This September marks the 250th anniversary of the first Universalist sermon in North America.
Legend has it that, after his ship was unexpectedly diverted to Good Luck, New Jersey, the British ex-pat minister John Murray delivered the first message in a chapel specially built by a man who believed God was going to send someone there to preach a sermon that needed to be heard. Murray’s sermon eventually morphed into a full-fledged religious movement that, at its height, was one of the largest Protestant denominations in America.
In a nutshell, Universalism is the notion that there is no person in this world so irredeemable that God would condemn them to eternal suffering. Many early Universalists were working-class and poor folks who saw in the new denomination an affirmation of their humanity in the face of what felt like crushing injustice.
Although the denomination itself has since gone out of existence (the Universalists merged with the Unitarians in 1961 to form Unitarian Universalism), its message carries on through folks who continue to resonate with the idea of an eternally loving God to this day.
More than a simple theological hearsay, though, Universalism was an affirmation that all people have dignity. At a time when religion was often used to deny the basic humanity of so many folks, including Native Americans, immigrants, African-descended slaves, disabled people, people from non-Christian religions, and women, Universalism was a clear affirmation that there is nothing that can separate anyone from the love of God, that nobody’s left behind in the cosmic scheme of it all.
There are still Christian Universalists around today, many in Unitarian Universalism, others in mainline Christian denominations, and a few in the Universalist Christian Church, a homage to the original Universalists which continues to meet to this day. What makes Universalism so inspiring to me, though, is the way its message has inspired even outside of these circles.
At a time when religion is still often used to attack those labeled mentally ill, people of color, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, and queer and transgender folks, among others, there’s a redeeming message of the potential for Beloved Community where everyone’s worth and dignity are respected, no matter what.
I’ve had people from all sides of the political debate tell me they don’t want to believe in Universalism, some because they have a very narrow interpretation of scripture, but others because they want to believe there’s a sort of cosmic justice for the awful villains of our historical narrative. They don’t like the implication that there’s a place in Heaven for everyone who has ever lived.
But imagine how powerful it would be if we lived life like everyone had a redeemable spark of humanity within them, as if there weren’t a person who ever walked this Earth who was ultimately unloveable. Maybe it sounds like a naïve pipe dream, but it’s ultimately how Beloved Community is built: by assuming most people are just doing the best they can, ultimately living the only way they know how.
How much more could we accomplish if we didn’t dehumanize a person by labeling them merely evil, no matter how evil their actions are, if people weren’t just a sum of their behaviors, but something more.
This month, I celebrate the first Universalist sermon of John Murray because it reminds me how much further we have to go to build the world that Universalism points to, a world where everyone’s worth and dignity are a given. And maybe, just maybe, if enough of us continue to insist on the dignity of all people, we might just get to the Beloved Community we dream of.
Rev. Chris Rothbauer (they/them/their) is minister of Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. A native of Southern Indiana, they live in Auburn with their partner, a senior rescue beagle, and a spoiled rotten cat. All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.