The Awesome Power of Apparent Insignificance in Religious History

Rev. Dr. John MorganBy Rev. Dr. John Morgan

This article is composed of selections from a lecture given at the Universalist Convocation in Shelter Neck, North Carolina, October 20-21, 1990. The lecture was originally published in its entirety in a booklet of Universalist Convocation 1990 Readings.

Two hundred years ago, seventeen brave spirits tried to give flesh and bone to a different vision — one held in stark contrast to the prevailing theology of the time. This was an apparently insignificant gathering of Universalists in Philadelphia. Except perhaps for Benjamin Rush, claimed by at least six other denominations, and John Murray, claimed by us, none of the other names are ones we might remember today: Nicholas Cox and Artis Seagrave, Duncan McClain and David Evans.

Yet these seventeen persons in a short period of time formulated a doctrine of a church and a theological platform for future Universalists. A new vision had been born, and its power would capture the hearts and minds for at least another hundred years.

Now… The body of Universalism is bruised; let us not create any illusions about this. Some of us who love the Universalist tradition are as much guilty of wounding our faith as those who would rather Universalism disappeared… I remember Tom Paine’s words here: “The opposite of belief is not unbelief; the opposite of belief is indifference.” And indifference to our faith has often been our collective sin.

Yet, what I want to say to you is this: There is awesome power in apparent insignificant groups in the history of religious movements. The stories of George de Benneville and John Murray and Thomas Potter and Olympia Brown testify to this truth. Don’t for a second judge Universalism today by its body; look to the heart, and see whether or not it still gives warmth and heat. …

There are resources within us upon which we need to draw. There is new life in our midst, if we touch hearts and stir souls. …

In religious movements, change takes place at the periphery — not the center. I am not sure of much about religious history, but of this truth I am convinced. So let me repeat it again: In religious movements, change takes place at the periphery, not the center. … God is in the details and often what appears at the time to be insignificant is later shown to be revolutionary. …

It is those on the outside, the borders, the rim of power, who envision the future and from whom the future emerges. They may seem insignificant at the time — but, in the terms of biologist and geologist Stephen Jay Gould, they represent the “awesome power of apparent insignificance in history.” …

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying the center has no meaning. It certainly does. Without the center, without traditionalists, there would be no faith against which to rebel. All I am suggesting here is that the changes in religion are deceptively insignificant at the time change is taking place. We don’t often see changes for years, sometimes for generations. The changes are at the periphery, among small groups who have seemingly little power and do not usually command much attention.

If you think about most world religions, you will see that newness in the faiths comes from the periphery — not the center. I think about Jeremiah ranting against the temple religion of Israel and talking about a new covenant. Jeremiah, the outcast, predicting the demise of his own religion. And I think about the disciples of Jesus. Could anyone have predicted that from such a motley group of outcasts — tax collectors, fishermen, and prostitutes — a new world faith would eventually emerge? Maybe there is truth in what liberation theologians have been telling us for years: God favors outcasts and the poor and oppressed, because here is where the kingdom is breaking with power.

As I think about change, religiously speaking, I am also aware of a few realities. First, those who bring the change are never welcomed by those in the center. In fact, some of the most sordid religious history of all concerns what those in power do to those who seek to bring a new faith. Jesus was crucified. Jeremiah was put in prison. Paul was imprisoned. In our tradition, the 1790 Philadelphia Universalist Convention organizers couldn’t find a church open to them; John Murray couldn’t speak in many pulpits; Joseph Priestley’s home in England was burnt, and in America they didn’t treat him much better. And the list goes on and on. Those in power don’t like change — because they might lose the very power they worship. And those who are the change agents had better accept the crosses they must bear.

Second, over time, the periphery becomes the center. This means that change comes no matter the odds, and eventually those on the edge move to the center — and the process starts all over again. The powerless become the powerful, and a new generation of misfits and outcasts must rise against the power of the old revolutionaries. If you doubt this, look at what’s happening to the religion of Marxism in our time: The edge has become the center, and now a new faith is emerging that will confront the center.

Third, and here is what seems hopeful to me: Don’t look to where power now exists for a picture of the future. Look to the fringes, the peripheries, the outcasts, the powerless. My faith tells me that here is where the spirit of God moves, and sometimes we don’t know it for generations. But you can feel it and you can get in step, even if you can’t fully rationalize what’s happening. …

Universalism is on the periphery; its churches are small and struggling, its membership dwindling. Its theology often seems addressed to another age and its proponents usually spend more time thinking about past glories than the future. For all these I have hope. Change does not take place at the center, but the periphery. …

Does all this sound paradoxical? Yes, I suppose it is paradoxical. How could anyone possibly assert that a dying faith, greatly reduced in numbers and strength, could lead the renewal of a religious movement into the next century? Indeed. How could one possibly assert that a band of misfits — tax collectors, fishermen, prostitutes — could be the leaders of a major world religion, especially after the founder had just been crucified? How could one assert that a preacher fleeing England to find solace in the new world could land on the New Jersey shores, find a meetinghouse already built, and lead in the creation of the Universalist Church in America [as John Murray did]? For that matter, as I think of myself — the descendent of at least four generations of relatively famous evangelical preachers and circuit riders — and now a modern circuit rider for a faith my famous grandfather, G. Campbell Morgan, would have considered a heresy — how much more paradoxical can I get? I remember what the 18th century Universalist George de Benneville used to say, “If God can save me, God can save everyone.” And I can say the same. …

Somehow in the mystery of history, God creates special spaces in time where something unique happens — call it kairos, or a different quality of time. In these places, people gather. They do not gather for themselves alone, but for the sake of the world — that the world might know a better way. I think this describes what motivated some of the earliest Universalists in this country, especially those who stood against slavery and for women’s rights or, as was the case with George de Benneville, the rights of Native Americans. I do not claim to be a prophet or really to understand how this creative process takes place; but I know the time when I feel it, and I feel that the time is here for a small remnant, a Universalist remnant, to form once again. I may be separated by time and death and circumstance from those early Universalists who in 1790 had the courage to begin a new religious movement, but I am not separated from their faith. They had the wisdom and vision to gather people around the passion of a Universalist faith. And what is this faith? George de Benneville put it simply: “Preach the universal and everlasting gospel of boundless, universal love for the entire human race, without exception, and for each one in particular.” …

As Universalists, we have a great and historic identity that I fear is becoming lost to future generations. Our mission must include a commitment to understand and renew our identity. … Let me begin by suggesting to you that apathy is the real problem we face and that hope is the remedy. That’s my analysis in a nutshell. What will make us come alive again is not necessarily money or public relations, but commitment based on hope. Hope is the push of the past and the pull of the future. And hope, in our terms, is the power of our faith to touch the heart and transform reality.

There are three activities I think we Universalists must undertake as we enter the 21st century, if we wish to revive ourselves:

1. We must renew our roots. This means to me that we must seek to recapture our own history and identity before it disappears. …

2. We must reinvent our context. What I mean by this is that we need to stop thinking of Universalism as a relic from the past and start thinking of ourselves as a religion emerging for the 21st century. …

3. We must revitalize our mission. This is the crucial element. We must do something, and not just talk about doing something. … We can do something truly revolutionary for the next century — we can once again start new congregations that are grounded in our Universalist tradition. Imagine what a beacon of hope would be lit if Universalists would start new congregations! …

Let me add one final brief note about what we need to lose before we can gain. We will need to lose our sometimes jealous sense that only our convention or our congregation knows best. We will need to cooperate and give up some of our power so that others can share in our faith. …

If, in your heart, you believe Universalism can make a difference, and if you have the courage to commit yourself to this vision, then it makes no difference if we start with six or 25,000 persons. It only matters that we begin.

Editor’s Note: Since 1990, Universalism has made great progress, spreading to increasing numbers and types of Christians. John Morgan’s prophetic words remain highly relevant today.

This article was published in the May-June 2007 issue of The Christian Universalist Connection. Rev. Dr. John Morgan is a professor, author of several books, and former Unitarian Universalist minister and church planter. He served as Vice Chair of the Christian Universalist Association in 2007-2008.