So, what might hope look like for you? Maybe something fragile and insubstantial, like a big
soap bubble reflecting rainbow colors. Or maybe a comfy blanket you turn to when you’re cold,
or perhaps a finely tooled steel brace that helps you stand you’re feeling weak or uncertain.
I chose this occasion, when I want to introduce you to the esteemed Universalist preacher,
teacher, and prophet Clarence Russell Skinner, to play with the idea of hope because I think
that of all our forebears he offers us a singular challenge to come to terms with it.
Even though it’s been barely 70 years since his death, Skinner is not widely known among us.
Largely, I think that is because he died a good decade before the 1961 union of our two
movements – Unitarianism and Universalism. And with that union came a kind of reset in the
minds of many. History, in a sense, began in 1961.
Also, it’s true that at the time of the union the Universalists were by far the smaller
denomination and in many ways the Unitarians took charge. So, at least at first, Universalists
took a back seat and so did much of their narrative. In the years since that’s changed and we’re
investigating more and more of our Universalist past.
As it happens, this is an auspicious time of year to talk about Universalism, since years ago
this was when many Universalist churches used to celebrate the founding of their movement.
They called it John Murray Day, in honor the anniversary of the arrival of this founder
on American shores on September 30, 1770. So, for some years now I have chosen this time of
year to offer a sermon centered on some Universalist figure who I think highlights an important
part of that heritage.
From the time of his birth in 1881, Clarence Russell Skinner seemed destined for a public life.
His father was editor of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, several extended family members were
actors, and all were thoroughly Universalist. In fact, among his forebears going back three
generations, he counted three Universalist ministers.
Skinner himself leaned toward acting in college – St. Lawrence University, a Universalist school.
Instead, on graduating he was hired by a Universalist church, the Church of Divine Paternity in
New York City. Without a day in seminary, he began work as assistant minister. A couple of
years later he was ordained to the ministry and called to his first church in Mt. Vernon, New
The education that made the most difference to Skinner while serving the Mt. Vernon
congregation was not so much what he learned in the parish, but what he learned
in his outreach work in the settlement houses of New York City. While he had grown up in New
York, this was a side of the city that he hadn’t experienced: crowded, filthy tenements rife with
crime, vice, and corruption. And it lit a fire of outrage in him that never went out.
This also happened to be the time and place of the birth of the Social Gospel movement,
mostly Protestant clergy who argued for making improvement of social conditions the work of
the church. Skinner signed on with gusto and organized a meeting of New York ministers to
advance it called the Church Peace Union.
Skinner’s powerful preaching spurred growth at Mt. Vernon and in 1910 he left for a larger
church, Grace Universalist Church in Lowell, Massachusetts. There he organized the first church
forum in New England, inviting speakers of many disciplines – religion, politics, economics –
to address the topics of the day, and it drew enthusiastic audiences that filled the hall.
This young man, barely six years in the ministry, also helped form the Universalist Service
Commission, predecessor of our UU Service Committee, to identify social need and offer aid.
Then, barely four years later, never having attended seminary, Skinner was appointed to a new
position of Professor of Applied Christianity at Crane Theological School at Tufts University,
the premier training ground for Universalist ministers.
How to explain this astonishing rise? Well, Skinner was an impressive presence. Though people
found him introverted in person, he caught fire in the pulpit and in his writings. But also, the
Universalist Church was changing, looking outward in a way it hadn’t done in the past,
and for those leaders who promoted that trend, Skinner’s was just the kind of voice they were
But the Universalists may have ended up getting more than they bargained for when at the
start of World War I Skinner announced that he was a pacifist and opposed the war.
It was, as you might imagine, a minority position. In fact, outrage spilled across the
But Skinner’s defenders managed to protect him, even after he gave a speech in Boston’s
Fanueil Hall saying admiring things about socialism. Skinner was never really a socialist, but a
religious activist who had this grand vision of a united world community. And what other religion
is better equipped to hold such a vision, he argued, than Universalism? His own faith had a
mystic bent, a sense of what he called “a creative power” at the center of all things that called
us to universal sympathy.
In 1917 it was Skinner who wrote a Declaration of Social Principles adopted by the
denomination laying out the many ills facing the word and calling for:
– An economic order to give each person an equal share
– A social order assuring equal rights to all
– A moral order in which all law and action shall be “an expression of the moral order of
– And a spiritual order arising from efforts of all people to build a beloved community.
In 1920 Skinner founded a new institution to help make his vision real, the Community Church
of Boston. It was modeled after a similar church that Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes,
another pacifist, had started in New York City. In fact, he and Holmes collaborated in creating it.
It was actually more of a speaking forum, with lectures followed by questions, comments and
discussion. But it gained a strong following, with weekly attendance in rented halls eventually
totaling more than 1,200. And no wonder, given that its speakers included such luminaries as
Bertrand Russell, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Margaret Sanger, and it wrestled with topics like Sacco
and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro case and the Republican revolt in Spain.
Like Holmes’ church, Skinner’s Community Church had no denominational ties. And that wasn’t
especially a surprise, for while Universalists had long been generally progressive
most were not social activists.
Skinner was well aware this, and it frustrated him. In 1924 in the face of rebuffs for his views
Skinner aired his feelings in a widely circulated poem: “In Times of Disillusion.” In it he
acknowledged all the ways that people’s dreams were disappointed but insisted, “I still
proclaim the Vision Splendid, till it strikes God-fire in old and broken hearts, and urges on the
world to consummate its dream. God’s unsurrendered – so am I! Therefore, I will live and
communicate with hope. I light the candle and – I dream.”
The truth was, though, that many Universalist congregations at the time were small, country
churches struggling to get by. The population shift to the cities had cleared out many rural
areas, and as the Depression set in many of those Universalist churches were crushed and
Skinner, though, persisted. At Crane School, he was named dean in 1933. He was said to be
inspirational and engaging as a teacher and enrollment at the school grew, even as the
denomination shrank. Skinner also devoted more time to write such books as “Liberalism Faces
the Future” and “A Religion for Greatness.”
World War II was a difficult time for a pacifist like Skinner, but his greater trouble was a bout
with colon cancer. That brought about his retirement from Crane in 1945. He had surgery for
the cancer, but never really recovered, and he died in 1949 at the age of 68.
This returns us now to the question of hope and what Clarence Russell Skinner might have to
teach us. Let’s begin by turning back to the quote from Skinner that I read earlier: “We are so
made that we simply cannot escape the necessity of reaching upward and outward toward
something greater than ourselves,” he said. “Whatever the unseen and distant goals, we have
never lived a dreamless life, content to adjust our whole being to things as they are.”
No, he said, there is a fire, a hunger within us that brings forth what Skinner called “a radiant
hope.” Religious life of the past failed us, he said, because it demanded of people “submissive
belief” in ordained truths instead of kindling in people what he called “creative faith,” our
innate ability to find in the world, in ourselves the spark that guides us to unity and the source
of our wellbeing.
He called for cultivating what he called “unsurrendered persons” willing to join the
“adventure” of discovering what is called of us to bring about the world of those great
Universalist visions. The seeds of those visions, he insisted, are present in the people, in the
world around us. What was needed, he said, was the courage to own them and move them
It is a heartening perspective, but we also need to acknowledge that Skinner’s “onward and
upward” rhetoric can feel a bit dated today. In the 70 years since his death, we’ve learned more
about what depravity humans are capable of than we would care to know.
Is “radiant hope” a sensible orientation the world? Well, perhaps not, if that hope is grounded
in unrealistic expectations of ourselves or others to accomplish unprecedented, heroic feats to
change the world. Please! We have enough to beat ourselves up about. Perhaps not, if that
hope arises from a fantastical vision that hovers like that soap bubble I mentioned earlier but
finds no way to connect to the day-to-day world we inhabit.
No, I think Skinner invites us to a different way, one centered in his confidence in every
person’s capacity to find serenity and courage, to act from a heart held by love aware of and
grateful for the gift of life that each of us has been given.
Some years ago, in an essay referencing Skinner, the UU theologian Rebecca Parker noted how
many people struggle through disappointment to find some source of trust, of hope. And she
told the story of one terrible moment when she reached that place.
Much in her life had gone wrong. So, in despair, she decided she just needed to end it. She told
of leaving her apartment with determined steps, her face wet with tears, walking toward a lake
in a park near her home planning to walk into it.
Entering the park, she was surprised to see a number of dark objects blocking her way. She
didn’t remember them being there before. And as she got closer she noticed something else:
There were people moving among the objects.
Suddenly, she realized what she was seeing: telescopes. It was a meeting of the Seattle
Astronomy Club. Its members just happened to have set up their equipment that night because
the unpredictable skies were clear.
A little disoriented but still determined, Parker made her way through the group, until one
enthusiast, who assumed she had come to look at the stars, spoke to her. “Here, let me show
you,” he said and began to explain what he had focused his telescope on. Brushing her tears
away she peered in, and “there it was,” she said. “I could see it. A red-orange, spiral galaxy.”
And that was it. “I could not bring myself to continue my journey,” she said. “In a world where
people get up in the middle of the night to look at the stars I could not end my life.”
What was it Mary Oliver said? “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely The world offers itself
to your imagination.”
“Step into the center,” Marta Valentin invites us. “Come in from the margins. I will hold you
there. Don’t look back, or around. Feel my arms. The water is rising. I will hold you as you
tremble. I will warm you.”
The blessing of radiant hope is that it lives within each of us, and we are each other’s agents of
awakening. “In the tiny space where I end and you begin,” Marta said, “hope lives.”
Hope is that lifeline we each carry the possibility we see in ourselves and each other, the grace
we extend and receive. Let us be keepers and givers of such hope.