Sunday, August 1, 2021: Audra State Park

Swimming at Audra
Swimming at Audra

We have Spiritual Outings on the first Sunday of each month during the summer. For this year’s fifth outing, we will gather for a celebration of summer and fellowship on Sunday, August 1, at Audra State Park.

We will meet at 11 a.m. in the picnic area for a short service followed by a potluck picnic, conversation, and walking. Bring food to share if you are able and wish to share; otherwise, just bring food for yourself and share our company.

During this time of continuing covid-19 pandemic we are following current CDC guidelines (see https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/participate-in-activities.html). Fully vaccinated people are safe without masks for themselves and for unvaccinated people.  If you are not vaccinated you should wear a mask and practice appropriate social distancing.

We would love to have you come worship with us.

For a map, please use this link: https://goo.gl/maps/dQZFRS2idTJ2

Email westforkuu@gmail.com or use our contact form for more information or to carpool, or write to us at PO Box 523, Clarksburg WV 26302

Sunday, 25 July, 2021: Punishment and Universal Salvation

Kelso Jail 1940s - 1985

(Image: the old two-cell strap-iron jail in Kelso, California)

If I don’t believe God would punish people after death and send them to hell, because God is so loving and because punishment is not salvific, then why would I think punishment would be salvific on earth? That makes no sense. It’s just theologically inappropriate.

— Jason Lydon

Welcome before prelude

Good morning and welcome to West Fork Unitarian Universalists. I’m Robert Helfer 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.

Breathe.

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: Prison Song, Graham Nash

Welcome: The Beauty of the Whole — Meg Barnhouse (https://www.uua.org/worship/words/welcome/beauty-whole)

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.

Welcoming Song

Please rise in body or spirit and join in singing “Come, Come, Whoever You Are”
(Singing the Living Tradition, 188)

Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair
Come, yet again come

Chalice lighting: First Principle Chalice Lighting — Florence Caplow (https://www.uua.org/worship/words/chalice-lighting/first-principle-chalice-lighting)

We light this chalice today in honor of the Unitarian Universalist First Principle: To affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

We recognize that these are not just words to be spoken; instead, they call us out of our comfort into an ever-deepening commitment:
a commitment we make to the rights of all whose inherent worth and dignity are denied, diminished, or destroyed by systems of oppression. And they call us into the practice of looking into our own hearts, with courage and honesty.

Principles of Unitarian Universalism
(https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles)

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.

Invitation to Offering

Say to thyself, ‘If there is any good thing that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now; let me not defer it nor neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.’
– Anonymous

Remember that our being here, together, all of us, in this space, is part of our offering, our sharing and building of this community. Let us use the time during the offertory to contemplate how we can use our time and talents during the next week for this community and for our larger society.

Offertory
Épitaphe de Seikilos, Petros Tabouris Ensemble

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.

Readings:

Jason Lydon, interviewed by Lyra Walsh Fuchs in “Formerly incarcerated, this Unitarian Universalist minister is dedicated to abolishing prisons” (Times West Virginian, 16 April 2021, https://www.timeswv.com/news/national_news/formerly-incarcerated-this-unitarian-universalist-minister-is-dedicated-to-abolishing-prisons/article_b37c86c0-9e1b-11eb-895b-fb0a2162ea59.html)

If I don’t believe God would punish people after death and send them to hell, because God is so loving and because punishment is not salvific, then why would I think punishment would be salvific on earth? That makes no sense. It’s just theologically inappropriate.

Michael McClymond, interviewed by Paul Copan in “How Universalism, ‘the Opiate of the Theologians,’ Went Mainstream” (Christianity Today, March 11, 2019; https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/march-web-only/michael-mcclymond-devils-redemption-universalism.html)

In theological usage, universalism is the doctrine that all human beings — and perhaps all intelligent or volitional beings — will come to final salvation and spend an eternity with heaven in God. This is a theory about a final outcome, and it leaves open the way that this outcome might be attained. One reason my book is so lengthy is that there have been many different kinds of arguments for universal salvation over the last 1,800 years. At certain points, these arguments conflict with one another, so that if someone claims to be a universalist, you might ask: “What sort of universalist are you?”

One division is between the belief that everyone goes immediately to heaven at the moment of death (called “ultra-universalism”) and the belief that many or most people first undergo postmortem suffering (a view I call “purgationism”). This issue was fiercely debated in America during the 19th century, and universalists have never been able to resolve it.

The more robust arguments for universalism hold that God’s purposes in creating the world will fail if even one intelligent creature should finally be separated from God. This line of reasoning implies that not only human sinners but also fallen angels will finally be saved. The title of my book, The Devil’s Redemption, is an allusion to that idea.

Song: The Prisoner’s Song, Vernon Dalhart

Lesson: Punishment and Universal Salvation

Robert Helfer, Lay Leader

A couple of months ago, Bill gave me a link to an article about a young UU minister named Jason Lydon, a one-time prisoner, who was working to eliminate prisons in the United States. He suggested that I might want to post something about his work on the WFUU blog.

I took Bill’s suggestion seriously and pondered what I needed to do. There are complex issues involved, and eventually I decided that I couldn’t really do them justice in a blog post without essentially plagiarizing the article, and even then whatever I said wouldn’t really do anything beyond suggesting that the issues exist. So I sat with my thoughts for a few months, not sure how to proceed. Eventually this opportunity opened to bring my thoughts to the open forum we call our Sunday service, and, I hope, to the comments and criticisms of this community.

The quotation from Jason Lydon that precedes this lesson is from the article Bill gave me, and contains the words that I found most striking about this particular movement. It’s a direct call to universalists (whether with a small u or a large U) to consider how their faith should reflect itself into the world. Specifically, why do we continue to condone temporal punishment while we reject the idea of eternal punishment. It seems to me that this strikes to the heart of universalism, no matter what religious community it inhabits.

I’d thought about justice and imprisonment in the past, but I’d never thought about it overtly from the perspective of Universalism. This was something new.

Now, I think I’ll be wandering into some flaky semi-theology, a little speculation on people and society, a little browsing into our own Universalist history, and possibly a comment or two from my own personal history; please bear with me while I try to find my feet in this. I’ll probably be thinking about this for some time to come.

Of course we all know that being in prison is a terrible thing — you can just ponder the words of all the prison songs and stories of prison life that you’ve heard all your life — and it seems legitimate to think that, as the article says, “in a moral and just society, prisons would not exist”.

Do we live in a “moral and just society”? Not totally, I think; maybe not at all. In any case, prisons exist, and they are bound up into the many structures and customs of the culture around us.

I’m going to try to sort out a few factors, just so we all know what we’re talking about, but first I need to stick in a little personal disclosure; perhaps I have some preconceptions that might affect what I say.

I don’t think Bill realized when he gave me that URL that the issue might be at all personal. Half a century ago I worked for the Illinois Department of Corrections — the people who run the state penal institutions in Illinois. The division I worked for didn’t have any contact with prisons. Instead it was designed to keep young people from involving themselves in activities that would lead to their being in prison. Nevertheless this work (plus my father’s encouragement) lead to my joining both the Illinois Academy of Criminology and the John Howard Association of Illinois, an organization which, according to their web site, “has served as Illinois‘ only independent citizen correctional oversight organization” for more than 118 years.

I stayed with the Department of Corrections only about 3 years, but my father was at that time Public Defender in my rural home county, so my interest endured a bit longer than that, stoked by the work he was doing and the issues he talked about, before I was overwhelmed by different interests and different work.

Please remember as I speak that while I was once involved, I have not been involved in a very long time. I claim absolutely no authority or expertise. Fifty years ago I knew some things; now I know so very little.

So, let’s begin by trying to put prisons into their social context.

What’s a prison for? My father used to call them people warehouses — places where people are stored away, possibly forever, for having transgressed, having violated a law. These are places of punishment, basically. We might talk about law at another time; for now, I’m just going to talk about prisons.

During the 19th and 20th centuries there were movements by energetic “do-gooders” to get rid of the strictest forms of punitive prisons, replacing them with institutions that rehabilitate and retrain convicts, making them into good citizens capable of living in society. Many of these reforms have been successful, and they are still being legislated and expanded, but there are limits.

There are complicating factors. We have, for example, several kinds of for-profit prisons, which make their money by keeping people in prison, or by renting them out as laborers. Certainly, in a “moral and just society”, such things wouldn’t even be imagined.

Our criminal justice systems are also flawed, at least partly because our society has flaws. Vulnerable populations may be disproportionately affected by how we administer the law. I won’t go into detail about this; we’ve all got our opinions, and we’ve all seen the effects of wealth or poverty, social standing, and prejudices in the system.

Nevertheless, crime exists (although perhaps there would be less crime if we created our laws more thoughtfully). And those who do commit crimes must be dealt with.

Underlying whatever we do is what we like to call “justice”. A person wronged wants “justice”, to be “made whole”, as the legal phrase has it, either in the form of revenge or retribution. If someone steals money from me, I want money restored. But if the wrong cannot be righted we still want justice, usually produced by punishing the person judged to be the cause of the wrong.

And here’s where prison comes in to give us part of that justice: punishment, rehabilitation, and public safety. Punish the guilty; rehabilitate the convict to bring them back into society; and, in the meantime, protect society in general from dangers that at least some convicts may threaten.

Modern prisons certainly provide punishment, at least for most convicts. And some of the punishment goes way beyond what seems appropriate, especially for many especially vulnerable populations.

Modern prisons are supposed to provide rehabilitation, a route for a convict to rejoin society. Well, I’ll just say that much and stop, because if I try to expand this even a little bit it will swell into a whole new lesson.

I’m sure you’ve all noticed that I’ve skipped over a huge number of issues. The whole business is complex. And I’m sure you’ve also noticed that I’ve talked about the worldly, apparently avoiding the spiritual questions.

So, now that I’ve rather clumsily and inadequately outlined what prisons are, I can come back around to Jason Lydon’s call for their elimination, and the Universalism underlying his idea.

In case you don’t remember, here’s what he said:

If I don’t believe God would punish people after death and send them to hell, because God is so loving and because punishment is not salvific, then why would I think punishment would be salvific on earth? That makes no sense. It’s just theologically inappropriate.

Now, I think this is a perfectly understandable attitude for a Universalist. But not all Universalists think the same way. Well, maybe I should say “Christian Universalist” here, since it depends on a belief in the Christian God. I think this is a version of “Ultra-Universalism”, the belief the there will be no punishment after death. Most 19th century Universalists believed that souls that had not attained a certain level of righteousness would be held for some period after death in what a Catholic would call Purgatory. And even many “Ultra-Universalists”, while rejecting the notion of punishment after death, believe that the sinful soul is punished/purged during its time on Earth.

Ah, but is that quibbling about Universalism really relevant? I’ve never been in prison, and he has.

Well, I think that if we eliminate all prisons we will still have a problem providing justice for the wronged, rehabilitation for the guilty, and protection for everybody, not that we’ve been doing a fantastic job of providing those things with prisons. Would anyone believe that there was justice for George Floyd if Derek Chauvin had not be sent to prison? If he had received probation? If he had simply been released with the admonition “go and sin no more”?

But beyond all that, where does the First Principle fit into the criminal justice system, whether we have prisons or not? But this discussion could go on forever (and I hope that it does both within this community and the wider community in general) so I think I’ll stop there for today.

Music: Drift Away, Dobie Gray

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)

Please rise in body or spirit and join in singing Go Now In Peace

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

Closing: May We Never Rest — John Cummins (https://www.uua.org/worship/words/closing/6028.shtml)

May we never rest until every child of earth in every generation is free from all prisons of the mind and of the body and of the spirit;

until the earth and the hills and the seas shall dance, and the universe itself resound with the joyful cry: “Behold! I am!”

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

Go now in peace.

Sunday, July 11, 2021: Ferguson Memorial Park, Shinnston

Ferguson Memorial Park, Shinnston
Ferguson Memorial Park, Shinnston

We have Spiritual Outings on the first Sunday of each month during the summer. For this year’s third outing, we will gather for a celebration of summer on Sunday, July 11, at Ferguson Memorial Park in Shinnston

We will meet at 11 a.m. in the picnic area for a short service followed by a potluck picnic, conversation, and walking. Bring food to share if you are able and wish to share; otherwise, just bring food for yourself and share our company.   [Note that there is a fee if you chose to use the pool.]

During this time of continuing covid-19 pandemic we are following current CDC guidelines (see https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/participate-in-activities.html). Fully vaccinated people are safe without masks for themselves and for unvaccinated people.  If you are not vaccinated you should wear a mask and practice appropriate social distancing.

We would love to have you come worship with us.

For a map, please use this link: goo.gl/maps/enAartS4VNE2

Email westforkuu@gmail.com or use our contact form for more information or to carpool, or write to us at PO Box 523, Clarksburg WV 26302

SERVICE FOR Sunday, July 4, 2021, CANCELED

Because of scheduling conflicts during the holiday weekend, there will be no in-person or ZOOM service at WFUU on Sunday, July 4, 2021.

Have a safe and festive Independence Day weekend.

Email westforkuu@gmail.com or use our contact form for more information or write to us at PO Box 523, Clarksburg WV 26302

Sunday, July 4, 2021: SERVICE CANCELED

Because of scheduling conflicts during the holiday weekend, there will be no in-person or ZOOM service at WFUU on Sunday, July 4, 2021.

Have a safe and festive Independence Day weekend.

Email westforkuu@gmail.com or use our contact form for more information or write to us at PO Box 523, Clarksburg WV 26302

Sunday, 20 June, 2021: Thinking Too Freely?

Freethinkers were fine people, but they shouldn’t go around thinking just anything. — Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent

In the turmoil of early 19th Century religious thought in the United States, the Universalist minister Abner Kneeland set a high standard for controversy. A supporter of radical social reform, women’s rights, birth control, and interracial marriage, his views were too much even for the Universalists, who by 1830 had kicked him out of the denomination. In 1838 he became the last person imprisoned in the United States for blasphemy.

Welcome before prelude

Good morning and welcome to West Fork Unitarian Universalists. I’m Robert Helfer 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.

Breathe.

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: Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show, Neil Diamond


Welcome: To Learn More About Being Human — Erika A. Hewitt
(https://www.uua.org/worship/words/welcome/learn-more-about-being-human)

Welcome to this morning, this day, and this opportunity to be together in community — which is a time of joy, comfort, and sometimes challenges. This Unitarian Universalist congregation is a place where we come to learn more about being human. We’re not here because we’ve figured out life’s questions, or because we think we’ve got it right.

We come here to learn more about being in relationship together: how to listen, how to forgive, how to be vulnerable, and how to create trust and compassion in one another.

Let us move into worship, willing to be authentic with each other, honest within ourselves, and opening to connection in all its forms.

Song

Please rise in body or spirit and join in singing “Come, Come, Whoever You Are”
(Singing the Living Tradition, 188)

Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair
Come, yet again come

Chalice lighting: In Memory of All the Flames – Amarette Callaway
(https://www.uua.org/worship/words/chalice-lighting/memory-all-flames)

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)

Principles of Unitarian Universalism
(https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles)

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: How the Wren Became the King of the Birds
A tale from the British Islands, retold by Elizabeth Simpson
(http://littlebrownwren.com/2015/11/24/how-the-wren-became-the-king-of-the-birds/)

Invitation to Offering

Say to thyself, ‘If there is any good thing that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now; let me not defer it nor neglect it, for I may not pass this way again.’
– Anonymous

Remember that our being here, together, all of us, in this space, is part of our offering, our sharing and building of this community. Let us use the time during the offertory to contemplate how we can use our time and talents during the next week for this community and for our larger society.

Offertory
Épitaphe de Seikilos, Petros Tabouris Ensemble

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: We Are the Earth Upright and Proud
(Singing The Living Tradition, #303)

Readings:

Abner Kneeland, from “Letter to Thomas Whittemore”

Kneeland wrote the following letter to Thomas Whittemore, editor of The Trumpet, in December 1833.

Dear Sir: You observed to me the other day, that people still consider me a Universalist, and said to me “If you will acknowledge that you are not, I will publish it.” I told you, in substance, that in some respects I am still a Universalist; but that in others, I am not. I shall now answer you more at large, which I hope you will publish in full, and thereby redeem your pledge.

I still hold to universal philanthropy, universal benevolence, and universal charity. In these respects, I am still a Universalist. Neither do I believe in punishment after death; so in this also I agree with the Universalists. But as it respects all other of their religious notions in relation to another world or a supposed other state of conscious existence, I do not believe in any of them; to that in this respect, I am no more a Universalist than I am an orthodox Christian.

1. Universalists believe in a god, which I do not; but believe that their god, with all his moral attributes, (aside from nature itself,) is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination.

2. Universalists believe in Christ, which I do not; but believe that whole story concerning him is as much a fable and a fiction, as that of the god Prometheus, the tragedy of whose death is said to have been acted on the stage in the theatre in Athens, 500 years before the Christian era.

3. Universalists believe in miracles, which I do not; but believe that every pretension to them can either be accounted for on natural principles, or else is to be attributed to mere trick and imposture.

4. Universalists believe in the resurrection of the dead, in immortality and eternal life, which I do not; but believe that all life is mortal, that death is an eternal extinction of life to the individual who possesses it, and that no individual life is, ever was, or ever will be eternal.

Hence, as Universalists no longer wish to consider me as being of their faith, and I no longer wish to be considered as belonging to their order, as it relates to a belief in things unseen, I hope the above four articles will be sufficient to distinguish me from them and them from me. I profess to believe in all realities of which I can form any rational conception, while they believe in what I believe to be mere ideal nothings to which they give both a “location and a name.”

In giving the above a place in the Trumpet you will let me tell your readers, in my own language, what I do, as well as what I do not, believe and thereby oblige your once brother of the same faith with yourself, and still your personal friend.

Abner Kneeland

Abner Kneeland, “A Philosophical Creed”

I believe in the existence of a universe of suns and planets, among which there is one sun belonging to our planetary system; and that other suns, being more remote, are called stars; but that they are indeed suns to other planetary systems. I believe that the whole universe is NATURE, and that the word NATURE embraces the whole universe, and that GOD and NATURE, so far as we can attach any rational idea to either, are perfectly synonymous terms. Hence I am not an Atheist, but a Pantheist; that is, instead of believing there is no God, I believe that in the abstract, all is God; and that all power that is, is in God, and that there is no power except that which proceeds from God. I believe that there can be no will or intelligence where there is no sense; and no sense where there are no organs of sense; and hence sense, will, and intelligence, is the effect, and not the cause, of organization. I believe in all that logically results from these premises, whether good, bad, or indifferent. Hence, I believe, that God is all in all; and that it is in God we live, move, and have our being; and that the whole duty of man consists in living as long as he can, and in promoting as much happiness as he can while he lives.

Lesson: Thinking Too Freely?
Robert Helfer, Lay Leader

“Freethinkers were fine people, but they shouldn’t go around thinking just anything.”
— Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent

Today marks West Virginia’s 158th birthday. It’s also Father’s Day, and, by coincidence, the 111th anniversary of my father’s birth. The United Nations reminds us that it’s also World Refugee Day. And at 11:31 p.m. today the sun will stand still (or something like that), making today the longest day in the year — tomorrow the days begin to shorten again. (Midsummer is still four days in the future.) But as notable as all those things are, I’m not going to talk about any of them. Instead, I’m going to talk about Abner Kneeland.

Some years ago I discovered Kneeland while browsing aimlessly in Ernest Cassara’s Universalism in America: A Documentary History. I was taken by his short “A Philosophical Creed”, which I just read to you, and was somewhat startled by the fact that this statement of faith that seemed so modern and radical dated to 1833. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, since I’ve known of other, even more radical religious sentiments that date from centuries before Kneeland. But somehow it seemed out of place in the early 19th century. And so, since today I’m to speak on Unitarian Universalist history, Kneeland sprang to mind.

But I need to start this story a bit closer to the beginning.

Abner Kneeland was born April 7, 1774, in Gardner, Massachusetts, to Timothy and Moriah Stone Kneeland. When he was 21, he and his older brother moved to Vermont to follow their father’s carpentry trade. In 1801 Abner joined a Baptist church in Putney, and shortly after that he began to preach. While still preaching as a Baptist, he began reading the works of Elhanan Winchester (the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography describes Winchester as “the most wide-ranging and successful 18th century American Universalist evangelist”) and was converted to Universalism. In 1803 he met Hosea Ballou and formed a close friendship with him, and also adoped Ballou’s theology.

In 1804, with John Murray preaching the sermon, Kneeland was ordained as a minister-at-large, and soon became an itinerant preacher in New Hampshire. In 1805 he was ordained again, as settled minister of the church in Langdon, New Hampshire, this time with Ballou delivering the sermon. Lisa has discussed Ballou in the past, and I hope she will again.

Clearly Kneeland was among the stars of Universalism in the early 19th century. He was active in New England Universalist General Convention affairs, serving as treasurer in 1809 and standing clerk in 1811, and with Ballou and Edward Turner compiled a Universalist hymnal. Kneeland contributed 138 of the 410 hymns, but apparently he was getting more radical, and confrontational. One of his hymns, for example, included the words: “As ancient bigots disagree, The Stoic and the Pharisee, So is the modern Christian world/ In superstitious error hurl’d.” — words probably not conducive to good ecumenical relations with more conservative Christian ministers. The Convention declined to publish the hymnal.

In 1811 Kneeland moved to the church in Charlestown, Massachusetts, but in 1814 he suddenly resigned his pulpit and opened a dry goods business with his wife. When the Convention urged him to return to the ministry, he explained that he left the ministry for financial reasons. But he was struggling with doubt. He had come to doubt the authenticity of scripture and the authority of revelation. He turned to his friend Ballou, and they engaged in a debate by correspondence on these issues. Ballou reassured Kneeland, and he returned to the ministry. In 1816 he was settled in the church at Whitestown, New York. But Kneeland’s doubts persisted, and he sought out and read any skeptical literature he could find, including works of Joseph Priestly, beginning a drift toward unitarianism.

Perhaps this is a good time to widen the screen a bit. From around 1790 through 1840, the United States was immersed in what is now called the Second Great Awakening. This was a period of great religious turmoil and enthusiasm. It was a period of intense reassessment of Protestant Christianity. It was the era of Methodist circuit riders seeking out isolated settlers in the wilderness, emotional preaching, religious revivals, including “camp meetings” (such as “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show”), great increases in church memberships in new churches and, in Wikipedia’s words, “personal connection with God instead of relying on a minister”. New colleges, seminaries, and mission societies were founded. New denominations appeared — Latter Day Saints, Baptists, Shakers, the Adventist movement, and Spiritualism. And it was a time of social activism — abolitionist groups and the Temperance movement.

And in the midst of all this, Kneeland doubted Christianity.

In 1818 he was called to the Lombard Street church in Philadelphia, where he seems nearly immediately to have alienated a portion of the congregation with his non-traditional opinions. He was quite energetic during his time in Philadelphia. The Dictionary of UU Biography reports: “He published sermons and tracts, edited denominational and secular newspapers, compiled a hymnal, made a translation of the New Testament, and developed a new system of spelling. … In addition to these ecclesiastical and scholarly pursuits, Kneeland found time to help his wife with a new store and to serve as government inspector of imported hats.” He also met Robert Owen.

Owen was a Welsh-born industrialist, and Utopian socialist. In 1824 he moved to the United States and soon invested much of his fortune in an experimental socialist community at New Harmony, Indiana. But the frontier in 19th century North America was littered with failed Utopian communities. New Harmony failed after about two years, and in 1828 Owen returned to England. His followers and supporters, called Owenites, continued some of his efforts, but ultimately failed as well. But his thinking was influential in development of cooperatives and the trade union movement, and led to child labor laws and free co-educational schools.

In that brief time, Kneeland became a disciple of Owen. But before his new ideas could affect his position in the Lombard Street church, he moved to the Prince Street church in New York. He was in residence there from 1825 until 1827 when his transformed thinking divided the church. Kneeland and those who supported him then created a new congregation, the Second Universalist Society. And by 1829 Kneeland had managed to alienate this congregation as well.

He had become a notorious freethinker, denounced by churches all through the denomination. But perhaps the last straw for the Universalists was his support of the even more freethinking and scandalous Frances Wright. Fanny Wright was a Scottish-born social reformer. In the Encyclopedia Britannica‘s words, her “revolutionary views on religion, education, marriage, birth control, and other matters made her both a popular author and lecturer and a target of vilification”. And Kneeland didn’t just support her ideas or her right to speak them, he allowed her the use of his pulpit when no one else would let her speak.

Clearly, as far as the Universalists were concerned Kneeland was thinking too freely, and they had had enough. In 1829, under pressure from Ballou, Kneeland voluntarily withdrew from fellowship, and the following year the Convention automatically disfellowshipped him.

Losing his pulpit wasn’t really such a bad thing. His ideas may not have pleased the Universalists, but he definitely still had an audience. In 1831 he moved to Boston and became lecturer for the newly formed First Society of Free Enquirers. The Dictionary of UU Biography reports that he “spoke to over two thousand people at gatherings on Sunday mornings at the Federal Street Theater in Boston, and to as many at his Wednesday evening lectures.” He also published his own newspaper.

Kneeland’s scandalous career eventually caught up with him. He had spoken out not just on religious issues, but also social issues, expressing opinions that must have distressed the conservative population. In 1838 the authorities brought him to trial under the blasphemy laws of Massachusetts’ colonial charter. Quoting once again from the Dictionary of UU Biography,

The prosecution portrayed his blasphemy as part of a pattern with his social thought. They were, in effect, trying him not just for his theology, but for his politics. For Kneeland had not only denounced the conservative influence of religion on society, but he had called for equal rights for women and equality of races. He had suggested women keep their own name and bank accounts. He had spoken out in favor of birth control, divorce, and interracial marriage. The prosecuting attorney for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts warned the jury that if Kneeland were not punished, “marriages [will be] dissolved, prostitution made easy and safe, moral and religious restraints removed, property invaded, and the foundations of society broken up, and property made common.”

It took 5 trials to finally convict Kneeland, and there was a huge uproar. He had many supporters. William Ellery Channing produced a petition to pardon Kneeland, based on freedom of speech and press. Among the many who signed were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, George Ripley, William Lloyd Garrison, and Bronson Alcott, stars of liberal religion at the time, but not his old friend Ballou. To be fair, though, I should note that petitions in support of the authorities carried more signatures, showing continuing public support for the old law. Channing’s petition was not successful; Kneeland served 60 days in the Boston jail, the last person to be imprisoned for blasphemy in the United States. After his release he moved to Iowa, where, like a good Owenite, he started a small Utopian community that he called Salubria. The community did not survive long after his death in 1844.

Is there something we can learn from this story? I don’t know. But I do think that I need to learn more about this person, who fits so amazingly into a time of transition and who propounded a wide range of social reform. It seems that much of what Kneeland supported would be supported by most current Unitarians and Universalists. And for me it’s a bit disturbing that so much of what he tried to accomplish has not yet happened, some 188 years later. Maybe we’re slow learners.

Music: Drift Away, Dobie Gray

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)
Please rise in body or spirit and join in singing Go Now In Peace

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

Closing: Cherish Your Doubts — Michael A Schuler
(https://www.uua.org/worship/words/closing/6006.shtml)

Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the servant of truth.

Question your convictions, for beliefs too tightly held strangle the mind and its natural wisdom.

Suspect all certitudes, for the world whirls on — nothing abides.

Yet in our inner rooms full of doubt, inquiry and suspicion, let a corner be reserved for trust.

For without trust there is no space for communities to gather or for friendships to be forged.

Indeed, this is the small corner where we connect — and reconnect — with each other.

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

Go now in peace.

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Sunday, June 6, 2021: Watters Smith Memorial State Park

Watters Smith Memorial State Park

We have Spiritual Outings on the first Sunday of each month during the summer. For this year’s second outing, we will gather for a celebration of summer and fellowship on Sunday, June 6, at Watters Smith Memorial State Park.

We will meet at 11 a.m. in the Pioneer shelter in the picnic area near the historical area for a short service followed by a potluck picnic, conversation, and walking. Bring food to share if you are able and wish to share; otherwise, just bring food for yourself and share our company.

During this time of continuing covid-19 pandemic we are following current CDC guidelines (see https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/participate-in-activities.html). Fully vaccinated people are safe without masks for themselves and for unvaccinated people.  If you are not vaccinated you should wear a mask and practice appropriate social distancing.

Please email westforkuu@gmail.com for more information or if you would like to carpool.

We would love to have you come worship with us.

Email westforkuu@gmail.com or use our contact form for more information

or write to us at PO Box 523, Clarksburg WV 26302

In-Person Services Resume, Sunday, May 23, 2021

West Fork Unitarian Universalists will resume in-person services at the Progressive Women’s Association’s Downtown Event Center beginning Sunday, May 23, 2021.

We would love to have you come worship with us.

Our services are Sundays at 11 a.m. at the Progressive Women’s Association Event Center, 305 Washington Ave. in downtown Clarksburg, behind the Courthouse. There are classes for children and adults 10 to 10:45 am, and a coffee gathering before the service. Please enter the building through the side entrance.

On the first Sunday of each month during the summer classes and worship are replaced by Spiritual Outings, with brief worship, a potluck picnic, and outdoor activities. The schedule is in the sidebar.

The building is wheelchair accessible, with an accessible restroom.

During this time of continuing covid-19 pandemic we are following current CDC guidelines (see https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/participate-in-activities.html). Current guidelines no longer require fully vaccinated people to wear a mask. If you are not fully vaccinated please wear a mask and practice appropriate social distancing while inside the building.

Map

Email westforkuu@gmail.com or use our contact form for more information or write to us at PO Box 523, Clarksburg WV 26302

Sunday, May 2, 2021: Prickett’s Fort State Park

Prickett’s Fort Cemetery

We have Spiritual Outings on the first Sunday of each month during the summer. For this year’s first outing, we will gather for a celebration of summer on Sunday, May 2, at Prickett’s Fort State Park.

During this time of continuing covid-19 pandemic we are practicing appropriate social distancing; please wear a mask.

We will meet at 11 a.m. in the picnic area for a short service followed by a modified potluck picnic, conversation, and walking. We will be practicing social distancing and wearing masks. Bring food to share if you are able and wish to share; otherwise, just bring food for yourself and share our company.

Note: admission to the park itself is free of charge, but there is a fee if you want to visit the reconstructed fort or the museum. For further information, see here.

We would love to have you come worship with us.

For a map and directions, please use this link: https://goo.gl/maps/itHRuPSKwcwfS4zt8

Email westforkuu@gmail.com or use our contact form for more information or to carpool, or write to us at PO Box 523, Clarksburg WV 26302