What about land acknowledgements?

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The reading this morning is a poem by Lucille Lang Day. The poet says her “mother, who was one-quarter Wampanoag, was raised from age seven by a couple who taught her that Native American ancestry was something to hide.” The poem tells a little bit about how she found out about this family story that had been intentionally suppressed.

“I Always Knew It” — link to the full poem

Sermon — “What about Land Acknowledgements?”

I’d like to talk with you this morning about land acknowledgements. A land acknowledgement is one of those statements, which are now commonly given at the beginning of events, or which appear on websites of organizations, that go something like this: “We acknowledge we gather on land that is the traditional and ancestral homeland of the so-and-so people.” Sometimes these land acknowledgements consist of just a bare statement that Native Americans once lived wherever you are. But the more interesting land acknowledgements include some of the history of the Native Americans in question.

At this point, I could go into the ethical, moral, and political arguments for and against land acknowledgements — and there is real debate about their value. (1) Yet while these ethical, moral, and political arguments about land acknowledgements might be fascinating to some, I’d rather start with the stories of some of the individual Native Americans we’re thinking about acknowledging. So I’d like to tell you some stories about Native Americans from Cohasset.

(A word about terminology: Since we’ll be talking about the time before the United States of America was a country, it’s anachronistic to refer to “Native Americans,” because there was no country called America. Since the Native American groups that currently exist in our area often refer to themselves as “Indians,” I’ll use the term “Indian.”)

Our story begins in the early seventeenth century as Europeans first began to make contact with the Indians who lived in coastal Massachusetts. Some time in the years 1616 to 1619, a contagious disease wept through the Indians who lived here on the South Shore. Scholars continue to debate about what, exactly, the disease was. It could have been smallpox, measles, or some other highly contagious disease from Europe for which the Indians had no immunity. (2) A huge percentage of the coastal Indians of Massachusetts died — no less than four out of five Indians died, and in places as many as 19 out of 20 died.

Because so many of their people died, the Indians living along the coast found themselves vulnerable to attack by their traditional enemies from further inland. This helps explain why, in 1620, the Wampanoag Indians in the Plymouth area were keenly interested in allying themselves with the Pilgrims. That military alliance lasted for about fifty years, until King Phillip’s War in 1675. After that war, Indian military power in southeastern New England was essentially broken. The Indians who remained here had to figure out to adapt to European social norms.

By 1640, there were about 300 Europeans living in Cohasset — then called the Second Precinct of Hingham. (3) The history of Cohasset in the eighteenth century tends to focus on those Europeans. But Indians also continued to live here, and I’d like to tell you about three of them.

Mary Judah

First, I’d like to talk about Mary Judah.

Our church was formally organized in 1721, and the first minister’s record book contains a sad entry for Mary Judah from which we can reconstruct a bit of her life: “Feb. 1, 1739 [New Style]. Long Mary, alias Mary Judah, was found Dead in the woods upon the High Way between this & Hingham and as tis supposed Perished in a storm of cold & snow the Sabb[ath] before. An elderly Indian [woman].” (4)

February 1, 1739, was a Sunday, meaning Mary Judah’s body wasn’t found for a whole week. If she had been enslaved, surely her enslavers would have noticed, and gone to search for her. Or if she had lived with someone else, again they would have noticed. So it seems she was an elderly woman living entirely alone. Since she was older, Mary Judah would have been born in the mid-seventeenth century, a time when the Indians of Cohasset were still living in the traditional way. Most likely, Mary Judah was keeping to the old Indian ways as best she could. As a result she wound up living on the margins of European society, both economically and politically — eking out a subsistence existence in the face of encroaching European agriculture, with essentially no political rights, though at least she was not enslaved.

Photo of an old handwritten record book.
Minister’s record of Mary Judah’s death. Image copyright (c) 2024 First Parish in Cohasset, used by permission; all rights reserved.

Sarah Wapping

The second person I’d like to talk about is Sarah Wapping.

On November 25, 1736, the minister of our church wrote in his record book that he officiated at the marriage of Sarah Wapping, an Indian from Cohasset, and “Cesar,” a man of African descent (who, according to the custom of the time, was allowed no last name). Cesar was enslaved by Captain Caleb Torrey of Scituate, and his and Sarah’s marriage intention was recorded in the Scituate town records. (5) We can assume that Sarah was either enslaved, or functionally became enslaved upon her marriage.

After her marriage, Sarah attended services at our church here in Cohasset; we can assume that she went to live with Cesar and his enslaver, but for some reason Sarah was willing to walk several miles to the Cohasset church each Sunday. Sometime in 1736, she decided to join our church. Remember that in 1736, this congregation was one of the established Christian churches of Massachusetts Bay Colony; we became Unitarian a century later, but back then we were a liberal Christian church.

There are many reasons why Sarah Wapping, an Indian living in Cohasset, might decide to become a Christian, that is, become a member of one of the established churches of Massachusetts Bay Colony. First and perhaps most obviously, Sarah Wapping probably felt genuine sympathy with the Christian ideals of the church. Beyond that, she may have been attracted to our church’s eighteenth century covenant. In that old covenant, church members promised to one another “that with all tenderness & Brotherly Love we will with all faithfulness watch over one anothers Soul.” To someone who was enslaved, perhaps that covenant offered a recognition of their essential humanity, or as we’d say today, their inherent worthiness and dignity.

More pragmatically, becoming a member of the church may have been a smart move for Sarah Wapping, in that it helped to raise her social status in the community. Many people in those days were reluctant to become members of the church, because they would be held to a higher standard of moral behavior; men, in particular, were likely to put off becoming church members until they knew they were dying, at which time they didn’t have much opportunity to engage in sinful behavior. Thus if you became a member of the church, you entered a morally elite group, which gave you a certain social status.

Sarah Wapping was baptized and formally joined the church on January 7, 1738 (N.S.) — 296 years ago today. The fact that Sarah Wapping had to be baptized before joining the church tells us that she probably didn’t come from a Christian family; otherwise she would have been baptized as a child. So it seems likely that she was raised in a traditional Indian family.

In the months before January 7, Sarah would have met with the minister at least once — probably more than once — as part of her preparation for baptism and full church membership. On January 7, she would have been required to stand up before the rest of the church and give a public statement of her moral failings. This would have happened in the old meetinghouse, which stood south of here on Cohasset Common, across from the present Parish House.

That’s all I was able to find out about Sarah Wapping. After this event, she apparently disappears from the historical record. But we can speculate that she probably had children. Her children would have been born into slavery, and they were might have been considered black, while also maintaining their connection with the Indian communities in southeastern Massachusetts. Sarah’s children, or at least her grandchildren, would live to see slavery abolished in Massachusetts in the late eighteenth century. It is entirely likely that at least some of her descendants live in southeastern Massachusetts to this day.

Photo of a part of a handwritten document.
Minister’s record of “The Names of Those Adult Persons who Owned the Covenant” — Sarah Wapping’s name is at lower right. Image copyright (c) 2024 First Parish in Cohasset, used by permission; all rights reserved.
Photo of part of a handwritten document.
Minister’s record of Sarah Wapping’s marriage. Image copyright (c) 2024 First Parish in Cohasset, used by permission; all rights reserved.
Part of a microfilmed handwritten document.
Digitized copy of the marriage records of the Town of Scituate, with Sarah Wapping’s marriage intention.

Naomi Isaac

The third person I’ll tell you about is Naomi Isaac.

On September 19, 1736, Naomi Isaac, another enslaved Indian, became a member of our church. I was able to find out a bit more about Naomi Isaac, and based on some admittedly slender historical evidence, I’ve pieced together a hypothetical life story for her.

Naomi Isaac became a church member about the same time Sarah Wapping got married; the two women would have been rough contemporaries. When Naomi joined the church, the minister’s record book refers to her as “an Indian girl.” If we guess that she was roughly eighteen years old, she might have been born somewhere between 1716 and 1720. Since she did not need to get baptized before she joined the church, it seems probably that she came from a family of Christian Indians.

Assuming she had been raised as a Christian, her decision to join our church was not as big a step as it was for Sarah Wapping. Naomi Isaac must have liked the religion in which she had been raised, and wanted to commit more deeply to it. Then too, like Sarah Wapping after her, Naomi Isaac might have been attracted to our congregation by the wording of the covenant. She may also have desired the increase in social standing church membership would bring.

As did every church member, Naomi Isaac would stood in front of the hundred or more people who came to services each Sunday and confess her moral failings. Again, this was in the old meetinghouse. At about 25 by 35 feet, that first meetinghouse was smaller than our present meetinghouse, and more intimate. I like to think that Naomi Isaac served as an inspiration for Sarah Wapping. We can imagine that Sarah Wapping was in the congregation that day, looking down from the balcony where enslaved people and Indians had to sit (but no more than twenty feet away from the pulpit), watching as the young Naomi Isaac become the center of attention of the entire church.

On February 7, 1737, four and a half months after Naomi Isaac joined our church, someone named Naomi Isaac got married to a man named Caesar Ferrit in Dorchester. I could not confirm that this is the same Naomi Isaac. In fact, in the mid-nineteenth century, there was a romantic story told of how Naomi was the ward of a rich man in Boston who had arranged a wealthy marriage for her, but she chose instead to marry Caesar Ferrit, the coachman for the rich man; and some have interpreted this to mean that this second Naomi Isaac was White. (6)

I think there may be a tiny nugget of truth in that romantic story, some of which got covered over by later romance. Naomi Isaac of Cohasset was either enslaved or an indentured servant. I speculate that her master moved to Boston, taking her with him. Then she decided to marry Caesar Ferrit against the wishes of her master. I like to think my speculation is correct, because it shows both Caesar and Naomi to be resourceful and forceful people. I also imagine that Caesar managed to purchase Naomi’s freedom, for she was able to leave her master and go with him. While I believe my interpretation fits the historical evidence, I cannot say with complete certainty that Naomi Isaac of Cohasset is the same woman as Naomi Isaac who got married in Dorchester — yet I think later events in Naomi’s life bear out my interpretation.

After Naomi Isaac and Caesar Ferrit married, they lived in Milton, where their first children were born. Around 1750, they moved to Natick, where their youngest children were born. The town of Natick had been founded for the so-called “praying Indians,” that is, Indians who had become Christian. While Natick was intended to be an Indian town, in practice other non-White people wound up living there too — people like Caesar, Naomi’s mixed-race husband. But Caesar could also claim Indian ancestry. Although he had been born in the West Indies and came to Massachusetts later on, he said that he had two European grandparents — one Dutch, one French,— an African grandparent, and an Indian grandparent. (7)

Naomi Isaac Ferrit appears in the written record eight times — first when she joined our church, next when she got married, and then in the birth records for six of the seven or so children she had. After the birth of her children, she disappears from the historical record. But let’s assume that she lived until April 19, 1775. In the early morning of that historic day, she would have helped her husband Caesar, then aged 55, get ready to respond to the alarm that the British regulars were on the move. She would have watched as Caesar, and their youngest son John, marched down the road towards Lexington with the rest of the Natick militia company.

Caesar, John, and the rest of their company arrived in Lexington not long before British regular troops returned through the town on their retreat from Concord. The two Ferrits took cover in a house near the meetinghouse on Lexington Green, and from its cover fired upon His Majesty’s troops. The regulars searched the house to find those two snipers, and the Ferrits hid under the stairs in the cellar to avoid capture. In short, Naomi’s husband, and her child John, were two of the hallowed veterans of the Battle of Concord and Lexington, engaging in an act of bravery at great risk to their lives.

Caesar Ferrit proved to be quite a Patriot. Although many veterans of the Battle of Concord and Lexington went back to their farms, in late April Caesar enlisted for a tour of duty in the Massachusetts army. Then later in the war, he enlisted once again. His military service was remembered for the rest of his life. In 1796, three years before his death, the town of Natick petitioned the state for a pension for him. (8)

One of Naomi’s sons-in-law, Thomas Nichols, had a very different experience on April 19, 1775. Thomas was a free Black man who married Patience Ferrit, Naomi and Caesar’s second daughter. On April 19, 1775, Thomas was being held in the town jail in Concord, having been accused of “enticing” enslaved persons “to desert the service of their masters.” While his father-in-law and brother-in-law were firing at the British troops on Lexington Green, he witnessed the events of April 19 from the Concord jail. After being held for three months, the authorities found that there was no evidence to support the accusations against Thomas, so he was sent back to Natick. (9) The story of Naomi’s son-in-law shows how the Indian communities and the Black communities of Massachusetts became intertwined. And I wonder if Thomas really was helping other Black people liberate themselves, and managed to get away with it — if he was one of the early precursors to the conductors of the Underground Railroad. I like to imagine that he was.

That’s all I was able to find out about Naomi Isaac. After the birth of her children, she apparently disappears from the historical record. Yet her legacy may live on in a very literal way. In our own time, descendants of the Natick Indians gather each year for the Natick Praying Indians Powwow, held on the last weekend of September. I like to think that some of Naomi Isaac’s descendants are among them.

Photo of part of a handwritten document.
Minister’s record of “The Names of Those Adult Persons who Owned the Covenant” — Naomi Isaac’s name is at bottom left. Image copyright (c) 2024 First Parish in Cohasset, used by permission; all rights reserved.

This brings us back to the topic of land acknowledgements.

I’ve spun out some stories for you about what might have happened to some specific individuals who were Cohasset Indians. I readily admit that my stories are partly speculative. Nonetheless, I believe there’s some truth in the stories I’ve just told. If we were to decide to offer a land acknowledgement, we might want to acknowledge the three women I’ve talked about this morning. And I’ll end this sermon with one of many possible land acknowledgements for our congregation:

“We gather on land that is the traditional and ancestral homeland of Mary Judah, Sarah Wapping, Naomi Isaac, and other Indians of Cohasset. We think it’s likely at least some descendants of Sarah Wapping and Naomi Isaac, former members of our congregation, are still alive today. We acknowledge the many contributions these women and their descendants have made to our society, including their children’s service in the Revolutionary War. And we wonder how we can ever repay them.”


(1) According to “So you began your event with an Indigenous land acknowledgment. Now what?” reported by Chloe Veltman on National Public Radio, All Things Considered, March 15, 2023
[https://www.npr.org/2023/03/15/1160204144/indigenous-land-acknowledgments] — some Native American leaders believe land acknowledgements are a waste of time, while others believe they are useful. It’s a complicated issue!

(2) The debate is very much alive among epidemiologists. E.g., in 2010, a new possibility was outlined by John S. MarrComments and John T. Cathey, in “New Hypothesis for Cause of Epidemic among Native Americans, New England, 1616–1619” (Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 16 no. 2, Feb. 2010 https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/16/2/09-0276_article). The authors of this study say: “Classic explanations have included yellow fever, smallpox, and plague. Chickenpox and trichinosis are among more recent proposals. We suggest an additional candidate: leptospirosis complicated by Weil syndrome.”

(3) Bigelow, Narrative History of Cohasset, p. 106.

(4) Woody Chittick, “Slavery in early Cohasset,” n.d.

(5) Information from Family Search website.

(6) The romantic story is in the Natick Bulletin, “Local Centennial Events,” June 18, 1875; quoted by George Quintal, Patriots of Color (Boston Nat. Hist. Park, 2004), p. 102.

William Biglow, History of the Town of Natick, Mass. (1830) says this about Cesar Ferrit and his wife:

“April 19th. — On this memorable morning, as one of the survivors lately expressed it, every man was a minute man. The alarm was given early, and all marched full of spirit and energy to meet the British. But few had an opportunity to attack them. Caesar Ferrit and his son John arrived at a house near Lexington meeting house, but a short time before the British soldiers reached that place, on their retreat from Concord. These two discharged their muskets upon the regulars from the entry, and secreted themselves under the cellar stairs, till the enemy had passed by, though a considerable number of them entered the house and made diligent search for their annoyers.

“This Caesar was a great natural curiosity. He was born on one of the West India islands, and was accustomed to boast, that the blood of four nations run in his veins; for one of his Grandfathers was a Dutchman, the other a Frenchman; and one of his grandmothers an Indian, and the other an African. He married a white New England woman, and they had several children, in whose veins, if Cæsar’s account of himself be true, flowed the blood of five nations. His son John served through the revolutionary war, and is now a pensioner.”

While this story seems to argue against Naomi Isaac Ferrit being the same as Naomi Isaac of Cohasset, its claims must be weighed against its late date, nearly a century after Naomi would have left Cohasset. Biglow gives no source for this anecdotal evidence, but if this story were told to him by Naomi’s descendants it could well have been to their advantage to have their mother posthumously “pass” as White; many people in Massachusetts considered it shameful to have Indian ancestry, and persons with Indian ancestry were regularly discriminated against, right up through the twentieth century. (Note, too, that Caesar’s wife’s is not named in this account.) For all these reasons, I’m inclined to place little trust in Biglow’s account.

Also, I was unable to find anyone named Naomi Isaac anywhere in Massachusetts in the usual genealogical records, for this time period. This proves nothing in of itself, but is worth considering when evaluating other evidence.

(7) J. L. Bell, “Thomas Nichols of Natick,” Boston 1775 blog, April 28, 2016. (https://boston1775.blogspot.com/2016/04/thomas-nichols-of-natick.html). See also the previous footnote.

(8) J. L. Bell, “The Service of Caesar Ferrit,” Boston 1775 blog, April 30, 2016. (https://boston1775.blogspot.com/2016/04/the-service-of-caesar-ferrit.html).

See also: entry on Caesar Ferrit in George Quintal, Patriots of Color (Boston Nat. Hist. Park, 2004), pp. 102 ff.; and entry on Caesar Ferrit, Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War: A Compilation from the Archives, Volume 5, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Office of the Secretary of State, 1899, p. 632.

(9) J. L. Bell, “Reviewing Thomas Nichols’s Case,” Boston 1775 blog, April 29, 2016. (https://boston1775.blogspot.com/2016/04/reviewing-thomas-nicholss-case.html)

More resources on land acknowledgements

“Beyond Land Acknowledgements: A Guide,” Native Governance Center website

One current organization of Native Americans in our area which may include descendants of Sarah Wapping and Naomi Isaac: Praying Indians of Natick and Ponkapoag

The Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag lists last names of tribal members in the 1800s. None of the last names mentioned in the sermon — Wapping, Isaac, Ferrit, or Nichols — appear on their list. However, the time frame they’re looking at is one or more generations later, and thus might include descendants of the people I mention.

Other Native American groups in our area include the Cothutikut Mattakeeset Massachusetts Tribe, with ancestral lands in Bridgewater

The indigenous people in Cohasset were most likely part of the Massachusetts people, not the Wampanoag people. There are several well-known Wampanoag groups in southeastern Massachusetts. Descendants of Cohasset Indians might have joined one or more of these Wampanoag groups, through marriage or in other ways.

Scrooge and the Christmas Mythos

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

A homily for Christmas Eve

Christmas is an interesting holiday for Unitarian Universalists. Those of us who relate to the Unitarian side of our heritage don’t believe in the trinity, so we tend to ignore all the parts of the Christmas mythos claiming that Jesus is God. And those of us who relate to the Universalist side of our heritage don’t believe in original sin and eternal damnation, so we tend to ignore all the parts of the Christmas mythos claiming that Jesus came to save us from our sin. We honor Jesus of Nazareth, and we take seriously all of his teachings. As a result of our religious outlook, we don’t expect Jesus to solve all of humanity’s problems; instead, we feel it’s up to us to get ourselves out of the messes that we’ve created.

With this in mind, I’d like to talk with you about Ebeneezer Scrooge, whom we met in a reading earlier today. The character of Scrooge comes from the book “A Christmas Carol,” written by the novelist Charles Dickens in 1843. This has been a hugely influential book, one of the most important contributions to our contemporary Christmas mythos. Indeed, Scrooge is one of the reasons why we now think of Christmas as a time to help those who are less fortunate than we are.

You won’t be surprised to learn that Charles Dickens was a Unitarian. Although on paper he remained a member of the Church of England all his life, his moral and religious convictions brought him to Unitarianism as an adult, and that’s where he found his religious home. I suspect he was drawn to the Unitarian commitment to get heaven into Earth while we’re still alive, rather than waiting until we die to get into heaven. Dickens was always concerned with making the world better in the here and now, especially for the poor and the downtrodden.

In the book “A Christmas Carol,” Ebeneezer Scrooge starts out as someone who doesn’t worry much about getting into heaven after he dies, nor does he worry much about getting heaven into Earth while he’s alive. He’s only concerned with making lots and lots of money. In that concern, he was a product of his times. Just as with our world today, making money was the highest value in Ebeneezer Scrooge’s world.

Yet I find myself sympathizing with Scrooge. There have been times when someone has wished me a “Merry Christmas” when they really didn’t mean it, and I have wished that person boiled in their own pudding. I also sympathize with Scrooge’s condemnation of Christmas as “humbug.” I think that condemnation is especially poignant this year, when, instead of a Christmas of peace on earth and good will to all, we are faced with war in Ukraine backed by the Russian Orthodox church, who claim to be followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. And I have a hard time with the commercialization of Christmas — it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that American consumers spend something like a trillion dollars during the Christmas holiday season. “Bah, humbug,” indeed. This year I was sorely tempted to get one of those red Santa hats with “Bah, humbug” embroidered in the fuzzy white part.

No wonder, then, that we might feel some sympathy for Ebeneezer Scrooge. Yet by the end of the story, Scrooge comes to the realization that Christmas does not have to be a humbug. Christmas can become a humbug, if we let it; sadly, it often is a humbug. Christmas can also be, in the words of Scrooge’s nephew, “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.” And so it is that in the end, Scrooge understand that he has the power to make Christmas something more than a humbug. He has the power to reach out to other people; to help other people; and ultimately to love and to be loved in return.

On Christmas morning, Scrooge begins his transformation by reaching out to the people to whom he feels the closest. He has no family of his own any more; that’s part of Scrooge’s tragedy, and part of the reason he had become so crabbed and loveless. But he can go to eat Christmas dinner with his nephew Fred, and when he does that, he finds that love has begun to enter his life again. The day after Christmas, he raises the salary of his employee Bob Cratchit, and again he finds that this does as much good for his soul as it does for Bob Cratchitt’s pocketbook. Scrooge then goes on to become a second father to Bob Cratchitt’s son Tiny Tim, which does even more good for his soul.

This is how the Unitarian Charles Dickens understood Christmas. For Dickens, as for most Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists, Christmas doesn’t have much to do with sin and salvation. Instead, it has to do with trying to create a heaven here on earth, preferably in our own lifetimes. We start by finding a source of love in our own hearts. We next try to extend that love to family and friends and chosen family, spending time with them, and doing the best we can to get along as peaceably as possible with those whom we love. After that, if we can, we might spread love out to our neighborhood, or even the wider world.

But it’s enough at Christmastime to start as Scrooge did, by finding love within your own heart, and then by doing your best to live out that love with those closest to you. If your heart feels shut up, open it. When you see other people, think of them, not as an alien race, but as fellow-passengers on the journey of life. And if we can make Christmastime a kind, forgiving, charitable time of year — perhaps we can make the rest of the year kind and forgiving and charitable as well. Perhaps, as Jesus of Nazareth claimed, we really can create heaven here on earth.

Humanism for Such a Time as This

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is by Russell Moore, an evangelical Christian who forced out of the Southern Baptist Conference for speaking out against Donald Trump’s morals, calling out white nationalism as sinful, and demanding ethical accountability for clergy sexual misconduct. In an interview on NPR< Moore said:

“…Multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount… in their preaching — ‘turn the other cheek’ — to have someone come up after to say, ‘Where did you get those liberal talking points?’ And what was alarming to me is that in most of these scenarios, when the pastor would say, ‘I’m literally quoting Jesus Christ,’ the response would not be, ‘I apologize.’ The response would be, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.’ And when we get to the point where the teachings of Jesus himself are seen as subversive to us [evangelicals], then we’re in a crisis….”

The second reading comes from: “Anybody There? Reflections on African American Humanism,” by Anthony B. Pinn, published in the UU Humanist Association Journal in 1997:

I argue for the possibility of a humanist theology, a theology that holds community rather than God as the center of life-altering questions, accompanied by an understanding of religion and theology as centered on the problem of evil, or theodicy. Christian theology as done within African American communities is premised upon a sense of redemptive suffering as the best response to moral evil in the world. Furthermore, this theological stance is intimately tied to the Christian tradition, complete with a God who is concerned for and working on behalf of the oppressed. It continues to be my belief that, although important in many ways, this theological stance and its narrow perception of religion may not be the best means of achieving the social transformation or liberation sought by the African American community. I conclude that a theological stance on moral evil requires an alternate religious system — African American humanism. This is not meant to dismiss Christian approaches out of hand, rather, to broaden the possibilities, the religious terrain, and to foster conversation concerning liberating ways of addressing the problem of evil.

Sermon — “Humanism for Such a Time as This”

Since I want to talk with you this morning about humanism, perhaps I should begin be defining “humanism.” Like many terms that have to do with religious conviction, different individuals and different organizations are going to define “humanism” in different ways. Some conservative Christians, for example, probably lump humanism together with atheism; those conservative Christians would probably define humanism as just another name for the heresy of not believing in their God. And some fundamentalist atheists would no doubt define humanism as “atheism lite,” by analogy with lite beer — half the calories and half the flavor, and why not just drink the real thing.

In contrast with these derogatory definitions, I choose to define humanism as a positive and valid religious outlook that does not include belief in God. I would call humanism a religious outlook, although I also understand that some followers of humanism would prefer not to be considered religious. After all, these days religion in American popular culture is often equated with narrow-minded conservative Christianity. Nevertheless, I’m going to say that humanism is religious.

As its name implies, humanism puts human beings at the center of religion. The African American humanist theologian William R. Jones calls this “humano-centric” religion. Jones says this is quite different from traditional Christian religion, which — using his terminology — is theo-centric. That is to say, conservative Christianity puts God at the center of things, and therefore God has the primary responsibility to solve problems. Humano-centric religion tells us that we human beings are responsible for our own actions; humano-centric religion tells us that if we humans see something wrong with the world, it is up to us to try to repair it and make it better.

Humanism is not unique in teaching us to take responsibility for our own actions. Liberal Christianity, liberal Judaism, engaged Buddhism, and similar groups are also humano-centric religions; that is, each of these groups teaches us humans to take primary responsibility for our own actions. But humanism is different because it says there’s nothing beyond human beings and this present world. Humanists say there is no God, except whatever human-made gods and goddesses we might choose to invent. Humanists teach that there is no supernatural world — no heaven, no nirvana, no karma, no holy beings or holy persons — there is just this world.

I’m not a humanist myself — my current religious self-identity is Haven’t-figured-it-out-ism. However, in this current political and social moment, I find myself both inspired by and grateful to humanism. A certain kind of conservative Christianity has become very emboldened here in the United States. These conservative Christians are giving Christianity a bad reputation. No, more than that, these conservative Christians are giving all of religion a bad reputation. And this type of emboldened conservative Christians is epitomized for me in the story told by Russell Moore, which we heard in the first reading this morning. Let me remind you of this story.

A Christian pastor preaches a sermon based on Matthew 5:38-39. That’s where Jesus is preaching the so-called Sermon on the Mount. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” So this Christian pastor preaches on this classic text from the Christian scriptures, and after the sermon he is confronted by an angry parishioner who demands to know why the pastor is preaching those liberal talking points. The pastor informs the angry parishioner that, according to their Christian beliefs, those words were spoken by Jesus Christ, which is to say, those words were actually spoken by God himself. The angry parishioner says, “That doesn’t work any more”; in essence saying that the Word of God is outdated.

Russell Moore, who tells this story, has impeccable conservative Christian credentials. He was a very powerful figure in the Southern Baptist Convention. He taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He was the chairman of the board for an evangelical Christian nonprofit called the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. In this latter role, he would have been diametrically opposed to our Unitarian Universalist notion of the full equality of men and women and other genders. We here in this room would find many areas of disagreement with Russell Moore.

Yet there are several key issues where we would agree with Russell Moore. For example, in 2016 Moore condemned Donald Trump’s derogatory comments about women and his alleged sexual misconduct. But Moore was forced to recant by Southern Baptist leaders and say he had been unnecessarily harsh. At about that time, Moore made a public statement saying the Confederate flag was not compatible with Christianity. Once again, some influential Southern Baptists took him to task for standing up for the dignity of African Americans. Then a few years later, Moore began calling on his co-religionists to face up to the serious clergy sexual abuse crisis among Southern Baptist churches. Once again he faced bitter backlash from other Southern Baptists for taking a moral stance. He finally grew tired of being forced to apologize for taking moral stances that he felt were based in the Bible. In 2021, Moore left his post as president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and left the Southern Baptist Convention entirely.

Unfortunately, this is what American conservative Christianity has come to — Christians rejecting the teachings of Jesus, Christians ignoring sexual misconduct in politicians and in their own pastors, White Christians refusing to deal with racism. A growing number of people don’t want to be associated with the excesses of conservative American Christianity — the clergy sexual abuse crisis, the blatant introduction of partisan politics into religion, the Confederate flags in churches. And the reality is that American conservative Christianity has become the paradigm for all religion in the United States. As a result, a growing number of people don’t want to be involved with any kind of religion at all.

And so it is that humanism has a lot to offer in this current moment of history. In a time when the conservative Christian God appears to be a deity which is sexist, racist, and homophobic, many people are ready to reject all religion. Humanism provide an alternative to conservative Christianity that can help Americans see new possibilities for religion.

And we actually do want people to be part of organized religion. Sociological studies have shown that religion is good for people. This apparently has little to do with belief or lack of belief. After reading some of these sociological studies, and comparing them with my own observations, I would say religion is good for us in large part because we participate in a community of shared values. The shared values I’m talking about are not abstract theology like: do you believe in the Trinity or not; I’m talking about more basic shared values like: being kind to one another; helping one another; working with other people to make the world a better place.

Humanism can help us see this truth about religion. It doesn’t much matter whether everyone believes in God. It does matter that we attempt to lead moral lives, that to the best of our ability we treat all human beings with respect. If someone becomes disillusioned with God, they may feel compelled to leave all organized religion behind, thus cutting them off from the benefits of a religious community. Humanism offers the opportunity of having a religious community without the perceived hypocrisy of today’s American religion.

Humanism can also serve as a healthy challenge to those who may not be humanists, by insisting that we human beings are responsible for our own actions. Humanists teach us that when we see something wrong with the world, it’s up to us to repair it. By contrast, conservative Christianity promotes a kind of passivity — everything is up to God; it’s God’s will if you live or die; all you need to do is pray. As an example of this kind of thinking, some conservative Christian pastors right now are saying we should not strive for peace in Israel and Gaza, because they believe the war there is a sign of the End Times when Jesus comes back to earth. God has decreed this — so these conservative Christian pastors say — and so we should let the warring parties do whatever they want. If the war escalates, then so be it, that’s what God wants. Humanists help us understand why these conservative Christian pastors are so wrong. Humanists teach us that when human society goes wrong it’s up to us to fix it. Progressive Christians, progressive Jews, and progressive Muslims might word this a bit differently; they might say God has given humans freedom to act, or something similar. But it comes down to the same basic principle: the war in Gaza and Israel was started by humans, it is being fought by humans, and therefore it’s up to us humans to put an end to the fighting and violence.

Humanists apply this principle to many other contemporary social problems. In the second reading this morning, Anthony Pinn, an African American humanist, argues that humanism offers the best hope for repairing the evils of racism. In his opinion, the Black churches have responded to racism based on “a sense of redemptive suffering as the best response to moral evil in the world.” Pinn rejects the notion of redemptive suffering — in Pinn’s view, suffering the evils of racism is not going to redeem anyone. Instead, Pinn argues that a religious outlook focused on the problem of evil, a religious outlook which relies on community rather than God to address the evil of racism, is what we need. No more redemptive suffering, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Once again, I don’t think that humanism is all that different from progressive Christianity or engaged Buddhism or progressive Judaism. The main difference I can see is that humanism doesn’t have a central personage like Jesus or God or the Buddha. Yet all these religious outlooks are similar in placing a very high importance on community. God, or Jesus, or Buddha remains important, but human community is also critically important.

And here is where we find the main distinction between religious humanism and organized atheism. Both atheists and humanists do not believe in God, or in any divinity. But the most important thing for organized atheists is their disbelief in God. By contrast, the most important thing for religious humanists is that they come together in community to try to solve the problems facing the world. Thus, the well-known atheist Richard Dawkins spends much of his time trying to convince others that God is a delusion. By contrast, humanist Anthony Pinn is mostly concerned with addressing society’s problems, and he brings up his disbelief in God only because he feels it can get in the way of fighting evil. Theoretical physicist Peter Higgs — who predicted the existence of the Higgs boson — once quipped in an interview that “Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind.” I think there’s some truth in that. Just as the conservative Christians feel they have to defend the purity of their belief, atheists like Dawkins feel they have to defend the purity of their disbelief. Whereas atheists like Anthony Pinn don’t spend much time on purity of belief or disbelief. Humanists believe that instead of spending so much time on purity of belief, we should be spending most of our time on ending racism, or on promoting world peace, or addressing any number of other social evils.

I already told you that I’m not a humanist myself, that I’m what you might call a Haven’t-figured-it-out-ist. Yet as a stalwart proponent of Haven’t-figured-it-out-ism, I find myself inspired by humanism, and by humanists like Anthony Pinn. I admit that I really enjoy talking about abstract issues like the nature of God, the requirements of the Dharma, and the ways the rabbis have interpreted the Torah. (I have an undergraduate degree in philosophy and a graduate degree in theology, of course I like talking about such things!) But I feel Anthony Pinn is correct. It’s more important, as he says, “to foster conversation concerning liberating ways of addressing the problem of evil.”

In other words, what I learn from humanist is that our top priority as a religious community should be ending racism, sexism, homophobia, war, and so on. What each of happens to believe or disbelieve about God, or Dharma, or Allah, or any of those abstract religious questions, deserves less of our energy at this particular historical moment. Let’s take care of racism first. Let’s end hunger and poverty first. Let’s solve the looming environmental crisis first. Let’s focus on the human problems that human beings can solve. Once we have those problems taken care of, then we can find the time to argue about the existence or non-existence of God.