Celebrating Unitarian Identity

© by Rev. Alison Wilbur Eskildsen

Centering Thoughts:

This is the bond of the Universal Church: no man can be excommunicated from it  but by the death of goodness in his own breast. William Ellery Channing

May your life preach more loudly than your lips. William Ellery Channing


You’ve heard me say that Unitarian Universalism did not just appear out of nowhere a few years ago. Though we appear very modern in our inclusive approach to religion, we have a long history. Our history may not seem as momentous as when Moses led the ancient Hebrews out of Egypt or Jesus died and his body disappeared, but when William Ellery Channing preached on May 5, 1819, a stake was planted in the ground for American Unitarian religion. His sermonic declaration proudly took our light out from under the basket for all to see. Like Passover and Easter, perhaps we should observe this holy day annually.

Major historical events, including religious ones, typically have a prior period of momentum-building. One particular theological controversy slowly gained traction throughout the 1700s in America when many Christian ministers quietly distanced themselves from traditional doctrines about the nature of Jesus, the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, biblical interpretation, and more. They became more liberal and less orthodox in no small part due to the influence of the European Enlightenment and by their physical, and later political, independence from England. By mid-1700, churches were splitting over the emotionalism, fearmongering, and limited salvation message of strict Calvinists. You can see evidence of this in New England where a Unitarian Universalist Church now sits on one side of the town’s central green, and a Congregational Church on the opposite side. At the time of these splits, however, none were named Unitarian or Universalist.

Orthodox Christians accused the liberals of heresy for moving away from the doctrine of the Trinity, that God was one in three persons and Jesus was God. The accusers thought nothing could be worse than being called a heretic. They imagined this would bring the liberals back to their own understanding of correct doctrine.

It didn’t.

When Channing was asked to deliver the ordination sermon for Jared Sparks who was called to serve the liberal First Independent Church, now UU, in Baltimore, MD, he could have delivered a typical sermon about the nature, duties, or advantages of Christian ministry. Instead, he chose to defend the liberal viewpoint. He titled his sermon “Unitarian Christianity.” Although less true by the end of the 1800s, in 1819, Unitarianism was still centered on Christian teachings, as our Transylvanian siblings remain today.

By the way, I use the term liberal as they did. It does not refer to politics. It is from this historical use that Unitarian Universalism continues to be called a liberal religion—our theologically free and open tradition marks us as such. Many of us today may also be politically liberal, but not exclusively. As we get deeper into campaign season, I hope we keep that in mind.

In Channing’s 90-minute sermon (I’ll try to keep mine shorter), he makes two principle points: how liberals justify their interpretation of the Bible and the theological consequences of that interpretation. To begin, Channing refutes the charge of heresy, made because we employ “an unwarrantable use of reason in the interpretation of Scripture. We are said to exalt reason above revelation, to prefer our own wisdom to God’s.” (Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing, Emerson, Parker, Introduction by Conrad Wright, page 49)

Sound familiar? Our First and Fifth Sources allow us to claim our own authority in religious matters and to heed the guidance of reason.

In response to this charge, Channing explains a liberal’s interpretation of the Bible. He says, “the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books.” (Wright, page 49) Quite a daring statement then, and for some today.

Channing emphasizes that the Bible, more than any other book, requires the use of reason.

Its language is singularly glowing, bold, and figurative, demanding more frequent departure from the literal sense, … and consequently demanding more continual exercise of judgment. —We find, too, that the different portions of this book, instead of being confined to general truths, refer perpetually to the times when they were written, to states of society, to modes of thinking, to controversies in the church, to feelings and usages which have passed away, and without the knowledge of which we are constantly in danger of extending to all times, and places, what was of temporary and local application. … We feel it is our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon it perpetually, to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit, to seek in the nature of the subject, and the aim of the writer, his true meaning; and, in general, to make use of what is known, for explaining what is difficult, and for discovering new truths. (Wright, page 50-51) … Deny us this latitude, and we must abandon this book to its enemies. (Wright, page 52)

This too should sound familiar. If we don’t interpret the Bible liberally, picking out the good from the bad, then we should abandon it. Regretfully, many have abandoned it by throwing out the good along with the ideas and behaviors we no longer find acceptable for our time and place. (Wright, page 55)

Given this liberal interpretation of the Bible, Channing explains the rationale for not affirming the doctrine of the trinity. Channing says, “We do, then, with all earnestness, though without reproaching our brethren, protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity. … With Jesus, we worship the Father, as the only living and true God.” (Wright, page 58)

Channing points out that in the scriptures, Jesus constantly says he was sent by the Father and that the Father alone is God. “We challenge our opponents to adduce one passage in the New Testament, where the word God means three persons, where it is not limited to one person, and where, unless turned from its usual sense by the connexion, it does not mean the Father. Can stronger proof be given, that the doctrine of three persons in the Godhead is not a fundamental doctrine of Christianity?” (Wright, page 59)

Channing adds that the orthodox have shifted their worship from God to Jesus, and it is the epitome of idolatry to revere God in human form. He further claims Jesus’s saving mission was not his suffering and death, but his teachings to be virtuous, to love our neighbor as ourselves. “We regard him as a savior, chiefly as he is the light, physician, and guide of the dark, diseased, and wandering mind.” (Wright, page 79)

Additionally, Channing criticizes those fervently seeking ecstatic oneness with God (encouraged during the “Great Awakening” tent revivals) rather than following God’s commands. “Their whole souls may be moved, and their confidence in God’s favor be undoubting. But in all this there is no religion. The question is, Do they love God’s commands, in which his character is fully expressed, and give up to these their habits and passions? Without this, ecstasy is a mockery. One surrender of desire to God’s will, is worth a thousand transports.” (Wright, page 82) Channing adds, “May your life preach more loudly than your lips”. We might say, “walk your talk.” This attitude contributed to Channing’s commitment to society by working to end slavery, secure public education for all, improve living conditions among the urban poor, and more.

Before closing his sermon, Channing asks for charity towards those whose theological opinions differ. The conceit of infallibility and pious zeal that once led people to burn so-called heretics to death should be relegated to history. “Charity, forbearance, a delight in the virtues of different sects, a backwardness to censure and condemn[nation], these are virtues, which, however poorly practiced by us, we admire and recommend; and we would rather join ourselves to the church in which they abound, than to any other communion, however elated with the belief of its own orthodoxy, however strict in guarding its creed, however burning with zeal against imagined error.” (Wright, page 85-6)

Channing’s 200-year-old sermon still preaches today. Although our theology and wisdom sources recognize more than theism and Christianity, his basic views about Jesus, the use of reason, liberal interpretation of the Bible, and tolerance for difference remain UU hallmarks. Once hurled at us in disgust, we proudly picked up that Unitarian label, and added another so-called heresy to it, Universalism. That story will be told another day.

Even though Unitarians have preached religious tolerance, for over 450 years, the world still experiences killings in the name of religious faith. It seems a weekly occurrence against Jews, Muslims, or Christians. We’ve preached acceptance of the findings of science for at least 200 years, but some still argue evolution should not be taught in public schools. We’ve preached freedom of religion for centuries, yet some try to legislate their particular religion’s rules into laws for everyone.

Channing’s words may seem obvious to us 200 years after he spoke them, but not in 1819. Openly proclaiming them was a radical act. He and his fellow liberal ministers followed their reason and conscience and we continue follow those guides today. And, we must continue to defend liberal religion from those who would impose their orthodox views upon us.

May our liberal light shine long and bright well into the future.

Questions for Reflection or Discussion:

  1. What does Unitarian mean to you? Does it include the oneness of God or unity of humankind? Share.
  2. What do you think about the nature of God and Jesus? Does the Unitarian/Trinitarian debate have any meaning for you today? Explain.
  3. Does your life preach more loudly than your lips? Share.