Susan and I have for years wanted to take our three children on a pilgrimage to America’s founding churches. A church-benefit auction at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego, where I teach Sunday school and my wife serves on the board of trustees, gave us the opportunity to bid on two weeks in a cabin on a Middleton, Massachusetts beaver bond. We jumped at the opportunity to bid – and we won. The five of us would be spending two weeks in Massachusetts, visiting New England’s historic churches, and touring colleges that might interest our daughters, ages 16 and 14. We hoped our son of eight years would find some fun along the way.
Susan and I planned our two-week vacation to allow three Sundays in Massachusetts, that we might join Sunday services with the congregations of three of America’s founding churches: the First Parish Church in Plymouth, the First Church in Boston, and the First Church in Salem. The Wednesday midday services at King’s Chapel would permit us to join a fourth of America’s historic congregations in our brief visit to New England. And public tours of the United First Parish Church of Quincy would give us the opportunity to visit the crypts of President John Adams, First Lady Abigail Adams, President John Quincy Adams, and First Lady Louisa Catherine Adams.
The Unitarian Vatican
Our family vacation began with three nights in Boston, at the Eliot & Pickett House, just behind the national headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations at 25 Beacon Street, on the Boston Common, and next door to the Massachusetts State House. Soon we were referring (tongue in cheek) to the complex of 25 Beacon Street, with its adjacent Elliot and Pickett House, as “the Unitarian Vatican.” We found ourselves within walking distance not only of the First Church in Boston and King’s Chapel, but also of the Rev. Dr. William Ellery Channing’s congregation, theArlington Street Church, which dates to 1729, and which was known as the “Federal Street Church” when Channing held the pulpit).
First Church in Boston (gathered 1630)
“The history of the First Church in Boston is the spiritual history of New England and the record of intellectual and religious growth,” according to Rev.Samuel A. Eliot’s 1910 compilation of Unitarian biography, Heralds of a Liberal Faith: The Prophets. So my family naturally made a point of joining the First Church in Boston for Sunday services on August 3.
This is the congregation that first gathered in 1630, when John Winthrop and his band of Puritans stepped off the Arbella, to build their shining “city upon a hill.”
It is the same congregation, moreover, that the Rev. Charles Chauncy served from 1727 to 1787, as a patriot minister whose liberal sermons helped lay the groundwork for revolution and independence, and whose liberal theology Jonathan Rowe has noted on this blog.
The patriot Rev. Chauncy preached in 1767: “It may be relied on, our people would not be easy, if restrained in the exercise of that liberty wherewith Christ hath made them free; yea, they would hazard everything dear to them – their estates, their very lives – rather than to suffer their necks to be put under that yoke of bondage which was so sadly galling to their fathers, and occasioned their retreat into this distant land, that they might enjoy the freedom of men and Christians.”
The 1910 compilation of Unitarian biographies, Heralds of a Liberal Faith, notes that “Dr. Chauncy became the best known of the liberal leaders in the Massachusetts churches before Channing. He was the representative scholar of the earlier liberal movement, as Jonathan Mayhew was the representative orator.” Thus it was that Chauncy, as Boston’s most influential minister, “affirmed the restoration of all souls, denied the Calvinistic doctrines about the future punishment, and questioned the doctrine of the Trinity.”
Governor Winthrop’s statue stands today outside his First Church’s current structure, which today accommodates the merged congregations of the First and Second Churches in Boston – the Second or “North” Church being a 1649 offshoot of First Church, where the Rev. Increase Mather and Cotton Mather held the pulpit in its early days, and where the Rev. Ralph Waldo Emerson would preach, from 1829 to 1832.
I suspect that Emerson would be gratified to know that the church’s office today features a portrait of his predecessor in the pulpit, the Puritan Rev. Increase Mather, on one wall, contemplating a statue of the Buddha standing against the far wall.
For this is a liberal congregation, that remains a beacon for the world, upholding freedom of conscience and affirming the worth and dignity of all its members, male and female, straight and gay. On an earlier visit to Boston, I met Carlos French at First Church. An active member of the congregation, Carlos married his partner Anthony Gomez at First Church on May 22, 2004.
On August 3, when my family joined the congregation for Sunday worship services, the First Church in Boston lent its pulpit to summer minister Molly Housh, a Harvard Divinity student who promises to be an extraordinary Unitarian Universalist Minister, and whose sermon “Standing on Shaky Ground”, celebrated faith in times of vicissitude and uncertainty -- and had us all singing Shel Silversteian’s poem “I’m Being Swallowed by a Boa Constrictor.”.
We had the pleasure of meeting briefly with First Church’s senior ministerRev. Stephen Kendrick, who missed the post-service coffee hour because he was accommodating the U.S. State Department by welcoming and meeting with a delegation of Islamic theologians from Turkey.
All of this was exciting for Susan and me and, I hope, for our daughters – but it was a bit much for my eight-year-old son Loren. As we left the First Church in Boston, Loren remarked “this really isn’t my idea of a vacation.”
King’s Chapel (organized 1686)
We rewarded Loren with the midday service at King’s Chapel on Wednesday, August 6.
King’s Chapel began, of course, as New England’s first Anglican church, organized in 1686, to the displeasure of Boston’s Puritan Congregationalists. Construction of the current stone structure began in 1749, and was completed in 1754.
If the liberal theology and preaching of Boston’s patriot Congregationalist ministers, such as First Church’s Rev. Charles Chauncy and West Church’s Rev. Jonathan Mayhew, fostered the intellectual climate that produced the American Revolution, the Revolution itself moved King’s Chapel into the liberal camp after its theologically orthodox Tory rector, the Rev. Henry Caner and the British loyalists among its members fled Boston for London in 1776. With the loyalist Tories gone, funeral services could be held at King’s Chapel for the patriot General Joseph Warren, who fell at the Battle of Bunker Hill. With King’s Chapel’s Tory connections severed, Boston’s revolutionaries spoke of the “Stone Chapel” during the War for Independence. But this place of worship for American revolutionaries would later reclaim its name, “King’s Chapel,” in homage no longer to a British monarch, but to a far higher King.
During the Revolutionary War, the remaining members of the King’s Chapel congregation were joined for worship services by temporarily displaced members of the Old South Meeting House. And when the Old South congregation departed after the war, the King’s Chapel’s wardens hired a recent Harvard graduate, James Freeman as a reader, agreeing to his insistence that he not be required to read the Athanasian creed. The congregation subsequently authorized Freeman to revise the church’s liturgy, and ordained him as its minister. Based on the Rev. James Freeman’s revision of the liturgy in 1785, removing all Trinitarian references, King’s Chapel proudly calls itself the “First Unitarian Church in North America.” Thus, wrote its minister and historian Rev. William Francis Pitt Greenwood in 1833: “The first Episcopal Church in New England, became the first Unitarian Church in America.”
King’s Chapel was, perhaps, the first American church to call itself “Unitarian.” Yet it’s clear that many of Massachusetts’ oldest Congregational churches already had strong liberal leanings, and that King’s Chapel’s adoption of a Unitarian liturgy in 1785 likely reflected what had already become the prevailing religious spirit in revolutionary Boston. Indeed, the Rev. Dr. James Freeman himself declared that the great patriot, the Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mayhew, “may with justice be denominated the first preacher of Unitarianism in Boston.” And Katherine Lee Bates, best known and loved for penning “America the Beautiful,” wrote in her treatise on American Literature that “Rev. Jonathan Mayhew, an eloquent patriot who died ten years before the pealing of the Liberty Bell, was the Unitarian pioneer of New England. Some twenty years after his death, King’s Chapel put forth a liturgy, drawn up by Rev. James Freeman, from which all Trinitarian expressions were omitted.”
Rev. Mayhew is best known, of course, as the patriot minister who in a 1750 sermon coined the phrase “no taxation without representation.” In New England, at least, liberal theology and revolutionary politics were intimately intertwined. New England’s rigid Puritanism had evolved into a liberal Unitarian theology that sowed the seeds of revolution in politics, as well as in religion.
King’s Chapel to this day follows a revised Episcopal liturgy, based upon its Book of Common Prayer. My family was privileged on August 6 to hear a sermon at King’s Chapel delivered by a guest to its pulpit, the Rev. Claire Feingold Thoryn, who serves as assistant minister of the First Parish in Lincoln, a congregation dating to the 1740s. Her recent sermons may be found here.
We were sorry we could not witness a wedding at the historic church. On June 22, 2004, Massachusetts’s former Governor, William Weld, read the homily at the wedding of two members of his Republican administration: Chief of Staff Kevin Smith and Revenue Comissioner Mitchell Adams. Declaring the Republican Party a “big tent,” Governor Weld told the press that he was “proud and happy” that Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, whom he appointed, had ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry.
Following the not-quite-so-historic August 6 midday service that we were privileged to join, my family took the tour of King’s Chapel, which happens to be the fifth stop on Boston’s Freedom Trail. Our eight-year-old enjoyed seeing the governor’s pew, where George Washington once sat.
Adjacent to the church is Boston’s oldest cemetery, the King’s Chapel Burying Ground,with headstones from the 1600s. Our daughters particularly enjoyed the Joseph Tapping stone, with its personificaton of Death and Time. More recently, the remains of the Rev. Rhys Williams, who served as minister of the First Church in Boston for forty years, were interred in the small cemetery in 2003, “next to the graves of John Cotton, the second minister of First Church, and John Winthrop, the first governor of the Commonwealth, in the plot owned by [First] Church.”
Touring 25 Beacon Street
The following day, on Thursday August 7, my friend John Hurley was kind enough to give our family a full tour of 25 Beacon Street, the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. John is the denomination’s Director of Communications.
Highlights of the tour included the memorial to civil-rights martyrs murdered in Alabama in 1965: Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, and the Reverend James Reeb.
John recounted for my children how in February of 1965, Alabama State Troopers suppressing a civil rights demonstration had shot and killed Jimmie Lee Jackson, a Deacon of St. James Baptist Church in Marion, Alabama.
When the Rev. Martin Luther King called for clergy of all faiths to come to Selma, many Unitarian Universalist ministers answered the call. Among them was the Rev. James Reeb, a member of Boston’s Arlington Street Church and former minister of Washington, D.C.’s All Souls Church, who had left the pulpit to work with Boston’s poor. Shortly after his arrival in Selma, Reeb was set upon and murdered by Klansmen.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King eulogized Rev. Reeb as a man “martyred in the Judeo-Christian faith that all men are brothers,” whose only “crime was that he dared to live his faith; he placed himself alongside the disinherited black brethren of this community.” The Rev. Reeb, Dr. King declared, “symbolizes the forces of good will in our nation. He demonstrated the conscience of the nation.”
When Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist housewife and mother of five from Detroit, Michigan, read of Rev. Reeb’s martyrdom, she knew she had to go to Selma herself, to carry on the struggle for racial justice. And on March 24, 1965, she too was murdered by Klansmen.
At the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, we could perceive a connection between the liberal theology and values of America’s founding churches and the civil-rights struggle of the 1960s. We had seen the Arlington Street Church, on the other side of Boston Common and the Public Garden, which had first gathered in 1729, where William Ellery Channing held the pulpit from 1803 to 1843, and where Rev. James Reeb had, before his martyrdom, been an active member. We knew that Rev. Reeb also had served as an associate minister at Washington, D.C.’s All Souls Church, of which John Quincy Adams had been a founding member in 1821, carrying to the nation’s capital his family’s Unitarian faith.
Here at 25 Beacon Street, the memorial to Jackson, Reeb, and Liuzzo, showed the link between the liberal churches of America’s founding era, and struggle for social justice in the 1960s – and beyond.
John also showed us complete runs of the Universalist Magazine, which began in 1819, and the Unitarian Christian Register, which began publishing in 1821 and subsequently took the name Christian Examiner. After some name changes over the years, they had united in 1961 with the union of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations, and continue today under the name UU World, carrying the beacon of freedom of conscience, and continuing our liberal churches’ struggle for social justice.
First Parish Church in Plymouth (gathered 1606)
My family’s second Sunday in Massachusetts gave us the opportunity to join the worship services at the First Parish Church in Plymouth, “at the top of town square since 1620.”
This is the congregation that gathered in Scrooby, England in 1606, that worshiped in exile in Holland, that sailed on the Mayflower, landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and that celebrated the First Thanksgiving in 1621.
On the wall of the sanctuary we could see the words of John Robinson, the Pilgrims’ spiritual leader, who in July of 1620 declared to those departing for the New World that “the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.”
Robinson told his followers to follow their own reason, emphasizing that revelation is not closed, and that they should keep their minds and spirits open to new truths. As recounted by Edward Winslow, Robinson insisted in July of 1620 that his own congregation should “follow him no further than he followed Christ; and if God should reveal any thing to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it as ever we were to receive any truth by his ministry; for he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word. He took occasion also miserably to bewail the state and condition of the Reformed Churches, who were come to a period in religion, and would go no further than the instruments of their Reformation. As, for example, the Lutherans, they could not be drawn to go beyond what Luther saw; for whatever part of God’s will he had further imparted and revealed to Calvin, they will rather die than embrace it. And so also, saith he, you see the Calvinists, they stick where he left them; a misery much to be lamented; for though they were precious shining lights in their times, yet God had not revealed his whole will to them; and were they now living, saith he, they would be as ready and willing to embrace further light, as that they had received. Here also he put us in mind of our church covenant, at least that part of it whereby we promise and covenant with God and one with another, to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us from his written word; but withal exhorted us to take heed what we received for truth, and well to examine and compare it and weigh it with other Scriptures of truth before we received it. For, saith he, it is not possible the Christian world should come so lately out of such thick antichristian darkness, and that full perfection of knowledge should break forth at once.”
Robinson died before he could follow his flock to the New World. But his sermon to the departing Pilgrims demonstrates that their religion was, at heart, genuinely progressive in character, and their faith open-ended.
When my family joined the Pilgrims’ congregation for Sunday worship on August 10, 2008, we were treated to an inspiring sermon by Diane Stillman, the chair of the congregation’s Religious Education Committee, whose homily celebrated Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Now, it must be admitted that this church’s progressive outlook has produced some discord – and even a schism that divided the congregation. For when the congregation called Rev. James Kendall, 3rd, an avowed liberal, as its minister in 1800, the more conservative or “orthodox” of its members strenuously objected. They seceded in 1801, founding a congregation known today as the Church of the Pilgrimage. This was shortly before the 1805 appointment of Henry Ware to the Hollis Divinity Chair at Harvard, often identified as the event commencing the “Unitarian Controversy” and schism between the “orthodox” and the “liberals” of New England’s Congregationalist churches.
The First Parish Church in Plymouth is affiliated today with the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, while the Church of the Pilgrimage is a member of the United Church of Christ. And although the Unitarian Universalists are decidedly more open-ended in their theology than is the United Church of Christ, the “orthodox” Congregationalists still take seriously John Robinson’s insight that revelation is not closed, and that “the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.” Indeed, this principle provided the inspiration for the United Church of Christ’s “God is Still Speaking” advertising campaign – a campaign that was banned by the major networks because it conflicted with the Bush Administration’s anti-gay policies.
The ads drove home the message that “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” Major networks refused to run the campaign’s initial ads because they suggested that gays and lesbians should be welcome in church. In a letter, CBS explained that because “the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN] networks.”
Both of the Plymouth, Massachusetts, congregations that legitimately claim descent from the Mayflower Pilgrims today welcome gays and lesbians as members. And committed gay and lesbian couples may marry in either church.
United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts
We made it to the United First Parish Church of Quincy , on a weekday and took a tour of the “Church of the Presidents,” as any other tourists may – paying our respects at the crypts of President John Adams, First Lady Abigail Adams, President John Quincy Adams, and First Lady Louisa Catherine Adams.
The church of our nation’s second and sixth presidents first gathered in the 1630s and has been liberal in theology – that is, “Unitarian” – since the 1750s, as readers of this blog undoubtedly know from Jonathan Rowe’s posts.
It should perhaps go without saying that this too is a church where committed gay or lesbian couples are welcome to marry. Noting that “This historic church, the congregation of John Adams, author of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has a tradition of concern for individual rights and protection of the minority, extending from the early days of the Commonwealth through John Adams to the present day,” the congregation in 2004 resolved “To support the right of same-sex couples to marry and to receive all the rights and benefits of that civil institution under the laws of the Commonwealth.” Controversy erupted in 2006, when local officials ordered the church not to display a banner reading “People of Faith for Marriage Equality.” The local officials eventually relented, and the banner was hung. The church received an Community Faith in Action Award from the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry presented its for its advocacy for human rights.
Harvard University (established 1636)
Our visits to college campuses overlapped with denominational history when our daughters toured Harvard University and Tufts.
America’s oldest university, Harvard dates to 1636. By 1805, the institution was sufficiently liberal that Henry Ware was named to the Hollis Chair in Divinity – the nation’s oldest endowed chair. This would be a critical event in the growing “Unitarian Controversy,” that eventually divided New England’s Congregationalist churches between the “orthodox” or “Trinitarian” camp, and the “liberal” or “Unitarian.”
When the schism was complete, most of Massachusetts’ founding churches stood firmly in the Unitarian camp. These included the First Parish Church in Plymouth, the First Church in Salem, the First Church in Boston, and the First Parish Church in Cambridge, which first gathered in 1636 and stands on Harvard Square, across the street from the University.
Tufts University was founded in 1852 by Universalists, with its first president the Rev. Hosea Ballou, 2d. The great showman, P.T. Barnum, was another strong supporter. Yes, that P.T. Barnum, whose contribution of Jumbo the Elephant’s stuffed hide gave the university its mascot. My 14-year-old daughter Audrey was delighted by the elephants that adorn the campus – evidence of the school’s Universalist roots.
The two denominations, Unitarian and Universalist, eventually united in 1961.
First Church in Salem (gathered 1629)
For our last Sunday in Massachusetts, we joined the First Church in Salem, a congregation that first gathered in 1629, and that had some troubling issues with “witches” in 1692. As a matter of fact, a member of the congregation, Rebecca Nurse, was the first person charged with witchcraft in the hysteria of 1692. She was hanged. Another member of the congregation, Giles Corey, was pressed to death.
As it happened, the cabin on the beaver pond where my family stayed in Middleton, Massachusetts, belongs to one of Rebecca Nurse’s descendants, a member our congregation, the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego.
When we joined the Salem congregation for Sunday worship services on August 17, 2008, the Reverend Jeffrey Barz-Snell ceded his pulpit to a member of the congregation, Dr. Rose Wolf. Dr. Wolf identified herself as “a Christian witch,” and delivered a sermon on the subject of “The Emerald Tablet and the Golden Key: Reclaiming Jesus as a Witch.”
Now, I can’t say that the rest of the congregation agreed with Dr. Wolf’s thesis, that Jesus practiced witchcraft. But that’s the thing about Unitarian Universalist churches. You don’t have to agree. Unitarain Universalist churches celebrate freedom of thought and freedom of belief – freedom of the pulpit and freedom of the pew. Unitarian Universalists don’t go to church expecting to agree with everything they hear from the pulpit – or even wanting to.
That the First Church in Salem could open its pulpit to a self-identified witch said something – as did the fact that a jubilant humanist preached a sermon on Darwinian evolution at the First Church in Plymouth. America’s founding churches are liberal churches, that encourage free thought and freedom of conscience, and that honor and celebrate human diversity even in matters of faith.