On May 5, 1819, two hundred years ago, William Ellery Channing delivered an hour and a half long sermon on the Biblical text, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” The sermon did more than focus on the role of reason in religion, though that was part of it. It laid out the essentials of the unitarian (the “u” is small here, because I am talking about the theological concept, not the institutional church) position in religion.
People had been hurling the insult “Unitarian” at him and others who shared his liberal interpretation of scripture and his trust that the goodness of humanity was greater than its depravity. Channing decided, like queer people would much later, to embrace the slur and live into it. Yes, he declared in this sermon–Unitarian Christianity (read the full sermon here: http://people.bu.edu/dklepper/RN212/unitarian.html)–I and others like me are unitarian in our theology, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Conflict had simmered in New England churches since late in the previous century, as many ministers had em-braced the rule of reason and liberalized their theology. Churches were split-ting over it. Even Harvard split over it when a liberal professor of divinity was appointed, with conservatives founding an alternative school–Andover Theological Seminary.
Over the last two hundred years, Unitarianism has evolved a great deal from the premises Channing laid down. We have become less Christian in our perspectives, more open to other religious ideas and to non-religious ideas from science and other sources. We have retained certain ideas from Channing’s framework, though–the need for reason in religion, the understanding of Jesus as human, the tolerance for different points of view within the same church, and the conviction that people can make themselves better, if they decide to do so.
Why does a two-hundred-year-old sermon matter? Why does history matter at all? Because it helps us understand who we are today, where we came from, how we have evolved.
Channing, of course, was no perfect man. He came late to the abolitionist cause. His overly individualistic theology did little to encourage collective action. But we are all people of our time and place and temperament and never will attain perfection. Nevertheless, we learn from those who have gone before.
This May 5, at 9:30 am, our periodic series on history and theology of Unitarian Universalism will start with Channing and trace Unitarianism through its next hundred years. On June 2, we’ll take a similar journey with Universalism. It’s great to have new folks, along with long-time members. Hope to see you there.
In faith and freedom, Jonalu