A Cloud of Witnesses

February 8, 2009
Stuart Twite

Some of you may know that a month or two ago, a man specializing in EVP, which stands for electronic voice phenomena, spent a dark evening at First Parish recording the disembodied spirit voices that inhabit this sanctuary.  Carrie Brandon, my wife, went along and reported quite dramatic results.  And according to the recorder, our ghostly inhabitants are indeed quite active and vociferous.  Words that were audible included stupid and sandwich - you can take from that what you will - My wife, who has heard me wax cynical about such things in the past was surprised to hear that I not only accepted the idea of spirits in the meetinghouse, but have felt their presence for years.

As she walked out the door, I asked her to say hello to two of the spirits I regularly commune with, Rev. Samuel J. May and, William Phillips Tilden. 

Many of you may be familiar with Samuel J. May, fewer with William Phillips Tilden both of whom, along with Caleb Stetson and William fish, were vital parts of a fascinating and defining era in First Parish History.

In The New Testament Book of Hebrews, the writer records the history of the stalwarts of the faith and then says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and run with endurance the race that is set before us.”  I want, this morning to celebrate the cloud of witnesses that nourish and encompass First Parish church and to explore the lessons that they teach us about endurance and running the daily race.

We begin with William Phillips Tilden who was born on May 9, 1811 in Scituate, MA, his family history as old as the town itself.  Tilden’s childhood was a happy one, centered on home, land, sea and church. 

He played in the fields and fished in river and ocean.  His first job would be ferrying ship-carpenters across the North river in a small canoe. 

Religious life for Tilden centered right here in this church, then in the midst of the 24 year pastorate of Samuel Deane.  Under the moderate and liberal leadership of Rev. Deane, this Parish had managed to navigate the waters of religious controversy without the fractious contention so prevalent in other Massachusetts churches of the day.  This spirit of theological tolerance would be a hallmark of Tilden’s own ministry.

Largely educated in local district schools, Tilden marked the start of his, as he termed it, “academical education” with his summer work as a fisherman and in the local mackerel fishery.  He also began to work with his father in the shipyards, toiling from “sun to sun”.   

But the shallowness of the North River and declining old growth White Pine timber caused the center of shipbuilding to move from Scituate to East Boston and Medford, MA, and the latter is where Tilden moved.

It was during this period that he had what he called "the greatest crisis of his life" when he experienced an "inward awakening" that told him to "Be a man. Live a truer and nobler life". The liberal Arminianism in which he had been raised suddenly seemed thin gruel and he began to attend an orthodox church with Baptist relatives which stirred him.  He soon found, however, that "his heart had been converted, not his head" and that he remained, in principle, a Unitarian. His head and heart were finally united at Medford where he first heard the preaching of Caleb Stetson.  Said Tilden of Stetson’s impact, "My soul was awake now, hungry for the bread of heaven, and I found it.”

During this time, Tilden began to nourish a desire to be a minister. He mustered his courage and “confessed all” in a letter to Rev. Stetson and waited his response. "A day or two after," in the words of Tilden, "as I was at work in the ship-yard, I saw my portly pastor coming, looking through his glasses, first one side and then the other, as was his wont, going up the broad aisle. I dropped my axe to welcome him, and soon found he had a gospel of hope for me - and had come to tell he thought-yes I might-enter the ministry. That spot of ground is still sacred."

His lack of a college education, however, seemed daunting, and he returned to Scituate where his boyhood church had just called a new minister.  He was Samuel J. May, recently general agent of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.  A disciple of William Lloyd Garrison, May was also an advocate for women's rights, universal peace, total abstinence and educational reform. Tilden would follow in his footsteps as a minister and as a promoter of social reform.                                

When he learned of Tilden's desire for the ministry, May took him in, studied with him and guided him.  In the words of Tilden, "my best text-book, intellectual, moral, and religious, was Mr. May.

He set me at work; made me superintendent of his Sunday-school; took me with him to school-house meetings, educational, temperance, anti-slavery, and religious." The Sunday- School, organized by May and directed by Tilden was the first at First Parish and Tilden was its first DRE.  May provided Tilden with the only “formal” training he would receive and in 1840, Tilden was “Approbated to Preach,” thus fulfilling his dream.  He would go on to serve several parishes in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Known by his parishioners and colleagues as Brother Tilden, he is most remembered for his pastorate of the New South Free Church, in Boston.

The son of an old and prominent Boston Merchant family, Samuel J. May’s formative years were much different from Brother Tilden.  Harvard educated, May served the Brooklyn Conn. Church before accepting a call to South Scituate (as Norwell was then known) in 1836.  His involvement in social reform was well known to this somewhat conservative community, but his warm and compassionate nature made him a much loved pastor.  It is sometimes said of certain intense political reformers that they love humanity but don’t love individual humans very much.  May was decidedly an exception.  Garrison’s famous abolitionist Newspaper, The Liberator, extolled the virtues of Rev. May with these words:  “His spirit is as gentle as a dove, yet hath an angel’s energy and scope; Its flight is towering as the heaven above, and with the outstretched earth doth bravely cope.”  For Samuel J. May, the inherent worth and dignity of all people was a theory and a living reality.

May’s major crusade while at South Scituate was temperance, which, along with his other causes, he saw as a movement for human freedom.

He started a chapter of the Cold Water Army which had as many as 500 area children marching in the streets carrying banners, procuring barrels of locally sold rum and smashing them to bits all the time chanting, “Here we pledge eternal hate to those that would intoxicate.” 

It was his stand against segregated seating in this very meetinghouse, however, that would hasten his departure.  In those days, our small African American community was required to sit in the balcony.  May’s conscience could not let this stand, and though he would later describe his years here as the happiest of his life, he left South Scituate in 1842 to take up the Presidency of the Lexington Mass. Normal School and later the ministry in Syracuse. 

Four years later, in South Scituate, a good friend of Samuel J. May’s would be called to this church.  Caleb Stetson, the Medford Minister who had fired the heart of William Phillips Tilden, became our minister in 1848 and would serve for 10 years.

Stetson was a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and a member of the famous transcendentalist club.  Also an active temperance man and abolitionist, Stetson once addressed the Concord anti-slavery group from the front steps of a small cabin by Walden Pond built and inhabited by one Henry David Thoreau.  Though it may seem difficult to fathom based on his photograph, Stetson was known for his humor and Emerson notes more than one dignified occasion in which Stetson had him struggling to stifle his laughter with his “humorous asides” 

About the mission of the church, however, he was very serious.  “Our house of Worship” he would write, “intimates our connection with a higher life, and directs our thoughts to nobler uses of our being, than we have yet acknowledged…When we habitually unite in the exercises of a religion whose central principle is universal love…we shall hear angel voices proclaiming peace on earth and good will among men.” 

The next of our angel voices would be called to our pulpit in 1865 at the behest of, you guessed it, Samuel J. May.  William Fish was a seeker and a striver for human betterment which had found expression as a Universalist minister in Massachusetts and later as a resident of Adin Ballou’s Utopian Socialist community at Hopedale.  He would go on to serve the church in Cortland New York where he would convene a Literary Association that would host speakers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Samuel J. May who would encourage him to take his old pulpit in South Scituate. 

Fish would be our minister from 1865 to 1885.  He would be instrumental in the fundraising, building and early administration of the James Library and would be its first librarian.  Fish would be a much beloved minister dedicated to, the intellectual, spiritual and moral betterment of the people of Norwell. 

Between the four ministers mentioned here were covered just about all of the political, spiritual, theological, literary, social reform, and utopian impulses of their times.  And their times were among the most formative in American History.  And they all were intimately connected to First Parish Church, Norwell. 

We can take great pride in that and it is fitting that they should be celebrated here.  But I am certain that it would be an injustice to their memories to stop there.  For, after all, each of them sought and preached a living faith that found expression in the day to day lives of all people.  The writer of the book of Hebrews stops not at the glory of the great cloud of witnesses but exhorts us to run with them the daily race.  So I conclude, this morning with what to me have been two great lessons of these four ministers. 

First is the deep importance of holding high ideals and the necessity of carving out some territory where they can be best lived out.  Ideals are, by their definition, doomed to be realized imperfectly.  In fact, they often are their own worst enemy. 

Tilden and May, for example, were both ultra-peace men and ardent immediate abolitionists.  So with the coming of the Civil war, their beliefs were tested in deep and profound ways.  William Tilden would write of this internal struggle “I had felt myself forbidden to fight even in self-defense.  But here something far higher and greater than self was in peril.  Not I, but my country, was assailed.”  Finally, he came to believe that the war was the only way that slavery would end in America.  After much thought and prayer, Tilden came to see the war as a “just necessity” but could not enter into in with patriotic fervor.  His sermons were not, as he, himself, put the matter, “charged with powder and shell.”   These ministers often found themselves at odds with their congregations over conflicting ideals.  What was their solution?  To reach out as much as possible to all, even their opponents, in love and respect, to practice personally what they preached publicly, and to live deeply the fundamentals of their faith.  To, in short, promote the dignity of each and every soul in their care.

That foundation of human dignity is the basis for the second great lesson that we learn from our witnesses; and that is a deep and abiding belief that we all can live, in Tilden’s words, a “higher and nobler life.” That old word character, so prominent in our reading this morning, can be, and is, a deeply spiritual idea.  It is the belief that every one of us, in living our highest and best life day by day, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, are living a religious life.  The effort to grow, to better ourselves intellectually, spiritually and morally is the very effort of life.  For Tilden, May, Stetson, and Fish, salvation was in living and growing and in loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Which brings me back to our active sanctuary spirits.  In the years since 1642, tens of thousands of people have been a part of this great congregation.  They have fought with each other, gossiped about each other, been petty with each other. 

They have shared their deepest fears, their greatest pains, their heaviest burdens with each other.  They have given themselves in joy, and hope and love to each other. 

So to Tilden and May studying theology in the front row of this sanctuary, and to Stetson and Fish laughing and learning in this church and the library across the way, and most especially to the thousands of people just like us who have sat in these pews, we say this morning, thank you.  You are our great cloud of witnesses, our “angel voices” and for you we raise our earthly voices in our Closing Hymn.  The words were written by a parishioner for the installation of Samuel J. May and sung in this church on October the 26th 1836.  They are printed in your order of service:     


O thou! Whose chariot is the wind,

   Whose word all worlds obey,

Before whose throne archangels bow,

   O hear us while we pray.


Thy servant, whom thy Providence

   Hath set to guard thy sheep

Give us the strength, the power, the grace,

   The will, our charge to keep


Inspire our souls with holy zeal

   To herald forth thy truth

To cheer and comfort hoary age:

   To guide and counsel youth.


To soothe the mourner, be his care

   And point him to thy word-

The fearful, doubting, trembling one,

   To lead him to his God.


Pastor and people bless, O Lord!

   And may they ne’er be riven,

Till, called by death they part in time,

   To meet again in Heaven.