This service is dedicated to the UU Principle:
"A free and responsible search for truth and meaning."
"Always Somewhat Differing,
Always Largely Agreeing"
Message by Rev. Ron Knapp, Minister Emeritus
First Unitarian Church of Omaha
—May 12, 2002
American Unitarianism began as a struggle between liberal and orthodox ministers of the churches of the Standing Order in New England—that is, ministers of the Congregational Churches. The religious liberals, influenced by advances in Biblical studies on the European continent, and endowed with the spirit of liberty which marked the American Revolution, insisted on a greater measure of freedom in interpreting the scriptures, and in defining Christianity, than the orthodox Congregationalists thought necessary and were willing to accept.
The usual benchmark for understanding American Unitarianism is an ordination address given by William Ellery Channing in 1819. That address was titled "Unitarian Christianity," and laid out a comprehensive platform for early nineteenth century religious liberalism. That platform clearly placed the liberals in the context of the Christian tradition but also insisted both on the use of scholarship and critical analysis in the study of the Bible and freedom for the individual in interpreting the Christian faith.
Of central importance to the Unitarian Christians, who often referred to their religious ideology as "Rational Christianity," was the free mind and the authority of the free mind. You can get some feel for this "authority of freedom" when you contrast the orthodox view of the literal interpretation of scripture with the liberal view, as expressed by Channing:
"I call that mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers, which does not content itself with a passive or hereditary faith: which opens itself to light whencesoever it may come; which receives new truth as an angel from heaven."
A very short time after our liberal Unitarian forebears first articulated the value and the authority of the free mind, however, other, and largely younger liberals, began to follow their free minds to positions that differed from those of their elders. And those positions were not so clearly in line with Christian thought as those of Channing and his cohort.
The two most noted examples of this were Ralph Waldo Emerson and his "Divinity School Address," which took place two decades after Channing's exposition of "Unitarian Christianity," and Theodore Parker's ordination sermon titled "The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity," a generation after Channing's sermon.
Both of these sermons, while articulated from what could be considered a Christian position, nevertheless presented views of Christianity that were at odds with the views of the earlier Unitarians.
In his address to the 1838 graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School, Emerson called for direct communication of the human spirit with the divine spirit, which was found, most basically, in nature and not in scripture. In the process, Emerson demolished the idea of miracles as expressed in the New Testament—Jesus walking on water, for example, or Jesus turning water into wine.
It may be hard for us to understand today, but for the older Unitarians, the acceptance of these miracles were necessary because they validated the authority of Jesus as the Christ. For Ralph Waldo Emerson, however, they were a hindrance to a proper understanding of Christianity in the modern world.
Theodore Parker, in his address on "The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity," went even further. Parker rejected most of the theological foundations of Christianity and emphasized, instead, the teachings of Jesus. Note the importance here: Parker's message was predicated on Jesus the teacher and not on Christ the savior.
The Channing Unitarians, who thought of themselves as authentic Christians, in a more traditional sense, denounced Parker's views as heresy. You can gain an even greater appreciation of Parker's heresy, when you understand that Parker felt that the enduring value of the teachings of Jesus were not dependent upon the facts of a historical Jesus.
Think on this: If the teachings of Jesus were good and true, wouldn't they be good and true whoever said them? Would they not be good and true, if they were indeed good and true, even if Jesus, himself, never existed? Parker thought so.
For Theodore Parker, the important thing in Christianity—that which he labeled the "permanent"—were the teachings of Jesus, which could be seen as being universal, which could be seen as having enduring value in this world and in this time. The unimportant things, for Parker—that which he labeled the "transient"—were the theological interpretations surrounding the idea of the "Christ."
Parker felt that religion, including the Christian religion, had to be constantly reinterpreted and redefined in terms of the needs and the knowledge of an emerging world, of the emerging world of each successive generation. "The church which did for the fifth century, or the fifteenth," he said, will not do for this. It must have our ideas, the smell of our ground, and have grown out of the religion in our souls."
I cannot take the time, just now, to go into this matter in any further depth, but for my purpose in this sermon, it is important to point out the contrast between the views expressed by the Channing Unitarians and those expressed by the Parker Unitarians.
The Channing Unitarians expressed religious liberalism clearly within the context of Christian faith. The "Parkerites" expressed religious liberalism in a more universal faith which was willing to move beyond Christianity. Much of nineteenth century Unitarian history can only be understood in terms of a tension, and often conflict, between these two points of view. That tension, and that conflict, which these two points of view represent, is evident in our movement even today.
So, to recapitulate, American Unitarianism was born as the result of Channing's articulation of "Unitarian Christianity." That was in 1819. Theodore Parker gave his "heretical" address on the "The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity" in 1843. Only a quarter of a century separated these two events. As the nineteenth century continued to unfold, and as the western expansion of the United States continued, furthermore, more and more Unitarian churches were established outside of New England in what was called "the West"—anywhere, that is, west of Massachusetts, west of eastern New York State.
After a while, these churches in the West organized themselves into a conference of churches called the "Western Unitarian Conference." As time went on, the Western Unitarian Conference continued to organize new churches—including First Unitarian Church of Omaha—and Unitarianism expanded with the expanding nation.
The history of the Western Unitarian Conference is one of the most interesting chapters in American Unitarian History. I would even go so far as to say that the history of the Western Unitarian Conference is the essential history in understanding the emergence of contemporary Unitarian Universalism. The Unitarians in "the West" received the Unitarian faith from "the East"—from Boston—enriched and transformed it, and handed it back, powerfully renewed, to the whole country. How Unitarianism was shaped in our part of the world was pivotal in determining how Unitarian Universalism finds expression in our world.
The churches which were being organized in the West, you see, tended to be influenced by the Parkerites, while the churches in the East tended to frame their ideology in terms of Channing Christianity. The churches in the East insisted that members of a Unitarian church must be, first of all, professing Christians. The churches in the West, although largely Christian in character, insisted on welcoming people into the church even if they did not accept the designation, "Christian." The churches in the West wanted to make a single religious home for Unitarian Christians, free thinkers, a single religious home even for Jews and agnostics.
The Unitarians in the East wanted to require references to "Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior" in the statements of faith of individual churches and were put out when Western churches refused to do so. The Western churches tended to speak about "liberty," or "equality," or "fellowship" in their statements of faith, and that was unsatisfactory to the East.
For more than a half a century, as the nineteenth century unfolded, tension created by these two ideas—and sometimes even hostility because of them—characterized our entire movement. The Eastern churches, which had the power and the money, attempted to browbeat the Western churches, insisting that they return to a more traditional Christian stance. The Western churches refused to be intimidated, however, and continued to make their churches open places for the free and disciplined search for truth.
It is not too much to say that for a couple of decades, or perhaps a generation, there were really two Unitarian movements in America; The American Unitarian Association and the Western Unitarian Conference.
Finally in 1887, the Western Unitarian Conference adopted a resolution that was to eventually become the guiding light of the Unitarian movement as a whole. That document, which I consider to be the most important of our historic documents in shaping contemporary Unitarian Universalism, was titled "Things Commonly Believed Among Us," and was drafted by a young minister named William Channing Gannett. I will return to that document in a moment, but before I do that, I want to say a few words about Gannett.
William Channing Gannett was, like most of our founding forebears, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. And, like them, considered himself to be a Unitarian Christian. He had been named after—and baptized by—the founder himself, William Ellery Channing. But as the nineteenth century neared an end, William Channing Gannett was minister of Unity Church, Unitarian, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and was caught up with the spirit of freedom that characterized the Western Conference.
He looked forward to the emergence of a liberal religion which would be non-creedal and non-doctrinal in character, a religion which would be open to both the insights of an emerging science and insights inspired by emerging knowledge of the great religions of the world. He loved his Christian heritage, but Gannett yearned to grow beyond it to a universal understanding of religion which would accept a much wider circle of people as brothers and sisters in the faith.
William Channing Gannett was also one of the great hymn writers of 19th century Unitarianism. Both of the hymns we are using this morning were written by him. Gannett, along with Frederich Hosmer, compiled the first significant Unitarian Hymnal which was titled "Unity Songs and Chorals." It is a very interesting book, as you can see. The book is divided sideways, with hymn tunes at the top and hymn lyrics at the bottom. By flipping the pages separately, one can match any hymn with a number of appropriate tunes. The lyrics for both of the hymns we are using this morning come from this hymnal.
What is more interesting to me, however, is that Gannett and Hosmer, in their preface, outlined a new approach to hymnody. "Our hymns reflect the religious feelings underlying what is called the liberal religious faith—feelings of moral longing and consecration, of dependance on the one-in-all, of happy thankfulness, of free communing between man and man in brotherhood... ."
They wrote: "There is more than the usual proportions of herald songs—songs of the Good to Be. More also than is common, of hymns touched with the wonder and beauty of nature... . Songs suffused with the thought and feeling, without the name of God, will be used increasingly as "hymns," we think. The imagery of Christian hymns has been largely drawn from a drama of salvation now passing out of credence; its place will be taken by imagery drawn from nature and life... ."
The 1887 annual meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference met in Chicago, and like many of the previous annual meetings, there was tension between East and West. The American Unitarian Association, the Boston establishment, sent a delegation to again attempt to coerce the Western churches into assuring that they were organized on the basis of "pure Christianity" and that they would be only "Christian theist in constitution and character." Once again the Western Unitarian Conference rejected such a mandate.
It was at this meeting which Gannett offered his resolution, "Things Commonly Believed Among Us." Over the objections of the Christian theists present, it was passed by a wide margin. Charles Lyttle, historian of the Western Unitarian Conference, author of "Freedom Moves West," and one-time minister of First Unitarian Church of Omaha, wrote:
"Gannett's statement remains the most comprehensively and nobly conceived, the most justly and persuasive argued, the most ethically inspired and the most beautifully expressed document of its kind in all Unitarian history. Only a full reading of its simple, moving, luminous sequence of almost liturgical paragraphs can do it justice."
Gannett's resolution was adopted and it had the effect, by the turn of the century, of reducing the tension and the hostility that marked the history of Unitarianism in the nineteenth century.
The effect of that document was to open up the movement to insights from the great world religions and not confine it to those coming only from the Judeo-Christian heritage.
The effect of that document was to open up the movement to insights from the world of science, from the world of learning, and from the world of literature and not confine the source of inspiration from one Bible or from the literature of one religious tradition.
The effect of that document was to generate a religious movement that was characterized by intellectual honesty rather than blind adherence to dogmatic theological doctrine; a movement that recognized the honest mind and conscience as the ultimate authority.
I want to call your attention to six words in that historic document; six words that provide the title for my remarks: "Always somewhat differing, always largely agreeing."
There were "differences" between various Unitarian factions in the nineteenth century. Although I cannot go into them at this time, there were profound "differences" in twentieth century Unitarianism as well. And there are significant "differences" in Unitarian Universalism today.
Those differences, historically, provided for the struggle, the dialogue, the argumentation out of which an authentic religious community could emerge. As long as they only focused on the differences, they could not see the wide range of agreement. When they accepted differences as part of a uniting and fundamental process, however, they could discover at the core of the movement a shared religious vision.
Contemporary Unitarian Universalism, it seems to me, often stresses—and celebrates—the differences that exist in our movement, but fails to appreciate and celebrate fundamental and basic agreements. As Unitarian Universalism has moved into the twenty-first century, we have spent a great deal of time celebrating religious diversity, but have almost totally ignored the quest for truth as a uniting principle.
There are two things, two thoughts, that prompted my rather long dissertation this morning. The first of these is something that emanated from my church in Omaha in one of its promotional pieces that is used on public radio. Anne and I listen to public radio a lot and we often hear that the Unitarian Churches of Omaha stress "the free and open search for truth and celebrate diversity." Of course Unitarian Universalism stresses "the free and open search for truth." Of course Unitarian Universalism celebrates "diversity."
But, as a matter of fact, we are not open to, nor do we celebrate, for example, a diversity which includes racism, or sexism, or homophobism. The truth is that we have come to a united position on such matters.
Isn't something being left out in the "free, open, diversity" equation? Are we characterized only by our differences and not by some authentic sense of unity—something that transcends our differences, our diversity?
Are we only some creature, as my father might have put it, who climbs on a horse and rides off in all four directions at the same time? Or are we all riding our own horses and yet trying to get to a common goal?
The historic formulation of our purpose as a religious movement has been not "the free and open search for truth," but "The free and -disciplined- search for truth." Or "The free and -responsible- search for truth." Of course we are free to believe what we want to believe. But that is only the beginning. What is central to historic Unitarian Universalist faith is found in the word "discipline." We are required to believe that which comes as the result of a disciplined, critical search.
The other thought comes because of a ministerial convocation I attended a couple of years before I retired. That convocation, in a play on Theodore Parker's sermon, was titled "The Transient and the Permanent in Unitarian Universalism." It was billed as a consideration of Unitarian Universalist thought for the twenty-first century.
Now, the first instruction we received at that convocation was that under no conditions would we be permitted to argue. For four days, for the entire length of the convocation, all we could do was give our individual opinions. We only dealt with the "transient." We were not permitted to deal with the "permanent."
How can we grow in religious understanding, as individuals and as a movement, if all we have are individual opinions and not a process of dialogue, debate, argumentation, and struggle between those who hold diverse opinions and positions?
It seems to me that John Milton really stresses the imperatives of liberal religion: "The light which we have gained was given us not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge. Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing. Many opinions; a little generous prudence, a little forbearance of one another, and some grain of charity, might win all of these diligences to join, and unite in one general and brotherly search after truth. Give me liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties."
We need to stress our vision of freedom, of liberty, of diversity. But we also need to emphasize the process of argumentation, and dialogue. I, for one, feel that there can be no valid Unitarian Universalism in the twenty-first century which only involves a sharing of our diverse opinions.
Opinions, I have come to believe, are not, in themselves, very valuable things. They can be meaningful or inane, they can be intelligent or merely factious. They are only valuable as part of a shared process in which we are looking for the unity of truth.
And in this process, there will be—must be—debate, argumentation, conflict even. In other words, and in all of this process, we need to keep our eye on the liberal religious prize—a growing, evolving, emerging understanding of the truth.
As this congregation continues to grow and expand, as you undertake to develop and your facilities for your programs, as you become a larger and more powerful force in this community, and in this state, and in the liberal religious movement, my prayer is that you will keep your eye on the prize!
Four centuries and more ago, another great liberal religious hero, John Hus, one of the inspirations for our flaming chalice symbol, one who was burned at the stake for his liberal religious views, presented us with an ever present imperative. This is what he said.
God needs people who will:
Seek the truth
Listen to the truth
Teach the truth
Love the truth
Abide by the truth
and defend the truth
Even unto death.
All Souls Church — PO Box 400 — Sioux Falls, SD 57101
605-338-8652 — www.sfuu.org
Return to top of this page.
Return to index of sermon topics.