Come All Ye Faithful

The First Church Unitarian Universalist in Leominster expected 200 people this drizzly morning, but only 50 or so have shuffled into the semicircular pews. It's a disappointing showing, considering the guest of honor is the national president of an entire religion, the leader of nearly a quarter of a million American Unitarian Universalists.

But the Reverend William G. Sinkford is smiling as he steps up to the lectern. Wearing wire-rimmed glasses on his drawn, birdlike face, he appears the conventional Protestant minister. It's the rainbow-striped sash draped over his robes that reflects the spectrum of beliefs gathered in this sanctuary to hear him. Here the iconography of the Yin-Yang, the Star of David, and the Islamic crescent share space with the cross. Sparse as it is, this crowd likely includes a Buddhist and a radical humanist, perhaps even an animist or a Wiccan — all faiths welcome in the big tent of Unitarian Universalism.

As in so many churches on so many Sundays now, the sermon is about September 11. It quickly leaves the safe territory of grief, however, to tackle difficult and controversial questions. Referring to the biblical story of Jericho, Sinkford warns: “The walls did come tumbling down . . . and it was the collapse of the walls that killed the population. The very walls built to protect the people were what caused their death.” He raises his eyebrows and tilts his head to make the point. “What walls have we created?”

The question is chilling, especially at a time when the very word “collapse” still conjures the indelible image of high-rise towers falling in twin clouds of smoke. Yet Sinkford continues with a message that seems contrary to the nation's new, headstrong resolve. Before the sermon is done, he will remind the congregation that the United States pulled out of the United Nations conference on racism a week before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and Pentagon in Washington. He will reach back to the American policy of Manifest Destiny, when the U.S. appropriated the western part of the country from its indigenous residents. “We must remember our history,” he says, “and refrain from a righteousness that would hold us as pure. We are as flawed as any other people.”

This is not a comforting salve. Nor does it inspire dancing in the aisles or begging forgiveness for sin. Instead the sermon follows the Unitarian emphasis on an intellectual, often politically liberal, approach to religion that has had roots in Boston for more than 200 years. And its message is suddenly becoming more appealing to a multicultural America searching for answers in a newly divided world. As hard-line Protestant ministers such as Jerry Falwell use the terrorist attacks to push divisive agendas — blaming gays, lesbians, and the American Civil Liberties Union — the Unitarian Universalists have taken precisely the opposite approach, preaching tolerance and inclusion. Among the evidence for this was Sinkford's election this summer as the predominantly white religion's first black president. And while increasingly conservative mainstream denominations have hemorrhaged members over the last two decades, UUism has grown steadily for each of the last 19 years. The church has even started an advertising campaign, hoping to attract still more new members into the fold.

To be sure, a religion accepting of everything runs the risk of becoming a religion about nothing. Ask people on the street about Unitarian Universalism, and if they've heard of it at all, they are likely to see it as a collection of graying hippies and New Agers. But Unitarians in Boston were actually once the mainstay of the Brahmin aristocracy, and despite the religion's small size, it has historically spawned a disproportionate number of reformers and social activists.

Nowadays, it's much harder to generalize about Unitarian Universalists. The combination of two sects that merged in 1961, UUs have no creed, only a set of vague principles about “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” and the goal of “world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” Nothing controversial there. Some of its adherents don't even believe in God. Others are agnostic. “When I do orientations, people always say, 'I really don't like organized religion,'” says Stephen Kendrick, senior minister of the First and Second Church in Boston. “I say, 'That's okay: We're a disorganized religion.' There is a sense that in the chaos of spiritual choice, God can speak.”

Almost 90 percent of UU members have come from other religions. They include David Whitford of Arlington, who grew up a Quaker but joined the UUs because he was looking for a more effective outlet for social action. “It just seemed like a place where they talked about things that were real,” he says. Miryam Wiley of Wellesley, who grew up Catholic, joined the UU church because it was a place where she and her husband, a Lutheran, could worship together. Other members signed on because they were looking for a place that welcomes mixed-race families, or gays and lesbians. While most churches struggle with the question of whether to allow gays into the ministry, the UUs have been ordaining gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons since the early 1970s. The first “prom” for gay youth in Boston was furtively held in the basement of Arlington Street Church in 1981. Now Arlington Street has an openly lesbian minister and is active in AIDS issues.

Not even a mile away from Arlington Street is the more staid King's Chapel, which in 1787 became the first Unitarian church in America. Originally Anglican, King's Chapel still offers communion and uses a version of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, albeit with a UU slant. “It has very specific readings from the Bible,” says member Charles Perry, “but it also brings in readings from other faiths and interests.” Because there is no set liturgy, most UU churches intersperse readings from the Bible with other religious texts, personal stories, poetry, and political discussion. In fact, there is a growing movement in Unitarian Universalism to inject more spirituality into its services. “Classic humanism is dead,” says Kendrick. “People are searching for spirituality. That doesn't mean they're looking for some Woody Allen God with a deep voice. But we're doing a much better job threading activism into the life of the spirit.” In that sense, the religion has come full circle since the 1960s, closer again to its roots in the Christian tradition of New England.

At one time Unitarianism was such a part of the fabric of Boston that it was known as the “Boston Religion.” To see why, look no further than the State House — which Unitarian Oliver Wendell Holmes famously once called the “hub of the solar system.” The building itself was designed by Unitarian Charles Bulfinch and in front stand statues of Unitarian educator Horace Mann and one-time Unitarian orator Daniel Webster. Facing the State House is a memorial to Unitarian Robert Gould Shaw, the Civil War colonel who led the all-black regiment immortalized in the movie Glory.

“Boston was the intellectual capital of the country,” says David Robinson, chair of American studies at Oregon State University and author of The Unitarians and the Universalists. “Insofar as there was a literary culture that developed in America, it came from Boston. And there was a huge overlap between that literary culture and Unitarian religious culture.” Boston, not New York or Philadelphia, was America's predominant metropolis between the time of the Revolution and the Civil War. By then, the Puritan religion of the original settlers was in retrenchment. The austerity of its Calvinist tenets — that people were either elected to be saved or they were destined to be damned — may have commanded fear and respect in the days of colonies, but post-revolutionary New England was a prosperous, urbane culture, proud of its status as a national center of ideas.

“It's no accident that Unitarianism breaks out within an arm's throw of the oldest university in the country,” says Peter Gomes, chaplain and professor of religious ethics at Harvard, “and that its graduates are really the infantry in this religious debate.” By 1805, Harvard officially had a majority of religious liberals on its faculty. These ministers not only rejected the Trinity but also jettisoned most of the doctrinal tenets of Calvinism in favor of a more personal, rational interpretation of the Scriptures.

Meanwhile, another religious movement was building a following among the middle-class merchants and fishermen north and west of Boston. Starting with the first official congregation founded in Gloucester in 1779, Universalism's message was simple — that a kind, loving God would never consign any person to eternal damnation. As San Francisco Unitarian minister Thomas Starr King famously compared the two religions, “The one [Universalists] thinks that God is too good to damn them forever, and the other [Unitarians] thinks they are too good to be damned forever.” But while Universalists were greater in number than Unitarians, their middle-class following meant they did not achieve the same kind of influence.

Back in Boston, a full-blown culture war was brewing. On the one hand were the Congregationalists, working-class followers of the Puritan faith of their fathers. On the other were the Unitarians, Harvard-educated elitists who saw themselves as representing the evolution of their religious heritage. Against such heavy hitters the Congregationalists never had a chance. One after another, the churches established by the Puritans around Boston began to fall to the new order when a majority of their congregants — or, at least, a vocal minority — “went Unitarian.” In many cases, the courts were called in to decide. Stacked with Unitarian judges, they usually decided against the Congregationalists, who liked to say, bitterly: “We kept the faith and they kept the furniture.”

Although early Unitarians were socially conservative, on political issues they were liberal. Prodded by ministers like William Ellery Channing and firebrand Theodore Parker, Boston stood at the forefront of the abolitionist movement. Congregants such as suffragist Susan B. Anthony were instrumental in organizing the women's movement. On the Universalist side, women like Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, took the teachings of universal salvation into the secular realm. Unitarianism even started a revolution against itself in the form of transcendentalism, which rejected churches and ministers entirely for a mystical communion with nature. Two of its most famous adherents, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, contributed to the flowering of American literature, and Thoreau's essay “Civil Disobedience” inspired Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

Ironically, Unitarianism's association with Boston prevented it from becoming more widespread. Throughout the 19th century, it grew anywhere that Harvard-educated ministers traveled and set up churches, but Southern and Midwestern churches resisted looking toward Boston for leadership. It didn't help that Unitarianism demanded such intellectual rigor. “If you were looking for a place that was easy on your soul and helped you get through the difficulties of life, Unitarianism is not the first place you would turn to,” Gomes says.

Meanwhile, Universalism was having its own problems. Although a much larger sect than Unitarianism at the turn of the century, it started to bottom out when the ideas of love and devotion it espoused were appropriated by other Protestant sects. Then its population was hit hard by the Depression. By the 1960s, Universalists numbered only 70,000 to Unitarianism's 110,000. For them, a merger of the two religions was an act of survival. Some Universalists call the combination less a merger than an “absorption.” But the largely intellectual Unitarianism and the largely devotional Universalism were in many ways perfect complements. Each side of the lineage had something to learn from the other.

At Sinkford's office in the national headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association on Beacon Street, the black-and-white pictures of Unitarian and Universalist ministers have been taken down from the walls in favor of slate- and eggshell-colored swatches. The office is being repainted, and the swatches are there for Sinkford to choose what color he wants. They could also serve as a metaphor for the refurbishing of the Unitarian Universalist Association since the 1960s. The ranks of the liberal religion swelled during the counterculture revolution, and its new members integrated Native American and earth-centered spirituality into the fold. UUs were also in the vanguard of the civil rights movement. Five hundred UU ministers — one out of every three — went to Selma to support the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. But the church faltered in its attempts to broaden its appeal to blacks, withdrawing its financial commitment to black power organizations as they became increasingly militant. Sinkford, a leader of the UU youth at the time, quit in protest. “I could not imagine myself as having a future in Unitarian Universalism,” he says. “What was a great hope led to a great betrayal.”

Sinkford rejoined the church in the 1980s and found a new commitment to diversity. Like his six predecessors, he is a Harvard alumnus. But he is also the first black leader of a traditionally white denomination. The church has instituted a program to take a more proactive stance against racism and to try to diversify its membership of 220,000, which is more than 90 percent white. Sinkford hopes to do this by increasing social activism in minority neighborhoods. “It would be a huge mistake for a largely white congregation to try and attract a few more dark faces so that the white people will feel better about themselves,” he says. “I believe our congregations will change as we become seen as people who care about what matters to poor people, to persons of color.”

Sinkford's church is one in which the words “religious action” seem redundant. On September 12, Sinkford was in Washington meeting with the American Muslim Council, and since the terrorist attacks, the church has taken strong positions against racial profiling and potential threats to civil liberties. Sinkford insists the UUs are not trying to dictate American foreign policy but simply sharing what they have gleaned from their own experiments with pluralism and inclusiveness.

“The reality is that our society is becoming more diverse very rapidly,” says Sinkford. “We need to have some models that help us know that it is possible to live in a diverse community in a responsible, spiritual, grounded way — or else we're going to be in big trouble.” Or, as he put it a bit more poetically in his sermon in Leominster: “I believe that we are called to stand on the side of love. Love strains to know the other, not shut the other out. Love opens its eyes to a larger vision, struggling not for victory, but for justice. May these sheltering walls be strong, to keep hate out and hold love in.”