Religion as Heritage


    Our religious faith, as the title of this book implies, is a heritage. We did not form it independently for ourselves.   Many of us did not even choose it, but instead received it as a precious legacy, bequeathed to us by those who have cherished it before us.  Of course it ought to be much more than merely this.  If it is to amount to anything vital, it should include at least these three elements: a profound conviction on some of the greatest subjects of thought, a sacred personal experience hallowing the deepest part of our lives, and above all a way of living as children of God.  Yet none of even these things wholly originated with ourselves; for to no small extent our convictions were implanted in us, our experiences were cultivated within us, and our way of life was trained into us, by others.  The religion of some people, indeed, seems to be an inheritance and little else, a tradition handed down to them by others, rather than a matter of personal conviction, experience, or principle; although even such a religion may yet make a very important difference in their lives.

    Inasmuch, then, as our religion has to a very considerable degree come down to us from the past, we must, if we would appreciate anything like its full meaning, know its past history. We shall appreciate more deeply the value of our religious faith if we once come to realize how much it has cost others to win what they have freely bequeathed to us: the thinkers who have labored over its problems, the apostles who have spent their lives in spreading the knowledge of it among men, the saints who have made its history sacred, the confessors who have endured reproach and loss, persecution and exile for it, and the noble army of martyrs who have suffered death rather than be untrue to it. The meaning of the religious faith we hold, and the price it has cost to secure it to us: these are the two points most strongly suggested by the title, "Our Unitarian Heritage," and it is these that we shall try to keep constantly in view as we follow the course of its history.

    We are familiar enough with this point of view in connection with our national life. As mere citizens we might in any case have been fairly satisfied with our native land, even though we had done nothing to make it what it is, but had simply entered into it as an inheritance from our forefathers. But when we read the history of our country, when we see how our fathers had to toil to subdue the wilderness, how they fought and bled to make it free, strove to develop its institutions, and struggled to defend it against its enemies, that they might leave it free and strong to their children — it is only then that we begin to appreciate what our country really means to us, to realize what its free institutions cost, to love it with patriotic love, and to feel that if need be we too would gladly suffer and die for it; arid that in any event we will do all in our power to keep it forever a land of freedom and justice to all.

    It is quite the same with regard to the inheritance we have received in our religious faith. We may have been simply born into it, and may always have taken it for granted. We may never have had to struggle to win religious freedom, nor to sacrifice or suffer to maintain it. But when we have once read its history, and have seen how in earlier generations many men in many lands had to struggle, to sacrifice, to suffer, and in not a few cases even to die, before we could inherit our free faith, and how earnestly even in happier times and at smaller cost devoted men have labored to make religious faith purer, more reasonable, and more inspiring with each new age; then we can not fail to appreciate as never before the faith which we hold, and we shall our own selves wish to be loyal to it, and to prove ourselves worthy of the freedom it gives us.

    For this is to be the story of a progressive movement toward perfect freedom of thought and speech in religion, a freedom which has been won only in the face of odds sometimes overwhelming, and at a cost that no one, thank God, is in our time called upon to pay. It is a history rich in its saints and sages, its heroes and martyrs, and it is full of deeds of bravery that kindle the blood. The roots of this religious faith go back, of course, to earliest Christian times; and the glory and the inspirations of fifteen centuries of the history of the undivided Christian Church belong to it in common with all Christendom. But the story of this particular religious movement begins scarcely four hundred years ago, early in the period of the Protestant Reformation.

    In tracing the story of the development of our faith during these four centuries, it will not be enough for us merely to get hold of the facts of a past history. Our study of these will be to little purpose if we do not at the same time get a proper sense of what they mean for us in our own time, and of the obligation they lay upon us as possessors of a heritage that is precious and costly. As an early Christian writer wrote of a similar situation,1 we ought to realize that, although these heroes of our faith bore a good witness in their day, God has also placed upon us a sacred duty to continue and complete their work, since without us they will not be made perfect.

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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
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