You’ll be shocked how this Universalist was tied to famous murders

Or maybe you won’t. The prosecuting attorney in the Lizzy Bordon case was Hosea Morrill Knowlton, a Universalist and the son of a Universalist minister. He also bicycled and was president of the Madrigal Society, which would be a nicer way to be remembered than being associated with, well, you know.

A Portrait of Hosea Knowlton, District Attorney for the Prosecution in the Lizzie Borden Trial” by Denise Noe (The Hatchet: A Journal of Lizzie Borden and Victorian Studies)

Love Unrelenting: documentary and video channel

About a year ago, Steven HAuse interviewed me at Universalist National Memorial Church as part of his project to make a documentary — Love Unrelenting — about the theology and history of universal salvation. He gave me a head’s-up when he separately published the clips that didn’t fit into the documentary and then the film itself. But being sensitive about how I sound and look on video, and knowing that I would be sharing airtime with some of the leading figures of a revived universalist work, I just couldn’t watch it.

But I owed it to him to watch it, and used the cold weather to pull it up on YouTube; I’m glad I did. HAute set out the three usual Christian doctrines of human destiny: the “traditional option” eternal conscious torment, conditional immortality (also know as annihilationism) and universal reconciliation, and let proponents of each speak from their convictions. But the goal was to highlight universal reconciliation and so wrestled with the biblical, theological and ethical dimensions, introducing them in an approachable manner.

The audience is not Unitarian Universalists, or even our remaining Universalist Christians, but potential members of new generation of believers in universal reconciliation, many of whom come out of Evangelical backgrounds, and may or may not be interested in particular Universalist churches. (None I’ve seen express an interest in the UUA, and they often make the point to distinguish themselves from it.) The arguments and approaches are very familiar to any student of pre-1920s Universalism, which makes perfect sense as so many of those long-past Universalists would have walked the same path. Plus, it’s heartening to me to hear the same affirmations that God has both the desire and the power to save all; it can be lonely in this part of the vineyard. Like Simeon (today’s lectionary gospel), I know that this hope will never perish.

Also, I was cheered to see friends, colleagues, a seminary mate (not then universalist) and others I’ve corresponded with over the years. I saw for the first time footage and interviews from the Doujin (Dojin) Christian Church, Tokyo (Japanese language site): the last survivor of the Universalist Japan mission. In the extra clips, I saw for the first time video and interviews with Primitive Baptist Universalists. I am so happy and cheered. HAuse has made an incredible document; you should subscribe to his channel and watch these videos.

Online services list?

Is there a list of United States and Canada Unitarian Universalist churches that still have services online, or even better, recorded services on YouTube or the like? I’m particularly interested in smaller and lay-led congregations. Hoping to see some samples of worship to get an updated sample of styles and operating theologies or outlooks.

“New” Von Ogden Vogt work in the public domain

Following up on my last article, I went to see if there were liturgical influences from the Free Catholics in the United States. Since there is some overlap with the liturgical portions of Hymns of the Spirit, why not look on that leading Unitarian liturgist and minister, Von Ogden Vogt? He was on the hymnal’s editorial committee, after all.

That search led me (as usual) to the Internet Archive, and a — to my surprise — a full-text copy of his Modern Worship. (There are several scans, this one is the most “book-like.”) Ah: i published in 1927, it came into the in the United States on January 1. I’m looking forward to reading it, but since I read slowly, here’s the opening passage. It’s hard not to see later influences, down to the title of the subsequent hymnal, Hymns for the Celebration of Life. On page one:

“Our first thoughts together will remark some of the relations of form and content in worship considered under the aspect of celebration. The second lecture will discuss the place of form in worship by a brief note of the formal elements in any work of art, whether pictorial, structural, musical or other, and the application of the findings to the particular art of worship. The third lecture will offer some definite suggestions of concrete material for the different parts of the liturgy, some specific content for modern worship. The fourth and last lecture will seek to discover the formal values and content possibilities to be developed not through the liturgy but by the church building, its structural forms and the symbolisms of its decoration.

There are many ways of approaching the problem of worship, some of them of great value and suggestiveness. For the sake of simplicity and clearness I am proposing abruptly to consider worship as the celebration of life. For the sake, also, of the so-called religious outsider, I put the matter thus. There are many modern men and women of high spiritual gifts who do not find themselves at home in any of the households of specific faith.”

Anti-sectarian, pro-beauty

A recent dip into familiar sources about spirituality led me back to A. Elliott Peaston’s The Prayer Book Tradition in the Free Churches (1964; one-hour loan available from Internet Archive) and particularly to its chapter on the Free Catholics. Less than a tradition, but more than a whim, for about a decade after the Great War, the Society of Free Catholics stood against sectarianism, attempted to integrate the heritage of the Church with the contemporary world and in doing so elevated beauty. I’m all ears.

This is a counter-narrative that the war infected the liberal churches with a terminal malaise. Sure, it’s a shame it was a minority interest, but their books — especially the liturgies — remain. When I read about them, I want to know more, and so for a while most of my articles will be linked to this theme, at least tangentially.

There’s a temptation to put the Free Catholics in the Unitarian orbit, but this would be a mistake. While the leading voices had a Unitarian background, they rejected its sectarianism and in their own lives stayed outside (British) Unitarian institutions. Also, the Society of Free Catholics were a diverse bunch, even embracing some Roman Catholics, though admittedly on the Modernist end. All the same, even if liturgies the created Free Catholics — and those that inspired them — found their way into the Unitarian-Universalist Hymns of the Spirit and into the minority consciousness of what deep liberal Christian worship looks like. 

Related articles:

New research interest

I’ve done some preliminary research on a twentieth-century Universalist minister who popped up when I was down an internet hole. He’s not completely forgotten, but not a celebrity either, and my digging showed him first to be interesting, then complex, and then more than a little horrifiying. There’s a story there.

It’s going to take some archival research, so don’t expect anything soon and because I might want to prepare this for publication I’m not going to share any details now.

Where are the Unitarian Universalists?

I’m doing my best to avoid that cliche, pamphlet-fodder question, “What are the Unitarian Universalists?” It may not be a meaningful or knowable question anymore, and the answer usually says more about who’s answering than it ought. Instead, I’ll ask other questions; first, where are they found? Where is this community found?

Conventionally, this would answered in three ways:

  1. In congregations, which communicate and cooperate with one another.
  2. In the systems of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which supports the congregations and takes on work too difficult for a particular congregation to do, including gathering large deliberative and collaborative meetings. (More about that later.)
  3. In purpose-driven special-purpose organizations, though most of these perished after the UUA purge of the independent affiliates in 2007. Professional organizations continue, as do some of the “independent disaffiliates” though it’s hard to read their strength. I’m guessing the musicians and the camps are in the best shape.

Historically, there’s been a shifting balance of power between the churches and the central denominational body. The Universalists formally had a strong center, but didn’t seem to exercise it (perhaps it couldn’t) while the Unitarians were more decentralized on paper but had very strong, central leadership, down to matters of ministerial recognition and settlement, even church building designs. My point is that the relationship and relative strength between these three pillars changes, often having to do with finances.

But as I was thinking about this article, two other locations for Unitarian Universalists came to mind:

  1. Those churches that do their own thing and have their own ways and you never hear from. (I belong to one of those.) 24 Farnsworth might be sucked into a black hole and it would take months or years for these churches to notice. It’s easy to imagine they’re like the maineline UUs, but my own experience with the Christian version of this phemomenon tells me this isn’t so.
  2. Those “shadow Unitarian Universalists” who show up on surveys of religious affiliation, who if the numbers were to be believed would be as numerous as those recorded in UUA-member churches. Still not sure what to make of that, but they shouldn’t be forgotten.

YouGov and the Unitarian Universalists

I was scrolling through Reddit last night; one of the subreddits (themed communities) I read is called r/DataIsBeautiful. One post had a ranking of the favorability of United States religions and the Unitarian Universalist came out quite low: net negative 10%, nestled between the Falun Gong and the Seventh-Day Adventists. Oof.

So I went to YouGov and pulled up the data breakout. (PDF) Depending on how you look at it. I don’t think the results aren’t quite as dire as the chart suggests: a third had neither a “favorable nor unfavorable” opinion of Unitarian Universalism and more than another quarter were “not sure.” You can find a larger version of the same chart used in the subreddit, too; see, too for the partisan breakout, mentioned below.

I did think it was interesting in the data (page 32) was that disapproval in Unitarian Universalism increased with household income, which cuts against our our folk wisdom of having the burden of being comfortably well off. The partisan split was more clear, with modest approval from Democrats, but strong disapproval from Republicans at a level comparable to atheism, Islam and Wicca. Hispanics, women and persons aged 30-44 tended to have more favorable opinions. The poll has a margin of error of 3.4%.

Maybe the win was making it to the survey in the first place.

Unitarian Christians in Germany and Austria

I’ve recently learned of a group Unitarian Christians in German-speaking countries. I can’t quite get a sense its theological center, but based on its links seems to fall in the “biblical Unitarian” camp, which is more conservative than the American Unitarianism in living memory. This focuses on biblical proofs of the unity of God, an interest in the theologically-Socianian Racovian Catechism (their version in German) and a recognition of the Christadelphians.

It’s only a few years old, but has centers in the north and west of Germany, and two churches that meet occasionally in Linz and Salzburg in Austria. Much of the activity seems to be online. Best wishes to them.

Why stay with the Unitarian Universalists?

Dan Harper’s year-end blog post — The year in review: Unitarian Universalism — has coaxed me to do what I thought I would not do again: write about Unitarian Universalism, and particularly that part filled by the Unitarian Universalist Association. 

I’ve been nursing a post-COVID cough and so a long-form post will not do; I’ll take this a bit at a time, and hope to be more candid than usual. 

I’ll start with a question that’s followed me for decades, Why don’t you just leave? It’s rarely that direct and usually followed by some nostrum about how much happier I’d be elsewhere. I’ve looked, and haven’t found that Brigadoon. Besides, there’s all the signs of a bad-faith question; clearly the questioner would be more comfortable if I left. This was usually because I’m a Christian and that seems to bring out the worst fears. Wasn’t the UU past all that? My low opinion and subsequent non-membership in the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association also raises the alarm, except in that case I’m more likely to be talked about. Shameful business, but not a shame I bear.

But to answer the question and set the stage:

  1. I don’t let bullies win, or soothe their agita. Particularly those who have just arrived and have no idea about our history or traditions, religious professionals included. Unless there’s an overwhelming reason, I’ll stay where I’m planted.
  2. Many of my dearest and oldest friends are here.
  3. My lovely Universalist Christian church is a member of the UUA.
  4. The UU Christians were always the fun, thoughtful ones and that hasn’t changed.
  5. Pulling up stakes takes a lot of time and effort, likely without making deep connections there or returning to the parish. (The future of parish ministry being its own big thing.)
  6. Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists are notoriously fickle and this is not new. Ask John Murray and Andrews Norton. I’ve long said there’s room for one idea, at most (to crib the old joke) and the current idea is beginning to show wear and tear. Some of the most problematic people have vanished or gone quiet. I can wait for what comes next — save a real crisis of ethics in the UUA — even if all that’s next is silence. 

I work better in silence anyway.