The Courage to Speak Your Mind and Stand Your Ground: Celebrating the Five Hundredth Anniversary of Martin Luther's Courageous Call for Reform

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
October 29, 2017





By David Herndon

Reformation Sunday

29 October 2017

First Unitarian Church

Pittsburgh, PA

We recite our seven Unitarian Universalist principles each week here at First Unitarian Church.  But aside from these seven principles, we also affirm six theological sources.

This morning, I would focus on the first of these six theological sources.  Here it is:  Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.

The first two words of that theological source are Direct Experience.  Please keep that in mind for the next few moments.

The Protestant Reformation began five hundred years ago on October 31, 1517, when the German Catholic monk, priest, and professor Martin Luther posted a set of ninety-five discussion points on the front door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany.  The Protestant Reformation did not spontaneously emerge from nothing, however.  In previous centuries, many other reform movements had been attempted.  But somehow Luther’s call for reform was amplified into a theological, social, and political movement with vast consequences.

A few years prior to October 31, 1517, Martin Luther had a profound spiritual transformation often called “The Tower Experience.”  He was wrestling with a passage from Scripture.  Luther had tried his very best to live a perfect life.  He followed all the rules of the monastery.  He studied hard.  He prayed earnestly.  But he still felt that he was not acceptable in God’s eyes.  Here is how Luther described his spiritual transformation:

"I greatly longed to understand Paul's epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression 'the righteousness of God,' because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust.

"My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage Him.  Therefore I did not love a just angry God, but rather hated and murmured against Him.  Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.

"Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that 'the just shall live by faith.'  Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith.  Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.  The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before 'the righteousness of God' had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.  This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven."[1]

The point I would like to extract from this account is that Martin Luther trusted his own personal experience.  He set aside the theological teachings common within the Roman Catholic Church at that time.  He set aside the authority of the Pope, and the Holy Roman Emperor, and the synods and councils of the church.  He set aside the opinions of his fellow monks and his teachers.  He set aside all authority but the authority of Scripture itself, and trusted his own personal experience.

As Unitarian Universalists, we may or may not agree with Martin Luther’s theology, but we can affirm and share his willingness to trust his own personal experience.

In fact, one widespread characteristic of the Protestant Reformation was an insistence on setting aside traditional authority, thinking for oneself, and coming to one’s own conclusions.  This has resulted in the formation of many distinct Protestant denominations and traditions.  You can imagine a putting all these groups on a spectrum.  At one would be the denominations and traditions that most closely resemble the Roman Catholic Church.  That would include the Anglican or Episcopalian Church and the Lutheran Church.  In the middle one might find the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, the Disciples of Christ, and other similar groups.  And at the other end would be the Baptists, the United Church of Christ, the Quakers, and the Anabaptist groups such as the Mennonites and the Church of the Brethren.  Historically, the Unitarians and the Universalists were part of this far end of the Protestant spectrum.

In fact, the first Unitarians or anti-Trinitarians emerged in the 1500s during the Protestant Reformation.  Our sixteenth-century pioneers include Faustus Socinus in Italy and Poland, Francis David in present-day Romania, and Michael Servetus in Spain and France.  Each of them definitely went against the grain by advancing uncommon theological ideas.  They thought for themselves.  They came to their own conclusions.  They trusted their own experience.  In one unfortunate case, Michael Servetus was so insistent on standing up for his beliefs that he got into trouble and was burned at the stake in 1564 in Geneva by John Calvin.

Martin Luther also got into trouble with the authorities.  In 1521, he was summoned before the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to answer a charge of heresy.  At this gathering, Martin Luther defended his views and then concluded with this statement, which is printed at the top of your order of service:

"Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason -- for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves -- I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound.  Here I stand; I can do no other.  God help me.  Amen."

Subsequently Luther was convicted of heresy and excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.  He feared for his life and went into hiding in a Saxon castle.

I would like to stop my sermon here for a few moments and ask for two or three of you to share stories of a time in your life when you have summoned the courage to speak your mind and stand your ground.  Anyone?  Maybe it was something that happened in your workplace.  Maybe it was a protest in the streets.  Maybe it was something in your family.  Please raise your hand.

Trusting your own experience has been at the heart of our Unitarian Universalist tradition.  Here in the United States, our spiritual ancestors are the Pilgrims, who came to what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620, and the Puritans, who began arriving in what is now Boston, Massachusetts, in 1630.  They deeply distrusted ecclesiastical institutions, especially the Church of England.  They placed a special emphasis on conversion experiences; for the Pilgrims and Puritans, these experiences were a sign that one was among the elect who would be saved.  We may have our differences with the Calvinist theology they embraced, but what we do retain is an insistence on direct experience, unmediated by priests or bishops or ecclesiastical institutions.

Two centuries after the arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans, the spiritual and literary movement known as Transcendentalism emerged in New England.  At the center of this movement was the Unitarian minister Ralph Waldo Emerson.Emerson had stepped away from the Calvinism of his ancestors, but he passionately affirmed the value of direct experience  .In 1836, in his essay Nature, Emerson offered this image of understanding himself at his best as nothing other than direct experience:

"Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.  Almost I fear to think how glad I am.  In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child.  In the woods, is perpetual youth.  Within these plantations of God, a decorum and a sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years.  In the woods, we return to reason and faith.  There I feel that nothing can befal me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair.  Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes.I become a transparent eye-ball.  I am nothing.I see all.  The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."

One hundred and fifty years after Emerson affirmed the importance of trusting one’s personal experience, our own Unitarian Universalist Association voted to adopt our seven principles and six sources.  We affirmed the words I quoted at the beginning of my sermon:  Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.

I have traced a common thread that reappears over and over again in our Unitarian Universalist tradition, a common thread that links us with our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors, a common thread that links us with our sixteenth century pioneers, and even links us with Martin Luther.  This common thread is an affirmation of thinking for oneself, coming to one’s own conclusions, and trusting one’s own experience.

The poet e. e. cummings – who came from a Unitarian family, by the way – once said, “To be nobody-but-myself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.”

But the courage to speak your mind and stand your ground is not only about claiming one’s identity.  The courage to speak your mind and stand your ground is also essential for building a better world.  Particularly in our world today, where our national leaders are doing their best to turn back the clock on the creation of the Beloved Community, it is essential for us as progressive people of faith to think for ourselves, to come to our own conclusions, and to trust our own experience – and then to challenge the inequities in our world, speaking our minds and standing our ground.  If we Unitarian Universalist bring anything forward from our Reformation heritage and our Protestant roots, it is the courage to trust our own voices:to use our voices to speak our truths, and, when necessary, to raise our voices in protest.

© 2017 by David Herndon


Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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