UU Minute #100

Young Waldo

William Emerson, distinguished minister of Boston’s First Church, drew his congregation with him into Unitarianism. So Ralph Waldo, born in 1803, the fourth of William’s eight children, grew up in a climate that prized learning, and culture – and became, himself, a Unitarian minister.

William died when Waldo was age 8, and the family was plunged into poverty. His Aunt Mary, William’s sister, was Waldo’s dominant influence. She taught him aphorisms he would teach his children:
  • "Lift your aims."
  • "Always do what you are afraid to do."
  • "Despise trifles."
  • "Turn up your nose at glory, honor, and money."
  • "Oh, blessed, blessed poverty."
She introduced Waldo to Hindu scriptures and Neoplatonism, and her openness to natural religion informed the Transcendentalism Waldo would later develop.

At 14, Waldo entered Harvard.

At 24, he began to preach at Unitarian Churches in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. At 26, he became associate minister at Boston’s Unitarian Second Church. A year later, when the Senior minister left, Waldo was made the Senior Minister.

He never relished parish work, but he liked preaching. While most of his colleagues preached from Biblical texts – explicating what the text wanted to say – Rev. Waldo Emerson was more inclined to employ Biblical texts to illustrate what he wanted to say. Yet he conveyed a homely elevation that charmed his congregants, and the membership was growing.

Then in 1832, at age 29, Waldo resigned his pulpit and never served another congregation. He said it was because he could not in conscience serve communion, knowing the members construed the meaning of the rite differently than he did. The real issue was probably vocational calling. He wasn’t sure to what he was called, but he began to feel that it wasn’t the ministry.

NEXT: The Divinity School Address, part 1


Home, Thanksgiving, and Stories

What is home? When are you home? Home: where you hang your hat; where the heart is. Sweet home.

It is the place of your belonging – a theme of Thanksgiving, and, indeed, belonging is the centerpoint for all our gratitudes – for gratitude flows from belonging, even as gratitude also affirms and strengthens our belonging. We gather in our homes, and maybe gather around with our homies – with our family, or with our friends, or both.

The Thanksgiving story of the pilgrims: they left home – because they didn’t feel at home where they were. They were religiously persecuted, so they headed out to a very distant, very strange new land in order to find a place where they could be at home with their faith.

We know that the traditional story is mostly untrue, and we have made a Thanksgiving practice here at CUUC of saying more accurately what happened. Briefly: In 1621, Wampanoag Indians investigated gun and cannon fire at a Pilgrim settlement to see them celebrating a successful harvest. The Wampanoag -- all male warriors, were fed as a gesture of peace. Apart from starting off as celebratory noise-making upon completion of the harvest, there was nothing particularly "Thanksgiving" about this event -- and it was not repeated annually. The first event we have record of that was identified as being for giving thanks came 15 years later. In 1636, when a murdered man was discovered in a boat in Plymouth, English Major John Mason collected his soldiers and killed and burned down the homes of all the neighboring Pequot Indians who were blamed for the murder. The following day, Plymouth Governor William Bradford applauded the massacre of the 400 Indians, including the women and children. The Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, William Newell, proclaimed: “From that day forth, shall be a day of celebration and thanks giving for subduing the Pequots.”

And so we come to today’s story: a pioneer family heading west to become homesteaders on the great plains. I grew up with stories like this of America’s westward expansion. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books tell about a family moving from Little House in the Big Woods to Little House on the Prairie. It was a comforting story -- an inspiring story of facing hardship and building a better life.

A couple things to notice that are left out.

Our story today didn't mention whether the family was black or white. I grew up always imagining white people in these roles. But let us remember that black families as well as white ones migrated West in the 19th century. The brief details of today’s story aren’t enough to identify this family as black or white. But that’s only because so much is indeed left out. The background of racial attitudes and biases would have profoundly influenced our family’s experience – and would have made a white and a black family’s experience of their risks and challenges very different.

On the one hand, parts of the challenge, of course, were the same. White families and black families were bound together by common hardships: the mud, the broken wagon wheels, the torn wagon coverings, the failing horses, the ravages of disease. These factors did not discriminate by race.

On the other hand, a white family and a black family would have been separated by a wide gulf of assumptions of white supremacy that infected the minds of both whites and blacks and made the context of their respective struggles quite different.

So that’s one lens we should have in place as we take in this story. Another lens is that the new home our settler colonizers found was on land that had been someone else’s home. The unmentioned reality of indigenous dispossession is a background awareness that we bring to this story.

So why re-tell this story? I do hope you were wondering that. We re-tell the story – viewing it through the lenses of awareness I mentioned -- because everybody gets a place at the table. All of who we are gets a seat at our Thanksgiving Table.

We are the poor white settler colonizers of Scotch-Irish extraction whose parents fled religious conflict and English persecution in Great Britain, and who wrought persecution in turn upon what, to them, was the New World. And we are the poor black frontier family who were also there, homesteading on the great plains. That’s us, too. And we are the Lakota, Pawnee, Crow, Sioux, Cheyenne, Osage, Arapaho, Blackfoot, Shoshone, Wichita, and Cree – to name but some of the plains peoples pushed from their homeland by the settler colonists. Nineteenth-century white settlers demonized the indigenous peoples, but it is no reparation for that damage to now demonize the white settlers.

We re-tell the story today in order to hold in our minds and in our hearts BOTH the reality of the harm they did AND the reality of their human yearning for a better life. We can hold both those realities at the same time.

The road home is an uneven one. All of us, on our path to find our place of belonging, have made mistakes. We have been unkind and cruel when we didn’t need to be. We have sometimes, in our quest for home, made others feel less at home, or even deprived them of home. But where there is life, there are redemptive possibilities.

Even the settler colonialists, as blinkered and cruel as they were, had inherent worth and dignity. Precisely because they did, we may hold them responsible for the harms they perpetrated. We see their humanity in this little story – and also know they could have done better.

And we can do better.

Thankful for the homes we have, and thankful for the vision of justice we now have, we can build our home in compassion -- while also seeing to it that all the peoples, and all the creatures of our planet have a home – and belong.


UU Minute #99

Emerson Re-defines Us

“Channing’s Baltimore Sermon, Emerson’s Divinity School Address, and Parker’s South Boston Sermon have long been accepted as the three great classic utterances of American Unitarianism.” (Conrad Wright, Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism)
All three were widely controversial – and widely influential.

William Ellery Channing’s Baltimore Sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” in 1819 was the manifesto that launched and defined Unitarianism as a new denomination. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Divinity School Address in 1838 spoke for a new generation. Channing had defined us, and Emerson re-defined us.

Invited to address the graduating class of Harvard’s Divinity School, Emerson, then 35 years old, delivered “Acquaint Thyself At First Hand with Deity” – commonly called simply the Divinity School Address.

Emerson discounted biblical miracles and proclaimed that, while Jesus was a great man, he was not God. Emerson said:
“The language that describes Christ to Europe and America, is not the style of friendship and enthusiasm to a good and noble heart, but is appropriated and formal, — paints a demigod, as the Orientals or the Greeks would describe Osiris or Apollo. Accept the injurious impositions of our early catachetical instruction, and even honesty and self-denial were but splendid sins, if they did not wear the Christian name. One would 'rather be a pagan, suckled in a creed outworn' [Wordsworth].” (Emerson, Divinity School Address)
If the language of Christianity was like the language describing pagan gods, then, Emerson was implying, the Christ described in those terms was comparable to pagan gods.

There was, as you might expect, considerable outrage. Emerson was denounced as an atheist and a poisoner of young minds. Despite the roar of critics, he made no reply, leaving others to put forward a defense.

We’ll look more into the context and content of Emerson’s remarkable Divinity School Address in our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: Young Waldo


UU Minute #98

Unlimited Atonement

We are Unitarian Universalists: the confluence of two mighty streams – the Unitarian and the Universalist -- that flowed together in 1961. And we are Universalists, not because we believe what Hosea Ballou believed, but because we are the latest participants in the on-flowing stream of conversation that is Universalism – a stream the course of which Hosea Ballou 200 years ago redirected with his powerful ideas.

His editorship of the Universalist Magazine gave us our identity for more than a generation. His 1805 book, A Treatise on Atonement, is a major landmark in the development of our thought. In it, Ballou argued that Christ’s act of atoning for our sins atoned for us all.

We today might take it a step farther and say that any act of courage and sacrifice redeems all of us. Jesus? Yes. If we read him as knowing what his ministry was risking, and doing it anyway, then his courage redeems us. Socrates would not cease his pursuit of truth even when he knew he’d be executed for it. His courage also redeems us. Katarzyna Weiglowa in the sixteenth century would not recant her truth that God was one and not three even when she knew she’d be burned at the stake for it. Her courage redeems us. Francis of Assisi, Miguel Serveto, John Woolman, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr, Wangari Maathai, Steven Biko, Rigoberta Menchu, Malala Yousafzai.

Every act of imagination and vision and courage redeems the species that is capable of producing it. They show us of what we, too, are capable.

That wasn’t what Ballou meant by “atonement.” But it’s what many of us understand – as Ballou’s conversation has evolved into ours.

NEXT: Emerson Re-defines Us


UU Minute #97

Universalism and Paying the Price

For Universalists, everyone goes to heaven. But for Universalists prior to Hosea Ballou, not everyone goes there right away. We endure a period of punishment, proportionate to our wickedness, before advancing to the pearly gates.

Hosea Ballou said heaven was immediate for everyone. He defended this view in his 1805 book, A Treatise on Atonement.

This was a big controversy. People outside and within the Universalist church said: if there were no punishment at all, we’d have complete licentiousness. If there is no price to be paid for sin, we have moral anarchy. Without fear of retribution, people will sin freely, drunken orgies, social decay,
“human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria” (Ghostbusters)
In response, this is what Hosea Ballou said. It’s what we still say. It’s the message that, when I was teenager, I heard from the pulpit of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta.

Ballou said: I’m not saying we don’t pay the price for our sins. We do. We pay the price for small-souledness. We pay the price for every thoughtless deed that diminishes the light from the spark of divinity within us. We pay the price for not loving ourselves, and our neighbor as our selves. We pay the price for not recognizing kinship, and we pay the price for not accepting difference. We pay the price. But that price is paid here. It is paid in this life. Hell is an earthly phenomenon, and it is those who cannot see beyond themselves and their own narrow self-interests who are imprisoned in the hell of their own making.

This is the teaching that comes to us from father Ballou -- and is echoed by his successors.

NEXT: Unlimited Atonement