Sunday, June 11, 2017: Creeds and Other Tests of Faith

Ancient document

Prelude I Believe in You – Don Williams

Welcome The beauty of the whole – Meg Barnhouse

We gather to worship, our hearts alive with hope that here we will be truly seen, that here we will be welcomed into the garden of this community, where the simple and the elegant, the fluted and frilled, the shy and the dramatic complement one another and are treasured. May we know that here, each contributes in their way to the beauty of the whole. Come, let us worship together, all genders, sexualities, politics, clappers and non-clappers, progressive or conservative, may we root ourselves in the values of this faith: compassion and courage, transcendence, justice and transformation.

Chalice lighting Community Chalice Lighting – Atticus Palmer

We call this light before us in hope that we may always remain a strong community,
working together to make the world a better place.
When we are grieving or sad,
When we are challenged,
When we need help,
This flame guides us out of the darkness.
When we are cheerful,
When we celebrate,
When we accomplish a great task,
When we return to a place that makes us happy,
The chalice reminds us to share our happiness with others.)

Song: Gathered Here (3 times)

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, which we hold as strong values and moral guides:

  • 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.

Song: As Tranquil Streams
Please rise in body or in spirit and join in singing As Tranquil Streams. Please wait until the accompaniment finishes the first verse before beginning singing.

As tranquil streams that meet and merge and flow as one to seek the sea,
our kindred hearts and minds unite to build a church that shall be free —

Free from the bonds that bind the mind to narrow thought and lifeless creed;
free from a social code that fails to serve the cause of human need:

A freedom that reveres the past, but trusts the dawning future more;
and bids the soul, in search of truth, adventure boldly and explore.

Prophetic church, the future waits your liberating ministry;
go forward in the power of love, proclaim the truth that makes us free.

Story: We’re All Different in Our Own Ways – Joshua Yuchasz
From: This I Believe, National Public Radio series (

What if everyone in the world was exactly alike? What if everyone talked the same, acted the same, listened to the same music and watched the same TV programs? The world would be extremely dull!

I believe it’s important to accept people for who they are.

Differences are important and they should be respected. For example, many important people throughout history were considered different, such as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Harriet Tubman, Peter Tchaikovsky and Abraham Lincoln.

They did great things, but some people thought they were weird because they had strong feelings about something. I can relate to these people because I’ve been in that situation before, many times.

It all started in elementary school when I realized that I wasn’t like everyone else. My mom says that I have a tendency of obsessing on certain subjects. Unfortunately, these subjects don’t interest other kids my age and they really don’t interest my teachers. In fact, my kindergarten teacher said she would scream if I mentioned snakes or lizards one more time while she was teaching the days of the week. I would get in trouble for not paying attention — and the teasing began.

In third grade, my teacher informed me that I have Asperger’s Syndrome. I said, “So what? Do you know that Godzilla’s suit weighs 188 pounds?”

Later, I asked my mom, “What is Asperger’s Syndrome? Am I gonna die?” She said that it’s like having blinders on, and that I can only see one thing at a time, and that it’s hard to focus on other things. Like I would tell anyone and everyone that would listen about Godzilla because my big obsession was, and still is, Godzilla — not a real popular subject with the middle school crowd, and so the teasing continues.

I might be different because I have different interests than other teenagers, but that doesn’t give them the right to be so mean and cruel to me. Kids at Oak Valley make fun of me for liking what I like the most.

People also make fun of me for knowing facts about volcanoes, whales, tornadoes and many other scientific things. My mom says that she has been able to answer many questions on Jeopardy! just by listening to what I have to say, but
I’ve even been ridiculed for being smart.

Maybe someday I’ll become a gene engineer and create the real Godzilla. I can dream, can’t I?

Sometimes I wish I were like everyone else, but not really. Because I believe people should be respected for being different because we’re all different in our own ways. This I believe.

Offering and Response (Unison)
We will now collect this morning’s offerings.

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.

Reading: from: The Universalists (from Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical notes. Volume I. The History of Creeds, by Philip Schaff)

The Universalist Churches of the United States, starting in New England, have modified the orthodox Christian system as expressed in the historic creeds but while differing among themselves, they retain reverence for Christ as a divine teacher, the belief in the immortality of the soul and suitable awards after death for conduct in this world. A movement towards the union of Congregational and Universalist churches has had advocates as in California, 1930. The New England Convention of Universalist Churches, meeting in Winchester, New Hampshire, 1803, adopted a Profession of Belief in three articles. Eddy, in his Hist. of Universalism, says that “while the Profession was sufficiently definite to exclude the possibility of mistaking its most prominent thought, the reconciliation of all souls to God, it was sufficiently liberal to be acceptable alike to Trinitarians and to Unitarians, to the believer in future punishment and to the believer that the consequences of sin are confined to this life.”

The Creed – 1803

Article I. We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament contain a revelation of the character of God, and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

Article II. We believe that there is one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

Article III. We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

Creeds and Other Tests of Faith
Robert Helfer

Credo – I believe.

Just trying to make it clear that I’ll be talking about beliefs, particularly statements of belief, and perhaps about their impact on communities of believers.

In the prelude, Don Williams described eloquently what he believes in: love; and in support he lists a whole lot of other things he doesn’t believe in. I thought that sounded like an interesting credo, and I speculated a bit about how to turn this song into a creed. But that wasn’t a very satisfying exercise. And in any case, it’s not really on point, since I’m supposed to be discussing Unitarian Universalist history.

Most of us who were born into families that attended churches other than Unitarian Universalist churches are familiar with creeds and other statements of faith – most likely either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed (they’re very similar but not quite the same thing), probably from weekly recitations in church. I grew up reciting the Apostles’ Creed every Sunday morning in the Presbyterian church my family attended. Accepting that creed confirmed that one’s beliefs were consistent with most dominant Christian dogma, despite the nearly infinite variety of differences in more specific beliefs that define protestant denominations – Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, whatever.

Francis Dávid famously didn’t say, “We need not think alike to love alike.” But I think that most of us tend to accept this very general notion. We like this sentiment perhaps because it reinforces our feeling that the absence of a unifying creed doesn’t invalidate our sense of being members of one church. And does it really matter that John Wesley is probably the person who actually said it?

As we all know, Unitarian Universalism was created by a merger in 1961 of two Christian denominations in the United States: the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Each of these associations had a long history at the time. And we also know that each considered itself “creedless” – no religious tests for membership. Well, mostly. Some of us might remember the strange case of Theodore Parker’s “heresy trial” by the Boston Association of Ministers, a Unitarian group, in 1843.

Now, it seems that in the early 1800s, the Universalists in New England felt the need to establish a profession of essential faith. The Universalist historian Ernest Cassara points out that it’s a bit odd that such a profession seemed desirable. “Universalists,” he says, “have generally been unwilling to pay the price of uniformity in matters of belief as well as organization.” Nevertheless, some of them clearly felt a need for such a statement. Perhaps it was at least partly out of concern that other denominations believed the Universalists to be, as Walter Ferris commented in his memoirs of the process, “wholly divided amongst [themselves] and agreeing in nothing essential, but to vilify other sects and oppose all ecclesiastical order.” They sound a bit like a rowdy bunch of nay-sayers, don’t they? Ferris apparently wanted to prove that they weren’t that bad, and he petitioned and agitated among the Universalist ministry for a written profession of faith.

Now, a Universalist creed of sorts already existed, created by the Philadelphia Convention in 1790 under Benjamin Rush. But apparently it wasn’t good enough.

In 1803 the General Convention of the New England States was to meet in Winchester, New Hampshire, and because of his petitions Ferris was placed in charge of a committee to produce a draft of the desired profession of faith for the Convention. This couldn’t have been a simple thing. The more traditional Universalists were staunch believers in the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”, but the wing identified with Hosea Ballou had distinct unitarian (with a small “u”) leanings, and both groups had to be accommodated. In the end Ferris’ draft, modeled on the Philadelphia creed, leaned heavily toward Ballou’s views.

Memoirs of the debates at Winchester show that several ministers objected to the very idea of any written profession, asserting that the Bible alone provided sufficient confession of faith. Among these ministers, Noah Murray predicted, “It [i.e., the Profession] is harmless now – it is a calf, and its horns have not yet made their appearance; but it will soon grow older – its horns will grow, and then it will begin to hook.”

Nevertheless, the draft was accepted virtually without change. It’s unclear how closely the Profession was followed by Universalist churches. Before the Profession, churches had freely altered the Philadelphia creed to suit their needs, and the convention itself asserted that the Winchester Profession could be adapted to meet local needs, so it’s unlikely that anyone felt it to be binding. Nevertheless, it probably did bring some level of uniformity to Universalist churches.

Until the 1870s.

In 1870, adherence to the Winchester Profession, which had always been at most a guideline, was made a condition of fellowship – if you wanted to be a Universalist minister you had to accept it. Publicly and officially, sort of like an oath.

And so, the Universalists set themselves up for their only heresy trial.

In 1864 a Vermonter named Herman Bisbee graduated from Canton Theological School in Canton, New York, and in 1865 he became minister of a Universalist parish in St. Paul, Minnesota. I should mention at this point that Bisbee was not answering a call to an established church, but creating a church (does that sound familiar?). I don’t know what drew Bisbee to St. Paul, but the record shows that he “organized a parish” there. He seems not to have spent more than a year or two at each of several parishes in Minnesota and Massachusetts until 1869 when he returned from Massachusetts to St. Anthony, Minnesota. In the meantime he had become associated with Emerson’s Transcendentalism and attracted to something called the “Free Religious Movement”.

In 1871 William Denton, a member of the “Free Religious Association”, lectured in Minneapolis on a number of subjects, including Darwinism, evolution, and science. The minister of the Universalist church in Minneapolis, James Harvey Tuttle, promptly responded with a series of public lectures in rebuttal. Bisbee was among a number who lectured in support of Denton’s views, in a series of lectures that came to be known as the “Minneapolis Radical Lectures”. In the course of this controversy, Bisbee lectured on “Natural Religion”, denying the existence of miracles and flatly rejecting the Bible’s infallibility.

This argument didn’t sit well with the Universalist establishment. Bisbee was denounced by, among others, the Universalist of Boston (one of several Universalist periodicals of the time), which also called for him to be disfellowshipped. That is to say, that he should be removed from the fellowship of Universalist ministry – he was a heretic.

When the Minnesota Universalist Convention met in June 1872, Bisbee was accused of “unministerial conduct”. It was said that “in the name of Christianity [he] had uttered doctrines subverting Christianity, and entirely contrary to the principles of the Universalist Church.” The Convention voted 47 to 23 to revoke Bisbee’s fellowship.

Bisbee naturally appealed to the General Convention. And equally naturally, in 1873 the General Convention rejected Bisbee’s case. Among their reasons, the Convention reported that Bisbee’s lectures were “inconsistent with his public professions of faithful adhesion to the Winchester Profession of Faith.”

Bisbee resigned from the Universalist ministry, and shortly after returned to Boston to attend Harvard Divinity School; he studied an additional year at Heidelberg University. He was subsequently fellowshipped as a Unitarian minister.

Well, if you go back into the history of this incident, study the documentary evidence, it’s clear that Bisbee’s offense was not just heresy. He’d made a few powerful enemies in his brief period of controversy. And it may be that personal vindictiveness was a major driver in what happened. But it’s also clear that his lectures had violated the letter of the Winchester Profession, and that came to bear against him. As Noah Murray predicted, the Profession’s horns had grown, and it had begun to hook.

This case didn’t just fade into the past, though. In the 1890s the Profession came up again, in attempts to modify it to accommodate all the opinions current among Universalists of the time. This was a bitter and rancorous exercise. Eventually, in 1895, a new version of the Profession was accepted, “heavily freighted with Biblical language reflecting the King James version”, as Russell E. Miller describes it in The Larger Hope.

  1. We believe in a universal Fatherhood of God and in the Universal Brotherhood of Man.
  2. We believe that God, who hath spoken through all His holy prophets since the world began, hath spoken to us by His Son, Jesus Christ, our Example and Saviour
  3. We believe that Salvation consists in spiritual oneness with God, who, through Christ, will finally gather in one the whole family of mankind.

And in 1899 it was all nailed down.

As Schaff notes, “In 1899 the General Convention, meeting in Boston, added to the Winchester Profession, clauses giving ‘The Conditions of Fellowship.’ At a meeting of the Convention in Winchester, 1903, celebrating the adoption of the Profession, its three articles were spoken of ‘as the first explicit statement in a creed of what is known as liberal Christianity.’”

“The Profession of Belief and Conditions of Fellowship are as follows”

[here are the words of the original 1803 Profession]

Conditions of Fellowship – 1899

The Boston Declaration amended and adopted by the General Convention of 1897, at its session in Chicago, Illinois, and adopted as an addition to the Winchester Profession in 1899 declared the conditions of fellowship in the Universalist Church to be as follows:

I. The acceptance of the essential principles of the Universalist faith, to wit:

  • The universal fatherhood of God.
  • The spiritual authority and leadership of His son, Jesus Christ.
  • The trustworthiness of the Bible as containing a revelation from God.
  • The certainty of just retribution for sin.
  • The final harmony of all souls with God.

The Winchester profession is commended as containing these principles, but neither this nor any other precise form of words is required as a condition of fellowship, provided always that the principles above stated be professed.

II. The acknowledgment of the authority of the Universalist General Convention and assent to its laws.

The Liberty Clause – 1899

The Winchester profession is commended as containing these principles, but neither this nor any other precise form of words is required as a condition of fellowship, provided always that the principles above stated be professed.

So, at the beginning of the 20th Century, the Universalist Church had created something more like a statement of principles than like a creed. And perhaps this revised document should be seen as a precursor to our current “Seven Principles”.

Now, about those Seven Principles that please us so much – should we be concerned that over time this “hornless calf” might itself grow horns and begin to hook? What, after all, do we mean by “affirm and promote”? But I leave that discussion to those who know much more than I.

Music: Lean On Me – Bill Withers

Joys and Sorrows
(Please save announcements and comments until the end of the service)

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.
For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.
These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation
Let us join our hearts and minds in silent meditation

Song: Go Now In Peace (3 times)
Please rise in body or in spirit and join in singing Go Now in Peace, three times.

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

Closing: Because of those who came before – Barbara J Pescan

Because of those who came before, we are;
in spite of their failings, we believe;
because of, and in spite of, the horizons of their vision,
we, too, dream.
Let us go remembering to praise,
to live in the moment,
to love mightily,
to bow to the mystery.

The chalice is now extinguished.
Go now in peace.

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