UU Minute #102

The Divinity School Address, part 2

One thing Emerson did in his Divinity School Address was criticize the style of preaching of his day. And because it is a style liable to creep into any era, Emerson’s words on this point are taught to every Unitarian ministerial student to this day. Through Emerson we are given to understand that to be called to ministry means being called to deal out to the people our lives, passed through the fire of thought.

In this famous passage in the Divinity School Address, Emerson describes attending a Unitarian service. Emerson said:
A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned. Not one fact in all his experience, had he yet imported into his doctrine. This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all. Not a line did he draw out of real history. The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life, — life passed through the fire of thought.

NEXT: Transcendentalism and Unitarianism


UU Minute #101

The Divinity School Address, part 1

“In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine. At night the stars pour their almost spiritual rays.”
Thus Ralph Waldo Emerson began his divinity school address, delivered in 1838, when Emerson was age 35.

When he strolled into the chapel that Sunday evening to address the graduating class of Harvard’s Divinity School, their professors, and assorted local clergy, he was a former Unitarian minister who had resigned from Boston’s Second Church six years before. He was pursuing a career as an essayist and lecturer, though he still used the title, “Reverend” and was frequently a guest preacher in Unitarian pulpits. His audience was at the center of academic Unitarian thought. From that gentle and reassuring beginning, before his hour-long talk was ended, his audience would be stunned.

In Emerson’s Journal a year before he had referred to “corpse-cold Unitarianism,” and, though he avoided the phrase in his address, he castigated the church’s ministers for suffocating the soul through lifeless preaching. He critiqued the failures of historical Christianity and advanced the tenets of Transcendentalism against conventional Unitarian theology. Moral intuition, he said, is a better guide to the moral sentiment than religious doctrine – and there is true moral sentiment in every individual. He rejected the notion of a personal God and discounted the necessity of belief in the historical miracles of Jesus.

Emerson was through with Unitarianism, but Unitarianism, it seems, was not through with Emerson. Though many of us staunchly resisted, his ideas began seeping into the pulpits and pews of our congregations.

NEXT: The Divinity School Address, part 2


UU Minute #100

Young Waldo

William Emerson, distinguished minister of Boston’s First Church, drew his congregation with him into Unitarianism. So Ralph Waldo, born in 1803, the fourth of William’s eight children, grew up in a climate that prized learning, and culture – and became, himself, a Unitarian minister.

William died when Waldo was age 8, and the family was plunged into poverty. His Aunt Mary, William’s sister, was Waldo’s dominant influence. She taught him aphorisms he would teach his children:
  • "Lift your aims."
  • "Always do what you are afraid to do."
  • "Despise trifles."
  • "Turn up your nose at glory, honor, and money."
  • "Oh, blessed, blessed poverty."
She introduced Waldo to Hindu scriptures and Neoplatonism, and her openness to natural religion informed the Transcendentalism Waldo would later develop.

At 14, Waldo entered Harvard.

At 24, he began to preach at Unitarian Churches in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. At 26, he became associate minister at Boston’s Unitarian Second Church. A year later, when the Senior minister left, Waldo was made the Senior Minister.

He never relished parish work, but he liked preaching. While most of his colleagues preached from Biblical texts – explicating what the text wanted to say – Rev. Waldo Emerson was more inclined to employ Biblical texts to illustrate what he wanted to say. Yet he conveyed a homely elevation that charmed his congregants, and the membership was growing.

Then in 1832, at age 29, Waldo resigned his pulpit and never served another congregation. He said it was because he could not in conscience serve communion, knowing the members construed the meaning of the rite differently than he did. The real issue was probably vocational calling. He wasn’t sure to what he was called, but he began to feel that it wasn’t the ministry.

NEXT: The Divinity School Address, part 1


Home, Thanksgiving, and Stories

What is home? When are you home? Home: where you hang your hat; where the heart is. Sweet home.

It is the place of your belonging – a theme of Thanksgiving, and, indeed, belonging is the centerpoint for all our gratitudes – for gratitude flows from belonging, even as gratitude also affirms and strengthens our belonging. We gather in our homes, and maybe gather around with our homies – with our family, or with our friends, or both.

The Thanksgiving story of the pilgrims: they left home – because they didn’t feel at home where they were. They were religiously persecuted, so they headed out to a very distant, very strange new land in order to find a place where they could be at home with their faith.

We know that the traditional story is mostly untrue, and we have made a Thanksgiving practice here at CUUC of saying more accurately what happened. Briefly: In 1621, Wampanoag Indians investigated gun and cannon fire at a Pilgrim settlement to see them celebrating a successful harvest. The Wampanoag -- all male warriors, were fed as a gesture of peace. Apart from starting off as celebratory noise-making upon completion of the harvest, there was nothing particularly "Thanksgiving" about this event -- and it was not repeated annually. The first event we have record of that was identified as being for giving thanks came 15 years later. In 1636, when a murdered man was discovered in a boat in Plymouth, English Major John Mason collected his soldiers and killed and burned down the homes of all the neighboring Pequot Indians who were blamed for the murder. The following day, Plymouth Governor William Bradford applauded the massacre of the 400 Indians, including the women and children. The Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, William Newell, proclaimed: “From that day forth, shall be a day of celebration and thanks giving for subduing the Pequots.”

And so we come to today’s story: a pioneer family heading west to become homesteaders on the great plains. I grew up with stories like this of America’s westward expansion. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books tell about a family moving from Little House in the Big Woods to Little House on the Prairie. It was a comforting story -- an inspiring story of facing hardship and building a better life.

A couple things to notice that are left out.

Our story today didn't mention whether the family was black or white. I grew up always imagining white people in these roles. But let us remember that black families as well as white ones migrated West in the 19th century. The brief details of today’s story aren’t enough to identify this family as black or white. But that’s only because so much is indeed left out. The background of racial attitudes and biases would have profoundly influenced our family’s experience – and would have made a white and a black family’s experience of their risks and challenges very different.

On the one hand, parts of the challenge, of course, were the same. White families and black families were bound together by common hardships: the mud, the broken wagon wheels, the torn wagon coverings, the failing horses, the ravages of disease. These factors did not discriminate by race.

On the other hand, a white family and a black family would have been separated by a wide gulf of assumptions of white supremacy that infected the minds of both whites and blacks and made the context of their respective struggles quite different.

So that’s one lens we should have in place as we take in this story. Another lens is that the new home our settler colonizers found was on land that had been someone else’s home. The unmentioned reality of indigenous dispossession is a background awareness that we bring to this story.

So why re-tell this story? I do hope you were wondering that. We re-tell the story – viewing it through the lenses of awareness I mentioned -- because everybody gets a place at the table. All of who we are gets a seat at our Thanksgiving Table.

We are the poor white settler colonizers of Scotch-Irish extraction whose parents fled religious conflict and English persecution in Great Britain, and who wrought persecution in turn upon what, to them, was the New World. And we are the poor black frontier family who were also there, homesteading on the great plains. That’s us, too. And we are the Lakota, Pawnee, Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne, Osage, Arapaho, Blackfoot, Shoshone, Wichita, and Cree – to name but some of the plains peoples pushed from their homeland by the settler colonists. Nineteenth-century white settlers demonized the indigenous peoples, but it is no reparation for that damage to now demonize the white settlers.

We re-tell the story today in order to hold in our minds and in our hearts BOTH the reality of the harm they did AND the reality of their human yearning for a better life. We can hold both those realities at the same time.

The road home is an uneven one. All of us, on our path to find our place of belonging, have made mistakes. We have been unkind and cruel when we didn’t need to be. We have sometimes, in our quest for home, made others feel less at home, or even deprived them of home. But where there is life, there are redemptive possibilities.

Even the settler colonialists, as blinkered and cruel as they were, had inherent worth and dignity. Precisely because they did, we may hold them responsible for the harms they perpetrated. We see their humanity in this little story – and also know they could have done better.

And we can do better.

Thankful for the homes we have, and thankful for the vision of justice we now have, we can build our home in compassion -- while also seeing to it that all the peoples, and all the creatures of our planet have a home – and belong.


UU Minute #99

Emerson Re-defines Us

“Channing’s Baltimore Sermon, Emerson’s Divinity School Address, and Parker’s South Boston Sermon have long been accepted as the three great classic utterances of American Unitarianism.” (Conrad Wright, Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism)
All three were widely controversial – and widely influential.

William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” in 1819 was the manifesto that launched and defined Unitarianism as a new denomination. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address in 1838 spoke for a new generation. Channing had defined us, and Emerson re-defined us.

Invited to address the graduating class of Harvard’s Divinity School, Emerson, then 35 years old, delivered “Acquaint Thyself At First Hand with Deity” – commonly called simply the Divinity School Address.

Emerson discounted biblical miracles and proclaimed that, while Jesus was a great man, he was not God. Emerson said:
“The language that describes Christ to Europe and America, is not the style of friendship and enthusiasm to a good and noble heart, but is appropriated and formal, — paints a demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo. Accept the injurious impositions of our early catachetical instruction, and even honesty and self-denial were but splendid sins, if they did not wear the Christian name. One would 'rather be a pagan, suckled in a creed outworn' [Wordsworth].” (Emerson, Divinity School Address)
If the language of Christianity was like the language describing pagan gods, then, Emerson was implying, the Christ described in those terms was comparable to pagan gods.

There was, as you might expect, considerable outrage. Emerson was denounced as an atheist and a poisoner of young minds. Despite the roar of critics, he made no reply, leaving others to put forward a defense.

We’ll look more into the context and content of Emerson’s remarkable Divinity School Address in our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: Young Waldo


UU Minute #98

Unlimited Atonement

We are Unitarian Universalists: the confluence of two mighty streams – the Unitarian and the Universalist -- that flowed together in 1961. And we are Universalists, not because we believe what Hosea Ballou believed, but because we are the latest participants in the on-flowing stream of conversation that is Universalism – a stream the course of which Hosea Ballou 200 years ago redirected with his powerful ideas.

His editorship of the Universalist Magazine gave us our identity for more than a generation. His 1805 book, A Treatise on Atonement, is a major landmark in the development of our thought. In it, Ballou argued that Christ’s act of atoning for our sins atoned for us all.

We today might take it a step farther and say that any act of courage and sacrifice redeems all of us. Jesus? Yes. If we read him as knowing what his ministry was risking, and doing it anyway, then his courage redeems us. Socrates would not cease his pursuit of truth even when he knew he’d be executed for it. His courage also redeems us. Katarzyna Weiglowa in the sixteenth century would not recant her truth that God was one and not three even when she knew she’d be burned at the stake for it. Her courage redeems us. Francis of Assisi, Miguel Serveto, John Woolman, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr, Wangari Maathai, Steven Biko, Rigoberta Menchu, Malala Yousafzai.

Every act of imagination and vision and courage redeems the species that is capable of producing it. They show us of what we, too, are capable.

That wasn’t what Ballou meant by “atonement.” But it’s what many of us understand – as Ballou’s conversation has evolved into ours.

NEXT: Emerson Re-defines Us


UU Minute #97

Universalism and Paying the Price

For Universalists, everyone goes to heaven. But for Universalists prior to Hosea Ballou, not everyone goes there right away. We endure a period of punishment, proportionate to our wickedness, before advancing to the pearly gates.

Hosea Ballou said heaven was immediate for everyone. He defended this view in his 1805 book, A Treatise on Atonement.

This was a big controversy. People outside and within the Universalist church said: if there were no punishment at all, we’d have complete licentiousness. If there is no price to be paid for sin, we have moral anarchy. Without fear of retribution, people will sin freely, drunken orgies, social decay,
“human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria” (Ghostbusters)
In response, this is what Hosea Ballou said. It’s what we still say. It’s the message that, when I was teenager, I heard from the pulpit of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta.

Ballou said: I’m not saying we don’t pay the price for our sins. We do. We pay the price for small-souledness. We pay the price for every thoughtless deed that diminishes the light from the spark of divinity within us. We pay the price for not loving ourselves, and our neighbor as our selves. We pay the price for not recognizing kinship, and we pay the price for not accepting difference. We pay the price. But that price is paid here. It is paid in this life. Hell is an earthly phenomenon, and it is those who cannot see beyond themselves and their own narrow self-interests who are imprisoned in the hell of their own making.

This is the teaching that comes to us from father Ballou -- and is echoed by his successors.

NEXT: Unlimited Atonement


UU Minute #96

Hosea Ballou, part 3

Hosea Ballou, as a young man, became a Universalist. The Bible was actually pretty clear, he felt, that Jesus saved everyone.

The story is told that one afternoon Hosea sat reading in the kitchen. His father, Maturin, asked ‘What is that book you are reading?’ and Hosea answered, ‘A Universalist book.’
‘I cannot allow a Universalist book in my house,’ declared the father.
So Hosea walked out to the woodshed, and, knowing his father would be watching him, slid the book into the woodpile. After Hosea had gone to bed, Maturin went to the woodpile and discovered that the book he had forbidden was the Bible.

Hosea, who had never been to school, scrimped and saved his pennies and, at age 19, bought himself one term at Chesterfield Academy. He absorbed so much that at the end of that single term, he was granted a certificate to teach school.

In September 1791, at age 20, he attended the General Convention of Universalists in Oxford, Massachusetts. Universalism had gained a foothold in communities on the Atlantic coast, and Hosea had the chance to hear those preachers speak. Hosea heard the call and took to preaching himself.

In his day there were many preachers who earned most of their living doing something else. Hosea would teach all week and preach on Sunday. His fame spread. He got ordained.

He was 25 when some colleagues began to be a little concerned. He showed no signs of getting married. As far as anyone could tell, he had never had a love affair. His colleague universalist minister Caleb Rich explained to Hosea the hazards of an unmarried minister, and even produced a woman for Hosea: Ruth Washburn -- amazingly both intelligent and willing. The marriage was long, apparently happy, and produced eleven children.

NEXT: Universalism and Paying the Price


UU Minute #95

Hosea Ballou, part 2

In the late 1780s, when Hosea Ballou was about 18 or 19 years old, living on his family’s farm in Richmond, New Hampshire, nearby, in Warwick, Massachusetts, Caleb Rich was preaching universalism. Occasionally some cohorts of Caleb Rich came to Richmond and visited Hosea’s church just for the purpose of raising embarrassing questions. “How could a good God be responsible for endless suffering in hell of creatures of his own making?” And what about Romans 5, verse 18:
“Therefore as by the offence of one [Adam] judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one [Jesus] the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” (Rom 5:18 KJV)
All men, it said in Ballou’s King James version -- all people, to use an updated translation. What’s up with that?

These universalists were starting to get a following in Richmond. The Calvinists resisted, but some substantial Baptists were won over, including a whole family of Ballous – cousins of Hosea.

Hosea went to the Bible to find the refutations that would confound these wrong-headed universalists once and for all. Instead, he found himself forced to yield more and more ground.
“Could it be that his father missed important passages in the Bible? Is the doctrine of ‘election’ true? Is the great majority of humanity doomed to endless suffering? Hosea himself would be happy to have everybody saved; did the Creator feel less kindly toward persons? It was a lonely journey, with no guide except his Bible with its many and often confusing teachings, and his own sense of right. At last the clouds rolled away. Although there remained parts of the Bible that raised questions for which he found no answers, he could no longer doubt the doctrine of universal salvation.” (Clinton Scott, These Live Tomorrow)

NEXT: Hosea Ballou, part 3 .


Desert Theory

Come spirit come, our hearts control.
Our spirits long to be made whole.
Let inward love guide every deed.
By this we worship and are freed. (Hymn, "Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire," 3rd verse)
And our spirits do long to be made whole. Even when we understand that we are whole, the world leaves us often feeling that we aren’t.

It’s the disconnect. We don’t feel connected with our neighbors. The fragmentation in the nation’s public political sphere produces a fragmentation in our psyches. We need to feel part of something we’re all in together. Then we are whole. Yet we have lost the sense that we’re all in this together.

As we approach election day 2022, it’s been six years since the 2016 presidential election rocked our world. That election exposed the powerful disconnect in our country. So many of our fellow Americans saw, and see, things so differently from how most of us did and do. The rising meritocracy, by its nature and design, left many behind and, while maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised, we were surprised at the intensity of resentment about that.

So let's think about deservingness. Let's engage our free and responsible search for truth and meaning (which our 4th principle declares we covenant to affirm and promote), and look into our concepts of who deserves what and when – and what better we all deserve.

Come spirit come – our hearts control. Our spirits long to be made whole.


What is your desert theory? No, I don’t mean your theory about a sweet dish at the end of a meal (though "desert" here is pronounced like "dessert"). Nor do I mean your theory about arid regions (though it's spelled like the word for an arid region). Nor do I mean your theory about leaving or abandoning, like deserting one's post. I’m asking about desert in the sense of just deserts – deservingness.

We very commonly talk and think in terms of who deserves what.
“We say that a hard-working student who produces work of high quality deserves a high grade; that a vicious criminal deserves a harsh penalty; that someone who has suffered a series of misfortunes deserves some good luck for a change” ("Desert," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
An athlete might deserve a prize in virtue of having excelled in a competition. A researcher might deserve our gratitude for having perfected a vaccine against a disease. Someone who acts without any regard for the welfare of others may deserve our contempt. The victim of an industrial accident may deserve compensation from her negligent employer. An employee may deserve a promotion in virtue of evident talent, hard work, and years of valuable service. A candidate for office who is conscientious, civic-minded and shares your values and priorities may deserve your vote. All the ways we use a concept of deservingness reflect our implicit desert theory.

So let’s examine a little bit this idea of deservingness. Desert – deservingness – is a kind of fiction, a social imaginary, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have real potency to make big differences in our lives. After all, money is a fiction, a social imaginary, and it certainly makes a big difference. It used to be a shiny yellowish metal that was too soft to be useful, but an implicit agreement arose to regard it as valuable, and so it was. Then it was just slips of paper, and now it’s even more imaginary – but since we have agreed to share this imagination, we have developed clear procedures for when you have it, and how much. The electrons inside of bank computers keep track of each person’s amount. Desert is this kind of fiction.

How deserving you are, and of what, is not nearly as precisely determined as how much money you have. Yet desert does powerfully shape our lives and the ways we treat each other.

Sometimes we say a person deserves something if they are entitled to it. We might say a customer deserves a refund from a merchant if the customer purchased a product that was sold with a guarantee and then the product turned out to be defective. Being entitled to something is one way to deserve it, but that’s not the only way. Entitled means there are rules in place that say what you are to get, but sometimes our sense of what is deserved doesn’t match up with what the rules say. Suppose a wealthy old man dies, leaving behind two grandsons – one of whom is vicious and never treated his grandfather with respect and one was virtuous and always respectful and caring. We would feel that the virtuous grandson deserved to inherit more of the fortune, but the vicious one would nevertheless be entitled to the greater share if that was what the will stipulated. So you can be entitled to some reward even if you don’t deserve it, and you can deserve something without being entitled to it.

Some things, we say, everyone deserves. Everyone deserves fairness, justice, human rights. Then there are other cases where only one or a few people will get the job, or the promotion, or the win, and we might talk about which person deserves it, or deserves it most.

I think a lot of our desert theory is mostly absorbed from the discourse around us. We hear people talk about what so-and-so deserves, and over time we internalize ways of applying the sentiment. But sometimes we do reason with each other about deservingness. It’s not always just an intuition. It can be reasoned about. This is easiest to see when it comes to what we think everyone deserves, just in virtue of being a person.

We have, just in recent centuries, for instance, developed a wide consensus about human rights – as the upshot of a few centuries of discussing and arguing and reasoning about human rights. We now have the UN Declaration on human rights: essentially a statement of what every person deserves. It says that everyone deserves life, liberty, security of person, equal protection of the law, freedom of movement and residence, rest and leisure, education, participation in the cultural life of their community, to have a nationality, to be able to marry and found a family, to own property, to practice their religion, to express opinions, to have a job and be fairly compensated. And everyone deserves NOT to be enslaved, tortured, or subjected to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or arbitrarily arrested. The idea that everyone deserves these things was completely alien to any society 1,000 years ago. The UN declaration on Human Rights is certainly woefully unenforced and widely violated, but that it could be expressed at all, and adopted by official representatives of so many nations, required a lot of discourse and convincing over centuries. Deservingness can be, and sometimes, is argued for, and argued against.


So we come to the argument for meritocracy: that positions of greatest power and prestige should be open to everyone on the basis of merit. The US never had an official aristocracy, but it certainly had an unofficial one: the old-money families got in to the best schools and went out to the best paying and most powerful positions in society. The argument for meritocracy was an argument that people of merit deserved those positions, not people of breeding.

So meritocracy seemed like a great step forward for justice and fairness. Ivy league institutions, from their founding up until about 1960, admitted only white, Christian men, and within this group selected students for breeding. These were schools for the sons of well-established families.

Then in the middle of the 20th century, Harvard President James Bryant Conant and slightly later Yale President Kingman Brewster, choose to abandon their historic role as finishing schools for America’s aristocracy. Daniel Markovits writes:
“Alumni had long believed that their sons had a birthright to follow them to Yale; now prospective students would gain admission based on achievement rather than breeding. Meritocracy — for a time — replaced complacent insiders with talented and hardworking outsiders.”
Surely, a very positive move, right? People with merit deserved to get admitted. People of aristocratic breeding had no special deservingness. By 1970 a fierce merit-based competition had completely replaced the old cordial alliance between the universities and old-money established families.

Today, however, it is past time to reconsider our judgements of deservingness based on merit. We tend to think that merit is the product of talent and effort. We often overlook the importance of a third factor: quality training. Excellence at basketball or ballet, at chess or computer programming, at piano or painting or composing poetry, or at any academic subject is not just a matter of native ability combined with dedication and determination. Whether you spend 4 hours a week or 40 hours a week practicing at a skill, you won’t make as much progress as you will if you also have a skilled and attentive coach guiding your practice.

Further, when it comes to competitive college or professional sports programs, it takes more than A good coach. It takes platoons of coaches AND lots of expensive equipment. I didn’t quite grasp why my university thought it needed to spend $50 million to build a shiny new athletic training facility, but a school apparently can’t be competitive at division I football without it. Resources make a difference.

Because quality training is so crucial, it means that a big part of what admissions departments regard as merit can be bought. So what started out as a move to open up elite institutions to deserving students from the middle- and lower classes now entrenches the advantages of wealth. Expensive private schools pay off.

A typical public high school spends 15 thousand dollars per child per year. Some poorer public high schools spend 8 thousand to 10 thousand dollars per child per year. But the top 20 private schools (as measured by Forbes) average 75 thousand dollars per child per year. This buys results: it buys training, it buys smaller class size and more teacher attention, it buys more talented teachers, it buys careful educational programs. The result is that, while the average middle-class kid’s SAT is 125 points higher than the average score of kids in poverty, the average score of kids whose parents earn more than 200 thousand dollars a year is 250 points greater than the average middle-class kid. Yes, the gap between rich and middle-class is twice the size of the gap between middle-class and poor.

What does your desert theory say about whether the wealthier kids deserve those higher scores?Discounting the few who outright cheated, we can say, yes, they had talent and worked hard. On the other hand, they also had a lot of quality training that wasn’t available to middle- and lower-class kids. The result is that at Ivy league and what are called “Ivy League Plus” schools (the "plus" includes such schools as Stanford, MIT, University of Chicago, Duke, Northwestern, Johns Hopkins, and Caltech) the proportion of students who come from the top 1% of household incomes is greater than the proportion that come from the entire bottom 50% of household incomes. This comes as the upshot of meritocratic admissions policies that were originally supposed to reverse that very disparity.

Further, what students get when they arrive on campus is more quality training -- much greater resources being spent on them. And the students and their families don’t even have to pay for most of what they get. There’s an enormous public subsidy that results from universities being taxed as charities, with alumni donations being tax deductible and endowments able to grow without being taxed. Princeton’s tax exemption amounts to a public subsidy of $100,000 per student per year. Rutgers’ public subsidy is less than $13,000 per student per year. Nearby Essex Community College has a public subsidy of $2,500 per student per year. We’re pouring vast public resources into further advantaging the already advantaged. What does your desert theory say about that?

And just as the resources expended at elite high schools matter for preparing the students to get into and succeed at elite universities, the resources expended at elite universities matter for preparing students to get into and succeed at the highest-paying jobs. Many of the top law firms and financial institutions will only recruit at a few elite universities – and rarely hire graduates of an average state school.

So that’s one thing for us to think about: that our intuitions about the deservingness of merit often overlook the vastly unequal distribution of quality training.

Now let’s look at another factor. Our desert theory tends to say that working hard increases deservingness. But don’t we also recognize that there’s such a thing as working too hard? After all, it’s not that the children of the elites aren’t working hard for what they get. In fact, overall, they are working too hard. The pressure on the elite kids to do well is inordinate. As Daniel Markovits writes:
“Elite middle and high schools now commonly require three to five hours of homework a night; epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned of schoolwork-induced sleep deprivation. Wealthy students show higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse than poor students do. They also suffer depression and anxiety at rates as much as triple those of their age peers throughout the country. A recent study of a Silicon Valley high school found that 54 percent of students displayed moderate to severe symptoms of depression and 80 percent displayed moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.”
So what does your desert theory say about whether someone deserves what they’re working for if what they’re working for is a sleep deprived, depressed, anxious, unhappy life?

And it’s only getting worse, as the competition is getting more and more intense, and exclusive institutions are getting more and more exclusive. As recently as 1995, the University of Chicago admitted 71 percent of its applicants. In 2019, it admitted less than 6 percent. It’s getting worse.

Then, notes Markovits,
“the contest intensifies when meritocrats enter the workplace, where elite opportunity is exceeded only by the competitive effort required to grasp it. A person whose wealth and status depend on her human capital simply cannot afford to consult her own interests or passions in choosing her job. Instead, she must approach work as an opportunity to extract value from her human capital, especially if she wants an income sufficient to buy her children the type of schooling that secured her own eliteness. She must devote herself to a narrowly restricted class of high-paying jobs, concentrated in finance, management, law, and medicine. Whereas aristocrats once considered themselves a leisure class, meritocrats work with unprecedented intensity.”
It used to be the poor that worked long hours and the rich were the leisure class. Not that that was a good system, but it’s striking that now it’s more often the rich who are working 70, 80 hours a week.

And they are working at a job they aren’t particularly happy at. One might be tempted to say that this is getting what they deserve -- in the sense that it is the punishment they deserve.

Markovits goes on to say:
“Elite workers find it harder and harder to pursue genuine passions or gain meaning through their work. Meritocracy traps entire generations inside demeaning fears and inauthentic ambitions: always hungry but never finding, or even knowing, the right food.”
Moreover, doesn’t your desert theory suggest that there should be some connection between the income that a given job deserves and its actual contribution to society? Yet that connection has been getting weaker and weaker.

Don’t both the losers and the winners of the Meritocratic rat race deserve better than they are getting? The basic conceit of Meritocracy is that those who succeed deserve to. So those in less prestigious positions in society internalize the message that it’s their own fault that they are less-than. They grow resentful of the elite, and, yes, start voting for populist demagogues who articulate resentment against elites. As Markovits notes:
“demagogues and charlatans monopolize and exploit meritocracy’s discontents. Meritocratic inequality therefore induces not only deep discontent but also widespread pessimism, verging on despair.”
Don’t we all deserve better? We all deserve a society with dramatically expanded access to quality training. We all deserve a society where we all have a chance to contribute meaningfully to the overall social good – and where a person’s income bears some relationship to their real contribution to society. We also deserve a society that affords everyone enough rest and leisure for physical and psychological health.

May all that be so.


UU Minute #94

Caleb Rich

One Caleb Rich, born in Sutton, Massachusetts in 1750, was at first brought up Congregationalist. Later, his father became Baptist, and the family attended both churches.

Which religion – the Congregationalists or the Baptists – was the correct one? Which one would lead to salvation? Young Caleb had many discussions with friends and siblings about these questions. One day, a friend asked, simply, “How do we know either of them is right?”

This blew Caleb’s mind. That the Congregationalists and Baptists might both be wrong had never entered his head. Caleb Rich would later say:
“Never in my life had I heard anything from the lips of man that had such a deep and lasting impression on my mind.”
They could both be wrong. Any of us could be wrong. I could be wrong, realized Caleb.

As way leads on to way on the spiritual journey, Caleb Rich slowly found it less and less likely that God would send people to eternal damnation for having an incorrect opinion.

Caleb Rich found himself some years later in Warwick, Massachusetts, ministering a congregation and preaching Universalist ideas. Meanwhile, about 6 miles away, just over the state line in New Hampshire, on the Ballou farm, a teen-aged Hosea Ballou was himself beginning to wonder if it could really be true that God willed eternal damnation for most of the human race – as Hosea’s father believed.

Hosea scoured his Bible looking for confirmation. He found a number of passages that seemed to contradict what he’d been taught all his life – and none that said most of humanity was condemned to hell forever. Right about then, word started to drift over from Warwick that there was a minister there named Caleb Rich who was preaching a strange doctrine called Universalism.

NEXT: Hosea Ballou, part 2


UU Minute #93

Hosea Ballou, part 1

After George de Benneville, itinerant preacher of universalist ideas, the first generation of those who built the institution and denomination of the Universalist Church in America was headed by John Murray. We come now to the second generation, the leading light of which was Hosea Ballou.

The second generation brought some innovations in Universalist teaching. First-generation leaders like John Murray held that there was no hell -- but there was purgatory: a temporary period of punishment, of duration proportionate to one’s wickedness, before promotion to heaven. John Murray was also trinitarian.

In the second generation, Hosea Ballou preached that there was neither hell nor purgatory: straight to heaven for everyone. Ballou also dropped trinitarianism for a more unitarian conception of God.

Hosea Ballou was born in 1771 on the family farm outside Richmond, New Hampshire -- his parents’ 11th child. His mother, Lydia, died when Hosea was two. With the tools they had, and the stony ground, and the short growing season, only the scantiest of living could be wrung from the land. And on Sundays, his father Maturin “preached without pay in the plain little meetinghouse where the members of his own household provided a large portion of the congregation” (Clinton Scott, These Live Tomorrow).

Hosea was 19 years old before he first went to school. And the only reading matter in the house was a Bible, a dictionary, an almanac, and a religious pamphlet.

Maturin was a strict Calvinist Baptist who preached that God willed eternal damnation for most of the human race. Hosea began to have doubts about that, and to see how those doubts unfolded, catch our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: Caleb Rich


UU Minute #92

Elhanan Winchester, part 2

Elhanan Winchester, at age 30, ousted from First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, together with supporters, formed the Society of Universal Baptists. Now openly preaching universal restoration, he laid out the main points of his Universalist faith:
  1. "God is love."
  2. "God's design in making intelligent beings was to make them happy."
  3. "God's ultimate design cannot be eternally frustrated."
  4. "Christ died for all; and died not in vain."
  5. "Christ came to destroy the evil Principle, or Sin, out of the Universe, which he will finally effect; and then misery shall be no more."
In fall of 1786, the year he turned 35, he served as moderator of the Universalist convention in Oxford, Massachusetts, which laid the groundwork for what would become the Universalist denomination.

Elhanan’s most important book was, The Universal Restoration, Exhibited in Four Dialogues between a Minister and His Friend, published in 1788, when he was 37. Commonly called Dialogues on the Universal Restoration, the book had wide impact in both Britain and America. In it, Winchester presented the doctrine of restoration as more reasonable and more godly than the doctrine of endless punishment, and more apt to move a willing heart to repentance. He argued that, logically, no finite human creature is capable of sin meriting infinite punishment – and that traditional threats of infinite punishment do not restrain the commission of sinful acts. Nor does it accord with God's love or justice to create so many, only to condemn them.

As a preacher, Elhanan Winchester was the equal of John Murray. Since Winchester died at age 45, he was never a presiding elder of the new Universalist denomination. Nevertheless, the span of his travels and the persuasiveness of his Dialogues on the Universal Restoration make him a Universalist founder.

NEXT: Hosea Ballou, part 1


UU Minute #91

Elhanan Winchester, part 1

American Universalisms’s Progenitors and Founders began with George de Benneville – an itinerant preacher who never ministered a congregation or did anything to establish a denomination, but whose universalist ideas paved the way for those who did.

John Murray founded universalist congregations in Gloucester, then Boston, and established Universalism as a legitimate denomination with legal rights and a measure of social acceptability.

We come now to Elhanan Winchester, 10 years younger than John Murray. Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, he began preaching as a youth. At age 19, he moved to Canterbury, Connecticut where he became a Baptist and was soon ordained as a Baptist pastor. At age 23, he traveled to South Carolina and accepted a call to serve a Baptist Church there.

Five years later, Elhanan, growing increasingly troubled about slavery, at a South Carolina revival meeting, preached to fifty whites and about a hundred blacks, one of the first to share the gospel openly with enslaved people. In fact, a church was organized for blacks, despite resistance from whites, and Winchester ministered to both congregations.

During this time, he was reading universalist writings and starting to maybe believe in universal salvation. Settling then in Philadelphia, and accepting a call to serve First Baptist Church of Philadelphia, Winchester was slowly becoming more public about his Universalist views, though he refrained from preaching universalism.

Winchester took to visiting Universalist George de Benneville. The two traveled on missionary tours through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia.

Learning of his Universalist opinions, a faction of his congregation moved to have him dismissed. Winchester’s supporters organized themselves as the Society of Universal Baptists.

For what Elhanan Winchester said and wrote, be sure to catch our next thrilling episode!

NEXT: Elhanan Winchester, part 2


Laughing, Dancing, Serving, part 2

Do you have a bucket list – a list of things you’d like to do before you kick the bucket? I understand the appeal of a bucket list. I don’t have a written-down list, but sometimes I’ll have a thought of something that I’d like to do one time before I die. Some of those things I have since done, others I may yet do, others I probably won’t get to, and others I’ve forgotten or lost interest in. The key point is that it really doesn’t much matter if I get to them or not. The measure of a life is not the list of things you did once. It’s all the things you did over and over, making each time fresh.

So: back to Jinniu and his rice pail and his laughing and dancing. As you hold that image in mind, there are a couple things you can do with that image. First, you can notice how that image represents what you already do. Can you see everything you do as a dance step, as an offering to the world your joy – and some rice for those who are hungry, metaphorically or literally? “Dear Bodhisattvas, come and eat rice.” We don’t need to become Jinniu. The koan invites us to simply see everything we do as our own form of already doing what Jinniu does. Every move a dance, every vocalization a laugh, and all the while: service. That image – dancing, laughing, and serving -- is already you. The practice is just to notice that it is – and live in the reality of being who you are. The koan gives us this image to live with – this image of laughing, dancing, and feeding-serving. The image beckons you to notice yourself as that image.

Second, the image also beckons you to notice other people as that image. It invites you to see others as Jinniu. Someone’s a little gruff with you. Someone cuts you off in traffic. That’s the form of dancing, laughing, and serving they happen to be offering. They can’t help it. Everything and everyone is pouring forth this dance, pouring forth humor and joy, pouring forth its self in service to you and all beings. Over and over and over – for 20 years, for 40 years, for 80 years, for lifetimes, for centuries.

"At each meal, Master Jinniu himself would bring the rice bucket to the front of the Zen hall, dance there and laugh loudly, saying, ‘Dear Bodhisattvas, come and eat rice!’"
Then we have Xuedou, over 200 years after Jinniu, inserting this comment.
Xuedou said, "Although he behaved that way, he was not being kind."
That’s Migaku Sato’s translation. Koun Yamada renders Xuedou’s comment as: “Although he did it like that, he was not being cordial.” Thomas Cleary translates it as: “Jinniu was not good-hearted.” Katsuki Sekida’s translation is: "Although Jinniu did this, he was not simple-minded." In R.D.M Shaw’s translation, it comes out as a question: “Although Jinniu did this sort of thing, was his purpose good or not?”

We can read this in light of the Zen saying about the sword that kills and the sword that gives life. What it kills is the ego, the self-centeredness, the delusion of being a separate self, and the delusion of being a permanent self. The sword that kills this self of delusion clears the way for a more full and joyous life of compassion. So the sword that kills is also the sword that gives life. Along these lines, we might say that Xuedou is saying that Jinniu presents us with the rice pail that kills and the rice pail that gives life.

And, sure. That’s there.

Another reading is that Jinniu wasn’t just being polite. In fact, in Migaku Sato’s more recent edition of his translation, the word “simply” is inserted in brackets:
“Jinniu was not [simply] being kind.”
And this is where the repetition is more significant – that Jinniu did this every day for 20 years. We might imagine that was doing it just because this was his thing, and people seemed to like it, so he better go out and do the show again. Why would he keep doing it all that time? We might imagine it had become a crowd favorite, and that guests came to his monastery just to see him dance and laugh with the rice that’s served. In that case, it would only be polite to do the routine for them.

But Xuedou is telling us Jinniu wasn’t just being polite, wasn't doing it because people liked it or expected it. Jinniu really means it. It’s a genuine laugh and dance of joy. It flowed from the heart, a soulful belly laugh, and a dance of sheer and spontaneous gladness. At every midday meal. For 20 years. That, at any rate, is the image that’s presented to us.

Now: Taken literally, I have to say, I don’t think that’s humanly possible. We all get tired. We get sick. Even Buddha, I daresay, had some moments when his blood sugar had dropped a bit, or when he wasn’t perfectly well rested, perhaps having walked many miles that day. In the end, it’s not about literally dancing and laughing all the time. What it’s about is being genuine – as represented in this image of Jinniu’s laughing, dancing service.

And genuine is possible. Whether you are laughing and dancing or sighing, grieving, seething with anger, worn-out with fatigue, can you be as genuine as that image of Jinniu? When you’re tired, can you be as genuine in your tiredness as Jinniu was in his joy?When you’re sick, can you be as genuine in our sickness as Jinniu was in his laughter?

And here’s the thing: you already are. We always already inevitably are genuinely what we are. The practice is to notice that we are. And in the noticing, see what spontaneity may present itself.

So we come to the next part of the case: several generations after Jinniu’s death, Master Changqing is being asked about Master Jinnui.
A monk asked Changqing , “An ancient worthy said, 'Dear Bodhisattvas, come and eat rice!' What does it mean?”
Changqing said, “That is exactly like praising and giving thanks at the midday meal.”
Cleary translates it as: “Sure seems like celebration on the occasion of a meal.” Sekida’s translation says: “He seems to observe reflection and thanksgiving before the midday meal.” RDM Shaw: “Oh! That was a sort of purificatory rite with thanksgiving (a sort of grace before meals).” So: we get the idea. Gratitude. Celebratory gratitude. But not just for the meal. It’s on the occasion of a meal, but it’s gratitude for everything.

There is, wonderfully, a futher koan that follows-up on this. Case #93 in the Blue Cliff Record:
A monk asked Daguang, "What did Changqing mean when he said, 'It is like a grace before meals'"?
Daguang did a dance.
The monk bowed deeply.
Daguang said, "What did you see that you made you bow deeply?"
Then the monk did a dance.
Daguang said, "You fox-devil."
Daguang’s dance, of course, alludes to Jinniu’s dance – even as Daguang makes it his own, and makes it fresh.

Then we have the monk making a deep bow – a prostration. Daguang asks him, “What did you see that you bow like that?” Daguang has to check: did the monk bow because he really had insight, or was he just being polite? Then the monk does a dance. Was that just imitation? Has the monk made it his own? Daguang exclaims: “You fox-devil.” The fox-devil, or the wild fox spirit suggests fakery or show, or empty pretense. So: Daguang isn’t buying it.

We always begin by copying, by imitating. We are, after all, primates. And out of imitating our heroes, our teachers, those we admire, gradually we become something new, and the possibility of genuineness, of authenticity to the unique person we have become emerges. How does that happen?

It happens, as Jinniu and Daguang show us, when we orient toward service, toward compassion. What was genuine about Jinniu through all those meals, all that dancing, and all that laughing was that he was serving the needs of a community, feeding their hunger, both physical and spiritual. He was always attentive to the shifts in their needs, so his care was always genuine, authentic – and always new.

What made Daguang’s dance not merely imitative was that he did it in compassionate service to the monk who had an earnest question. And if the monk’s dance wasn’t genuine, it was because it had no one to serve except himself. We express our genuine, authentic self – become who we are and always have been – when we act in compassion, when we serve. To be genuine, Bodhisattvas, dance, laugh, and serve. Be it so. Amen.


Laughing, Dancing, Serving, part 1

The case:
At each meal, Master Jinniu himself would bring the rice bucket to the front of the Zen hall, dance there and laugh loudly, saying, “Dear Bodhisattvas, come and eat rice!”
(Xuedou said, “Although he behaved that way, he was not [simply] kind.”)
A monk asked Changqing, “An ancient worthy said, 'Dear Bodhisattvas, come and eat rice!' What does it mean?”
Changqing said, “That is exactly like praising and giving thanks at the midday meal.” (Blue Cliff Record, #74)
I want to talk to you today about this koan and look at some of the lessons it offers. It’s about how we become genuine, authentic – become who we are – and that the way to do that is compassion. There are other meanings -- other layers to explore in this little story -- but that's the point I'm calling attention to today.

But first, what are koans?

In the 12th and 13th centuries, some Chinese Zen masters put together collections of anecdotes of the doings and sayings of earlier Zen masters, mostly from the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries. Three such collections are particularly studied in Zen centers today: the Blue Cliff Record, which consists of 100 anecdotes; the Book of Serenity, which also consists of 100 anecdotes, and the Gateless Gate – sometimes rendered as the Gateless Barrier -- which consists of 48 anecdotes. The collections were created as teaching texts. The anecdotes were illustrations for the sermons Zen teachers would give.

Koans present us with these little stories, these little vignettes – of people long ago and far away. The invitation is to take them in, hold them in mind. Each one offers one or more images, or phrases. If you hold those images or phrases in mind, carry them with you, live with them, they begin to offer you some guidance in times when you may need it.

I have been living with koans since 2003 – over 19 years now – and the anecdotes of those three collections, plus several miscellaneous others, have become a part of me. A few of them offer a slogan to serve as a touchstone reminder.

Consider case #6 in the Blue Cliff Record:
Yunmen, giving instruction, said, “I don't ask you about before the fifteenth day; bring me a phrase about after the fifteenth day.”
Yunmen himself answered in the monks' stead, “Every day is a good day.”
So, to unpack that a bit. On a lunar calendar, every month starts with a new moon, and the full moon comes on the 15th day. The full moon is a symbol for enlightenment, awakening, realization. So Yunmen was asking: I don't ask you about before enlightenment. Tell me something about after enlightenment. Then Yunmen himself tells us something about after enlightenment – to wit: “Every day is a good day.”

In its simplest terms, awakening involves a dropping away of our constant judging of what we like and don’t like. The inner voice that’s constantly saying, “oh, I like this,” “no, I don’t like that” just gets a bit quieter – a bit less domineering. And when you aren’t judging your days as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, when every day is just what it is, then every day is a good day.

Fun twist: every day being a good day INCLUDES all the days before the 15th – includes all those days before you realized that every day was a good day. Those days were good days, too – though you may not have known it at the time.

Last month, I came down with Covid, and was wiped out for about five days, and semi-wiped-out for several days thereafter. Yet I could remember Yunmen’s words with a smile: Every day is a good day. A couple weeks ago, I passed out one evening for about a minute, and for about 3 hours thereafter was too lightheaded to stand. Yet I remembered Yunmen’s words: Everyday is a good day.

Another koan that offers itself in a time of illness – this one is included in both the Blue Cliff Record and in the Book of Serenity:
Great Master Mazu was unwell.
The chief monk of the temple came to ask him, “Master, how are you feeling these days?”
The Great Master said, “Sun-faced Buddha, moon-faced Buddha.”
Sometimes things are sunny. Other times we are more moon-faced. “Sun-faced Buddha, moon-faced Buddha” is another saying we can use to point us toward equanimity in the face of what would otherwise be distressing. Our inherent Buddha nature is unperturbed whether it might be wearing a sun face or a moon face.

Most of the koans don’t offer a slogan so much as paint a little picture -- an image to carry around and live with. And that brings us to our main case for today: #74 from the Blue Cliff Record. This particular koan – Jinniu dancing and laughing with the rice bucket – has been popping up for me frequently this summer, and I’ve been reflecting on what it might be trying to say to me.

The base story is about Jinniu, a master who was born around the middle of the 700s. Then in the second part, we flash-forward to Changqing being asked about old Jinniu. Changqing was born in 854 – about a century after Jinniu.
"At each meal, Master Jinniu himself would bring the rice bucket to the front of the Zen hall, dance there and laugh loudly, saying, 'Dear Bodhisattvas, come and eat rice!’"
That’s the primary image to hold in your mind.

Commentary from the 13th century tells us:
“Jinniu did this for twenty years. Where was his intent? Was he just summoning the others to eat? He always beat the mealtime drum, and personally announced the meal. So what further need was there for him to take the rice pail and do so many tricks?”
And yet, that’s what he did. So here we have Jinniu with his dancing and laughing. This is his thing: 20 years, and every midday meal, he’s out there laughing, dancing, and serving rice for the other monastics. We have a number of these cases of zen masters having a thing – and they do it over and over. One of them, whenever he was asked a question, he held up one finger. Another would answer questions by turning and facing a wall. That was his thing. And yet each time it’s fresh. Each time it’s as if it’s the first.

Think about that. I’m not asking you to come up with a trademark “thing” of your own. Instead, think about the number of things that you do repeatedly -- not just one thing, but all the things that you do over and over. Getting up, the morning toilet, the tooth brushing, the showering, the eating, the washing dishes. Can you chop the cucumber, or board the commuter train, or do the grocery shopping, or go to the bathroom and, every time you do it, it’s entirely about THIS time?

Consider another case, this one is case #16 in the Gateless Gate. This one is a one-liner – again from our old friend Yunmen.
Yunmen said, "The world is vast and wide like this. Why do we put on our seven-panel robe at the sound of the bell?"
For monastics, this is a part of the daily routine. The temple bell rings and they put on their robes and show up in the meditation hall. Over and over. For you, maybe it’s the alarm goes off, and you put on the uniform of your particular work – whether it’s work clothes or casual wear or dressier – and show up for your job. The world is vast and wide like this, and there you are doing the same old same old. What’s up with that? Yunmen is asking.

But it’s never the same. If you’re paying attention, every time you do the thing that you’ve done a thousand times before, it’s the first time.

Sometimes in conversation with LoraKim, my spouse, we will touch upon subject matters that we have touched upon before, and she will say, “Oh, are we going to have this conversation again?”

No. we aren’t. We can’t. You can’t step twice in the same river of conversation. It’s always new. You could say that after 22 years of marriage we employ certain tropes with each other that have become shopworn, hackneyed. But on the one hand if we’re really paying attention, the slight differences in the context will make them always new – and also, on the other hand, if we’re really paying attention, some different tropes might come to mind.

The world is vast and wide like this. How better to express our perfect freedom in the vast, wide world than to put on the same robe at the same bell sound just as you have for years and years?


UU Minute #90

John Murray in Gloucester

John Murray first preached in Thomas Potter’s chapel in 1770. Murray returned to reside with Potter, itinerating from Virginia to New Hampshire, until 1774, when he settled at Gloucester, Massachusetts and established a congregation there out of a Rellyite study group.

He had previously declined settled positions in Philadelphia, New York, and Portsmouth because he preferred itinerant preaching. But over four years of itinerating, his reputation as a Universalist grew, and, with it, opposition. Finding more and more pulpits closed to him, Murray was at last disposed to settle down with a sympathetic congregation.

In the Revolutionary War, John Murray served as chaplain of the Rhode Island Brigade defending Boston. Because Murray did not believe in hell, other chaplains objected to him, and petitioned to have him dismissed, but General George Washington intervened on Murray’s behalf.

In Gloucester, Murray met the author and philosopher Judith Sargent Stevens. They married in 1788.

In 1793, he accepted a call to serve the Universalist Society of Boston, which he did until 1809, when a debilitating stroke ended his preaching. John Murray died in Boston in 1815.

Once, when Murray was giving a lecture in Boston, someone threw a rock through the window, intending to injure or intimidate him. Murray calmly stepped over to where the rock rested, picked it up and said,
“This argument is solid, and weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.”
Then, after his friends suggested that the situation might be too dangerous for him to proceed, he proclaimed that
“not all the stones in Boston, except they stop my breath, shall shut my mouth, or arrest my testimony.”

NEXT: Elhanan Winchester, part 1


UU Minute #89

Will the Wind Change?

1770. John Murray, in grief and despair from the loss of his only child and, soon after, his spouse, sets out for a new life in America. The ship, making its way up the coast toward New York, gets stuck on a sandbar. Murray goes ashore to get provisions, and meets Thomas Potter, who has built a chapel on his farm in order that there be a place for someone to preach universalism. Potter learns that Murray was a preacher and a universalist. Voila!

But there’s a snag. Murray didn’t want to preach, ever again. He wanted a new life, away from all of that. And. He needs to be back on the ship where he expects to be off the sandbar and sailing away by Sunday. But Potter persists and somehow manages to extract a promise that if the wind doesn’t change, and the ship is still stuck on Sunday morning, Murray will come preach in Potter’s chapel.

Would the wind change? Though neither Potter nor Murray could have known it, the history of Universalism in America hung in the balance. If the wind changes, dislodges the ship, then Murray is on his way and maybe he never does preach again, as was his intention.

The wind didn’t change. And because it didn’t, the development of American Universalism did.

Thomas Potter gathered a small congregation of his family and neighbors, and John Murray preached in Potter’s chapel. Potter loved it. Most of his neighbors loved it. Murray got back on the ship and went on to New York, but the encouragement and affirmation he’d received changed his mind about preaching. He was soon back again in New Jersey, and from there launched a popular itinerant preaching career.

NEXT: John Murray in Gloucester


UU Minute #88

Thomas Potter's Field of Dreams

In the mid-1700s, the land that is now Murray Grove, in Good Luck, New Jersey, was being farmed by Thomas Potter. A member of a locally prominent family, he was illiterate yet successful and deeply religious. Probably a Quaker Baptist, Potter had caught wind of universalism: the idea that all human beings will ultimately attain salvation.

Universalism contradicted the Calvinism that prevailed in the colonies, but there were a few universalists around. George de Benneville had come to America in 1741 and had been preaching Universalism around Eastern Pennsylvania. A number of German immigrants who believed in universal salvation had settled in the mid-Atlantic colonies. A German Universalist, Georg Klein-Nicolai, had written a book arguing for Universalism, and in 1753, de Benneville had made arrangements for an English translation to be published under the title The Everlasting Gospel. Klein-Nicolai said that
“As the whole divine being is pure love, so are likewise all the attributes of God. His wisdom, omnipotence, holiness, mercy, truth, etc. are, at bottom, nothing else but love…. The true and only God is entirely an ocean of love.”
Perhaps these universalist ideas had made their way to Thomas Potter. In any case, in 1760 he set aside a piece of his farmland and built there a chapel for the express purpose of housing a preacher of the universalist gospel.

Now, we have no record of a voice telling Thomas Potter “if you build it he will come.” But Potter did build it, and, it took ten years, but he came. Universalist preacher John Murray’s ship got stuck on a sand bar just off the coast from Potter’s farm. Murray came ashore to get provisions, the two men met, and Thomas Potter’s chapel had its preacher.

NEXT: Will the Wind Change?


UU Minute #87

John Murray, part 1

John Murray – the founder of Universalism in America – was born in Alton, Hampshire, England, the oldest of 9 children. When he was 9, the family moved to Cork, Ireland. In Ireland, the Murrays became Methodists. At age 18, John returned to England and gravitated to London, where he joined the Tabernacle of George Whitefield, whom he had heard preach when Whitefield toured through Ireland.

Around age 19 or 20, John married Eliza Neale. Becoming a leader in Whitefield’s congregation, often leading prayers, John was sent to try to bring back into the fold a young woman who had adopted James Relly’s Universalism. The young woman confounded him with arguments in favor of universal salvation, so John and Eliza went to hear James Relly for themselves. They studied both Rellyan and anti-Rellyan literature before, first Eliza, then John, converted to Universalism – for which they were expelled from the Tabernacle.

Calamities then struck. His only son died in infancy. Then Eliza, too, fell ill and died. John was thrown into debtor’s prison. His brother-in-law rescued him from prison, and John managed to pay off his debts, yet he remained in despair. James Relly was encouraging John to preach the good news of Universalism, but John was just too depressed. He wished, he said, “to pass through life, unheard, unseen, unknown to all, as though I ne’er had been.”

In 1770, at age 29, he resolved to sail for America and see if he could build a new life in the new world. Arriving in America, Murray’s ship was grounded on a sandbar and remained for a time becalmed off the coast of New Jersey. The captain sent Murray ashore on a foraging expedition – and that’s where John Murray fatefully met Thomas Potter.

NEXT: Thomas Potter's Field of Dreams


UU Minute #86

Universalism: James Relly to John Murray

In 18th-century Britain, Methodism originated as a revival movement within the Church of England. Among the itinerant preachers conducting revival meetings along with John Wesley and George Whitefield was one James Relly from Pembrokeshire, Wales.

Relly had decided to become a revival preacher when he was age 20, after hearing George Whitefield preach. But Relly’s theology began to drift away from Wesley and Whitefield. James Relly was finding his way to Universalism. He was increasingly captivated by the words of Romans 5:18:
“Therefore just as one man’s [i.e., Adam’s] trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s [i.e., Jesus’] act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”
If all had sinned in Adam, then all were saved in Jesus. All.

That was the basic reasoning of Relly's book, Union: or A Treatise of Consanguinity and Affinity between Christ and His Church, published 1759. The book, reissued many times, made James Relly well known in both Britain and America. A sect of Rellyites emerged. One day a zealously anti-Rellyite young preacher named John Murray called upon a Rellyite disciple to convince her of her error. Much to Murray’s confusion, the woman confounded him with her logic. He found himself forced to yield more and more ground. Her name is lost to us, but through her effect on John Murray, she is a key figure in Universalist history.

John Murray and his wife went to hear James Relly preach. Murray would later write, “I was astonished to witness in so bad a man so much apparent devotion.”

Soon John Murray was a Rellyite and a Universalist.

NEXT: John Murray, part 1


UU Minute #85

George de Benneville, part 2

After his last-minute reprieve from execution, George de Benneville, still just 20 years old, moved to Germany for the next 18 years, studying medicine along with doing preaching tours through Germany and Holland. Toward the end of this period of German residence, when he had been treating patients as a doctor for about a year, he himself fell very ill. In a high fever, he felt himself die, and his spirit depart from his body. He was escorted through heaven, and then purgatory. As he later wrote: "I took it so to heart that I believed my happiness would be incomplete while one creature remained miserable." One of his escorts assured him that all creatures would be restored to happiness without exception.

When he awoke, he was in a coffin, having been declared dead 42 hours before. He sat up to speak and flabbergasted mourners helped him out of the coffin. He returned to life with a renewed mission to preach "the universal and everlasting gospel of boundless, universal love for the entire human race."

The next year, 1741, when de Benneville was 38, he sailed for America to bring the universalist gospel to this country. De Benneville settled in Oley, Pennsylvania where he worked as a physician and apothecary, while also continuing his Universalist preaching. Thus he lived and worked -- married and raised a family -- for 52 more years, until his death in 1793 at age almost 90.

“Honor the ocean of love” became his signature slogan. Though he was not a settled minister or the founder of churches, George de Benneville is often called the first preacher of Universalism in America, and he was an important early influence on its development.

NEXT: Universalism: James Relly to John Murray


Borders & Belonging, part 2

The book of Ruth is short -- just four chapters – a drama in four acts.

Act 1. It’s the time of the judges. A famine comes to Judah. Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their sons Mahlon and Chilion cross borders and go to Moab. Elimelech dies. The two sons marry Moabite women, but then, after about 10 years, the sons also both die. Naomi packs up to return to Bethlehem. Her two daughters-in-law expect to go with her, but she tells them to return to their own mothers and remarry. One of them, Orpah, reluctantly does so. But the other, Ruth, pleads:
“Do not press me to leave you or turn back from following you. Where you go, I will go. Where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you.”
So Naomi and Ruth cross the border and return to Bethlehem, and arrive at the beginning of the barley harvest.

Act 2. Word gets around Bethlehem of Ruth’s remarkable loyalty and devotion to Naomi. To support her mother-in-law and herself, Ruth goes to the fields to glean. As it happened, the field she goes to belongs to a man named Boaz, who, impressed by what he’s heard of the young woman’s devotion to her mother-in-law, is kind to Ruth. Ruth tells Naomi of Boaz's kindness, and Ruth continues to glean in his field through the remainder of barley and wheat harvest.

Act 3. Boaz, being a close relative of Naomi's husband's family, is therefore obliged by the levirate law (or may feel obligated by the spirit of that law) to marry Ruth to carry on his family's inheritance. Naomi sends Ruth to the threshing floor at night where Boaz slept, telling Ruth to "uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what you are to do." Ruth does so. Boaz awakes and asks her who she is.
She answers, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your cloak over your servant, for you are a redeeming kinsman.”
Boaz tells her there is a closer male relative. In the morning, Boaz sends Ruth home with six measures of barley, then he goes into the city.

Act 4. Boaz meets with the unnamed closer male relative whom he had mentioned. Boaz says, “Naomi is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimilech. As the closest male relative, you have first shot at redeeming it if you want it.”
The relative says, “I will redeem it.”
Boaz says, “You will also be acquiring Ruth to maintain her dead husband’s name on his inheritance.”
Then the relative says, “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself.”
So Boaz redeems the property, and Ruth. Ruth and Boaz marry. They have a son named Obed. We are told Obed will become the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David.

To understand what this story is doing in the Hebrew Bible, first we need to understand what Moab means to the Israelites. Moabites are despised. As Glenn Jordan explains:
“In Hebrew folklore Moab was stereotyped as a place lacking in hospitality, and with some justification. There is a memory preserved in the words ot the Torah from another time of hunger and distress. In Numbers 22, the Israelites, recently freed from Egypt, are travelling through the wilderness on the way to the land of promise and they camp in the land of Moab. There is a reference in Deuteronomy 23:4 to a request made by the people to the Moabites for bread and water. The king of the Moabites, Balak, terrified by the number of people he would be required to supply… refuses their request for aid and shelter. Balak even hires a man to pronounce curses on them as he expels them from his land.” (27)
So, the Israelites do not like Moabites. They despise them with a special vigor beyond their general distrust of foreigners. The sentiment is codified in Deuteronomy 23:3:
“No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
And Ruth is a Moabite, as the text continually emphasizes. Hardly does the text ever say “Ruth,” without saying “Ruth the Moabite.” At one point, Boaz's fieldhand even describes her as, “Ruth the Moabite,...from Moab” --just to emphasize that her country of origin is not to be overlooked.

Yet Ruth’s devotion, her lovingkindness to Naomi, is clear. She declares: "your people will be my people." When they get to Bethlehem, Ruth takes the initiative in providing for them, saying, “let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain.” And, the story tells us, Ruth ends up the great-grandmother of King David, Israel’s greatest ruler. She makes a big contribution to Israelite history.

But does the Hebrew Bible really need this story illustrating that foreigners can be decent people who make a positive contribution so we shouldn’t be hostile toward them? The admonitions were already in Exodus:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (22:21)
And in Leviticus:
“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (19:33)
Evidently that was not enough, and to see why, we need to look back to what was going on in Judah around the time when the Hebrew Bible was taking its form.

By about 601 BCE, the kingdom of Judah was a vassal state paying tribute to Babylonia. Judah made a series of attempts to escape Babylonian dominance. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia laid siege to Jerusalem in 597, and again, 10 years later, in 587. He razed the city, destroyed the walls, demolished Solomon’s temple, and exiled the Jews to Babylonia. About 50 years later, Persia conquered Babylon, and Cyrus, King of Persia, decreed that the Jewish people return to Jerusalem.

During the period of Babylonian captivity, the Hebrew Bible began to form as various oral and written traditions were brought together. Just after the exile, further writings were added – in particular the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor were the two best-known leaders of the Jewish community in the years just after the return to Jerusalem. In the books for which they are named, we read that Ezra insists on obedience to the Mosaic law’s separation from non-Jews, and that Nehemiah encloses Jerusalem with a wall and purges the community from all things foreign in order to build a distinctive Jewish identity.

It's in that context that this little story of Ruth, which had probably been a part of the oral tradition for a couple of centuries, got written down and emphasized, so much so that it became scripture. I’m saying maybe the Book of Ruth is in the Hebrew Bible specifically to push back against the rather xenophobic outlook of Ezra and Nehemiah. As Glenn Jordan writes, there may be
“occasions in history when the proper response to the times is not another war or new legislation, not even an election, but a work of art. In this case, the process of gathering an oral account and committing it to writing stands in front of the juggernaut of history in an attempt to divert the hearts of people towards some lasting values, and to remind them of their better selves.” (47)
So maybe that’s why this story is there: to address a felt need to counterbalance Ezra-Nehemiah. In the face of the insularity and division and the border-enforcing of Ezra and Nehemiah, we needed Ruth, the Moabite, the immigrant, the border-crosser, to call us back to our better selves.

There’s Nehemiah proclaiming, “We will not give our daughters to the peoples of the land or take their daughters for our sons” (10:30), but a few books away there’s Ruth the Moabite standing before us to say, “Excuse me?”

And while Deuteronomy had said, no Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord even to the tenth generation, the Book of Ruth tells us that the great King David was just three generations down from a Moabite.

So if you're asking, "What can I do about divisions all around us, and the mistreatment of people on the the wrong sides of those divides?" and what you mean is, "What can I do to change those other people who are so foolish and pigheaded as to disagree with me?" then my answer is: I don't know if that can be done.

But if you're asking, "What can I do to commit myself to the open-hearted devotion and loving-kindness across borders that Ruth exemplified?" that is the much better question. And if that's your question, let me turn it back to you: What can you do? You yourself can best answer that -- if you set your mind to answering it. May that question, and not our fears, command our attention.