Sermon: Who Is Wise and Understanding Among You?

Who Is Wise and Understanding Among You?
Notes by the Rev. Scott Wells, prepared for preaching in Washington, D.C. on September 21, 2003

These notes are a reconstruction of a sermon by the same name.

Several research libraries have one of my historical sources: The Winchester Centennial a.k.a. Centennial of the Universalist Profession of Faith, 1803-1903 (Universalist Publishing House, 1903).

Thanks to Chris Walton and Derek Parker for bringing sources to my attention through their weblogs.

Also, see Winchester Profession.org for more resources.

The second hundred years

About a hundred years ago, in October 27, 1903, Universalists in Washington and elsewhere were celebrating the first century of the Winchester Profession: the theological statement that we shared this morning, and which we use each year at Ash Wednesday. In a sense, it appears in worship every Sunday since the Declaration of Faith we use also known as the Five Principles or the Principles of Fellowship is technically an interpretation of the original Winchester Profession. The Universalist General Convention, the highest denominational decision-making body, was meeting here: to be exact, in our old building at 13th and I Streets, and perhaps in other quarters. Speeches, presentations, poetry. There was a gavel set presented; its head made from a piece of the old Winchester, New Hampshire pulpit
this act of salvage would preserve a piece of the church that would burn a few years later. The gavel rested on a stone hewn from the old well at Hosea Ballou’s house. [Its handle was a roofpeg from the Ballou’s roof: where the young Ballou might have looked from his bed, heaven-ward.] The first and last hymn this morning are the same as the two they used then.

The leading lights of the Universalist church were present. There was a spirit of celebration, made possible in part by our long-deceased predecessors in this church. (We have committee records of their work.) The Winchester Profession was alive to them. [But] What is it to us?
[The profession has no hold on us apart from what we would want. So it goes back to belonging to those who would want it, rather than being like a piece of antique furniture, delighting one generation and burdening the next.]

The Winchester Profession was not the first Universalist statement of faith. That honor goes to the Philadelphia Articles of Faith, which were adopted in that city in 1790, and by Universalists in New England in 1794. Properly speaking, they were never repudiated, but, perhaps because the organizations that adopted them were not truly national, and because theological unitarianism was rising in Universalism the trinitarian Philadelphia Articles fell into disuse, and later, obscurity. The Winchester Profession, too, was never repudiated theologically, but was demoted to near obsolescence in the 1950s, as the Universalists prepared for consolidation with the Unitarians. It then lost official standing in 1961 when the Unitarian Universalist Association was made, only to survive in those churches that valued it and more, among those people who saw within it a treasure. I got an email a couple of weeks ago from a minister some of you know, asking for help with her church’s Winchester Profession observance. A lay member was leading the service, and this was amazing because the church was always Unitarian and never Universalist. Indeed, I was a Unitarian and not a Universalist when I first found it. As my predecessor [the Rev. Bill Balkan] in Canon, Georgia, my former church, put it: The Winchester Profession is evergreen.

Is there faith without content?

William C. Placher’s review of Jaroslav Pelikan’s recent book, Credo in the Christian Century, includes the following:

Those who read the Bible seriously (as opposed to those content to memorize a dozen or so all-purpose proof texts) will find themselves puzzling over how to reconcile James and Paul on the relation between works and faith, John 10:30 (“I and the Father are one”) and John 14:28
(“the Father is greater than I”) and a host of other apparently conflicting passages. Figure out how to put such pieces together in a coherent whole, and you are doing theology; suggest the answer you figured out to your fellow Christians, and you are proposing doctrine;
write down what you and they agree on, and you have produced a confession.

The making of a profession is a bit different. A profession is about the faith of a people projected into the world. It expresses an ethos and a foundation. It is more like a lighthouse [with a beam that searches out] than a fortress [that either holds us in or keeps the world out.]

The making of a profession is a bit different. [A confession is more or less the talk among a people who have the same belief, and use it to regulate future belief. A profession is the witness of a people towards others. Though there is some historical controversy on this point, one of the reasons the Winchester Profession came into being was as Nathaniel Stacy records was to provide legal relief for the New Hampshire Universalists, who were not considered a separate denomination to that point. The Winchester Profession showed the world that these Universalists were indeed different. In a word, a profession calls people in. That’s it is more like a lighthouse than a fortress.] [B]ut the impact is similar, [and the dangers are similar, but we’ll get to that later.]

So [d]espite the never-ending rhetoric of being creedless, we are not contentless. [And what does that mean?]

Who is wise and understanding?

We’ve heard and some of us have said the Winchester Profession once this morning. Let me repeat it. Sometimes it is easier to hear what something means if we’re not asked to affirm it by saying it.

Article the First. We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

Article the Second. We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

Article the Third. We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

Each clause suggests a sermon, and I’d wager that the past two centuries are littered with unrecorded, perhaps even unintended, references to this amalgam of ideas. For instance, why did the profession’s author write, Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament instead of saying plainly, the Bible. The Profession is, after all, very plainly written. I like to think that the intent was not to pit the Old Testament and New Testament against each other as some do contending falsely that the God of the Jews is jealous, spiteful, and violent while the God of the Christians is welcoming, merciful, and loving. As if, indeed, we were speaking of different deities. And what is the duty . . . of mankind? The shorter Westminster Catechism of the Presbyterian church which even some of my esteemed colleagues can’t seem to keep separate from the Winchester, despite the fact it comes from seventeenth-century England makes it clear that our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. But the Winchester [Profession] effectively enshrines that most Protestant virtue: that the Bible is open for the individuals to meet and grow in wisdom from the living God, the same God who is the source
of the Bible and human beings alike. That, by the way, is why the stained glass window of the Bible on my side [note: pulpit side; to those unfamiliar with the building: Gospel side or liturgical north] of the nave has an open Bible. [We are bidden to read and understand the Bible for ourselves, and to feed our souls this way.]

And what about the Trinity? By 1803, the Universalists were beginning to split on the whether the nature of the single God consisted of one person or three. In typical Universalist fashion, the Winchester Profession seems to affirm both positions and does so in a way that both sides would think is quite appropriate.

A more pressing matter for Universalists, however, has been the question of whether there would be any suffering or trial after death for the wicked a kind of Universalist purgatory or if there would be an immediate welcome by God, even for the worst of us, at the time of death. The former party, the so-called Restorationists, thought their ides defended God’s justice. The later group, the ultra-Universalists, believed sin was a by-product of being an
enfleshed human being, and so tho’t that with death there was freedom from the body, and with it freedom from the consequences of sin. If you think that’s far-fetched, consider the maxim, We make heaven and hell here on earth, is an ultra-Universalist sentiment. The fighting and
Universalists perfected the public debate the same way the Evangelicals perfected the tent revival was so fierce that the Restorationists constituted their own denomination for nearly a quarter-century until there was peace and reunion.

It is hard to imagine the kind of fighting that developed from distinction, particularly because, again, the Winchester Profession includes them both. I mention this particular fight because the same influences and trying to resolve the differences fairly and peaceably is why we have the phrase, the final harmony of all souls with God. It can be read two ways.

I could go on like this all day. My experience is the more you look into the Winchester Profession, the more it cultivates a yearning for understanding, and a hopeful love for God and neighbor alike.

In our reading from the letter of James, the apostle asks, Who is wise and understanding among you? (I confess that for this one sermon, I’ve taken a bit of liberty with the text [and only use the one phrase, as it applies to the framers of the Winchester Profession, and to us?])

Let me introduce Walter Ferris, [Vermont] farmer. Though a minister, neither he nor any of his peers were trained theologians.] Tho’ Hosea Ballou was the leading (or one of the leading) Universalist theologians of the day, and was on the committee appointed in 1802 for derive a profession [as far as we know, he didn’t contribute to the text of the Winchester Profession.]

The original use of the Winchester Profession

Despite the opportunity of spiritual growth through the Winchester Profession, its function from 1803 to 1961 was by-and-large ecclesiastic. That is, it had more to do with the function and order of the church than what we would call personal faith development.

One evidence of this was that it was rarely quoted outside of official documents at first, and its use in worship was a later development.

More evidence comes from the legislation that came with the Profession’s passage:

As we believe these to be truths which deeply concern the honor of the Divine character and the interests of man, we do hereby declare that we continue to consider ourselves, and our societies in fellowship, a Denomination of Christians, distinct and separate from those who do not approve the whole of this Profession of Belief, as expressed in the three above Articles.

If you’ll excuse a little bit of shop talk, this is how the Winchester Profession (and our own Declaration of Faith) was used most of the time.

Some of you know that I, as a minister, have fellowship with the Unitarian Universalist Association through its Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Though they don’t assign a theological test to me, it is clear that my standing within the denomination is maintain through a complex of training, a successful continuation in ministry, and keeping the established rules. In this way, my credentials are portable, or put another way you can reasonably expect one of my colleagues in fellowship to be professional and responsible, even if he or she has a
different theological outlook.

This system, much to the grumblings of the Unitarian traditionalists, is essentially Universalist, and it more-or-less works. Before the 1950s, the basis for ministers to have Universalist fellowship was essentially to do be suitable the work of the ministry, and to have a faith congruent with the Winchester Profession.

The exact wording, from 1891, was that every Clergyman, Parish, or State Convention applying for the fellowship of [the Universalist General Convention] shall be understood as thereby agreeing to the Profession of Faith and pledging a due observance of all the laws of the Convention. (Laws of Fellowship, Government, and Discipline, (1891) I.III.2) As you see, unlike today, fellowship also would have extended to this church’s membership. Individual members would have given their assent to the Profession of Faith, which I read as a bit less binding than the affinity required for ministers, and churches as a whole.

So the Winchester Profession was normative, but before you start squirming in your pews, understand that 1891 was part of a twenty-nine year long phenomenon that was widely regarded as a mistake by Universalists.

Listening to some people you would believe its greatest virtue was its so-called liberty clause, something of a release value against the imposition of coercive power. Indeed, some people will surely remember the Winchester Profession can forget what it had to say about God and humanity, but will uplift the liberty clause, which reads,

Yet while we, as an Association, adopt a general Profession of Belief and Plan of Church Government, we leave it to the several Churches and Societies, or to smaller associations of churches, if such should be formed, within the limits of our General Association, to continue or adopt within themselves, such more particular articles of faith, or modes of discipline, as may appear to them best under their particular circumstances, provided they do not disagree with our
general Profession or Plan.

It isn’t poetry, but it did keep the peace for decades . . .

So, when we look at the Winchester Profession, we can see the content of what a most Universalists have thought has been essential to our witness to others, and we can see a process by which a number of different people can approach a core content, or both.

This is an amazing legacy in its own right.

The Winchester Profession today

Even those who have little interest in the Winchester Profession, or for what it stands, should appreciate that encyclopedia including ones thrust upon the web remember it, and know that it is a part of our past. But how can it be a part of our present? How these words hold
us today?

Oddly enough, because this profession lives in print, it means that some people treat it as a living Universalist reality, if only to say how wicked it is. Combing the Internet, it is as if the antebellum
debates rage on, as if John Murray, Hosea Ballou, Nathaniel Stacy, and all the rest who were present in body or spirit that day in 1803 were still around to scrap and fight.

The only thing I find more curious than people holding on the Winchester Profession is that there are still some people who preach against it.

And the one thing I find more glorious than the faith conveyed by the Winchester Profession is that there are some people who come to this same faith without needing it.

A friend of mine, Derek Parker, a seminarian finishing up at Earlham, a Quaker seminary in Indiana, gave me the head’s up about a new book. If Grace Is True, by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, two ministers to Quaker meetings in Indiana. (About half of the Quakers have churches with vocal worship, led by pastors, though the phenomenon is rare in the East.

I tend to take news of contemporary books on Universalism with a grain of salt. Either they are homemade productions, or so idiosyncratic as to be more quaint or curious than helpful. Or, most
irritating of all, the authors discover this idea Universalism as if he or she was the first to think of it. This new book, published by a major firm is different, in part, because it recognizes us. [And I recommend it.]

But do we recognize ourselves, and from where we come?

[The last point about the Winchester Profession is this: it can give us a place to start to talk and think and share these things of God’s great goodness and our relatedness as sisters and brothers, but it didn’t start the idea, and cannot comprehend it. Neither can it do the work necessary to make us live as full and richly as its framers and other might want. That task is returned to us, and in so taking, we may use this Profession to kindle the light and love of God within us and our world. This light which is neither diminished or lost in the sharing.]

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