What It Is Not, and What It Is





 May Memorial Church




Published by the Woman's Alliance of

May Memorial Church, Syracuse, N. Y.



What It Is Not, and What It Is


"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God. . . . . . Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”--Jesus.

"These churches accept the religion of Jesus, holding in accordance with his teaching, that practical religion is summed up in love to God and love to man.”--Preamble to the Constitution of the General Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches.


These two supreme commands of Jesus express the heart of Unitarianism. Unitarianism is the attitude of the individual soul towards God. It is not a belief, nor a dogma, nor a ritual. It is the soul turned to God in love. This means love for all that is divine in the universe and its life. It also means devotion to the noblest and best in the soul's inmost self. For that is God, in the soul.


But even this is not enough. The soul cannot be right towards God unless it be right towards fellow men. "He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen." It may be that the love of our brother is the only open way to love of God. Through human experiences we reach divine realities. We go from the seen to the unseen, from the known to the unknown. Thus Unitarianism, because it would be love to God, must be also love to man. And this not as a mere sentiment, but as a practical principle, to be applied to daily life.


"Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength; (that is to say with your entire self) and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." This, then, is Unitarianism in a nutshell.


In it, indeed, is summed up the very essence of religion by whatever name it is called. It is very simple; also it is very profound. It reaches to the depths of life and life's experience. It is the solvent of all perplexing social problems. When men live as well as profess the commandment of love there will be no social problems. It is the bringer of the world's brotherhood. It is the assurance of the soul's peace.


Oneness with God and fellow men is the heart of religion. Oneness with God is the divine life. Oneness with fellow man is the human life. Both together are,-life.


This, then, is Unitarianism. It may be much else; but it is certainly this. And here we might perhaps leave the matter. But it is necessary to go a little more into detail. This is too general, too vague perhaps, essential though it is. Let us inquire still further then what Unitarianism may be and may not be.


To begin with, I do not like the word Unitarian. It has seemingly a too limited meaning. It is too coldly mathematical; and I never could bring myself to like mathematics. I would gladly change the name if I could; but I cannot. It is too late to do that. It has come down from our forefathers; and we must make the best of it. The word Unitarianism expresses a vital fact in our religious history. It has a meaning far deeper than the theological conception of the unity of God, the universe, and life, deep as these thoughts are; and essential as they are to clear thinking. Like most names, it means far more than it indicates. It has a splendid connotation of heroic struggle for religious liberty; of devotion to the truth for truth's sake; of fine lives interpreting the religion of the spirit. To some of us it signifies the supreme thing in life.


And, after all, names are of but little moment. It is the spirit that counts. "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet;" and Jesus by any other name would be the son of God and the brother of men still. And curiously enough, the names of most of the Christian sects signify what is superficial rather than fundamental to the religious life. Methodist, Episcopalian, Congregational, Baptist, what not? These all signify very superficial matters of mere church government or ordinance. These, alas, are the things that divide us. And we are altogether too prone to insist upon them. But underneath all names are the enduring realities that unite.


We spell the name of the Eternal Reality G-O-D. Another spells it D-I-E-U. Still another G-O-T-T. These are the accidents of our environment and education. But we all worship at the same shrine. We are all children of the same father. Nothing can rob us of that inheritance. And I think the Father listens to the heart, and not the lips; and understands all languages that are spoken in love.


So we will not quarrel with the name Unitarianism, little as we may like it. We will look beneath the name to the spirit, the soul, the heart. And the spirit of Unitarianism is beautiful; the soul of it is strong; and the heart of it is loving.


We are handicapped in our inquiry at the very outset by the fact that no man, be he ever so wise, can speak for Unitarianism, to say just what it is or what it is not. One of its fundamental tenets is that the soul shall be left free to find its own truth, and to express it in its own way. What God says to you is the one important thing for you. Unitarianism has a sublime faith in the integrity of the soul, a faith which the history of the discovery of truth has amply justified. Attempts have been made to formulate a common statement of belief for all Unitarians; but they have always failed. And this for the very simple reason that Unitarianism is so much more than a statement of belief.


So we will recognize at the start that what is to follow is merely my thought of Unitarianism, which may or may not be of much worth. And even so it must be very inadequate; because no words nor thought can express the life that is Unitarianism.


Let us first consider some of the things that Unitarianism is not. This is, perhaps, necessary because of certain misunderstandings that linger obstinately in the minds of many.


To begin with, Unitarianism is not a mere negation. You have perhaps heard of the "cold negations of Unitarianism." These cold negations are a myth. Nothing could be further from the genius of Unitarianism. It is not a denial; but an affirmation. Always and everywhere it is an affirmation. It is true that it has felt itself compelled to deny certain theological dogmas and doctrines that do not seem to it to accord with reason or right. All seekers for the truth have been compelled to do this. The mere assertion of any truth is the denial of its corresponding error. When you say the earth revolves around the sun, you deny, at least by implication, that the sun revolves around the earth. Among these doctrines that Unitarianism denies are: The doctrine of the trinity; the deity of Jesus; the fall of man; the total depravity of man; the vicarious atonement, and the like. But in making these denials, Unitarianism affirms the corresponding truths. It affirms the unity of God, the universe and life; it affirms the divinity of Jesus, and all the sons and daughters of men. (Mark that his prayer begins with the words "Our Father," not "My Father." This first person plural is significant); it affirms that man has risen, is rising, and shall rise to ever diviner stretches of life; it affirms the essential dignity and nobility of man as the child of God; it affirms that each one of us shall work out his own salvation in terms of character. These are larger affirmations than the doctrines they displace.


Unitarianism, then, is a positive faith. It destroys only that it may rebuild. I must root up the weeds in my garden or the flowers will not grow. Unitarianism seeks to root up the weeds of superstition and error. It cherishes the flowers of faith. A purely destructive faith cannot live. The time for destruction is passed. It is now the time for construction. We build our lives and faith not on the denial of error; but on the affirmation of truth. The truth, by its own power, will drive out the error. That is the way of truth always. We have passed through the gloom of Carlyle's "Everlasting No" into the light of the "Everlasting Yea." "It is with man's soul as it was with nature: the beginning of creation is --Light. Till the eye have vision, the whole members are in bonds. Divine moment, when over the tempesttost soul, as once over the wild-weltering Chaos, it is spoken: 'Let there be light.' "


To that divine moment Unitarianism has come, not without struggle. It has left behind the gloom of denial, and entered into the light of faith. Unitarianism is an affirmation of the things that divinely are.


Therefore it is not atheism. It seems ridiculous to Unitarians even to say this. For almost a hundred years God has been preached from this pulpit of May Memorial Church by the men who have led its members into the higher life. God, and nothing else, has been preached and lived here; which latter is the more essential. Unitarianism is steeped in faith in God. "God is. God is here. God is now." cried Edward Everett Hale. And his whole life showed that he meant just what he said. The present reality of God, here on earth, now in this twentieth century, is the fundamental faith of Unitarianism. And yet somehow the idea has got abroad that Unitarianism is a Godless faith, whatever that may be. It is related that a rigid orthodox lady once went into a strange church, where a man she did not know was preaching. As she left the church she said, "I wish that atheist Theodore Parker could have heard that sermon." She had been listening to Theodore Parker himself. The story may or may not be true; but it is typical. Let it be declared once and for all, with what power one man may have, that while Unitarianism may not accede to some particular doctrine about God, it has faith in God. The reality of God is the foundation stone upon which its whole structure is reared. Unitarianism is saturated through and through with the spirit of God.


Unitarianism is not a prayerless faith. Indeed there cannot be a prayerless faith. Faith is prayer. It leads the soul directly to God; and that is the meaning of prayer. To the true Unitarian prayer is the normal attitude of the soul. God is our Father; we are his children. What more natural than that the child should commune with the Father? It is as natural as that the plant should turn to the light. The soul and the plant are seeking the source of their being. To the Unitarian prayer is the highest function of life. It is the soul reaching up to God.


Prayer is not mere petition; not the mere asking for things, though it has been reduced to that low estate. We do not ask that rain shall be sent or withheld. We do not ask that the beautiful order of nature shall be set aside for our personal gratification. We are quite content to leave the universe in the care of God, assured that he knows best. It is well that man cannot by his prayers change the order of nature. If he could, hopeless chaos would result. All this is not prayer. Prayer is oneness of the soul of man with the spirit of God. It is one form of that very love to God which is the essence of the religious life. It is divine communion, which merges naturally, and of spiritual necessity, into gratitude. It gives strength and courage, patience and peace. This has been the witness of all men of supreme religious genius. They went to the source of all strength, and were strong. Jesus prayed, alone on the hillside, under the stars, with God; and Jesus did great things. True prayer is always answered. Itself is its own answer. Do not ask for things. Do not ask that nature's order shall be set aside for your sake. Ask for God; and you will find him.


Unitarianism, then, is a prayerful faith. Oneness with God is its central purpose. This is another expression of its thought of unity. "I and the Father are one." Reverently and humbly we venture to echo the words in our own inmost thought, remembering also that he said "Our Father." Man is at home in God. Faith and prayer are the two mighty forces that redeem the world.


Nor is Unitarianism a Christless faith, though this charge is brought against it. On the contrary, it is shot through and through with the spirit of Jesus. It is a persistent misunderstanding, not to say misrepresentation, that Unitarians do not believe in, nor accept, Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth. We reject certain dogmas about Jesus, and this emphatically and frankly; but we do not reject Jesus. Robert Collyer was fond of telling how, when he and his good Methodist mother were going home after she had heard him preach his first Unitarian sermon, she said to him, "I couldn’t understand half thee said; and I didn’t believe all that I understood; but I believe thee, Robert." That is the very thought. We do not understand half the beliefs about Jesus (at least I do not) and we do not believe all we understand; but we believe Jesus. And that is a vastly different thing.


Many who have come from other communions into Unitarian churches have said that they had never heard Jesus preached so much in their lives before. And it is to be hoped that it is true. Were Jesus preached more, and doctrines about him less, perhaps the church would have a new lease of power. For all men recognize that he was the master of the art of living.


We do not believe in the doctrine of the trinity. But that does not trouble us over much. We spend little time or thought about it. But to Jesus himself we give our highest reverence and honor. We would have his life the inspiration of our lives; his teaching we would make our guide. To live in this Twentieth century in the spirit of Jesus is true Christianity. Most emphatically Unitarianism believes Jesus; and looks upon his life and the religious and ethical teachings that sprang naturally from it, as the most precious possession of the world. Unitarianism, whatever else it may be, is not a Christless faith.


Unitarianism is not merely another sect added to the warring sects of Christianity. If it were merely that, it would not be worth preserving. There are enough sects and to spare. Their disagreements over the superficialities of the religious life are the disgrace and the weakness of Christianity. In union only is strength. We are not much interested in the sectarian aspect of Unitarianism. Unitarianism has always been opposed to proselyting; yet it has grown amazingly, and still is growing, opinions to the contrary notwithstanding. And this for the very simple reason that kindred souls, men and women with a common aim, naturally come together.


We are not interested in the machinery of Unitarianism; but we are greatly interested in the spirit of Unitarianism. Were that spirit universal, the sects would forget their differences in the joy of a common task. There is work for the churches to do in the world. It is waiting to their hand. And it can only be done as they learn to pull together.


Unitarianism seeks to unite, not to divide. It is the union of those who with a common purpose, and in a united spirit, would worship God and serve man together. What we have in common are the important things. Unitarians welcome to their fellowship all who agree with them in spirit and aim; and they leave matters of belief to the individual and God.


Unitarianism is not merely an intellectual cult. If much of the intellectual life of the nation is identified with Unitarianism, we are grateful for it. If its liberal point of view has stamped itself on our literature as perhaps no other faith has, we are grateful for that. It has faith in the intellect and reason, as the guides to truth. It honors all the seekers for truth whatever their name, or wherever they may be. It holds that God has never left himself without witnesses in any race or time. All truth is of God, whatever its source.


But religion is far more than a mere intellectual experience; and Unitarianism in particular is the religion of the whole man,--intellect, reason, heart, conscience, will, all of him,--directed Godward. Its simple faith of love to God and love to man as the summing up of the religious life, can be understood of all. It is the faith that Abraham Lincoln sought. Its appeal is universal. It is as broad as humanity, deep as human needs, simple as mother love. It was not altogether the demands of the intellect that prompted the Unitarian revolt against the grim theology of Calvinism. It was rather the instinctive shrinking of the heart from the cruelty of that grim faith and its God of wrath. Unitarianism is not coldly intellectual; it is warmly human.


Unitarianism is not an exclusive faith. It is not for an aristocracy of the intellect merely. Its very genius is democratic. One of its fundamental tenets is its faith in folks. It fully believes in and trusts our common humanity. In this it stands almost alone among the communions of Christendom. It is the spirit of democracy applied to religion. It affirms the universal brotherhood of man. And it means just that. It means that all are the children of the same Father, born of His spirit; and that all are brothers; white, black, red, yellow, rich, poor, wise, foolish, sinners and saints,--all are His children, and brothers. This is the coming brotherhood of man that some day shall bring peace to the earth, and mutual respect, understanding and sympathy. It is only a dream yet. But earnest souls are working for it; and the dream is the inspiration of their work. Unitarianism, then, by its very genius, by its fundamental attitude towards man, is essentially democratic. To be false to that would be to be false to its highest mission. It has faith in the common people, whom God must have loved so much since he made so many of them, said Lincoln,--himself the embodiment of the genius of the common people.


Again, Unitarianism is not a creed or dogma. Indeed we glory in our creedlessness. Each soul is free to formulate its own belief. We do not ask that all men and women shall think alike (that would be a misfortune) but only that they shall think. We trust the soul. We have confidence that the normal soul, left free, will seek the truth as the sparks fly upward.


Unitarianism has broken with the idea that there is anything essentially sacred or binding in any dogma whatsoever. The repetition of a creed may be an intellectual stimulant, or it may be an intellectual narcotic; but in neither case is it religion. Here is a form of faith that really believes that religion is not creed but life. Not what you say during one hour on Sunday, but how you live during the other one hundred and sixty-seven hours of the week is the test of your religion. "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but,--" How many of us can stand that test? We humble ourselves before the awful judgment. Our futile murmurings of "Lord, Lord," are shamed into silence before the quiet rebuking eyes; and we creep out to seek humbly to do His will.


"To do thy will is more than praise,

As words are less than deeds;

And simple truth can find thy ways

We miss with chart of creeds."


These, then, are some of the things that Unitarianism is not,--at least in the thought of the present writer, who professes to speak only for himself. It is not a mere negation; it is not atheism; it is not a prayerless faith; it is not a Christless faith; it is not sectarianism; it is not an intellectual cult; it is not an exclusive faith; it is not a dogma.


What, then, is it? The answer has already been suggested. But before we proceed to greater detail, let me again remind you that no one person can speak for all Unitarians. He can only give his own testimony. What, then, is Unitarianism to me? It is difficult to put the answer into words. Can you tell what life is? What love is? You know these things only by living them. So with Unitarianism. (Now, indeed, do I wish that it had some other name. This hides, rather than reveals, what I would express. But we must make the best of it.) Unitarianism is an experience. It cannot be expressed in words, simply because it is vital, organic. It grows with the soul's growth, develops with the soul's development. It is not quite the same today as it was yesterday, nor will it be the same tomorrow as it is today. It is part of the individual much more than the body is. Now the body is changing all the time; and yet it is the same body. So my faith in God is not quite the same today as it was yesterday, because I have had twenty-four hours God-experience since then; yet it is the same faith. In the same way Unitarianism is not static, but vital; and vitality is growth.


It has been said that because Unitarians have no formal creed, they do not believe anything. On the contrary, they believe so much that it is impossible to put it into a creed. Vital faith soon bursts the husks of creed. It wants to be a flower and a fruit; so it breaks out into the sunshine. Most of all do Unitarians believe in believing. But when you ask them to state their belief while you count three, they find it extremely difficult to respond; nay, impossible. It takes a life to express a real belief.


So I cannot tell definitely all that Unitarianism is to me. Who of us has not experienced the futility of attempting to put a vital experience into words? What is really essential escapes. The letter kills the spirit. And there is just the point. Unitarianism is a spirit. It is not a text book, nor a formula; it is a spirit. And being so, it eludes definition. In every attempted definition of religion, there is something left out. Men try again to define it; still there is something left out. That something is the soul's personal spiritual experience. It is just so with Unitarianism. It may well be that in the effort to put it into words we lose the real meaning of it. It is the individual soul's spiritual experience when left free to live its own life on its own terms. It is God in the soul.


Is this mysticism? If so, I am afraid I cannot help it. Is not such mysticism the very essence of the religious life? All the religious geniuses have been mystics in this sense. Your soul and God,--are not these the two supremely important facts in the universe for you? And is it not the aim of religion to make these twain one in will, in love, in life?


And this at least suggests what Unitarianism is. For it is an attitude of the soul. Primarily it is the attitude of the soul towards God. We try to express this by the phrase, "Love to God." This is the first and great commandment, according to a very high authority. But the Unitarian must think of God as lovable before he can really love him. To him God is first of all the Father of infinite tenderness. That is why the Unitarian rejects the grim God of orthodoxy. You cannot really love a God who condemns the vast majority of his children to eternal damnation because they have not accepted a theological doctrine of which most of them have never even heard. You may profess to love such a God with your lips; but he is not really lovable. The Unitarian loves God because to him God is lovable. To him God is in very fact infinite love; and he will trust that love to the end.


But the love of God means more than this. It means devotion to all that is good and true and pure. It means the soul's reaching out for its own divine inheritance of goodness, and truth, and purity. "Ye that love The Lord, hate evil" Only so can we love the Lord.


The Unitarian attitude towards God, then, is one of love for the lovable. It is aspiration towards the divine; it is communion, fellowship. We would walk with God through life and death, --to life.


Unitarianism is an attitude of the soul towards man. God being our Father, then we are all his children. This is a rather obvious platitude. But its significance is far reaching. It undermines at once the doctrine of the total depravity of man. This doctrine is, indeed, repugnant to the Unitarian. His very inmost nature revolts against it. He cannot bring himself to believe that the all-wise Father made such a stupendous mistake as that. That God is our Father means that man is in essence divine. He may make mistakes; he may go wrong; he may commit sin, if you will (he has done all these things), but the heart of him is sound. Naturally he turns towards right and truth and love, not towards wrong and hate, and lies.


This is the Unitarian attitude towards man. It is revolutionary. It is diametrically opposed to the orthodox conception of the nature of man. To that man is a "fallen" being, naturally "depraved," and under the curse of God. To the Unitarian man never fell, but has always climbed, and is climbing still; he is not naturally depraved, but naturally good; he is not under the curse of God, but under the blessing of God.


This fundamental thought of Unitarianism has vast practical applications. It modifies all our ideas of education and reform. The modern education is trusting more and more to the natural instincts of the child. Its watchword is not repression, but expression. In the city of Gary, Ind., they are doing some marvelous things in the way of education. Many old time notions are being swept into the rubbish heap there. The children actually love to go to school, boys and girls alike. They would rather be in school than anywhere else. They go early and sit on the steps waiting for the school to open. They stay in school all the year round by preference. They are happy; and they are being educated. Perhaps they are the only children in the public schools of the country who are being educated.


Now what is the secret of the Gary method? It is the Unitarian attitude towards man applied to education. Here is the testimony of one who has made a careful study of it. "It is extremely difficult to communicate the impression of the Gary schools because their philosophy is so radically different from anything we have ever seen or believed in. (The writer has evidently never attended a Unitarian church.) This philosophy is one that is familiar to us only by name. Few of us have enough faith in it to practice it, It is called the Christian philosophy. The first principle of it is this: that human beings, (including children) left wholly free to act, and surrounded by free opportunity, will naturally do the right thing as far as they know how. This principle is in full force at the Gary schools. If anyone cares to know whether it is 'practical' or not, I suggest that he go to Gary and see." Now this is simply Unitarianism applied to education. And this trust in the natural impulse of the child towards good is the key note of modern educational methods. The old idea, born largely of the dreary doctrine of "natural depravity," was repression of the child, and distrust of his instincts. The new idea is expression of the child, and trust in his instincts. The points of view are wide asunder as the poles. In the new thought alone is hope of real education.


To the Unitarian, then, the soul is a thing of divine origin, and infinite possibilities. Hence the emphasis that Unitarianism places upon character as the supreme end of life, and the only salvation. Character is the final goal of all our efforts. The aim of Unitarianism is not so much to "save" souls as to make souls that are worth saving. Character is the test of religion. "By their fruits ye shall know them."


Unitarianism, again, is the attitude of the soul towards the universe. The universe is the expression of the indwelling life and love of God. It is not a dreary vale of tears; it is not accursed. It is good from center to circumference. There is no spot in it where God is not; and God is love. The universe reveals, not hides, the spirit of God. Through the gate of the senses it rushes into the soul to make it rich. Nature is the friend and helpmeet of man. All nature serves his spirit. What we call evolution is the unfolding of the divine purpose of God in ever increasing beauty and richness of life. To the Unitarian the world is supremely good. All its laws and forces help the soul in its high purpose.


Unitarianism is the attitude of the soul towards life. It holds that life here and now upon the earth, with all its struggle, its suffering and sorrow is good and beautiful. The possible richness of one day's life is immeasurable. The universe is offered to us; and we take just so much as our souls are large enough to hold. Life is a splendid enterprise whereby the soul day by day may build itself into strength and beauty.


Unitarianism is the attitude of the mind towards truth. It seeks the truth wherever it may be found. It is open to every discovery of science, and to every word of prophet or of poet. It is not interested in proclaiming a dogma; it is interested in discovering the truth. To it truth is sacred, for it is the expression of the mind of God. Whether it be in Euclid or Isaiah, it is still the mind of God.


Unitarians are not afraid of the truth. We will trust it always and everywhere. We are assured that, however it may seem for a time, each new truth of science will only make God more clear. Evolution has not driven God out of his universe; it has revealed him as the inspiration of his universe. So with all truths when reverently received by the open mind. Science is verily "Thinking God's thoughts after him."


We reverence the reason of man as the instrument for seeking out and finding the truth of God. We dare to think that reason, left free, will seek the truth and ultimately reach it. We know full well that reason will make mistakes, has made mistakes; but we also know that these mistakes of reason are as nothing to the mistakes of authority posing as the word of God, enforced, as they have been, by rack, and faggot and dungeon. Authority in matters of religion has had to give way step by step before the advance of reason; and the line of her retreat has been marked by the tortured bodies of those seekers of the truth whom she has slain. Unitarianism trusts that the reason of man, left free to range through all the infinite universe, will at last find the very truth of God.


All this Unitarianism is. But this is but a small part of the story. Unitarianism is the attitude of the soul towards these realities of God, man, the universe, life, truth. But it is much more than a mere passive attitude. It is an inspiration, a spur urging the soul on to ever finer achievements. It is dynamic and vital. It is the stirring of the very life of God in the soul. It believes that religion is life. It looks for a high destiny or this God-born man in whom it has faith. Its faith is a faith that works. It is the persistent goal of the ideal, bidding us


"Rejoice we are allied

To that which doth provide

And not partake, effect and not receive!

A spark disturbs our clod;

Nearer we hold to God

Who gives, than his tribes that take, I must believe.


Then, welcome each rebuff,

That turns earth's smoothness rough,

Each sting that bids nor sit nor stand but go!

Be our joys three-parts pain!

Strive, and hold cheap the strain;

Learn, nor account the pang; dare, never grudge the throe."




Prepared for web page display on April 1, 2006