UU Historical Highlights, Part 1:

What Was So Radical About The Radical Reformation?

A Sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove, co-minister
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

– February 3, 2002 –

Following last Sunday’s service, there was the latest in an almost 50 year series of Congregational meetings and votes here on matters of significance to this gathered church community." Yes, in just a couple more years, in 2004, Paint Branch will turn 50, which, I must say–from recent personal experience–is a fine milestone. Perhaps it’s natural that as I have aged I have increased my love of history–there’s more of it for me to remember! So I wish to begin today a three-part series touching on some historical highlights of our Unitarian Universalist heritage–the context, if you will, in which Paint Branch has emerged and flourished for lo, these 48 years now.

In two weeks time (Feb. 17) I will delve more into the early 19th century context that gave us perhaps the best known Unitarian incarnation anywhere, the Transcendentalist movement. And a month later on March 17th I will cover some of how the Unitarians and Universalists came together into our more modern merger.

But today’s sermon will leapfrog over both those eras, way back to a time brought about by the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe. Some significant roots of our current Unitarian Universalist posture are in there, and I think it’s fun to dig them out.

In these first two, deeply historical sermons I will endeavor to not just point out some key pieces of development that contributed to our evolution as a liberal religion. I will also try to show how certain aspects of the issues then are still relevant in our time and to our lives here at Paint Branch and elsewhere in what I call the UU Universe.

You may or may not realize it, but We Here Now are the current generation of caretakers of a long and living tradition. One historian explained it generally this way: "We are now the future of the past, and in time we will be the past of the future." For me, at least, this is a humbling but empowering realization.

You may or may not have awareness of the centuries of struggle for religious freedom that is our liberal religious heritage, but I believe there are at least the following three reasons for building a stronger historical consciousness within ourselves and our UU congregations:

1. to learn what kinds of events and people carry meaning that endures;

2. to understand the lessons of history that help us move forward more effectively;

3. to know better how to apply our personal resources and energy so that our values will outlive us, when we become "the past of the future."

Like our more than 1000 compatriot UU congregations in North America, Paint Branch UU Church is more than a loose collection of independent free-thinkers. This Church is a place where we can strengthen our capacity to remember, and apply that remembering to greatly assist our paths forward. For we are indeed "the future of the past, and in time we will be the past of the future," so our legacy matters!

My specific premise this morning is that a small and often ignored wing of the Protestant Reformation in early 16th century Europe provided a formative anchor in the then-very risky struggle for religious freedom, out of which emerged the first formal Unitarian Church later that same century. And I will portray one particular theme that emerged in that tumultuous era and is still a powerful factor in our newspapers and courts and lives today. It is largely this theme that substantiates the accepted name given to the "Radical Reformation." You’ll see why in a moment.

This wing of the Reformation in the 1500s might not have been so radical if things had gone differently 1200 years earlier, so let me back up even further for a moment. As you may know, early in the 4th century the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, which then quickly became the enforced religion of the Empire.

Apologists for the early Church sometimes overlook the fact that this establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire effectively ended a few centuries of intense and very fertile theological diversity. A marketplace of ideas swirled around for three hundred years after Jesus. Included in this mix were early universalist and unitarian notions. Such ideas as universal salvation for all people organized by one, loving god were, if not dominant, at least readily available in the centuries immediately after Jesus.

Today’s Christian authorities may not like to acknowledge that it was not only all the way into that 4th century, at the Council of Nicaea in Asia Minor, that certain writings became canonized as The Bible, suddenly backed up by the emperor’s might. At that point the Nicene Creed begin to be enforced. This was the belief statement that established the Doctrine of the Trinity, wherein the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost were held to be all of the same godly essence.

Notice how interwoven the political and religious forces were. The emperor’s conversion and authority allowed those who agreed with him theologically to rule side by side with him, and by rule I mean: ferociously. And what about all those other diverse and fertile ideas, including universalist and unitarian notions? Suddenly they were heretical, punishable beliefs–and their proponents were condemned and persecuted.

After the Council of Nicaea in 325, alternative theological choices were very effectively suppressed. The newly fortified Christian Church held sway, alongside temporal authorities. However, suppression does not mean elimination. Alternative, heretical thought may have been buried, but it was buried alive. (I can imagine that it must have had a thin straw stretched up to the surface to keep barely breathing.) Basically, most alternative theological thought went dormant for, oh, say, a millennium or so, some of it appearing periodically as relatively harmless mysticism.

Leap with me now across that millennium, as the protesting reformers of the early 16th century enter the scene, big name folks like Martin Luther and John Calvin and their cohorts, most of whom managed to avoid the label of heretic. But along with them also came a great variety of unorthodox reformers, some of who revived heretical beliefs that harkened back to those first centuries after Jesus. A new era of intense and fertile theological bantering began, there in the early to mid 1500s, encouraged by the invention of the printing press, which spread diverse writings way beyond the controlling hands of an elite class of priests.

But what were these reformers protesting? And just what did the protesters want to reform? In a nutshell, they were complaining that the one Church that had controlled all of Christianity for that millennium had become corrupt and un-Biblical. Not the least of these corrupting influences was the political sphere, which was so interwoven with the church by that time that political leaders could actually purchase what were called "indulgences" from church fathers, to ensure that even though they had sinned grievously, they could still get into heaven. (This very effective fund-raising technique isn’t quite as available to us here today, alas.)

The upstart reformers challenged the often political excesses of the previously unified Church, and ended up creating a whole new thrust in the Christian religion: sectarian and allegedly purified Protestantism. And if we look closely, here is where we begin to witness the re-emergence of some old and dormant theologies, peeking tentatively through the opening created by the Reformation.

But there was one particular new and crucial angle that also emerged in this schism, beyond the reviving of some alternative theological choices. Some of the lesser known of the reformers looked at the flow of history and judged that theocracy–which is government by religion and religion enforced by government–was actually not such a good idea, really. Better to keep theology and politics separate.

Unfortunately, the major figures of the Reformation–Calvin, Luther, etc.–did not follow this line of reasoning. They insisted on merely substituting their brand of "purified" theocracy for the dominant corrupt version. They fully intended their new, improved Christianity to become the new, improved law of the land, legally eliminating all wrong-thinking that differed from their own, more righteous ideas.

But, now there were competing religious authorities–Protestant and Roman Catholic–that were each attempting to install their dogmatic religious doctrines as the governing order of various states. This meant some harsh times for the less accepted ideas, which nonetheless had their day, here and there.

For instance, and most pertinent to our story this morning, there was a set of three small and differing theological groups, who nonetheless did share a strong objection to the idea of government by religion and religion in bed with government. This trio of new Protestant groups became known as the Left Wing of the Reformation, AKA the Radical Reformation. They had very different religious styles and were never a team, per se, but they all very courageously resisted the linking of church and state, although they wouldn’t have used that language, per se. We UUs can count one of these groups as religious ancestors.

Besides resisting the linkage of church and state, the three groups had a couple other points in common, and in common disagreement with their Protestant relatives. Unlike Luther and Calvin and the mainstream Reformers, the Left Wingers assigned a less literal purpose to the Lord’s Supper, the communion ritual. It was symbolic! They believed, in a radical departure from the others, that they were not ingesting the actual blood and body of Christ.

They also all affirmed our human free will in striving toward the good. This made them particularly distinct from Calvinism, which assumed a fatalistic predestination, not to mention original sin. In contrast, their platform was religious liberty–a radical notion at the time, maybe still.

Okay, so who exactly were these three groups that comprised the Radical Reformation, who all believed in the separation of church and state, communion as a symbolic ritual, and human free will–and how were they different from each other? And do they have any descendants still active today? I regret that I can only briefly mention their rich postures, but here goes.

First, there were the Anabaptists, who believed that adults had to be baptized again (the meaning of the prefix "ana-"). They looked to reclaim the past glory of the Apostles, and to do this directly by imitation and Biblical purity. So they set up strong communities of spiritual discipline, usually set apart from mainstream culture. One of their first leaders was Menno Simons ("See-mins"), a Dutch reformer, from whose name we know the Mennonites. Also the Amish, or Pennsylvania Dutch, are part of the Anabaptist tradition.

Second, we have the Spiritualists, who gazed mostly into the future, quietly imagining the Church to be, the Church that could be. They had a mystical reliance upon a religion of the spirit–individual, passive, receptive. They were led notably by a prolific German named Caspar Schwenckfeld, and there are still Schwenckfelders active today, also mostly in Pennsylvania. (You think our name is a mouthful!)

And then there was the third group, which wanted to reform society and the church, but their object was the whole culture, and they saw themselves as a part of it, unlike the Anabaptists who withdrew from the mainstream, or the Spiritualists who were more individually concerned. This third group was called "Evangelical Rationalists." They would, indeed, evangelize heartily, but only based on the principle of a rational and intuitive contemporary conscience held up alongside Scripture. They wanted to change the world, but by persuasion, not by any corrupting collaboration with the government. Theirs was an inclusive approach, as well, with room for a variety of beliefs, as long as some measure of rational thought was demonstrated. They were evangelical about rationalism.

For instance, they reasoned their way through the Bible and found no basis for the Doctrine of the Trinity. And so, the unitarian idea re-surfaced: that there was one god, and, therefore, Jesus was fully human, not part of any irrational Trinity. However, the by-now-ingrained doctrine of the Trinity was so strong, with 1200 years behind it, that, for some time, such heretical antagonists were known and defiled as anti-Trinitarians, and it was dangerous to one’s health to be so identified. But it was not long before an opportunity arrived for this movement to express itself more fully and safely.

And the place for this unfolding was among the beautiful hills and valleys of the Transylvanian Alps, where a few Evangelical Rationalists had gotten the ear of a young King and converted him to the anti-Trinitarian position. Most influential was the court preacher, Frances Dávid, who gave us the immortal phrase that heads your order of service panel: "We need not think alike to love alike." This was a significant sentiment because by the year 1568, the religious squabbles between Catholics and Lutherans and anti-Trinitarians were so heated that the Transylvanian King, young John Sigismund, passed an Edict of Toleration, which required that religions accept each other.

It was the first time in history that religious liberty was legislated, and it enabled the unitarian leaders there to finally name themselves with a capital U. It was no longer just an idea, but a church. Unfortunately, the King died young, the next monarch was not at all sympathetic, and Frances Dávid was thrown into prison where he died, but there have been active Unitarian Churches in Transylvania ever since. (Recently, many of our North American UU congregations have become partnered with Transylvanian Unitarian congregations–some that are 400 years old–to support them in the very difficult circumstances that come with being part of modern Romania.)

There were other nests of Evangelical Rationalists around Europe in the 1500s, often centered around a courageous proponent, who frequently faced great risk for holding the anti-Trinitarian position. For instance, Faustus Socinus had been chased out his native Italy and led the Polish Brethren up there for many years until his house and papers were destroyed by an angry mob. Jacobus Arminius, another good Dutchman, promoted the concept of free will in the face of Calvinism, but his name was often used as a disparaging adjective, as in "There goes an Arminian heretic!"

And Miguel Servetus, a Spanish doctor, wrote a very controversial but well-reasoned book called "On the Errors of the Trinity," which so enraged John Calvin that he tricked Servetus into coming to Geneva, where Calvin had him burned at the state. (If you ever travel to Geneva, look for a monument near the city, put up by the so-called "Sons of Calvin," apologizing for burning Servetus.)

I can mention just these few notable figures who advanced the cause of liberal religion during the 16th century, even as they and their heretical ilk suffered great abuses by the reigning religious powers of their day. Maybe you can see how my earlier-mentioned reasons for building a strong historical consciousness come into play here. The Radical Reformers, especially the Evangelical Rationalists stood against the orthodoxy and paid large personal prices, but their work had an impact and was carried on. The meaning endured.

They planted seeds of religious liberty that blossomed beyond their own lifetimes. They worked hard to promote values that would outlive them. Despite ruthless oppression by Catholic and Protestant authorities, their liberal–and liberating–ideas lived on. In some countries, like Poland, there is almost no trace of their existence left. But in England, the Dissent movement took hold, eventually leaping the Atlantic and helping to evolve an experiment called American democracy, where separation of church and state became written into law–at least until our generation.

It seems that the more things change the more they stay the same. There are still fierce attacks on the principle of separation of church and state, despite even more evidence that it’s a dubious collaboration at best. As you probably know, there are many substantial and well-heeled groups attempting to fully "Christianize" our American democracy, which was so carefully constructed to productively balance government and religion, with the health of both in mind. But today, with a judiciary element increasingly sympathetic to such Christianizing purposes, we could be witnessing the unraveling of the grand design that set in motion our freedom of religion.

Certainly, some lessons from our liberal religious heritage suggest that Evangelical Rationalists will probably never become a majority. But without the kind of check such thinking can and should make on the orthodoxy, many of our valued freedoms could be quickly jeopardized, perhaps without recourse.

Unitarian Universalists in the modern era–some of you, perhaps–have been called heretics and worse, as if our beliefs were a plague. But the word heresy really means suggesting alternative choices. We are today’s Evangelical Rationalists. It is well to remember that once heretics like us were in severe physical danger. I hope–but refuse to assume–that those days are fully behind us.

If you think this church and others like it are mostly social organizations, think again. We are in a long, noble line of courageous dissenters, resisters and challengers of orthodoxy. Today, we are lucky to be defenders of an ongoing experiment in sanctioned religious freedom.

• If this identity has any meaning for you, meaning you want to endure;

• if you see any lessons from our liberal religious heritage;

• if you want to apply your personal resources so that your values will outlive you,

then I invite you to dedicate yourselves to our contemporary incarnation of the Radical Reformation: this UU church and the ones we call brother and sister congregations, as we hold in creative tension the present with the past, moving ever more effectively ahead toward a vision for the next month and this new millennium. It is really up to us to articulate a modern vision of religious freedom, religious reason and religious tolerance.

We do this for Frances Dávid, for Fautus Socinus and Miguel Servetus, honoring their "lives that speak and deeds that beckon." We do it for dedicated Paint Branchers no longer with us, like Isabel Weston, Fran and Al Herling, Tom Chapman; and for new generations of young Paint Branchers, like Montana and Milan Monardes, Clare and Paul Boston, and their teachers next door right now. And we do it for the children of our children.

For Church is a place where we can strengthen our capacity to remember, and apply that remembering to greatly assist our paths forward. We are indeed, "the future of the past, and in time we will be the past of the future." But for this present moment, "we come to this place of high purpose, a sanctuary which touches all other sanctuaries of our past, a past both personal and collective, whose faith and tradition we hold continually before us." [Quoted from the earlier Call to Worship, by Daniel Budd.]

One particular hymn, "Rank By Rank," has been sung again and again over numerous generations in countless official ceremonies that honor ministers and congregations. Each time any of us sing, "Join we now their ageless song," we are invited to explicitly reconnect with our fuller, timeless liberal religious community. This, in turn, reminds us that We Here Now are the current generation of caretakers of a long and living tradition.

Sing now, in (#358), this stirring refrain:

"One in name, in honor one, guard we well the crown they won;

What they dreamed be ours to do, hope their hopes, and seal them true."



"From the four winds gathered hither," again we stand, as people of this congregation have stood together for almost 50 years. We join them in the inspiring stream of this living tradition that sustains and challenges us. "From the dreaming of the night to the labors of the day, shines an everlasting light, guiding us upon our way."

We now leave this place of high purpose, of ever-new beginnings, perhaps with a sense of renewal, perhaps more ready to "stretch when the spirit says stretch," and "hope when the spirit says hope."

May your day be fruitful and your hearts be thrilled; may your lives among us be wonder-filled. May Thomas’ final Postlude among us echo in our appreciative hearts. And may we all find roots to hold us close and wings to set us free, as we stand and sing our closing Valediction, Spirit of Life…

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