God is still speaking.
[Charles West Cope, Pilgrim Fathers Leaving Delft]
PeaceBang has drawn a lot of responses to her post about the UCC’s new slogan, “God is still speaking”. What I’d like to explore here is the backstory, which many UUs may not be aware of, but which explains why their slogan would catch our attention.
The oldest congregation in the UUA is First Parish Church in Plymouth, Mass. It was first gathered (in secret, to avoid persecution for heresy) in 1608 in Scrooby, England, spent a few years in exile in Holland, and migrated to the New World in 1620 aboard the Mayflower in pursuit of the freedom to worship openly.
Around 1800, in one of the earliest outbreaks of what would later be called the “Unitarian Controversy”, the Plymouth church divided, with the liberal faction remaining in First Parish and the stricter Calvinist faction forming a new church that is now affiliated with the UCC. Because of this schism, both the UUA and UCC now trace their earliest origins in North America to the Pilgrims of Plymouth.
What this dry old history means to us today is that, contrary to the intuition of many contemporary UUs, the Mayflower Pilgrims were UUs too. Well, proto-UUs. Liberal Calvinists. Free-thinking dissenters branded as heretics. A hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago, when Unitarianism was arguably at its zenith, it was the Pilgrims, not Theodore Parker or Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Unitarians all looked to as their denominational exemplars. The Pilgrims truly have a more rightful place on the Famous UUs list than many of the names who are actually there. (Which makes for great elevator speeches about who we are, by the way.)
And what exactly did these early religious liberals believe that set them apart from more rigid Christians? Here’s Governor Edward Winslow of Plymouth writing in 1646, recalling the farewell sermon given by their pastor John Robinson, who had remained behind in Holland in 1620 and died before he could rejoin his congregation in the New World:
We were now, ere long, to part asunder; and the Lord knoweth whether ever he should live to see our faces again. But … he charged us, before God and his blessed angels, … if God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it, as ever we were to receive any truth by his Ministry. For he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.
He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed Churches, who were come to a period [full stop] in religion; and would go no further than the Instruments of their Reformation. As, for example, the Lutherans: they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw, for whatever part of God's will He had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it. "And also," saith he, "you see the Calvinists. They stick where he left them, a misery much to be lamented.
"For though they were precious shining lights in their Times, yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living," saith he, "they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light as that they had received."
Here also, he put us in mind of our Church Covenant; at least that part whereby "we promise and covenant with God and one another to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us…," but withal exhorted us to take heed what we received for truth; and well to examine and compare and weigh it … before we received it. "For," saith he, "it is not possible … that full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once." [Emphasis added.]
“The Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word”. That is the pastoral charge that would form the foundation of what are now two entire denominations, the UUA and the UCC. That is the understanding that informed the original covenants of so many of the oldest congregations in both denominations, with their expressions of devotion to truths yet to be known. And it is the source of many subsequent paraphrases in both denominations, such as these 19th-century examples:
It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake.
(Unitarian minister and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his Divinity School Address)
New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward,
Who would keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her campfires!
We ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly
Through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future's portal
With the Past's blood-rusted key.
(Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell, from his poem "The Present Crisis")
We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind --
By notions of our day and sect – crude, partial, and confined:
No, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred,
For God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word.
(Congregational layman George Rawson, from his hymn “We Limit Not the Truth of God”)
Reason's noble aspiration
Truth in growing clearness saw;
Conscience spoke its condemnation,
Or proclaimed the eternal law.
While Thine inward revelations
Told Thy saints their prayers were heard,
Prophets to the guilty nations
Spoke Thine everlasting Word.
Lo, that Word abideth ever;
Revelation is not sealed;
Answering now to our endeavor,
Truth and right are still revealed.
That which came to ancient sages,
Greek, Barbarian, Roman, Jew,
Written in the soul’s deep pages,
Shines today, forever new.
(Unitarian minister Samuel Longfellow, from his hymn “Light of Ages and of Nations”, #190 in the grey hymnal)
So, when in the 21st century the UCC undertakes a new outreach program with the slogan “God is Still Speaking,” it’s only natural that their phrase would resonate with many UUs as well. After all, the understanding that it expresses is not new to the UCC or unique to them; rather, like some of our own favorite UU slogans, it’s a restatement of a bedrock principle that we UUs have always held in common with them.