PLENARY III: FROM THE MARGINS TO THE CENTER
Richard S. Gilbert
Universalist History Convocation
Waltham, MA – 10/9/10
What is “the missing U” in Unitarian Universalism? I’m not sure I can articulate it better than by way of
personal recollection. Despite being a born Universalist I have served historically Unitarian churches and
therein lies the problem. When Liz Strong, another born Universalist, was the Minister of Religious
Education at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester on Winton Road while I was the Parish Minister, we
developed a little ritual. Because of the tendency of many people to abbreviate the admittedly
cumbersome “Unitarian Universalist” into the more succinct “Unitarian,” Liz and I in a dual reflex action
would quickly add “Universalist,” usually to the titters, chuckles or laughter of those present.
However, for us it wasn’t really a laughing matter. That abbreviation – so common among 21
Unitarian Universalists – deprives our liberal religious movement of half of its history and a large part of
its theology and ethics. The “missing U” of which I speak is no mere absent-minded abbreviation of a
religious movement but a symbol of a larger forgetting.
Over a century ago the agnostic Robert Ingersoll wrote: "The Unitarian Church has done more than any
other church - and maybe more than all other churches - to substitute character for creed. I want to thank
the Unitarian Church for what it has done. I want to thank the Universalist Church too. They at least
believe in a God who is a gentleman. They believe, at least, in a heavenly father who will leave the latch
string out until the last child gets home."
The late Unitarian Universalist minister Forrest Church has been an advocate of recapturing our
Universalist heritage and impulse. In a 2001 essay he wrote “. . . . Unitarianism proclaims that we spring
from a common source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny.” His Beacon Press book, The
Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology, elaborates on that theme. Forrest’s strong articulation
of Universalism symbolizes its theological and ethical resurgence in a movement that has too often lost
track of its richness – and even its name.
But this is not about a “tear and compare” argument comparing Unitarians and Universalists to the favor
of the latter. It is not about belittling our Unitarian heritage, which I am proud to claim as a Unitarian
Universalist. It is at once a warning against historical amnesia and a celebration of the contributions
Universalism has made and will make, not only to our movement, but to the nation and the world.
When the Unitarians and the Universalists were meeting to form a new religious association in Syracuse
and Boston, there was the question of its name. Earlier attempts to form the Liberal Church of America
and other proposed groupings had come to naught. Neither group’s historic identity could be ignored.
We could label this discussion “the great hyphen” or “the great adjective” debate. Which name to put
first and why; and does one hyphenate the name? I suppose the public relations people believed
Unitarian should come first because it was the more recognizable of the two. It still is.
Despite his focus on Universalism, for example, Forrest Church was named a Unitarian minister in every
press release I saw. Yet, if one is a grammarian the agreed upon name makes Unitarian the adjective and
Universalist the noun. We are therefore all Universalists. What kind of Universalists? Why Unitarian
Universalists, of course! But I won’t belabor the point. I am – we are – proud Unitarian Universalists
and heirs of two treasured traditions.
Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary playfully celebrates our theological heritage: “The Unitarian is
one who denies the divinity of a trinitarian. . . . The Universalist is one who forgoes the advantages of
Hell for persons of another faith.”
As the late Universalist minister Kenneth Patton puts it: “The word ‘Universalist’ indicates an intention
rather than a fact . . . a journey, a growth, a progress in which we are now involved. . . . It does not yet
appear what we shall be.”
Think of Martin Luther King’s words: “a network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny –
injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Think of the Seventh Principle of Unitarian
Universalism, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
It is this universalistic ethic that makes such a powerful case today. In a time when centrifugal forces
drive us apart – when nation states flex their muscles, borders are closed against immigration, racial
tensions abound, red states and blue states are in contention, religions continue to claim to be the one true
way – when all those forces separate us from each other – we need the centripetal power of universalism
to bring us back together and remind us that “we are all more human than otherwise.”
You will notice that we have moved from the early Universalist emphasis on the salvation of individual
souls to the salvation of groups – no, of the whole human race. If salvation is a word that sticks in your
theological craw, we might look to its entomological meaning – wholeness.
We usually think of salvation in terms of individuals; why not in terms of communities? Why not as the
whole human race? After all, our theological ancestors proclaimed a theology in which individual
salvation was “no more important to God than the salvation of any other human being.”
Historic Unitarianism placed its emphasis on personal spiritual development – salvation by character.
Think of the staunch individualism of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Great prophets
they were, but the institutional liberal church would not have survived without people for whom the
salvation of the community was crucial. On the other hand, the Universalists “encouraged the believer to
think of his own interests as inseparably linked with the eternal welfare of the whole body of humanity.”
For Universalists the individual exists for the community quite as much as the community exists for the
individual. It was, and is, a reciprocal – an interdependent relationship. We are both individuals and
members. Too often Unitarian Universalists remember to be creative individuals, but forget to be
cooperative members. As historian Conrad Wright put it succinctly: “Joining a church should not be
quite the same thing as joining the National Geographic Society.”
Early Universalists, even as late as the mid-1930’s used the biblical metaphor the Kingdom of God.
They avowed their faith in “the power of men of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil and
progressively establish the Kingdom of God.” Today, many of us, while appreciating the historic
importance of the embracing Kingdom of God from which none are excluded, prefer the more inclusive
term “Beloved Community,” which is non-patriarchal, non-hierarchical and more theologically inclusive.
Beloved Community is a rich symbol: theologically it means we are loving members of that which is
greater than we; it means we are members of a worshiping community at local and national levels; it
means we are a vital part of the political communities in which we live; we partake of a nation-state
which must take its place in the community of nations; it means we are global, even cosmic citizens - we
are creatures with our own stories which are folded into the great narrative of Cosmic Evolution.
It is that universalistic theology that undergirds our prophetic stance to end racism in our nation and in the
world; that mandates our effort to end poverty in the midst of plenty at home and abroad; that enables us
to support marriage equality for same-sex couples; that advocates for a health care plan that includes
everyone no matter their ability to pay; that promulgates non-violence as the way to resolve human
that understands religion is about life meaning which transcends the consumer mentality of contemporary
society; that realizes the universalist impulse must guide us to preserve our planetary home not only for
ourselves, but for generations to come.
Universalism as a theology and as an ethic in the 21
century is still about love – but love reinterpreted
for our time – when our concern is not for our individual salvation in some heavenly hereafter, but for
building a Beloved Community in the here and now. Love is still the core value - love in personal
relations as a committed affection and responsibility for other human beings; love as justice when spoken
in public and love as care for the earth. Our Unitarian Universalist Association is now committed to a
campaign of social justice entitled: “Standing on the Side of Love.” Universalism has been doing that
However, lest we become grandiose in our aspirations, we do well to remember that this love begins with
us in our families and in our congregations. If we cannot model this love in our own intimate
communities, we are ill fitted to lead in the social and ethical issues of our time. I have the feeling that
one of our critical weaknesses as a religious movement is our inability to move beyond a rugged
individualism in our own congregations to a place of membership in a religious community, modeling
what true community can be. If we can’t do that, how can we build the Beloved Community of Love,
Justice and Sustainability?
I think of another minister who understands the universalism of community which embraces diversity.
Stephen Kendrick, minister of the Universalist Church of West Hartford, Connecticut, had taken a
theological poll before being called to be its minister. He wrote, “A third of the congregation considered
themselves ethical Christians, a third considered themselves theists, and a third considered themselves
humanists. I resolved from the first day of my ministry that it was my job to retain that balance.”
That is a purely universalistic stance – one that embraces diversity without judgment; that celebrates our
different ways of looking at religious faith; that understands our theological agenda is not to convert
others to our way of thinking, but to share our own, to listen to others and to celebrate what unites us. As
Forrest Church wisely reminds us: “We are weaned on the rational presumption that if two people
disagree, only one can be right. This works better in mathematics than it does in theology; Universalism
reminds us of that.”
Historically we have too often been on a theological search and destroy mission, always defining
ourselves in contrast to Christian orthodoxy. But the rebel is never free. Heresy is not being against
orthodoxy; heresy we know means being able to choose. And that is what we present to the world – the
radical notion of being able to choose – to build our own theology – to grow our own souls; to commit
ourselves to healing a fractured and broken world; to ally ourselves with the builders of the Beloved
Community. We are heretics, yes, but happy heretics who choose life, love, justice and peace over all
If I were to try to articulate a unifying statement of Unitarian Universalism inspired by this Universalist
history, it might parallel the 1935 Washington Avowal of the Universalist Church of America:
We avow our faith in an indifferent, but benign, Cosmos;
An interdependent web of existence of which we are a part;
A creative impulse that pervades the universe,
Manifest on earth as nature,
Over time as history,
And in humanity as love;
The spiritual leadership of all the great prophets of the human spirit who lived in love for justice;
The church universal composed of all the generations
Who have shared birth and death and all that lies between;
In the priesthood of all believers who care for one another;
In the prophethood of all believers who seek the reign of righteousness.
In the free and disciplined search for truth in religious community;
In the authority of truth known or to be known;
In the inherent worth of each human being,
the dignity of every earth citizen;
In the power of people of good will and sacrificial spirit to build the Beloved Community of Earth.
And so I admonish this gathering of Unitarian Universalists to heed the words inspired by anthropologist
Robert Ardrey and given liturgical expression by our own Universalist minister David Bumbaugh: “Let
us dedicate ourselves to the proposition that beneath all of our diversity, and beyond all our differences,
there is a unity which makes us one, and binds us forever together in spite of time, death, and the space
between the stars.”