As minister of this historic liberal church I am often asked questions about First
Parish and Unitarian Universalism. I suspect that the questions I'm asked are ones than
many others have as well, both newcomers and old-timers who may have forgotten where we
came from, what we stand for, and how long we've been around? Besides, it is a good
exercise from time to time to review and renew the roots and wings of what we are and why
we exist as a church and congregation. Thus, the reason for this sermon. First Parish in
Norwell has a long and distinguished history. Its buildings and properties encompass and
embrace both the old and the new, befitting our spiritual heritage which reaches back to
the 17th century while our religious outlook is as new as tomorrow. For more than 350
years First Parish of Norwell has served the spiritual needs of many people of varied
religious and ethnic backgrounds and continues to do so.
Exactly how old is the church and how did it get started?
This question has a number of components to it. Our present "Greek revival" style church meeting house was erected in 1830, it being the fifth and largest one in the history of the parish which dates back to 1642. An interesting fact about the present structure is that it has the distinction of having been in three different towns without having to move an inch: Scituate (1830), South Scituate (1849), and Norwell (1888). I doubt that any other church building can make the same claim.
Now, as to how the church began, it was an outgrowth following a controversy over the mode of baptism with the minister of the First Parish in Scituate, the Rev. Charles Chauncy. The gist of the controversy, as noted in Bradford's History, was that Mr. Chauncy held that baptism "ought only to be by dipping, and putting ye whole body under water, and that sprinkling was unlawful." The dissidents, who were the liberal faction, wanted freedom of choice in the mode of baptism and preferred the simpler method of "sprinkling." They admitted that "immersion or dipping was lawful, but in this coulde countrie be not so conveniente." Mr. Chauncey, who was a progressive and intelligent churchman in so many ways, was stubborn and unyielding when it came to the question of baptism. It was his way or no way. The end result was that the sprinklers moved up river to form a more liberal church, leaving the dippers at First Parish in Scituate to dip to their heart's content.
Today both the First Parish churches in Scituate and Norwell are Unitarian Universalist and the original controversy over baptism seems a mere trifle. As Cap'n Bill Vinal notes in his booklet on Old Scituate Churches in a Changing World, "people of today are not so contentious as to whether one is immersed, sprinkled, or dry cleaned." Today we are contentious about more "important" things--like what color to paint the walls (which we did last year) or whether to install shades in the south windows to shield our parishioners from excessive sunlight on Sunday mornings.
What happened to all the other church buildings? Were any lost to fire?
Of the previous four buildings, all of which were on different sites than the current one, none were lost to fire, although we nearly lost our present building to fire in the 1950s when some careless workman left a burning cigarette in the steeple. In the previous structures either the membership outgrew them or the buildings fell down around them perhaps because of an inattentive building and grounds committee. We have some very devoted members who are determined to keep this building and our other properties in prime condition for at least another 350 years. We also take pride in the recently restored Kent House which dates back to the 1600s and the James Library which is celebrating its 125th anniversary year and has become renowned as a Center for the Arts.
Do we or do we not have an authentic Paul Revere bell in the steeple?
The answer is yes and no. It is the same bell but not the original bell. How can that be? The original Paul Revere bell was recast around 1880 because a well-to-do female parishioner complained that she could not hear the bell from her home which was a few streets removed. She paid to have it recast so that she could hear it. So you see it is the same bell but not the original bell. The church once owned some original Paul Revere communion silver, but the parish gave it away to a church in Rhode Island when a new set was procured in the 1830s. It was one of the dumbest things they ever did next to recasting the Paul Revere bell. One wonders if they had any sense of historic preservation and value.
Who was the most famous minister or ministers to occupy this pulpit?
Actually, we can claim two, and both were named Samuel. Samuel Deane was renowned in his day as a local historian, writer and poet, whose book on the History of Scituate was reprinted a number of years ago by the Scituate Historical Society. Deane served as minister here from 1810 to 1836. He was followed by Samuel J. May, the renowned Boston abolitionist, friend and follower of William Lloyd Garrison (a Universalist), and uncle of Louisa May Alcott. Samuel May was an ardent preacher and advocate of the causes of anti-slavery, women's suffrage, universal peace, and temperance. In the latter effort he formed a Cold Water Army of marching youth who carried banners through town denouncing the evils of rum and chanting "perpetual hate against all that doth intoxicate." Though a social activist May was a loving, caring and supportive pastor to his people and much beloved even by those who disagreed with some of his causes. His model of ministry is one that any liberal minister would be
proud to emulate.
Has First Parish always been Unitarian?
No, not always, but it is difficult to pin an exact date as to when. It probably became officially Unitarian during the ministry of Samuel Deane when the present meeting house was built. But the church was nominally Unitarian or became so during the long 56 plus year ministry of the Rev. Dr. David Barnes (1754-1810). Dr. Barnes was a liberal educated man, with a scientific bent of mind, who could discourse on a wide variety of subjects from bees to east wind to lightning and making salt--everything from the birds to the bees, and maybe even the birds and the bees. Barnes was something of an individualist and social nonconformist. He continued to wear a wig even after they had gone out of style. I should take courage from Dr. Barnes! Samuel Deane was Dr. Barnes' protege and succeeded him as senior minister when Barnes retired. Deane was Unitarian Christian in his theology, but the church experienced no major rift over the Unitarian vs. Trinitarian controversy which split so many other churches in the early 19th century. Deane was either a "quiet liberal" or Dr. Barnes had already brought the parish along to a Unitarian point of view so that the transition was smooth, natural and nondivisive.
How do you join the church?
It is fairly easy and relatively painless. You sign the church covenant, are voted officially into church membership at a church business meeting, and welcomed and recognized along with others on the Sunday before Easter. The church covenant reads very simply: "In the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and service of humankind." The covenant is not a creed. There is no theological test or requirement of belief involved. You have complete freedom to decide for yourself the meaning of Jesus' person and teachings for your life and determine your own concept of God and come to your own conclusions about it. Thomas Paine once wrote: "It is necessary to the happiness of persons that they be mentally faithful to themselves. Infidelity does not consist in believing or disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what one does not believe." Unitarian Universalists concur. You must be free to determine your religious beliefs according to your own
best reason, conscience and experience. And the best place to do this, we believe, is in the context of a free church community.
Are there any obligations to church membership?
Obligations are a matter of personal conscience and choice. We hope you will come to church because you want to not because you must and that you will support the institution and programs of the church with your time and your money, the amount to be determined by you. You will be asked to make a financial pledge to the church. Most members do pledge, though there are a few who don't. It makes little sense, however, to join a religious community you have no intention of supporting. If you join we expect your support and will not hesitate to ask you for it. The free church is not free. We have a costly heritage of devotion and sacrifice that can only be maintained by the work and commitment of those who live and serve today.
Can agnostics and atheists join the church?
I certainly hope so, because all of us, I believe have a degree of agnosticism and atheism in us. I have often joked that the Unitarian Universalist church is the Church of the Holy agnostic with Socrates as our patron saint. Socrates, you will remember, kept asking questions, questions, questions--questions about God and politics and morality--until he discovered how little he or anyone else knew about anything. The more we know the more we discover how much more there is to know, and how much more than that we can never know. So we had better be humble about what we think we do know. Tomorrow will have new truths to tell.
As far as atheism is concerned all of us are atheistic about someone else's concept of God. The question is not, "Are you an atheist?", but, "What kind of atheist are you?" Let us recall that the early Christians were considered atheists by the powers of Rome because they would not swear divine allegiance to the emperor. Do any of you believe in Zeus or Jupiter or any of the gods of the Greek pantheon? You don't? Then you're an atheist. I respect the belief but am not myself a believer in Allah, the God of the Koran, even though Muslims declare there is no God but Allah. The God of the Koran is to me a rather harsh patriarchal deity who represses the rights and powers of women. The God of Orthodox Judaism is not much better. Neither do I believe in Vishnu, Shiva or Krishna as ontological or historical manifestations of the divine, or in Buddha as a Savior to those rapt in ignorance, though I deeply appreciate the broad religious tolerance of Hindu theology and the sensible practice of meditation by the Buddhists.
One of my buttons says it well: "Thank God I'm An Atheist." My God is less definable, less tied and bound to a particular religious tradition or culture, though I am quite willing to affirm belief in a power greater than myself. To me God is the Ground of Being, the motive force of Creative Evolution, the impulse to love and knowledge in the human spirit. I am not too sure I know what all this means, but if that makes me an atheist and an agnostic I'll accept the accusation, thank God for it, and say that whatever else I am, I'm a Unitarian Universalist.
What do Unitarian Universalists believe about Jesus?
Beliefs vary widely as one might expect, but generally most UUs look upon Jesus as a great (and for some the greatest) religious prophet whose life and teachings exemplified the best in the moral and spiritual traditions of his Hebrew faith. A son of God, yes. The Son of God, excluding all others, no. A divinely inspired religious teacher, yes. The Messiah, the one and only Savior of humankind, God incarnate in the flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity, no--but you can still believe all the traditional orthodox beliefs about Jesus and be a Unitarian Universalist so long as you grant others the right to hold different beliefs with equal sincerity.
Do Unitarian Universalists accept the Bible?
Certainly we accept the Bible as the main corpus of religious writings of the Judeo-Christian tradition and recognize much in it of high inspirational and ethical value, but it is not the only source of religious inspiration and ethical guidance. The Bible is not all of a piece and not everything in it is of equal worth and value. To call for the stoning to death of those who pick up sticks on the Sabbath (as it says in the Torah) is hardly a practical guideline for faith and practice in today's world, but the injunction to care for widows and orphans and to be kind to the stranger in your gates, is a universal imperative transcending all times and cultures. The Bible is not looked upon by most UUs as the Word of God, but rather as the words of human beings, written over a period of a few thousand years, which reveal their evolving and changing vision of God and their search for the mystery of the divine. The Hebrew-Christian vision of the divine needs to be rounded out and compared with the vision of other religious and spiritual traditions, and supplemented and enlarged by the thought and experience of poets, philosophers, scientists, and thinkers past and present.
Do Unitarian Universalists believe in life after death?
Some do, some don't, some are not sure, some could care less, some think we've lived before and will live again, but we all believe that we live on in the thoughts and memories of those who come after us. We assuredly do not believe in the notion of hell as a place of infinite punishment for finite transgression, nor in heaven as a place of pink clouds, cotton candy and golden streets. Some of us suspect, myself included, that evolution of consciousness may continue after the death of the body and consider ourselves to be explorers of unknown dimensions of being. Near-death-experiences may be a clue to what comes after, but we have no way of knowing for sure, and are content to live one world at a time. The more pressing question for the survival of the human race is, "Is there life after birth?", and it is our duty and obligation to assure that there will indeed be such for the generations that are to follow.
When did the Unitarians and Universalists get together and what took them so long?
The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged in 1961 to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. The two denominations had been talking about merger off and on for over 150 years. When the idea of merger was first suggested by Universalist Hosea Ballou in the early 1800s someone probably said, "It may be a good idea, but let's not rush into things," and they didn't. The reasons for the long separation was more social and economic than theological, but the differences have now evaporated. The Unitarians believed in the unity of God, the inherent worth and dignity of human nature, and the use of reason in religion. The Universalists believed in the eternal love of God, the universal salvation of all, and had a great deal of warmth and enthusiasm about their faith. We are glad that both traditions are now one. Who we are today is best expressed in the UUA Principles and Purposes statement which was approved a little over a decade ago at the General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio.
What is the truly distinctive thing about Unitarian Universalism that makes it different from all other faith traditions?
Our church, I believe, is the first truly thorough-going and complete religious democracy in both polity (church organization) and theology (religious beliefs and practices). Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government ever invented--except for all the others. And that's the way it seems sometimes in the religious democracy of the Unitarian Universalist church. But when you consider the alternatives what we have together seems worth promoting and preserving for ourselves and our children. Individual freedom of belief in a caring religious community, and education and expression of social conscience in dialogue with others is what we offer. If you would like to join us we would welcome you among us and would offer to you our love and support in the religious quest that has no end.