How Unitarian Universalists Do Church

How Unitarian Universalists Do Church February 20, 2014

I suppose everybody has a favorite founding document for a religion or a nation. Mine is “Farewell at Delfshaven,” a sermon given by Rev. John Robinson to a group of his Separatist congregation who were taking ship for the Western Hemisphere. Part of the sermon goes like this:


I Charge you before God and his blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.

The Lutherans cannot be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw. Whatever part of His will our God has revealed to Calvin, they (Lutherans) will rather die than embrace it; and the Calvinists, you see, stick fast where they were left by that great man of God, who yet saw not all things. This is a misery much to be lamented.

For though they were precious shining lights in their time, yet God has not revealed his whole will to them. And were they now living, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as they had received.


The way Unitarian Universalists “do church” comes directly from the protestant movements that eventually led to the English Civil War and the decision by some of the radicals that it was perfectly acceptable to God that they supplant the aristocracy and remove their king’s head. . . Radical. It isn’t surprising that the royalty of the day weren’t particularly keen on keeping those sorts around. And perhaps it isn’t surprising that these most protesting of Protestants eventually set up theocracies and felt justified in clearing the land of its native inhabitants.

Yet these radicals—known to us nowadays as Pilgrims, Puritans, and Separatists—were up some positive things as well, such as what we call democracy. And the best of their thought is exemplified by these last words that Rev. Robinson said to members of his congregation as they sailed to England to join another group of dissenters and board the Mayflower.

These parishioners settled in what they called Plymouth, Massachusetts to build what is today a Unitarian Universalist church, which indicates that the beliefs that Rev. Robinson preached, plus about four-hundred years, equals Unitarian Universalism. The deepest beliefs of those religious seekers are the DNA of Unitarian Universalism (for good and ill).

Notice some things about this little sermon: yes, there’s the usual unfortunate bashing of other denominations—in this case Lutherans and Calvinists—but Rev. Robinson was saying two very radical, and I think positive, things.

The first is: “follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ.” This is still an expectation in the Unitarian Universalist movement: we don’t ordain ministers and then think those ministers are somehow levitating or holy. We don’t think our ministers are special—we expect our ministers to walk the walk . . .  all the time, but a minister is just like the rest of us folks.

The other radical thing that Rev. Robinson preached is the very core of the tradition: that truth continues to be revealed. Or, more radically, that we human beings continue to find more and more truth, and we must continue to modify our beliefs according to these new truths.

The Separatists did not “do church” as did most of the Christian groups of the time (and still today). Roman Catholicism had developed along the lines of the political systems of the day: emperors, kings, men in charge. Some protestant groups—Lutherans and Anglicans for example—created state religions. These groups saw themselves—dangerously as Rev. Robinson pointed out—as founded on eternal truths. This justified building hierarchies. Top down.

The Separatists, however, believed in the individual discovery (or revelation) of truth. Therefore, they could not accept hierarchy within the congregation. Each member of the congregation was on a separate path toward truth, and as likely as any other member (including clergy) to find it.

As a corollary, the churches the “pilgrims,” and eventually Puritans, set up in Massachusetts were all individual as well. Each congregation discovered truth for itself. This is one reason the Separatist movement eventually fractured into Trinitarian and Unitarian congregations.

Still today, each congregation in the Unitarian Universalist Association is on its own, to choose leaders, to find their own way toward truth. And the “power,” whatever that is, lies within the congregation, not the association of congregations.

Not an ideal way to run a collection of congregations, a “denomination,” of course, but a great way to encourage freedom of conscience and thought.

Yes, the radical protestant movements of Europe were “precious shining lights in their time,” but nowadays, the belief systems they were founded on are for the most part relics of the past, products of minds “who yet saw not all things.” And, as Rev. Robinson said, “This is a misery much to be lamented.” I, for example, as a minister, don’t use the terms “God” or “Christ” at all in my historically humanist congregation. The light has shown my congregation a different path.

That’s the genius of the idea Rev. Robinson preached: truth just keeps on coming.




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