UU Minute #70

Unitarian "Sparks" Spread

On the way down to Baltimore in 1819, William Ellery Channing and the half-dozen prominent liberal ministers of Boston that traveled with him stopped and preached along the way in various places, including in New York, where Channing’s sister, Lucy Channing Russell, invited about 40 friends to her house in lower Manhattan to hear her brother speak. This would lead to the founding of the Unitarian Church of All Souls.

Channing’s Baltimore sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” was produced as a pamphlet. Hardly an American sermon ever has been as widely read. Jared Sparks, whose ordination was the occasion of Channing’s sermon, four months later, himself traveled south to give an ordination sermon in Charleston, South Carolina. On the way, Sparks preached to Unitarians in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Two years later, Sparks was chosen to serve as Chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives. While in DC, Sparks helped nurture a Unitarian congregation there – also named All Souls. That same year, 1821, Sparks founded “The Unitarian Miscellany,” – a monthly magazine for spreading the Unitarian message. Sparks even received communications of interest in Unitarianism from frontier towns out west beyond the Appalachian Mountains. East coast establishment, unfortunately, didn’t regard the hinterlands as important, so there wasn’t much interest, energy, or organization for serving Unitarians in remote areas.

Meanwhile, back in Massachusetts, the law of the time provided town taxes to supported the town church – even though many people in the town didn’t become official members of the church. In times of ministerial transition, the church and the town as a whole both had a say in approving the new minister. What if they disagreed?

To find out: catch our next thrilling episode!



UU Minute #69

"May Your Life Preach More Loudly than Your Lips"

William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon of 1819 was the manifesto of our American Unitarianism. The principles Channing laid out were:
  • We must follow where reason leads.
  • God is one, not three.
  • Jesus was fully human.
  • We reject original sin and limited atonement.
  • Atonement does not come from the crucifixion.
  • The key virtues are to love God, love Christ, and live morally.
Beyond such doctrinal points, Channing also made clear that ours is a faith of deeds not creeds – that we must live our religion and not merely profess it. As Channing was preaching on the occasion of the ordination of fellow liberal Jared Sparks, toward the end of his sermon Channing turned to Sparks and said:
“My friend and brother; -- You are this day to take upon you important duties,...to devote yourself to that religion, which the most hallowed lips have preached,...I have spoken of the doctrines which you will probably preach; but...remember, that good practice is the end of preaching,…Be careful, lest the desire of defending what you deem truth,...turn you aside from your great business, which is to fix in men's minds a living conviction...If any light can pierce and scatter the clouds of prejudice, it is that of a pure example. My brother, may your life preach more loudly than your lips. Be to this people a pattern of all good works, and may your instructions derive authority from a well-grounded belief in your hearers, that you speak from the heart, that you preach from experience, that the truth which you dispense has wrought powerfully in your own heart.”

NEXT: Unitarian "Sparks" Spread


UU Minute #68

The Baltimore Sermon: Channing's Conclusions of Reason

Today: the conclusion of the chapter “The Baltimore Sermon” in our UUA Curriculum, “Faith Like a River.” In that hour-and-a-half-long address, Channing took on two tasks. First, as we learned last episode, he established reason as valid and necessary for the interpretation of scripture.

Channing's second task was to lay out reason-based conclusions of Unitarian Christians.

One: the unity of God, as opposed to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Two: the fully human nature of Christ, as opposed to having two natures, human and divine.

Three: the moral perfection of God, which negated such doctrines as Original Sin and the eternal suffering of some while others were elected to salvation.

Four: the purpose of Jesus' mission on earth. Channing rejected the idea that Jesus' death atoned for our sin, allowing God to forgive us. Some Unitarians, Channing said, saw Jesus' life as a moral example. Other Unitarians understood Jesus' death leading humans to repentance and virtue. Whatever their differences, though, Unitarians did not consider Christ and his death as a blood atonement for human sin.

Channing's fifth and final point was that Christian virtue had its foundation in our moral nature or conscience, defined by love of God, love of Christ, and moral living.

Far from settling the simmering arguments, Channing's Baltimore Sermon brought them to a full boil. The Unitarian Controversy raged over the next quarter century. New England's churches continued to split along theological lines, and, within two decades of Channing's fateful sermon, one-quarter of Massachusetts' Standing Order churches became openly Unitarian.

Other Unitarian leaders added defining voices to the movement, but Channing's Baltimore Sermon remains a key turning point in Unitarian Universalist history.

NEXT: "May Your Life Preach More Loudly than Your Lips"


UU Minute #67

The 1819 Baltimore Sermon: Making the Case for Reason

Continuing from, “The Baltimore Sermon” in our UUA Curriculum, “Faith Like a River”:
By 1812, the young William Ellery Channing became the de facto leader of the Boston liberals following the untimely death of leading liberal Joseph Buckminster. Channing preached about a benevolent, loving God who had endowed humanity with innate goodness, rationality, and the wisdom to discern between good and evil. In a sermon delivered at the ordination of Jared Sparks in 1819 at the new liberal church in Baltimore, Maryland, Channing decided to snatch the label of Unitarian from those who would degrade it and to claim it proudly as his own.

His address, "Unitarian Christianity," stands as a hallmark of Unitarian history. As David Parke writes:
“The "Baltimore sermon" gave the Unitarians a platform and a spokesman. It placed them for the first time on the offensive in relation to the orthodox. It was very probably the most important Unitarian sermon ever preached anywhere.”
In the hour-and-a-half-long address, Channing took on two tasks. First, he established reason as valid and necessary for the interpretation of scripture — not as the only basis for religious belief, but as an aid to revelation, for reading and understanding the meaning of the Bible. Channing said:
“Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that 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... With these views of the Bible, we feel it our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon it perpetually; to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit...”
For Channing’s second task, be sure to . . . catch our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: The Baltimore Sermon: Channing's Conclusions of Reason


Dickens' Carol, part 2

Early on in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge has the encounter with Marley's ghost, Scrooge asks the ghost: "Why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?"

Marley replies, "It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death."

The moral is clear: we must "walk abroad" among each other. We must "go forth" with our lives and not hole up by our lonesomes. We are given but this one brief lifespan, and we must spend it sharing of ourselves – entering into relationships – being a part of other people’s lives and having them be a part of ours. We must go forth – life calls us to go forth – though we may also "go forth" by staying home and extending hospitality to travelers who come to us. Hospitality, too, is a going forth – a whole-hearted sharing of ourselves with others – and this, too, is the spirit of Christmas.

In the mythology of Dickens's novella, if you don’t connect in life, you’ll have to roam about seeking connection after death. With this one brief lifespan we are given, we must become who we are -- which is a collaborative project of taking our shape through the interactions with others -- the giving to and receiving from other people. With this one brief lifespan we are given, we must fashion a life, and that is a joint liability. We create ourselves through our linkages with other people – linkages which set us free. Or we are linked only to narrow material interests, and we are constrained.

As Marley says, “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” Linked to narrow material interests, we are bound. As the saying goes, a person all wrapped up in themselves makes a mighty small package.

A page later, Marley observes, with rueful passion: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Linked to one another, we are liberated and expanded. The chain we make can tie us down, or can be used to let others pull us up out of the pit of self-absorption. Marley’s point might be put this way: What you don’t share, you wear.

Most of us are a mix – neither entirely like Scrooge at the beginning of the book, nor entirely like Scrooge at the end of the book. Scrooge’s redemption is of interest to us because we are all partly like him – we have an inner Scrooge. There have been times we turned away instead of turning toward – and we, too, recognize we are in need of redemption.

* * *

One of the newer adaptations of A Christmas Carol is one with Guy Pearce as Scrooge. It was first aired just a couple years ago, December 2019. With a run-time of 3 hours, it is twice as long as most film adaptations – so it’s an expansion of the story and has a number of plot elements that aren’t in Dickens. The focus is on this redemption issue, and it’s handled rather differently than Dickens handles it.

Toward the end, Pearce's Scrooge tells the mute ghost of Christmas future: “Well, actually, Spirit, I don’t care. I don’t care what will become of me. I only care about one thing.”

The viewer is wondering, what is this one thing? Can it still be money? The Pearce Scrooge is then transported to a graveyard where he looks down on a gravestone that says “Ebenezer Scrooge.” As he gazes, a young man approaches and pees on the grave. Scrooge says, “Bravo. Bravo. I know my fate.” Turning to the ghost of Christmas future, he says, “And you know my question. What happens to Tim Cratchit?”

Then Scrooge looks around and not far away sees another gravestone bearing the name “Timothy Cratchit.” Tiny Tim. Scrooge slumps to the ground and sits, leaning back against his own gravestone. He says: “Spirit, I need to know why. What was the reason for all of this? Why did you spirits come to me? Why did you show me all of this? What purpose?”

At that point, in this version Marley’s ghost re-appears, and says: “I’m not sure what the reason is, Ebenezer. But I know the purpose. It’s all to do with redemption, and our joint liability. All three spirits have done their work. I asked them to let me have a final try. We were so, so wrong. Admit that, at least.”

And the Pearce Scrooge says, “No. No, I refuse. I refuse to change. All their efforts were for nothing because I refuse redemption.”

Marley says: “What in God’s name, Ebenezer, why?” The Pearce Scrooge replies: “This fate, this piss-covered second-class grave – is exactly what I deserve. And if redemption were to result in some kind of forgiveness, I do not want it. Because I would find a way to justify everything I have done according to the consequence. ‘Cause that’s who I am. The only thing – the only thing I want the spirits to do – the only change I want them to make – is to spare the life of him.” Scrooge is now pointing at Tiny Tim’s grave.

And we get it. Even redemption can be just one more self-centered concern. This version depicts in more detail than Dickens does how Scrooge justifies himself and everything he does solely by the calculated consequences. This Scrooge now sees what a mistake that is, and he so wants to be rid of it that he refuses even redemption because he knows he would turn redemption into one more calculated consequence.

But we, the viewers, also get the tension. Even as he renounces redemption, at that very moment he is redeemed. There is a point there that is worth remembering: that even compassion can turn into a strategy – one more self-centered concern. Yes, that is true.

But obsessing about how compassion can turn into a strategy is ALSO a strategy. This new Scrooge’s preoccupation with embracing the horrible fate he is convinced he deserves also becomes one more self-absorbed concern. Just drop all that. Let the fates worry about what fate you deserve. You’ve got one job: love.

Dickens’s original showed us something that this new version hides: that everyone deserves joy and love, no matter how rotten they have been. With the Universalist aspect of his Unitarian faith, Dickens understood that even Scrooge deserves salvation. Dickens’ Scrooge is redeemed -- and implicitly grasps that it’s OK to be redeemed. It’s OK to accept a life of joyous loving because redemption isn’t about putting others ahead while accepting for yourself punishment you think you deserve. It’s about recognizing that others ARE yourself, and that we are all redeemed together. Or none of us are.

Scrooge needs to see that Scrooge, too, counts. As Tiny Tim said: “God bless us, EVERY one.”

It’s OK to be happy – indeed, the world needs you to be. So I conclude with this, from Dickens’ Carol:
“‘I don’t know what to do!’ cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. ‘I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world. Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!’”
To that, I say: Amen.


Dickens' Carol, part 1

Charles Dickens was born in 1812. His 210th birthday is coming up in February (get your presents early). He was a Unitarian. In saying that, let me acknowledge that he was baptized and reared in the Church of England and was a nominal Anglican for most of his life. From young adulthood, however, he was averse to evangelical zeal, doctrinal disputation and sectarianism. Nor did he like High Church Anglicanism.

He would probably have first come into contact with Unitarianism while working as a reporter, which job he had from age 17 into his 20s. His reporting work brought him into association with contributers to radical journals such as the Unitarian minister William Johnson Fox, and John Forster, a Unitarian who became a lifelong friend and, eventually, Dickens's literary executor and biographer.

In 1842, the year he turned 30, Dickens made a trip to America. He hoped to find in the United States progressive religious bodies, free from state control. He was disappointed with most American churches, yet he returned home full of enthusiasm for New England Unitarians in general, and William Ellery Channing in particular.

Once back home in London, Dickens began attending services at Essex Street chapel – the church founded by Theophilus Lindsey and Britain’s first Unitarian church. Later, Dickens took a pew at the Unitarian Little Portland Street chapel. Dickens and the chapel’s minister, Rev. Edward Tagart, were friends for 16 years until the minister's death.

Dickens wrote that Tagart had "that religion which has sympathy for men of every creed and ventures to pass judgment on none." In other words, 19th-century Unitarian ministers sounded a lot like Unitarians still sound. Dickens wrote in a letter that:
"I have carried into effect an old idea of mine and joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement if they could; and practice charity and toleration."
So: it’s fair to say he was a Unitarian. And he associated with Unitarians until the end of his life.

What we know of his religious beliefs matched those of most 19th century British Unitarians. He urged a liberal, tolerant, and non-sectarian interpretation of Christianity.
In The Life of Our Lord, written for his children and not published until 1934, Dickens summarized his faith as "to do good always." He believed humanity, created in the image of the divine, retained a seed of good. He preached the gospel of the second chance. The world would be a better place if, with a change of heart, people were to treat others with kindness and generosity. ("Charles Dickens," Dictionary Unitarian and Universalist Biography)
His life’s work was dedicated to social reform – his novels made people aware of poverty, exploitation, cruelty – and helped open readers eyes to the humanity of the poor – and the inhumanity to which they were subjected. Unitarians certainly have no monopoly on working for social justice, but Dickens’ conviction that faith must be lived, and that faith must call us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless – and to change the systems that create poverty, hunger, and homelessness – those were typically Unitarian convictions in his time and in ours.

Dickens was born into a middle-class family, that took a downward turn. Dickens’ father was thrown in debtors' prison. Young Charles, age 12, had to go to work in a dirty and rat-infested shoe-blacking factory. He was sensitized to the lot of poor children for the rest of his life.

As the year 1843 began Dickens, at age 30, had already published The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge. Martin Chuzzlewit was in the midst of being published in monthly installments over two years. Early in that year, 1843, Dickens toured the Cornish tin mines, where he saw child laborers working in appalling conditions. In February 1843, Parliament issued a Report of the Children's Employment Commission exposing the effects of the Industrial Revolution on working class children. Dickens read it, and the horror of what he read built upon the horror of what he’d seen, which built upon the horror of what he himself had endured as a child.

He planned to write a political pamphlet appealing to the people of England on behalf of poor children – but then he came to see that
“the most effective way to reach the broadest segment of the population with his social concerns about poverty and injustice was to write a deeply felt Christmas narrative rather than polemical pamphlets and essays.”
In October 1843, then, he started work on A Christmas Carol. Working at it feverishly, he finished it in six weeks. The final pages came in early December, and it was published on December 19. Dickens biographer, Michael Slater writes that A Christmas Carol:
“intended to open its readers' hearts towards those struggling to survive on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and to encourage practical benevolence, but also to warn of the terrible danger to society created by the toleration of widespread ignorance and actual want among the poor.”
The first edition sold out by Christmas Eve. Within a year, thirteen editions were released. “In 1849 he began public readings of the story, which proved so successful he undertook 127 further performances.”

In the process, Dickens's novella re-invented Christmas. It did not do so all by itself. Christmas had been morphing one direction then another for centuries. In the 16th and 17th century in England, Christmas celebrations were getting pretty wild. It was like Carnival – with role inversion, heavy drinking, and sexual liberties. The Puritans were horrified by this. They associated Christmas celebrations with paganism and idolatry, and they didn’t want any of that going on. In America, where Puritans were in control, Christmas festivities were taboo or outright illegal. Even in England, under Cromwell (during the 11-year Interregnum, 1649-1660), laws suppressed Christmas celebration. Those laws were repealed after the restoration of the monarchy.

As Dickens was penning “A Christmas Carol,” the pendulum was already swinging back toward Christmas merriment. Victorian England was in a period of re-evaluating its Christmas traditions. Christmas cards were just beginning to be a thing. The Christmas tree, a tradition from Germany, was popularized by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Carol-singing, which declined in popularity through the 18th-century, was, by the early 19th-century, seeing a revival.

By 1843, the sense that Christmas was a time of “family gatherings, seasonal food and drink, dancing, games and a festive generosity of spirit” was beginning to catch on. Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, gave that picture a significant boost. “The modern observance of Christmas in English-speaking countries is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday” ("A Christmas Carol," Wikipedia) – a revival substantially shaped by A Christmas Carol. Dickens’ novella was regarded as "a new gospel." Reviewers "noted that the book was unique in that it made people behave better" -- like, we might say, an angel, heard on high.


UU Minute #66

Six Theological Disputes

I read today from our UUA curriculum, “Faith Like a River”:
William Ellery Channing was weary of having the epithet "Unitarian" flung at him in disdain. Ever since Henry Ware had been elected to the Hollis Professorship of Divinity at Harvard College, the temperature of public debate between orthodox and liberal factions of New England's Standing Order Churches had risen. Many theological points were at issue.

[1]. The turn to liberalism in New England churches had begun with the unitarian notion of the singular, or unitary, nature of God, antithetical to the trinitarian understanding of God as three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

[2]. But soon the debate widened. Was God a benevolent and loving presence that wanted the best for all humanity, or, as in Calvinist orthodoxy, a wrathful and exacting God?

[3]. The liberals called into question the orthodox idea of the elect, the notion that some are saved and others damned.

[4]. Soon the controversy encompassed not only the nature of God, but also the nature of Jesus. Was Jesus fully divine, or fully human, or partly each?

[5]. Religious people debated the question of human nature — were humans good, and capable of distinguishing right and wrong, as the liberals believed; or, as in the orthodox view, were humans depraved, and captive to sin?

[6]. And reason—where did that fit in? The orthodox insisted that the Bible alone was the valid basis for religious knowledge, while liberals maintained that the use of God-given reason and conscience was needed along with revelation.

With Ware's election in 1805 to head Harvard College, the liberals had taken control of the primary training ground of New England's ministers. This caused great dismay among the more orthodox.

NEXT: The 1819 Baltimore Sermon: Making the Case for Reason