A Sermon by

The Rev. John C. Fuller

May 2, 1965







I suppose it's a bit strange for me to think I have to say why I am a Unitarian. I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right next door to the cradle of American Unitarianism. My grandfather's great-uncle was the founder of it all in this country, William Ellery Channing. My other grandfather's aunt, Margaret Fuller, was one of the leaders of the Transcendentalist movement which brought Unitarianism out of the 18th century into the modern world. She was colleague of Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott and others.


I grew up in Dedham, Massachusetts, a hundred years after the famous court case in that town which resolved the internecine conflict in the Congregational Church and judged that the Unitarians rightfully owned the meeting house, while the Congregationalists were awarded the parish funds. I even went to Sunday School briefly in that historic Dedham meeting house and it didn't hurt me at all, as you can plainly see.


So, I am a born Unitarian and a bred Unitarian; but only partially bred, for that brief Sunday school experience lasted only three short weeks. I never set foot again in a Unitarian church for twenty years. Needless to say, Unitarianism in the nineteen-twenties and thirties in Dedham wasn't the vital thing it is today. Further, I long ago leaned that religion is not a matter of blood, genes or geographical osmosis.


So born or not, bred or not, I am a Unitarian and a Universalist too, not by birth, not by breeding, but by preference. It is this preference I want to talk about this morning. I have talked the preference before, and each time I do so the reasons are somewhat different. And that is as it should be in an open-ended religion for persons who are always growing, always seeking.




My preferrings are simple ones and the are only three.


First, I am a Unitarian, because this faith invites me to the adventure of intellectual freedom in religion. I am encouraged by this faith to come to my own theology and philosophy of life, not to the church's. Whatever I come up with theologically is right, if it is right for me. And wherever I happen to be on the spectrum of this adventure - whether I believe in a personal God or in none whatsoever - whether I am theistic, agnostic, or atheist - it is not wrong or heretical or un-Unitarian or irreligious. I am my own authority in matters theological.


This has been called the "free mind principle" and it only dates back in Western civilization to the time of the Reformation, and then only to that part of the Reformation, the left wing, which carried its logic of individualism to the necessary conclusion. That part of the Reformation fought for this individual religious liberty with its life. I have it today because men and women, long ago, died at the stake or in prison for it, because once tasting it, they'd rather flee their homeland, as did Joseph Priestley and John Murray, than to lose their own soul and dignity in the land of their birth.


Individual freedom of belief was the religious counterpart of the revolution of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries - the revolution that brought to birth modern science, political democracy and the rights of the individual person. If a man - any man - was to be free intellectually, politically and personally, then he also had to be free religiously.


It is this freedom Unitarianism, and Universalism too, stands for. As Thomas Jefferson so well put it, "I cannot be saved by a worship that I disbelieve." It is this mental freedom in religion that Unitarianism invites me to. I have to do my thinking theologically in order to be saved; which translated means that I am made whole as a person by the conclusions and affirmations I come to in my own mind, not in your mind, or my grandfather's great-uncle's mind, or in St. Augustine's. Freedom means, or rather reflects, the basic proposition that the truth about the universe and the nature of existence is never final, never exhausted by one formulation and never to be imposed by one person upon another.


Religion, or rather theology, is an individual preference. It is a partial thing, not ever fully gathered up and codified by anyone form of it. Theology is, further, the chief thing that a man orders his basic thinking about life by. And I choose, as you do also, not to order my basic thinking about life by a philosophy or theology alien to me. I get the most out of it for my own wholeness when I do it myself, in my own manner, at my own speed, and in accordance with my own prejudices, perversities, needs and stages of life. My authority is myself. My disciplines are the community of free thinkers to which I belong, called the free church and the free society. And the requirements are always those of reasonableness, tolerance, and respect for persons and facts. This freedom is a life adventure. Its patron is the Unitarian faith. Its saint is the Prometheus without chains - a heroic figure who snatched the fire of religious liberty from the gods, but without recrimination.


I am a Unitarian, because of its invitation to me to be free as a god - as a god in a community of gods, as a man in a community of free men. And there comes with the invitation, the astonishing phenomenon of a church in which it is all right to dissent, all right to be "revolting" in your thoughts, all right to come to your own theology or to none at all, all right to be wrong.


I am a Unitarian, not merely because I am invited to be individually free, but more significantly because the invitation is to a community, a fellowship of free religious thinkers. And sometimes I don't even want to think at all, and that's all right, too!


Freedom is religious, and mark it well, because it has to do with the dignity of a man, and with his chance to be a whole person. Only those who prefer someone else's thinking to their own say that freedom is not religious. The spirit bloweth where it listeth.




I am a Unitarian, second, because this faith asks me to be happy. It asks me to be a certain kind of person emotionally - to be free, not only intellectually - which after all is easy once you catch the bug; but also, and far more important, the Unitarian faith asks me to be free in how I feel about myself and others and life. I am always forgetting this dimension of Unitarianism in the heady seriousness of intellectual freedom and ethical concern.


I am often, like you, an exasperated liberal, or an angry liberal, or a frustrated liberal, or a liberal who can't stand others. I am jolted out of it every once in a while and learn once again why I am a Unitarian. I was, most recently, down in Alabama during the last day of the Selma to Montgomery march. We were plodding grimly along, having sat up all night and waited in the mud and humidity all morning for the march to begin. We were earnestly trying to keep closed up in formation, according to instructions, sometimes running, all the while walking. This was serious business. Hate was in the air. Heat was in the air. One of the marshals, a Negro, stationed regularly along the line, was holding a small sign in his palm as we trudged solemnly by. It said simply: KEEP SMILING!


The Unitarian faith is not a grim and exclusively serious venture. It invites us to wholeness and happiness. It speaks, and always has, of the liberal personality. We used to call this "character," salvation by character. Today we call it emotional maturity, the mature mind, or something similar. I call it achieving the liberal personality, the emotional counterpart to intellectual freedom. It is, when all is said and done, what makes the free mind creative, affirming and happy. It is what's there underneath all our Unitarian intellectual and theological fireworks.


When the joy and enchantment of the magic and release of freedom wear off, as they always seem to do after you've been in Unitarianism awhile, then you come to the emotional or spiritual underpinnings; or you don't come to anything at all. You can develop these underpinnings and it is equally as important an encouragement of the Unitarian faith to do so as is the bid to think freely.


What is the free personality? What kind of character can we call Unitarian? Who is the happy liberal? He is not the person who insists to others that he, and only he, is a liberal; not the person who calls his position liberal and all others illiberal. He is not the person who tells you what he is emancipated from or who is skillful in seeing what is wrong with what other people do and think. He is simply, in the lovely words of Bonaro Overstreet, the kind of person who wants to see things grow and people grow. He provides room about himself for the growth he wants to see. You can tell a liberal by what he puts forth on the human scene; and what he puts forth can be felt in what other people feel able and encouraged to do because he is around. He releases you. He allows your tentative ideas to come into the open to be tried out. He doesn't make you feel stupid or a fool. He makes you a little less shy, a little more confident. You know he has a sense of life that has room in it room for differences, room for variety, room for turning around, room for you.


The happy liberal, then, is the one who tries to see what the other fellow thinks he is thinking. He tries to feel himself into the frame of reference of a person whom he is tempted to say otherwise is wrong or stupid. The happy liberal has learned to stand still and feel the spaciousness of the scheme of things, the spaciousness of time and place, the spaciousness of the unknown. He measures himself with what is yet to be known, not only about the universe, but about that stranger universe of human mind and heart, and that stranger yet universe of human society always seeking to find out how to reconcile our social being with our uniqueness as individuals.


And because he has a spaciousness in him, the liberal person knows how to listen and then to speak as a very human being. He knows, too, and is at home with the fact, that it is human to make mistakes - for himself to make them as well as others. It's a funny thing - do you know how you  feel when you make a mistake? I know how I feel, which is usually not very much at home with myself. The liberal is the one who can relax with the fact of error, and then go on with self-respect or respect for others.


The genuine liberal has a sense of the future. Any situation has in it somewhere, he feels, a potential worth looking for, worth trying to do something about. He says, “let there be,” “let there become,” for he feels there are always possibilities - in himself, in others, in history, in life's darkest moments or years. He feels he can go out toward the future, go out toward other people. He wants to run the risks of approach. The drama of understanding life, of understanding other persons is the one he loves in preference to the old, tedious dramas of despair and conflict which have already exhibited their little, mean possibilities centuries ago.


I am a Unitarian because I am asked by it and all it stands for to be such a happy and whole person, to be free, liberal and spacious.


Socrates said, long ago, to the cynic, “Whether or not such a city exists, in heaven, or on earth, or ever will exist, the wise man will live after it.” And Jesus said, “It has been said of old, hate thine enemy; but I say unto you, despair of no man and your reward shall be great.” And Emerson said, “I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty which ravished the souls of those eastern men, shall speak in the West also.”




And last, I am a Unitarian because of a very great big thing that is added by our faith to all this mental liberality and emotional tolerance. It is something which apparently contradicts the openness and broadness of freedom. It is something which is impatient, imperative, and seemingly dogmatic. I couldn’t be much of a Unitarian without it. What it is, is the ever restless demand for human dignity. This demand for dignity is carried by the Unitarian faith, but its origin lies in us, lies in human life. Our Unitarian merely says "yes" to it - yes, now; yes, for all mankind and each man in particular; yes, for others as well as for myself.


The cry for dignity comes from the souls of men. Sometimes it is loud, as in the cry, “Pharaoh, Pharaoh, let my people go,” and it comes from a whole people in slavery or segregation, or from a whole world caught in the war system or the population explosion. At other times it is soft and weak, as in the muted whispers of the many caught individually in the jungles of their own guilt or despair or helplessness. And sometimes the cry comes from us, ourselves, from our own hurt or from our wounded aspirations.


The cry is heard by the free mind and the liberal heart, which is one of the reasons for his freedom. But the cry always needs an answer from us. The achieving of human dignity always demands our commitment and our action. We must take a stand, perhaps in anger, perhaps beyond liberality. We must work as if to move mountains, for people and institutions do live off the profits from the indignity of other people. It is then that our Unitarian faith invites us to go beyond looking at alternatives, beyond being spacious and generous, beyond to taking sides. This is the great drama of justice beyond the drama of understanding. And in this great drama Unitarianism has always taken part, for to the faith of freedom, the enhancement of life by means of worship, fellowship, education, service, and action, has always been the chief sacrament. Because of this, almost above all, I am a Unitarian.


And, in the end, I am a Unitarian, I know, for the same reason that Pierre van Paassen became one of us. He wrote, now twenty years ago: "In our time when we see the world more and more becoming one, the Creative Spirit, which has built suns and flowers and corals and anthropoids, now wants to build the human community, and poses us an ultimatum:


Now institute the holy commune of mankind;

Now begin the new era;

Now become human at last, or else perish!"



Prepared for web page display on April 1, 2006