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The Doctrine and Discipline of


Amos Bronson Alcott

 Boston: James Monroe and Company, 1836.

 “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and ye hear the sound thereof; but ye cannot tell whence it cometh nor whither it goeth; so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.”

Jesus in conversation with Nicodemus [John 3:8].

Man is the noblest of the Creator's works. He is the most richly gifted of all his creatures. His sphere of action is the broadest, his influence the widest, and to him is given Nature and Life for his heritage and his possession. He holds dominion over the Outward. He is the rightful Sovereign of the Earth, fitted to subdue all things to himself and to know of no superior, save God. And yet he enters upon the scene of his labors, a feeble and wailing Babe, at first unconscious of the place assigned him, and needs years of tutelage and discipline to fit him for the high and austere duties that await him.

The Art which fits such a being to fulfill his high destiny is the first and noblest of arts. Human Culture is the art of revealing to a man the true Idea of his Being—his endowments—his possessions—and of fitting him to use these for the growth, renewal, and perfection of his Spirit. It is the art of completing a man. It includes all those influences and disciplines by which his faculties are unfolded  and  perfected. It is that agency which takes the helpless and pleading Infant from the hands of its Creator, and, apprehending its entire nature, tempts it forth—now by austere, and now by kindly, influences and disciplines—and thus moulds it at last into the Image of a Perfect Man, armed at all points to use the Body, Nature, and Life, for its growth and renewal, and to hold dominion over the fluctuating things of the Outward. It seeks to realize in the Soul the Image of the Creator. —Its end is a perfect man. Its aim, through every stage of influence and discipline, is self-renewal. The body, nature, and life are its instruments and materials. Jesus is its worthiest Ideal. Christianity its purest Organ. The Gospels its fullest Text-Book. Genius its Inspiration. Holiness its Law. Temperance its Discipline. Immortality its Reward.

This divine Art, including all others, or subordinating them to its Idea, was never apprehended in all its breadth and depth of significance till the era of Jesus of Nazareth. He it was that first revealed it. Over his Divine Intellect first flitted the Idea of man's endowments and destiny. He set no limits to the growth of our nature. "Be Ye Perfect even as my Father in Heaven is Perfect" [Matt. 5:48], was the high aim which he placed before his disciples; and in this he was true to our nature, for the sentiment lives in every faculty and function of our being. It is the ever-sounding Trump of Duty, urging us to the perpetual work of self-renewal. It is the deep instinct of the spirit. And his Life gives us the promise of its realization. In his attributes and endowments he is a Type of our common nature. His achievements are a glimpse of the Apotheosis of Humanity. They are a glorious unfolding of the Godlike in man. They disclose the Idea of Spirit. And if he was not, in himself, the complete fulfillment of Spirit, he apprehended its law and set forth its conditions. He bequeathed to us the phenomena of its manifestation, for in the Gospels we have the history of Spirit accomplishing its mission on the earth. We behold the Incarnate One, dealing with flesh and blood—tempted and  suffering—yet baffling and overcoming the ministries of Evil and of Pain.

Still this Idea, so clearly announced and so fully demonstrated in the being and life of Jesus, has made but little advance in the minds of men. Men have not subdued it to themselves. It has not become the ground and law of human consciousness. They have not married their nature to it by a living Faith. Nearly two millenniums have elapsed since its announcement, and yet so slow of apprehension have been the successors of this Divine Genius that, even at this day, the deep and universal significance of his Idea has not been fully taken in. It has been restricted to himself alone. He stands in the minds of this generation as a Phenomenon, which God, in the inscrutable designs of his Providence, saw fit to present to the gaze and wonder of mankind, yet as a being of unsettled rank in the universe, whom men may venture to imitate, but dare not approach. In him, the Human Nature   is feebly apprehended, while the Divine is lifted out of sight and lost in the ineffable light of the Godhead. Men do not deem him as the harmonious unfolding of Spirit into the Image of a Perfect Man—as a worthy Symbol of the Divinity, wherein Human Nature is revealed in its Fullness. Yet, as if by an inward and irresistible Instinct, all men have been drawn to him; and, while diverse in their opinions, explaining his Idea in different types, they have given him the full and unreserved homage of their hearts. They have gathered around the altars, inscribed with his perfections, and, through his name, delighted to address the God and Father of Spirits. Disowning him in their minds, unable to grasp his Idea, they have deified him in their hearts. They have worshipped the Holiness which they could not define.

It is the mission of this Age to revive his Idea, give it currency, and reinstate it in the faith of men. By its quickening agency, it is to fructify our common nature and reproduce its like. It is to unfold our being into the same divine likeness. It is to reproduce Perfect Men. The faded Image of Humanity is to be restored, and man reappear in his original brightness. It is to mould anew our Institutions, our Manners, our Men. It is to restore Nature to its rightful use, purify Life, hallow the functions of the Human Body, and regenerate Philosophy, Literature, Art, Society. The Divine Idea of a Man is to be formed in the common consciousness of this age, and genius mould all its products in accordance with it.

The means for reinstating this Idea in the common mind, in order to conduce to these results, are many. Yet all are simple. And the most direct and effectual are by apprehending the Genius of this Divine Man, from the study of those Records wherein his career is delineated with so much fidelity, simplicity, and truth. Therein have we a manifestation of Spirit, while undergoing the temptations of this corporeal life, yet faithful to the laws of its renovation and its end. The Divine Idea of Humanity gleams forth through every circumstance of his terrestrial career. The fearful agencies of the Spirit assert their power. In him Nature and Life are subordinated to the spiritual force. The Son of God appears on Earth, enrobed in Flesh, and looks forth serenely upon Man. We feel the significance of the Incarnation, the grandeur of our nature. We associate Jesus with our holiest aspirations, our deepest affections, and thus does he become a fit Mediator between the Just age and the new era, of which he was the herald and the pledge. He is to us the Prophet of two millenniums. He is the brightest Symbol of a Man that history affords, and points us to yet fuller manifestations of the Godhead.

And the Gospels are not only a fit Textbook for the study of Spirit, in its corporeal relations, but they are a specimen also of the true method of imparting instruction. They give us the practice of Jesus himself. They unfold the means of addressing human nature. Jesus was a Teacher; he sought to renovate Humanity. His method commends itself to us. It is a beautiful exhibition of his Genius, bearing the stamp of naturalness, force, and directness. It is popular. Instead of seeking formal and austere means, he rested his influence chiefly on the living word, rising spontaneously in the soul, and clothing itself at once in the simplest, yet most commanding, forms. He was a finished extemporaneous speaker. His manner and style are models. In these his Ideas became like the beautiful, yet majestic, Nature, whose images he wove so skillfully into his diction. He was an Artist of the highest order. More perfect specimens of address do not elsewhere exist. View him in his conversation with his disciples. Hear him in his simple colloquies with the people. Listen to him when seated at the well-side discoursing with the Samaritan woman, on the idea of worship, and at night with Nicodemus, on spiritual renewal. From facts and objects the most familiar, he slid easily and simply into the highest and holiest themes, and, in this unimposing guise, disclosed the great Doctrines, and stated the Divine Ideas, that it was his mission to bequeath to his race. Conversation was the form of utterance that he sought. Of formal discourse but one specimen is given, in his Sermon on the Mount; yet in this the inspiration bursts all forms, and he rises to the highest efforts of genius, at its close.

This preference of Jesus for Conversation, as the fittest organ of utterance, is a striking proof of his comprehensive Idea of Education. He knew what was in man, and the means of perfecting his being. He saw the superiority of this exercise over others for quickening the Spirit. For in this, all the instincts and faculties of our being are touched. They find full and fair scope. It tempts forth all the powers. Man faces his fellow man. He holds a living intercourse. He feels the quickening life and light. The social affections are addressed, and these bring all the faculties in train. Speech comes unbidden. Nature lends her images. Imagination sends abroad her winged words. We see thought as it springs from the soul and in the very process of growth and utterance. Reason plays under the mellow light of fancy. The Genius of the Soul is waked, and eloquence sits on her tuneful lip. Wisdom finds an organ worthy her serene, yet imposing, products. Ideas stand in beauty and majesty before the Soul.

And Genius has ever sought this organ of utterance. It has given us full testimony in its favor. Socrates—a name that Christians can see coupled with that of their Divine Sage—descanted thus on the profound themes in which he delighted. The marketplace, the workshop, the public streets were his favorite haunts of instruction. And the divine Plato has added his testimony, also, in those enduring works, wherein he sought to embalm for posterity both the wisdom of his master and the genius that was his own. Rich textbooks are these for the study of philosophic genius. They rank next in finish and beauty to the specimens of Jesus as recorded by his own beloved John.

It is by such organs that Human Nature is to be unfolded into the Idea of its fullness. Yet to do this, teachers must be men in possession of their Idea. They must be men of their kind, men inspired with great and living Ideas, as was Jesus. Such alone are worthy. They alone can pierce the customs and conventions that hide the Soul from itself. They alone can release it from the slavery of the corporeal life and give it back to itself. And such are ever sent at the call of Humanity. Some God, instinct with the Idea that is to regenerate his era, is ever vouchsafed. As a flaming Herald he appears in his time and sends abroad the Idea, which it is the mission of the age to organize in institutions and quicken into manners. Such mould the Genius of the time. They revive in Humanity the lost idea of its destiny and reveal its fearful endowments. They vindicate the divinity of man's nature and foreshadow on the coming Time the conquests that await it. An Age preexists in them; and History is but the manifestation and issue of their Wisdom and Will. They are the Prophets of the Future.

At this day, men need some revelation of Genius to arouse them to a sense of their nature, for the Divine Idea of a Man seems to have died out of our consciousness. Encumbered by the gluts of the appetites, sunk in the corporeal senses, men know not the divine life that stirs within them, yet hidden and enchained. They revere not their own nature. And when the phenomenon of Genius appears, they marvel at its advent. They cannot own it. Laden with the gifts of the Divinity, it touches their orb. At intervals of a century it appears. Some Nature, struggling with vicissitude, tempts forth the Idea of Spirit from within and unlooses the Promethean God to roam free over the earth. He possesses his Idea and brings it as a blessed gift to his race. With awe-struck visage, the tribes of semi-unfolded beings survey it from below, deeming it a partial or preternatural gift of the Divinity into whose life and being they are forbidden, by a decree of the Eternal, from entering, whose law they must obey, yet cannot apprehend. They dream not that this phenomenon is but the complement of their common nature, and that in this admiration and obedience, which they proffer, is both the promise and the pledge of the same powers in themselves, that this is but their fellow creature in the flesh. And thus the mystery remains sealed, till at last it is revealed, that this is but the unfolding of human nature in its fullness, working free of every encumbrance by possessing itself.

For Genius is but the free and harmonious play of all the faculties of a human being. It is a Man possessing his Idea and working with it. It is the Whole Man—the central Will—working worthily, subordinating all else to itself and reaching its end by the simplest and readiest means. It is human nature rising superior to things and events, and transfiguring these into the image of its own Spiritual Ideal. It is the Spirit working in its own way, through its own organs and instruments and on its own materials. It is the Inspiration of all the faculties of a Man by a life conformed to his Idea. It is not indebted to others for its manifestation. It draws its life from within. It is self-subsistent. It feeds on Holiness, lives in the open vision of Truth, enrobes itself in the light of Beauty, and bathes its powers in the fount of Temperance. It aspires after the Perfect. It loves Freedom. It dwells in Unity. All men have it, yet it does not appear in all men. It is obscured by ignorance, quenched by evil; discipline does not reach it, nor opportunity cherish it. Yet there it is—an original, indestructible element of every spirit, and sooner or later, in this corporeal, or in the spiritual era—at some period of the Soul's development—it shall be tempted forth and assert its claims in the life of the Spirit. It is the province of education to wake it and discipline it into the perfection which is its end, and for which it ever thirsts. Yet Genius alone can wake it. Genius alone inspire it. It comes not at the incantation of mere talent. It respects itself. It is strange to all save its kind. It shrinks from vulgar gaze and lives in its own world. None but the eye of Genius can discern it, and it obeys the call of none else.

Yet among us Genius is at its wane. Human Nature appears shorn of her beams. We estimate man too low to hope for bright manifestations. And our views create the imperfection that mocks us. We have neither great men, nor good institutions. Genius visits us but seldom. The results of our culture are slender. Thirsting for life and light, Genius is blessed with neither. It cannot free itself from the encumbrance that it inherits. The Idea of a Man does not shine upon it from any external Image. Such Corporeal Types it seeks in vain. It cries for instruction, and none satisfies its wants. There is little genius in our schoolrooms. Those who enter yearly upon the stage of life, bearing the impress of our choicest culture and most watchful discipline, are often unworthy specimens of our nature. Holiness attends not their steps. Genius adorns not their brow. Many a parent among us—having lavished upon his child his best affections and spared no pains which money and solicitude could supply to command the best influences within his reach—sees him return, destitute of that high principle and those simple aims that alone ennoble human nature and satisfy the parental heart. Or, should the child return with his young simplicity and truth, yet how unarmed is his intellect with the quiver of genius to achieve a worthy name and bless his race. The Soul is spilt out in lust, buried in appetite, or wasted in vulgar toils, and retreats, at last, ignobly from the scene of life's temptations, despoiled of its innocence, bereft of its hopes, and sets in the dark night of disquietude, lost to the race.

Yet not all depravity or ignorance is to be laid at the door of our Institutions. The evil has two faces. It is deeper in its origin. It springs from our low estimate of human nature, and consequent want of reverence and regard for it. It is to be divided between parents and institutions. The young but too often enter our institutions of learning, despoiled of their virtue, and are of course disabled from running an honorable intellectual career. Our systems of nursery discipline are built on shallow or false principles; the young repeat the vices and reproduce the opinions of parents, and parents have little cause to complain. They cannot expect fruits of institutions, for which they have taken so little pains to sow the seeds. They reap as they sow. Aiming at little, they attain but little. They cast their own horoscope and determine by their aim the fate of the coming generation. They are the organized Opportunity of their era.

To work worthily, man must aspire worthily. His theory of human attainment must be lofty. It must ever be lifting him above the low plain of custom and convention, in which the senses confine him, into the high mount of vision, and of renovating ideas. To a divine nature, the sun ever rises over the mountains of hope and brings promises on its wings, nor does he linger around the dark and depressing valley of distrust and of fear. The magnificent bow of promise ever gilds his purpose, and he pursues his way steadily and in faith to the end. For Faith is the soul of all improvement. It is the Will of an Idea. It is an Idea seeking to embody and reproduce itself. It is the All-Proceeding Word going forth, as in the beginning of things, to incarnate itself and become flesh and blood to the senses. Without this faith an Idea works no good. It is this which animates and quickens it into life. And this must come from living men.

And such Faith is the possession of all who apprehend Ideas. Such faith had Jesus, and this it was that empowered him to do the mighty works of which we read. It was this which inspired his genius. And Genius alone can inspire others. To nurse the young spirit as it puts forth its pinions in the fair and hopeful morning of life, it must be placed under the kindly and sympathising agency of Genius—heaven-inspired and hallowed—or there is no certainty that its aspirations will not die away in the routine of formal tuition, or spend themselves in the animal propensities that coexist with it. Teachers must be men of genius. They must be men inspired. The Divine Idea of a Man must have been unfolded from their being and be a living presence. Philosophers, and Sages, and Seers—the only real men—must come as of old to the holy vocation of unfolding human nature. Socrates, and Plato, and the Diviner Jesus must be raised up to us, to breathe their wisdom and will into the genius of our era, to recast our institutions, remould our manners, and regenerate our men. Philosophy and Religion, descending from the regions of cloudy speculation, must thus become denizens of our common earth, known among us as friends, and uttering their saving truths through the mouths of our little ones. Thus shall our being be unfolded. Thus the Idea of a man be reinstated in our consciousness. Thus Jesus be honored among us. And thus shall Man grow up, as the tree of the primeval woods, luxuriant, vigorous—armed at all points to brave the winds and the storms of the finite and the mutable—bearing his Fruit in due season.

To fulfill its end, Instruction must be an Inspiration. The true Teacher, like Jesus, must inspire in order to unfold. He must know that instruction is something more than mere impression on the understanding. He must feel it to be a kindling influence, that in himself alone is the quickening, informing energy, that the life and growth of his charge preexist in him. He is to hallow and refine as he tempts forth the soul. He is to inform the understanding by chastening the appetites, allaying the passions, softening the affections, vivifying the imagination, illuminating the reason, giving pliancy and force to the will, for a true understanding is the issue of these powers, working freely and in harmony with the Genius of the soul, conformed to the law of Duty. He is to put all the springs of Being in motion. And to do this, he must be the personation and exampler of what he would unfold in his charge. Wisdom, Truth, Holiness must have preexistence in him, or they will not appear in his pupils. These influence alone in the concrete. They must be made flesh and blood in him to reappear to the senses and reproduce their like. —And thus shall his Genius subordinate all to its own force. Thus shall all be constrained to yield to its influence, and this too without violating any Law, spiritual, intellectual, corporeal—but in obedience to the highest Agency, co-working with God. Under the melting force of his Genius, thus employed, Mind shall become fluid, and he shall mould it into Types of Heavenly Beauty. His agency is that of mind leaping to meet mind, not of force acting on opposing force. The Soul is touched by the live coal of his lips. A. kindling influence goes forth to inspire, making the mind think, the heart feel, the pulse throb with his own. He arouses every faculty. He awakens the Godlike. He images the fair and full features of a Man. And thus doth he drive at will the drowsy Brute that the Eternal hath yoked to the chariot of Life, to urge man across the Finite!

To work worthily in the ministry of Instruction requires not only the highest Gifts, but that these should be refined by Holiness. This is the condition of spiritual and intellectual clearness. This alone unfolds Genius, and puts Nature and Life to their fit uses. "If any man will know of the Doctrine, let him do the will of my Father," said Jesus [John 7:17], and he who does not yield this obedience shall never shine forth in the true and full glory of his nature.

Yet this truth seems to have been lost sight of in our measures of Human Culture. We encumber the body by the gluts of the appetites, dim the senses by self-indulgence, abuse nature and life in all manner of ways, and yet dream of unfolding Genius amidst all these diverse agencies and influences. We train Children amidst all these evils. We surround them by temptations, which stagger their feeble virtue, and they fall too easily into the snare which we have spread. Concupiscence defiles their functions, blunts the edge of their faculties, obstructs the passages of the soul to the outward and blocks it up. The human body, the soul's implement for acting on Nature in the ministry of life, is thus depraved, and the soul falls an easy prey to the Tempter. Self-indulgence too soon rings the knell of the spiritual life, as the omen of its interment in the flesh. It wastes the corporeal functions, mars the Divine Image in the human form, estranges the affections, paralyzes the will, clouds the intellect, dims the fire of genius, seals conscience, and corrupts the whole being. Lusts entrench themselves in the Soul; unclean spirits and demons nestle therein. Self-subjection, self-sacrifice, self-renewal are not made its habitual exercises, and it becomes the vassal of the Body. The Idea of Spirit dies out of the Consciousness, and Man is shorn of his glories. Nature grows over him. He mistakes Images for Ideas, and thus becomes an Idolater. He deserts the Sanctuary of the Indwelling Spirit and worships at the throne of the Outward.

Our plans of influence, to be successful, must become more practical. We must be more faithful. We must deal less in abstractions, depend less on precepts and rules. We must fit the soul for duty by the practice of duty. We must watch and enforce. Like unsleeping Providence, we must accompany the young into the scenes of temptation and trial, and aid them in the needful hour. Duty must sally forth an attending Presence into the workday world and organize to itself a living body. It must learn the art of uses. It must incorporate itself with Nature. To its sentiments we must give a Heart. Its Ideas we must arm with Hands. For it ever longs to become flesh and blood. The Son of God delights to take the Son of Man as a co-mate, and to bring flesh and blood even to the very gates of the Spiritual Kingdom. It would make the word Flesh, that it shall be seen and handled and felt.

The Culture that is alone worthy of Man, and which unfolds his Being into the Image of its fullness, casts its agencies over all things. It uses Nature and Life as means for the Soul's growth and renewal. It never deserts its charge, but follows it into all the relations of Duty; at the table it seats itself and fills the cup for the Soul, caters for it, decides when it has enough, and heeds not the clamor of appetite and desire. It lifts the body from the drowsy couch, opens the eyes upon the rising sun, tempts it forth to breathe the invigorating air, plunges it into the purifying bath, and thus whets all its functions for the duties of the coming day. And when toil and amusement have brought weariness over it, and the drowned senses claim rest and renewal, it remands it to the restoring couch again to food it on dreams. Nor does it desert the Soul in seasons of labor, of amusement, of study. To the place of occupation it attends it, guides the corporeal members with skill and faithfulness, prompts the mind to diligence, the heart to gentleness and love, directs to the virtuous associate, the pure place of recreation, the innocent pastime. It protects the eye from the foul image, the vicious act, the ear from the vulgar or profane word, the hand from theft, the tongue from guile—urges to cheerfulness and purity, to forbearance and meekness, to self-subjection and self-sacrifice, order and decorum, and points, amid all the relations of duty, to the Law of Temperance, of Genius, of Holiness, which God hath established in the depths of the Spirit, and guarded by the unsleeping sentinel of Conscience, from violation and defilement. It renews the Soul day by day.

Man's mission is to subdue Nature, to hold dominion over his own Body, and use both these, and the ministries of Life, for the growth, renewal, and perfection of his Being. As did Jesus, he must overcome the World by passing through its temptations and vanquishing the Tempter. But before he shall attain this mastery, he must apprehend himself. In his Nature is wrapped up the problem of all Power reduced to a simple unity. The knowledge of his own being includes, in its endless circuit, the Alphabet of all else. It is a Universe, wherein all else is imaged. God—Nature—are the extremes of which he is the middle term, and through his Being flow these mighty Forces, if, perchance, he shall stay them as they pass over his Consciousness, apprehend their significance— their use—and then, conforming his being to the one, he shall again conform the other to himself.

Yet dimmed as is the Divine Image in Man, it reflects not the full and fair Image of the Godhead. We seek it alone in Jesus in its fullness, yet sigh to behold it with our corporeal senses. And this privilege God ever vouchsafes to the pure and undefiled in heart, for he ever sends it upon the earth in the form of the Child. Herein have we a Type of the Divinity. Herein is our Nature yet despoiled of none of its glory. In flesh and blood he reveals his Presence to our senses and pleads with us to worship and revere.

Yet few there are who apprehend the significance of the Divine Type. Childhood is yet a problem that we have scarce studied. It has been and still is a mystery to us. Its pure and simple nature, its faith and its hope, are all unknown to us. It stands friendless and alone, pleading in vain for sympathy and aid. And, though wronged and slighted, it still retains its trustingness; still does it cling to the Adult for renovation und light. —But thus shall it not be always. It shall be apprehended. It shall not be a mystery and made to offend. "Light is springing up, and the dayspring from on high is again visiting us." And, as in times sacred to our associations, the Star led the Wise Men to the Infant Jesus to present their reverent gifts, and was at once both the herald and the pledge of the advent of the Son of God on the earth, even so is the hour approaching, and it lingers not on its errand, when the Wise and the Gifted shall again surround the cradles of the New Born Babe and there proffer, as did the Magi, their gifts of reverence and of love to the Holiness that hath visited the earth and shines forth with a celestial glory around their heads—and these, pondering well, as did Mary, the Divine Significance, shall steal from it the Art—so long lost in our Consciousness—of unfolding its powers into the fullness of the God.

And thus Man, repossessing his Idea, shall conform Nature to himself. Institutions shall bear the fruits of his regenerate being. They shall flourish in vigor and beauty. They shall circulate his Genius through Nature and Life and repeat the story of his renewal.

Say not that this Era is distant. Verily, it is near. Even at this moment, the heralds of the time are announcing its approach. Omens of Good hover over us. A deeper and holier Faith is quickening the Genius of our Time. Humanity awaits the hour of its renewal. The renovating Fiat has gone forth to revive our Institutions and remould our Men. Faith is lifting her voice and, like Jesus near the Tomb of Lazarus, is uttering the living words, "I am the Resurrection and the Life, and he that Believeth, though dead in doubts and sins, shall be reassured of his Immortality, and shall flourish in unfading Youth! I will mould Nature and Man according to my Will. I will transfigure all things into the Image of my Ideal" [John 11:25-26]—And by such Faith, and such Vision, shall Education work its mission on the Earth. Apprehending the Divine Significance of Jesus—yet filled with the assurance of coming Messiahs to meet the growing nature of Man—shall inspired Genius go forth to renovate his Era, casting out the unclean spirits and the demons that yet afflict the Soul. And then shall Humanity, leaving her infirmities, her wrongs, her sufferings, and her sins, in the corrupting grave, reappear in the consciousness of Physical Purity, Inspired Genius, and Spotless Holiness. Men shall be one with God, as was the Man of Nazareth.


© 2005 American Unitarian Conference