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

Leader Resource 1: A History of Covenant

The free church tradition of which we are a part does not offer up a creed, a certain set of beliefs, that everyone must accept in order to belong to the community. Instead, the boundaries of our community are determined by commitment and participation. Our central question is not "What do we believe?" but rather "What values will we uphold and how will we do this together?" Our covenant, the promises we make to each other in regarding how to we will be a community of faith, is at the heart of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist.

The notion of covenant is an ancient one. It is a central theme of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. When the early Puritans came to America looking to form a new type of church, they chose to gather their churches using the ancient form of covenant. These first churches in America were created by mutual consent for mutual benefit in a time and place where survival depended on mutual cooperation, but they were not formed solely from need. They were also a reaction to a form of church organization that not only required everyone to subscribe to a certain set of beliefs and also put all power and control into the hands of a church hierarchy. It is important to remember that our freedom of belief is closely tied to our freedom of self-governance, or congregational polity (See Workshop 8, Gently Down the Stream — Polity).

By today's definitions, neither the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony nor the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony would be understood as either democratically governed or theologically diverse by today's definitions. They did, however, lay the basis for the values of congregational polity and theological diversity which ground our contemporary faith communities. The Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline written by the New England Puritans in 1648 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, describes the form this new church governance was to take. In The American Creed, Forrest Church paraphrases the Puritans' essential covenant as this:

We pledge to walk together

In the ways of truth and affection,

As best we know them now

Or may learn them in the days to come,

That we and our children may be fulfilled

And that we may speak to the world

In words and actions

Of peace and goodwill.

The Cambridge Platform goes on to define, in some detail, just what constitutes a church. Yet, this, a simple promise to walk together in the ways of truth and affection, remains the basis of the document.

The Puritans held a Calvinist theology; they believed that some people were elected for salvation by God. For the Puritans, a church was to be a voluntary gathering of select individuals who, by their "personall and publick confession" of a faith conversion and "blamless obedience to the word," were presumed to be among those chosen for salvation, the "Saints by calling."

While all who lived in the parish were expected at church services and gatherings, only those who were true members of the church, the Saints by calling, were admitted to communion, had a say in the affairs of the church, or had their children baptized. This led to problems, however, by the third generation, public professions of religious conversion decreased. In 1662, a synod of churches adopted the Half-Way Covenant in order to deal with the problem of falling membership. The Half-Way Covenant permitted not only the baptism of the children of Saints, as the Cambridge Platform had, but also baptism of the children of the children of the Saints. This was designed to keep the children within the community of the church with the hope that they would, one day, receive personal conversion. The Half-Way Covenant was controversial, but and ultimately did not solve the problems of dwindling conversion experiences and falling membership. The distinctions of election and sainthood fell away over the years, but the essential core of the Cambridge Platform remained. Churches still gathered by covenant, a voluntary and mutual promise to walk in the ways of truth and affection as best they were known. Over time, congregations adopted new wording to reflect their own covenants.

Around 1880, the Rev. Charles Gordon Ames, minister of the Spring Garden Unitarian Society in Philadelphia, wrote a covenant for his congregation. An adaptation can be found as Reading 472 in Singing the Living Tradition. In 1894 the Unitarian church of Evanston, Illinois, adopted the covenant written by its minister, Rev. James Vila Blake. This covenant, too, can be found in the current hymnbook, Singing the Living Tradition as Reading 473.

A survey taken of 459 Unitarian churches at the turn of the twentieth century showed that 90 churches used some variation of Ames' wording while 111 others used locally devised wording. In the book, Congregational Polity, Conrad Wright reports of these covenants that "some were highly theological, others purely business in character having no spiritual purpose, and still others 'evidently resurrected from the tomb of oblivion, for the benefit of the (survey).'"

A more recent survey, conducted by the UUA's Commission on Appraisal for their 2005 report Engaging Our Theological Diversity, asked congregations if they regularly used words of covenant in worship. Responses from 370 congregations showed that 42 used the words of covenant as penned by L. Griswold Williams or an adaption of them. Forty-one congregations reported using the covenant written by Blake, or an adaptation. Nine congregations said they used a covenant that combines the words of both Williams and Blake and four congregations reported using an adaptation of the Ames covenant.