Why Do We Sing What We Sing?

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is from the poem “Darshan Singh and Christian Harmony,” by Coleman Barks, Gourd Seed (Maypop Books, 1983), p. 59.

The second reading was from John Calvin’s essay “Singing Psalms in Church.”

“As to public prayers, there are two kinds: the one consists of words alone; the other includes music. And this is no recent invention. For since the very beginning of the church it has been this way, as we may learn from history books. Nor does St. Paul himself speak only of prayer by word of mouth, but also of singing. And in truth, we know from experience that song has a great power and strength to move and inflame the hearts of men to invoke and praise God with a heart more vehement and ardent. One must always watch lest the song be light and frivolous; rather, it should have weight and majesty, as St. Augustine says. And thus there is a great difference between the music that is made to entertain people at home and at table, and the Psalms which are sung in church….”

The third very short reading was a Vietnamese folk poem titled “The Singer with a Bad Voice,” trans. by John Balaban, Ca Dao Vietnam (Copper Canyon Press, 2003).

Sermon: “Why Do We Sing What We Sing?”

[This sermon was interspersed with five hymns from recent Unitarian Universalist hymnals, as noted below.]

A question that I’ve been asking myself for some years now is this: why do we sing certain songs in our Sunday services, and not other songs? So I propose that we consider five songs that we often sing, then either sing them or listen to them sung, and think about why we do sing them. We can also think about why it might be strange that we sing them at all.

To begin, a quick explanation of why we sing at all in our services. In Western civilizations before the Protestants split from the Roman Catholics, most religious services did not have anyone singing singing except for some kind of rehearsed choir; if you weren’t in the choir, you didn’t sing. But Protestants like John Calvin, as we heard in the second reading, decided that everyone should sing.

The Puritans who started our congregation followed Calvin, and sang only psalms from the Bible. In the 18th century, they began singing hymns, that is, songs of praise to God that were not psalms. In the 19th century, the repertoire expanded further to include spiritual songs and gospel music, in which mention of God was less prominent. By the middle twentieth century, this congregation began singing songs that had no mention of God at all. We have come quite far from John Calvin.

And this brings us to the first song that I’d like us to consider, a song which has no explicit mention of any deity whatsoever. Let’s stay seated, and we’ll sing just the last verse of hymn #1064, “Blue Boat Home.”

[The congregation sang “Blue Boat Home,” #1064 in Singing the Journey. Recording of the songwriter, Peter Mayer, singing this song. Note that Mayer sings this song a bit differently from the version that appears in the hymnal.]

“Blue Boat Home” doesn’t mention God or any other deity whatsoever. Nevertheless, I’d call it a spiritual song. The song gives thanks, and it tries to make sense of the wonder of the universe. Expressing gratitude and wonder should be considered in some sense spiritual. “Blue Boat Home” is often considered an ecology song, which is another part of its spiritual attraction for us — we Unitarian Universalists have found the spiritual in Nature since Ralph Waldo Emerson’s day.

But why have we latched onto “Blue Boat Home,” and not some other ecology song? For instance, why don’t we sing another spiritual ecology-oriented song that’s just as good, “Swimming to the Other Side,” written by Pat Humphries at about the same time? I’m glad we do sing “Blue Boat Home,” but I see no particular reason why we sing it and not the Pat Humphries song. Oftentimes, our song choices seem to be based on random chance.

There’s another one of our favorite songs that I can’t figure out why we sing, and that’s the song “There Is More Love Somewhere.” While “Blue Boat Home” is a composed song that sounds like a folk song, “There Is Move Love Somewhere” is a genuine honest-to-goodness folk song. “There Is More Love Somewhere” probably comes from Bessie Jones, who was recorded singing it for folklorist Alan Lomax in November of 1961. As is true of many American folk songs, it’s hard to say exactly where this song comes from. It probably has roots in Africa (Bessie Jones’s grandfather was born in Africa). Bessie Jones sang a couple of Christian verses that we usually don’t sing: “There is Jesus somewhere,” and “There is heaven somewhere,” so it probably has European Christian roots, too.

I’ve heard that some Unitarian Universalists have changed the words to this song so it says, “There is more love right here.” Folk songs can change over time, but once you start singing “There is more love right here,” I think you’ve just written a new song with an entirely different meaning; a song that ignore the realities of the African American tradition out of which the song originally arose. When we sing “There is more love “somewhere,” it reminds us that we do not live in a utopia; the moral arc of the universe is still trying to bend towards justice. When I sing “There is more love — somewhere,” that reminds me that we are put here on earth to help one another, and to help one another we have to understand that many of us have plenty of problems. This is a song of longing and striving for a better world. With that in mind, let’s sing the song, and see if you agree with me. No need to open your hymnal. We’ll sing two verses, “There is more love somewhere, I’m going to keep on till I find it”; and then “There is more hope somewhere….”

[The congregation sang “There Is More Love Somewhere,” #95 in Singing the Living Tradition. Recording of Bessie Jones singing this songBernice Johnson Reagon’s recording.]

One of the most popular of all hymns and spiritual songs here in the U.S., across a wide range of religious traditions, is the song “Amazing Grace.” This song was not especially popular until after the Second World War, when professional musicians began making recordings of it. We think we know exactly how “Amazing Grace” sounds, but often what we actually know is the 1970 hit recording by Judy Collins, or the 1946 recording by Mahalia Jackson. Those professionally recorded versions don’t sound like older versions of the song. So the choir is going to sing for us an old version of “Amazing Grace” from 1835, the year the words were paired with the tune we now know best.

[The choir sang the original arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” Recording of this arrangement.]

“Amazing Grace” has taken on many different guises since that old 1835 version. Originally, the words were sung to a different tune. Even after the words were paired with the present tune, in 1835, the words continued to be sung to a wide variety of tunes, right up into the 1920s.

By the 1930s, the editors of songbooks and hymnals somehow settled on the present tune. Once professional musicians like Mahalia Jackson made recordings of it, I guess no one could imagine singing the words to any other tune.

During the 1950s and 1960s, “Amazing Grace” became one of the most powerful songs for African Americans involved in the Civil Rights Movement, providing strength and courage and vision. “Amazing Grace” had been written by a former slave-holder who saw the evil of his ways and reformed; in that story, African Americans fighting for Civil Rights saw hope for the future.

Sometimes White people heard a similar message in “Amazing Grace.” In the 1970s, country singer Johnny Cash began singing the song in his prison concerts. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Cash said, “For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free. It just frees the spirit and frees the person.”

Since the 1970s, “Amazing Grace” is often played by bagpipers in cemeteries when someone is buried. Then it provides comfort to people who are in grief. (And it keeps evolving — wait till you hear the offertory Mary Beth is going to play, in which the tune to Amazing Grace goes places you won’t expect.)

The funny thing is that prior to being recorded by professional musicians, “Amazing Grace” belonged to White and Black Southerners living at the cultural peripheries. That poem by Coleman Barks we heard in the first reading describes how the song sounded when the country folk sang it: “The whinge and whang of a loudness I know….” Whinge and whang mean the song did not have the prettiness of a Judy Collins recording, nor the professionalism of a Mahalia Jackson recording. It would have sounded loud, and nasal, and unrestrained, and ecstatic, and — well, that old country singing sounded like bad singing to the educated city folks. To the city folks, it sounded like the kind of singing we heard about in the third reading, singing that causes dogs to bark and bulls to bellow.

So why did the educated city folk, after ignoring the song for over a century, suddenly decide “Amazing Grace” was worth singing? Perhaps it’s because we are slowly, over time, becoming more tolerant of the different subcultures in our country. So instead of being dismissive of uneducated whinge and whang, we can open ourselves to the strangenesses of other people’s musics. We are coming to realize, as Peter Schickele used to say, “all musics are created equal.” We are slowly broadening our perspectives.

The next song I’d like to consider with you seems very comforting and familiar, but it’s actually very strange: “’Tis a Gift To Be Simple.” Let’s sing that right now. Don’t bother opening your hymnals, sing from memory.

[The congregation sang “’Tis a gift to be simple” #16 in Singing the Living Tradition. Recording of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, Shakers singing this song.]

“’Tis a gift to be simple” — that sounds like a the familiar call for simple living. But in reality the Shaker tradition from which this song came was deeply strange.

Susan M. Setta, professor of religion at Northeastern, has written that the Shakers “proclaimed the Motherhood and Fatherhood of God, asserted that the second coming of Christ had occurred in the woman Ann Lee, fostered a social and political structure of both male and female leadership, and prohibited both marriage an private ownership of property.” (1) When the song says “’tis a gift to come down where we ought to be,” the Shakers weren’t talking about some sort of personal growth or self-fulfillment in simple living (which is how we might interpret it today). They meant that after giving up all your private property and ending your marriage and fully believing that Ann Lee was the second coming of Christ, you settled into your place in a Shaker community.

And Shaker worship practices were deeply strange from our point of view. Their worship halls were set up for dancing. In 1961, Sister Lilian Phelps of the Canterbury, N.H., Shakers, described what this was like: “It was the belief of the Shakers that every faculty should be used in the worship of God, and so, various forms of physical exercise were introduced, particularly the March. A group of eight or ten singers, occupied the center of the room, around which the members marched in perfect formation. It was with a graceful, rhythmic motion of the hands as the members marched to the slow or quick tempo of the music.” (2) While this sounds interesting and attractive, it is very different from our worship services.

Yet even though Shakerism is basically alien to our own religious outlook, we still like the song “’Tis a Gift To Be Simple.” There is spiritual truth to be found in this song — both in the words and in the music — that transcends the narrow denominational boundaries in which we are supposed to live.

One of the functions of spiritual music should be to help us transcend the narrow religious boundaries that often restrict our understanding of other people. One of the biggest challenges facing our society today is how to deal with multiculturalism. Due to innovations in communications and transportation, our contact with people who are very different from ourselves continues to increase rapidly. Unfortunately, the increase in diversity in the United States has driven the spread of White supremacist movements, people who think their White racial and cultural identity is so fragile that it can’t survive an encounter with other races unless they are in a position of authority. Since we are not a White supremacists, we have a different experience. Our encounters with other races, ethnic groups, and cultures can actually lead us to deeper self-knowledge and a greater appreciation for our own racial and ethnic roots. When we sing songs from other races and other cultures and other religious traditions, we hope to be brought into greater contact with the wisdom of all of humanity. If we allow ourselves to appreciate the otherness of the songs we sing, our souls will be enlarged; we will become wiser and better people.

This brings me to the final song I’d like to consider: “We Shall Overcome.” Let’s sing that song together. We’ll sing two verses: “We shall overcome some day,” and then “All races together.”

[The congregation sang “We Shall Overcome,” #169 in Singing the Living Tradition. A recording of this song from the Civil Rights Movement.]

It’s hard to know exactly where this song came from. It probably comes from an old gospel song. During a strike by Black tobacco workers in North Carolina in 1946, Lucille Simmons started singing “We will overcome.” Then the Civil Rights Movement picked it up, and it became “We shall overcome” in the 1950s and 1960s.

While this song was originally sung for a very specific purpose — for nonviolent actions during the Civil Rights Movement — it taken on a wider meaning. When the song first became popular, we needed to overcome Jim Crow laws. Today, we still need to overcome racism, but in addition to that we all have personal and communal problems that we need to overcome. “We Shall Overcome” can encompass both our personal troubles, and the wider societal troubles that are all around us. We are encouraged when we sing that someday, we shall overcome. No wonder, then, that we sing this song in our Sunday services.

“We Shall Overcome” helps us see why we sing spiritual songs. We sing these songs to give us strength to face our many troubles. We sing these songs to give us courage, to help us get through the day without giving up. And somehow, it works better when we sing them ourselves. Yes, it is pleasant to listen to a recording of Judy Collins singing her sweetly polished version of “Amazing Grace.” But when we sing a spiritual song ourselves — even if we sing with a whinge and a whang — we get more out of it.

When we actually sing one of these songs ourselves, we sing to gain courage and strength. We will find more love somewhere — if we sing it ourselves. We will find amazing grace — when we sing it ourselves. We shall overcome — but we have to sing it ourselves. We don’t have to have perfect voices, or even good voices. We just have to sing with real feeling deep in our hearts.


(1) “When Christ Was a Woman: Theology and Practice in the Shaker Tradition,” in Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives, ed. Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, Wadsworth, 2001, p. 264.

(2) Sister Lillian Phelps, “Shaker Dances and Marches,” https://shakermuseum.org/learn/shaker-studies/who-are-the-shakers/shaker-dancing-and-marching/ (accessed 2 May 2024)

Principles Revisited

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.

Opening words

The opening words were the poem “Your World” by Georgia Douglas Johnson.


The first reading is from the book Returning by Dan Wakefield. In this memoir, the author, an avowed atheist, tells the story of how he wound up joining King’s Chapel, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Boston.

“Many of us become wanderers, moving from city to city and job to job (as well as marriage to marriage, even family to family) as part of an accepted nomadic lifestyle, instead of putting down roots in one place…. It is little wonder that many of us become psychically disoriented, in need of medical or psychological ‘treatment,’ and suffer from a spiritual vacuum where our center should be….

“Caught in an escalation of panic and confusion in my own professional life (more painful because so clearly brought on by my own blundering), I joined King’s Chapel in May, not wanting to wait until the second Christmas Eve anniversary of my entry, as I had planned. I wanted the immediate sense of safety and refuge implied in belonging, being a member — perhaps like getting a passport and fleeing to a powerful embassy in the midst of some chaotic revolution.

“Going to church, even belonging to it, did not solve life’s problems — if anything, they seemed to escalate again around that time — but it gave me a sense of living in a larger context, of being part of something greater than what I could see through the tunnel vision of my personal concerns. I now looked forward to Sunday because it meant going to church; what once was strange now felt not only natural but essential….”

The second reading is from the essay “Why I Am What I Am” by Egbert Ethelred Brown. Born and raised in Jamaica, he founded the Harlem Unitarian Church. In this story he tells how he became a Unitarian.

“On a certain day in 1907 I received two letters from America — one from the bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church practically accepting me as a candidate for the ministry of that denomination, the other from the president of Meadville Theological School, [the Unitarian seminary,] accepting me as a student in the school but frankly informing me that there were no colored Unitarian churches in America, and that since at that time no white church in America was likely to accept a colored man as its minister, the school could hold out no prospect of assignment after my graduation….

“Why then am I a Unitarian minister. Because I could not be enchained by the creeds and traditions of the orthodox churches which I had long since intellectually and ethically outgrown. I wished freedom — freedom to be my own self — to express my self as myself, and I believed then as I believe now that a minister of religion must first of all be absolutely loyal to Truth…. Orthodox churches claim that all truths — at least all necessary truths — have already been proclaimed. Unitarian churches on the other hand are dedicated to the progressive transformation and enrichment of individual and social life through religion, in accordance with advancing knowledge and the growing vision of humankind….” (1)

Sermon: “Principles Revisited”

The Unitarian UniversalistAssociation, of which we are a member congregation, has a set of bylaws. Before your eyes glaze over: don’t worry, this will not be a sermon about the corporate bylaws of a nonprofit organization. Personally, I’m fascinated by bylaws and by nonprofit management, but I know this fascination is not shared widely.

The reason I want to talk about bylaws is that the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association contain a section titled “Principles and Purposes.” This is where we get the well-known “Seven Principles” and the “Six Sources” of Unitarian Universalism. If you’re not familiar with these statements, you can find them in the front pages of the gray hymnal.

The seven principles served to introduce many of today’s Unitarian Universalists to Unitarian Universalism. Over and over again, I’ve heard from people who said they were checking out a Unitarian Universalist congregation — either in person, or using the congregation’s website — and when they encountered the seven principles, they said to themselves: Hey, this is what I believe in, these are my moral and ethical values. So the seven principles seem to have led a fair number of people into Unitarian Universalism

We use these seven principles — this excerpt from the corporate bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association — everywhere. Someone rewrote them in kid-friendly language, called them the “seven promises,” and if you go into the Atkinson Room where some of our children meet for Sunday school you’ll see them prominently posted. Actually, what you’ll see is a poster with the “eight promises.” A couple of years ago there was a movement to add an eighth principle, adding another moral and ethical value statement which says that racism needs to be abolished. Our congregation affirmed this eighth principle through a democratic vote, and so now we introduce our children to the eight principles.

So far, this is a story that’s all about rainbows an unicorns. Now we’re getting to the place where conflict emerges.

The bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association, or UUA, require us to review the principles and purposes every fifteen years. Ours is a dynamic faith, informed by scientific method and the democratic process. We know that our current understandings of truth are merely partial; no one human being, no single human culture, has yet been able to understand the entire truth of the universe. We Unitarian Universalists rely on a communal search for truth, where each new individual insight is checked and reviewed by others; and slowly, the individual insights are accumulated into a greater vision. This communal search for truth is messy, and leads to argument and constant investigation and sometimes open conflict.

Our communal search for truth is currently messy. The last major revision of the UUA’s principles and purposes came in 1985, when the present seven principles were voted in. This year, we’re reaching the end of a three year democratic process which has proposed completely revising the UUA principles and purposes. These proposed revisions will be voted on this June at General Assembly, the UUA’s annual business meeting, and I think it will be a close vote. (If you want to read the proposed revisions for yourself, look for “Final Article II revisions” on the UUA website.) Our congregation can send a delegate to General Assembly, and we should probably vote at our annual meeting as to how we want to instruct our delegate to vote.

This proposed revision to the seven principles has stirred up conflict. (Look for the “Fifth Principle Project” website if you want to read some of the objections to this revision.) Personally, I have not been following this debate. In fact, I’d like suggest that this is probably not an especially important question.

And to explain why I believe it doesn’t much matter whether we vote to revise the bylaws or not, I’d like to tell you the story of how two very different people came to Unitarian Universalism. Both these people came to Unitarian Universalism prior to 1985, that is, before the current seven principles even existed. And if we look at why they came to Unitarian Universalism, we find that it had nothing to do with bylaws, or statements of faith, or anything like that.

I’ll start by telling you the story of Dan Wakefield. I’m going to start with Dan, partly because he died just last month, on March 13, and partly because he was one of my academic mentors. His story goes something like this:

Dan was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1933. Growing up, he went to church because nearly everyone in the American midwest in the 1940s went to church. But he wanted to be a writer, so he went off to college in New York City. While there, he came to question many of the assumptions he had taken for granted as a Midwesterner. One of the things he questioned was his unreflective Christianity, and he decided to become an atheist. After college, he started working as a writer and reporter. His first big story was covering the Emmet Till trial for The Nation magazine. He went on to write numerous magazine articles and a couple of nonfiction books mostly on controversial topics. Next he published five novels, and in the 1970s went off to Hollywood, where he created a TV series and worked on other projects.

So there he is in Hollywood. He’s made it as a writer. He should be sitting on top of the world. But that’s not the way he feels. This is how he describes it in his 1984 memoir Returning:

“One balmy spring morning in Hollywood, a month or so before my forty-eighth birthday, I woke up screaming. I got out of bed, went into the next room, sat down on a couch, and screamed again. This was not, in other words, one of those waking nightmares left over from sleep that is dispelled by the comforting light of day. It was, rather, a response to the reality that another morning had broken in a life I could only deal with sedated by wine, loud noise, moving images, and wired to electronic games that further distracted my fragmented attention from a growing sense of pain in the pit of my very being, my most essential self….” (2)

He left Hollywood, moved to Boston’s Beacon Hill, and began writing for the Atlantic magazine. And then one Christmas Eve, even though he was a nominal atheist, he decided to go to a church service. Actually, although he called himself an atheist, I would call him more of a rationalist — he did not want to have to believe anything irrational. So when he was debating where to go for Christmas Eve services, he decided on King’s Chapel, a Unitarian Universalist church not far from where he lived. The rationalism of Unitarian Universalism was a good match for Dan’s rationalism. He also wanted a church service that was beautiful. As a writer, he especially apprediated beautiful language, and King’s Chapel uses of the Book of Common Prayer, one of the monuments of English prose style, which was Unitarian-ized by removing all references to the Trinity. Plus, the then-minister of King’s Chapel, Carl Scovel, was arguably the best preacher of any Unitarian Universalist minister in Boston.

You will notice that Dan did not choose which church to attend based on some denominational statement of principles and purposes. Back in 1982, the UUA did have a section of the bylaws that laid out Unitarian Universalist principles and purposes, but that statement did not enter into Dan’s decision. He wanted a community that would support him in his own search for truth. He wanted a community that would support him in his personal struggles. He wanted a community that was filled with beauty. A set of principles and purposes probably would not have swayed him one way or another.

As it happens, Dan moved away from Boston, and away from King’s Chapel. He moved first to New York, then to Florida, and eventually back in Indiana. The last time I saw him was in 2006, when he came to New Bedford to promote a new book titled The Hijacking of Jesus: How the Religious Right Distorts Christianity and Promotes Prejudice and Hate. At that time, he was not calling himself a Unitarian Universalist. He resisted any denominational labels and called himself “just plain Christian” (3) — I suspect in part to reclaim the label “Christian” from the extremists on the religious right. And you know what, I think of that as a very Unitarian Universalist kind of thing to do. We Unitarian Universalists have always tried to nurture connections to others with different viewpoints; we have always felt that our search for truth was more important than labels. And if denominational labels, or denominational statements of faith, get in the way of our connections of our search for truth — it is truth and connection that should win out.

I’ll end Dan Wakefield’s story there, so that I still have time to tell you about Ethelred Brown, who became a Unitarian as a child.

Egbert Ethelred Brown, to give him his full name, was born in Jamaica, and at a young age doubted the traditional Episcopalian Christian faith in which he was raised. As he later described it, his doubts began as a child:

“I was an inquisitive youngster and a truthful child. I was disposed to ask questions. I remember very distinctly the question I asked my [Sunday school] teacher after the scripture lesson on the falling of the walls of Jericho. ‘Why,’ I asked, ‘did God waste so much time when he could have brought down the walls on the first day.’ My teacher was horrified. So much for my inquisitiveness…. These two characteristics — inquisitiveness and truthfulness — had much to do with the choice I ultimately made to enter the Unitarian ministry.” (4)

Later, even though he really wanted to be a minister, Ethelred Brown decided to leave his church completely. He told the story this way:

“It was on Easter Sunday…. The strangeness of the Trinitarian arithmetic [in the Athanasian creed] struck me forcibly — so forcibly that I decided then and there to sever my connection with a church which enunciated so impossible a proposition.” And, as he later recalled, it was on that same day that he was introduced to some Unitarian literature. Unitarianism did not conflict with either his truthfulness nor his inquisitiveness. He later said he became “a Unitarian without a church.” (5)

Fast forward a decade. At age 32, Ethelred Brown lost his job with the Jamaican Civil Service. He decided to become a Unitarian minister. To become a Unitarian minister, he had to face some extraordinary difficulties. In 1907, he was accepted to the Unitarian theological school at Meadville, but he was warned that given the state of race relations in the United States at that time, no Unitarian congregation in the United States would hire him. So he convinced the American Unitarian Association, as the denomination was then called, to fund a Unitarian congregation in Jamaica. Then with the onset of the First World War, the funding dried up.

In 1920, Ethelred Brown emigrated to the United States where he founded the Harlem Unitarian Church in New York City. This church became known among intellectuals in Harlem, and some of the early members were leaders in race relations, trade unions, and politics (the first African American woman to run for statewide office in New York was a charter member). The Harlem Unitarian Church was also one of the first congregations to welcome African Americans who wanted a religious home without being required to believe in God. Some of the sermon titles will give you a sense of what the congregation was like: “Christianity, Atheism, Agnosticism and Humanism”; “Science and Philosophy”; “Is Religion a Vital Factor in Human Progress?”; and “Can Christianity Solve the Race Problem?” (6) The historian Juan M. Floyd-Thomas has summed up the impact of Both Brown and the Harlem Unitarian Church: “From its humble beginnings in 1920 until its dissolution in 1956, the Harlem Unitarian Church provided all interested parties in Harlem with an extraordinary venue in which to engage in open debate, social activism, and spiritual awakening through a radical brand of Black Christianity deeply infused with humanist principles.” (7)

Yet for all its intellectual influence on the African American intellectual community, the Harlem Unitarian Church rarely had more than about thirty actual paid-up members. Ethelred Brown barely got paid, and he had to work day jobs in order to support himself. For example, for five and a half years he worked full time as an elevator operator, while also serving as the minister of the Harlem Unitarian Church. The American Unitarian Association provided absolutely no funding, and very little moral support, to the Harlem Unitarian Church. Ethelred Brown’s financial situation got so bad that during the Great Depression, in 1937 at age 63, he was forced to receive public relief. At that point, Dale Dewitt, a field staffer for the American Unitarian Association, finally managed to convince the American Unitarian Association to provide Ethelred Brown with a stipend. Two years later, when he turned 65, the denomination provided him a pension. With this minimal financial support, he was able to continue his work with the Harlem Unitarian Church. (8)

When you hear Ethelred Brown’s story, you realize he was not attracted to Unitarianism by some static statement of faith. He was attracted to Unitarianism because he wanted a dynamic religious home that welcomed both his truthfulness and his inquisitiveness. Yes, he was treated shabbily by many Unitarian denominational officials. Yet he realized this was cause by the racial situation in both Jamaica and the United States at that time; it did not reflect the larger truth of Unitarianism. (9) He was able to see beyond the racial situation of his time, to grasp the larger truths of liberal religion.

And those larger truths had to do with a system of inquiry, not a statement of faith. Neither Dan Wakefield nor Ethelred Brown came to Unitarian Universalism based on a statement of faith. They each came to Unitarian Universalism for different reasons, but both of them found a spiritual home in Unitarian Universalism; both of them found encouragement to pursue the truth in community, encouragement to continue to grow as persons. Unitarian Universalism does not pretend to be static religion; ours is a dynamic religion that embraces truthfulness and inquisitiveness.

With those two stories in mind, let’s consider what will happen this June, when delegates to the Unitarian Universalist Association general assembly will vote on whether (a) to affirm the proposed revisions to the principles and purposes outlined in the bylaws, or (b) to retain the current seven principles. Personally, I’ll be content with a vote either way. If the delegates vote to replace the old seven principles, the seven principles are not going to disappear; we can still use them as marketing materials; we can still post them in Sunday school classrooms. Or, if the delegates vote to retain the old seven principles, we can use them or not, as we choose. I like to remember that the principles and purposes are just an excerpt from a set of bylaws. As bylaws they’re important for operating the nonprofit corporation called the Unitarian Universalist Association. But they do not represent the core of Unitarian Universalism.

Whatever the delegates decide in June, it won’t have any effect on the core of Unitarian Universalism. And for the core of Unitarian Universalism, I go back to Ethelred Brown. We are a community based on inquisitiveness and truthfulness. That’s what’s really important to us.


(1) E. Ethelred Brown, “Why I Am What I Am” (circa 1947), reprinted in A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism, Vol. 2: From 1900 to the Present, ed. Dan McKanan (Boston: Skinner House, 2017), pp. 140-143.
(2) Dan Wakefield, Returning: A Spiritual Journey (Doubleday, 1984), p. 1.
(3) My recollection is that this is what he called himself when he gave a talk in New Bedford on April 25, 2006.
(4) Ethelred Brown, “A Brief History of the Harlem Unitarian Church,” typescript from archives on the Meadville/Lombard Theological School website; dated Sept. 11, 1949.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Joyce Moore Turner, “The Rev. E. Ethelred Brown and the Harlem Renaissance, 1920–2020,” Journal of Caribbean History, vol. 54 (2020), no. 1.
(7) Juan M. Floyd-Thomas, Juan M, The Origins of Black Humanism in America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
(8) Ethelred Brown, 1949.
(9) The racism and hostility with which the American Unitarian Association treated Brown is covered in some detail in Mark Morrison-Reed, “A Dream Aborted: Ethelred Brown in Jamaica and Harlem,” Black Pioneers in a White Denomination (3rd ed.) (Boston,: Skinner House, 1994), pp. 31-111. Mark Morrison-Reed also gives insight into how Brown’s own strengths and weaknesses contributed to keeping the Harlem Unitarian Church small.

For more about Ethelred Brown, the New York Public Library has a good brief biography online in the finding aid to the Egbert Ethelred Brown collection. See also Mark Morrison-Reed’s book referenced in note (9) above.

For more about Dan Wakefield, his memoir Returning: A Spiritual Journey (Doubleday, 1984) has been reissued by Beacon Press and is still in print. One obituary that captures Dan’s personality can be found at the Indy Star news website.

A Unitarian Universalist Easter

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading is from the Christian scriptures, the last chapter of the Book of Mark, as translated by Hugh Schonfield, a Jewish scholar of the ancient Near East. Later copyists added a more upbeat ending to the Book of Mark; in this reading you will hear the original ending, filled with ambiguity.

When the sabbath was ended, Mary of Magdala, Mary mother of James, and Salome, brought spices in order to go and anoint him. And very early in the morning of the day after the sabbath they came to the tomb as soon as the sun was up. “Who is going to roll away the boulder for us from the entrance of the tomb?” they asked themselves. But when they came to look they saw that the boulder had been rolled aside.

On entering the tomb they were startled to see a young man sitting on the far right side clad in a flowing white robe. “Do not be alarmed,” he said to them. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here. Look, here is the place where he was laid. Go now and tell his followers, and Peter particularly, he is preceding you to Galilee. You will see him there just as he told you.”

They fled from the tomb, for they were trembling and unnerved. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

The second reading is “The Hailstones,” by Ai Qing [aye ching], translated in 1983 by Angela Jung Palandri. This poem was written in 1979, after the poet was released from the prison camp where he had been spent the previous twenty years, because he had fallen out of favor with the Chinese Communist Party. The poem can be found in this online essay (scroll down to page 72).

The final reading was by Joy Harjo, poet laureate of the United States. The title of the poem is “Singing Everything.” This poem is reproduced at the end of this newspaper article.

[These two links go to webpages that reproduce the poems with full permission of the poets.]

Sermon: “A Unitarian Universalist Easter”

That last reading, the poem by Joy Harjo, tells a truth that is worth considering on Easter Sunday. We used to have songs for everything, “Songs for planting, for growing, for harvesting,” as the poet tells us, and songs “for sunrise, birth, mind-break, and war.” But today we are reduced to a narrow range of songs.

Admittedly, Joy Harjo exaggerates a little when she tells us, “Now all we hear are falling-in-love songs and /Falling apart after falling in love songs.” We do have a few other kinds of songs such as political songs, and songs of interior landscapes by singer-songwriters. But Joy Harjo is an enrolled member of the Muscogee nation, and as a Native American she is aware of a broader range of songs that once existed. Most of those kinds of songs that once existed in indigenous cultures — including indigenous European and African and Asian cultures — have disappeared from today’s mass-produced culture.

Mind you, I love the music of today’s culture. I love Taylor Swift’s song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” It has to be the best falling-apart-after-falling-in-love song ever. And some of you will remember Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a song at the roots of hip hop; this is a truly great political song. Perhaps you are now hearing in your head the many other great songs of our time. Even so, most of our popular songs today are love songs, or political songs, or songs of interior landscapes. We have very few songs about sunrise, or planting, or harvesting, or giving birth, or (as Harjo says in her poem) “songs of the guardians of silence.” We have many great songs today, but they mostly stick to a relatively narrow range of topics.

The same is true of much of religion in today’s world. Most of today’s religion occupies a narrow range of feeling and values and being. Popular American culture thinks of religion as having to do with the Bible, except that the Bible is merely supposed to support the assumptions and prejudices of conservative American Christianity. One of my favorite examples of this is that conservative American Christianity assumes that the God of their Bible is entirely male; except that in the Bible, in Genesis 1:28, it very clearly states that God is non-binary gender: “God created humankind in his image… male and female he created them.” God may choose to use he/him pronouns, but God’s actual body is both male and female. Somehow the conservative American Christians manage to ignore that part of the Bible. This shows you what I mean when I say that today’s American religion occupies a too-narrow range of feeling and values and being.

We might imagine for ourselves a religion with a broader range. Consider with me the story of Easter as we heard it in the first reading, as it was originally told in the book of Mark. Here’s how I would retell this story:

The Roman Empire executes Jesus of Nazareth, and he dies at sundown on Friday. The friends and followers of Jesus are all observant Jews. Since the Jewish sabbath begins at sundown of Friday, they want to wait until the sabbath is over to prepare the body for burial. So they place the body in a tomb. Promptly on the morning after the sabbath, Jesus’ mother, accompanied by Mary of Magdala and Salome (these three are leaders among the followers of Jesus, and as women would know more about preparing bodies for burial than any of the men), these three women go to the tomb to care for the body. There they encounter a stranger, a man who is strangely dressed, who tells them that Jesus has been raised, and will precede them to Galilee. The stranger tells the women not to tell the men these things. Not surprisingly, the three women find this strange and weird. They are unnerved. Fearing for themselves and for the other followers of Jesus, they quickly leave the tomb. They tell no one.

That’s it. That’s the end of the story.

Now, the book of Mark is accepted by most scholars as the earliest story we still have that tells about the life and death of Jesus. This means that all those traditional stories about Easter we hear — the stories of resurrection and triumph — that’s not the way the story was first told. The original book of Mark does not end in triumph, and so it sounds like some contemporary poetry — like the poem of Ai Qing we heard as the second reading. Ai Qing lived through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution in China; he was exiled to a labor camp for twenty years. His poem “The Hailstones” is a poetic retelling of how the Cultural Revolution brought his poetry to a violent end. Since he’s telling us this in a poem, we know that eventually his poetry was reborn. Yet when he looks back on those twenty lost years, he can only say: “What remains / Are sad memories of the calamity.”

You notice that I’m using a poem by a disgraced Chinese Communist poet to talk about Easter. I’m not talking about Easter the way we’re “supposed” to talk about Easter; at least, the way the conservative American Christians tell us is the correct, orthodox way to talk about Easter. We Unitarian Universalists have never limited our religion to the narrow confines of conservative American Christianity. For us, religion and spirituality are broad and inclusive. We can look at the Easter story with fresh eyes.

We don’t feel a need to shoehorn the Easter story into a confining orthodoxy. We don’t need the Easter story to somehow prove that Jesus was a god who could not actually be killed. If you want to interpret the Easter story in that way, that’s fine. Yet for us, the Easter story contains far more complexity. As with any good literature, we find multiple levels of meaning. I’ll give you an example from my own life. This past year has been a year of loss in my household: my father-in-law died just about a year ago, and my spouse’s stepmother died the day after Christmas. So this year when I read the Easter story in the book of Mark, what I feel is the emotional truth of that story: someone you love is alive one day, and then they’re no longer alive, and you know they are gone forever. This can leave you (as the story puts it) trembling and unnerved, and you can find yourself afraid and unwilling to talk about it.

That is one emotional truth we can find in the story. We can also find another emotional truth carried in that story. After people die, we have not lost them. They live on in our love. If there’s a resurrection story that all Unitarian Universalists agree on, this it it: love transcends death.

And we can find still more emotional truths in this simple story. For example: Jesus was a brilliant spiritual teacher, who encapsulated spirituality in simple, easy-to-understand stories and formulas. His most famous spiritual teaching is quite simple: love your neighbor as yourself. (Simple in the saying, but far more difficult in actual practice.) When the Roman Empire executed him, his teachings did not die. You cannot kill truth that easily. This another emotional truth of the Easter story that all Unitarian Universalists can agree on: you cannot kill truth so easily.

With enough time, we can find still more emotional truths in this story. So it is that we can see how religion and spirituality have a much wider range than popular American culture would have us believe. Popular American culture tells us that religion is concerned with beliefs many of us find unbelievable, beliefs to which we are supposed to conform. In truth, however, religion and spirituality exist to help us understand the perplexities of life. From this, we gain comfort and support. Religion and spirituality concern the truth that never dies. From this, we remember that love transcends even death. Religion and spirituality teach a universal love that includes all people, no matter what gender or sexual preference, no matter what race, no matter what, period. And with that knowledge, we can create a world where we truly love our neighbors as ourselves.

That’s why we keep coming back here to this community. That’s why we keep our religion and spirituality alive in our personal lives. We celebrate the incredible diversity of humankind, the diversity which exists among us here today. And we celebrate that which transcends us all and which unites us all — that which is highest and best, that which keeps us going from day to day.