The Gospel of Universalism for Our Times

In order to understand the gospel of Universalism we need to know more than just the theology or doctrine or history. We need to catch the spirit.

So to help you catch the spirit I am going to teach you a song about the Universalist minister, Quillen Hamilton Shinn that kids sing at Ferry Beach Camp in Maine that involves singing as loud as you can and banging on tables in the cafeteria. First I am going to teach you the song and then I am going to talk about the man.

Oh Shinn, O dear ol Quillen Shinn – QUILLEN SHINN!

To you we raise this grateful din –GRATEFUL DIN!

We lift your name to the highest green pine tree

And pledge our love and loyalty – LOYALTY

Very good! Now that you know the song let me tell you about the man. Now you may not know this but the local Unitarian Universalist minister’s group is named after Quillen Shinn. We are called Shinn Splints. Our group is named after Quillen Shinn because he started many Universalist churches in the Southeast and around the country. Oddly enough most of the ministers in our group don’t know this song, but you do so that makes you special. So let’s practice it one more time.

Oh Shinn, O dear ol Quillen Shinn – QUILLEN SHINN!

To you we raise this grateful din –GRATEFUL DIN!

We lift your name to the highest green pine tree

And pledge our love and loyalty – LOYALTY

Quillen Shinn was born in West Virginia in 1845 and he grew up to be a traveling minister who rode from town to town on horseback spreading the gospel of Universalism. The central theme of the Universalist Gospel was the idea that all souls would eventually be reconciled with each other and with God; one big God in one big heaven. Many of the Universalist ministers of this era, especially those on the frontier, were women, as the Universalist Church was the first denomination to ordain women with full denominational authority

Universalists did not believe in eternal damnation because God’s capacity to love is always greater than the human capacity to err or sin or trespass. In Universalist theology God is great and we are small. For this reason Universalists were sometimes called “no hellers.” And it even was suggested by irreverent critics that when Universalists went to church they sang.

No hell, No hell, No hell, No hell (to the tune of Noel)

But Universalism has always been more than a belief that there is no hell. At the center of the founding of this gospel is a faith in a God whose nature is love and whose ultimate goal is reconciliation. Indeed, if you visit any of the historic Universalist churches in our country you are likely to find the words “God is Love’ written above the entrance or on the altar or the hearth of the fireplace in the fellowship hall. You may even see light shining through those words on a stain glass window. The outdoor chapel at Ferry Beach has the words inscribed on the pulpit.

god is love

Now contemporary Universalist will be the first to tell you that this simple statement “God is love” embraces complexity and diversity. A Universalist who is a theist will see the statement “God is love” as an affirmation of the existence of a God whose nature is love. A Universalist humanist will see these words as a reminder that love is our guiding ideal that calls us to our better selves. A Universalist with a global perspective will see the words as pointing toward the fact that love and compassion are taught by all the great world religions. A practical person will see the words “God is love” as a reminder that God is a verb. God is about action and not just talk.

Quillen Shinn was a man of action. He traveled around the country and in every town he tried to start a Universalist church. He visited every state in the Union and most of the Provinces of Canada. He started an estimated 40 churches and recruited over a thousand new members to the faith and inspired at least 30 people to become ministers. He also founded the Ferry Beach conference center, which is why they sing about him today.

If we were to reduce Quillen Shinn’s theology to a single sentence it would be, “Love conquers all things.” He preached, “All who believe it should place the motto…on the wall of the soul, and then prove it to be true, by showing how every day, your own love, combined with wisdom and purpose, is able to conquer some things.”

One hears echoes of Quillen Shinn in the Universalist Declaration of Faith passed by the Universalist General Assemblies in 1935 and reaffirmed in 1955. This declaration is both an affirmation of a more liberal Christianity but also points toward a broader idea of Universalism. In fact the history of Universalism might be described as a journey from a Christian Universalism to a more Universal Universalism. So here is the Universalist Declaration of faith from the early and mid 20th century.

We avow our faith in
God as eternal and all-conquering love;
the spiritual leadership of Jesus;
the supreme worth of every human personality;
the authority of truth, known or to be known; and
the power of persons of good will and sacrificial spirit to overcome
all evil and progressively establish the kingdom of God.

One hears a little bit of Quillen Shinn in this statement. One also hears more than a little of the social gospel movement in these words. However, this statement of faith was never a creed. The statement contained this proviso, “Neither this nor any other statement shall be imposed as a creedal test.” So Universalism comes from the Christian tradition but is open to the authority of truth, known or to be known.

One of the symbols for the Universalist Church of this era was a circle with a cross inside it (seen below)

universalist cross

This was meant to show the Christian origins of the faith but also openness to wider truth; truth from whatever quarter it might arise. Over time this image became broader. In the 20th century the Charles Street Meeting House designed a sanctuary with an image of the Milky Way in the center, and symbols from all the great world religions along the sides. This particular congregation put the universe into Universalism.

pattonmeetinghouse

So what is the future of Universalism in our times. Well to look forward let’s look back. When our congregation was founded in 1949 at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church members were invited to join by signing a card that showed how our congregation was aligned with Universalism even though we did not add the name until the 1990’s. This card stated that the purpose of membership in our congregation was, “To uphold freedom…and equal rights for all…to seek and receive the truth, both old and new, believing that the past must always prove itself anew and that a living religion must change as thought advances and must be free to grow; to respect in each other and in all, the authority of the individual conscience and the freedom of mind, holding that the human spirit is most truly guided from within, to discover and proclaim the world unifying faith revealed in the deeper insights of all religions and derived from the universal wisdom of all cultures, and to utilize for religious purposes all available knowledge for the world unifying fields of thought and science.” That is a very Universalist statement of faith.

We can also find a little bit of that Universalist spirit in our current mission statement where we covenant together to transform the world through acts of love and justice. One can almost hear in those words our forbear’s faith in eternal and all conquering love, a love that conquers all things.

However what the apostle Paul wrote in the scriptures is true of Universalism, “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.” To understand Universalism we have to move beyond the letter to the spirit.

Universalism is a tradition full of good stories, so good you are never entirely sure where history ends and folklore begins. There are stories about the Reverend John Murray, the founder of Universalism, encountering resistance as he spread this gospel in the early days of the American Republic. It is said, that in in one town a minister named Reverend Bacon tried to prevent John Murray from preaching and some of the more conservative minister’s congregants got out of hand and started throwing eggs at Murray, and so with egg on his face Murray declared, “These are moving arguments, but I must own at the same time, I have never been so fully treated to Bacon and eggs before in all my life.”

Another story is told about a mob assembling outside a church in Boston where John Murray was preaching when someone threw a rock through the window that landed near the pulpit. John Murray walked over, picked up the rock and declared, “This argument is solid and weighty, but it is neither rational or convincing. Not all the stones in Boston except they stop my breath shall shut my mouth.”

In these stories we hear the call to love and courage, a call that is as relevant today as it was in ages past. I am very grateful for the legacy of John Murray and I am grateful for the legacy of Quillen Shinn who continues to inspire summer camp kids to shout his name while banging on tables. Quillen Shinn is a rock star at Ferry Beach so let’s make him a rock star here. So let’s close this sermon by recognizing the many ways our faith from the past continues to guide us toward the future by raising a grateful din and singing one more round of the Quillen Shinn song.

Oh Shinn, O dear ol Quillen Shinn – QUILLEN SHINN!

To you we raise this grateful din –GRATEFUL DIN!

We lift your name to the highest green pine tree

And pledge our love and loyalty – LOYALTY!

 (Rev. Chris Buice preached this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday January 13, 2019.)

 

 

 

 

 

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