Article II of the Unitarian Universalist Association Bylaws lays out our principles and purposes, and also the sources from which our “living tradition” draws religious and ethical inspiration.
That phrase, “living tradition,” reflects a salient feature of both the Unitarian and Universalist sides of our religious expression. We do not invest eternal authority in any text or theological decree. At the same time, certain strands of belief and practice have held strong and true throughout our history. The worthiness of the human condition is one. The essential value of investigation, research, and intellectual growth is another. Openness to change produced by that intellectual investigation and research is a crucial third.
For exactly that reason, our Bylaws require that we regularly revisit Article II. Article XV in our Bylaws lays out, in excruciating detail, the process for amending Article II, along with the requirement that Article II be re-examined at least every fifteen years.
Change is endemic in Unitarian Universalist belief and practice. And always has been. In 1844 Unitarian poet and abolitionist James Russell Lowell concluded his anti-slavery poem, “The Present Crisis,” with this verse:
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.
They must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of truth.
Lo, before us gleam her campfires. We ourselves must Pilgrims be,. . .
Nor attempt the Future’s portal with the Past’s blood-rusted key.
Every human culture through history has had foggy vision of its own prejudices. Taking abolitionists such as Lowell and Lincoln as examples, they did not recognize patriarchal and racialized attitudes within themselves, which we can now perceive, marred their abolitionism and egalitarianism. All the same, Lowell’s ringing words laid down a principle to which we can still aspire. “Upward still and onward.” And we should not “attempt the future with the past’s blood-rusted key.”
Change is uncomfortable, though. Even small changes to Article II and our (now) beloved Seven Principles have faced tough sledding over the years. It is therefore understandable that the Article II Study Commission’s new re-draft, which proposes to replace everything except the Article’s “freedom of belief” paragraph, has provoked heated discussion.
Unitarian Universalists must also contend with the self-proclaimed “gadfly” movement’s ongoing condemnation and obstruction of the UUA’s present Second Principle work. The Second Principle calls us to “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” Rev. Todd Eklof’s 2019 book, The Gadfly Papers, amounts to a screed against interpreting the Second Principle through any lens broader than Eklof’s own cisgender male, Euro-American experience. That book’s resonance among a small, reactionary element makes it no surprise that the proposed Article II revision has sparked heated—often inaccurate—rhetoric from that quarter.
This is not to say that the Article II revision should be passed without close scrutiny, or that, as it now stands, it is the best possible way to amend Article II. It is not even to say Article II needs to be amended. Perhaps the previously proposed “Eighth Principle” is still a better step. The point is: that is a decision that must be made by all interested Unitarian Universalists, through democratic discussion and voting. Again, the UUA Bylaws themselves lay out the democratic process by which such changes will be implemented. Healthy debate is essential to democratic process.
Careless accusations and playing fast-and-loose with facts, however, are not healthy debate. At the end of November, 2022, the chair of the “gadfly”-aligned Unitarian Universalist Multiracial Unity Action Council (UUMUAC) posted an online video accusing the UUA of “scrapping” the Seven Principles and “attacking” multiple Principles in detail. He accuses the Article II Study Commission, in particular, of “recommending that [the Seven Principles] be removed altogether.”
That kind of hyperbole is not healthy discussion. The UUMUAC Chair professes to outline the Seven Principles’ roots in previous Unitarian and Universalist statements of belief and practice. But as is often the case with “gadfly scholarship,” this history is incomplete, often slanted, and at times, just plain uninformed.
Take, for example, our First Principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” The UUMUAC chair is correct in stating that our First Principle has deep historic roots. But he does not seem to understand how deep they are, or what fertilized them.
He correctly states that American Unitarianism arose from Calvinist New England Congregationalism. He correctly states that Calvinists and Unitarians differed over the dogma of predestination—“election” in Calvinist terms. John Calvin taught that some people were “elected” to go to heaven—while the majority were doomed to spend eternity in hell—and that this determination was made before they were even born. The UUMUAC chair correctly states that, in Calvinist theology, a person could do nothing on their own to change that fate.
But he does not seem to understand the underlying reason a person could not alter their damnation or election. Crucially, Calvin, wrote that human nature was “inherently depraved”—in the worst sense of that word. Humans were “corrupted by original sin”: incapable of doing anything positive on our own. Thus, we were too “depraved” to get ourselves into heaven. And being “depraved,” no one deserved to go there anyway. God only “elected” a few out of an abundance of mercy.
It should go without saying—but I’ll say it anyway—that this is a pernicious doctrine, which has gotten a lot of people killed over the centuries. After all, if God is the epitome of goodness, and human nature is worthless, then anything a person does for God is justified. Including lying, torturing, even killing fellow “worthless” human beings. Which explains the extremes to which some religious fundamentalists go, even in our own time.
The chief difference between Unitarianism and Calvinism, then, was neither the doctrine of the Trinity, nor was it “predestination,” as the UUMUAC chair claims. From the eighteenth century on, the core motive for rising religious liberalism was human worthiness, and rejection of Calvin’s “inherent depravity of man.” [sic.] This began even before religious liberals in New England began to call themselves Unitarians. It also marks the key difference between conservative religion and religious liberals to this day. In the liberal religious vision, from the eighteenth century on, human beings were worthy, not worthless: capable of choosing between good and evil. We could accomplish good without divine intervention, and held the keys to heaven in our own hands.
To put it into twentieth century terms, then, human beings had “inherent worth and dignity.” Thus our First Principle has roots which are older than Unitarianism or Universalism themselves. Early Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, who officially affirmed that term in his 1819 sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” went so far as to preach we could attain near-perfection through what he called “self-culture.”
The UUMUAC chair’s video gives no hint that he understands this. He mistakenly places the First Principle’s origins later, with what Unitarians called “salvation by character.” But that was a phraseology given currency by Channing, which continued to be used after Channing had died. “Salvation by character” was later codified in an 1886 sermon by Unitarian minister and theologian James Freeman Clarke: “Five Points of the New Theology.”
Clarke died a few years later. But his “Five Points” became a standard Unitarian statement of belief and practice. They were simplified and posted in many Unitarian churches (in the non-inclusive language of the day) as:
The Fatherhood of God;
The Brotherhood of Man;
The Leadership of Jesus;
Salvation by Character;
The Progress of Mankind: onward and upward forever.
Clarke’s Five Points were extremely influential. Unitarians continued to refer to them for decades. Yet significantly, they were never officially affirmed by either the American Unitarian Association or the National Conference of Unitarian Churches.
This is also the case with other Unitarian and Universalist statements of belief and principle over the centuries. (Please refer to my “Appendix” post for a more complete list.) For example, in 1894, poet James Vila Blake penned another beloved affirmation for the Church of All Souls in Evanston, Illinois:
Love is the spirit of this church,
And service is its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.
Like Clarke’s Five Points, Blake’s verse was also widely used. In fact my sponsoring congregation, First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, even had a version set to music, which the Choir still uses as an Introit.
One must conclude, therefore, that if Unitarian Universalists find the Seven Principles useful, it is not because they are in the UUA Bylaws, but because they speak to people’s hearts. They will continue to be used and repeated as long as they do speak to people’s hearts. So setting aside, for the moment, any literary and ethical quality of the draft Article II revision, or the proposed Eighth Principle, it is just plain silly to claim that anyone is “attacking” or “scrapping” the Seven Principles, entirely or in part. The Seven Principles will be with us as long as we are fed by them.
Blake’s “Love is the spirit of this church” verse also begs another observation. “Gadflies” would have us believe that “Love” is meaningless as a central value of Unitarian Universalism. This displays their ignorance of Unitarian and Universalist history. To “Love God and love thy neighbor as thyself” is a foundation of Jewish and Christian religious heritage. Perusing past statements of Unitarian and Universalist belief and practice (see Appendix) we find that both strains continually return to Love as a central focus.
Now let us return to James Freeman Clarke’s Five Points. Since they begin with traditionally paternalistic, theistic statements: “The Fatherhood of God” and “The Brotherhood of Man,” they have lost currency. On the other hand, one might say, the “siblinghood” of humanity remains alive in multiple statements of belief and practice in both the Unitarian and Universalist sides of our tradition—including the Seven Principles. That concept–“love thy neighbor”–is, as stated above, foundational in Western culture. We are still struggling to “get it right.” But that impetus is another ongoing strand in our tradition.
We are still working on Clarke’s Fifth Point as well: the Progress of Humankind, onward and upward forever. That phraseology harkens back to James Russel Lowell’s “upward still and onward,” from 1844. This, too, has been a consistent aspiration for us over the centuries.
Too often, however, we hear people say, “We want progress. But we don’t want change.” I contend that that is exactly what we are hearing from reactionaries now, stoutly opposed to Unitarian Universalist attempts to honor diversity, promote more honest and functional “siblinghood:” “justice, equity, and compassion” within our ranks.
The UUMUAC Chair’s video cites Unitarianism’s and Universalism’s real “roots in the Western Enlightenment.” Fair enough, that was a much-needed progress point in its own day. But James Russell Lowell wrote 180 years ago, that we must not “attempt the Future’s portal with the Past’s blood-rusted key.”
There is no better description of the Western Enlightenment tradition than that phrase from Lowell: the Past’s blood-rusted key. The Western Enlightenment was certainly an advance from medieval church/state superstition and authoritarianism. But it also rationalized centuries of colonization and genocide, foisted on non-European continents around the world. We have progressed far since then, both technologically and socially. If we wish to continue into a healthy future, we cannot keep our feet rooted in three-century-old prejudices and misconceptions—which also manifested themselves in the Enlightenment tradition.
Or to put it a different way, the problem is not with “reason” itself. The problem is the manner in which the Enlightenment turned reason into a birthright for European-descended males. Who would too often claim that mantle, whether they bothered to get their facts straight or not. That attitude turns “reason,” as an abstract claim to superiority, into an “idolatry of the mind and spirit.”
Progress means change. Change means discomfort. For someone with social privilege it is all too easy to say that “Progress needs to stop at the point where I begin to feel uncomfortable.” James Freeman Clarke also wrote that a church should be a place of “voluntary equality.” But that aspiration, kept current, requires that the very word, “equality,” means something far more sublime than what it meant when Clarke was writing in the 1870’s.
The UUMUAC Chair favorably comments on our Fourth Principle, the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” But he struggles with the word, “responsible.” He does not tell us what it does mean, so much as he denies that it could possibly mean, as he puts it “one’s search for the truth should be pursued with an eye to the wishes or the feelings of an outside observer.”
That word, “outside,” is a give-away to his true feelings. All other rhetoric aside, the “gadflies” know who the “insiders” are: people who look and think like them. Others–“outsiders”–don’t count unless they support the “gadfly” line. In point of fact, though, if we examine Webster’s Dictionary definition of “responsible,” the word most often listed as a synonym is “accountable.” “Gadflies” often condemn that word. Moreover, accountability means–yes–listening to the wishes and feelings of people unlike ourselves.
For what it may be worth, the proposed addition of an Eighth Principle, calling us to “accountably” dismantle racism and other discrimination, is really an extension of that word, “responsible,” in the Fourth Principle–which the UUMUAC Chair tries to redefine out of existence.
Whatever we say about our Seven Principles, though, they are nothing more nor less than the current stage in intellectual evolution that has been going on for centuries. It would be naive—not to mention creedal, which we proudly eschew—to pretend that nothing more eloquent and usable might come along in the next 200 years. Or even in the next two years.
Perusing the statements of belief and practice I list in the Appendix, we find that the Unitarian side of our tradition, particularly, were in constant debate, revision, addition, and replacement of their statements of belief and practice. The longest period between Unitarian rewrites, prior to the Unitarian/Universalist merger, was about sixteen years. It took 23 years for our initial Six Principles to give way to the Seven Principles. Those Seven Principles have now been in place for 37 years—by far the longest time between revisions the Unitarian side of our tradition has ever had. We are, in that sense, long overdue.
It is also worth noting that, when the Unitarians and Universalists joined hands in 1961, some Universalists declined to be part of the new Association. Dozens of Universalist churches and more than 10,000 members formed a splinter denomination, the Christian Universalist Church of America. They did not fare well, and this entity has repeatedly ceased operation, then restarted under a different name, then gone out of operation again.
By the same token, when the Unitarian Universalist Association affirmed our Seven Principles in 1985, it was not an immediate sea change. They were not universally accepted right away. Only gradually over the years did congregations increasingly find them salutary. The strongest impetus likely came when they were listed in the front of our new Hymnal, Singing The Living Tradition, in 1993. (We should remember that ours is, in fact, a “living tradition.” That means movement and change.)
Let us not romanticize the Seven Principles. Some people continued to dislike them, for various reasons, along with the religious (and social) liberalism they stood for. One prominent member of the church I served in the 2000’s quit the congregation because we posted the Seven Principles too prominently. “A thinly disguised liberal agenda,” he called them.
Nationally, another splinter group went so far as to incorporate and elect officers, calling itself the American Unitarian Conference. They held that Unitarian Universalism had “become too theologically liberal and too political.” Like the Christian Universalist Church of America, however, the AUC has also ceased operation. Studying them more than a decade ago, I noticed that they had backing from prominent people, and an elaborate website. Their website domain is no longer maintained.
As I write this, a new breakoff group is forming, calling itself the North American Unitarian Association. Its proponents claim that it is all about “true liberalism.” Looking at their writings, their history, and their actions, though, the real motivation is discomfort with change, particularly ongoing UUA work toward increasing diversity and equity.
Unitarian Universalists cannot do much about that. All we can do is what we most need to do: “keep on keeping on,” working to become the best church and the best people we can be. As James Russell Lowell put it back in 1844:
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.
They must upward still and onward who would keep abreast of truth.