Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Handout 2: Of Madmen and Martyrs

Excerpted from "Of Madmen and Martyrs: A Unitarian Take on Knoxville," a blog post by Sara Robinson published July 28, 2008 on the Orcinus website. Used with permission.

We are an odd group, we Unitarians.

Conventional wisdom says that we're soft in all the places our society values toughness. Our refusal to adhere to any dogma must mean that we're soft in our convictions. Our reflexive open-mindedness is often derided as evidence that we're soft in the head. Our persistent and gentle insistence on liberal values is evidence of hearts too soft to set boundaries. And all of this together leads to a public image of a mushy gathering of feckless intellectuals that somehow lacks cohesion, backbone, focus, or purpose.

You can only believe this if you don't know either the history or the modern reality of Unitarian Universalism. The faith's early founders, Michael Servetus and Francis David, were executed for the radical notion that belief in the Trinity—which excluded Muslims and Jews—should not be a requirement for participation in 16th-century public life. Four hundred years later, in the same part of the world, other Unitarians died in concentration camps for having the courage of their humanist convictions. Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old mother from Michigan who was killed by the Klan in the days following the Selma march in 1965, was one of ours, too.

And then there are the thousands of us who lived to fight another day—surviving not because we were weak and indecisive, but because we were unshakable in our convictions and unwilling to back down out of sheer cussedness. That Unitarian-bred belief in the nobility of the human spirit was the spiritual foundation on which a plurality of America's founders found sure footing as their convictions crystallized into revolution against tyranny. It fueled the passionate oratory of Daniel Webster, the wisdom of Ben Franklin, and the incisively clear writings of Tom Paine. It sent Paul Revere out into the cold of an April evening, and set Thomas Jefferson to the task of writing a Declaration. It recklessly bet the church's entire existence—and the lives of its leaders, who willingly and knowingly committed a capital act of treason—in order to publish the Pentagon Papers.

When you sign up to become a UU, this is the legacy you take on, and from then on attempt to live up to. It's not God's job to make the world a better place. It's yours. This has never been work for the faint of heart, mind, or spirit—and in this era of conservatism gone crazy, it still isn't.