Theistic worship: notes from “the Unity Men”

I've been writing at this site (and earlier, at boyinthebands.org) 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.

The prayer from Malabar

So, the last prayer choice under "Close of Worship" in the Additional Prayers and Collects, in the 1937 joint Unitarian and Universalist Hymns of the Spirit is cited in the index as coming from "Liturgy of Malabar, adapted."

Grant, O Lord, that the ears which have heard the voice of thy songs may be closed to the voice of clamor and dispute; that the eyes which have seen thy great love may also behold thy blessed hope; that the tongues which have sung thy praise may speak the truth; that the feet which have walked in thy courts may walk in the region of light; and that the souls of all who here receive thy blessed Spirit may be restored to newness of life. Glory be to thee for thine unspeakable gift. Amen.

I think it's lovely.

Loveliness aside, you may ask, how did a prayer from fifth-century India get into something as New England-bound as the old red hymnal?

My first suspicion is that a Unitarian member of the committee recommended it rather than a Universalist member. I keep finding traces of early twentieth-century interest in antiquarian liturgy among Unitarians: an attempt to find the earliest, most authentic and most lowercase-c catholic strata on which to base liturgical devotion.  What keeps this from being simple primitivism is looking past the apostolic age and outside the New Testament. The Liturgy of Malabar is very old, but is the work of a developed church, and one that would have been very foreign to American Protestants. (And provides an link between the Unitarians and their later though brief interest in what we would call the Independent Sacramental Movement. More about that some other time.) Let's put a pin in that curiousity: we will see this interest in a more universal Christian liturgical expression among the Unitarians again, and those influences on the Universalists.

While the prayer appears in different works before the red hymnal and since, its inclusion in W. E. Orchard's The Order of Divine Service for Public Worship is the likely source, as the red hymnal also includes one of his own prayers. (Again, for another time.) This prayer is noted in that index as "(? 5th cent.) Neale and Littledale's Translation." John Mason Neale, better known as a translator of hymns, also translated liturgies. His translation of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" perhaps his best known.

But their translation of what? The Liturgies of SS. Mark, James, Clement, Chrysostom, and Basil, and the Church of Malabar. Is this Malabar liturgy the original East Syriac rite of the St. Thomas Christians, the restored East Syriac rite of the Eastern Catholics or the adopted West Syriac rite of the indiginizing church? There have been Christians in South India from antiquity, and the traditional founder of these churches was St. Thomas. Today the St. Thomas Christians range in theology and jurisdiction from the Nestorian to Eastern Catholic to Anglican. I ask all this with huge caveats: this is not my field, is centuries old and in languages I don't read. Any clarification from readers would be well appreciated. Neale, in his introduction, isn't clear about the source of the text he translated, but presumably from the Eastern Catholics with noted and obvious changes removed.

So what was the prayer originally? One given by a deacon, at the communion of the faithful. You can read it here.

The prayer has appeared in the Armed Forces Hymnal (1950); also here, here (for use after communion), and this textbook on worship.

It's use as a post-communion prayer fits will with a liberal-Reformed use; I'll use it at my next opportunity.

Hymns of the Spirit site updated

About five years ago, I stood up a site about the joint 1937 Unitarian-Universalist hymnal and service book, The Hymns of the Spirit. It was built on WordPress and for some reason attracted a lot of bot traffic. The last thing I needed was for it to be taken over. So I moved it over to a simpler Jekyll site. It's clean and quick to load; I'll be fixing some gremlins but it's ready to use. But there's no place to leave a comment: comment through this site or email me about it at wells@universalistchristian.org.

“All souls, O Lord, are thine”

My apologies for my long silent spell -- longer, I think, than any since I began writing in 2003. But I couldn't let All Souls Day go by unnoted.

The Universalist General Convention commended the Sunday closest to All Souls Day, November 2, "for a special celebration of our distinguishing doctrine, the Scriptural truth that all souls are God’s children, and that finally, by His grace attending them, they will all be saved from the power of sin, and will live and reign with Him forever in holiness and happiness."

What we have here friends is an ethos, a vision and a plan worth celebrating. But what form shall this take?

For all of you who do not observe the Day of the Dead because you believe (in your case) it is cultural appropriation, know that that All Souls Day is for you. But there's not a lot of cultural artifacts attached to it, so I can't help you with those sugar skulls you've wanted an excuse to buy.

We do have a hymn, the most popular (not saying much) of writer and journalist Epes Sargent. Judging by his birthplace (Gloucester) and others having that name (Judith Sargent's grandfather) I'm guessing his ties to Universalism are deep.

Epes Sargent portrait.

It only showed up in a handful of denominational hymnals, the last being the 1937 Hymns of the Spirit, but I consulted the 1917 Hymns of the Church, which I'm now cataloging, for the text.

All souls, O Lord, are thine — assurance blest!
Thine, not our own to rob of help divine;
Not man's, to doom by any human test,
But thine, O gracious Lord, and only thine.

Thine, by thy various discipline, to lead
To heights where heavenly truths immortal shine, —
Truths none eternally shall fail to heed;
For all, O Lord, are thine, forever thine.

Forgive the thought, that everlasting ill
To any can be part of thy design;
Finite, imperfect, erring, guilty, — still
All souls, great God, are thine — and mercy thine.

Need a Christmas hymn for your order of service? A song book?

Time again to point out the Open Hymnal Project, which has a special PDF booklet of public domain Christmas hymns, (direct link) and a ZIP (archive) file GIF (image) files of individual files that should make it easier for you to put individual hymns in an order of service, downloadable from the main page.

See this page for an index of available hymns, Christmas or not, from which you can download related files, including single PDFs and GIFs.

HymnsoftheSpirit.org is back

I had some site problems this last week. My old main blog, BoyintheBands.com, was badly hacked and in the process of hardening the other sites against attack, I ruined the WordPress install for my homage site to the 1937 "red hymnal" HymnsoftheSpirit.org.

I had to trash the old system and completely reinstalled it. Easy, but I misplaced the theme (no great loss) in the process. So the site is there, if plain.

The one Hosea Ballou hymn in current use…

Did you know there's a Hosea Ballou hymn still in current use? Of course, not among us. It's kept alive by shape-note singers.

Come, let us raise our voices high,
And form a sacred song,
To Him who rules the earth and sky,
And does our days prolong.
Who through the night gave us to rest,
This morning cheered our eyes;
And with the thousands of the blest,
In health made us to rise.

Early to God we’ll send our prayer,
Make haste to pray and praise,
That He may make our good His care,
And guide us all our days.
And when the night of death comes on,
And we shall end our days;
May His rich grace the theme prolong
Of His eternal praise.

Here's a video, from a singing convention in Ireland.

“Away in a Manger” in a Universalist paper

Derek McAuley, the Chief Officer of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, in Great Britain, cites an article in the current
Evening Standard

I replied:

I had never heard that connection before, and I thought I'd heard them all. I got the citation from the associated Wikipedia article, and here's a link to that volume of The Myrtle.

So, it would be interesting to see if there is any earlier citation. It would also be interesting if the poetry of the carol compares with one of the known Univeralist poets in The Myrtle

Selection_192

That said, the temperance songs on the next page are fun, if not so evergreen. Here's the first three (of nine) stanzas of one.

Selection_191

A podcast before podcasts on hymnology

I took a course in hymnology during my Master of Divinity program at Brite Divinity School around 1996, when the Hymn Society will still housed on campus. The textbooks were written by esteemed hymnologist and minister Erik Routley (1917-1982) with the lectures supplemented by recorded lectures by Routley, helpful because hymns need to be heard and sung, and he was prone to sing fragments.

I loved that class, but I hadn't heard the recordings again until a couple of days ago, when I discovered his Christian Hymnody series -- originally issued on tape -- playable online.

It covers the history of Christian hymnody though the end of the nineteenth century, and if you don't have a background in hymnology it'll probably help deeply. A bit of a caveat there, as I've not replayed it all: it runs about three hours.

Link to episode one

Later notes: It runs in a conversational style,like having dinner with a very knowledgeable person who dominates the conversation. But don't expect to learn anything about the Eastern church. Or is it six hours? A tape has two sides, you know.