Some of Our Unitarian and Universalist Martyrs

“Unitarian and Universalist Martyrs”

Sermon and Worship Service for

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of

Columbia, South Carolina

January 22, 2017

The Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister


Opening Words [Richard Le Gallienne]:

“All religions have periods in their history which are looked back to with retrospective fear and trembling as eras of persecution, and each religion has its own book of martyrs.”

Musical Call to Worship [Elizabeth Harris]

The Morning Reading: “the lesson of the moth,” by Don Marquis

i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter

it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for

it is better to be happy
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter

i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish

there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself



Hymn #123 “Spirit of Life”

Sermon: “Unitarian Universalist Martyrs”

Next Sunday evening, here at the church, there will be a Cabaret, with live music from favorite Broadway shows, delicious hors d’oeuvres and desserts, and a raffle. I hope that many of you can join us. The Cabaret will also be a fundraiser for our Partner Church Committee’s noble efforts to foster caring relationships between our congregation and our sister church in Transylvania. That committee has devotedly kept us connected to our denominational past, the historic Unitarians in Transylvania. In 1990, when the Berlin Wall fell, and Eastern Europe opened up, UU congregations in the United States were invited to “partner” with a Unitarian congregation in Romania. I am so proud to say that this congregation was one of the first to sign up. These “partner church” relationships are mutually rewarding, enriching, and enjoyable. Our members have received so much enrichment and inspiration from coming to know the members and ministers of the Beszterce Unitarian Church, our partner church since October of 1990. Recently, I have been learning more about UUCC’s Partner church committee. I attended the slide show of their trip to Transylvania last August. Narrated by Tony Ganong, with additional commentary by the “twelve pilgrims,” the presentation was informative and entertaining. And the turn-out was impressive–  at least 40 people! Our Partner Church committee provides us with opportunities to help our sister congregation, especially with their building’s maintenance needs. The donations we sent to them last year contributed toward a car for their minister, and a handrail for their church’s stairway. We are the main source of outside help for that church during these very difficult economic times in their area of Eastern Europe. So please join me and “Come to the Cabaret, Old Friend!”

And I encourage you to look at the website and newsletter of the UU Partner Church council. Their Executive Director, the Rev. Roger Bertschausen, wrote, in his recent column, that their slogan is, “The Most Radical Thing We Can Do is Introduce People to One Another.” He then added, “And then we need to act on the insights and lessons from this radical thing, wherever we live.”

I also recently read a column by one of my UU minister mentors, the Rev. Tom Schade, on his blog called, “The Lively Tradition.” His post from October 19, 2014, is called, “Fighting for the Seven Principles.” He also suggests ways that we Unitarian Universalists could be more radical. Rev. Schade writes:

“Some say the Unitarian Universalist Principles are bland generalities that could be affirmed by any Rotary Club. They are not!  Many Unitarian Universalists put them up on the wall of their sanctuaries. They recite them as Responsive Readings in worship services. And other people put the same principles on banners and carry them in the streets, because they challenge the status quo and the powers that be.” Tom then listed our Seven Principles, each with a corresponding photograph, creating a powerful display of progressive values. The first is: “We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every human being.” The photograph is of a handmade sign held above a crowd saying, “Black Lives Matter.” The second is: “Justice, Equity, and Compassion in human relations.” The banner held by hotel workers states that the hotel industry makes over five billion dollars a year, while a hotel worker makes $18,000 a year. The third of our principles is, “Acceptance and encouragement of spiritual growth.” The sign beside it says, “It is not OK to bash Muslims.” The fourth principle is: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Teachers, parents, and caretakers are holding up signs saying, “Teach Science!” Our fifth principle is that “we affirm and promote the democratic process in our societies and in the world at large.” An older black man carries a sign that says, “Protect my right to vote.” Next is our affirmation and promotion of a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” The banner beside it says, “Grassroots against the war.” And, lastly, our seventh principle is “our respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.” The protestors in the picture are Native people indigenous to Canada, and their allies. They are protesting the Keystone XL Tar sands oil pipeline. It would endanger their water supply, threaten their health, and destroy land which they hold sacred. The protestors’ banner reads, “Trans Canada – No Tar Sands on Sacred Lands.” In fact, one member of the Lakota Nation has stated: “We will defend the water. The Federal Government, Transcanada, or whoever will defend the Keystone [pipeline] is going to have to put us in jail, or kill us.”

A martyr is a person who feels a calling, many would say a divine calling, to tell and show people how to live more caring, fair, and principled lives, in relationship with each other, with the earth, with other groups, with the wider world, and with God. A martyr is someone who has died for those beliefs. After a martyr has died, the people who had faith in that martyr are changed, their community is changed, indeed, in some ways, the whole world is transformed for the better. People are enlightened and feel awe and are inspired to live the best, most ethical and caring lives they can, individually and together.

There are several Unitarian Universalist martyrs. Our sense of ourselves as Unitarian Universalists is deeper and more enlightened by learning about our UU martyrs, and their lives, and their deaths. We have had leaders in our denomination who lived in the service of a purpose larger than themselves, and who died while serving that larger purpose.  The six people pictured on your order of service are considered to be Unitarian or Universalist martyrs.

But before I talk about the six people whose pictures you hold this morning, I want to tell you about a man who is not pictured there.  He is my favorite martyr from our history.  Though he technically might not have called himself a Unitarian, our flaming chalice symbol is in honor of him.  His name was Jan Hus, and he was born in 1371, in what is now the Czech Republic.  He became a priest; that was at the very first beginnings of the Protestant Reformation.  He believed that lay people should be able to read the Hebrew and Christian scriptures for themselves, and interpret them for themselves.  And so he translated those scriptures into Czech so his countrymen could read them in their native language.  He also believed that the people had the right, and the ability, to lead worship services themselves, in their homes, without even having a clergyperson present, including to facilitate communion for themselves.  So he believed in “the cup to the people” or “the chalice to the people.”  For these beliefs, he was summoned before the Council of Constance, and found guilty of heresy.  On July 6, 1415, he was burned at the stake.  Martin Luther later stated that Jan Hus had been unjustly condemned, and the question of the authority of Popes and Councils was brought to the forefront of theological debate.  Our flaming chalice burns to remind us that Jan Hus lived and died in advocacy of religious freedom.

Another of my favorite martyrs from our religious history was Michael Servetus.  He was a Spanish theologian, physician, and cartographer, who lived from 1511 to 1553.  He studied Hebrew and Christian scripture in their original languages.  Like the other earliest Unitarians, what he found there was no scriptural basis for the doctrine of the Trinity.  He was also opposed to infant baptism, rejecting the doctrine of original sin.  What I love about Michael Servetus is that, in his youthful, overly-educated way, he sincerely believed that if he told the authorities of the Catholic church was he had found   –if he showed them the scriptural evidence so they could see it with their own eyes–  he believed that the authorities of the Catholic church would be happy that he had pointed out their errors–  He thought those authorities would thank him and praise him!  The scholarly work he wrote was called, On the Errors of the Trinity.  No one with religious authority was, in fact, glad to have their errors pointed out to them; not the Catholics, and not even the Protestants.  Servetus got into heated written debates with John Calvin, some of them under the pseudonym, Michel de Villeneuve.  But Servetus’ real identity was eventually revealed to the Catholic inquisition. He was convicted of anti-trinitarianism and opposition to child baptism.  Calvin felt that Servetus’ death should be by beheading, as that would be more merciful than dying by fire.  But the Council insisted on burning him at the stake.  Though called one of the first Unitarians, in his philosophy Michael Servetus was also Universalist.  He believed that, “grace abounds and human beings need only the intelligence and free will, which all human beings possess, to grasp it.” [Peter Hughes article]  He died in advocacy of a liberal egalitarian religion.

Just a little bit later in history, over in Transylvania, Francis David lived, from 1510 to 1579.  He founded the Unitarian Church of Transylvania, was an advisor to the king there [King John Sigismund]. In the back of our hymnal you can find the quote that is commonly attributed to David, “We need not think alike to love alike.” I am sorry to say that there isn’t any evidence that he actually said those words. However, that quote does sum up Francis David’s philosophy quite exquisitely. King John Sigismund, seeing that in his country the Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans were never going to agree with each other, issued an edict of religious freedom, such that each person was entitled to their own interpretation of doctrine.  But, tragically, Sigismund died not long thereafter.  He was succeeded by a king who was intolerant of Unitarians.  Francis David’s preaching was declared to be heretical.  He was found guilty of theological  “innovation,” condemned to prison for the rest of his life, and died in the royal dungeon in 1579.  He lived and died in advocacy of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

One of the best known Unitarian Universalist martyrs was the Rev. James Reeb, who died at only thirty-eight years old, in 1965.  James Reeb was an Assistant Minister at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C.  He marched in the Civil Rights march from Selma to Montgomery.  He was attacked by a white mob with clubs, and suffered severe head injuries.  He died in a hospital two days later.  His death received national attention, in part because he was white.  James Reeb’s tragic death was part of what moved Lyndon Johnson to bring the voting rights act to Congress a few days later.  James Reeb lived and died advocating for our principle of affirming and promoting “the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”

Two of the other people whose pictures you hold lived not very long ago at all.  The shooting in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church was a little more than eight years ago.  The shooter targeted the church specifically because of its liberal beliefs and practices. It is openly and publically welcoming to people who are lesbian and gay.  They held a coffee house for gay teens and others called, “Diversi-Tea.”  The two people who died in the shooting were Linda Kraeger and Greg McKendry.  Mr. McKendry would stand at the door of the coffee house twice a month, as a greeter, and to usher away troublemakers.  Ms. Kraeger and Mr. McKendry died in the service of equal rights for all people, regardless of sexual orientation.  At a community worship service on the day after the shooting, hundreds of people came to show their support of the Tennessee Valley UU Church, including “Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, believers, and unbelievers,” their minister, the Rev. Chris Buice said.

The last person I want to tell you about this morning is a woman I hardly knew anything about when I was growing up Unitarian Universalist.  Her name was Viola Liuzzo; hers is the picture you are holding that looks a bit like Nicole Kidman.  Like James Reeb, she took part in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and died in 1965.  She was only thirty-nine years old.  Her father was a mineworker and her mother was a teacher.  She grew up in poverty and, when she was sixteen, an African American woman named Sarah Evans became her best friend.  Viola married a union organizer named Anthony Liuzzo and, at age thirty-five, trained to become a medical laboratory assistant and took classes at Wayne State University in Detroit.  She and Anthony had three children, and Viola had two other children from a previous marriage, who Anthony adopted.  Viola worked with community groups to further education reform and economic justice.  Her friend Sarah Evans said of her that she, “lived a life that combined the care of her family and her home with a concern for the world around her.  This involvement with her times was not always understood by her friends; nor was it appreciated by those around her.”  In 1964 Viola began attending the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Detroit and became active in the NAACP.  She and Sarah Evans also attended a United Nations seminar in New York City on civil rights that was sponsored by our denomination.  The UUA’s article on Viola by Joanne Giannino states, “At First Unitarian Universalist [church], Liuzzo found a faith matching both her ideas and her longing to be of service.  She became a full member on March 29, 1964.  Many members of the church had been Freedom Riders.  [Her] daughter Penny attended the young adult group’s discussions.”

In March of 1965, Viola and Sarah Evans watched in horror on television the civil unrest in Alabama.  Viola felt moved to go there.  Sarah warned her that she could be killed.  But Viola felt called to go and be part of the struggle for equal rights.  She made the three-day drive to Selma.  There she worked greeting and registering volunteers, and shuttling people between the airport and the marchers’ campsite.  She also worked in the campsite’s first aid station.  It was when Viola was driving a civil rights worker named Leroy Moton back to Montgomery one evening that they began to be harassed by a carload of white men who saw the inter-racial group in Viola’s car.  The white supremacists tried to run them off the road.  They chased Viola’s car for miles.  Viola sang freedom songs to give herself courage, including, “We Shall Overcome.”  After more than twenty more miles, they drove up beside Viola’s car and shot her.  The car rolled into a ditch.  Leroy Moton was not injured.  Viola Liuzzo lived and died in advocacy of civil rights and freedom for all people.  There were several memorial services for Viola, which were huge and televised.  At our denominational headquarters in Boston, there is a plaque that honors Jimmy Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo, called the Selma Memorial plaque.

It is tragic when individuals we have looked to for inspiration die, unjustly, and often far too young.  We are left asking ourselves, “What lives on after those teachers and visionaries are gone?  What becomes of their teachings and their vision?”  The answer is that it is up to us, in our time, to keep their teachings and their vision alive.  We do that in services like this one, on Sunday mornings, and at other times as well–  And we do that by continuing to tell the stories of their lives–  We do that every time we read our seven principles–  Though our principles were only written down in the mid-1980s, they did not originate then–  Our principles have their roots in the very lives of the martyrs we have lifted up today–  Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; the democratic process; a world community with peace and liberty for all; the free and responsible search for truth and meaning; and the inherent worth and dignity of every person–  People died to promote and preserve these things–  We keep their teachings and their vision alive by joining together and living our lives in the service of the ideals at the heart of our principles–  that the children of tomorrow need not live with intimidation, oppression, falsehood, secrecy, and hate–  We live lives guided by our principles in the hope that our blessed martyrs did not die in vain.


*Hymn #108 My Life Flows on in Endless Song

*Parting Words [Indira Gandhi]:

“Martyrdom does not end something, it is only a beginning.”