REFLECTION        Universalism: Our Heritage              Rev. Maddie Sifantus

Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula

August 15, 2021

For those of you newer among us and familiar with Unitarian Universalism from other places, you might wonder why we claim our name as the Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula—or why our legal name is the First Universalist Parish of Santa Paula? Which of course makes me wonder if there ever was a second Universalist church in our town! (don’t think so) Or maybe you don’t know what modern Unitarian Universalism is at all…but that is a Reflection for another day.

The short answer is that Universalism is our heritage, from our founding in 1889, as the building was built in 1891 and for decades afterward until the Universalist denomination merged with the Unitarian denomination in 1961. For many years their theologies ran parallel, versions of Christianity originally, sometimes meeting and merging, and oftentimes culturally at odds with one another. I realize that many or most of you wouldn’t geek out on Universalist theology and history…but I am a firm believer that it is important to know our history even as we look towards and vision our future, even, and maybe most especially in the time of pandemic. It occurs to me that our congregation went through the 1918 pandemic. I wonder what it did to get through those days back then? How did they stay connected? Did they have a phone tree? Did they all even have telephones? We do know that that virulent Influenza epidemic lasted several years before herd immunity arose. I wonder what the board of trustees did back then? Did they shut down as we have done, just now looking at experimenting with reopening, masked and socially distanced? I wonder how they depended on science. I’m curious. Inquiring minds want to know.

In fact, I am curious about a lot of things. I am curious about the history of our congregation and its place in Santa Paula and its relationship with other Universalist congregations in the late Nineteenth Century, both here in the west but also in what was once considered “the west”, in the middle of the country, places like Chicago, Indiana and Ohio. I am curious about the theology that those pioneers from the East Coast who came west from Maine and Pennsylvania and founded this congregation, about how it informed their life, and even how it informed how they decided on the architecture of this building. I am curious about how Universalism even came to America, a subject I have tackled before, and how it morphed into one of the largest denominations in the country at one point and how it faded and why, back in the day. I am curious about the people who sat in these chairs, the hymns they sang, the ministers who filled this pulpit and so much more. And I am curious about how its Universalism resides in these very walls and how it informs us today. Because I am sure it does.

As most of you know, I recently returned from a three month sabbatical. I could talk about how difficult it was to take a sabbatical during a pandemic and how it upended some of my plans. Two of the main foci for my sabbatical were doing research in Maine where the Hardison and Collins family moved from and their congregation in Caribou, as well as researching the 35 years at the end of Mary A. Livermore’s life in Melrose, Massachusetts, the same town where my mother was born six years after Livermore died. The best laid plans, and all of that! Turns out that when I arrived in April, none of the libraries, historical societies and other resources were open. Instead, I read and reread many books about Universalism, but was not able to do some of the in person research I had hoped to do and which I had started in a previous trip to Maine in 2016. So much of what I had planned will need to wait for the next visit, maybe next year…just as all of us have had to shift our plans in these challenging times.

However, I am planning an ongoing series of sermons and services highlighting Universalism, its history and theology, its architecture and its hymnody (that’s the study of its hymns, such as the first hymn we sang today and The Golden Clouds we will be singing after this reflection, which was written in 1842 and seems to express both Universalism and Transcendentalism.

One thing I did realize on my Sabbatical was that I had cut off way more than I could chew to accomplish in three months, especially in a pandemic when I was not able to travel to meet with the UU historians I have consulted with before, Peter Tufts Richardson, Mark Harris and his wife Andrea Greenwood, retired UU ministers and longtime friends of mine who live in Rockland, Maine. So, more to look forward to when things are safe and when I can fly into Southern New Brunswick or Quebec City, rent a car and drive to Caribou which is close to the Canadian border, much closer than the 12 hour drive from where I was staying back East. If you don’t know Caribou, it is the second largest city in Aroostock County, Maine. Ten years ago Its population was 8,189. The city is a service center for the agricultural and tourism industries, and the location of a National Weather Service Forecast Office. Think lots of potatoes.

Caribou is north of Presque Island, where my longtime friend, mentor and first model of a UU minister, Ken Sawyer, served fresh out of Harvard Divinity School in the early Seventies, with newborn twins in tow. I had lunch with him when I was in Massachusetts last month and he remembers doing a pulpit exchange with the minister from Caribou and being in the building. He remembers that Senator Susan Collins of Maine who was born in Caribou did not grow up Universalist, although I discovered she did graduate from the Universalist St. Lawrence University. But Ken does remember that her Collins uncle was a long and devoted member of the Caribou congregation and even served denominationally, if he recalls correctly. But I was unable to reach the historical society or library due to the pandemic, nor anyone who could let me know the fate of the building which closed a decade ago. I will keep trying and will get there next time!

But let’s think a little about Universalism in the meantime, from the theological perspective, leaving more of its history for future services. I start with what it says in our skylight: “Beloved, let us love one another.” To me, that is foundational. That sentiment calls me and many in our movement today. In fact, many UUs are discovering Universalism. In my Universalist file, I have an old email[i] I saved from a Wells E. Behee of the New Madison Universalist Church located in New Madison, Ohio…that was the frontier from the Nineteenth Century I was referring to a bit ago. I could tell you about the big rabbit hole I fell down figuring out who the Rev. Behee was, but I will leave it today that he was the minister of the New Madison Universalist Church, graduated from seminary from St. Lawrence (begun as a Universalist seminary) and became an evangelist for Universalism in the 1950s.[ii]

My email from him was written in 2001 when he muses how folks seemed to be just discovering Universalism. He said on the chat that “I have observed ministers wax enthusiastically about ‘new’ ideas and values which (have) long been held in Universalist circles.” He goes on to talk about one of my foundational pieces of writing by Universalist poet Edwin Markham who wrote this quatrain now more than 95 years ago. Behee reflects that “it was framed and hung beside the Five Principles (later the Avowal of Faith) to the left of the pulpit in (his) boyhood church. He reflects that he was raised on this poem. He says that “the simplicity of the poem and the religion it expresses is deeply rewarding and has been a rudder in my life. It is not just a poem but a creed for human relationships. It expresses the love, forgiveness and humility we should have with people who hate us.”

It certainly has been a rudder in mine. I wonder how many of you hold this poem close…and if you knew it was written by a Universalist poet:

He drew a circle that shut me out:

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;

But love and I had the wit to win,

We drew a circle that took him in.

I too love the simplicity of this poem and how it expresses our theology, especially our Universalist theology. You may remember that the basis of that theology is universal love, the belief that God’s love will ultimately redeem everyone—everyone—from sin. That no one is beyond the love of God. Our Universalist forbears were not allergic to naming God but you can call it the Spirit of Life, that which is most sacred, the order in the universe or whatever works for you. That is the modern day UU sentiment. Beloved, let us love one another. Of course if you read our history, the theology was much more complicated that drawing the circle wide and all of us going to heaven. We could get into an angels dancing on the head of a pin discussion, as I call it.

But for this morning as I kick off our Universalist sermon series, let me remind you that Universalism was primarily restricted to North America. You have heard me speak about one its founders, John Murray and how he emigrated to America, and making a long and interesting story short, founded the first Universalist church in America in Gloucester Massachusetts, a lovely seaside city where I spent a Sunday afternoon in July. Murray who was one of the earliest preachers of universal salvation, and a small group of dissidents from Gloucester’s First Parish Church organized in 1779 as the Independent Christian Church.

Universalism, or the doctrine of Universal Salvation, arose as a movement in England and in rural areas of the American colonies in the mid-eighteenth century, especially in the hilltowns of Massachusetts. The belief developed as a rejection of Calvinism, and proclaimed that God is a God of love, and as such would not condemn humans to eternal suffering. Salvation would be available ultimately to all.

This belief was considered extremely heretical and dangerous. As a young English preacher, John Murray, was hounded out of the pulpit and ended up in debtor’s prison in England for espousing his belief in universal salvation. Murray set sail for America, landed in New Jersey in 1770, and began to preach his message to receptive groups first in the Mid-Atlantic Region and northward into New England. Winthrop Sargent of Gloucester met Murray in Boston and brought him to Gloucester to visit, and where Murray ultimately made his home.

I could say a lot more about how Universalism in America arose in a time of political and intellectual ferment when America was achieving an identity of its own apart from Great Britain. I could say a lot more about Murray and other early Universalists like Elhanon Winchester, George de Benneville, Hosea Ballou, his cousin Adin Ballou and others…and will on future occasions. I could talk about how our Universalism had ancient Christian origins. But I will leave all that and talk about ultra-universalism and the Restorationist Controversy for other Sundays. For today, it was just a taste of where we come from with much more to come.

I would like to leave you with the image of drawing the circle wide and the Universalist cross. The off-center cross was used in a public service of worship for the first time at an Ordination in Foxboro, Massachusetts in 1946 and was adopted as the symbol of Universalism in 1947. The circle is a traditional symbol of infinity because it has no beginning or end. It represents the universe. The empty space at the center of the circle represents the mystery at the heart of the universe that some people call God. The cross represents Christianity, out of which Universalism grew, and which is the path toward God that most religious people in North America are or were brought up to follow…but it is placed off-center, to leave room for other points of view and to acknowledge the validity of other paths towards God, the holy or what is most sacred to each individual. And I could say a lot more about that as well…but for now, let us leave that image in our minds of a large circle with space for all of us, a faith that shuts no one out. That is our heritage here at UUCSP.

Blessed be. Amen.


[i] AOL, 10-22-2001., “Drawing Circles”