To love and to all friends I will sing, I will sing, to love and to all friends I will sing.
To love and to all friends who pain and sorrow mend, with thanks unto the end I will sing,
I will sing, with thanks unto the end I will sing.
These are the words of the American folk hymn, What Wondrous Love Is This. The hymn was composed during the Second Great Awakening (1790–1840).
This revival movement set the tone for “democratization” in American religion; with people coming together in camp meetings across gender, race, and class lines. Women and young people were the majority participants in this movement. In this period, African Americans reshaped the Christian message into one supporting freedom for those enslaved. At this time, new Christian religions were born (Seventh Day Adventists, Latter Day Saints for example) and US Jewish congregations also grew in number. Theologically, there was less focus on an angry God and a turn toward humility and forgiveness as central to a faithful life. And an emphasis on love—loving your neighbor. With this belief, social reform and social activism movements took root.
This love ethic is central to the Universalist roots of our UU faith tradition. As the Universalists say, “Love that won’t let you down, Love that won’t let you go, Love that won’t let you off.” But the Unitarians of the 19th century, deeply distrusted religious revivals. They did not trust the emotionalism of the camp
meetings. They criticized the “display” of religion, the sudden conversation experiences, preferring a more rational approach to religion. Perhaps, they also were unsettled by the “democratizing” —19th century Unitarians were predominately White, upper-class, educated, and male-led. Unitarian leaders at the time may have been determined to maintain a social order where they were at the top. We can be less weary of change and openness than our 19th century religious ancestors. May we, now, explore our Unitarian Universalism—which can hold both love and reason.
But the centrality of love is again a part of our UU community conversation. Our proposed revised language for the UUA Principles claims that “Love is the power that holds us together and is at the center of our shared values.” We can be grateful for this, our communal, supportive, and liberating love. May we shape our communities in ways which express this love in action.
Submitted by Rev. Dr. Natalie Maxwell Fenimore, Lead Minister and Minister of Lifespan Religious Education