Sunday, March 1, 2020: Dissent, Heresy, and Toleration

Dissenter of Sidmouth

Tolerance is a social rather than a religious virtue. A broad-minded view of the private belief of others undoubtedly makes for the happiness of society; but it is an attitude impossible for those whose personal religion is strong. For if we know that we have found the key and guiding principle of Life, we cannot allow our friends to flounder blindly in the darkness.

— Steven Runciman, The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy

Unitarianism and Universalism were both born in heresy, challenges to the beliefs and mores of the world around them.

Welcome before prelude

Good morning and welcome to West Fork Unitarian Universalists. I’m Robert and I feel blessed to serve this congregation as a lay leader. I’m glad to see all of you here today.

Thank you for joining us.

Let us use the prelude for centering. We are about to enter sacred time. We are about to make this time and this place sacred by our presence and intention.

Please silence your phones… and as you do so, I invite us also to turn down the volume on our fears; to remove our masks; and to loosen the armor around our hearts.


Let go of the expectations placed on you by others—and those they taught you to place on yourself.

Drop the guilt and the shame, not to shirk accountability, but in honest expectation of the possibility of forgiveness.

Let go of the thing you said the other day. Let go of the thing you dread next week. Be here, in this moment. Breathe, here.

Prelude Belief – John Mayer

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 In memory of all the flames – Amarette Callaway

In memory of all the flames that didn’t die —
in the midst of darkness,
in spite of the darkness,
we light this flame today.

“The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5 NRSV)

Song: Spirit of Life

Spirit of Life, come unto me.
Sing in my heart all the stirrings of compassion.
Blow in the wind, rise in the sea;
move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice.
Roots hold me close; wings set me free;
Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.

Principles of Unitarian Universalism
Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles. These have been reinterpreted as the Seven Promises, which we will now read responsively.

Let us create a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths,
for we honor minds that question, hearts that love and hands that serve.

Let us live lightly on the Earth, beginning with our church community,
for we respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Let us embrace others both near and far in hope and compassion,
for we lift up the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.

Let us remember that everyone bears responsibility for the health of our congregation,
for we affirm the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.

Let us remain open to new ideas, knowing that we need not be afraid of change,
– for we trust in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Let us respect individual religious paths, even those we do not understand,
– for we aspire to accept one another and to encourage spiritual growth.

Let us listen actively and speak and act respectfully to others,
– for we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person

Story for All Ages: The Blind Men and the Elephant – The Udāna
(The Udāna; or, The Solemn Utterrances of the Buddha, translated from the Pali by D. M. Strong (London: Luzac and Company, 1902), pp. 93-96.)

Thus have I heard: …

Invitation to Offering

We will now receive an offering for the support of this religious community and its work in the world. You are invited to give generously and joyfully as you are willing and able.

Épitaphe de Seikilos, Petros Tabouris Ensemble

While you live, shine,
Have no grief at all;
Life exists only for a short while,
And Time demands its toll.

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: Wake Now My Senses

Let us all rise in body or spirit and join in singing Wake Now My Senses


from Benjamin Franklin, Letter to Benjamin Vaughan, 24 October 1788

In 1788, in a letter to a friend, Benjamin Franklin said

Remember me affectionately to good Dr. Price and to the honest heretic Dr. Priestly. I do not call him honest by way of distinction; for I think all the heretics I have known have been virtuous men. They have the virtue of fortitude or they would not venture to own their heresy; and they cannot afford to be deficient in any of the other virtues, as that would give advantage to their many enemies; and they have not like orthodox sinners, such a number of friends to excuse or justify them. Do not, however mistake me. It is not to my good friend’s heresy that I impute his honesty. On the contrary, ’tis his honesty that has brought upon him the character of heretic.

from Theodore Parker, The Transient and Permanent in Christianity

Almost every sect, that has ever been, makes Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, and not the immutable truth of the doctrines themselves, or the authority of God, who sent him into the world. Yet it seems difficult to conceive any reason, why moral and religious truths should rest for their support on the personal authority of their revealer, any more than the truths of science on that of him who makes them known first or most clearly. It is hard to see why the great truths of Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, more than the axioms of geometry rest on the personal authority of Euclid, or Archimedes. The authority of Jesus, as of all teachers, one would naturally think, must rest on the truth of his words, and not their truth on his authority. (Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing-Emerson-Parker, p.128-129)

Lesson Dissent, Heresy, and Toleration
Robert Helfer, Lay Leader

In 2013 the sign you see on the wall to your left was hanging on the iron gate to a low brick wall in front of the Old Dissenting Meeting House (Unitarian) in Sidmouth, Devon, England. The church dates, they say, to 1710. Dissent and inclusion, apparently, were woven into the fabric of English Unitarianism from the beginning.

Joseph Priestly, besides being a scientist of note, having discovered oxygen, was one of the founders of Unitarianism in the United States. As Unitarian Universalists we are generally proud of our heresies and heretics, of the heresies of our religious predecessors, and we find comments like Franklin’s comforting. And so, as I was gathering material for this talk, I was a bit surprised to find that the words dissent, heresy, and innovation retrieved such a small sample from the prepared “words of worship” available on the Unitarian Universalist Association’s web site — just some five or six sermons, a handful of rituals, affirmations, and readings. It seems that we have no prepared welcome, chalice lighting, or closing words specifically noting dissent and its importance for our religious traditon.

Ah, but we do have our history, and it is full of heresy.

Today I’d like to talk a bit about that history. I don’t intend to go into a lot of detail about any one person, or any one heresy. I’d just like to point out a bit of the trends and what kind of courage – or single-mindedness – they exhibit.

Our history, of course, began long before either a Unitarian or a Universalist church existed, and we might seem to claim as ancestors people who would never recognize us as kin. Today I’m going to talk mostly about the era known as the Radical Reformation. In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, and over the next few years European Christendom passed from more-or-less consistently Catholic to chaos. The air was filled with heretical doctrines, many of which we modern Unitarian Universalists could never endorse. Nevertheless, their examples are still important, and their stories are still worth our remembering.

Heresy is different from a simple difference of opinion. Jonathan Swift, of course, ridiculed the whole issue by making his Lilliputians fight wars over which end of the soft-boiled egg one should open. And there have certainly been actual religious controversies that seem just as frivolous – which way one should cross oneself, for example, or whether one should call Jesus “the Eternal Son of God” or the “Son of the Eternal God” – for which the penalty might be brutal, indeed. The defenders of orthodoxy are only acting out of kindness; they’re only looking out for the heretic’s soul. As the historian Steven Runciman pointed out, “Tolerance is a social rather than a religious virtue. A broad-minded view of the private belief of others undoubtedly makes for the happiness of society; but it is an attitude impossible for those whose personal religion is strong. For if we know that we have found the key and guiding principle of Life, we cannot allow our friends to flounder blindly in the darkness.”

And so, for my first example, I have a street preacher named Eloy Pruystinck. He was actively preaching in Belgium and the Netherlands in the mid 1500s, and was well-known as a heretic. Early in his career he had been apprehended and questioned, but he recanted his heresy and escaped alive. What I find particularly interesting about him is what he preached. He seems to have begun as an Anabaptist, but well before the end of his career he was teaching that, in Martin Luther’s words, “every man possesses faith and the Holy Spirit, where the first is the desire to treat one’s neighbor as oneself and the second is human reason and intelligence; all souls enjoy eternal life; only the flesh and not the spirit suffers hell; no sin has been committed when not acting on an evil thought and small children cannot sin”. To be clear, Luther was not endorsing Pruystinck; Luther was warning his own followers to avoid him and his heresies. Luther had reason for concern – Pruystinck reportedly had thousands of followers, an indication of the radical religious movements of the time. Pruystinck was captured by the Inquisition in 1544 and burned at the stake in Antwerp in October of that year.

Unitarian Universalists are more likely to know something of Pruystinck’s contemporary, the Spanish physician we call Michael Servetus. Servetus was also interested in matters of religion, and so traveled to Paris to study theology at the Sorbonne. Servetus’s studies led him to reject the official doctrine of the Trinity; Jesus, he said, while being the son of God, was not God. Not surprisingly, the authorities of the Church did not take this well, and Servetus had to flee Paris. He lived for a time in the provinces under an assumed name, working as a physician. But he was discovered and once again fled through a series of dramatic escapes. If you like a real-life adventure story, you might want to read a bit about Servetus. I would recommend Out of the Flames by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone.

Eventually he fled France and was apparently on his way to Italy to seek refuge when he made a fatal error. A fellow student during his time in Paris had also fled France and was continuing his own version of the Reformation in Switzerland. John Calvin had gained total control, both religious and civil, of Geneva. Servetus decided to stop for a visit in Geneva.

Now, if either Servetus or Calvin ever returned to France, or otherwise came into the hands of Roman Church authorities, they were certain to be executed. Both were heretics, and both had been condemned. The two had corresponded for a while about theology, and perhaps Servetus thought Calvin would be willing to debate. But they did not share the same heresy, and Servetus had preached a heresy that Calvin could not accept. Servetus was arrested and on 27 October 1553 he was burned at the stake, what was believed to be the only copy of his major work bound to his arm – the man and his heresy were together to be purged by fire. Only three copies of Servetus’s book are known to have survived.

Witnesses claimed that just before he died, Servetus called out “Oh Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” And here, we see the mercy of the orthodox – or semi-orthodox, since the Roman Church believed that Calvin and his followers were every bit as heretical as Servetus. The witnesses lamented that his soul was lost because he did not call out “Oh Jesus, Eternal Son of God”.

Francis Dávid was another contemporary of Pruystinck and Servetus. He was born in Hungary, in the area known as Transylvania, around 1510 or somewhat later. He was the son of a Transylvania Saxon shoemaker named Dávid Hertel and a Hungarian mother. He was not born into a peaceful time.

In 1526 a great Turkish army defeated and killed the King of Hungary in a major battle at Mohács in southern Hungary. King Louis had no children, and the Holy Roman Emperor was elected King of Hungary. But the situation wasn’t as simple as that sounds. Half the country was held by the Turkish army, and in the small principality of Transylvania, another man, John Zápolya, claimed to be king. In effect, the Kingdom of Hungary had been torn into two pieces: “Royal Hungary” to the north and west, ruled by the Habsburg Emperor; and Transylvania to the south and east, ruled by John Zápolya as a vassal of the Turks. In 1540 John Zápolya died suddenly, and his infant son, John Sigismund, born the same year, was elected to succeed him. Ultimately, John Sigismund, with his mother Isabella acting as regent in his minority, obtained control over the parts of Hungary his father had held, calling himself “Prince of Transylvania and Lord of Parts of the Kingdom of Hungary”.

Francis came of age in this era of religious and political turmoil; and in fact, the turmoil never ended during his lifetime. Perhaps he thrived on it. Certainly he was invigorated by the religious ferment. He first studied to become a Roman Catholic priest, but the Reformation had caught his interest. In 1545 he traveled to Wittenberg to study, and converted to Lutheranism. He returned to Transylvania, and in 1557 he became bishop of the Lutheran congregations there. By 1564 his religious journey had led him further, to John Calvin’s teachings. That year he became bishop of the Transylvanian Calvinists. But by 1568 his emphasis on strict Biblical interpretation had led to his rejection of belief in the Trinity.

Francis was a great orator, and apparently a natural leader. He seems to have been near the center of every religious movement in Transylvania in his lifetime. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in 1564 he was appointed court preacher to John Sigismund. Together Francis and the court physician, George Biandrata, a long-time Anti-Trinitarian, gradually brought John Sigismund toward Anti-Trinitarian beliefs. In 1569 John Sigismund became the world’s first and only Unitarian monarch.

In 1568, under the influence of Biandrata and Francis, John Sigismund issued the famous Edict of Torda, declaring freedom of religion in the lands he ruled:

His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve. Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.

There is much to be said about the Edict of Torda, what it was and what it was not, what it accomplished and what it did not, but all that must be for a different talk. For the moment, it is enough to know that it sanctioned four “received” religions in Transylvania: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Reformed (Calvinism), and Unitarianism. And thus, despite the history of his beliefs and non-beliefs, Francis Dávid’s preaching was protected by law. For a little while.

In 1571 John Sigismund died, leaving no heir. He was succeeded in Transylvania and the Partium (the “Parts of the Kingdom of Hungary” referred to in John Sigismund’s assumed title) by the Roman Catholic Stephen Báthory, who in his turn was succeeded in 1576 by his brother Christopher Báthory, and soon thereafter the Counter Reformation came to town. While the Edict of Torda remained in force in principle, it was effectively weakened: first in 1571 by extensive censorship of religious publications, and second in 1572 by the Law of Innovation. The Law of Innovation explicitly forbade any further religious reform.

From this point Francis’s fate was clear, but surprisingly his final conflict came from fellow Anti-Trinitarians. He disagreed with George Biandrata and the prominent Polish Anti-Trinitarian theologian Faustus Socinus on the practice of worshipping Jesus. Francis rejected such worship and refused to change his position. In 1579 Biandrata denounced him to the authorities; Francis was tried for religious innovation in June 1579 and sent to prison, where he died less than six months later.

Well, okay, that’s all pretty depressing. Maybe I need to think about heretics whose beliefs didn’t lead them to tragic death and destruction.

Of course, Luther and Calvin, various groups of the Bretheren, the Anabaptist preachers of the Netherlands and southern Germany, and large numbers of their followers were just as much heretics as the people I’ve mentioned, and many of them survived long enough to spread their heresies.

But I have a cheerier story, as well, in 19th Century America.

A young Unitarian minister named Theodore Parker had come under the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address”. He aligned himself with Emerson and the more radical wing of Unitarians of the time, and became associated with the Transcendentalist movement (I tend to think of the Transcendentalists as sort of the Beatniks or Hippies of the early 19th Century). He was also radical in social issues. He actively defied the Fugitive Slave Law, harboring escaped slaves in his church, and helped provide resources for John Brown’s attempt to foment a slave rebellion in Virginia. He was fiery, opinionated, and resolute, and apparently easily, as they say, “rubbed people the wrong way”.

In 1841 Parker delivered an address titled “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” which effectively challenged not only the Church, but the doctrine of the origin and authority of the Bible as well.

But the current notions respecting the infallible inspiration of the Bible have no foundation in the Bible itself. Which Evangelist, which Apostle of the New Testament, what Prophet or Psalmist of the Old Testament, ever claims infallible authority for himself or for others?

Even further he challenged opinions of the nature and authority of Christ.

Almost every sect, that has ever been, makes Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, and not the immutable truth of the doctrines themselves, or the authority of God, who sent him into the world.

In January 1843 at a meeting of the Boston Association of Ministers Parker was called upon to defend his membership, his right to continue as a member of the Association. One might think of this as a heresy trial, but it was surely the strangest that ever occurred.

Conrad Wright, in his introduction to Parker’s Hawes Place sermon, summarizes it thus:

Parker had been asked to withdraw; he had declined; and there was no way to exclude him without abandoning the principle of free inquiry. So several of the members said kind things about Parker’s sincerity; he burst into tears and left the room, where Dr. Frothingham [Nathaniel Langdon Frothingham, minister of First Church, Boston] shook him cordially by the hand and expressed the hope that he would come to see him soon; and the closest the Unitarians ever came to a heresy trial was over. (Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing-Emerson-Parker, p.42)

But this brief historical review isn’t worth much if we cannot bring its lessons into our own time, into our own lives. For me, I think these stories exemplify UUA’s third and fourth principles: “Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;” and “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning”.

And what about dissent? It can mean a lot, or it can mean nearly nothing. I should note that the Dissenter of Sidmouth was not originally a Unitarian church. In the beginning it was Presbyterian, and became Unitarian only in the 19th Century. “Dissenter” in this case simply meant “Not the State Church”.

Responsive Reading – Cherish Your Doubts
– Robert T. Weston (Hymns for the Celebration of Life 421)

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.


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)

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

Closing The Purpose of This Community is to Help Its People Grow
— Erik Walker Wikstrom

If you are who you were,
and if the person next to you is who he or she was,
if none of us has changed
since the day we came in here —
we have failed.

The purpose of this community —
of any church, temple, zendo, mosque —
is to help its people grow.

We do this through encounters with the unknown — in ourselves,
in one another,
in “The Other” — whoever that might be for us,
however hard that might be —
because these encounters have many gifts to offer.

So may you go forth from here this morning
not who you were,
but who you could be.

So may we all.

The chalice has been extinguished
Go now in peace.