The Free Pulpit

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

On Sunday afternoon, March 23rd, 2003, the leadership of this congregation presented me with a “Letter of Call.” A Letter of Call is essentially an employment contract. The members had just voted to call me as UUS:E’s fourth settled minister. They—you—wanted me to sign right away! I have a copy of this letter in a file at home. There are more copies here in the office.I rarely look at it; I know pretty much what is says. Or at least I think I do. I’m not sure anyone else has looked at it since we signed it. But the letter does exist; it’s a public document. Anyone who wants to look at is welcome to do so. I mention it this morning because there is an article in it that we don’t talk about very much, but which is very relevant to what we’re doing here this morning. To a large degree we take this article for granted. It appears in some form in virtually all Unitarian Universalist parish ministers’ letters of call. In fact, if it’s not written into the Letter of Call, the minister, in my view, ought not to sign. I’m talking about the “free pulpit” article or the “free pulpit” clause, as it is sometimes identified. We don’t often mention it, but it is a central component of Unitarian Universalist tradition and polity. Indeed, it is one of the central safeguards of freedom within religion. It is a cornerstone of the Free Church tradition in the United States of America.

In my Letter of Call, Article 2.3.1 says “It is the basic premise of this Society that the pulpit is free and untrammeled. The Minister is expected to express his/her values, views, and commitments without fear or favor.” Notice, it doesn’t say, “the minister is allowed to express his/her values, views, and commitments.” It doesn’t say “the minister is invited to express his/her values, views, and commitments.” It doesn’t even say, “the minister is encouraged to express his/her values, views, and commitments.” It says, “the minister is expected to express his/her values, views, and commitments.” This is not a polite courtesy congregations offer their clergy. This is not a legal nicety.  This is an obligation—and I take it as a spiritual and a moral obligation—that comes with the call to minister to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Expressing my values, views and commitments is not something I can do if I feel like it. It’s something I must do regardless of how I feel about it.

I confess I am not aware of the historical literature that directly addresses and explains the origins and development of the free pulpit tradition. I’ve been researching it over the past few weeks and I don’t see a lot written on it (which doesn’t mean it’s not there, just that my research hasn’t been successful). There are volumes and volumes written about freedom of and in religion. There are volumes written about the free church tradition. But the term “free pulpit” doesn’t show up in the indexes of the Unitarian and Universalist histories I’ve examined. It’s possible that it has evolved primarily as a contractual understanding between ministers and congregations, and hence it doesn’t get much play in the histories.

In efforts to explain the free pulpit tradition, one oft-quoted document is the Transylvanian King John Sigismund’s 1568 “Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience,” an important precursor to the free pulpit in America. “In every place,” the Act explains, “the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well, if not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied.”[1]

Another oft-quoted free pulpit reference is from the conclusion of Theodore Parker’s 1841 sermon, “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.” This sermon is one of the most famous in the annals of American Unitarian preaching. He delivered it at the ordination of the Rev. Charles Shackford. His comment on the free pulpit came at the end of the sermon when he spoke to the congregation about how to relate to its new minister.” He said Truth “speaks in a thousand tongues, and with a pen graves her sentence on the rock forever. You may prevent the freedom of speech in this pulpit if you will. You may hire your servants to preach as you bid; to spare your vices and flatter your follies; to prophecy smooth things, and say, It is peace, when there is no peace. Yet in so doing you weaken and enthrall yourselves …. But, on the other hand, you may encourage your brother to tell you the truth …. You will then have his best words, his brightest thoughts, and his most hearty prayers.[2]

In both quotes we see a turning away from a centralized and hierarchical reliance on doctrine and dogma, a turning away from the authority of the church over the individual, a turning away from complacency in thought and spirituality, and a turning towards freedom, towards conscience, towars  integrity, towards the individual’s search. We see a recognition that “Truth speaks in a thousand tongues” and a desire to honor the truth as each tongue proclaims it.

Unitarian Universalists are not the only ones who lay claim to the free pulpit tradition. Baptists have their version of it. So do the Congregational churches. I asked the Rev. Terry Schmidt, our friend and the former minister of Center Congregational Church in Manchester, what it looks like in the United Church of Christ. He said “it goes church by church, and … it is not often written out clearly, but is based on tradition and on individual church bylaws.  I do not remember ever having such a clause in any of my church calls, although it was always understood that I was free to preach on whatever I chose.”

While Unitarian Universalists are not the only bearers of the free pulpit tradition, it is nevertheless rare in the broad sweep of American religion. In a blog entitled “Nagoonberry,” A former Presbyterian minister named Heather, who is now seeking fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister, wrote these words about the free pulpit:

The free pulpit is a long-standing tradition within Unitarian Universalism, in that we allow our ministers to speak their minds rather than be restricted by a particular tenet or creed.” As I look back on my time as a Presbyterian minister, I do remember that there were limits on my freedom as a preacher.  There were things one simply did not say.  A preacher who consistently strayed beyond the borders of orthodoxy might find herself in a bit of trouble–or a lot of trouble.

When I was ordained, I was asked, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”  As a minister, I was expected to honor my affirmative answer to this question by adhering to Scripture and to the confessional documents of our church.

Being a UU, and particularly a UU minister, is a whole different kettle of fish.  In this tradition, I am free to go wherever the search for truth may lead, and to preach about where that quest has taken me.  There is no predetermined document that says, “This far and no farther.”  I cannot be excommunicated or defrocked for heterodoxy.[3]

I’ve been speaking about the free pulpit in terms of the freedom the congregation expects the minister to exercise. It is true this central feature of our liberal faith has evolved around the work of the professional ministers. But I would be remiss if I did not remind us that ministers are not the only people who preach from our pulpits. Ministers are not the only people who have spiritual lives and seek to express them in our pulpits. Ministers are not the only people who search for truth and seek to name it in our pulpits. Certainly lay people do all these things. Certainly lay people are encouraged to do all these things. And, though it may be somewhat unique to this congregation, I think it is accurate to say that lay people are expected to do all these things. Lay people are expected to exercise the free pulpit tradition as well. This pulpit—our pulpit—is a free pulpit and that freedom must be upheld, honored, respected, expected and demonstrated every time any of us, or our guests, step into it and speak.

Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] Excerpt from King John Sigismund’s 1568 “Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience” in Parke, David B., ed., The Epic of Unitarianism: Original Writings from the History of Liberal Religion (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1957) p. 19.

[2] Parker, Theodore, “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity” in Wright, Conrad, ed., Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism (Boston: UUA, 1986) p. 149.

[3] See: http://nagoonberry.wordpress.com/2010/07/02/autodidact-what-is-the-free-pulpit/.