The Prophetic Voice of Unitarian Universalist Ancestors by UUCA Lay Ministers
We speak today of prophetic voice.
In word, image, and song, we recall the deeds of our UU forebears in faith. We call them prophets for their vision and truth. Prophets are not soothsayers, but visionaries. Prophets are called—and call others—to justice, community, and action. They call us to new ways of being human.
The ancient prophets in scripture and myth were called by a divine voice, a burning bush, the spirit descending like a dove. They spoke truth to power. They condemned kings for unjust rule and shamed the rich for exploiting the poor. They also brought reassurance and hope: Comfort O Comfort my people…. Let justice roll down like waters… Blessed are the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and those who mourn.
So too with our UU prophets and saints, as we’ll hear today. But lest we use our history as an excuse to rest from striving, mark these words from our hymnal: to heed the direction of their vision.”
Your lay ministers call you today—to heed the direction of prophetic UU voices. We invite you to discern what calls forth your own prophetic voice.
MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (Dayna Wolhart)
I invoke the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft, prophetic voice for women’s rights. Mary, you were two centuries ahead of your time!
Born in 1759 in England, she lived in a time and culture that instructed women to be docile, decorative, and demure.
Mary, by contrast, was passionate, opinionated, unconventional, and intellectually gifted. She is best known for her book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which she argued that women are not inferior to men. Her writings advocated that women have access to education, independence, physical exercise, and partnership rather than subjugation in marriage.
“Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it,” she wrote, “and there will be an end to blind obedience; but, as blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists endeavor to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves, and the latter a play-thing.”
When Mary was growing up, she struggled to get an education. Fortunately she was mentored in key ways by other women, who gave her books and discussed them with her.
As an adult, Mary chafed at the limited earning opportunities open to women. She founded a school in Newington Green, where she attended the Unitarian church. Though she remained enrolled as an Anglican, Mary was inspired by Unitarian preaching, and made friends with educated women and men.
If Mary was originally called to prophecy by her experience of scrabbling for an education and an income, she was catalyzed by her Unitarian experience. She became an author and made her living that way. She wrote novels, treatises, a travel narrative, a history of the French Revolution, a conduct book, and a children’s book.
Above all, Mary was adamant that women should receive as rigorous an education as men. She wrote, “Women, considered not only as moral, but rational creatures, ought to endeavor to acquire human virtues by the SAME means as men, instead of being educated like a fanciful kind of HALF being.”
Mary, we dedicate your prophecy to all the girls who are still denied an education, simply because they are girls. May your words continue to inspire those who most need to hear them.
CHARLES DARWIN (Howard Rees)
The publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in 1859 was one of the most important achievements of our millennium. Darwin’s observations led him to conclude that biological species evolve over time as a result of small incremental genetic changes that impart some adaptive benefit, thereby giving offspring who carry that trait a competitive advantage in the struggle for survival. He called this process “natural selection.”
Darwin’s theory of common descent did for biology what Galileo did for astronomy: made it into a single science rather than a collection of unrelated facts. His ideas also shook the foundations of religious tradition.
We Unitarians are fond of claiming that Darwin was one of us. Although he was baptized in the Anglican Church as an infant, his mother was a devout Unitarian and his father and grandfather were non-believers; today, we’d call them “nones.”
When the young Darwin dropped out of medical studies after two years, he decided he wanted to become a clergyman, so he studied theology for three years at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He later wrote that his intention to enter the ministry was never “formally given up, but died a natural death” when he left Cambridge and accepted an offer to accompany Capt. FitzRoy aboard the HMS Beagle as a naturalist. That five-year voyage would change his life, and with it the course of life science.
While at sea, reading Lyell’s Principles of Geology, Darwin wrote, “I came to see that the Old Testament was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindus or the beliefs of any barbarian.” In his 30s Darwin became skeptical of Christianity, noting that Gospel accounts showed that they were not written simultaneously with the events. At 40, Darwin finally gave up on Christianity.
At 70, Darwin wrote: “I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that … an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.” Many of us today can identify with Darwin’s religious journey.
Although religious conservatives greeted Darwin’s revolutionary ideas with ridicule in his time and even today, I am grateful for his beautiful, parsimonious concept of evolution, which revolutionized our view of nature and man’s place within it.
FRANCES WATKINS HARPER (Kay Golan)
Frances Watkins Harper was born in 1825 to free African American parents who made sure she was well educated. She is one of our Unitarian Universalist ancestors who choose to speak out, to express her inner muse, her prophetic voice through her poetry and writing as well lectures about the value of education for African Americans, appearing with Frederick Douglass, William Garrison, Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone.
At 20 she published her first poetry.
At 29, she wrote her most well know poem
“Bury Me In a Free Land,”
I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.
Fortunately she lived to see the US abolish slavery but died in 1911 years before women could vote–her other social justice passion.
She was the first African American woman to publish a short story in the US.
After the Civil War, she wrote poems and her most famous work the novel Iola Leroy (1892) about her experiences working in the south during reconstruction. Which by the way you can download for free from Amazon.
Like many of us, Frances was nurtured in and always honored her childhood religion…for her the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, BUT chose the Unitarian faith, because her theology had become more inclusive AND a Unitarian church provided more opportunity to advance her causes.
Also, like many of us, she was a woman who struggled to balance her career with marriage and a family, with drawing from public life while raising children.
Why is she relevant today? I suggest that she is an icon for many UUs who hear and express their prophetic voices through art. My head is informed by logic but my heart is stirred by an artistic piece – a sculpture or painting, a play, a novel, a poem, a song or performance. Even pop culture, movies and TV shows help society begin to accept once controversial diversity and changes.
We UUs have many creatives among us. Historically, from Charles Dickens to Rod Serling to the present at UUCA where we are literally surrounded by art in the hallway thanks to member Ruth Gogel and moved weekly by our own choir director, choirs, Gross’s .
So let us remember that your prophetic voice can be expressed in art, music, and every day life.
RAMMOHAN ROY (Nina West)
When I began looking at the list of people we claim as Unitarian and/or Universalist, I became curious about Rammohan Roy from the Bengal region of India.
Roy was born in 1772 in India. He co-founded the Calcutta Unitarian Society in 1821 and funded the Unitarian Press, publishing in English and Bengali. He believed in the unity of God, and referred to himself as a Hindu Unitarian. His universalism had deep religious roots and he thought that common sense and scientific research led “to the conclusion that all mankind are one great family.” He wanted people to be rooted in their own cultures while allowing space for the richness of human experiences to be shared.
Roy believed in education for the people of India, including women. He challenged traditional Hindu culture, advocating an end to the inhumane practice of sati, where widowed women burned on the funeral pyre with their deceased husbands. He believed that Jesus was a revered prophet and moral teacher, but not God and thus His rejection of Trinitarianism got him in trouble with Christians.
As a child growing up in this congregation, one of the lasting messages from my religious education was a deep imperative, for “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I don’t remember anyone specifically saying that to me, and at the time our Principles and Purposes had not been written down but that was the essential message I retained.
This search for truth and meaning has led me to the richness of the arts of India and of studying the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. I recognize in Roy a kindred spirit. He was a monotheist Hindu Unitarian in India. I am a Unitarian with a strong interest in Hinduism.
Roy greatly valued thought and reason, but his belief in goodness was demonstrated in his efforts to abolish sati as well as other social reforms and good works. He believed that knowledge of the Almighty Power, that he would have also called Brahman, was available to everyone. Like Rammohan Roy, I value intelligence and reason, qualities in everyone, formally educated or not. And that it is important to balance that with compassion for each other, allowing us room both to be rooted in our own cultures and curious to know the richness of others’ cultures.
CHRISTOPHER REEVE (John Clum)
Half a century ago, I was woefully miscast as the lead in a dreadful production of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. On stage with me was an eager ten-year-old boy having the time of his life. His name was Christopher Reeve.
There’s a term used in the study of Greek tragedy –PERIPETEIA – a fancy word for reversal. A man starts the play as a king and ends as a blind beggar banished from the kingdom. The crucial question is “What has he learned?”
Christopher Reeve experienced such a reversal. He was born into privilege and had looks, brains and talent. At age 24, he was a star. SUPERMAN!
Reeve wanted to be taken seriously as an actor. After the four SUPERMAN movies, he took roles in small, serious films and appeared on Broadway as a paraplegic gay Vietnam War veteran in FIFTH OF JULY. A student of drama would say there was foreshadowing there.
Reeve always exercised his social conscience. Among other things, he used his private plane to ferry dissidents out of Chile during the brutal Pinochet regime. And he was devoted to his wife and children.
Then, peripateia — a horseback riding accident that left him paralyzed, dependent on breathing tubes and a wheelchair. A man who loved physical activity couldn’t move. A test of character.
Always an activist, Reeve used his celebrity to speak and raise money for spinal research and to campaign for the rights of the severely injured and disabled. He battled insurance companies who would not cover spinal injury. It took tremendous effort to make public appearances, but he persevered courageously. His two books are chronicles of a battle against an unresponsive body in constant pain and against despair.
After his accident, Reeve, who had always been skeptical of religion became a Unitarian-Universalist. He wrote: “Gradually I have come to believe that spirituality is found in the way we live our daily lives. It means spending time thinking about others.”
We tend to be more concerned with the people who never had any opportunity. But for many of us, it is reversal we have to fear, reversal that will test us. That reversal is likely to be the result of illness or injury or the diminishing of faculties that can come with age. After losing the use of much of his body, Christopher Reeve learned to live life as fully as he could in the service of his family and people who suffered as he did but didn’t have his personal resources. He accepted peripeteia with grace and courage. The man who played the man of steel teaches us that, one way or another, we’re all likely to be attacked by Kryptonite. Sooner or later, we’re likely to have to wage a battle against our own failing bodies or minds. I find Reeve’s waging of that battle to be inspiring.
WHITNEY YOUNG (Charlene Hurt)
“Together, blacks and whites can move our country from racism and create for the benefit of all of us an open society, one that assures freedom, justice and full equality for all.” That was the prophetic vision of Whitney Young, Jr. who lived out that prophetic vision at our parent United Liberal Church from 1954 to 1961, while he was Dean of the School of Social Work at Atlanta University.
He and his family previously attended a Unitarian Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. At UUCA he became a Board Member and persuaded the church to stop having annual picnics at segregated parks. He also delivered sermons and worked with the Southern Regional Conference. He became involved in various UUA initiatives, including UUSC and the Commission on Religion and Race, and he remained an active Unitarian the rest of his life.
From an early age Young had a talent for leading and getting along with all people. His primary fame is as the Executive Director of the National Urban League, where his goal was to create more jobs for black people. He initiated programs like “Street Academy,” an alternative education system for high school dropouts and “New Trust,” training to help local black leaders identify and solve community programs. The League had 38 employees when he started – that went up to 1,600. To do that he worked with black leaders and wealthy white businessmen, for which he was criticized by some blacks.
He worked with Presidents of both parties, especially Lyndon Johnson, who awarded him the Congressional Medal of Freedom. Ronald Reagan asked him to be a cabinet member (he said no). He was a prominent leader in the March on Washington.
I learned about Whitney Young one night while listening to NPR program on my way home from UUCA, and wondered why I’d never heard of him. Then I remembered seeing things in our archives with his name on them. Our fellow member, Jean Harsh, who knew him, said “I have no doubt that Whitney Young helped shape our congregation. I would like to think that we also may have helped shape him – the person many thought would be this country’s first black Vice-President.” She also said that Whitney didn’t have any anger in him.
He died of a heart attack at the age of 49 after swimming in Africa. I believe his vision would have been more fully realized had he lived a longer life. Just imagine a world where “Every man is our brother, and every man’s burden is our own.”