Crusaders for Universal Love

READING

Our reading was adapted from a story told in one of our Religious Education classes.  It’s a story about the Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou.  Ballou was born in 1771, in Winchester, New Hampshire, which is not far from Northampton – just a few miles north of the border up Route 10.

As a little boy Hosea Ballou loved to play in the mud.  His mother had died when he was two, and he was raised by his father and several loving older sisters.  The sisters got frustrated with Hosea for playing in the mud and making more work for them.  They asked their father to tell him to stop. Hosea’s father told him that God required them all to try to stay clean.

Hosea tried hard, but occasionally the mud was just too tempting and Hosea would come home all dirty, tracking mud into the house and making more work for his sisters.  They asked their father to speak with Hosea again.  This time, Hosea asked his father if he was angry.

“I am disappointed in you, Hosea,” he said in a stern voice, “and I am a little angry with you."

Hosea hung his head…, then he dared to look up, just a little, to ask, "Do you still love me?"

"Hosea," said his father, and his father didn't sound stern anymore, "I will always love you, no matter what you do." (1)

SERMON

“I will always love you, no matter what you do.”  Those are reassuring parental words to a young child who has just been reprimanded.  Loving reminders can help all of us thrive, fully realize our gifts, find and live out a true calling.

The story we read to all the children earlier, Iggy Peck, Architect,by Andrea Beatty, was about a little boy who has a calling and passion.  Had his parents been like his 2nd grade teacher Miss Lila Greer, he would have had to overcome greater obstacles in order to become Iggy Peck, architect.  But they loved and supported him and he didn’t face resistance until he hit the 2nd grade.  Maybe that’s one reason he had the grace and the building skills to rescue Miss Lila when the time came.

Iggy Peck was loved.  Like our children – the children of this congregation.  Some of our children (2nd through 5th graders at 9:15, 2nd and 3rd at 11) are learning a bit about Unitarian Universalism this year.  I hope some of us will, too.  Their subject this week is Universalism – one leader, and one big idea.  If you have a child or children in that class, you might ask them if they remember the one big idea.

In my version, the one big idea from Universalism is that every person is loved.

Hosea Ballou grew up asking questions:  how could it be that God is good, and (as the Calvinists believed) that God selects only a few people to go to heaven?

Why would a creator god make creatures who are destined to suffer during their lives and then punish them in hell forever after?  How could such a god be a good one?

At the age of nineteen (1790), Hosea decided that he believed in universal salvation, which is the idea that everyone everywhere — believer, non-believer, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, sinner, saint — everyone will be given salvation.  Eventually, everyone will be "saved" from hell.   The story of the boy who plays in the mud ends like this:

"How can you believe that?" asked his father. "How can you believe that God would let bad people into heaven?"

"Because, Father, I remember what you told me when I was small. I believe that even if God is disappointed with people, or a little angry with them, God will always love them and want them to be happy, no matter what they do, and no matter how muddy they are." (1)

Every person is loved.

Growing up, Ballou received very little formal education.  His conversion from the Calvinist Baptist faith of his childhood came about through his listening to itinerant Universalist preachers, and through his own reading of scripture.  He educated himself, and he never had much good to say about formal education – suggesting that education was more likely to put the mind to sleep than to wake it up.  (2)

You may remember hearing me tell you last year that near the end of Ballou’s life he opposed the establishment of a college to train Universalist ministers.  The first Universalist seminary, Tufts, wasn’t founded until 1852, after Ballou died.  (3)  If the Universalists had started training preachers earlier, perhaps they would have had a greater impact in the long run.

Hosea Ballou served congregations in New Hampshire, then in Salem, Massachusetts, and finally in Boston.  He developed his speaking and writing skills, edited and produced several different Universalist publications, and brought out several revisions his primary work, A Treatise on Atonement, which was first published in 1805.

Ballou was an early champion of the application of reason in reading the Bible.  That’s a position normally associated with 19th century Unitarians like the great Bostonian William Ellery Channing, not semi-educated ex-Baptists.  But Ballou took that stance publicly long before Channing did.

One of Ballou’s most radical notions, developed over time, was that all punishment for sin happens in this life.  There is no punishment after death.  Not all, or even most, Universalists agreed with him.  Clergy of other faiths were horrified.  They thought the notion of punishment after death was necessary to keep people from doing wrong.

Other Universalists believed that souls would endure punishment after death for a fixed amount of time, and then be released to heaven.  Ballou thought that sin was its own sufficient punishment.   Here’s a piece of what he wrote:

Listen to the worst of torments in consequence of sin.  ‘A wounded conscience who can bear?’  A fire that burns all the day long, … a sting that cannot exhaust its poison, a fever that never turns till the patient dies.  …

A consciousness of guilt destroys all the expected comforts and pleasures of sin. (4)

You might come up be able to come up with some arguments against Ballou’s conviction that unbearable guilt is inevitable and takes away all the pleasure and reward that come from wrongdoing.  Plenty of his contemporaries did.  Verbal battles waged back and forth between eminent clergy of the day.

Biographers describe Ballou as argumentative and stubborn.  He didn’t shy from controversy, and Unitarians like William Ellery Channing were among his adversaries.  Once Ballou moved to Boston he and Channing lived close to each other on Beacon Hill.  They sparred in print, but apparently never met.  (5)

There are historic tensions, between the Universalist and Unitarian sides of our family.  A fuller story about Hosea Ballou, a grown-up version, of course gives a more nuanced picture than does the story about the little boy who grew up and decided that God must love everyone because he remembered his father still loved him even after he got muddy.  But it might be enough to remember that Ballou was loved as a child and followed his call, and that the one big idea he promoted remains, and is part of our heritage.

Every person is loved.  Every person has inherent worth and dignity.

Not long after the events of September 11, 2001, the UU World magazine interviewed ministers about the Universalist view of human nature.  Rev. Walter Royal Jones told the reporter that our first principle – we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person – “grew out of a 1935 Universalist affirmation that proclaimed ‘the supreme worth of the individual.’”  Against the horrible reality of the (evil) side of our nature “is our potential for the human impulses that are summed up by the fine word love.” (6)

Everyone has inherent worth and dignity.  Every person is loved.  And every one of us is the means by which that love is extended to others.

I want to tell you a little bit about another 19th century Universalist crusader – Olympia Brown.  Olympia Brown was the first woman in the country ordained by any denomination as a minister.  She overcame resistance at every step through persistence and sheer stubbornness.  She repeatedly demonstrated her intellect and competence, and her skill at public speaking.  She took on small congregations and helped them flourish and grow, serving in Vermont, Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Racine, Wisconsin.  (7)

Olympia Brown was born in 1835 in Prairie Ronde, Michigan, the oldest daughter of a farm family with roots in Vermont.  Unlike Hosea Ballou, she was raised Universalist.  Like Ballou, she came from a family that valued and loved her.  Both parents believed in education for all of their children.  Olympia convinced her father to allow Olympia and her younger sister to enroll in Mary Lyon’s seminary for young women in South Hadley, and later, having found the Calvinist atmosphere at Mt. Holyoke oppressive, Olympia persuaded him to send her to Antioch.

At Antioch she became a radical.  She read about leaders for women’s suffrage and women’s rights.  She wore bloomers, and defied the discrimination against female students.  Male students were expected to give reports – orations – without notes.  Women were permitted only to read from a manuscript.  The first time Olympia was scheduled to present, she brought a manuscript but kept it curled in her hand, and spoke from memory, as the men did. (8)

The group responsible for the campus visiting lecturer series refused to consider woman speakers.  Brown organized a committee to find and invite women to speak on campus and then spearheaded the planning.  They invited Antoinette Brown, the first female Congregationalist minister who had served a congregation in New York (but whose ordination by that congregation was never recognized by her denomination).  Olympia Brown was thrilled and inspired by Antoinette Brown’s appearance.  She began to understand her call as a call to preach, a call to ministry.  (9)

Olympia Brown served several churches, but her lifelong work was for women’s rights and women’s suffrage.  At several points while she was serving a congregation, she took leaves of absence to travel and lecture in favor of votes for women.  In 1888, when she was 53, she gave up the full-time ministry in Racine and devoted the rest of her life to women’s suffrage.  She traveled tirelessly.

Thirty years later, in 1918, she addressed a group who had burned Woodrow Wilson’s speeches in a Washington D.C. demonstration protesting Wilson’s refusal to support the consitutional amendment for women’s suffrage.  She attended state conventions all over the country in the final efforts for ratification.  On November 2, 1920, Olympia Brown, at age 86, was one of the first women in the country to vote.  It was a moment she had waited and worked for nearly all her life.  (10)

Olympia Brown’s is a wonderful story – a rich story of a Universalist visionary and crusader.  It is the story of a woman who, incidentally, at age 38 married a man named John Henry Willis who left a successful business in Weymouth Landing to go woo her in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and who supported and loved her as an equal.  They had two children, and Olympia faced the censure of the Bridgeport congregation she was serving when she took her first maternity leave.  Hers is a story of a crusader who devoted her life to a cause that affirmed the inherent worth and dignity of all.

There’s another side to the story of Olympia Brown, though, and of the women’s suffrage movement more generally.  That’s the story of the relationship between the effort to enfranchise the newly freed African American slaves, and the movement to enfranchise women.

After the Civil War, the Republican Party saw that it would be to their immediate political advantage to quickly make sure that two million newly freed male slaves had the full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.  Of course they would vote for Lincoln’s party.  Former abolitionists and others saw it as a justice issue, as well.  (11)

The women’s suffrage movement was well organized, with leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone.  Should they, with their organizational strength, support black male enfranchisement?  Should it come first?  In 1867 Elizabeth Cady Stanton said no:

With the black man we have no new element in government, but with the education and elevation of white women, we have a power that is to develop the Saxon race into a higher and nobler life … and thus to lift all races to a more even platform…(12)

The former slave, abolitionist, social reformer and orator Frederick Douglass had been an early and active supporter of the women’s suffrage movement.  He was the only African American to attend the first U.S. women’s rights convention, held at Seneca Falls New York in 1848.   After the Civil War, Douglass was among those who advocated for the enfranchisement of black males.

Douglass and others took what in hindsight was the more pragmatic position:  women’s suffrage would take much longer.  He also believed that in practical terms “the abolition of slavery had been accomplished in name alone.”   Douglass thought that the right to vote, even if only for males, was an imperative step towards more opportunity and civil rights for the newly freed slaves.  (13)

Olympia Brown was among those who quarreled with Douglass.  (14) Was she wrong?  Do we fault her, and others in that movement who said publicly that it was more important for the educated “Saxon” woman to vote than for “Sambo,” or “the ignorant negro” to vote?

In every age there are issues of privilege and prejudice, and very few of us, as adults, are completely blameless.  I know I have more to learn, more to do.  And I think it’s important to learn more than the children’s version of this story – to learn more than the children’s version of most stories.  Even with the adult version, my awe of and admiration for Olympia Brown remain, for her courage, passion and commitment, and for her ability to inspire love and to give love.

From young boys who build castles out of chalk, or play in the mud, to old women who continue to fight for what they believe is right.  No matter your religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, or status.  Every person is loved.  Every person has inherent worth and dignity.  Every one of us is the means by which that love is extended to one another.  That’s a story worth telling, again and again.

NOTES:

(1) Janeen K. Grohsmeyer, "Muddy Children," in A Lamp in Every Corner: Our Unitarian Universalist Storybook, UUA, 2004; (2) Ernest Cassara, ed., Hosea Ballou, Treatise on Atonement (1832 version), page x; (3) Mark Harris, Elite, Skinner House, 2009, page 61; (4) Ballou, Treatise on Atonement, (Cassara, ed.), page 48; (5) Charles Howe, The Larger Faith, Skinner, 1993, page 45; (6) http://www.uuworld.org/2002/01/feature1.html; (7)  General information about the life of Olympia Brown can be found at http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/olympiabrown.html; (8)  Charlotte Coté, Olympia Brown, The Battle for Equality, Mother Courage Press, 1988, page 39; (9) Coté, page 41; (10) Ibid., page 167; (11)  Information on women’s suffrage and black enfranchisement after the Civil War comes from Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class, Vintage Books, 1983, Chapter 4;(12) Davis, page 72; (13)  Ibid., pages 77 and 78; (14) Coté, page 95