He was a bit curmudgeonly, the Rev. Francis Ellingwood
Abbot – a trait that kept him in hot water no matter
where he went or what he did.
Take for example his first parish ministry gig, when he
not only raised the ire of many in his own congregation
and denomination, but also that of the highest court in
the state of New Hampshire.
The issue? His theological fitness for a pulpit
in that state. Deemed insufficiently Christian for a
minister, he was branded a runaway rationalist on par
with those scoundrels Paine and Jefferson.
The court found its damning evidence in Abbot’s
sermons, setting on two excerpts to make its case – the
first denying Jesus’ exceptionalism and the second,
biblical authority and Israel as the only Holy Land.
Abbot was in effect taking Jesus off the sacrificial
cross, redefining scripture as broader than any book and
expanding the notion of sacred ground to any place where
the human soul yearns.
The court wasted no time in ruling against Abbot.
Declaring him “insufficiently Christian”, it forbade
both he and his remaining followers from using the Dover
"If Protestantism would include Mr. Abbot in this case,"
New Hampshire's highest court concluded, “it would of
course include Thomas Jefferson, and by the same rule
also Thomas Paine, whom Gov. Plumer of New Hampshire
called "that outrageous blasphemer," that "infamous
blasphemer," "that miscreant Paine," whose "Age of
Reason" Plumer had read "with unqualified disapprobation
of its tone and temper, its coarse vulgarity, and its
unfair appeals to the passions and prejudices of his
Abbot was devastated at the ruling. He had been
defrocked and shunned, banned from his very calling. He
would go on to co-found the Free Religious Association
(a prolific group of non-theistic Unitarian churches and
ministers) pen several books and edit an influential
humanist newspaper, the
the Court’s decision had forever changed the course of
his career and life.
Despite his many efforts, Abbot made little money
over the course of his work life, resulting in a state
of chronic poverty for his entire family.
Abbot’s later years were no kinder: He died in
1903 having taken a fatal dose of sleeping pills. His
body was found stretched out on the grave of his beloved
This is a sermon on humanism within the liberal
religious tradition – one of three specific to our
denomination. What I’m about this morning is a whirlwind
primer in Unitarian Universalist Humanism.
Part One will identify the many kinds of humanism
within the greater narrative of humanist thought and
action. Part Two is my take on how that narrative found
its way into our ranks. And Part Three is a short case
for how the UU humanist tradition morphing into a more
holistic framing of religious experience – one that is
essential in a postmodernist age.
Seven Schools of Western Humanism
Let me set the stage for this segment by reading an
excerpt from a 2006 book written by Nick Webb. (Decorum
requires that I not give the full title. It’s a bit
blasphemous for a Sunday morning…) Webb writes:
fact that we exist at all is astonishing. We’re bits of
stuff driven by the same push/pull material causality
that works the...universe, yet we are configured with
such complexity that we can think...This improbable
predicament of matter has come about through the working
of...evolution – what survives, survives. And all this
has happened on a tiny speck of rock revolving around an
ordinary star in what Douglas Adams called the
unfashionable end of the Milky Way, a colossal galaxy
that is just one of billions.
Webb makes his case for humanism with a deep
sense of awe for the very fact that we’re here. But
while awe is a wonderful thing, it’s hardly the basis
for how the universe works. For that he turns to the
has by no means worked everything out, and probably
never will. Yet the incompleteness of the picture does
not give us the freedom to believe just anything.
Scientific investigation can reveal what is there.
Wishful thinking and credulity, on the other hand, can
tell us what we would like to be there. [But] a strong
urge to believe a proposition does not make it the case.
However hard you strain at imagining a million dollars
in your bank account, you – and the bank – will expect
more by way of evidence before you can spend it...
Webb’s summary is faithful to the modern humanist
understanding, but we’re still left to wonder how
humanism itself came to be. Some history is in order:
Historians of rationalist thought suggest seven
distinct but interwoven strands within Western humanism,
all of them grounded in a single bedrock assumption:
human beings hold their fate – with all the freedom and
responsibilities that entails – in their own hands.
Thinking about the other two sermons in this
series, just as the life of Jesus is the primary
paradigm of the UU Christian; and meaning beyond the
sensory world is the primary paradigm for the UU mystic;
the UU humanist begins the quest for truth with what can
be observed and measured.
Keep this guiding principle in mind as we track
seven distinct schools of Western humanism: Renaissance;
Christian; Classical; Cultural; Humanistic Psychology;
Religious and; Secular.
in the West is most often traced to the Renaissance
Period, covering roughly the 14th through 17th
centuries. It began as an approach to education – what
we now call the humanities: language; politics; the arts
As retired UU minister John Weston puts it, the
student of the humanities should “...Love your neighbor
like a Christian, deliberate like an Athenian,
administer like a Roman and fight like a Spartan.”
Consequently, the not-so-modest goal of
Renaissance humanism was to transform the world through
ideas and education.
Renaissance humanism spun off two new schools of
thought: Christian humanism and classical humanism.
According to UU ministers Fred Muir and Melanie
Sullivan in their sermon on the topic, Christian
humanism took root as religious rationalists carried the
Renaissance into their churches. As Muir and Sullivan
put it, “[They] de-emphasized dogma and creeds; held to
the idea of a tolerant and loving God; and taught that
Jesus’ gift to humanity was not his blood sacrifice but
his moral example, a way of life to be followed and not
a divine figure to be adored.”
As to classical humanism, John Weston describes
it as “...the academic program of Renaissance humanism
as it continues in politics and the arts long after the
Renaissance had ended...For classical humanists, the
cultures of Greece and Rome were twin high points that
have never been equaled.”
He adds that many colonial-era American
politicians saw themselves as cast in the mold of Roman
senators. For them, the end for classical humanism was
to produce philosopher-leaders.
Over time the humanist thinking of the elite
became more accessible to those once considered the
“uncultured” masses, mostly by way of the university.
This, then is the fourth thread of humanism, often
called cultural. It was a more populist brand of
humanism, appealing to mostly European societies in
which education was fast becoming a democratic right.
Cultural humanism paved the way for a later, more
intrapersonal humanism: humanistic psychology.
Developed in the mid-20th century,
humanistic psychology ran counter to Freud’s
psychoanalysis and Skinner’s behaviorism. It broke ranks
with those models by allowing for wider individual
differences and experiences.
Weston notes that humanistic psychology combined the
work of depth theology and psychology [of] Maslow,
Rogers, Tillich, Jung and May.”
the last two forms of humanism that most resonate in
modern liberal religion: religious and secular.
Both began by rejecting supernatural claims
in favor of science; but whereas religious humanism
wanted to engage and transform religion, secular
humanism found little or nothing there worth salvaging.
other words, while the religious humanist seeks to
reboot orthodox theology, the secularist considers
religion irrelevant if not harmful.
This is dense stuff, full of nuance but worth all
the sifting through in order to appreciate how the
broader humanist story has informed Unitarian
Universalist thought and practice.
Let’s turn now to the relationship between these
seven threads and the tapestry we call Unitarian
There’s plenty of room for disagreement, but I submit it
was the Transcendentalists who laid the political
blueprint for how to make lasting change in our
prior to the humanist shift in paradigms, Margaret
Fuller, Emerson, Thoreau and the rest declared
Unitarianism stagnated, even “corpse cold.” Most left
institutional Unitarianism, but not before spearheading
what they called intuitive religion – a philosophy based
on individualism and humanity’s place in nature.
Just a decade or so into its existence, the
American Unitarian Association was experiencing its most
serious internal squabble to date. As one historian put
it, the tussle between rational Christianity and
Transcendentalism was a “rope pull over the nature of
God and the god of nature.
The Transcendentalist Controversy was by no means
the first schism on either side of our blended family;
but consciously or unconsciously it became a prototype
for grassroots organizing against a dominant
Move ahead now to the post-Civil War humanism of
Francis Ellingwood Abbot and the dissention that gave
rise to what became known as the Western Issue.
The Western Issue was the term for the growing rift
between the established, more Christian-centered face of
the movement and a wave of radicals that were neither
Christians nor mystics on the order of the
They advocated for
a non-theist “Free Religion”. These predominantly Upper
Midwestern clergy rejected supernaturalism, statements
of faith (Unitarian or otherwise), biblical authority
and denominational pressure to dial back their efforts.
By the late 1860s a number of them declared their
independence from Unitarian orthodoxy and joined
Ellingwood in creating the Free Religious Association
(FRA). While the FRA would eventually be reconciled to
the denomination, its call to replace theology with
reason and faith with science resonated with many a
Example: In his 1876 book, The Faith of
Evolution, humanist minister Minot Savage threw his
support behind the humanist position he called
Now what is this theory? Simply this: that the whole
universe, suns, planets, moons, our earth and every form
of life upon it…together with all our civilizations, has
developed from a primitive fire-mist or nebulae that
once filled all the space now occupied by the worlds;
and that this development has been according to laws and
methods and forces still alive and working today. It
calls in no unknown agency. It does not offer to explain
a natural fact by a miracle which only deepens the
mystery it attempts to solve. It says, I accept and ask
for only the forces that are going on right before my
eyes, and with these I will explain the visible
By the early 1930s – and in the
aftermath of the First World and Scopes Monkey Trial –
humanism had become the wedge issue within Unitarianism.
mostly secular humanist Unitarian ministers like John
Dietrich and Curtis Reese, humanism moved from our stage
to the international stage in 1933 in the form of A
Manifesto included the signatures of a number of
Unitarian ministers, putting forth a religious humanism
that was revolutionary in both scope and content. Short
and direct, it contained 15 “theses”.
Among other things, the
asserted that the universe is self-existing, not
created; human beings emerged from and remain a part of
an evolutionary process; culture and society are
products of human interaction with their natural
environment and; while not denying the possibility of
realities not yet discovered, at present science voids
any appeals to a supernatural deity.
Within four years of the publication of
A Humanist Manifesto the American Unitarian
Association elected Frederick May Eliot as president.
While Eliot was himself a liberal theist, he recognized
the value of religious humanism and at points promoted
than a decade later another world war challenged liberal
theology to account for mass evil. In response, humanism
offered a grim indictment: No vengeful God was to blame;
we did it to ourselves.
By the time the Universalists merged with them in
1961, Unitarians overwhelmingly identified as humanists
in some form. The revolutionary model used by Emerson
and Fuller had yielded yet another sea change, albeit in
ways they likely wouldn’t much appreciate.
The New Humanism
Rare indeed is the revolution that does not turn
inward and become the new orthodoxy. Once in place as
norm not exception, religious humanism was for the next
50 years left relatively unchallenged as the unofficial
face of the movement.
In retrospect, much Unitarian, Universalist and
after merger Unitarian Universalist humanism became
reactionary – better at articulating what it denied than
what it affirmed. Scores of surveys, sermons and
writings from those decades indicate nearly universal
disdain toward God-talk or any theological realities
beyond the reach of the scientific method, including the
of God of its own progressive Christians.
But between the mid-80s and today, external as
well internal forces have been at work. work. As Fred
Muir points out in blunt form, “...the civil turmoil and
strife of the 1960s and 1970s, [as well as] the navel
gazing of the 1980s [left] the baby boomers especially,
but not exclusively, looking for something other
than…the neo-Protestantism of the 1950s and 1960s, or
the existential relativism and political activism of the
1970s and 1980s. As the church in general lost its
appeal and members…so did the Unitarian Universalist
religious humanism that had sustained us for so many
A quick anecdotal detour in the service of Muir’s
point: When I entered the movement in 1985, I
encountered many longtime humanist UUs – some my
colleagues – who were anxious over a new, unnamed and
often unwelcome theological shift.
Their adult children, come of age in our
religious education programs, were staying away in
droves, finding the congregations in which they were
raised emotionally sterile and theologically
one-dimensional. Our congregations were decreasing in
numbers and vitality, in large part because Generation X
was registering an unofficial but clear indifference to
how the denomination understood itself and mission.
But beginning in 1985 and continuing under the
leadership of three consecutive presidents of our
Association, the response to Gen X’s disaffection was to
identify what we did rather than didn’t affirm.
Witness in that year the adoption of the Seven
Principles and Five (now six) Sources – a pair of
documents designed to put our broad commonalities into
word and signal what some called a more reverent
approach to religion. These statements remain open to
question in terms of their status and content, but they
undeniably gave us a theological baseline
all this into the present, Unitarian Universalist
humanism is undergoing another shift – one in large part
brought on by the changing of the guard as Generations X
and Y come of age and take the denominational reins.
So what’s going on? Sounding every bit the
spokesman for these (mostly young) postmodernist
humanists rising in our ranks,
New York Times
columnist and author David Brooks touches on a
culture-wide transition from individualism to
From his March 2001 piece titled “The New
have a prevailing view in our society — not only in the
policy world, but in many spheres — that we are divided
[That view is that] reason, which is trustworthy,
is separate from the emotions, which are suspect.
Society progresses to the extent that reason can
suppress the passions.
This has created a distortion in our culture. We
emphasize things that are rational and conscious [yet]
are inarticulate about the processes down below. We are
really good at talking about material things but bad at
talking about emotion.
When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits
measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to
the most important things like character and how to
build relationships, we often have nothing to say. Many
of our public policies are proposed by experts who are
comfortable only with correlations that can be measured,
appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else.
Yet while we are trapped within this amputated
view of human nature, a richer and deeper view is coming
back into view.
It is being brought to us by researchers across
an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology,
sociology, behavioral economics and so on.
This growing, dispersed body of research reminds
us of a few key insights. First, the unconscious parts
of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most
impressive feats of thinking take place.
Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our
emotions assign value to things and are the basis of
Finally, we are not individuals who form
relationships. We are social animals, deeply
interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of
body of research suggests…we are not divided creatures.
We don’t only progress as reason dominates the passions.
We also thrive as we educate our emotions…”
not intended for Unitarian Universalism alone, Brooks
speaks for the latest crop of UU humanists as they put
forth this combination of head and heart, displaying an
overall boredom with materialist-only models: Whereas
their humanist forebears wrangled over reason versus
faith and elevated political liberalism to a de facto
moray, research on millenials paints the picture of a
generation less concerned with labels and
To be sure, the new humanists remain engaged with
the great questions of the day; but their answers are
often shaped by the meta-belief that truth is found not
only in a local and real time community, but in an
ever-advancing technological, global, multicultural
experience many of their grandparents and parents are
yet to appreciate.
Why Unitarian Universalism
Needs Its Humanist Elders
Let me wind down by saying Unitarian Universalist
humanism, in order to remain relevant and credible, must
be as conversant with its times as the Free Religion
It’s clear that humanism is, like the denomination,
undergoing major change – perhaps full-out
transformation. As this change continues, humanists from
earlier eras will be glad to know that the religion of
Reese and Dietrich remains intact; that what they called
the three Rs – reason, rationality and responsibility –
still guide humanist thinking and action.
Our younger humanist sisters and brothers share
our awe and passion for a naturally-derived, majestic,
mind-blowing cosmos. They share our belief that reason
and science are important but not exclusively worthy
guides to spiritual maturity.
So let me leave it at this: Humanist UU
graybeards such as I may or may not chime in with
everything the young bloods are trying to tell us; but
no matter our queasiness, it’s our time to be the tribal
elders, telling the story of a rich tradition designed
to evolve with the times, yet hold fast to the humanist
gospel of “truth passed through the fire of life”.
What a joy to be alive as yet another generation
begins to make its own mark on Unitarian
Universalist-style humanism. From what I’ve seen so far,
we – humanist and non – have much to learn from them.