Editor’s Note: Union Sunday, held annually on the first Sunday in May, is, for Unitarian Universalists in the mid-Atlantic region, possibly the most important and majestic of all of the traditions that mark and celebrate our existence as a denomination. For the very first time, this year’s celebration, with its colorful pageantry, soaring music and keynote sermon, will not take place at First UU in Baltimore, Maryland, where in 1819 the Sermon was delivered; but instead at our very own church, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia. Please join us at 4pm on May 6, 2018 – our doors are open to everyone.
In commemoration of Union Sunday and the honor of hosting this important event, UUCC congregant Alan Coltri examines, in a series of blogposts, some of the religious struggles that ultimately led to the birth of Unitarianism.
In a few weeks, we will be celebrating the 199th anniversary of a sermon, delivered by Dr. William Ellery Channing in Baltimore on May 5, 1819.
Why do we do this? What place does this sermon hold in our history?
For me the story begins much earlier, in England, with Henry the VIII and Elizabeth I. Henry VIII split the English church off from Catholicism, and his successor Elizabeth (a Protestant Queen) died childless, conferring the crown on a Catholic heir, James I. Thus began 86 years of turmoil (1603-1689), including the English Civil war, the invasion of Ireland, four kings (one beheaded), and a period of Puritan rule by Oliver Cromwell. This turbulence in English (and Scottish) religion divided the country into bitterly opposed factions – defined by their religious beliefs. Religious tests called “Confessions of Faith” were applied, and those who would not swear to a detailed list of beliefs were declared “Non-Conformists” or “Dissenters” and were considered enemies of the state, sometimes tolerated, and at other times suppressed, imprisoned, or executed.
In our story, this century of foment led to waves of migration to New England dominated by the Puritans (winners of the English Civil War, but losers of the peace). The Puritans had a very “Calvinist” view of religion – lots of hellfire. And the idea that some, “the Elect of God”, were destined for heaven, while all others were forever damned.
But the New World Puritans also held some views which gave them flexibility in the long run. First, they did not accept ecclesiastical hierarchy. Congregations were formed by the people, who chose their own lay leaders, and hired their ministers (usually with life tenure). There was no structure above the individual congregation. There was no one, above their minister, to tell them “what was right.” They also believed that individuals should be educated to enable them to read the Bible for themselves. This desire for education led to the formation of Harvard College in 1625 – to supply ministers to the congregations, which also ran the parish schools.
Lifetime tenure and the lack of any supervising church hierarchy gave the ministers an expansive “free pulpit”. The combination of this freedom, with ministerial education, created an environment where ministers could, and did, develop their own variations on theology.
Theological change began slowly, but by 1800 two branches of Christianity had emerged in New England. The first was an orthodox branch with the Calvinist backbone: humans viewed as born with the curse of the original sin of Adam and Eve; salvation for the Elect only, with all others being damned; and the Bible serving as the only source of enduring truth. And the second, a liberal branch, which was more open to change: humanity seen as inherently good; God seen as merciful, with salvation available to all; and reason, a gift from God, coexisting with the Bible as an ultimate source of truth.
The factions often clashed, with the disputes often centering on the choice of ministers, or the appointment of members to the Harvard faculty and board. Congregations sometimes split, building a second church and dividing by faction.
The turn of the 19th century was a dynamic time. The American Revolution had just ended, the War of 1812 was upon us, and Napoleon still threatened Europe. In 1791, Joseph Priestley, an English Dissenter, scientist, and early Unitarian, had seen his church in Birmingham burned to the ground; he had fled England pursued by a mob, to establish a home in Pennsylvania where his scientific work into the nature of gases led to the discovery oxygen and carbon dioxide.
But up to this point in time the character and ideas of the liberal faction had not been clearly enunciated. This distillation of ideas was about to occur. The Rev. William Ellery Channing had been invited to speak at the Ordination of Rev. Jared Sparks, on May 5 1819, in a new church in Baltimore (First Unitarian Church of Baltimore at the corner of Charles and Franklin). Channing’s sermon would forever claim the name “Unitarian” for the liberal church, set the direction of Unitarian development for the next century, and begin the process of the formal establishment of an independent denomination.
Alan Coltri has been a member of UUCC since 2003. He is a past president of the congregation, and for several years has served as an instructor in UUCC’s monthly Next Step class for new congregants, providing a historical and theological perspective.
Note: UUCC member Jim Caldiero also wrote about the Baltimore Sermon this past January. You can read his comments here.