That Old Time Religion

by BC

Our reading today comes to us from the Universalist Magazine, dated June 16th, 1793:

Lincoln County, Kentucky.

Rush Branch Meeting-house.

“It is now about nineteen months since we were expelled from our former society of the Separate Baptists for the belief of the final restoration of all things to a union with, and enjoyment of God; and we have had to bear up under a storm of slander, prejudice, ignorance, and ill-will. Notwithstanding all this, the Universal cause yet gains ground. We have four churches constituted in this country [referring to Kentucky], five ordained ministers, and several young gifts.

We hold conferences twice a year by messengers from the churches. The number of members now in Society in Kentucky is about two hundred, we hope all walking in love, besides many other Christians in different societies who believe in the universal love of God, who have not joined with us in society yet, for reasons best known to themselves.”

In 1898, a man named Quillen Hamilton Shinn, which is a name that doesn’t get anymore old school Unitarian Universalist than that, arrived in the piney woods area of Dothan, Alabama, a town of about 3000 people at the time. The piney woods area was known as the sparsely populated area — mostly cotton and cash crop farmers with plenty of small town life.

The town of Dothan itself was only incorporated 8 years prior to Quillen Shinn arriving after the railroad had been built. Upon arriving in Dothan, Shinn observed, “The leaven of Universalism has been spreading in the surrounding country and a little has drifted into this town.”

Shinn, you see, was a Universalist missionary. It was all that he did. And the spread of Universalism in the surrounding country, all around the South, was due mostly to his efforts. He knew that in the town of Dothan, there were a few Universalist families already — and his successes had been great — at least in his mind.

Truth be told he faced immense rejection. Shinn organized with the local high school, going toe to toe with the Baptist principal and eventually earning his right to preach there, and shared, for three nights, heartfelt and inspiring sermons about the unconditional love of God.

At the end of his visit, he called for the people of Dothan to organize a church, build a building, and develop a strong core of lay leaders to fill the pulpit until the next preacher was in town. In the late 1800s, Universalism was mostly run and planted by circuit riders — preachers that would ride a circuit of churches, much like carnies have a circuit of towns, and they would spend a month in each town before moving on to the next.

Quinn was convinced that even if two people were inspired to build a church, Universalism would spread in Dothan. This was a message he shared from West Virginia to South Carolina, from Alabama to Tennessee.

Adding to his list of rejections and hardships, the people of Dothan said they were not ready. To this day, there is no Unitarian Universalist church within 50 miles of Dothan — also known as the peanut capital of the world. That didn’t stop Quillan Shinn.

For his entire career and the 15,000 miles he travelled on foot, horseback, carriage, and rail, he was responsible for the formation of over 48 Universalist communities in the South and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of places visited where he would preach the message of unconditional love and universal salvation in the Universalist tradition to anyone that would listen.

For anyone wondering why his message was important, universal salvation was a belief that there was absolutely no hell — only heaven. And all people were destined to be saved, no matter what. Among Universalists he was known, sometimes affectionately and sometimes disparagingly as the Grasshopper Minister.

He never stopped, he never stayed anywhere too long and he always knew there were more corners of the American South that needed to hear not hellfire, but the knowledge that no matter what, they were redeemed, always. As Unitarian Universalists we are the direct ancestors of the Universalist tradition.

Which, despite some of the horror stories we know about religion in the past, has always taught the unconditional love of God and the salvation of all people no matter what they’ve done in their lives. There was some variation in the belief, but the core of the teaching was always there: God is Love. You are loved.

In the South but also in other rural and rustic territories and states at the time, such as California, Universalist preachers would set up shop anywhere, often preaching at the train stations or harbors where they first landed. They were bold, tough, often run out of town, and determined, down to the core of their beings, to proselytize a message of love instead of a message of fear.

Imagine what a difference that would make on the preachers that occasionally show up on our doorsteps today if they were preaching love instead of damnation. There is no evidence of Shinn ever arriving here in Kentucky, but as you heard earlier there was evidence of over 200 Universalists here in this commonwealth before Shinn began his career. It indeed spread here like anywhere else in the South.

It is interesting to note that in response to the Universalists in Kentucky in the reading you heard, a Methodist minister held a revival and proclaimed that throughout Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Kentucky, that due to his godly work, “Universalism was almost driven from the land.”

Not quite. This old time religion of Universalism, almost as old as the Christian tradition itself and, certainly, present in other religions and philosophies before then, is a part of our national and religious story.

For Quillen Shinn, like so many other Universalists, there was a deep love for his faith. A love that inspired him to leave New England for nine months every year and return to his roots in West Virginia and go further and further into the Deep South carrying a Bible and a message of tolerance, equality, and compassion that is, sadly, still radical today.

One of Quillen Shinn’s more astonishing characteristics is that he truly was a Universalist, not just in name like P.T. Barnum. Shinn would preach to any who would listen, including black Americans. But the preaching he offered to that community was the same he offered to white Americans — you are loved, you are saved, you are enough.

Too often during that period the message to black Americans was about what their proper place was in God’s plan and American society — for Universalists like Shinn, the goal and place of the black community was to be on equal footing with that of whites.

This was embodied in the unwavering support of black Universalist preachers and missionaries. One such preacher inspired by Quillen Shinn, Joseph Jordan, went on to found two historically black Universalist churches in Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia, both of which still exist to this day.

From the words of Quillen Shinn, “No man can be a Universalist whose love did not take in all races and colors of men — if the glad [Universalist] message had been understood and obeyed, [Black people] would never have been slaves.” It was indeed radical for its time — and, again, I need to repeat myself, it is a radical message of love and acceptance in this moment.

There is a promise to Universalism even today. We are in a world that has growing fear, fear of the darkness, fear of the other, fear of muslims, immigrants, LGBT persons, black Americans, fear of not being protected enough, fear of our family, our neighbors, fear of being challenged, questioned, doubted.

You do not need to look long and hard to find plenty of fear for the taking. I don’t know about you, but I yearn for a world where we embrace the message of Universalism more and more in our daily lives, in our politics, and in our work as people of faith and people of justice.

It is one thing for us to treasure our individuality as a religious tradition — and we do that often, we do that to a fault — but it is another to actually get over the stereotypes of Unitarian Universalism we’ve been told and continue to tell and instead embody the traditions that have brought us to this place in a bold and communal way.
Whether you’re an atheist, a pagan, a buddhist, a christian, or a hindu Unitarian Universalist — whether you avoid all superstition or you think we need a little more magic in our lives — whatever labels we assign ourselves, and there are many in this room and they are good and, hopefully, life-giving.

And they should be life-giving, because this is a faith where your spirituality or philosophy should nourish you, not starve you — but yes, whatever our labels, the Universalist side of our heritage tells us that it is less about being special snowflakes but more about being a snowstorm that can affect change and see the realization of our values in the world.

Universalism was about telling people they were loved beyond their imagining, that they were redeemed already — not in a few minutes, not tomorrow, not after purgatory, and not after saying a special formula of prayer, but right now and always. There was never a world where someone was damned in Universalism.

And as lovely as such a viewpoint can be and as much as I believe that all people have a second chance — always and forever — and that at their core, no matter what, there is worth, there is dignity — I know full well it means I have to include the people I simply do not want to like.

Our tradition has an almost impossible theology, it sounds sweet and flowery, it has tones of hippy, crunchy granola, social justice warrior, all mixed in with a very Leave it to Beaver niceness — but emotionally and physically it demands of us a radical love. It’s in the very bones, down to the marrow, of Unitarian Universalism.

There are people who will harm our well-being, there are people who are harming our city, our commonwealth, our country, and our world. But I know as a Universalist I need to find the worth and dignity of the homophobic county clerk, of a governor that cares little for the poor or vulnerable, of presidential candidates that instill fear and threaten liberty, of the hellfire and brimstone preacher down the street.

I need to find the worth and dignity of dictators, liars, thieves, murderers, so many others, let’s not forget ourselves, too. It would be so much easier to believe in a hell. It would be so much more satisfying to know that I could write billions of people off as damned and go about my way.

But I am a Universalist as much as I am a Unitarian. And we are Unitarian Universalists — the legacy of those traditions come with the whole package. The marrow of Universalism, of that old time religion the South knew more than any other part of our country, is still with us. It may not focus on the life of Christ or the reward of heaven — but the message is still the same, there is a love surrounding, embracing, transforming, and holding all people — no matter what.

It begs us to sit for a moment and contemplate the tradition that we are a part of in this room and ask ourselves, do we have the courage to radically love those who would oppress the vulnerable, who would preach a doctrine of hate, who would live on a platform of fear?

I say radically love because there is nothing ordinary, nothing simple about the love Universalism teaches us. It is counter-cultural to love not only the oppressed — we do that so well — but to love the oppressor as well. In a culture where achievable and measurable results are lifted up and enshrined, not just in corporate life but in the arts, in religion, in education, in living — Universalism is, again, not an easy path.

In Universalism, in loving those who would do you harm, in believing in infinite second chances, we need to get over the fact that we will be disappointed. The success rate is not 100%. And while I dare not say the love we are expected to embody will come naturally — and believe you me, I have a lot of work to do on this, I am not there, but it’s in process — but when we even have those moments where we find we can practice Universalism in our lives, we need to be realistic.

In a culture where fear and hate are the easy way to gain strong numbers in the polls, should we be surprised that some people may never respond to a message of love over a message of discord. Prepare to be challenged and disappointed when you practice our Universalist heritage — by others and by yourself.

We are still human, and our world is still so deeply surrounded by theologies of hellfire instead of theologies of heaven on earth. I can’t help but imagine a sardonic pamphlet for newcomers to our faith: Unitarian Universalism — prepare to be disappointed. But it is true. Our theology is not easy.

From when we were still two separate denominations, this was a lifestyle more than a religion. Quillen Shin travelled thousands of miles, not by car, but by horse, gathering anyone who would listen to a message of unconditional love and found rejection, rejection, and more rejection. He pressed on. He pressed on in the face of hellfire, in the face of angry gods, in the face of division — and so many of our churches today are in existence because of his work.

But the world still needs to hear the Universalist message. Quillen Shin’s work can continue in each and every Unitarian Universalist. What if every time someone asked us what we believe here, instead of saying something that sounds like an NPR commercial, we said “We believe in the transforming power of love for all people, at all times, now and forever.”

Implicit in this message is a call to justice — of which Cornell West proclaims, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” A call to justice for all who are suffering, including those who would oppress others — because they are suffering, too, in some way.

This call to justice is not in donating our money, our time, or going on a yearly march, admirable and important as those things are — but it’s a call to the daily spiritual practice of being mindful of the worth and dignity of all people.

This is not about seeing goodness, we know that not all people are good, I am not always good, we are not always good, there are evil actions — but this is about looking to the person before us and finding a worth that cannot be taken away.

It’s about genuine appreciation for the humanity of all people — not the callous, half-hearted, and pompous “love the sinner, hate the sin” we hear of so often to deny people their basic dignities.

This call to justice begins when we wake in the morning and look at ourselves in the mirror, when we see our spouse, our children, our friends, our coworkers, the lady who gave you the finger on your way to work, the politicians grandstanding about baseless fears, the people who cannot seem to break free from a cycle of destruction, it begins again in each moment and calls longingly for us to partake of the mystery and wonder of loving beyond belief and beyond good and evil.

It is often said that when the Unitarians and the Universalists merged to create our present religious tradition, the Unitarians won the day and put a primacy on their theology, their goals, and their way of being.

And while there is much to be said about classic American Unitarianism that is worth digging deeper into, the Unitarianism of the early 60s was, much like it was in the 1800s, polished, clean, tidy, and a little bit stoic.

They had the money, they had people in leadership, their theology indeed won the day. But I wholeheartedly believe and see there is an awakening or a rediscovery of sorts. Universalism — and in its present form, radical love and welcome, are coming back to Unitarian Universalism.

The success of our social justice initiatives, such as our work in LGBT rights, immigration rights, and now Black Lives Matter, the expanding of openness in our worship experiences, and the diversifying of our theologies — yes, that old time religion is back and will sweep us into its unconditional embrace.

When you look in the mirror tomorrow morning, know that you are enough, know that there is a love that knows no bounds, and know that you can share that with others. The world needs less fear, less anger, less hellfire — so begin with believing it yourself.

I offer you the words of Quillen Shin in closing:

“Oh what wondrous truth, so hard to comprehend;
that love is the supreme force!
It is the unseen current that flows from heart to heart;
It binds all souls to the great central source.
If love should cease to beat in the smallest human soul,
The cessation of its flow would be felt in Heaven.”