Copyright © by John C. Morgan. Reprinted by permission.
The issue facing Unitarian Universalists entering a new century is that we often lack spiritual focus and depth, at a time when increasing numbers of newcomers to our congregations are demanding both. The decades of “Enlightenment” Unitarianism are ending. We can no longer see ourselves as an “alternative to religion,” but rather as a powerful religious alternative, one that speaks not only to the intellect but also to the heart and the spirit. We also must learn to see ourselves as a community, a people–and not simply as individuals who happen to gather on Sundays.
Pietism is a way of life that can be found in many spiritual traditions, a religion of the heart that most church historians believe arose in the Protestantism of Europe during the last decades of the seventeenth century…. As a spiritual tradition, Pietism has focused on living one’s faith as much as believing it (orthopraxy as contrasted with orthodoxy),Christian congregations, the spiritual revival of personal and corporate life, and the application of the teachings of Jesus to social problems.
Though the term “Pietist” may have had a negative connotation (someone who is self-righteous and smug or wants to escape the world), the fact is that Pietism was for too long defined by its opponents; today, a wider and richer understanding of Pietism is being discovered in many religious circles.
The title of this book, The Devotional Heart, illustrates how much Pietism influenced the earliest Universalists. It is taken from a quote by the great Universalist theologian Hosea Ballou, who wrote that Pietism means living the life of reverence, of devotion, in the depths:
We must not look for religion in creeds or formularies of human invention. We must look for it in the honest, the pious, the devotional heart; in the heart which truly loves God, loves its [sister and] brother also. The principle of love to God and goodwill to all is true religion.
The remedy for our future is contained in our past…..I began to explore the Pietistic Universalist roots of our tradition, especially as they arose in Pennsylvania–specifically under the leadership of Dr. George de Benneville, a “radical Pietist,” mystic, teacher, doctor, and student of native American religion and medicine.
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Few books have been written on the Pietist heritage in Unitarian Universalism…
Almost all of the major work on Pietism has been done by other religious traditions, especially the Brethren, Moravians, Schwenkfelders, Lutherans, and Methodists. I shall discuss many reasons why Unitarian Universalists have not, until recently, examined the Pietist tradition. By focusing our energies on New England we have missed Pennsylvania. Even when we encountered our evangelical ancestors, we might have been embarrassed. After all, in a movement dominated by the cool spirit of the Enlightenment, what could one do with a horde of evangelical circuit riders, Trinitarians, preachers who spoke from the heart, and people who lived far from Boston in the hills of New England or the rambunctious environs of Philadelphia?
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The spiritual renewal of Unitarian Universalism is a matter of ultimate concern. It matters to me whether there are people who call themselves Unitarian Universalists, not just for themselves but for the sake of the world. With all its weaknesses, Unitarian Universalism can model what it means to be a pluralistic spiritual community in a world sadly full of religious hate and deaths. That mission alone should be enough.
I hope that the renewal of Universalism will make us whole as a religious people, enriching our spiritual life and reconnecting us with religious traditions that share some of our Pietist heritage: The Society of Friends, Moravians, Methodists, Lutherans, Schwenkfelders, Brethren, and others. But I also am aware that the recovery of our Pietist heritage brings with it a judgment about our failure as a religious community to keep alive a significant part of our heritage and, in the name of a rational orthodoxy, to deny our own spiritual resources. No people can live in denial without suffering the loss of some dimension of their existence. Our loss has been spiritual depth. Yet it is not too late to recover our spirituality and, since it comes from the genius of religious liberalism, to restate it for a new century.
PIETIST ROOTS IN EUROPE AND AMERICA
Because of its relatively obscure place in Unitarian Universalist history, Pietism, the religion of the heart, is seldom understood in its historical context. Within the last few decades, however, in many religious traditions (e.g., Brethren, Lutheran), interest in Pietism has revived, as well as a new willingness to understand its theological, historical, and ethical contributions to contemporary religious life. Unitarian Universalists have seldom been involved in this reassessment, even though Pietism was a major influence on most of the early founders of Universalism, such as John Murray, Hosea Ballou, George de Benneville, and Elhanan Winchester. There have been strong Pietist elements among Unitarians as well, not only the Transcendentalists such as Emerson, but also the founder of American Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing, whose focus on experience and character and a living faith relate to classic Pietist concerns.
It is necessary, therefore, to provide a brief overview of Pietism’s development. A grasp of Pietism’s roots is especially important for Unitarian Universalists, many of whom have no knowledge of its history or connections to their faith.
If we view Pietism as a tree, its roots would be the early Christian church…. Many Pietists, of whatever time, have had the sense that the church of their time has been corrupted, and the necessary reform required a return to the pattern of the early Christian community. So Pietists might argue that Pietism begins in the New Testament….
The European beginning of Pietism as a distinct historical entity can be dated to the 1675 publication of Phillip Jacob Spener’s Pia Desideria [Pious Desires]. From Spener, two sometimes distinct but often interrelated Pietistic streams emerge: Churchly Pietism, and Separatist or Radical Pietism. While both shared common concerns–the feeling that the church had strayed from the New Testament, a call to holy living, the sense of God’s presence, and the need for reform–they differed greatly in how reform might be accomplished.
Churchly Pietism’s reforms were directed toward the reform of, and not separation from, the church; the goal was to continue and renew Luther’s Reformation. Among the leaders after Spener was August Hermann Franke (1663-1727), who put into practice many of Spener’s reforms. The center of such activity was the University of Halle, Germany, which sent some of the earliest missionaries to America. The major thrust of Separatist or Radical Pietism was to separate from the established churches to form communities more in line with what was considered the New Testament pattern. Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714) was an early leader; in the American colonies, especially Pennsylvania, Separatism influenced many Pietists, including some Universalists.
In terms of personal spiritual development and social impact, the Separatist tradition offers much. The life of George de Benneville shows that his faith bore fruits in the life of the wider community. But de Benneville did not start a church called Universalist; he organized no denomination. Believing in the unity of religion, he did not wish to splinter Christendom into greater divisions. For contemporary Unitarian Universalists, de Benneville provides an excellent example of a role model for personal spiritual growth and wider witness. He is a spiritual hero too long neglected.
For institutional spiritual renewal, Separatism is less helpful to present-day Unitarian Universalists. It provides insights into personal and social witness, but not into the renewal of whole communities. Indeed, excessive introspection coupled with attaching importance to religious experience provides the framework for an individualism that has made the experience of community so difficult. Rather, Churchly Pietism provides a corrective to the Separatist emphasis on personal renewal and a model for future community renewal.
The impact of European Pietism in early America was deep, diverse, and pervasive. From the Churchly Pietist stream came Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg (1711-1787), the early leader of the Lutherans. From the Separatist Pietists came many early leaders: Count Zinzendorf (1700-1760), Moravian; Johann Conrad Beissel (1690-1768), of the Ephrata Cloisters; Johann Kelpius (1673-1708), from a Philadelphia religious community; Ernst Christian Hochman von Hohenua (1670-1721), of the Brethren. Other groups, such as the Society of Friends, Methodists, Shakers, Dunkards, and Baptists were influenced by Pietism.
Pietist roots are deep in the American spiritual tradition, including the earliest expressions of Universalism in New England and the mid-Atlantic states. Pietism had great influence on most of the preachers and leaders of the earliest expressions of Universalism. Dr. George de Benneville (1703-1793), one of the earliest proponents of Universalism in America, is a main link between European Separatist Pietism and American Universalism. Many early Pietists gathered to worship in de Benneville’s Oley, Pennsylvania, house church. All of the early major founders of Universalism were influenced by Pietism: John Murray with Methodist Pietism in England; Elhanan Winchester, who was raised in the Baptist tradition; and Hosea Ballou, Universalism’s greatest theologian, who was raised a Baptist.
The colony of Pennsylvania was a hotbed of religious fervor and Pietism. A haven for those who fled religious persecution in Europe, Pennsylvania welcomed many sects, especially German Pietists. New Jersey, too, was settled by people with Pietist leanings. At what is now Barnegat Light, New Jersey, in 1770 John Murray preached the “first Universalist sermon in America,” though Pietists from the Ephrata Cloister had probably preached Universalism earlier there. Murray preached his sermon in a small chapel built in 1760 by Thomas Potter, himself probably a Pietistic Universalist, to await a Universalist preacher.
Though the Pietistic influence was strong in the mid-Atlantic states, it also influenced Universalists in New England. The first Universalist society in New England came under some Pietist influence simply because its pastor was John Murray. But elsewhere in New England–in the “hill country” of New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and western Massachusetts–a lively Pietistic Universalism flourished. Caleb Rich, Isaac Davis, and Adams Streeter became leaders of a radical, revivalistic, Evangelical Universalism that spread rapidly in the rural areas and small towns–a development quite different from the more genteel evolution of New England Unitarianism.
The rich and diverse spiritual heritage called Pietism raises the question: Why has it been so neglected by Unitarian Universalists? A few reasons are that our German roots and expression have received less attention than our English roots and expression of Pietism. For example, we know more about John Murray and the rise of Universalism in New England than about George de Benneville and the rise of German Pietists in the Pennsylvania colony. In addition, Unitarian Universalist historians have focused on New England rather than on the mid-Atlantic states. In general, few Unitarian Universalist historians are familiar with Pietism. Furthermore, some early Pietistic Universalists were simply not interested in forming a separate church called Universalist; hence they have been neglected (de Benneville’s notes and some of his journals, for example, are kept by the Schwenkfelders, not the Unitarian Universalists).
Finally, history is written by the victor. With the emergence of a Unitarianized version of Universalism in the twentieth century (a more rational, humanized ethos), Pietism suffered from either benign neglect or outright hostility, because it represented to some a relic from the past. What some view as a relic from the past, others see as a treasure. Therein is the final irony: what some have rejected may become the cornerstone of the renewal of Unitarian Universalism as it enters a new century.
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SEPARATIST PIETISM IN AMERICA
Philip Jacob Spener hoped to reform his church from within. But out of his movement arose Separatists or Radical Pietists who believed that instead it was necessary to form new religious communities.
One of the earliest and most influential of these radicals was Gottfried Arnold, who preached a mystical form of Christianity, contrasting those who had experienced a mystical union with Christ with those in the institutional church. If a believer had direct access to God, what need would there be for the mediation of church tradition or sacred text? It is at this point of “private interpretation” that later critics of Pietism insisted that it led to the dissolution of church authority and the notion of individualism. In The Rise and Fall of American Lutheran Pietism, for example, Paul Kuenning points out that Lutherans neglected Pietism for so long because they focused on its separatist branch, forgetting the classical form that was non-separatist, churchly, and reformist (Kuenning 1988, 3).
Though there are diverse and sometimes bewildering strains in Separatist Pietism (e.g., dreams, trances, near-death experiences), many Separatists shared four general themes according to F. Ernest Stoeffler’s Continental Pietism and Early American Christianity: a deeply personal, transforming experience of God; house-churches established on the early New Testament church model; an aversion to theology and dogma and a faith in the power of the Spirit to lead people, related to their belief that they were ushering in the restitution of the true church; and a joyful anticipation of the Second Coming and the Restitution of All Things (apokatastasis), which is a major part of Universalist theology (Stoeffler 1976, 164-165).
George de Benneville was not only a man remarkably ahead of his age, but a Pietist who had contact with European Pietists in Germany and Holland. His journal mentions his close relationship with Pietist Count de Marsey (1688-1752). Because so much of de Benneville’s later life was rooted in Pennsylvania, it is important to highlight some of his religious environment, which one German writer, Albert D. Bell, identified in these terms: “In Pennsylvania, we have many religious opinions, but only one religion: the Pennsylvania religion of ‘go a little, give a little, live and let live.’”(Bell, The Life and Times of Dr. George de Benneville, 1953, 31).
E. Digby Baltzell, in Puritan Boston and Quaker Phila-delphia, describes Pennsylvania as an “ethnic and religious melting pot,” fostering “egalitarian individualism,” in contrast to Boston’s more homogeneous community and “hierarchical commun-alism”(Baltzell 1979, 115). William Penn’s policy of religious toleration helped to bring to the region an array of groups, many of whom had suffered persecution in Europe: Dutch and German Reformed, Dunkers, Moravians, Schwenkfelders, Swedish and German Lutherans, Mennonites, Quakers, and others. By 1740, there were three major groups of immigrants: English, Germans, and Scotch-Irish. Although these groups intermingled, one Pennsylvania historian describes the early colony in these terms:
The simplest way to describe the population of colonial Pennsylvania is to picture a stake driven into the ground at the waterfront of Philadelphia. A 25-mile radius from this peg would encompass the area of Pennsylvania settled mainly by English immigrants between 1680 and 1710. Extend the radius to the length of 75 miles, and the outer 50 miles of the circle would correspond roughly to the “Dutch” country from Northampton to York Counties. Here, from 1710 to 1750, the German-speaking immigrants to colonial Pennsylvania made their homes. Again, extend the radius to 150 miles, and in the outermost circumference, corresponding roughly to the arc of the Allegheny Mountains and valleys, the Scotch Irish settled from 1717 to the Revolutionary War (Baltzell l979, 116).
Though the lines between various groups might be blurred, the picture is different from the more or less homogeneous confines of Massachusetts. Pennsylvania was a colony founded on the principle of religious toleration. Ben Franklin once asked Michael Wohlfahrt, a follower of Conrad Beissel, why his group did not publish their confession of faith. In words strikingly familiar to contemporary Unitarian Universalists, Wohlfahrt responded: “We are not sure that we have arrived at the end of this progression … and we fear that if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confined to it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive further improvement….” Franklin commented, “This modesty in a sect is perhaps a singular instance in the history of mankind, every other sect supposing itself in possession of all truth, and that those who differ are so far in the wrong” (Bell 1953, 31).
Yet Pennsylvania was also a battleground for winning converts, as new religious groups sought to establish their turf. No matter the religious tradition, clergy were in short supply. According to Stephen Longnecker’s The Christopher Sauers, in 1740 there were only three German Reformed pastors for twenty-seven congregations (Longnecker 1981, 96). Most congregations depended on Europe for pastors, except for some of the Separatist Pietists, who started house churches without ordained clergy.
What set the early development of religious groups apart in Pennsylvania was that the free-wheeling sects seemed better equipped than some of the established European church groups. Many of these sects came in groups; once here, they helped others come. Nor did they wait to have clergy to start their churches; many of their lay ministers supported themselves in other ways. Hence, as Longnecker notes, “A sectarian congregation could get rolling as soon as it organized and elected officers… “(Longnecker 1981, 98). A modern-day version of the sectarian congregations is the Unitarian Universalist fellowship movement, a network of free-wheeling, often anti-clerical, small groups started in the 1940s.
Clear connections existed between German Pietists and other sects in the Pennsylvania Colony. When William Penn and other Quakers gained control of West New Jersey in 1677, for example, they offered sanctuary to other Separatists from Germany and Holland. In 1726, 100 German Pietists emigrated from Wittenstein, Germany, to the Oley Valley of Pennsylvania, where de Benneville later was to settle. Longnecker cites that many of this group “hold the gospel of the Friends concerning the internal revelation of the Gospel. They hold, with the Dunkers, the doctrine of universal salvation” (Longnecker 1981, 76). It is little wonder, therefore, that when de Benneville arrived in the Oley Valley he was welcomed or that his journals are kept in the Schwenkfelder Library. The Separatist Pietists concentrated their settlements in the Oley Valley (now Berks County), and the Perkiomen Valley (now Montgomery County), in land provided by the Society of Friends.
“For such a humble, pious, loving man I have scarcely ever seen in my pilgrimage through life,” said the Rev. Elhanan Winchester of the first Universalist congregation in Philadelphia. Occasionally, Winchester accompanied George de Benneville on missionary tours. A summary of de Benneville’s life, as told by Winchester, appears in Some Remarkable Passages in the Life of Dr. George de Benneville:
Dr. de Benneville was born in London, England (July, 1703). He came of French Huguenot stock, and was the son of George de Benneville and Marie Granville, of Rouen, Normandy, France. In Dr. de Benneville’s story of his life no reference is made to his scientific studies in Germany. Yet… he was zealously devoted to scientific study, including the branch of medicine.
Following divine direction, he emigrated to America in 1741. The first person to greet him upon his arrival in the country of his adoption was Christopher Sauer, known in Germantown annuals as a printer and publisher.
Dr. de Benneville settled in Oley [Berks County], Pennsylvania, established himself as a physician, and began to preach the doctrine of Universal Restoration. Here he intermarried the Bertolette family… . About this time he built a large and substantial dwelling, in which a room was set apart for Christian worship; here, until his removal to Germantown, Pennsylvania, he lived and preached…the hopeful tenets of Universalism.
Dr. de Benneville preached the gospel and prac-ticed medicine, not only in Pennsylvania, in which he traveled extensively among the Indian tribes, but his active ministrations extended into Dela-ware, Maryland, and Virginia. About 1757, he re-moved to Germantown (Winchester 1890, 45-49).
Although some of de Benneville’s writings remain, by and large it was the influence of the man–not his works–that stood out, a factor that corresponds to the Pietist notion that a living Christianity is more important than a doctrinal one. Indeed, the transcription on a silver knife and fork presented to the family might serve as a motto for Dr de Benneville’s life: “Who trusts in God has built well. Who lives well, dies well” (Bell 1953, n.p.).
The deepest dimension of de Benneville’s life was spiritual; he was, in Winchester’s words, “in fullest sense, a prayerful man” (Winchester 1890, 57). His spirituality expressed itself in daily life: the study of the Bible; keeping notes of his life; family devotionals; and preaching in his small Pietistic house church. He was, as were many Pietists, concerned with the inward person; he wrote in contemporary terms, “The Inner Spirit makes men feel that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things…” (Bell 1953, n.p.). He believed that every person carried two natures, an inner and an outer. The outer person is mortal, limited, concerned with the visible world. The inner person is spiritual, subject to sin, but capable of a relationship with God.
The theology beneath this spirituality was both Christian and Universalist. De Benneville wrote:
Our faith is essentially the combined faith of all Christians and instead of increasing the divided churches, it is to bring them all into one, as truth alone grants… Glorious truths are found in every church and nation under the sun. And this glorious chain of truth which some believe will someday unite all of them into one form of love (Bell 1953, 62).
De Benneville believed in and lived the theology of universal salvation. His words echo this theme:
Preach the Universal and Everlasting Gospel of Boundless, Universal Love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular… . Proclaim and publish to the people of the world a Universal Gospel that shall restore, in time, all the human species without exception.
He will restore all his creatures, without exception, to the praise of His glory… . My happiness will be incomplete while one creature remains miserable … (Bell 1953, n.p.).
De Benneville based his theology of universal theology on the Scriptures; indeed, it is reported that he helped Christopher Sauer produce the first German-language Bible, and in so doing, put the biblical passages that justified universal salvation in red type! Yet, as a Pietist, de Benneville believed that right living was just as important as right believing and his life mirrored this belief. He befriended the local Native American tribes and spoke to them of their “Great Spirit” as his own. His house church was truly ecumenical, inviting preachers of various persuasions to speak. And when he established a family burial plot in the Germantown section of Philadelphia he permitted British soldiers to be buried there during the Revolutionary War when no one else would allow it.
De Benneville believed it was his obligation to share the faith of universal salvation. Thus he journeyed not only throughout Germany, Holland, and France, but also to Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. After settling in the Oley Valley he made frequent trips to Philadelphia and to the Ephrata Cloisters.
As with many Separatist preachers, de Benneville’s chief occupation was not as minister, but as physician and sometimes teacher. He understood the interconnections between body and spirit. Six or seven of his remaining medical volumes contain notes on his practice that essentially deal with domestic medicine, “primitive medicine”–herbal remedies, some of which he learned from Native American healers. When he moved to Philadelphia around 1758 he opened an apothecary shop in connection with his practice and his sons were trained in medicine. His medical journals translate various native American herbal remedies into English or German to use with his patients.
Although Pietism is criticized for being excessively inward, to the neglect of the world, such cannot be said of de Benneville. His ministry to neighboring Native Americans is especially interesting. He said he had learned as much about botany from the Native Americans as he had taught them. He preached among them the “Great Spirit’s” love for all humanity, declaring in language reminiscent of Joseph Campbell that “all symbols of the same truth are equally valid…” (Bell 1953, n.p.).
In dealing with Native Americans or other religious faiths, de Benneville tried to live out the requirements of his faith that the purpose of life was to work with the Creator in the salvation of all humanity and that while a single person remained outside that love, no one should rest easily. He did not have much regard for persons who defended the language of their faith without living it. “God judges men by their deeds,” he wrote, “and not their creeds. The language of eternal love is expressed in actions. These speak more than words…” (Bell 1953, n.p.). The deeds of the orthodox, he felt, were often unchristian. “What wrangling, strife, schism, hate, envy, bitterness, murder and manslaughter, persecutions and wars! How much innocent blood was shed on account of factiousness among religions!” (Bell 1953, n.p.).
God is love. These three words might describe the heart of de Benneville’s theology; faith, and the reason he believed that no person was beyond this God, whom he sometimes called “Our Sovereign Good” or “Infinite and Everlasting Love” (Bell 1953, n.p.). He wrote these remarkable words:
The spirit of Love will be intensified to Godly proportions when reciprocal love exists between the entire human race and each of its individual members. That love must be based upon mutual respect for the differences in color, language, and worship, even as we appreciate and accept with gratitude the differences that tend to unite the male and female of all species. We do not find those differences to be obstacles to love (Bell 1953, n.p.).
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THE FALL OF AMERICAN PIETIST UNIVERSALISM
In the twentieth century, the oldest spiritual traditions of Universalism–Christian and Pietistic–declined steadily in influence as Unitarianism and Universalism moved toward an uneasy consolidation in 1961 as the Unitarian Universalist Association. The reasons for this decline are numerous and complex, but of particular interest are the following: as the movement became increasingly pluralistic, the Pietist roots were neglected; responding to the rise of secular humanism, the older Christian, Pietistic roots seemed out of place; and the consolidation of the two movements in 1961 was uneven–the much stronger Unitarian movement tended to dominate, while the Universalists were submerged. The result was the emergence of a sometimes theistic, sometimes humanist religion, with a stronger connection to the Enlightenment faith of reason than the Pietist faith of the heart. Finally, both Unitarians and Universalists had headquarters in Boston; hence, the mid-Atlantic expressions of the religion, particularly its Pietist roots, were forgotten.
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It is necessary to be clear about the central teachings of Pietistic Universalism, so we can later see what specific elements of the tradition were being neglected.
1. Creeds and formalisms are secondary to a living, tolerant faith.
2. God’s love for all creation and the eventual restoration of all creation to “happiness and holiness.”
3. A deeply felt need for a personal relationship with God, which could involve a conversion experience, possibly called a “theology of experience.”
4. Reformation of the existing churches along New Testament lines, with an emphasis placed on individuals taking responsibility for their own spiritual developments, Bible study, and lay ministry.
5. While retaining the Bible as an authority, Pietists did not take it literally, but read it in the light of “the spirit.” Experience was to be trusted much more than any literal interpretation.
6. An element of hope in the theology, leading to the search for the transformation of life in the present.
7. A focus on individual growth that may have supported the emerging critical reason of the Enlightenment.
THE EVOLUTION OF UNIVERSALIST COVENANTS FROM PIETISM TO PLURALISM
One of the enduring struggles for Unitarian Universalists has been how to create genuine bonds of community in the midst of a movement that places high value on freedom, especially on individual freedom of belief. The stress on human freedom is natural for a religious tradition with a more hopeful view of human nature than Calvinism offers and a fear of a centralized spiritual authority (because people had been burned at the stake in the name of orthodoxy).
When the movement was predominantly Christian, what bound Unitarians or Universalists together was a shared theological tradition as well as common stories and rituals. As the movement became more diverse, especially as it encountered and incorporated a new trinity of pluralism, humanism, and secularism, it became much more difficult to assert common ground.
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[Here is the] 1984 statement adopted by the General Assembly that still stands as the official covenant of the denomination..:.
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
Respect for the interdependent web of life, of which we are a part.
The living tradition we share draws from many sources:
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.
Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.
Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.
Omitted from the statement of principles are most of the doctrinal issues from past covenants, such as the nature of God, the place of Jesus, and the destiny of humanity. Missing, too, are groundings of the statement in Scripture; instead, the authority appeals to multiple sources. The language itself–”grateful for the religious pluralism”–provides the clue to the master metaphor for Unitarian Universalism: pluralism. The task becomes how to create genuine spiritual community while affirming a plurality of religious views.
But while the emphasis of the new statement shows the impact of both Enlightenment faith (“Human teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason”), some language that opens up Unitarian Universalists to an emerging spirituality is intriguing. Consider two of the values: acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations, and respect for the interdependent web of life. Both these values are communal and relational, not ones that can be carried out in isolation. One of the sources of authority for these values–”direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder…”–has Pietist overtones, if not outright mysticism. Just as the early Universalists stressed the realm of experience as the place where God speaks to human beings, so, too, this statement reaffirms it, speaking of “God” as “that transcending mystery and wonder”–the same principle.
Listening to people in our congregations–especially the newcomers–has taught me that of the principles in the UUA statement, two have become increasingly important: spiritual growth and respect for the interdependent web of life. Interest is growing in firsthand experience of what the statement refers to as “that transcending mystery and wonder.” George de Benneville often spoke of the interwoven network of life, spiritual growth, and the experience of personal transformation; he may hold the keys to our future.
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GROWTH, DECLINE, AND SPIRITUAL FERMENT
AMONG UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS
In 1983 the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Extension Department asked me to look at the denomination’s demographics of growth and decline since 1961, and to offer some general suggestions about my discoveries. I have used this research and updated it to 1992.
Membership declined from 1961 until well into the 1980s for factors both external and internal to the denomination. In particular, the unclear spiritual climate in which Unitarian Universalists traveled and their general resistance to traditional paths of spiritual expression were important factors. Many Unitarian Universalists defined themselves in opposition to other faiths, seeing themselves as an alternative to religion and not as a powerful religious alternative. As we have articulated our faith more clearly in the last decade, we have grown.
Many other demographic factors enter into the last decade of growth; but the struggle to reaffirm what we hold in common has been one major reason that newcomers have sought us out. In a pluralistic faith, a greater degree of particularity is required to avoid confusion; our 1984-85 Statement of Principles and Purposes was a major factor in our growth. From 1982 until 1992, Unitarian Universalism grew at the rate of about two percent (adults and children) each year. One of the reasons is demographic–especially the arrival of the baby boomers to our congregations–but another, less verifiable reason for our advance may be our new seriousness about what makes us a religious community, including the recovery of our heritage and identity and a new focus on communal expressions of our spirituality, such as worship and religious education.
There is also a great deal of spiritual ferment in the movement, especially about what constitutes “spirituality.” My conclusions are based on both denominational studies and my experiences as a minister. I will argue that the movement is now experiencing the dying of an old mythology (the Enlightenment faith or Religion of Reason) and the emergence of a new mythology that bears the spirit of the early Pietists, if not their actual language.
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In 1973, Robert B. Tapp published a study of some 12,000 Unitarian Universalists, Religion Among the Unitarian Universalists, whose conclusion was to classify many in the denomination as “posttraditional,” beyond traditional Christianity. Interestingly, the subtitle of Tapp’s book, Converts in the Stepfathers’ House, indicates an uneasy connection to the past.
Tapp found posttraditionality to be the major characteristic of the Unitarian Universalist movement. He found that people coming into the movement in the early 1970s were not taking over the faith of previous Unitarian Universalists–hence, their designation as stepchildren. Tapp writes:
There is a clear sense in which the posttraditional UUs are religious dropouts in relation to the Jewish and Christian outlooks that dominated the Western Culture in its formative periods. Furthermore, it may be noted that dropping out is an active rather than passive process. They have identified themselves with a presumably new and different form of religion (Tapp 1973, 195).
The central element of the Unitarian Universalist religious experience, according to Tapp, was conversion, not to be confused with the more emotional conversion experience of some religious groups. Rather, it was a gradual conversion experience–away from the childhood religion to Unitarian Universalism. It has been estimated that from eighty to ninety percent of the movement today includes converts from other faiths.
In assessing personal beliefs and attitudes, Tapp discovered the following:
– twenty-eight percent felt that “God” was a harmful concept
– sixty-three percent seldom or never prayed
– seventy-three percent felt the most important part of a church service was “intellectual stimulation”
– only sixteen percent felt that Jesus’ teachings were still valid
– forty-three percent defined their religion as Christian
– sixteen percent felt closest in beliefs to Ethical Culturists (Tapp 1973, 223-250)
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A 1989 survey of 1,286 Unitarian Universalists (The Quality of Religious Life in Unitarian Universalist Congregations), provides the most detailed picture of the spiritual ferment among Unitarian Universalists, although it lacks a specific focus on the emerging spirituality of younger and more recent members and an in-depth discussion of how the denomination could respond to their spiritual needs.
In terms of the nature of worship, while intellectual stimulation still ranks high, there is a new interest in the communal dimension. The report noted: “There is a trend toward being more ‘overtly religious,’ that is, valuing aspects traditionally associated with religious worship. This is strongest among young adults, women, and other ‘marginalized people’” (UUA 1989, 5).
The communal, spiritual parts of the worship were greatly valued, though not always present in our services. In addition to preaching skills, ministers’ skills in spiritual leadership and dealings with people were highly valued.
The report notes ferment in the movement with regard to ideas about God. Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed found one of these statements about God closest to expressing their beliefs: (1) “God is the ground of being”; (2) “God may approximately be used as a name for some natural process within the universe, such as love.” Again, contrast the differences between this and the 1967 surveys: In 1989, two percent of those surveyed felt the concept of God to be harmful; in 1967, 28 percent felt the same. Though the sample of African Americans was tiny, it is interesting that almost no one had difficulty with the word “God”; most prayed and twenty-eight percent identified themselves as Christian or Christian Humanist. In a denomination of few African Americans (less than one percent), perhaps the prevailing intellectual worship style and lack of spiritual language are among the main barriers.
Sixty-nine percent of those questioned in the 1989 survey felt Jesus’ teachings were still useful and true for today’s life. Sixty-eight percent rated “spiritual growth” as vital to the quality of their congregation, yet only nineteen percent ranked their congregation high in terms of meeting this need. Only thirteen percent never prayed; fifty-seven percent prayed often or occasionally. Almost fifty percent identified “the divine” as either a Creative Force or the Highest Potential.
Again, the 1989 report notes that the desire to make the movement into a more or less humanist organization has dissipated. “The survey results … show the old humanist-theist controversy is passé. Rather, responses indicate a … human-focused religiousness, rooted in a sense of relatedness to trans-human cosmic process or power, not ‘supernatural’ but continuous with humans and their universe” (UUA 1989, 31).
Only among a people struggling with rationality would such a statement appear! Among the Unitarian Universalists surveyed there is spiritual ferment about the most fundamental questions: What is the meaning of my life? What or who is God? What is worship? And what is spiritual about my religious community?
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THE REFORM PLATFORM
The Pia Desideria [“Pious Desires”], Phillip Jacob Spener’s Pietistic handbook for the reform of the Lutheran Church, includes a simple, three-part division: the shortcomings of the church in Spener’s time; the possibilities for reform, and practical steps for a renewal of the faith. This division seems relevant to Unitarian Universalism today, although there are great differences in history and theology between the two movements.
Unitarian Universalism at present lacks spiritual depth and passion–or roots and wings. This malady comes when increasing numbers of newcomers are asking for both depth and passion. While there are many hopeful signs of renewal in the movement, there remains a marginal quality about what kind of spiritual community we might become. What does it affirm? What common values do its members share? How pluralistic is its diversity and what cannot be tolerated in a movement expressing toleration? How can its religious communities acknowledge their Christian roots, while recognizing that the communities themselves are no longer Christian? These are the perplexing and troublesome questions being raised by many Unitarian Universalists. The words of historian David B. Robinson are on target:
[We are aware of a] feeling or a hunger for a deeper inner life and a more profound experience of the world than we share. We’re haunted by the specter of our own superficiality, the uneasy feeling that life is sliding by and leaving no deep mark upon us… . We’ve found ways of dealing with this hunger, or masking it, but we’ve found it has a curious persistence (1992 Selected Essays, UUMA 150).
The Unitarian Universalist movement is passing through a major time of transition, from a movement dominated by the Enlightenment faith in human reason and science to an emerging spirituality–one that has much in common with the Pietist tradition, but is also concerned with building community. The emerging spirituality will remain pluralistic but with much clearer parameters. In fact, the clearer the parameters, the more specific the theology, the stronger the movement will become.
The irony of our hunger is that one source of its fulfillment has been close at hand in the heritage of Universalism, more specifically, in Pietistic Universalism. The needs of depth and passion can be addressed in light of our heritage. In Universalism, the often-vague notion of spirituality is made concrete, specific, historical. The gift of Universalism is that it provides two hundred years of an American spiritual heritage. The central Pietistic need for a deeply personal, almost passionate experience of transcendence is another important wisdom that comes from our past.