Here are two stories of Unitarianism, Universalism, and Unitarian Universalism unexpectedly in the news which raised our name recognition across the country. For good or for ill? You decide.
The Last Blasphemer
Abner Kneeland (1774-1844) carried many banners through his lifetime: Universalist convert, minister, and evangelist; writer and editor; activist for progressive causes; and, perhaps most famously, convicted blasphemer. Though Kneeland's concerns and commitments may seem quite reasonable and even admirable today, they were not welcome in his own time.
Kneeland, the sixth of ten children, was born and raised in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. By 1801, he had joined a Baptist church in Vermont and was soon engaged as a lay preacher. After reading the works of Elhanan Winchester, he adopted Winchester's Universalist theology as his own. He also established a friendship with Hosea Ballou that weathered rough seas through Kneeland's changing beliefs.
Kneeland was ordained to the Universalist ministry in 1804, and subsequently served congregations in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. Though his career started in a promising way—he was credited with converting several orthodox preachers while serving in Langdon, New Hampshire, and was deeply involved in the work of Universalist conventions—a combination of theological doubts and political activism soon troubled the waters with the congregations he served, with his colleagues, and ultimately, with public officials.
Kneeland's theological doubts first centered on the Bible. He asserted that the scriptures came from human experience and were not revealed by a divine source. Kneeland moved further from institutional Universalism when he claimed the right to interpret the church's Articles of Faith in his own way. He was increasingly influenced in his ideas by utopian Robert Owen and communitarian Frances Wright, and advocated for more "free thinking" than the Universalists could abide. He was removed from the Universalist ministry in 1829.
By 1831 Kneeland had moved to Boston, formed the First Society of Free Enquirers, and was drawing 2,000 people to his Sunday morning gatherings and Wednesday evening lectures. In this setting, Kneeland not only preached his belief "that God and Nature, so far as we can attach any rational idea to either, are synonymous terms," but also advocated labor reform, women's rights, birth control, and a radical understanding of free thought and the right of conscience. When he published such contentions in the Boston Investigator, which he edited, he was charged with blasphemy by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for having "unlawfully and wickedly" published a "scandalous, impious, obscene, blasphemous and profane libel" of and concerning God. Most offensively, Kneeland had attacked his former religion, saying "Universalists believe in a God which I do not; but believe that their god, with all his moral attributes (aside from nature itself) is nothing more than a chimera of their own imagination." The line resulted in the charge of atheism, punishable by "imprisonment of up to one year, by the pillory, by whipping, or by being made to sit on the gallows with a rope around his neck." Kneeland defended himself, saying he was not an Atheist, but a Pantheist: "I believe that it is in God we live, move, and have our being; and that the whole duty of man consists ... in promoting as much happiness as he can while he lives."
Between convictions, hung juries and appeals, the charge of blasphemy dogged Kneeland, and kept both his name and Universalism in the press, for four years and five trials before the final conviction was upheld. Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing and 167 others—"the names read like a 'Who's Who' among the reformers and intellectuals"—drafted a petition to the governor for a full pardon, but to no avail. Kneeland served sixty days' jail time in Boston. Theodore Parker wrote about the final outcome:
Abner was jugged for sixty days; but he will come out as beer from a bottle, all foaming, and will make others foam... The charm of all is that Abner got Emerson's [Divinity School] address to the students, and read it to his followers, as better infidelity than he could write himself.
After his release, Kneeland's career in Boston was finished. He moved to Iowa to establish a utopian community, Salubria. He died there in 1844. No other person in the United States has ever been charged, tried, sentenced, or incarcerated for the charge of blasphemy.
AYS in the Public Eye
As the segment of CBS's "Public Eye with Bryant Gumbel" began, the camera panned across the New England countryside and dramatically zoomed in on the white clapboard church in a town center. The church was the First Parish (UU) in Concord, Massachusetts. The event that triggered Gumbel's visit involved the 20-plus-year-old human sexuality education program, About Your Sexuality (AYS).
The Reverend Diane Rollert recounts the events behind the story's broadcast on national news:
During my first year as the new (religious education) director, we had a very large class of 13- and 14-year olds participating in the program: twenty-two students with two teachers. Midway through the year, two sets of parents became upset about some of the program's visual materials.
In those days, the program for teens included a series of filmstrips. Filmstrips, for those of you too young to remember, were these long strips of film that were passed through a projector, one frame at a time—pretty much like looking at a slide show. No movement, just still photographs. Among these visuals, there was a filmstrip on anatomy, as well as several filmstrips on lovemaking. Yes, these were explicit, and yes they included straight, gay, and lesbian couples.
For a series of complex reasons, we had failed to show these materials to the parents. We had made a mistake, but by the time we rectified the situation it was too late. These two parents had launched a campaign to discredit the program, the minister, the chair of the religious education committee, and me. It was a hard time. Angry, accusing letters were sent all over town. Explicit details of the materials were printed in the local papers, and became a source of gossip on the soccer fields, at cocktail parties and coffee klatches. Everyone, I mean everyone, was talking about the Unitarian church and sex.
That summer we got word that a new television "news" magazine called "Public Eye" hosted by Bryant Gumbel had decided that a story involving a church, sex, and teens was the perfect foil for raising their ratings and viewership. Hello 15 minutes of infamy. Here we were in the heart of Puritan country, in a church with a history that went back to 1636, and we were about to be literally and figuratively exposed.
I'm proud of how the congregation handled the situation. We formed a task force. We began showing the filmstrips to all the adults in the congregation. We put the visuals into the context of the program and explained all the good reasons why these materials were used. That was a fearful time. What if the congregation was shocked and appalled by what they saw? What if this crisis pulled us apart? We lived in a puritanical and homophobic world. The conflict could have destroyed us.
As the congregation saw these materials and discussed them, the response was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. Yes, there were those who expressed their discomfort. But the majority remarked how wonderful it was to see normal people, not airbrushed, not frighteningly thin, expressing their love. How wonderful it was that we were speaking openly to our youth and providing them with accurate information...
In the end, 19 students remained in the class. When "Public Eye" made it clear they were only planning to interview the two aggrieved families, our task force succeeded in getting the producer to also interview the other families. The day the film team arrived in our fellowship hall, they were shocked to find ten parents and ten teens waiting for them. They'd never had to mike so many people for sound before.
Of course, sensational TV is sensational TV, and as contrived and biased as you can imagine. Out of an interview that lasted more than an hour, only a less-than-flattering sound byte or two remained. All the thoughtful comments of our youth and their parents were dropped on the cutting room floor.
A week or so before the show was to be broadcast, we called an open congregational meeting. We set up two microphones at the front of the sanctuary so that anyone could share their thoughts or concerns about the program and the upcoming broadcast. (My husband) David and I had tears in our eyes as a large group of our former students presented a signed document to the community expressing their support. "We have gained a greater understanding of our lives, sexuality and religion... We are proud to say our church has stood for open-mindedness for generations."
The next week, the staff and other members of the church gathered to watch our 15-minutes of fame. In a flash, it was over. The next thing we knew, the whole world was busy analyzing the meaning of the word "it" and the relationship of Bill Clinton to an intern named Monica Lewinsky. We were quickly forgotten. Though not entirely.
Suddenly, there were new families crossing our threshold. "Are you the church that isn't afraid to talk to kids about sexuality? Help! Our kids are so bombarded by sexual information on TV and the Internet we don't know what to do. When can we sign them up?"
"Are you the church that is open enough to talk about homosexuality with your children? Thank you. I can't imagine how different my life would have been if my church community had told me that I am loveable, that I have inherent worth and dignity."
We grew and strengthened as a community, and our children reaped the benefits.