The first extant sermon from the community that eventually became the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston is a text by the itinerant Universalist minister Quillen Shinn. Preached on April 28, 1899, an account of it was published in the Houston Daily Post. While Shinn started visiting Houston in 1895, this sermon marks the real beginning of efforts to plant a congregation in the city. His previous efforts had failed to gather together a community committed to build a church. While it would take them until 1914 to eventually establish the First Unitarian Church of Houston—after Unity Church, Universalist, which lasted from 1909 to 1912 failed—several of the people who attended Shinn’s 1899 service went on to found the congregation I now serve. Since this Sunday we’ll be celebrating the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston’s 110th anniversary, I thought it would be timely to post Shinn’s sermon from 125 years ago.
The Subject of Dr. Shinn’s Lecture at Mason Hall
Friday night at the Mason hall, Dr. Shinn’s subject was “Paradise:” text: Luke 23:43—”And Jesus said unto him: Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in Paradise.”
He said in brief: “These words have been quoted in justification of deathbed repentance, as if that could transform character and transport a sinful soul to heaven.
“It seems to be a common idea that this word occurs many times in the Bible. It is found there only three times—in the text, Matt. 23:43; Second Cor. 12:4; Rev., 2:7. And it is the prevailing notion that is a synonym for heaven. This can not be inferred from either of these passages. In the passage from Revelations the man that ‘overcometh’ would eat of the tree growing in the Paradise of God. Here it means relief, the joyful feeling that every one experiences who overcomes an evil habit. In Second Cor., Paul describes one of his visions, and Paradise means a state of spiritual exaltation. In one text it must mean relief. It may be cessation from physical pain. I am inclined to think it was a mental relief, such as the malefactor would speedily experience because of his repentance and desire to turn from his sinful course unto righteousness. Whenever any of us stops sinning and begins a life of righteousness we experience a great sense of relief, Paradise.
“Did Jesus mean more than to define the new attitude to the dying thief? Surely He could not have meant that heavenly attainments would come instantaneously. Heaven is Christlike character, something it takes a long time to develop; it is not a place, but a condition. Of course, when there is heaven within as a condition, the place one is in will be heaven. It is so now. The world is heaven to the heavenly, and the same will be true in the future world, since spiritual laws will always be the same.
“The primary meaning of the word Paradise is an enclosure for pleasure or delight, and this seems to be what some people mean by heaven. Regardless of one’s moral condition, if he can only squeeze into that enclosure he will be happy. It is a sensuous conception, materialistic. A sudden change of locality, such as the thief experienced, could hardly transform his character. But the sincere request he makes of Jesus indicates a change of purpose, and we may regard it as a start toward the heavenly life. And at the very beginning a deep sense of relief would come to him—Paradise.
“It is a mistaken idea that one must die before he may enjoy Paradise. And now we have a most practical lesson, which I hope will be clearly seen by us all. What are we to live for but to make this world a Paradise, a pleasant, happy place for all to live in.”
Dr. Shinn, after dwelling upon this practical duty, gave notice that today two sermons will be preached by him at Mason’s hall; one at 11 a.m. and the other at 8 p.m. Subject in the morning: “What Universalists believe and What They do not Believe;” at night: “Death, Resurrection, Heaven.”
from the Houston Daily Post, Sunday, April 30, 1899