Early Education and Unitarian Universalism

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

Readings

(Read by Mary Parker, chair of the Carriage House Nursery School Advisory Board)

The first reading is a draft of the revised mission statement of Carriage House Nursery School, which is operated by First Parish.

Carriage House Nursery School encourages learning and growth, curiosity and enjoyment, self-esteem and respect for others.

Our commitment to children [is] to provide:
Support for families through strong school partnerships;
Child-centered education;
Attention to the health, safety, and responsive care of all children;
Active, individualized, developmentally appropriate learning;
A culture of respect for one another and for all people and the world in which we live;
A culture of respect and awe for the natural environment, of which we are a small part.

The second reading comes from an article by Abigail Adams Eliot, titled “Nursery Schools Fifty Years Ago,” published in the April, 1972, issue of Young Children magazine:

“Day nurseries had been established for the sake of working mothers, mothers who needed somebody to take care of their children safely during the day…. Nursery schools had a new motivation — program. In fact the nursery school movement grew from a conviction that some definite educational plan is necessary before the age of five…. Nursery schools were no babysitting agencies, nor were they dedicated to the business of getting children ready for elementary school. Rather, they were interested in enrichment — in guiding children toward a more rewarding life….

“In addition to providing a rich program for children, nursery schools tried to educate adults. Contact with parents was an important phase of the work, as it is in good nursery schools today…. I myself told an early graduating class [of teachers] at the Ruggles Street Nursery School and Training Center, ‘If the nursery school movement does not result, ultimately, in better families, it will be a failure.”

Sermon: Early Education and Unitarian Universalism

Recently I’ve been thinking about the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and early education recently. I should explain that “early education” is educational jargon for learning that happens before about age 8. Thus, early education includes first and second grades in school, kindergarten, and pre-primary school or nursery school.

If you’ve ever been in our Parish House on weekday mornings, you’ll know why I’ve been thinking about the relationship between Unitarian Universalism and early education. Each weekday our Parish House houses dozens of young children, ranging in age from two to five, who come to the Carriage House Nursery School. Carriage House Nursery School is owned and operated by First Parish; it’s by far the largest program we provide to the wider community.

Unitarian Universalists have been involved in early education for over a century and a half. I believe that our interest in early education springs directly from our religious commitments. And to explain what I mean, I’d like to tell you about two Unitarians who were innovators in early education, and how their work in education grew out of their Unitarian religion. Then I’m going to tell you a little bit about our own Carriage House Nursery School, and how that relates to our Unitarian Universalism.

I’ll begin with one of my heroines, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Elizabeth Peabody was born in Billerica, Massachusetts, in 1804, and was raised in a Unitarian church by a Unitarian mother who was also a school teacher. It is no wonder, then, that Elizabeth Palmer Peabody became an educator who, like a good Unitarian, valued the individuality of each child in her care.

Elizabeth Peabody began her teaching career in and around Boston, and on Sundays she would attend services at the Federal Street Church. The minister there, William Ellery Channing, was the most prominent Unitarian minister of that time. Channing recognized that this young woman had unusual intellectual and spiritual gifts. William Channing so respected Elizabeth Peabody that he formed the habit of taking a walk with this twenty-something school teacher every Saturday so he could discuss that week’s sermon topic with her.

After teaching for a number of years, Elizabeth Peabody opened the West Street Bookstore in Boston. This bookstore became the center for Unitarians and Transcendentalists, and Elizabeth got to know most of the great Unitarians of her day, including: Ralph Waldo Emerson; the early feminist Margaret Fuller; and educational reformer Horace Mann. The bookstore was, in it own way, an educational institution.

But in the 1850s, Elizabeth Peabody returned to teaching school. She became one of the most important figures in the American kindergarten movement. The kindergarten movement was started in Germany by pioneering educator Friedrich Froebel. Elizabeth Peabody brought her own Unitarian beliefs to Froebel’s child-centered education. Here, for example, is how she defined “kindergarten” in her “Lecture No. 1 on Nursery and Kindergarten,” published in 1874:

“A kindergarten means a guarded company of children, who are to be treated as a gardener treats his plants; that is, in the first place, studied to see what they are, and what conditions they require for the fullest and most beautiful growth; in the second place, put into or supplied with these conditions, with as little handling of their individuality as possible, but with unceasing genial and provident care to remove all obstructions, and favor all the circumstances of growth. It is because they are living organisms that they are to be cultivated — not drilled (which is a process only appropriate to insensate stone).”

In Elizabeth Peabody’s day, “drilling” children meant forcing them to memorize and repeat facts and words; it was the main educational technique used in most schools back then. By contrast, Elizabeth Peabody favored a child-centered approach to education. For her, children had to be treated as individual human beings, and this was a direct result of her Unitarian beliefs. Today we might say she affirmed the inherent worth and dignity of every schoolchild.

Elizabeth Peabody also adhered to the Unitarian belief that education is one of the best ways to address social problems. She raised enough money to open a free kindergarten in a poor neighborhood in Boston. When that school proved to be a success, she traveled throughout the United states advocating for free public kindergartens. She also began training kindergarten teachers who could teach in those new schools. While there were others also promoting public kindergartens at this time, Elizabeth Peabody was perhaps the most important advocate, so I think of her as the mother of kindergartens in America.

The next Unitarian educator I’d like to tell you about is Abigail Adams Eliot. Born in Dorchester in 1892, Abby Eliot graduated from Radcliffe College in 1914, and became a social worker. But she quickly learned that social work was not the right career for her. Instead, around 1920 she found herself involved in the then-new nursery school movement. By the 1920s, kindergartens had become fairly widespread. But educators began to see that children under the age of five would also benefit from schooling. Yale professor of education Arnold Gesell put it this way: “The educational ladder of the American public school is a tall one and a stout one, but it does not reach the ground. It does not have a solid footing.” The nursery school movement aimed to bring the ladder of the American public school down to the ground, by providing schooling for children from age two to five.

Abby Eliot went to England to train at one of the first nursery schools, the McMillan Nursery School in London. She learned a great deal in her six months there. Sometimes she learned what not to do. She said: “One of the things I learned very well was never, never to put 32 two-year-olds together in one room. We came close to a panic about 4:30 one Friday afternoon when a think London fog rolled into the open-air shelter we used. The children got to fighting over toys or something, and the fog was so thick that my student helpers and I could not see the children. It was nip and tuck to quiet them before they hurt each other.” This is one of the best arguments I’ve ever heard for small class sizes for young children.

Abby Eliot also quickly discovered the importance of engaging the whole family, and even the wider community. When the school could engage the parents as well as the child, the result — so said Abby Eliot — was to strengthen families. And in one school that Abby Eliot ran, she invited high school students to come learn child development practices, so that when they eventually had children of their own, they would be better parents.

In 1921, Abby Eliot opened the Ruggles Street Nursery School in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Boston. Like Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, she had the same Unitarian-influenced goal of strengthening democracy and addressing social ills through education. Abby Eliot quickly proved to have real talent working with young children, and her school became a center for training nursery school teachers. Eventually, Abby Eliot’s training efforts were incorporated into the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, part of the Department of Child Study at Tufts University. (A parenthetical note: Tufts is a Universalist college.) The Eliot-Pearson Children’s School remains a training site for teachers working with young children.

I will make one small critique of Abby Eliot, a critique that also applies to Elizabeth Peabody. Like many Unitarians, they saw their mission as helping the poor and disadvantaged. This they understood to mean helping other people, seeing other people as the recipient of their good works. While it is admirable to help others, sometimes Unitarians have forgotten that we have our own problems that need to be addressed. However, after she retired to Concord, Massachusetts, Abby Eliot addressed a social problem within her own family by founding the Community Mental Health Center. She started this clinic based on her experiences of her own relatives who had struggled with mental health issues.

Now that I’ve told you about Elizabeth Palmer Peabody and Abigail Adams Eliot, I’d like to turn to the Carriage House Nursery School, a Unitarian Universalist educational project right here in Cohasset.

When I heard Mary Parker the educational goals of the Carriage House Nursery School in the first reading this morning, I could hear echoes of the Unitarian values of Elizabeth Peabody and Abigail Eliot. Carriage House provides child-centered education — that’s like Elizabeth Peabody studying children to see who they are, and then helping them attain “the fullest and most beautiful growth.” Carriage House provide support for families — just like Abigail Eliot engaged families in her nursery schools. Carriage House fosters a culture of respect for one another, and for all people — just as Elizabeth Peabody treated the children in her care with respect, and fostered a sense of the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. And the mission statement of Carriage House Nursery School — to encourage learning and growth, curiosity and enjoyment, self-esteem and respect for others — sounds exactly like something both Elizabeth Peabody and Abigail Eliot might have said. So you can see that Carriage House Nursery School, even though it is a distinctly non-sectarian school, fosters values that are thoroughly aligned with Unitarian Universalism.

In fact, I’d say that Carriage House Nursery School is our congregation’s largest social justice project. It is clearly the largest community program we run, both in terms of the size of its budget and the number of people it serves. And I would call it a social justice project for several reasons. First, Carriage House aims to strengthen families. We often think that it’s only families in disadvantaged neighborhoods that need to be strengthened, but as a minister I can tell you that there are plenty of families in affluent neighborhoods that need support.

Second, Carriage House nurtures a culture of respect — as it says in the mission statement: “A culture of respect for one another and for all people and the world in which we live; [and] a culture of respect and awe for the natural environment of which we are a small part.” A culture of respect for all people is essential for a civil society essential for democracy. A culture of respect for the natural environment is absolutely critical to helping us address climate change and other ecological disasters.

We tend to forget that education can be a social justice project in itself. Social justice goes beyond providing direct services to those in need. Social justice goes beyond influencing policy makers. Social justice has to include education. When we influence young people, when we instill in them a respect for all human beings and a respect for the interdependent web of life, we are changing the world for the better. And the change that happens in education goes far deeper than providing direct services, or influencing policy makers: we are changing people’s souls.

And do not underestimate the power of early education to change people’s souls. A nursery school like Carriage House can do so much to influence a child’s character, to nurture their growth towards becoming more human, and more humane. Given that democracy is always fragile, we have a constant need to raise more children who are imbued with a respect for all people, and a respect for the web of life. This is why so many Unitarian Universalists over the centuries have gotten involved in education: education is one of the best ways for us to live out our religious values.

And maybe we can think together about how to make this social justice project have even more impact. Can we reduce the amount of money we draw from Carriage House so that we could offer more scholarships? Can we find ways to support the innovative outdoor classroom that was built over the summer? Can we get student teachers to come to Carriage House to experience our educational approach? How can we support the Carriage House Advisory Board, the group of people from First Parish who oversee the work of the school?

And finally — when you think about our First Parish social justice programs, I hope that the first social justice program you think of is Carriage House Nursery School. For Carriage House Nursery School is one of the most powerful ways we live out our values in the wider community: strengthening democracy, and helping children grow in respect for themselves, each other, and the whole world.

First Parish in Cohasset and Its Ministers

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation. Notes to the sermon appear as end notes.

Readings

In 1892, our congregation celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Joseph Osgood’s ministry. One of the speakers at the celebration, Rev. Edward Everett Hale, described four of Osgood’s most important teachers and mentors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hale then went on to say:

“But there is a greater instructor than either of these four, that has been training [your minister]. That is, the parish and the church to which he came in this town of Cohasset. A man comes as green as grass into a parish, and around him are all sorts and conditions of men and women. But all those men and women are ‘kings and priests.’ That word in the Book of Revelation is not a bit of flamboyant prophecy; it is the living truth of the gospel of Jesus: ‘You are all kings and all priests, and you are all ordained to this ministry.’ Unconsciously, year by year, while the green boy goes up into the pulpit and preaches as well as he can; unconsciously, week by week, all these people are preaching to him and are training him. And you can judge them by him and him by them.”

The second reading is from Leadership for the Twenty-first Century by Joseph C. Rost (Greenwood Publishing, 1991):

“Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes….

“…The leadership relationship is multidirectional. The relationship involves interactions that are vertical, horizontal, diagonal, and circular. This means that (1) anyone can be a leader and/or a follower; (2) followers persuade leaders and other followers, as do leaders; (3)leaders and followers may change places … and (4) there are many different relationships that can make up the overall relationship that is leadership. … If a relationship is one-sided, unidirectional, and one-on-one, those are clear signs that the relationship is not leadership.”

Sermon: “Our Congregation and Its Ministers”

Our congregation’s relationships with its ministers proved to be far more complex and interesting than I had originally thought. Today’s sermon will only take us up into the nineteenth century. Then you’ll have to return on November 28 to hear the rest of the history.

As I talk about some of the past ministers of our congregation, I’m going to take a somewhat unconventional approach. Instead of just talking about the minister, I’m going to focus on the relationship between the minister and the congregation. We habitually say, “Rev. Nehemiah Hobart did thus and so.” That’s what’s known as the “Great Man” theory of leadership: things get accomplished by a few Great Men, and everyone else just follows along. But from what I’ve seen, that’s not how it works in real life.

For example, when I was in my teens and twenties, the minister of my Unitarian Universalist church was Rev. Dana Greeley. He had come to our congregation after serving as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, where he had a reputation of being something of a benevolent dictator. However, my church had plenty of strong lay leaders. Those lay leaders influenced Dana Greeley just as much as, or more than, he influenced them. If Dana Greeley had a reputation as a benevolent dictator, perhaps that was only because he was smart enough to know when to follow the lead of the lay leaders.

It is not the minister who rules things in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. The relationship between the minister and the congregation, and the relationships within the congregation — that’s where the actual power lies. With that firmly in mind, let’s look at some of the ministers of First Parish in Cohasset.

Our first minister was Nehemiah Hobart. He was the congregation’s third choice; two other ministers had turned them down before they asked Hobart to become minister of what was then called the Second Precinct of Hingham. Even after we became an independent congregation, both the congregation and the minister kept close ties to the parent church in Hingham. The minister there, Ebenezer Gay, was one of the earliest proponents of the liberal theology that became Unitarianism, and Gay and Hobart had been classmates and remained close friends.

Lay leaders also influenced the close ties between the two congregations. One of the key leaders who formed the Second Precinct was John Jacob, one of the wealthiest landowners in Hingham. John became the first deacon of the Second Precinct, the most powerful position of lay leadership. John’s brother Peter, the well-to-do owner of a fulling mill, was a deacon in the parent church. Both John and Peter Jacob were admirers of Ebenezer Gay and his liberal theology. It was only natural, then, that Nehemiah Hobart should fall into Ebenezer Gay’s theological orbit. And to further cement Hobart’s ties with liberal theology, he married one of Peter Jacob’s daughters, and then named his first son after John Jacob. Historian Robert J. Wilson writes: “The secession of the Cohasset parish provides, in some respects, an illustration of how the Hingham oligarchy managed to assimilate inevitable changes with a minimum of disruption.” (1)

After Nehemiah Hobart’s untimely death from a stroke, at age 43, (2) our congregation called John Fowle. Once again, the congregation had difficulty choosing from among several desirable candidates, but at last they settled on Fowle, who possessed some “considerable genius, and handsome acquirements.” Fowle’s ministry began during the Great Awakening. Theologically, he sided with the so-called Old Lights, that is, those who did not approve of evangelical excesses; in this sense, Fowle, like his contemporary Charles Chauncy, may be considered a proto-Unitarian. In taking this theological position, he was probably generally aligned with his congregation. However, he was nervous, irritable, peevish, and irregular. (3) This turned many in the congregation against him, and the congregation voted to dismiss him in 1746.

It seems possible that Fowle suffered from some kind of mental illness. His later career was marked by ups and downs. In 1751, he went to England, converted to Episcopalianism, and was sent back to Norwalk, Connecticut, as a missionary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. He was given a large salary, but spent so lavishly he was soon hopelessly in debt. By 1756, he was dismissed by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel for selling the mission library. He then became a small-time merchant. He died in jail 1764, and it seems likely he was imprisoned for debt. (4)

It’s important for us to know what happened to Fowle after Cohasset dismissed him. He seems to have had some real talent as a minister, and a genuine religious impulse. But clearly the profession of ministry was not a good fit for him, and our congregation was wise to dismiss him.

Our next minister, John Brown, was called to this congregation in 1747. In 1749, at age 25, Brown got into a squabble with Daniel Tower, a lay leader who was then age 57. The young pastor wanted to introduce a new psalm book, Tate and Brady. But Daniel Tower wanted to stay with the old Sternhold and Hopkins psalm book. Full members of the church (that is, those had signed the covenant and were admitted into communion) voted on the issue, and a close majority favored adopting the new psalm book. Daniel Tower then accused John Brown of taking “improper methods” to induce two members of the church to vote for the new psalm book. An investigation found Tower’s accusation to be unjust, and he was forced to “humbly acknowledge [his] fault and earnestly request the forgiveness of my Make, of my Pastor, and of the Church.” (5) From this story, we can see that the minister at this time was not a benevolent dictator; rather, he was one among several leaders in a democracy. This story also shows how passions could run high, and that democracy sometimes devolved into bare-knuckle politics.

John Brown was one of the earliest ministers in New England to be considered a Unitarian. John Adams recalled that Brown was a Unitarian by the 1750s. (6) I don’t think we can claim, with any certainty, that Brown led his congregation to Unitarianism. Instead, given that there are no stories of divisive theological conflicts in Cohasset during his ministry, I think it more likely that Brown and the congregation moved together towards Unitarianism. I also find it interesting that both Cohasset and Hingham had ministers known for their liberal theology. Ebenezer Gay, the minister in Hingham at this time, was later considered a Unitarian, and perhaps Nehemiah Hobart, had he lived as long as Gay, would also have been considered a Unitarian. For some reason as yet undiscovered, this little corner of Massachusetts proved fertile ground for liberal religion.

By 1775, at the eve of the American Revolution, Brown was a vocal Patriot. According to the Narrative History of Cohasset: “Some of the cynical sort scoffed at the enthusiasm of the patriots. When on one occasion the pastor, John Brown, urged men to enlist, one of these cynics taunted him upon urging others to do what he himself dared not do; but the warlike preacher raised his cane and threatened to thrash the ‘old Tory’ who insulted him.” (7) In 1775, every Massachusetts town had both Patriots and Tories. Clearly, the majority of Cohasset residents were aligned with the Patriot cause, and the minister was aligned with the majority. Did Brown lead the congregation, or did the congregation lead Brown? It seems likely that there was a mutual influence.

John Brown died in November, 1791, and three months later the congregation called Josiah Crocker Shaw as their next minister. He was the son of a nearby minister. Shaw quickly built a large expensive house on Highland Ave. But his was a brief ministry, for the parish records state that on June 12, 1796, “Mr. Shaw left his charge and the ministry.” The next day, Joel Wilcutt recorded in his diary: “this Day the Revnd Josiah C. Shaw went away from this town.” And on June 22, Wilcutt recorded: “Mr. Shaw’s House and furniture sold at auction.” (8)

Why was Shaw so suddenly dismissed? Writing in 1954, Gilbert Tower speculated that Shaw got into financial problems by spending too much on his new house. However, a month later, on July 23, 1796, his aunt Elizabeth Smith Shaw Peabody wrote about him in a letter, saying his “Conduct is too atrocious to admit of an excuse.” And within a few years both he and his wife were married to other people. Most likely, Shaw was dismissed by the congregation for adultery. (9) This is an example of the congregation taking charge, when a minister does not live up to its standards. This is, in fact, exactly what is supposed to happen in our type of congregation: the congregation has the ultimate authority both to call and to dismiss their ministers.

Jacob Flint was our next minister. Flint was respected and liked by his most of the congregation, but he was not a particularly good preacher. A later minister in Cohasset, Joseph Osgood, reported that Flint’s “manner of delivery in the pulpit was said to be slow and monotonous. He had an excellent ear and voice for singing. His brother, Dr. James Flint [the minister in] Salem, used to say to him that ‘he ought to sing his sermons, and not preach them.’” (10) Every minister has their strengths and weaknesses: Flint wrote well but spoke poorly. The congregation must intervene when a weakness becomes a major failing. As it happened, for Flint the big problem was not his poor speaking but his liberal theology.

In the 1820s, during Flint’s tenure in Cohasset, ours was one of many Massachusetts congregations that experienced conflict between the orthodox Calvinists or Trinitarians, who asserted the truth of predestination and the divinity of Jesus, and the liberals or Unitarians, who firmly believed in the capacity of human will to do good and who firmly disbelieved that Jesus was the same as God. Most Cohasset residents gradually moved towards Unitarianism, but those who were orthodox Trinitarians remained firm.

Jacob Flint was one of those who grew more liberal in his theology, influenced in part by his congregation and in part by his more talented younger brother James Flint. On December 7, 1823, Flint preached a sermon titled, “A Discourse, in which the Doctrine of the Trinity is examined, and some remarks made on Calvinism.” Much of the congregation had a favorable response to this sermon. At the request of some of those parishioners, it was even printed for wider circulation.

But not everyone in the congregation was pleased with liberal theology, and some of them developed a personal dislike for Jacob Flint. The 1895 “Manual of the Second Congregational Church of Cohasset” takes up the story from the perspective of the orthodox party: “The antagonism aroused by [Flint’s] doctrinal attitude was still further increased by personal resentments; until, in the summer of the year 1824, there was an irreconcilable breach in the church. More than a score of disaffected members of the parish were unwilling to worship any longer in ‘Rev. Dr. Flint’s meetinghouse,’ ‘on account’ as the records say, ‘of his heretical Unitarian sentiments.’” (11)

If the stories that come down to us are true, Flint continued to fan the flames of resentment after this breach. Supposedly he would look out the windows from the pulpit and see who was going into the new church. Upon meeting people of the orthodox party on the street, he would ignore them — and they would ignore him.

I am tempted to be gently critical of Jacob Flint for not rising above personal animosities during this bitter conflict. But it is only human to behave the way he did: to stealthily look to see who was going into the new church; to pretend to ignore those with whom he disagreed. We can observe the same kinds of human behavior in today’s great religious controversy, the battle over abortion, same sex marriage, and gender identity. We like to pretend these are political battles, but it looks exactly like a religious conflict to me. And just like the conflict between the Unitarians and Trinitarians in 1824 Cohasset, today’s religious conflict divides families and causes people to snub one another. So while it’s tempting to judge Jacob Flint for not rising above personal animosities, we might listen to the Biblical injunction to judge not lest we ourselves be judged. And I can’t resist pointing out that now our congregation and Second Congregational Church are allies in today’s religious controversies. We have come a long way from the bitter divisions of the 1820s.

The division between First Parish and Second Congregational Church provides a convenient stopping point for this sermon. I’ve only covered a century of the relationships between our congregation and its ministers. You’ll have to wait until November 27 to hear the rest of the story.

Before I close, let me reiterate what I said when I began. I do not believe in the “Great Man” theory of history. This old myth ignores lived experience. In the case of our congregation, we have undoubtedly had some excellent ministers, and we have also had some poor ministers. But the story of our congregation cannot be reduced to the story of its (mostly male) ministers.

To paraphrase Rev. Edward Everett Hale: Year by year, ministers go up into the pulpit and preach as well as they can. Yet the whole time, week after week, the people of the congregation are preaching to the minister, and are training and educating the minister.

The history of leadership within our congregation is actually the story of a web of interdependent relationships encompassing everyone who has been a part of this congregation over the past three hundred years.

Notes to the sermon:

General information is taken from the following histories:

Bigelow, E. Victor Bigelow. A Narrative History of the Town of Cohasset. Cohasset: Committee on Town History, 1898.
Cole, William R. “One Hundred Fifty Years of the Old Meeting House in Cohasset, Mass., 1747-1847.” Boston: George Ellis, 1897.
Flint, Jacob. “Two Discourses Containing the History of the Church and Society in Cohasset.” Boston: Monroe and Francis, 1822.
Osgood, Joseph. “A Discourse Delivered in Cohasset … on the 25th Anniversary of His Ordination as Pastor.” Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1884.
Tower, Gilbert. Unpublished manuscript, 1956.

(1) Robert J. Wilson, The Benevolent Deity: Ebenezer Gay and the Rise of Rational Religion in New England, 1696-1787 (Univ. of Pennsylvania, 2015), pp. 48-50.
(2) Some recent histories have claimed that Hobart died of epileptic fits. “Epileptic” is a misreading of the word “apoplectic,” the term that appears in the early histories. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “apoplexy” as “A malady, very sudden in its attack, which arrests more or less completely the powers of sense and motion; it is usually caused by an effusion of blood or serum in the brain….” Apoplexy is not a precise medical term, but it is most certainly not epilepsy. “Stroke” is probably the closest modern equivalent, so that’s the term I use here.
(3) Using the words of Flint (1822), who may have known Fowle and certainly knew people who remembered him.
(4) Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, vol. 9, pp. 151 ff.
(5) This story comes from Tower (1956).
(6) Letter from John Adams dated May 15, 1815, quoted in Samuel A. Eliot, Heralds of a Liberal Faith, vol. I: The Prophets (Boston: American Unitarian Assoc., 1910), p. 2.
(7) Bigelow (1898), p. 288. In 1775, Brown was only 51. I’ve found nothing to explain why he needed a cane at that relatively young age; there were plenty of militiamen in their 50s and 60s. This story may be apocryphal.
(8) These excerpts from Joel Wilcutt’s Diary appear in Tower (1956).
(9) Massachusetts Historical Society, Adams Papers Digital Edition, Adams Family Correspondence vol. 11, “Elizabeth Smith Shaw Peabody to Abigail Adams,” footnote 2, www.masshist.org/publications/adams-papers/index.php/volume/AFC11/pageid/AFC11p336 accessed 17 October 2022.
(10) Osgood, 1884.
(11) This quote from the 1895 “Manual of the Second Congregational Church of Cohasset” appears in Tower, 1956.

Meaning in Our Meeting House

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.

Readings

The first reading this morning is from an 1897 address given by Rev. William Cole, then minister of our congregation, about this history of this Meeting House:

“What was the size and appearance of the meeting-house when finished, about 1755? Its dimensions were the same as those contained within the four walls of the present edifice. It has no tower, no porch. Three doors admitted you to its worship and exercises, one where the tower now stands, one opposite on the south side, and the third faced the pulpit.

“Upon the roof at the north end was placed the belfry, without, at first, a bell—a modest belfry, something like the one on the ‘Old Ship’ in Hingham. The upper windows on either side of the pulpit were not in the original plan….

“Within the church, steps as now led up into the gallery…. The gallery was divided in the front gallery by a partition. The south side was allotted to the women to use.

“It is impossible to be sure about the arrangement of the different kinds of pews, though one would surmise that, when they spoke of pews, they meant the square box-pews, and by seats and seatlets [they meant] narrow pews. There appear to have been both kinds [of pews] in the church….

“No carpet, no oil lamps, no cushions, and no stoves lent comfort to the people or beauty to the interior. No bell as yet called to worship or struck the hours of the day….”

The second reading is a poem by Roscoe Trueblood, minister of this congregation who died in 1969. Had Roscoe Trueblood lived long enough, he would doubtless have been part of the feminist movement in Unitarian Universalism, and would have revised this poem with gender inclusive language.

The Meeting House

Here stands this house and we, for what it stands
Are gathered in these calm beloved walls
We called it church and now in turn it calls
Us members, and it speaks some clear commands:
We built the spire and raised it with our hands
Now it points us to high dreams and enthralls
Us with its beauty. And when grief appalls
There is a spirit here which understands.

So may this house be both effect and cause
Both voice and echo, then voice again
Antiphonal of man to God — to man:
So may our values couched in truth and laws
Find home and symbol safe from storm and flood,
So may we surely call it, House of God.

This poem was first published by First Parish in Cohasset, and is used with their permission.

Choir anthem

The choir performed “Chester,” a patriotic song by William Billings. This song could well have been sung in the Cohasset Meeting House during the Revolutionary War period. The text and scores are available on the Choral Public Domain Library website.

Sermon: “Meaning in Our Meeting House”

This year represents the 275th anniversary of the raising of this Meeting House. Many of you present here, or watching online, know far more about the history of this Meeting House than I do. But I’d like to talk with you about the meaning that can be found in this Meeting House, and how that meaning has changed over the years. I’ll start in 1750, when our Meeting House was built. From there I’ll fast forward to 1855, after a number of important changes had been made to this Meeting House. Then I’ll fast forward to 1980, when some of the most radical changes were happening here in our Meeting House. And finally, I’ll talk about some surprising changes that are happening right now, in 2022.

Let’s begin by traveling back in time to 1750. In that year, our Meeting House embodied the social structures of the what was then called the Second Precinct of Hingham — we were not yet an independent town.

In 1750, where you sat within the Meeting House, what you sat on, who you sat next to — all these things were dictated by your social status. If you were part of a well-to-do family, you sat with your family, and you most likely sat in the center of the Meeting House. Half the money needed to construct this Meeting House came from taxes, but the other half came from auctioning off the space in the Meeting House where you could have a pew. The old documents referred to this as owning “ground” in the Meeting House.

If your family had a lot of money, you could afford to purchase ground in the center of the Meeting House. Then you could afford to build your family pew. You had to build the pew according to standards set by the proprietors of the Meeting House. But then, if your family was wealthy, the male head of your family would probably be one of the proprietors of the Meeting House, and so your family was one of the group that got to set the standards for pews.

If your family had less money, you’d be able to afford ground in a less desirable part of the Meeting House — under the galleries, off to the sides, or maybe even in the front of the galleries. Quite a few of the less wealthy families could not afford to build a pew for themselves right away, so the old records talk about “seats” and “seatlets.” These would have been less expensive to build — quite literally, the cheap seats.

And then there were the people who were not part of one of the land-owning families. This would have included itinerant laborers, enslaved persons, and free people of color, including both people of African descent and people of Native descent. It seems likely that the proprietors would not have allowed people in these categories to own ground within the Meeting House. But benches in the backs of the galleries were reserved for them.

Our Meeting House also embodied the strict gender divisions of mid-18th century Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1750, the Meeting House had three doors, and some of the histories suggest that women entered by the south door, men by the north door, and the minister came in the west door. Women who were not part of a land-owning family — that is, servants, enslaved women, perhaps indentured servants, and so on — had seats reserved for them in the south gallery. A partition carefully separated the women’s section from the rest of the gallery.

In other words, your socio-economic status and your gender and your race determined where you sat inside the Meeting House. Yet there was another strict division that was present but not visible in the building of the Meeting House. This was the division between those who “owned the covenant,” that is, had formally joined the church, and those who were not church members. You could own a pew and be one of the proprietors of the physical Meeting House, and yet not be a member of the church proper. When you became a member of the church, you had a special spiritual status, and you had more direct access to the minister. Joining the church was a way for women and people of color to gain in status, to gain prestige that would otherwise be denied them.

When I hear about these 18th century social divisions, our Meeting House begins to feel strange. While in many ways it still looks the same as it did back in 1750, the meaning we find in our Meeting House today differs substantially from the meaning they found.

Now let’s jump forward in time to 1855. We’ll skip over the exciting events of the American Revolution, with the choir anthem this morning to remind us of those dramatic events — the closet in the Meeting House where ammunition was hidden, the reading of the Declaration of Indpenedence from the pulpit, and so on.

By 1855, the Meeting House had been changed in a number of ways. The porch had been added to the front of the Meeting House in 1767; the tower and steeple in 1799. Stoves supplied heat to the Meeting House for the first time in 1822. Second Congregational Church had been organized in 1824, so town taxes no longer supported our congregation. The years from 1837 to 1855 saw the addition of the present pews, carpets on the floors, oil lamps, draperies blocking the windows behind the pulpit, and finally an organ in the west gallery. The north and south doors were long gone, and everyone came in together through the west door.

These substantial changes in the appearance of the Meeting House were accompanied by substantial changes in the social structure of the congregation. The congregation was now separate from the town; we had become a so-called “voluntary association,” that is, participation in the congregation was a voluntary act. I think it is no accident that the old box pews were replaced by the present pews a dozen years after church and town were separated. The new pews, our present pews, embody a different way of thinking about who is part of the congregation. The old box pews, with their high walls, would have carefully separated families from one another. The new pews allow us to see and hear one another better, they show that we are all part of one congregation. Families still owned their own pew, and the wealthier people still got to sit in the best locations. But the new pews give more of a sense of being one people worshipping together.

Interestingly, the congregation kept the old orientation of the pulpit. In the 19th century, some old meeting houses were converted into churches, by moving the pulpit from the long wall to the short wall of the building. That could easily have been done here when the new pews were installed. The pulpit could have been moved to the south wall, for example, with the main entrance through the tower, as in a conventional church. And in fact, the present stairs to the pulpit were probably added in 1838 — one architectural consultant thought that the door to the space under the pulpit on the south side is actually the door to one of the old pews.

So the pulpit was indeed modified in the mid-19th century. But our congregation chose to leave the pulpit on the long wall, maintaining this building as a meeting house. The floor plan of a meeting house has the effect of keeping the preacher closer to the rest of the congregation. This seems to me to correspond with a growing sense of egalitarianism within our congregation. Cohasset, along with Hingham, became a hotbed of abolitionism, and in 1842 the congregation called as its new minister Joseph Osgood, an abolitionist. I like to think that the egalitarian impulses of abolitionism are the same egalitarian impulses that maintained this as a meeting house.

By 1855, the interior of our Meeting House was much the same as we see it today. We’ve changed the carpet several times, there are not electric lights instead of oil lamps, and we get our heat from an oil-burning furnace instead of stoves. We also removed the heavy dark Victorian drapery that provided a backdrop to our pulpit, and in 1892 a new larger organ was built in the north gallery, replacing the old organ. Women gained the right to vote on parish affairs in the 1880s, and pew ownership ended about 1900, continuing the congregation’s trend of increasing egalitarianism. We changed the color of the walls more than once — in the 1960s, these walls were a pleasant blue color. But these are mostly minor changes, and if Joseph Osgood came back to preach here in the 1960s, I think he would have felt right at home. He would have felt comfortable in the building, and he would have felt comfortable with the social structures revealed in the appearance of our Meeting House.

But in the 1970s, a series of radical changes swept through our Meeting House. These radical changes didn’t cause too many architectural changes, but these social changes drastically changed the way we used the Meeting House.

Perhaps the most radical of these changes — I’d argue this was the most radical of all the changes to our Meeting House in its 275 year existence — was when the minister came out of the high pulpit and began preaching from the main floor. That minister was Edward Atkinson, who served this congregation from 1969 until his death in 1995. There’s a fabulous photograph of Ed Atkinson in our archives dating from the mid-1970s: he has a beard, he’s playing a guitar, and he’s sitting on a stool in front of the high pulpit. That one photograph encapsulates all kinds of stereotypes of the 1970s. [See a digitized copy of the photo below.]

But we shouldn’t let the stereotypes obscure the truly radical act of a straight white cis-gender male minister stepping out of a symbolical position of great power, and coming down to the same level as the rest of the congregation. I’m inclined to understand this act as an embodiment of the feminist revolution that swept through Unitarian Universalism in the 1970s and 1980s. Male ministers, and men in general, began to understand the power they got just from being male. This helps explain why Ed Atkinson decided to step out of the high pulpit, out of the literal position of power.

Second wave feminism brought other radical changes. We started lighting a flaming chalice in our worship services. This new religious ritual appears to have come from religious educators, ninety percent of whom were women. Lighting a chalice was an embodied ritual; it was something physical we did; it got us out of our heads and into our bodies. We adopted other new rituals that also got us out of our heads and into our whole selves including most notably lighting candles of joy and sorrow, and what we now call “Water Communion” that was originally called the “Water Ritual.”

By the 1990s, we were no longer content to sit still for most of an hour and listen to the minister — the male minister — preach to us. We began to worship with more than just our heads; we began to worship with our hands and our bodies and our whole selves. This was a radical revolution in Unitarian Universalist worship. It is still continuing. We still spend a lot of time sitting and listening. But at least now we listen to as much music as the spoken word.

Now let’s fast forward to the present day. Once again, we’re in the middle of a radical change in the way we use our Meeting House. That radical change is embodied in the livestreaming camera up in the gallery. You no longer have to be physically present in the Meeting House to participate in worship services. You can be in new Mexico, or in Wisconsin, or in Texas, or in Colorado, or Florida. Our Meeting House now exists online as well as in person.

Our online presence is so new we don’t even know how it’s going to affect us. As one example of what I mean, I’ve been hearing from our members and friends at a distance that they would like to be able to participate in some way in the candles of joy and concern. Currently we mute the microphone during the candles of joy and concern, to preserve people’s privacy. But this seems to me to move us away from egalitarianism; we have unwittingly created a class of worshippers who cannot fully participate in our services. This at a time when our society is being polarized; this in a time when we need to embrace community and egalitarianism.

And this leads me to the final point I’d like to make. It is we, the congregation, who create the meaning in this Meeting House. Yes, we are influenced by outside events — by abolitionism, by the second wave of feminism, by the online revolution. But we have a great deal of freedom in how we decide to respond to those outside events. We left behind the strict social divisions of 1750, while keeping the egalitarianism implicit in having our pulpit on the long wall. We embraced abolitionism in the mid-19th century. We embraced the feminist revolution in the 20th century.

In the 275th year of this Meeting House, we find ourselves in another time of great change. What creative ways will we find to embrace online worshippers? The moral arc of our congregation has always bent towards greater inclusiveness, towards greater egalitarianism, towards greater justice. May we find ways to keep that moral arc bending in that direction.

Man with beard sitting on a stool in front of the pulpit of First Parish in Cohasset. He is playing a guitar and wearing a three piece suit.
Rev. Edward T. Atkinson circa 1974. Photo courtesy First Parish archives.