a sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Tim W. Jensen
at the First Parish Church in Portland, Maine
Sunday March 1st, 2009
OPENING WORDS: “Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error.... Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion by bringing every false one to their tribunal.” --Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia.
“ I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian....”
These words may be new to you, but we are coming up now on the 187th anniversary of their composition, and I personally have been living with their haunting irony for most of my adult lifetime. They stand before me like a taunting challenge from a heckler in the back of the room: if you’re so smart, why ain’t your rich? If you’re so famous, why haven’t I heard of you? And if your religion is so great, why aren’t there a lot more of Unitarian Universalists?
There are a little over 300 million Americans alive today, approximately half of whom are, have been, or will be young men. On the other hand, there are only about 250 thousand Unitarian Universalists living in the United States, and only 39% of those are male. Of course, I’m talking about certified members now. If you look instead at census and polling data, those numbers improve a litte; according to Gallop and the Pew Charitable Trust, approximately three to six-tenths of one per cent of Americans consider themselves to be Unitarians, Universalists, or some combination thereof. Even so, the basic reality is that to be a Unitarian Universalist is to be one in a thousand. Or to put it another way, if you were going to mingle in a random group of people [obviously not here, but maybe at the mall], your chances of running into another Unitarian there would be approximately 250 times WORSE than my chances of surviving cancer for the next five years!
This Winter I’ve been preaching a series of sermons on something I call “UU DNA” -- the things about “our liberal movement in theology” which are so distinct and ubiquitous that they might be thought of as part of our “genetic make-up.” So far I’ve spoken about the “promiscuous” nature of our unique version of Congregational Polity, about the importance of Personal Religious Experience as the principal source of religious authority, and also about Unitarian Universalist responses to the Problem of Evil: “why bad things happen to good people.” And those sermons can now all be found on our church website; [I believe you can get to them by clicking on my face at the firstparishportland.org homepage}. And now today and again in a couple of weeks we come to the conclusion of this series, by examining this lingering and sometimes haunting sense of challenge and expectation -- as well as missed opportunity and squandered potential -- that still sometimes colors our image of ourselves two centuries after Jefferson made his prediction. If we’re so great, why aren’t there more of us? In fact, why have so many people never even heard of us at all?
But before we tackle those questions, I’d first like to look a little more closely at Jefferson’s own Unitarian credentials. Denominational historians generally consider Jefferson to be one of five Unitarian or Universalist presidents. But unlike the other four: John and John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft -- all of whom have tangible records of church membership and denominational involvement -- Jefferson considered himself “content to be a Unitarian by myself,” and was never formally affiliated with any Unitarian church or organization.
Part of this is simply a matter of geography and historical timing. Jefferson was born in 1743, and died at his home at Montecello in Virginia on July 4th, 1826 [the same day John Adams died at his home in Massachussets]. For approximately two/thirds of his life, Liberal Christianity (at least in America) would have been known simply as that; it was not until after 1805 (and the election of Henry Ware Sr. as the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, at the beginning of Jefferson’s second term as President) that the term “Unitarian” began to come into use to describe the liberals, and it was really not until a decade later, at William Ellery Channing’s 1819 sermon at the ordination of Jared Sparks in Baltimore (Unitarianism’s southernmost congregation at that time) that the label “Unitarian Christianity” was publicly used by the liberals themselves, to describe the doctrines they felt defined their faith.
By that time there were already one hundred or more congregations who were Unitarian in all be name [including this one here in Portland], but they were mostly here in New England; only Joseph Priestly’s church in Philadelphia, an offshoot of British Unitarianism, was an exception to this rule. It was not until 1825 -- a mere 13 months (actually, a year, a month, a week and a day) before Jefferson and Adams’s deaths, that the American Unitarian Association was formally organized in Boston.
Jefferson was a great admirer and supporter of Priestly, and probably even attended services at Priestly’s church in Philadelphia while living and serving in the Government there; he was certainly familiar with Priestly’s writings, which were an inspiration for his own infamous “Jefferson Bible.” But as a public figure whose religious opinions were already controversial, Jefferson was reluctant to have his name invoked in theological disputes, and therefore tended to keep his personal faith a private matter, to be discussed only among close friends and those who shared his views. Yet despite having been born too soon to enjoy what some have called “the Golden Age of Unitariansim, “ there is certainly no doubt in my own mind, as a historian, that when Jefferson died as an old man of 83, he died a Unitarian.
But just exactly what did being a Unitarian mean in Jefferson’s day? A good portion of Jefferson’s creed we heard in this morning’s reading: that God is One, and that Jesus was a great spiritual teacher, who taught that our highest duty in life is to Love God with all our hearts, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Beyond that though, Jefferson’s personal faith embodied three additional features typical of Unitarianism then and now. The Unitarian historian Earl Morse Wilbur has described these qualities as “Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance,” and in many ways they still characterize the continuity in liberal religion from Jefferson’s day until our own.
By Freedom is meant the very idea of religious liberty or “liberalism” itself: the Freedom of Conscience which entitles (and obligates!) the seeker to believe whatever their Reason and their Experience tell them to be true. Reason, in turn, places its trust in what was then sometimes called “Natural Theology” rather than revelation-- a belief in “Nature and Nature’s God” whose eternal truths are self-evident, and best discerned and understood through scientific observation and logical inquiry, rather than through some sort of supernatural revelation. Jefferson’s co-revolutionary Benjamin Franklin once quipped that “so convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do.” But in more serious moments, the distinction between “rationality” and “rationalization” is easily discerned by “reasonable” human beings.
It’s the question of Tolerance that more frequently causes stumbling. The value of Freedom dictates a broad latitude of belief and opinion, since each is free to follow their own conscience. The value of Reason, on the other hand, is constantly asking that nagging question: “How far can we open our minds before our brains fall out?” Jefferson’s notion of a “marketplace” of religious ideas, where each religion is brought before the tribunal of Reason and Free Inquiry, proved itself somewhat naive and ineffective in the context of a complete separation of Church and State, where mere “toleration” gave way to an environment of diversity and pluralism where the mere idea of a dominant “true religion” seems absurd.
In his book Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America’s Founding Fathers, my friend and Divinity School classmate Gary Kowalski describes what happened next:
**By defining the individual as a spiritual free agent within an unregulated religious marketplace, the founders opened the field to revivalists vying to save souls by whatever means possible -- promises of heaven or threats of hell packaged in terms the roughest pioneers could comprehend.
**A changing theology propelled America’s conversion. An earlier generation held that only God could deliver sinners into a state of grace. There was little human beings could do to hasten or prevent a dynamic of redemption that was entirely in the hands of the Almighty. But evangelists in the nineteenth century agreed that a more popular, extemporaneous preaching style might help ready the reprobate to receive the divine influx. Droning sermons gave way to more dramatic altar calls. Showmanship entered the pulpit. The two former presidents [Adams and Jefferson], with their high-minded, philosophic discourse were at a persuasive disadvantage. [p 190]**
Unlike Jefferson, John Adams believed that there was a place for an established church in the new United States, and had his views prevailed that church would have no doubt resembled some form of Unitarianism. But with the First Amendment and Jefferson’s “wall of separation,” future generations faced a very different landscape than the one their ancestors had known. [But this is territory we will explore next time, when we examine “Mr Jefferson’s Legacy.” ]
READING: letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822
To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse
Monticello, June 26, 1822
Dear Sir, -- I have received and read with thankfulness and pleasure your denunciation of the abuses of tobacco and wine. Yet, however sound in its principles, I expect it will be but a sermon to the wind. You will find it as difficult to inculcate these sanative precepts on the sensualities of the present day, as to convince an Athanasian that there is but one God. I wish success to both attempts, and am happy to learn from you that the latter, at least, is making progress, and the more rapidly in proportion as our Platonizing Christians make more stir and noise about it. The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.
1. That there is one only God, and he all perfect.
2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself; is the sum of religion.
These are the great points on which he endeavored to reform the religion of the Jews. But compare with these the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin.
1. That there are three Gods.
2. That good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing.
3. That faith is every thing, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.
4. That reason in religion is of unlawful use.
5. That God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save.
Now, which of these is the true and charitable Christian? He who believes and acts on the simple doctrines of Jesus? Or the impious dogmatists as Athanasius and Calvin? Verily I say these are the false shepherds foretold as to enter not by the door into the sheepfold, but to climb up some other way. They are mere usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a counter-religion made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet. Their blasphemies have driven thinking men into infidelity, who have too hastily rejected the supposed author himself, with the horrors so falsely imputed to him. Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.
But much I fear, that when this great truth shall be re-established, its votaries will fall into the fatal error of fabricating formulas of creed and confessions of faith, the engines which so soon destroyed the religion of Jesus, and made of Christendom a mere Aceldama; that they will give up morals for mysteries, and Jesus for Plato. How much wiser are the Quakers, who, agreeing in the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, schismatize about no mysteries, and, keeping within the pale of common sense, suffer no speculative differences of opinion, any more than of feature, to impair the love of their brethren. Be this the wisdom of Unitarians, this the holy mantle which shall cover within its charitable circumference all who believe in one God, and who love their neighbor! I conclude my sermon with sincere assurances of my friendly esteem and respect.