Theistic worship: notes from “the Unity Men”

I’ve been writing at this site (and earlier, at since 2003, and it amazes me that I’ve written so little about “Western Unitarianism” or “the Unity Men”: those Unitarians of the Western Unitarian Conference who promoted a theistic moral religion, in contrast to the Unitarian Christianity of New England.

This is all I found of mine in 16 years of writing:

A fiddle-and-lecture order of service

To be honest, it’s not my thing. But it is an honest expression of religious faith, has a genuine appeal and is a honorable part of the Unitarian tradition.

And more: I worry that they’re not going to be any new Unitarian or Universalist congregations. The UUA seems to have gone out of the church planting business. Perhaps this is just as well since there’s been noted tendency, even among the Christians, to encourage congregations to have an all-inclusive Unitarian Universalist identity, rather than being true to a particular vision. It never made sense to me, either on theological or polity grounds. This kind of society (and it probably would be called a society) might be very desirable today.

Without banging my “parish and church” drum too hard, the Theist church looks to me to be the perfect modernist parish without a church. By which I mean it’s a public service body, dedicated to education and morals though worship and service. Its “sacrament” is the pulpit. The (missing) church is that body of believers who seek (to keep it brief) closeness to God through profession of faith, and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It is specific in much the same way the parish is general. Can you guess which side the Unitarians have defaulted to? (And most, but far from all, of the Universalists.)

Of course, the Western Unitarians had a particular focus and context: public morals, personal development and a calm sense of awe and devotion. I’ll defer to those who know it better to describe it in depth. It was progressive in a way that might make us roll our eyes, but what doesn’t these days? Revivals, if anyone wants one, require interpretation.

Looking back to when they Western Unitarians were at their strength, you can also see a parallel movement in Reform Judaism. With its emphasis on the prophetic and universal, and a strong reduction in the use of Hebrew, Classic Reform offer something of a similar liturgical experience to the Western Unitarians. At least you could be excused if you stumbled into either service and confuse it for the other. Classic Reform at its most Classic Reformist had organs in worship, some used hymnals, might refer their pulpit-gowned rabbis as “The Rev.” and some even met on Sundays. I would love to visit one of the remaining Classic Reform congregations, though watching the livestream of services from Temple Emanu-el (New York) or reading the Union Prayer Book, Sinai Edition, Revised puts me close to the tone if not the text of the Western Unitarians.  I think the clearest “bridge” is the hymn “Praise to the Living God,” a traditional Jewish synagogue song, translated into English by a Unitarian minister. It was found both in the Union Hymnal (Reform Jewish, 1897) and Unity Hymns and Chorales (Western Unitarian, 1911). This is the same hymn that would open Hymns of the Spirit, and a version is found in Singing the Living Tradition.

Of course,  Unity Hymns and Chorales is where you go for a words, if you wanted it as a period piece. (Or perhaps from the Hymns of the Spirit, the fourth, fifth, sixth and eleventh services.) It’s lovely, but a new Theist society, eastern or western, will need to find its own voice and its own take on that vital if emotionally constrained approach to speak in this anxious age, beset by demons.

8 Replies to “Theistic worship: notes from “the Unity Men””

  1. Jenkin Lloyd Jones! A very interesting fellow — and Frank Lloyd Wright’s uncle.

    His son went to Tulsa and had a role in starting All Souls there — although he also, at least according to Wikipedia, was a racist.

    The Bond of Union at my congregation, People’s Church in Kalamazoo, was adopted in 1892, and is a variant of the covenant/bond of union that I believe Jones developed both for the Western Unitarian Conference and his own church of All Souls in Chicago. At least the language is very similar.

    From the People’s Church website:

    In 1892, while Caroline Bartlett Crane was the minister of People’s Church, the current Bond of Union was adopted. The Bond of Union describes the religious outlook and shared values, which we still use today.

    Earnestly desiring to develop in ourselves and in the world honest, reverent thought, faithfulness to our highest conception of right living, the spirit of love and service to all people, and allegiance towards all the interests of morality and religion, as interpreted by the growing thought and purest lives of humanity:

    We join ourselves together hoping to help one another in all good things and advance the cause of pure and practical religion in the community. We base our union upon no creed test but upon the purpose herein expressed and welcome all who wish to join us to help establish truth, righteousness and love in all the world.

  2. Rev Scott:

    Thank you for sharing these notes and reflections.

    I read your post this morning and have been thinking about it during my work day – when I had moments to pause and catch my breath.

    I suppose “theism” could be understood to mean a non-personalized concept of deity. A conceptualization. Is this what is meant by describing the theist church as the perfect modernist parish which would consist of a public service body dedicated to education and morals without a church, ie. the missing body of believers who seek closeness to God through profession of faith, and the sacraments…?

    My own understanding of the term theism is that it covers all forms of belief in deity, so, of course, includes Christianity, Islam, Hebraism, Hinduism, and etc. But probably more specifically can be used to describe those who profess a belief in deity but do not necessarily identify with a major religion. It is in this sense I use the term to describe myself. But I feel God present in my life and in the world. A living presence. Personification is complicated, because we must understand it as a symbolic way of knowing that which is beyond our ability to directly conceive. But within that ground of mystery, it is still personal. For me. And for many others who experience God in this way.

    I was raised in a liberal Christian church, which I left in my late teams, not returning to church life until 30 years later when I joined Shawnee Mission UU. What led me to that congregation, which has now become my community? Central to my life. The diversity of our church manifests as an openness, an inclusiveness that does not call its members to a specific set of beliefs. Only a way to be together in community and to seek truth and meaning in the company of other seekers. I have been in the congregation for eight years, and it was only this year that the idea came to me to start a Unitarian Theist group, which within weeks had several dozen members.

    I do not see our diversity interfering with congregational polity, honestly. And as a former officer of our church, I have been in the thick of that! lol

    Our diversity has also deeply informed my theology and my spirituality. My faith is that I am where I am meant to be. That in some way I am doing God’s work and am following the path which is meant for me and will hopefully be of help to others.

    May it be so. 🙂


    PS: This response is not intended to be one of criticism. More an explication of self-understanding, if that makes sense.

  3. Your comment deserves a proper reply; one I can’t give now. Perhaps this weekend.

  4. Fiske, your description does make sense. That’s not what I meant by a modernist parish; rather, is short, a place that underplays the mystical and uplifts the ethical, and in so doing downplays the differences between those that believe in God. On reflection, I don’t have anything else to add. I don’t take it as criticism, but neither am I opposed to criticism.

  5. Rev Scott:

    It is the case that our worship services are arranged to be accessible to a theologically diverse community, which means exactly as you say, emphasizing the ethical. But the language of our services is relatively easy to translate into theism, for those of that ilk. 🙂

    The other UU church in our area, All Souls UU in Kansas City proper, is a Humanist church, which I would not join, although I was actually born in that church. My family left All Souls when I was in preschool. We subsequently joined a liberal Presbyterian church. Sunday school and worship service was part of our weekly life, for which I am grateful.

    The SMUUCh U-Theist group has come together to find ways to share, celebrate, and explore theism in the larger context of our church. That would never include creating an alternative to our main worship service, however. Which, in my opinion, would be divisive and harmful to the life of our community.

    I wonder how many theism groups exist within UU churches around the country? I realize that some UU churches are much more theistic in their orientation. There doesn’t seem to be many specifically Universalist churches, though in another post I believe you mentioned finding an independent Universalist movement? I am interested in Universalism, and will be reading back through your posts as well as following your blog going forward.

    I gather that you are not called to a congregation at present? But serve as a guest minister? Are any of your services or sermons available in audio or video format on the web?


  6. Oh. I should have said that I have found the Universalist Convocation website, through your blog. So that is a resource I am now familiar with. Thank you for that.


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