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Sunday, October 1, 2006

The UU gospel according to Fausto.

Deep in an arcane thread of conversation, Fausto offered this story linking Unitarian Universalism's past to its future. After reading his, do you have a story to offer in response?

If it's down-to-earth, grounded stories that we need to rely upon to save us, here's ours:

We are not the anything-goes, follow-your-bliss New Agers, though we may appeal to some of them. We are not the Thoreauesque transcendental loners, though we may appeal to some of them. We are not the religious humanists or intellectual atheists or logical positivists, though we may appeal to some of them. We are not the wounded ex-Christians escaping religion done badly, though we may appeal to some of them. We are not the countercultural rebels and firebrands, though we may appeal to some of them. We are not the product or continuing tradition of 19th- or 20th-century intellectual rebellions against the prevailing religious suppositions of those eras, though we may appeal to some who would continue to rebel. We are not a community of prophetic scolds whose duty is to publicly name and deplore every sin of the larger society, though we may appeal to some who think of themselves as Jeremiahs.

What we are is what we have always been: the liberal Puritans. We are the First (literally!) Churches in Plymouth, Salem and Boston, and their hundreds of affiliated daughter congregations, still alive and still offering the same vibrant and valid witness that we have for almost 400 years. We stand for redemption by the unlimited power of love rather than a selective gift of grace; by the power of self-improvement rather than the magic of special doctrines; by the diligent nurture of righteous character rather than the passive acceptance of God's favor; by the unceasing search for knowledge, because there is no divine principle which can be contrary to truth; by diligent and selfless service to society, especially its least fortunate members, in humble gratitude for and stewardship of whatever earthly blessings and privileges we may enjoy.

Our history repeatedly shows that the farther away we wander from this, our core identity, the weaker and more enervated we become. But by the same token, in each generation we discover anew that this core is what makes us who we are, and who we have always been, and that when we return to it, we find renewed strength.

Thanks, Fausto!

Update 10.3.06: Make sure to read the back-and-forth about Fausto's story over at Making Chutney.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 1 October 2006 at 2:04 PM

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October 1, 2006 02:47 PM | Permalink for this comment

Aw shucks, it was nothin'.


October 1, 2006 03:53 PM | Permalink for this comment

Yep, that's pretty bitchin'.

h sofia:

October 1, 2006 04:23 PM | Permalink for this comment

More love power!


October 1, 2006 05:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

Could someone provide bibliography that proves that the Puritans believed in "the unlimited power of love rather than a selective gift of grace"? It would help me a lot to learn about your origins.

I am not a son of the Puritans, but of the Radical Reformation, of Servetus and Socinus and Biandrata and Dávid. Of those who believed in the autonomy and liberty of the individual in front of the powers of the State and the Church, those who believed in the power of reason and free will, those who thought that we are not born with original sin but are rightful sons and daughters of a just God.

Maybe we belong to different traditions? I don't know. Your help will be much appreciated for me to discern this issue.


October 1, 2006 07:30 PM | Permalink for this comment

The Simpsons is, at this moment, running a hilarious epsiode about the Puritans. They are led by Ned Flandish.



October 1, 2006 07:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jaume asks: "Could someone provide bibliography that proves that the Puritans believed in 'the unlimited power of love rather than a selective gift of grace'?"

Not all Puritans did, but the more liberal ones did. (They all believed in grace, of course, but not all believed in a strict predestination in which grace was granted to some but withheld from others.)

"Charles Chauncy, the great-grandson of the minister who came to Plymouth in 1638 and became the second president of Harvard College, served the First Church in Boston for sixty years, effectively opposing Jonathan Edwards and the extravagant emotionalism of the Great Awakening,"* and in 1784 wrote a magnum opus lengthily entitled, The Mystery Hid From Ages and Generations Made Manifest By the Gospel-Revelation: Or the Salvation of All Men the Grand Thing Aimed at in the Scheme of God as Opened in the New Testament Writings and Entrusted With Jesus Christ to Bring Into Effect. (If words are good, I suppose more words are better.)

At around this same time, other liberal Puritans were discovering (via English Unitarian intermediaries) and adopting as their own the antitrinitarian Christology and quasi-Pelagian soteriology of the radical Reformers. Chauncy's contemporary Jonathan Mayhew of West Church in Boston was preaching Unitarian Christology before the American Revolution; and by 1805 a majority of the Harvard faculty was openly Unitarian, which prompted the orthodox Calvinists to resign and found a rival seminary at Andover (now Andover-Newton Theological School).

* source:


October 1, 2006 09:03 PM | Permalink for this comment

To add to Jaume's concerns, doesn't this leave the Universalists out?

I don't want to be a Puritan, not even a liberal one. And I'm not interested in being a descendant of the "New England mindset," as some Unitarian missionaries put it.

(Not trying to be snarky, just being honest.)


October 1, 2006 10:29 PM | Permalink for this comment

Did I leave the Universalists out? Not intentionally. I did list the redeeming and unlimited power of love first, after all. But our Puritan roots are older, and they are also more uniquely identifying.

Liberalism was already ascendant in our Puritan churches before our Universalist ones began to be founded, and Puritan liberalism even supplied some of the momentum of the earliest Universalists. For example, Chauncy was writing his essays on universal salvation at First Church in Boston well before 1779, when John Murray's church, the first "Universalist Church" in the US to be named as such, was gathered in Gloucester -- by liberal members of the Puritan First Parish there.

Mike Hogue:

October 1, 2006 10:31 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bravo Fausto!!!

I think this is not what we "are" though indeed what we "should" be. And I think that it "is" not at present our "vibrant" and "vital" witness, but it "should" be. And to incarnate these "shoulds" the telling and retelling of the story needs to begin anew, because it has been lost!

It is a story in need of evangelists with the theological training requisite to telling it in a mode that apologizes for its loss and that can apoogetically commend it!

Thanks for this!

At ML I have initiated a series of extra-currucular Friday afternoon theology chats with aspiring UU ministers in which the shape of this story and its cognates will focus us. I will post reflections on these chats on the ML blog site and report here when appropriate. Our general question is "what is the purupose of UUism in today's world?," to be explored through several themes. We will begin with some theological work on the meanigs of worship and liturgy, move to reflect on our possible responsibilities to a recovery of God-talk in our movement, and discuss the significance of Jesus for UU's, among other things. I hasten to add that this list of topics was generated by the students themselves.

Bill Baar:

October 2, 2006 07:23 AM | Permalink for this comment

It's our history. Like it or not.

That what we are not, appeals to so many identified above is a source for conflict; but a conflict leading along the path of unceasing search for knowledge, because there is no divine principle which can be contrary to truth.

Maybe we should deal with that conflict a little more explicitly. It would yield some progress towards truth.

Mike Hogue:

October 2, 2006 10:49 AM | Permalink for this comment

Regarding Jaume's insightful comments:

I do think there are multiple Unitarian traditions and that it is right to point out that we are not always talking about the same things. Jaume's perspective brings this to light.

The tradition Fausto is I think very accutately representing is the Unitarian tradition in North America, which points backward to liberal Puritanism and forward into Christian Universalism, and further beyond into our present situation. Noting the (geographic and historical) specificity of this tradition-story only underlines a further complexity.

When we are seeking a "gospel" or "story" for UUism, most of this work here on this side of the blogosphere is referring to a tradition-movement in the US. The task beyond identifying ourselves theologically and historically within this setting will be to find the points of linkage between our own identity situation and other traditions in other places.

This will inevitably require some deep "hermeneutical" work (theological and historical) that I think can be "saving" (inverting the negativity of Philocrites' early charge) the sense that it will be part of moving us beyond a contemporary UU myopia that is not only "presentist" but also geographic.

But that seems to me to be a step down the road a bit.


October 2, 2006 11:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

It is, to be sure, part of our history. But it is only a part once the whole is considered.


October 2, 2006 01:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

I agree with Mike's answer to Jaume, and Bill's to Chutney.

Our denomination in North America springs from similar theological underpinnings to those that arose in Transylvania, Poland, England, and elsewhere. However, it is specifically the North American denomination that I am describing. We have the same sort of relationships, affinities, and differences with our sister movements elsewhere that other culturally or geographically distinct denominations with shared theologies have with theirs -- for example, the Presbyterian Church (USA), Church of Scotland, and Dutch Reformed Church share a common theological orientation but have distinct cultural heritages and administrative orgainizations.

Within North America, I think it is a limited vision that sees us only as the product of the merger of two disparate traditions in 1961. As I've tried to argue above, both the Unitarian and the Universalist denominations were formed out of the liberal urge that arose within New England Puritanism. We are not so much two unrelated traditions that recently combined, as two intertwining threads of the same stream, threads that originated from the same source, diverged and flowed in different but parallel courses for 150+ years, and then reconnected.


October 2, 2006 02:25 PM | Permalink for this comment

Make sure to read Chutney's longer response to Fausto.

Ron Robinson:

October 2, 2006 07:06 PM | Permalink for this comment

First, Fausto, thanks too. Good work.
Second, Mike, also thanks for helping find a form for that conversation at ML, and the students for engaging with it. If I or we at the UUCF can be helpful or a part of some of the dialogue, just let me know.
Executive Director, UU Christian Fellowship


October 2, 2006 07:07 PM | Permalink for this comment

I sympathize with the unwillingness to identify with the popular caricatures of the Puritans. Historical glosses do not deal kindly with them.

During my brief ministry in Watertown, MA, I had the opportunity to browse through some of the church’s records, dating back as it does to the “other” 1630 landing party (other than First Church Boston who were on the same boat). I was most interested in the congregation’s response to the hysteria in Salem at the time of the infamous witch trials.

It seems the Watertown pastor--a member of the Phillips family I recall, although not exactly which one—participated in a meeting of the gathered Puritan ministers for the area. As each congregation was self-governing, no hierarchy existed. But the brethren did gather from time to time. And they sent a blunt message (in Puritan talk it was something like, “with all due respect, we implore thou to seriously consider the wisdom of our love for you, blah, blah, blah) to the Salem pastors to cut it out!

As with our UU churches today, the covenented people in meeting shall judge—period, end of sentence. I think of that as equivalent to Marx’s “life is determined by the ownership of the means of production,” so I regard myself as having been shaped in a wholesale fashion by that inheritance from my Puritan ancestors—even when I’m hardly aware of it.

I attended the GA and its Service of the Living tradition in 2005 and couldn’t help wondering what my ancestors would think of the rainbow of festooned clergy parading past to accept their various credentials—evidence of the inescapable sinfulness in this life, no doubt. Or else a grudging concession that the Elizabethans are winning.

I know my Puritan ancestors would not sit still for our disposable Earth, for foppery, gross waste of resources (both human and natural), shallow thinking and the other prideful errors of our consumer culture. Yeah, they might need to be reminded to lighten up. But I do not accept a casual dismissal of them as always dour and unhappy. Their offspring were noticeably productive in more offspring, and it’s not easy to do that without at least a smidgen of joy sneaking into your life.


October 2, 2006 08:57 PM | Permalink for this comment

See also James Ford on icons and communities, who writes:

Our work as religious liberals is not to bring a new set of ideals or principles for reforming or even revolutionizing society, but the establishment of a new community, a people that embody forgiveness, share with one another, manifesting a self-sacrificing love in our rituals and discipline. In that sense, the visible community is not to be the bearer of any message, but to be the message. To be the image.

Colin Bossen:

October 3, 2006 07:12 AM | Permalink for this comment

I hate to be snarky but I have to admit I find Fausto's account of who we are troubling on at least a few levels:

1. As Jaume pointed out, or at least implied, it smacks a little bit too much of American exceptionalism. Worldwide we're just as much a child of the Radical Reformation as we are of the Puritan churches (and indeed there's some overlap). While in America many of our New England congregations and East Coast came from Puritan tradition some did not. King Chapel was a rebel Anglican congregation. There are several congregations in Pennsylvania that were organized by followers of Joseph Priestley and seem to have come from a more Pietist strain of Universalism.

2. It ends with a historically inaccurate statement: "Our history repeatedly shows that the farther away we wander from this, our core identity, the weaker and more enervated we become. But by the same token, in each generation we discover anew that this core is what makes us who we are, and who we have always been, and that when we return to it, we find renewed strength." I am sorry but in the 20th century this was just not true. The greatest period of growth for Unitarians occurred between the 1940s and the 1960s and was due in a large part to the Fellowship movement. The Fellowship movement was and is strongly tied to the Humanist tradition.

3. As someone who is not a WASP nor infatuated with New England I find it slightly alienating. I was a raised a UU because my father is Jewish (of the secular anti-Zionist socialist variety) and my mother is an ex-Methodist/Moravian. They wanted a religious community where they could raise my brother with progressive values. It was important for them that that religious community was not dominated by Christianity or Judaism and that it left my brother and I room in which to find our own way. If Fausto's story was the story that was told in the congregations I grew-up in I would probably not be a UU today.

Bill Baar:

October 3, 2006 08:16 AM | Permalink for this comment

Puritans as dour, unhappy, sexually oppressed has never been an obstacle for me. Puritans as ethnic cleansers starting with the Pequot Wars has been.

I don't share Colin's dislike of American exceptionalistm though. We are exceptional. Only in America do you find it ordinary to see unions of secular anti-Zionist socialists and ex-Methodist/Moravians. It's not God but our unique history and heritage that's made us excptional and a people willing to take on excpetional tasks.

The short coming I think is a habit of forgetting our history, as Fausto has given us here, and reflecting on it, and understanding the contradictions history offers in tragedies like the Pequot War.

Bill Baar:

October 3, 2006 08:18 AM | Permalink for this comment

...never an obstacle because I don't think it true. It's a frame we've layed on Puritans as part of a more modern debate.


October 3, 2006 08:57 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm not making excuses for the shortcomings of the Puritans, or holding them up as an ideal image of the fully realized Beloved Community. (Though John Winthrop's "City on a Hill" sermon does express the hope that they might soon build one, and it is a hope we have never abandoned.) What I am saying is that the churches of the Puritans never died out but evolved into us, and we still possess not only many of their original churches but also many of their characteristic traits, good and not-so-good, whether we acknowledge them or not, and their legacy is one of the unique things that distinguishes us from other faith communities.

(Incidentally, Kings Chapel became Unitarian not because of its prior Anglican associations, but because it called James Freeman, who had trained at liberal Puritan Harvard, to its pulpit, and he demanded Unitarian revisions to its liturgy as a condition of accepting his call. There, the defining influence was very clearly liberal Puritan, not Anglican, even though KC also retains an Anglican form of liturgy to this day.)

BTW, can anyone say with a straight face that UUism does not "smack of American exceptionalism"? Of course it does, whether or not it is "too much", and we get that from our Puritan heritage too.

Bill Baar:

October 3, 2006 10:44 AM | Permalink for this comment

...can anyone say with a straight face that UUism does not "smack of American exceptionalism"?

Not me. It's a big reason why I joined and stay. I take our heritage warts and all.

I do think part of evolving is rexamining history over and over again. That ongoing self-examination makes America and UU's exceptional.

It's not a gift from God, it's our own doing; but exceptional none the less.

Ron Robinson:

October 3, 2006 11:55 AM | Permalink for this comment

Just blogged a bit on this and comments over at and referenced earlier blogpost from August on Puritanism and Emergent churches.

[See Okies and Liberal Puritans (10.3.06), Emergent/Organic & Puritan Concerns (8.16.06). —Philo]


October 3, 2006 02:04 PM | Permalink for this comment

American exceptionalism, as I understand it, portrays the individual as basking in the reflected glow of historical myth. A related but reversed emphasis can be found in the marvelous little book on Stanley Cavell, by British philosopher Espen Hammer who comments,

“Before attempting to master my subjectivity in exemplary ways, not only do I fail to know myself and my position in the world; I also do not know others, or rather the extent of our agreement. Thus my existence is unknown unless I make myself known, i.e., express myself; and to possess one’s existence (…) is ultimately to enact it. In his more recent works Cavell adopts the name ‘perfectionism’ for this concomitant search for the self and the other.”


October 3, 2006 09:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

Colin: I admit I have not given it much thought before this, but I see the post-1930s American religious humanism and the admiration of science (which I identify as the primary sparks for post-WWII UU expansion, along with the enormous general population expansion of the times) as fully compatible with the Puritan ethos of "plan for the future," intellectual honesty, and work together. No? Too simple? Could well be.


October 3, 2006 10:04 PM | Permalink for this comment

I too perceive distinctly Puritan overtones in the Humanist movement. Hwever, even though Humanism draws from and reflects a Puritan sensibility, I don't think Humanism presents UUism with the same archetypal qualities that their common liberal Puritan source does, though. Humanism was never ours alone, and we were never all Humanists.

Mike Hogue:

October 3, 2006 10:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

I have expressed appreciation for Fausto's "story," and indicated that the recovery and retelling of it depends upon some remedial theological work. This "theological literacy" has been my "theme" for awhile. I raised it in my GA speech and in other contexts as a means or condition for thinking through many of the other issues in UUism. I still hold to this and have just written a very brief, and incomplete, post about the kind of thing I have in mind on the ML blog. I hope some of you will check it out and comment.

I hope that it is needless to say that it is not intended to be a "solution" but simply to stimulate some thinking and discussion.

Be well,


Pat McLaughlin:

October 9, 2006 07:24 PM | Permalink for this comment

Perhaps it will help a bit if we remember that "Puritan" was a term that the folks it's applied to (in this particular context--the folks we often talk of as 'Pilgrims') rejected. They were "Separatists."

And I see an ongoing strain of separatism in many of the people and movements that have come into the UU movement.


October 9, 2006 09:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

Pat, I was using the term "Puritan" loosely, as it came to be used in the generations following the establishment of our earliest churches, as shorthand for all of the old Standing Order churches of New England. As a general label the term eventually embraced both the original Separatist (i.e., Plymouth and its fledglings) and Non-Separatist (i.e., Massachusetts Bay) churches, as well as the ones in the Connecticut Valley. Plymouth and her daughters realized early on that separatism from secular society was a civilized conceit that needed to be subordinated to the exigencies of collective survival in the wilderness, while the Non-Separatists of Mass. Bay realized that it's futile to maintain a focus on reforming the Church of England along purer lines when there's no Church of England presence in the vicinity.

However, you raise a good point. The tension between separatism and engagement was present in our earliest congregations and remains with us today. Another tension that we inherit from our earliest times is the "Antinomian Controversy" -- whether the individual conscience is the the final and sufficient arbiter of spiritual Truth, or whether it is more reliably discerned within the tradition and consensus of a covenanted community.

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