake traveled in the same circles as Joseph Johnson, who was in turn associated with Joseph Priestley and other Unitarian reformers.) Downstairs in the Sunday school rooms were posters showing Emily Dickinson, Clara Barton, and members of the philosophical school of the New England Transcendentalists. Hundreds of miles away from New England and an ocean away from Britain, I saw the New England culture of my childhood and the British connections of my late adolescence in front of me.

The ideas behind what became the Universalists and Unitarians arose independently with different people in a variety of locations, with the Protestant Reformation as it developed in Britain and New England providing the catalysts to the modern form of both. The fundamental belief of Universalism is in the universal nature of salvation. Since God is a God of love, the Deity would never create a person knowing that that individual was destined for eternal damnation. The Unitarians believed that that God was one entity and that Jesus was fully human; in contrast, the view of Christianity as adopted by the Councils of Nicaea in the fourth century CE was that God was three persons, father, son, and holy spirit, who together form the Trinity. My mother used to put the differences between the two groups and between them and Christianity quite succinctly: “The Universalists do not believe in Hell and damnation, while the Unitarians do not believe in the Trinity.” (It was the belief in freedom from damnation which brought in my grandmother, who had witnessed the tail end of the Wesleyan Revival movement in nineteenth century North America and who was from that more traditional background.) These core beliefs became the nucleus of many others. The current Unitarian Universalist Association, formed from the two groups in 1961, has embraced religious pluralism. Only a minority of members of the current Association would consider themselves Christian.

Many unprogrammed and some programmed Friends have a favorable view of Universalism, and the practical ramifications of Quaker and Universalist Universalism (so to speak) are similar; but the two movements are very different in the way the concepts developed. The Universalists’ belief is ultimately one about the afterlife, or eschatology. Friends, on the other hand, have from our earliest days in the seventeenth century CE believed that it is the understanding of the Inward Light (the manifestation of the Holy Spirit) that is universal. This was the experience of Mary Fisher, the seventeenth century Friend who visited the Ottoman Empire (“the seed of them is near unto God,” as cited in Quaker Faith and Practice), and to some extent William Penn. To put this belief in philosophical terms, the Quaker belief is ultimately one of knowledge, or epistemology (for a discussion of the latter, see Jeffrey Dudiak and Laura Rediehs in Stephen W. Angell and Pink Dandelion, The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies, 2013, pp. 511-12). Whether this universal experience of the Inner Light leads to the kind of religious pluralism understood by modern Universalists in that denomination is another matter. John Punshon, in his Letter to a Universalist (Pendle Hill, 1989), advocates for Friends reclaiming their Christian roots; establishing mutual respect and tolerance between faiths is what creates world peace. Daniel Seeger takes a different viewpoint. Writing in The Quaker Universalist Reader Number 1 (1986) and elsewhere, he speaks of the kind of religious pluralism that entails participants to be grounded in one religion. For Seeger, that religion is Christianity. In fact, even among contemporary liberal branches of Quakerism, Christianity is a theological and cultural foundation. (For a broader understanding of the complexities of modern Quaker Universalism, see the resources of the Quaker Universalist Voice, Ralph Hetherington's 1993 Pendle Hill pamphlet Universalism and Spirituality, and the summary in J. William Frost’s discussion of modernist and liberal Quakerism in The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies, pp. 88-89.)

Sultan Ahmed Mosque (colloquially known as "the Blue Mosque," Istanbul
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This mosque had already been built by the time Mary Fisher visited the area.

Speaking about Quakers and Unitarianism is equally complex. Neither George Fox nor Robert Barclay, the author of the first methodological theology of Quakerism, refers to the Trinity. William Penn, on the other hand, does. In Keys, Penn is quite specific about Friends’ acceptance of the doctrine, citing scriptural documentation in I John 5:7, the passage as it stands in the Greek manuscripts, not with the gloss “in heaven: the Father, the Word [Jesus], and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one added” which appears in some Latin manuscripts. Despite some ambiguities as to what exactly the early Friends meant by the Trinity,  a basic accord with it is understood in the affirmation used by Friends in the Toleration Act of 1689, which ended much of the persecution against early Quakers. (Stephen W. Angell’s article in The Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies, pp. 160-61, contains an up-to-date summary of the scholarship concerning Quaker beliefs about the Trinity.)

The limitations of the Toleration Act of 1689 made me blush scarlet when I first visited yet another Unitarian church, this time the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The topic of the day’s sermon was the history of Unitarianism. After brief references to Michael Servetus and other Continental reformers, the minister provided a biographical sketch of Joseph B. Priestly, the English Unitarian theologian, political theorist, and chemist. More than a century after Friends were living reasonably freely in England (albeit without access to university education),  J.B. Priestly was forced out of London; one of the places he stayed in his exile was Pennsylvania, which in turn was inhabited by many beneficiaries of the Toleration Act of 1689.  Changes to the Toleration Act that removed the requirement for Christians to accept the Trinity came only in 1813. When the Winnipeg Unitarians greeted me with great warmth during coffee hour upon learning that I was a Quaker, I responded with sorrow that Friends’ determination to ensure their own acceptance in the Toleration Act had inadvertently left no room for the early British Unitarians when they came along later. (Talk about the law of unintended consequences!)

Both Friends and Unitarian Universalists have been instrumental our own ways in developing the separation between church and state that was enshrined (so to speak) in the US Constitution, and which has in turn become a part of the legal foundations of a number of Commonwealth countries. This is one of many areas which we have in common. We share a commitment to gender equality and a strong social witness, as well as support for science and the life of the mind. Seekers using the on-line tools of Beliefnet sometimes get similar answers for both liberal Quakerism and the Unitarian Universalist Association. When I wrote in an earlier post of the importance of other Friends Meetings and other religious groups as a “home away from home,” our  “UU” counterparts are a superb example. Indeed, one Meeting known to me has pooled resources for religious education with the local Unitarian Universalist church.

When “UU” friends and acquaintances speak about differences between Quakerism and their own traditions, the contemplative tradition of the Meeting for Worship and the sense of the Meeting which forms the basis of our corporate business practices are subjects of great interest to them. In terms of contemplation, some members of both groups have worked with labyrinths. I do not think it coincidental that in a single week I was photographing a labyrinth at a Universalist church and invited to walk one that was being set up at a Quaker Half-Yearly Meeting. (Unfortunately, scheduling problems prevented me from walking either.) Conversely, one of the great treasures of the Unitarian Universalist tradition —not only for themselves, but for all humanity— is providing a spiritual home to interfaith couples and families. Friends also have much to learn from their excellent religious education for both children and adults. Finally, Friends can benefit from the Unitarian Universalist breadth as a part of world religion, while at the same time offering the variety of world-wide Quaker experience as it relates to the Christian Oikoumene.

In writing this post, the author would like to acknowledge the generosity of the First Universalist Society of Hartland, especially the minister, Paul S. Sawyer, to her family in ways that can never be repaid.  She would also like to thank the hospitality of the Grand River Unitarian Congregation (Ontario) and the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg (Manitoba) at different times over the years.

the labyrinth at the First Universalist Society, Hartland, VT
©Kristin Lord 2014

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