Sermon: Southern Flame (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
Years ago Unitarianism was known as “the Boston Religion,” with its attention focused ever on New England. Today we’ll explore some of the stories of Unitarianism, Universalism and Unitarian Universalism in the South, where our impact may be less noted but is important all the same.


Gordon Gibson, who we heard from earlier, tells this story of a couple who moved from Washington, D.C., to Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s. The husband was standing on his lawn supervising the unloading of the moving van, when a car pulled up. A man emerged from the car and greeted the husband. He introduced himself as the minister of a nearby Baptist church and invited the couple to attend. The husband thanked the minister for the invitation but said they would be attending the Unitarian Universalist congregation in town. The minister hesitated for a moment and then said, “You know, they shot the minister of that church.”

The reception for Unitarian Universalists in the South has not always been so chilly, but the truth is that even today our numbers in this part of the country remain relatively small. For many reasons, those who seek to make a place for our faith in the religious landscape here can find it to be uphill struggle. And yet, as we know directly there many people here and across the South who hunger for religion in the kind of different key that we offer. At a time when congregations of other denominations are closing we are holding our own in this part of the country, with some congregations growing and new congregations being added. We believe there is room for growth here in western North Carolina, and you’ll be hearing more about that in the future.

Today, though, I want to acquaint you with a bit of the story of how liberal religion has made its way here and some of what I see as the promise of our chalice’s Southern flame. Our numbers in the South may be small, but it’s worth remembering that in some locations our roots go deep.

The first Unitarians in the South arrived as the early commercial centers were being developed – Charleston and New Orleans being prominent examples. In 1817, the Independent Congregational church of Charleston took on a Unitarian identity after one of its ministers announced that he been persuaded by the Unitarian theology of Joseph Priestley.

A couple of years later, that minister was succeeded by a Harvard-trained seminarian, Samuel Gilman, who had deep connections with the Unitarian establishment in Boston. Under Gilman, the church grew to prominence, serving some 400 members and prominent figures like the secessionist Senator John Calhoun. In 1854, Gilman goaded the congregation to remodel its building into the impressive structure that remains today. But the debate over slavery created difficulties. Gilman privately supported the union, but he and his wife had house slaves, and she was a public champion of slavery. His death in 1858 resulted in many years of turmoil for the Charleston church.

New Orleans followed a similar path. Theodore Clapp was called to the First Presbyterian Church in 1823, but soon after arriving began expressing his reservations about Calvinist doctrine. In 1832 the Presbytery convicted him of heresy and ordered him expelled.

But the congregation stuck with him and in 1837 declared itself Unitarian. Clapp was a popular speaker and was said to have a drawn a thousand or more on Sunday mornings. Unfortunately, he was also a vocal apologist for slavery, though he later shifted his position, arguing that the essence of religion was against slavery. But he opposed efforts at abolition.

Clapp retired to Kentucky shortly before the Civil War, though he was later buried in New Orleans. Lay members of the New Orleans congregation kept it alive, though: making it one of only two southern Unitarian groups to survive the war.

The experience for Universalists was different. The faith was spread largely through circuit-riding, saddle-bag preachers. But in a country dominated by Calvinists they encountered deep suspicion of hell-denying religion.

In some cases, towns where they found welcome had been seeded with Universalist thought of German Baptist settlers known as Dunkards. Dunkards, who shared the Universalist theology of salvation for all, immigrated to America in the early 18th century and many settled in the South. In those communities they would form the nucleus of early Universalist churches. Indeed, here in western North Carolina it appears that John Plott, who helped found a Universalist church in the Pigeon Valley in 1865 and persuaded James Inman to be its first minister, came from a Dunkard family.

It didn’t help that many viewed Universalism as a northern import that took a dim view of slavery. As it happened, though, as with the Unitarians, when the churches organized many of the new Universalists had no problem accommodating slavery.

This conflict developed into a rift that divided the denomination. In the end, few congregations survived the Civil War, and it took decades before the faith spread south again.

The late 19th century, then, was a time of rebuilding, although the Universalists devoted bit more attention to the task than Unitarians, whose outreach to the south was limited. Toward the end of the century, a self-designated Universalist missionary, Quillen Shinn, moved through the south planting several dozen small, rural churches. Many, though, were little more than family churches, and few endured very long.

It took until the middle of the 20th century for renewal to come in the South, and this time it came from the Unitarian side with what became known as the Fellowship Movement.

The way it worked is that ads would be placed publicizing Unitarianism and inviting anyone interested to meet a representative of the denomination. At the meeting, the representative would describe the religion and offer support for those who wanted to start a lay-led congregation. That describes the beginning of this congregation and many others. Check a directory of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the South you’ll find few with a founding date before 1940.

As Gordon Gibson points out in his book, Southern Witness, the post-war period of the late 1940s and early 1950s was transforming the entire country, but there was special pressure in the south. Many factors, including the return of soldiers from overseas, a booming manufacturing sector and new accessibility to college through the GI Bill, were stirring up what up to then had been an insular culture.

Lay-led fellowships appealed especially to those recent college graduates and transplants brought in by industry as well as locals who discovered, in the words of the advertisement of the time, they were “Unitarian and didn’t know it.” The early days were heady and liberating time, but some congregations got strong push-back for questioning traditional religious ideas, as well as long-standing social practices, and none of them more incendiary than racial segregation.

Where integration efforts were underway, the fellowships were often involved. These largely white congregations invited African-American speakers for worship and welcomed African-Americans as members. They started integrated daycare centers, joined voting rights campaigns, supported integrated schools and swimming pools.

We here were among them. We helped provide breakfasts and clothing for African-American children and registered blacks to vote. But for many congregations there was a cost: sometimes it was just estrangement from their neighbors, sometimes the cost was greater.

The incident I began with today is an example. The Rev. Don Thompson made a statement about his ministry when he arrived in 1963 as the first minister of the congregation in Jackson, Mississippi by also accepting the position on the Mississippi Human Relations Council created by the assassination of Medgar Evers. During his tenure, Thompson helped coordinate programs during Mississippi’s Freedom Sumer of 1964 and the summer after the Civil Rights marches in Selma in 1965 the congregation opened the first integrated Head Start program in Jackson.

On August 23, 1965 Thompson had just dropped an African American member of the congregation off at his apartment and emerged from his car in a parking lot near his home, when two shots rang out. One bullet missed. The other fractured his left shoulder.

Thompson survived and was determined to stay until FBI agents warned him that there was a credible threat on his life. And so he left. The congregation struggled without a minster for several years, having to sell its building and move to a small house nearby.

It’s a story that Gordon Gibson knows personally because he was the next minister to follow Thompson at that church. He arrived in 1969, staying for several years, as long as the church could pay him, and resigning when they couldn’t.

He spent the next seven years working for the federal Equal Opportunity Commission in Jackson until he returned as the congregation’s part-time minister from 1978 to 1984. You’ll get to hear more from Gordon this summer when he speaks here on August 9.

Few stories of UUs in the South from that time are quite so dramatic, but many aspects of the story in Jackson were mirrored elsewhere in quieter ways. And more often than not it was lay members, rather than ministers, who bore the brunt. Some were doctors who saw their practices dwindle. Others lost jobs or were threatened or abused. Some were involved in making history. We remember, for example, that Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is a one-time president of the UU Fellowship of Montgomery, Alabama.

Many were part of the demonstrations in Selma, including several dozen from Birmingham and Huntsville who joined a march on the Dallas County Courthouse demanding voting rights for blacks the day before Bloody Sunday.

Gordon argues that the history of the Civil Rights movement could be written without Unitarian Universalists. Our numbers were small and our influence fairly negligible, though there were places we made notable contributions.

The important lesson, he says, is not how we helped liberate African-Americans, but how being part of the Civil Rights movement helped liberate the European Americans that largely populated our congregations.

Those southern fellowships promoted an approach to religion that was open and accepting but also a crucible for dissenting ideas and religious questioning. They upheld values central to our identity – affirming the worth of each person, freedom, justice, equity, compassion and the interconnection of all things. As congregations they were sometimes quirky, sometimes warm, but the struggles they encountered forced them to test those beliefs over and over again. If the groups could endure – and not all did – their bond and their commitments were deepened.

That pattern is not far from what we saw recently in the struggle for marriage equality. Being tested as we were helped us get clear on just who we were and what we stood for.

It’s an experience that Gordon Gibson argues is not dissimilar to the lessons of liberation theology that emerged not long after this time in Central and South America. People who stayed with our fellowships, he said, were forced to adopt what was essentially a style of praxis: reflecting on their beliefs, articulating them, putting them into practice, and then returning again to reflection and so on, each step leading them deeper into their faith.

“Southern society,” he said, “by opposing many central Unitarian Universalist values forced southern Unitarian Universalists into a deeper understanding, a clearer formulation, a more passionate embrace of those values – often leading to an active practical expression or embodiment of those values.”

So, it’s interesting to reflect on the lessons that our movement’s southern experience has to teach us in our work today. To begin with, we learned that this is religion has staying power, even in the face of steadfast and sometimes violent opposition, and that key to that staying power is being openly engaged in the communities where we live.

We learned that living our faith is the path to strengthening and deepening it. So, we are wise today as a community to create opportunities for and invite each other into work that helps us get there, from the reflection within on our own centers of meaning, to the articulation among us in small groups that help center us and refine our thinking, to practice in the larger world that gives flesh to our convictions.

And we learned that community matters: when we have each others’ backs, when we say “Yes” to helping when we can, when we are ready with care and support for each other during the struggles we endure.

This is the Southern flame that we carry – the flame of refining fire that concentrates and focuses our wisdom, of illumination where there once was confusion, of witness that calls people to action, of compassion and abiding love for all.

This is how, as Rev. Hoover put it, we can learn from and build on the past. We can act, even when we can’t be sure of the results. We can endure pain and tears, frustration and confusion and know that if we stay true they will empower and transform us. Let that be our legacy.