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

Leader Resource 3: Embracing the Religions of the World

In the Unitarian and Universalist traditions, there have always been individuals who express not only tolerance toward other's religions, but also acceptance of, curiosity about, and even embrace of faiths other than their own. First among these was Hannah Adams (1755-1831), a scholar, writer, and distant cousin of John Adams. Hannah Adams lived in Boston and was welcomed into the Unitarian circles of James Freeman, minister of King's Chapel, Joseph Buckminster, and Harvard College. In her study of religion, Adams became fascinated with the variety of sects and denominations. She embarked on a project to honestly describe various religions, their evolution and beliefs. In her memoir, she wrote that she undertook this project because

I soon became disgusted with the want of candor in the authors I consulted, in giving the most unfavorable descriptions of the denominations they disliked and applying to them the names of heretics, fanatics, enthusiasts, c.

Adams published two major volumes. The first described the variety of religious sects since the beginning of the Christian era. Then, in 1814, she published the ambitious A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan, Christian, Ancient and Modern. Her books were revolutionary for their time, and proved influential among theology students at Harvard. Ironically, in the words of one author, "her Compendia laid a foundation for the very theologians whose work then eclipsed her own."

While Adams' work was primarily informational, an attempt to objectively describe the religions of the world, the next generation of Unitarian theologians, the Transcendentalists, engaged with the world's religions and began to integrate the wisdom they gathered into their own thinking. The Transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, were among the first Westerners to read scriptures from religions that were non-Christian, including the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads, the Qur'an, Buddhist writings, and the teachings of Confucius. Their study of these scriptures offered new insights into both the commonalities and particularities of religious traditions and found their way into writings such as Emerson's "The Oversoul."

In 1841, James Freeman Clarke took a bold step, founding the Church of the Disciples in Boston, a free church dedicated to "common practical goals rather than common theological opinions." Clarke believed much good could be accomplished if the church existed to organize ethical activity but allowed individuals to differ on theological matters. Clarke's two-volume work, Ten Great Religions (1871-73), furthered both scholarship and interest in the world's religions.

Unitarians and Universalists took leading roles in planning the first World Parliament of Religions, held during the World Columbian Exposition (Chicago World's Fair) in 1893. It was the first international gathering of representatives of faiths from all over the world. Both Unitarians and Universalists saw the Parliament as a unique opportunity to showcase the unity and fellowship of all world religions. (For more information on the Parliament, see Workshop 14, Globalization)

By the twentieth century, more Unitarians and Universalists considered the idea of a basically non-sectarian congregation, welcoming to people of all faiths and bound by ethics or social action rather than a denominational identity. John Haynes Holmes, minister of the Church of the Messiah in New York City, embarked with his congregation on a bold experiment, becoming the Community Church in 1919. Holmes' aim, in his words, was to "take the situation as I found it in the city, and make my church an inclusive institution for all sorts and conditions of men." Holmes believed that to be truly welcoming to all required a "community church, dedicated to the services of those social and ethical ideals which must make humanity one in prosperity and peace." In worship, Holmes honored all religious traditions. He also assisted Clarence Skinner in founding the Community Church of Boston in 1920.

Perhaps the most forthright embrace of world religions from within our tradition came in the form of an experimental Universalist congregation at the Charles Street Meetinghouse in Boston. In 1949, the Massachusetts Universalist Convention invited Kenneth Patton to transform an early nineteenth century Federal style church into a home "for a universal religion." Patton combined his love and knowledge of the arts and religion to transform the space into a setting for a truly universal religion, one which would combine "the art, literature, idealism, philosophies, music and symbolism of all the world's religions into a religion for one world." Patton rearranged the traditional New England pews into circular seating, and added interior details of art and symbolism from the world's religions and from science—including a bookcase of world scriptures, a mural of the Great Nebula in Andromeda, and a sculpture of the atom.

Even as the Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist faiths have respected, studied, and welcomed the influence of the world's religions, there have recently been cautionary chords struck from both within and outside our tradition. Critics of Unitarian Universalism have sometimes mocked it as "the salad bar" religion, taking a bit of this and some of that, resulting in a faith that is "a mile wide and an inch deep." From within our own faith, it has been suggested that what is needed is an "increasing awareness... of cultural appropriation especially as it relates to spiritual rituals, symbols, and artifacts." These critiques and concerns indicate a deepening understanding that, while religions share much, they have as many differences as similarities, and we overlook those differences at our own peril.