Sunday, April 24, 2016: Frontier Faith and a God of Love

Prelude: Morning Prayer by Hosea Ballou Sung by Second Ireland Sacred Harp Singers

Hosea Ballou saidMan, being not only a religious, but also a social being, requires for the promotion of his rational happiness religious institutions, which, while they give a proper direction to devotion, at the same time make a wise, and profitable improvement of his social feelings.” And so we gather here, not only to practice our religion, but to support each other.

Chalice Lighting Drawn Together – Jennifer Leota Gray
We come together every week bound not by a creed,
Or a mutual desire to please one God or many Gods
Yet we are drawn together by a belief, that how we are in the world,
Who we are together matters.
We light this chalice, together in the knowledge
That love, not fear, can change this world

Song: Gathered here in the mystery of this hour.
Gathered here in one strong body.
Gathered here in the struggle and the power.
Spirit draw near.

Principles of Unitarian Universalism:
Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles:
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 all existence of which we are a part.

Story: Muddy Children

Offering and Response (Unison)
For the gifts which we have received—and the gifts which we, ourselves, are—may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Song: Various systems men have form’d – Hosea Ballou


Various systems men have form’d, In days of old and modern times;
Religion by their arts adorn’d, In many lands and many climes.

Turn ye the page of history o’er, Learn all the wisdom of the world;
Their present creeds, and those before Are in a maze of error hurl’d.

To bind the God of boundless grace, Has been the aim of Pharisees;
Arm God against the human race Measure and fix his firm decrees.

While millions in a proud pretence Of holy worship, heavenly zeal;
Their neighbours burn’d in its defence, Nor for their sufferings could they feel.

In gods of vile despotic reign, Tyrannic despots would believe;
Who could delight in endless pain, Nor feel compassion to relieve.

Thus earthly kings and priests have join’d, And form’d the awful league abhorr’d;
With edicts chain’d the human mind, And shut the kingdom of the Lord.

But thanks to God our eyes behold A light far brighter than the sun;
A day the prophets long foretold, Of which the ancient poets sung.

His boundless love doth God reveal, In Christ the head of ev’ry man;
His grace shall all the nations heal, This is the gospel’s glorious plan.

Hosea Ballou wrote almost two hundred hymns, and the prelude this morning is reportedly the only one that is still being sung. The hymn we just sang was one that has fallen out of use, perhaps for obvious reasons. Hymnbooks from his time contained words, but not tunes – people sang the hymns to one of the tunes they knew that fit the meter, and the tune we used was Winchester New, which was more than a hundred years old back then, but is still being used. It is also the tune that was used for “Tranquil Streams That Meet and Merge”, a hymn written for the merger of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1963.

Reading: from A Treatise on Atonement by Hosea Ballou

The belief that the great Jehovah was offended with his creatures to that degree that nothing but the death of Christ, or the endless misery of mankind, could appease his anger, is an idea that has done more injury to the Christian religion than the writings of all its opposers, for many centuries. The error has been fatal to the life and spirit of the religion of Christ in our world; all those principles which are to be dreaded by men, have been believed to exist in God; and professors have been molded into the image of their Deity, and become more cruel than the uncultivated savage! A persecuting inquisition is a lively representation of the God which professed Christians have believed in ever since the apostasy. It is every day’s practice to represent the Almighty so offended with man, that he employs his infinite mind in devising unspeakable tortures, as retaliations on those with whom he is offended. Those ideas have so obscured the whole nature of God from us, that the capacious religion of the human mind has been darkened by the almost impenetrable cloud; even the tender charities of nature have been frozen with such tenets, and the natural friendship common to human society, has, in a thousand instances, been driven from the walks of man.

But, says the reader, is it likely that persecution ever rose from men’s believing, that God was an enemy to wicked man? Undoubtedly; for had all professors of Christianity believed that God had compassion on the ignorant and those who are out of the way, how could they have persecuted those whom they believe in error? But, with contrary views, whose who professed to believe in Christ, who professed to be the real disciples of him who taught his disciples to love their enemies, have been the fomenters of persecution; they have persecuted even unto death, those who could not believe all the absurdities in orthodox creeds. It may be asked, if those animosities did not arise from pride, ambition and carnal mindedness? I answer, yes; and so does the God in whom persecuting Christians believe, for they form a God altogether like unto themselves; therefore, while they vainly fancy they are in the service of the true God, they are following the dictates of pride and unlawful ambition, the natural production of a carnal mind; and atonement is the only remedy for the evil.

Frontier Faith and the God of Love

We try to have a service on Unitarian and Universalist history every month or so. In a predominately Christian culture, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that there is not one Christianity, and that there have always been many different interpretations of Jesus’ teachings and the Bible. The dominant religious culture has a way of making us feel that we are some crazy new cult, and completely wrong, when what we believe is based on ideas people have thought through in many places over many centuries. Hosea Ballou was one of those people. He lived in a time and place where all truth was thought to be in the Bible, but he saw that how the Bible was interpreted, the “various systems”in his hymn, made all the difference, and that the system most used in his time was one that led to bad results. He was able to explain that to his contemporaries in a way that changed American religion, not just Universalism.

Ballou was born just before the American Revolution, in 1771, and grew up the youngest of 11 children of Baptist minister Maturin Ballou, who had moved from Rhode Island to the New Hampshire frontier, in 1768. His great-grandfather, a Huguenot also named Maturin, was one of the founders of Rhode Island.

To understand where Hosea Ballou was coming from and what he objected to in Christian teaching, the “various schemes” in his hymn, it helps to understand what religion was like on the American frontier where he grew up, and how it got that way.

Very early on in the history of Christianity, the church and state became intertwined. For three hundred years, the early Christians were a persecuted sect, and most heads of the church were killed by the Roman authorities. That all changed in 313, when Constantine became the Western Emperor, converted to Christianity, and, with the Eastern Emperor, declared religious tolerance. But the Roman Catholic church became the official religion. Councils were called, bureaucracies were built, and Roman Catholicism and the Roman Empire became co-dependent, each reinforcing the others’ policies. Catholic theology was set: Jesus was God, and it was necessary that he be sacrificed to save people, who were born evil, in original sin. As the Empire dissolved, Roman Catholicism continued to be the official religion in the kingdoms that followed, and expanded through the Dark Ages to the farthest reaches of Europe. The Church was a great landowner, and the church and the nobility together ruled.

This all lasted a thousand years and more, but by the time the American colonies were founded, it was falling apart. Starting in the 14th century, many priests and laymen had begun to question received wisdom, had translated the Bible into the vernacular, and had started to interpret Christianity for themselves. Luther and Calvin had founded the Lutheran and Reformed Churches, and Henry the 8th had removed the Church of England from the Roman hierarchy. The Reformation spread throughout Germanic Europe. These churches had split off from Catholicism, but they were still the churches of the state, with the head of the government being the head of the church in place of the Pope, although some Calvinist churches like the Church of Scotland and the Dutch Reformed elected their own leaders. Each ruler of a state or sometimes even city, chose its religion, and everyone was expected to follow it, or leave. When governments changed, you could suddenly find yourself expected to be Lutheran instead of Catholic, or Reformed when you had been Lutheran.

Meanwhile, starting before the Reformation, hundreds of other protesting – Protestant – sects had been formed. The Hussites, the Mennonites, the German Brethren, the Moravian Brethren, and many other small German sects formed all over central and western Europe. Called the Radical Reformation, they were rejected by the Lutherans and the Calvinists as heretics, and often driven out of wherever they lived on pain of death, as the Mennonites were from Switzerland, and the Calvinist Huguenots had been driven from Catholic France. They were not part of the state churches, generally met in people’s homes, and moved, sometimes a long way, to gather in towns that tolerated them. There were similar movements in England. And, since there was much more disagreement on theology, and more churches tied in with various governments, many more Christians were imprisoning other Christians, or burning them at the stake, for their beliefs, as well as more wars being fought over what religion would be in control of a territory. This went on for several hundred years, in the British Isles and on the Continent, in the middle of which the English began to settle North America.

In American history, we usually hear about the 17th century, Pilgrims and the Puritans and then jump to the Revolution, with mentions of Ben Franklin and the Quaker settlement of Pennsylvania on the way, and perhaps the Baptists of Rhode Island. The Pilgrims were Calvinists who had left the Church of England, the Puritans Calvinists who wanted to reform it, and in the Southern colonies, the Church of England was established just as it was, Catholic without the Pope. Catholics were banned everywhere but Maryland. This was not so much because of their theology, but because of the political danger of their loyalty to the Pope. New Amsterdam was settled by the Dutch Reformed, and the small Swedish colony that became Delaware by Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish Lutherans. Scots Irish, who were Scots Presbyterians who had been sent to Ireland by the British to make it Protestant, began coming in droves. By the beginning of the 18th century, thousands of Germans were coming, mostly to Pennsylvania, and they were both Reformed and Lutheran, but also from many of the sects of the Radical Reformation.

Those sects fell into two groups:

Pietists, like the Moravian Brethren, emphasised studying the Bible in small groups, laymen governing the church, the importance of living according to your religion, not just believing, and kind and sympathetic treatment of nonbelievers. Methodism, which began in England, also grew out of Pietist beliefs.

Anabaptists, who included the Amish and Mennonites, were similar, but went farther – they believed that baptism did not save you, but was a ritual that only adults who had thought through their beliefs should do. They also, like the Quakers, condemned oaths, using courts for disputes between believers, bearing arms or fighting, even in self-defense, and holding government office.

The Pietists and Anabaptists mostly believed, as did the Catholics, that everyone could be saved. The Lutherans believed that some people had been chosen by God to be saved, but that others could, also, if they accepted the grace of God and lived according to the rules.

The Calvinists maintained that every person was born “totally depraved”, in original sin, the old Catholic doctrine, but added that God had chosen only a few to be saved, many to be damned, and that there was nothing a person could do about it. All the established churches except the Lutherans were Calvinist, as well as the English Baptists.

The Quakers rejected all theology, and believed that Christianity was not a scheme of doctrine to be believed, but an experience to be entered into, and a life to be lived. George Fox said “I told them all their preaching, baptism and sacrifices would never sanctify them; and bid them look unto Christ in them, and not unto men; for it is Christ that sanctifies. Then they ran into many words; but I told them they were not to dispute of God and Christ, but to obey Him.”

All of these people came together on the American frontier, which in the 1730s was only about a hundred miles from coast. In New Hampshire, the frontier was also just to the eastern side of the Appalachian Mountains, and Richmond, where Ballou grew up, was not settled until the 1750s. There were few ministers outside the towns and cities along the coast, although people built churches and met. Moravians, Mennonites, Reformed, German Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Quakers, English and Welsh Baptists, small Pietist groups, among others, met and mingled, and in the 1730s both ministers and lay missionaries traveled the frontier, preaching in houses and churches wherever they were welcome. Even in areas with officially established churches, churches and ministers were not provided, and the old control of local government by church and state together fell away. People experimented with religious communes. German Baptists founded Ephrata, a commune near what is now Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with a printing press for hymnals and religious books, and the first Bible printed in American, which was in German. The Moravians founded communes in Pennsylvania and in North Carolina. George De Benneville, who was the first Universalist minister in America, had lived in Germany and been influenced by Pietists, came to Pennsylvania in 1740. In the 1740s, George Whiteside and John Wesley, both Anglicans who founded Methodism, were sent to Georgia, but ended up preaching through all the colonies in a movement that became known as the Great Awakening. They, and all the traveling ministers, were often abused, and sometimes beaten up. We are used to thinking of the Founding Fathers meeting in Philadelphia and planning a new country, but all along the frontier, people who had grown up in many religions and societies were living together and reinventing religion and government. Almost all of them were Protestant, and had come to believe in free thought, individual conscience, and the freedom of the press and speech so that ideas could be shared. In the years before the Revolution, there were dozens of petition from all over Virginia, for instance, for freedom of religion.

So this was the religious world Ballou was born into, one with many competing ideas, where people listened and often changed their beliefs, and where much of Christianity, including the church he grew up in, taught the basic evil of people.

Ballou grew up during the Revolution, and two of his older brothers became Universalists, although their Calvinist father never agreed. Ballou, like most ministers outside the established churches, didn’t go to college or seminary, but began preaching and was ordained at the first Universalist General Association meeting in 1793.

An early biographer, Oscar Safford said:

Mr. Ballou was one of the most radical of reformers. While other reformers assaulted depravity in human nature, he aimed his blows against the imagined depravity men ascribed to the Divine Nature.

A few stories handed down about Ballou:

Ballou was riding the circuit in the New Hampshire hills with a Baptist preacher, arguing theology as they traveled. At one point, the Baptist looked over and said, “Brother Ballou, if I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away, and I’d still go to heaven.” Hosea Ballou looked over at him and said, “If you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you.”

— adapted from the Rev. Elizabeth Strong

Ballou was riding the circuit again when he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. The farmer was upset. He confided to Ballou that his son was a terror who got drunk in the village every night and who fooled around with women. The farmer was afraid the son would go to hell. “All right,” said Ballou with a serious face. “We’ll find a place on the path where your son will be coming home drunk, and we’ll build a big fire, and when he comes home, we’ll grab him and throw him into it.” The farmer was shocked: “That’s my son and I love him!” Ballou said, “If you, a human and imperfect father, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him in the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect father, would do so!”

—told by the Rev. Linda Stowell

And when someone asked Ballou how God could show such grace even to people who were bad, he responded by asking: If your child falls down and gets all filthy, and you wash them and get them clean clothes, do you love your child because they are now clean, or did you clean your child because you love them?

Ballou saw that believing that we, and others, must be made clean before they could be loved had led to everyday judging, discrimination and injustice, as well as persecution and even enslavement.

Ballou was not in the first generation of Universalists, or even the second – John Murray came to America when Ballou was three. But he was the one who consolidated Universalist thought, and became a leader in was is now called the Second Great Awakening, another round of religious revival that begin about the time Ballou was ordained and went on for a generation, and led to the temperance, abolition, and women’s rights movements. As Safford also says:

We hopefully note that he is no wild enthusiast deprecating intelligence. He is no fanatic, under control of a familiar; he assumes no private right of interpretation. He boldly affirms simply that he has discovered a forgotten sense in God’s Word. He appeals for the decision of his cause not to hot hearts but cool heads.

He wins his cause. He did not, it is true, immediately capture literary Boston; but he won rural New England, and literary Boston soon afterward unconsciously espoused his cause. He did not, it is again true, drive Calvinism completely out of the field; but he fatally wounded it, and no one fears it now as it limps toward its own place.

Hosea Ballou: a Marvellous Life-story By Oscar Fitzalan Safford 1889

Today, the extreme Calvinism that claimed only a few could be saved has faded away, and the liberal and mainstream Protestant churches have almost all adopted the Universalist idea that God is Love and that people are basically good, not evil. But much of Catholicism and the evangelical Christian churches still preach the idea that Ballou condemned: that people are born sinful, and that a violent sacrifice was necessary to save them. This idea still leads to what he pointed out, “that persecution … rose from men’s believing, that God was an enemy to wicked man” and those still as he says “[persecute] those whom they believe in error.”

We as Unitarian Universalists still believe in what we now call the “inherent worth and dignity of every human being”, “justice, equity and compassion”, and that our punishment or salvation comes not in a hereafter, but in the results of our actions in the here and now, whether or not we still believe in the concrete God that Ballou believed in. I think his greatest insight was not just that people were good and would eventually be either saved or punished by the consequences of their actions, but that people who believed otherwise were constructing a religion that would bring misery to themselves and the world.

And now, a modern song that I think expresses what Hosea Ballou might have said if he lived today, and were a better poet…

Music: I Ain’t Afraid – Holly Near
Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley Choir

Joys and Sorrows
If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;
or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.

Silent Meditation

Song: Go Now In Peace (3 times)

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Hosea Ballou said “There is one inevitable criterion of judgment touching religious faith. Can you reduce it to practice? If not, have none of it.”

Let us go forth and practice love.

The chalice flame is extinguished
Until once again ignited by the strength of our communion.

Go now in peace.