“If We Agree in Love”
Universalist and Unitarian philosophies
have had a lot to do with shaping the St. Lawrence of today
By Richard S. Gilbert ’58, Theological School ’61
“If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do
us any injury, but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good.
Let us endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.”
The words are from Hosea Ballou, early 19 th-century Universalist
theologian, to remind his fellow religionists of the importance of
religious community even in the midst of theological diversity. The
distinctive Universalist doctrine of universal salvation posited a
loving God who, as “The Great Agnostic” Robert Ingersoll
once said, “…keeps the latch string out until the last
child is home.” Such generosity of spirit seems especially needed
in times when the nation is polarized along social, cultural, political
and religious lines, as is the case today. One of the tragedies of
our time is that civility in discourse is increasingly a rarity. Surely
the university should be one place where this civility is modeled.
I write as a born Universalist married to a born Universalist, and
I feel strongly about the Universalist heritage of civil discourse.
I breathed in Ballou’s spirit of diversity of thought at St.
Lawrence University and then at the Theological School . On the brink
of St. Lawrence’s 150 th anniversary, it seems appropriate not
only to recount that history, but also to learn from it.
The early years of both the Theological School and the University,
which technically came later (see page 13), were difficult ones, since
resources always fell short of needs and controversy was in the air.
During an 1880s fund-raising tour, some of the professors were charged
with political radicalism, and the University administration was embarrassed.
Opening his mail one morning, Dr. Isaac M. Atwood, president of the
Theological School , came across an envelope from Phineas T. Barnum,
the great showman, and a Universalist. Inside, he found an anonymous
letter denouncing these St. Lawrence professors. Attached to the letter
was a note from Barnum, saying that he did not admire writers of anonymous
epistles and “also here is my check for St. Lawrence.” It
was quite substantial. Barnum wanted to keep the great democratic discourse
alive, and he saw in institutions like St. Lawrence the place where
that would happen.
Dr. Ebenezer Fisher, dean of the Theological School in the early
20 th century, was active in local politics, even forging a “union
ticket” of both Republican and Democratic candidates during the
Civil War. There was something about the Universalist spirit that led
to reconciliation and civil discourse.
That spirit was necessary, for controversy was never far from the
Laurentian doorstep. Professor Herbert Philbrick Morrell, successful
minister in Buffalo during the heyday of the Social Gospel, became
professor of Christian ethics and was often embroiled in controversy.
He was labeled “radical” because of his Christian pacifism
during World War I. The Theological School stood behind him. The integrity
of the individual conscience, a cornerstone of academic freedom, was
On the brink of World War II, University President Laurens Hickok
Seelye (1935-1940) articulated St. Lawrence’s spirit in words
that seem hauntingly contemporary: “In a world which frequently
confuses inquiry with disloyalty, jingoism with patriotism, reflective
thinking with weakness, party politics with public welfare, and sectarianism
with Christianity, in such a world, we salute our North Country founders.
They were not afraid to be heretics with a will, with good will.”
Throughout their history, both the Theological School and the University
focused not on what to think, but on how to think.
Theological School Dean John Murray Atwood set the tone when he spoke
against theological and intellectual indoctrination, contending that “every
student is treated as a searcher for truth.”
One slogan of Universalism has been that “we agree to disagree
agreeably”--to be civil in discourse no matter how sharp our
differences. That affirmation of pluralism is grounded in the essential
sanctity of the individual, and a realization that truth is not the
unique possession of any one person or group. If no one has a monopoly
on truth, then it is well to respect the variety of attempts to ascertain
it. Truth, for Universalists, became not something revealed from on
high in special revelation; rather, it became a common quest in which
we recognize that absolute truth is elusive, if even possible. In any
case, it emerges from the great dialogue.
That is why early Universalists put forth their beliefs, not in creeds,
but in avowals of faith, which evolved as they evolved. There was in
each statement a “liberty clause” which stated that neither
these words nor any other such statement would be imposed as a creedal
The University is a direct analogue of this theological affirmation.
When one claims to have reached ultimate truth, the integrity of the
truth-seeking enterprise collapses. In the University, as in Universalism,
the truth is open-ended. We grow in faith and in intellect by being
open to new truths as they become apparent to us. That radical openness
is what Universalists called “the authority of truth known or
to be known.”
Much has been made in our day of the value of tolerance, but I submit
that respect is a far higher value in both faith and academic communities.
Tolerance smacks of condescension – at its worst simply allowing
the other freedom to be wrong. Respect is a genuine understanding that
we ourselves may be wrong, and the other right. That is a radical statement
in our dogmatic and polarized times. That kind of humility in pursuit
of truth is rare in our time, but it is an essential component of free
religion and liberal education.
For approaching 150 years, St. Lawrence University, candle of conscience
with its respect for differences, has glowed in the North Country .
The Theological School is no longer there, but the original impulse
of unity of spirit with diversity of beliefs remains the overarching
principle of the University in times when civil discourse is needed
more than ever, when the stakes are so high in this troubled world.
After a career as a Universalist (later Unitarian/Universalist)
minister, Dick Gilbert lives with his wife, Joyce, in retirement
in Rochester , N.Y. , although
he continues to serve “UU” churches as needed.