A pivot to Paul Dean

I’ve been reading Universalist history for decades, but the details of the Restorationist Controversy (UUDB.org) escaped me. I know the broad strokes, the theological points, the key players and the slogans, mostly from Richard Eddy, but the social, economic and ecclesiologial dimensions weren’t clear until I read Peter Hughes’s two (2000, 2002) essays in The Journal of Unitarian and Universalist History. They’re online here and here respectively (HathiTrust.com) and I highly recommend them.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I read it in jags, breaking to find “where are they now” by which I meant the later careers and legacies of the main figures.

Then I looked for Paul Dean‘s grave. (UUDB.org) I have a soft spot for him, both for being a prominent Trinitarian Universalist, and for his curious ministry in Charleston, South Carolina. I’m also a Restorationist in theology and ethos, as was he. I think I would have liked him.

He is buried in Mt. Auburn like Murray and Ballou, but his grave is unmarked. (FindAGrave.com) That’s when my blood ran cold. Perhaps there’s some unphotographed common Dean marker, but there’s no evidence of it with the other photos. On the other hand, the grand statue of his Boston colleague (FindAGrave.com) and rival makes me think that Ballou has enough attention at the moment. He certainly had his way in life.

I was going to transcribe Hosea Ballou’s work on the parables for Lent, but I think Paul Dean is worth a pivot. He wrote several pamphlets, but only one book — A Course of Lectures in Defence of the Final Restoration (1832)(Archive.org) — and that’s what I’ll be transcribing instead. I hope to have some it ready by his 240th birthday, on March 28.

Sermon: “Understanding Abraham”

I preached from this sermon manuscript (but departed from it significantly) for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on March 5, 2023 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 12:1-4a and Romans 4:1-5, 13-17.

My thanks to Pastor Gatton for inviting me back to the pulpit, and my thanks to you for welcoming me.

I thought I might start with a little German academic joke about Abraham being the ur-patriarch, since he was both the first patriarch and since he came from the city of Ur of the Chaldees. I thought, everyone loves a pun. Especially a pun from Mesopotamian archaeology.

But then I though the better of it, and wouldn’t tell the joke. The fact is that there are a lot of heavy material here: Abram and Sarai as religious figures; their role as the fountainhead of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; the claims and counterclaims between those three religions; the depiction of sexual and personal ethics in the Abraham cycle that make modern people cringe; and then throw Paul into it. The sermon shouldn’t start with a pun, it should start with a content warning. I’ll do my best.

Review of the lessons in context

Today’s texts deal with faith, particularly the faith of Abram (later renamed Abraham) and the theological importance for his heirs, us included.

We will look at what faith means, because most of us have inherited incomplete concepts on the subject. The heirs — as in inheritors — part is as tricky as the faith part. The Abram-Abraham story arc about appears in the lectionary about once a year, so I’ll take this short reading as license to go further. But there are reasons why you don’t get an Abraham blockbuster from the likes of Cecil B. DeMille. (If you know the stories, you know. If not, look it up in the book of Genesis or ask me in the coffee hour.)


First, let’s put today’s passage from Genesis in context. We’re right at the beginning of the Bible. Reading though Genesis, we have two versions of the creation of the universe with humanity; the separation of humanity from God; the first murder; the rise of wickedness among the people, ending with the great flood (that’s Noah, his family and the ark). God promises not to do that again, but when the people raise up a tower to God, God scatters them — us — into different language groups.

The following section takes from Babel to Teran, Abram’s father, and with it a change of tone. The mythic explanations of the origins of the world, humanity, sin, violence, and nations gives way to a personal story: one family in a particular place and time that had a particular relationship with one God.

As we know, those earlier mythic tales had parallels in other mythic tales of the ancient Middle East. The biblical revelation, you could argue, comes from how those well-known tales were altered. The theology is in the alteration, and I’ll preach about that at some point. In any case, the pivot to figures with a personality and a back story make Abram — later renamed Abraham — and Sarai — later renamed Sarah — seem like historical figures, and this was long believed to be the case. Except there’s no evidence of this. There’s nothing in the archaeology to suggest it. Genesis, as we have it, was first written down centuries after the events in the Abraham narrative and contain anachronisms. The themes of possession of the land, and Abraham’s bloodline through his second son Isaac being all from his own homeland, seems to claim that Abraham’s heirs had nothing to do with the people of the land of Caanan. It is also a story of origins, and we have to know what was intended to say, so you can see where God is revealed. Read literally, it’s old propaganda and nation building, no better than thinking that George Washington “can not tell a lie.” To heard God speak, you have to read between the lines.

In this case, you have to look at what doesn’t make sense. You might think that God would show blessing or particular favor on someone for a particular reason, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. And Abram was to be the father of many nations, he would have a land of his own and he would become materially prosperous. And as if to underscore the story, Abram and Sarah had none of these, and no obvious prospect about how to acquire any of these. The lesson isn’t how to become rich land-owners; the lesson is about the freedom God has to dispense grace. Abram’s famous faithfulness was a response to this grace, not its cause. God is the original cause; how we respond is how we show our faith.

If Abram simply did what God wanted, and then got the benefits, it would be as if God had hired Abram for some purpose. This is what Paul was getting to when he wrote “Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.” It wasn’t that Abram believed the right thing and that made it so, but rather he responded to God and stayed engaged with what unfolded before him.”

Unlike Abram and Sarai, Paul lived in history, and belonged to another era. Let’s review the second reading. Paul’s letter to the Romans is widely loved, with moments of aching beauty. It is also one of the older parts of the New Testament — written some time in the mid 50s, before the Gospels in fact — and widely recognized as being an authentic work of Paul, unlike some others. It’s important to remember that the Bible isn’t a book as much as it is a library. Romans is among the oldest works in the New Testament, but probably written about seven centuries after Genesis was laid down, and Abraham, were he historical would have lived two millennia before Paul, thus just as far as Paul is from us.

And, as I’ve preached recently — and so won’t go into so great detail again — it’s key to discussions about salvation among Christians. Martin Luther propelled the Protestant Reformation from a study of Romans, and later generations of Protestant theologians known for a universalist or “hopeful universalist” view of salvation will start there.

Abram stands as a model of faithfulness. And part of trusting God, looking back from the 21st century, means that each generation back to Abraham and Sarah will view God in a different way than the one before it. Abraham and those who came before him did not seek out the way we do now, yet he persisted not simply accepting God roboticly, but meditating on the visions that God gave him and interpreting them. Abraham’s faith, as we hear it, was dynamic. In the many generations that follow him, faith that it’s best maintains that dynamic tension with the God who speaks without words, who acts without hands and who cannot be seen with the eyes.

Originally, the God we know as God was national and particular, the god of storms and armies. Some of our language of God throws back to these ideas: The God met at the mountain top, God Most High. We have faith and in this God, Who is the same God who spoke to Abraham and those who wrote Abraham’s story. This is the same God, but not understood in the same way. Not understood in the same way, so trusted in the same way, and thus our faith is not carried out the same way. But the interpretation, the tension, the wondering, the waiting: these have not changed. And in the many generations have followed, we have come to know Abraham’s God: universal, ever-present, wise, patient and loving. And this God shared in a great family of religion that includes half of the people alive today both is and is not the same God who told Abraham to go from Ur to Canaan.

What we cannot do is take on every experience unreflectively as a sign of God’s presence, permission or punishment. Let me give you one striking example. As we make the walk towards Holy Week and Good Friday we need to prepare ourselves to overcome old sins. Paul wrote, “What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?” (4:1) And for him, this is a reasonable question? Paul was Jewish, and Abraham would be his ancestor, albeit a legendary one. Christians both of Jewish descent and not had been common in Rome. The religious situation was both different and more fluid then than it was today. Since nearly all of Christians today are not of Jewish descent — not to mention the centuries of Jewish oppression and forced conversions in between — we need to be careful about not collapsing the differences between Paul’s experience then, and our general experience today. The Christian connection to Abraham is spiritual, diffuse and complex.

Christian supercessionism is the doctrine that Christians have inherited from Jews those blessings and promises that God made to the children of Israel. There are variations on the theme, but a typical version is that God cut off the Jews and the Christians were grafted on in their place. Extreme, but still living, variants would go so far as to claim that Europeans are the descendants of the “lost tribes” of Israel (itself a discredited concept) while modern Jews are fraudulent interlopers. A more subtle version of supercessionism talks about the “vengeful God of the Old Testament” versus the “God of Love of the New Testament” implying as though there is something foundationally wrong with Judaism, and ignoring or denying that there can be (again!) any development in how we understand who and how God is: whether from the time of pre-Temple Hebrew religion, through two Temples, the Babylonian exile and the development of rabbinic Judaism, or (frankly) from the age of the apostles to the church today. Indeed, speaking of the Old and New Testaments can suggest that one is finished and the other replaced it.

Christian supercessionism has been a key weapon for justifying anti-Jewish oppression and violence for centuries. Since anti-Jewish oppression is alive and well, it is our moral responsibility to highlight and renounce it. But even if the threats of Christian supercessionism against Jews were squarely in the past, it deserves to extirpated because it blisteringly bad Christian theology, and as Universalists we’re prone to feel this with particular strength.

Covenants endure

The relationship between God and Abraham is based on a series of promises, sealed in his own day with sacrifices, called covenants. And when the human parties to a covenant fails in the relationship, they are restored to a right relation through a change of behavior. Take, for instance, the worship by Israelites of other gods. (Now that was a juicy lurid scene in The Ten Commandments with the golden calf and the earthquake and Charlton Heston getting all grrr.)

The idea of God developing from a storm god and a warrior god, to the chief god, to the one God to the exclusion of all others did not happen evenly. What scripture describes as backsliding — and recall these texts were recorded centuries after the fact and after being theologically processed — what scripture describes as backsliding was probably the development of how the people saw God. But the important part is that God didn’t give up on them; instead the Israelites changed, repented and returned.

When the prophets introduced an ethical concern for the poor and despised, they identified the Israelites’ misfortunes as a God’s disfavor for their abuses, the solution was change, repent and return. But but not abandon.

And this is what we, as Universalists take seriously and take to heart: if God would abandon Israel the beloved, even when it failed, what hope would the rest of us have? But God was faithful then, and God is faithful now. And the details of this trust have to be seen by careful and not casual review of how God moves in our lives, both in the good times and bad, in moment of clarity and unresolved confusion. This is the what the church for.

We can imagine ourselves as Abram in those moment when have moment of decision directs us in an unexpected or atypical direction. We can image, or remember if we’ve had those experiences,

Nancy Byrd Turner, wrote a poem in 1935, used as hymn (“When Abraham Went Out of Ur”) but so far as I know, only used in one hymnal: the blue one that came out between the red and gray ones we use. She wrote:

As Abraham saw dawn, remote and chill,
Etching old Ur along the lonely north,
And bowed himself to his loved earth, and rent
His garments, cried he could not go… and went.

His faithful response told him to go. If and when that moment comes, may we do likewise.

May God bless our paths, wherever we may go, this day and forever more.

UUs and the lost web

I regularly engage in “magnet fishing” on the web, but instead of old bicycle frames I hope to find connections to resources that might not otherwise be found. In this case, it’s for my current research but other times I’ll Google a fragment of the Winchester Profession. You’d be amazed what that scares up: sometimes a community church with a forgotten Universalist antecedent, or even more frequently in a church’s statement of faith, a phrase surviving like a fragment of DNA in a wholly un-Universalist congregation. Perhaps it just sounded nice at the time.

Today’s find hearkens to my own past. As a technically-savvy middle-aged gay man… I’ve seen things. Things in plain text, on a green CRT terminal. Here’s a bit of the internet that’s been untouched since 1997.


That’s the Unitarian Universalist Resource Page from the Queer Resources Directory and I hope it never changes or dies. I recall it from way back. Was it on Gopher (HowToGeek.com) then? Perhaps. (Warning: 1990s web styling.)

Note that uu.txt isn’t a webpage. Indeed, this file surely had a presence online, and on the internet, before it was on the web even though we tend to make those terms synonymous today. Internal references to mailing lists, anonymous FTP (file transfer protocol), bulletin boards, mailing lists and technologies of the same vintage — and the fact the file isn’t in HTML — make me think it had been around for ages, but that this was the end of the line.

But what a handy resource! Drawn together in a single file (large by the standards then; hardly a blip now) see have a window into the program of the UUA and affiliated bodies in the late 1990s. So not ancient history; I was either in my last year of seminary or a new graduate when this file was last touched, and already making my first proper web pages.

What does this file say today? First, it reminds me of the all-in-one manuals Universalists published in the nineteenth century, but more about them later. It also reminds me that you can create effective tools in resource-constrained environments. Did you notice how quickly it loaded? That’ll lead me to low-resource online worship, which I hope to pick up after I get a handle on my March 5 sermon.

Why deacons and baptism?

My interest in deacons and baptism in Universalist churches isn’t arbitrary, and it’s not about the past. It’s about the future.

I figure the remaining Universalist Christians within the UUA are going to have to rely on each other and the ecumenical church more in the future, or perish. Those “new Universalists” who gather into distinct churches might want to know what makes “denominational Universalism” cohesive and distinct. So, where do we stand? Where have we stood? Do you have a good answer to that? I don’t.

What I think Universalists had was a churchly culture to rely on when there were gaps, and a culture of tolerance (or indifference) where there were conflicts. We no longer have the one, and the other leaves you gasping when you ask, “what do you believe in?” (I don’t think Unitarian Universalists of any stripe deal with this in a convincing way, and this might contribute to its self-isolation and sectarianism.) I’m finding bits and pieces that glint in a fast moving, occasionally murky, stream.

I felt a sense of historical and theological isolation keenly when I was in seminary, in a class which studied the landmark 1982 document Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. We students were expected to bring our denominational response to it to class and reflect on it. The Baptist students and I commiserated — and scrambled for a make-do. I ended up using the response (Archive.org) of the Remonstrant Brotherhood (site in Dutch), which was the closest “relative” that made one.

I’m not suggesting future Universalists are bound to decisions past Universalists made on these matters, especially if they were made poorly, grudgingly or in couched terms. Perspectives on one ordinance (the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist) and one of two orders of ministry (pastor) are better understood. Focusing on the other ordinance and other order of ministry might inform me and my readers about how past Universalists saw themselves. And from that method, we might be able to reconstruct an authentic Universalist voice, and then assess it has what we need in the future.

Deacons in The Universalist

The Universalist, one of the two national Universalist newspapers of the 1880s and 1890s, is available online and with searchable (if imperfect) text. It also gives a view from “the west” namely Chicago and Cincinnati. What does it say about deacons?

In one case, it speaks of a deacon who participated in the 1887 Universalist General Convention, but in the main, deacons appear in one of two ways:

  1. Elderly Universalist men, noted in an obituary.
  2. As a stock character in an entertaining, but hard-boiled tale. (One time, we get a deacon’s wife with a switch ending.) The deacon — an older, established and respected or feared man — has rigid or misplaced morals that place him or the ones he loves in harm’s way. I get a sense that these deacons aren’t Universalist, but they are so broadly drawn that who knows?

I like a soap opera as much as the next person, but it’s not the ecclesiology I was looking for, so I’ll leave further reading to interested parties.

Universalist newspaper family tree

Universalists loved their newspapers. They spread Universalist doctrine and culture, particularly in areas where there there were no churches or no resident ministers. Controversies played out in them, news propagated through their pages and late into the pre-consolidation era, the polity required notices be published in them. Last week, I found more than a decade of pre- and post-consolidation Universalist magazines, which are the antecedent of today’s UUWorld, and the heir of dozens of Universalist titles. Universalist loved their periodicals, but not always liked paying for them and so the history is made up of consolidation upon consolidation.

Chart of Universalist periodicals

I was looking for, and today found, this chart (linking from this list of publications at the Harvard Divinity School Library site) which I had seen before but lost the citation. It charts out the antecedents of the Christian Leader, which would be renamed on more time to the Universalist Leader before being merged with the Unitarian Register. Which means that these aren’t all of the Universalist periodicals that existed. Some winked out of existence before it could be merged with another. And then there’s the Universalist Herald, which survives and never merged, still going since 1847. (Go ahead and subscribe.)

Transcribing Ballou on the Parables

I’ve been working through my study list and will be reporting out more soon. But since this is the first day of Lent, I thought I’d add a project to the mix (which I may or may not complete by Holy Week.)

Long ago, I learned that I am more likely to read a document and remember it if I transcribe it for the web. (My first project, Channing’s “Unitarian Christianity” was pre-web and I posted it via Gopher. Back then that meant having a book open and typing it out.) Time to do another one.

I’ve chosen the 1812 edition of Hosea Ballou’s Notes on the Parables. Because of all the long-ses, it’s an OCR mess, and not good for searching. A cleanup is worthwhile.

Why this? I wanted to see something of his early work, and something other than his Treatise on Atonement, which has already been transcribed. (DanielHarper.org) I’ll be posting it section by section as I complete it, and then find a home for it on one of my web properties once it’s done.

[February 23, 2023. There was another transcription project I stumbled across … on this blog. I wrote about it here in 2005 and the text of A Series of Letters in Defence of Divine Revelation may be read here.)

In the meantime, listen to this only other work of his that I know is being kept in current use: the hymn, sung with shape notes, “Come let us raise our voices high.”

Eddy: Contrasting the two early Universalist “denominations”

A passage in Richard Eddy’s Universalism in America says something to me about the period around 1803, deacons and baptism, three things I’m studying now.

First, it’s worth knowing a recalling there were two associations or conventions that might make a claim to being “the Universalist denomination” and they ran side by side with some overlap for years: one met in Philadelphia, and the other met in various places in New England. By 1803, both had statements of faith (the Philadelphia Articles, since I so rarely reference them) and plans of church government. But the Philadelphia Convention was dying, buoyed no doubt by the presence of John Murray. Indeed, Eddy’s not sure there even was a Philadelphia meeting in 1804. He points out the different approaches to church governance. The Philadelphia plan concerned itself with the inner workings of churches, while the New England plan really only concerned itself with itself, and thus the power to fellowship ministers, and thus mobilize them.

In the new [New England Convention] plan of organization one noticeable thing, distinguishing it from the [Philadelphia] Plan of Church Government adopted in 1794, was that it was a plan for the government of the Association, while the latter was for the government of individual churches only. It provided, indeed, for what it called “The Communion of Churches” in annual convention, but it made no provision for the officers or organization of the Convention, nor for the voice or vote of any church represented in the Convention (see vol. i., pp. 300-302). And its Plan for the Churches was, in the language of the Circular Letter which accompanied its publication, “nearly that of the Congregational Church.” The “Plan of the General Association” adopted at Winchester, repealed no portion of the previously-adopted “Plan of Church Government,” but expressly recognized the fact that “every Church possesses within itself all the powers of self- government.” In so far, then, it reaffirmed the Congregational character of the Universalist churches or societies, and did not seek, even by recommendation, to make them religious organizations which the courts could recognize as different and distinct from any other Congregational societies.

Eddy, Richard. 1891. Universalism in America. vol. 2, 63.

(How do you cite within a blog, anyway?)

So, perhaps a culture arose where deacons and baptism were considered internal matters, in addition to whatever theological issues Universalists might have had. It’s not like both vanished. This Sunday, I will be in church and from my pew I will see a deacon or two, and the occasionally-used baptismal font. I’ll nose around, but I won’t expect to find anything definitive. Universalist interest in the Lord’s Supper throws that for a loop, but perhaps because it was practiced by the conventions in meeting (see below) it would come up on the radar.

One more suspicion: Universalists kept fellowship on a parish or society basis, and these parishes and societies sometimes had associated with them churches of believers. (Their absence was a point of frustration, perhaps embarrassment among Universalist leaders, and spoke to a controversial rather than spiritual faith.) In this dynamic, the officers of the church are the pastor(s) and deacons, and indeed, they show up in a model church (as opposed to parish) constitution from 1891. With whom did the churches have fellowship? I’d be prone to say Jesus Christ, and that spiritual connection is not the jurisdiction of Universalist conventions.