Examining the Universalist theory of worship

So, what makes Universalist worship Universalist? What keys do we have, if we want to build on a tradition?

It turns out that it’s harder to say than in other denominational traditions, including the Unitarian. The problem may date to the beginning, by which I mean the 1790 Philadelphia Convention, where the assembled delegates claimed, “as we have no rules laid down in the word of God to direct us in our choice of a mode or form of public worship, it is recommended to each Church to use such modes and forms of prayer, and to sing such psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, as to them shall appear most agreeable to the word of God, or best suited to promote order, and spiritual edification.” Not a sense shared by many of their contemporaries! Whether this was an act of liberality, or a politic act of evasion, I will leave for you to decide.

Universalism was made up of different streams, united by a common hope in a common salvation. Other doctrines were a matter of liberty — one reason theological unitarianism had a place — and so much for liturgy, too. As such, the various hymnals and worship books had denominational sponsorship and could be widely adopted and still be entirely optional.

After the Civil War, institutional Universalism congealed around a common program and denominational governance. The theologial schools and denomintational press were growing in influence, and yet there was little discussion about how this new structure applied to worship. Prayerbooks could go out without a preface; liturgists, like Charles Hall Leonard, could write the works, but scarcely say what they intended.

So, where to look for clues? Private papers? Articles in the weekly papers, as yet little digitized? But it may be as subtle as examining the more popular texts themselves, and see what was used, discern what the source documents were — the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer and the prayerbooks of James Martineau, surely — and see what they thought to change…

Introductions to Universalism

A nice chat with other member of Universalist National Memorial Church after services today, over coffee. As sometimes happens, the matter of books came up, which merged with another comment about Hosea Ballou, and from there to books about Universalism.

I recommended two smallish, straight-forward books and a documentary history, if with reservations. Both are institutional histories, and both are irenic towards Unitarianism, positing Universalism as a close relation rather than a religious tradition on its own terms. Fine as denominational works, but also a bit unsatisfying for informing a faith, particularly a Christian faith. Of course, theological universalism is hot now — in evangelical circles, and so many of the faith-forward works are better for evangelicals. And the academic works are good for academics.

There’s room for a primer. In the mean time, here are those three books.

  • The Larger Faith by Charles A. Howe
  • American Universalism by George Huntston Williams
  • Universalism in America: A Documentary History of a Liberal Faith, ed. by Ernest Cassara

All three are from Skinner House, but only the first two are available at the UUA Bookstore.

Checking in on the book project

Get used to these check-ins; otherwise, it may be too easy to throw the idea of a book on the scrapheap of good intentions. For one thing, it looks like I may be envisioning not one work, but three.

  1. A book about what Universalist Christianity, in a liberal vein, might look like today. And not necessarily a majoritarian view. Somewhat practical. Not too long. This would ideally be published by an existing press, and would be what I would pitch first to Skinner House.
  2. A documentary history. A corrective, in some sense, to what we have. This might be a self-published work or perhaps a website. The readership would be small, but important, but not so important to justify the publishing or promotion costs (or effort) a traditional approach demands.
  3. A monograph or other shorter subject answering the “so, what did happen to Universalist Christianity?” Perhaps for a journal, and to scratch that itch and to keep the first book in the present, and perhaps not so morose.

A preacher, after all, needs not put everything in one sermon.

The full Hosea Ballou quotation

I’ve seen many, many uses by Unitarian Universalists of a passage from Hosea Ballou since the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri after Michael Brown’s shooting death and Darren Wilson’s investigation. The quotation, sourced from the service element section of the most-commonly used Unitarian Universalist hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, is edited for worship. Number 705:

If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury,
but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.
Let us endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.

I wondered what the original was, and how edited it got, particularly since these hymnal elements get used so much (to the exclusion of other writings) that they take on a quasi-canonical character. Even if the quotation is ersatz. (Someone asked me, “That isn’t really Ballou, is it?”) It is, but only in a limited way.

For one thing, the context of the hymnal version suggests quasi-Pauline
advice to a congregation or group. As if he was putting another way Romans 16:17, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.” But that’s not what Ballou was getting at. Here’s the citation, in context from section 224 (“A plea for unselfishness and love.”) in the last print (1986, from a 1882 original) edition of the Treatise on Atonement,

Should we be tenacious about certain sentiments and peculiarities of faith, the time is not far distant when Universalists, who suffered every kind of contemptuous treatment from enemies of the doctrine, will be at war among themselves, and being trodden under the foot of the Gentiles. Having begun in the Spirit do not think to be made perfect by the flesh. In order to imitate our Saviour, let us, like him, have compassion on the ignorant and those whom we view to be out of the way. Attend to the exhortation, “Let brotherly love continue.” If we agree in brotherly love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury; but if we do not no other agreement can do us any good. Let us keep a strict guard against the enemy “that sows discord among brethren.” Let us endeavor to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.” May charity, that heaven born companion of the human heart, never forsake us; and may the promise of the Saviour be fulfilled concerning us, “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.”

An even broader context makes it clear that Ballou is cautioning Universalists to maintain humility lest they fall into hubris and error, and continues with an appeal to non-Universalists to examine their claims with patience. Ballou disavows judgement. All good things but not how it comes across in the hymnal.

Also, the hymnal version bleeds out the Christian character of the passage. I can’t add much to that. I’ll end with citing the biblical passages above:

  • “Let brotherly love continue.” Hebrews 13:1.
  • “that sows discord among brethren.” Proverbs 6:19.
  • “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.” Ephesians 4:3. (“Bond” in King James.)
  • “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” Matthew 28:20.

Archives search: rescued from the wastepaper basket

This is the first part of a (surely long and rambling) series on findings from Universalist records at Harvard Divinity School’s library archives.  My thanks to Fran O’Donnell and Jessica Suarez of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library for making my visit possible. I love combing through these Hollinger boxes. Evidence of Yankee thrift abounds. Serious business — which today would be shipped by courier or with tracking numbers, or protected with encryption — went by typed postcard. But one of their habits — one I share — revealed some glorious relics. Make old print jobs into scrap paper; the other side has a use you know. So mundane memos preserve scraps of design choices. Here are a couple I caught.

Another Providence meeting

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Universalist retro wall plaque

While I writing my blog post about Bible-quote wall hangings, I recalled a small “suitable for framing” poster of the 1899 Universalist “Five Principles” a former (now deceased) church member gave me.

Five Principles poster

I had made a scan of it to share, but can’t find that I had ever done. Over the years, the odd attack and data failure has taken it toll. Or I never put it up.

Let me remedy that.
Five principles poster (PDF, 4.4Mb)

Here’s the text:

Our Universalist Faith
The Universal Fatherhood of God; the Spiritual Authority and Leadership of His Son Jesus Christ; the Trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a Revelation from God; the Certainty of Just Retribution for Sin; the Final Harmony of All Souls with God…

Sandy Day blogging

I’ve not bothered to see if Hurricane Sandy has degraded to a tropical storm (or been upgraded in colliding with that winter storm) because all evidence is that it’s terribly fierce. I hear the wind, rain and sirens of emergency vehicles.

But we’re better off than the Jersey Shore; remember its people and our beloved Murray Grove in prayer.

I wrote about hurricanes in 2003 and you can find some resources there.

New "Union Prayer Book" and old "Parish Practice" arrived today

I’ll keep this brief because I came home feeling not-so-well today. Two books that I had ordered arrived: the hot-off-the-presses new addition of the Union Prayer Book, Sinai Edition, Revised And a used copy of Parish Practice in Universalist Churches, by Robert Cummins.

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The first is a modern adaptation of a classic Reform Jewish prayer book and I’m excited to review it since it has many of the same liturgical sensibilities of classic Unitarian liturgy. Indeed the Sinai referred to in the title is Chicago Sinai Congregation, its source. Chicago, as many of my readers know, is also a wellspring of this Unitarian liturgical tradition I referenced.

The other book is what it says on the label, written in 1946 by a well-loved, now-deceased General Superintendent of the Universalist Church of America. Fun fact: This copy was withdrawn from Andover Newton and was last checked out 40 years ago.

More details about these, and the Coptic works I’ve been writing about as soon as I can.