Lidian Jackson Emerson’s educational method

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Parish of Concord, Massachusetts, at 10:00 a.m. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, by Ellen Tucker Emerson. Ellen Tucker Emerson, born in Concord in 1839, was the eldest daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lidian Jackson Emerson.

“Mother used to come up to me to hear me say my prayers and my evening hymn, and then pray for me, every night after I had gone to bed, long before Edith [her sister] slept with me. When she [Edith] came she had her prayers and hymn to say, too. When we were very little Mother began to have Sunday readings and I think also daily readings with us. Chiefly hymns and the Old Testament stories, but she used some other books which were not very interesting to us. I believe she avoided the New Testament, for I found it new to me when I began to read it myself…. she seemed to think the Old Testament stories were the children’s part of the Bible. I think so too.

“I was brought up keep Sunday fitly by having tasks to occupy me. Every Sunday I was to learn a hymn [that is, the text of a hymn, not the tune]. Most of them had five verses of four lines, sometimes they had six. After I was sure I could say that smoothly I was to review another. As I advanced in years I had two to review, finally three. By the time this grew easy, the task of writing out the idea of the hymn in prose was added, varied sometimes by rendering one of Mrs. Barbauld’s prose hymns into verse. These were my solitary labors…. When Mother was ready for us [after church and dinner] I had to recite my hymns new and reviewed and the other children theirs. Then she read to us, and as we grew older she was apt to read to us one of Jane Taylor’s Contributions of Q.Q. and she read more from the Gospels. She used to say to us poems….” [pp. 101, 103]


The second reading this morning is taken from the essay “Philosophical issues in spiritual education and development” by Hanan A. Alexander and David Carr. If you don’t do philosophy, feel free to let your attention wander now, because I’ll make the same point in the sermon.

“…[L]iberal society requires that citizens with robust visions of the good actively and substantively participate in democratic debates and discussions…. [T]he quest for spiritual perspectives and values is driven by the failure of thin political liberalism … to provide sufficiently substantial conceptions of the good to guide appropriate and significant life choices…. [A]ny sensible approach to spirituality and spiritual education should aim to steer a middle course between extremes of local cultural attachment and complete disengagement from any and all rooted values. Arguably, however, some such moral and spiritual middle way is a desideratum of liberal polity, insofar as such society precisely aims to foster the critical autonomy necessary for the demands of democratic citizenship without undermining the conditions for substantial identity formation that any society requires for the making of meaningful life choices.”

[“Philosophical issues in spiritual education and development,” Hanan A. Alexander and David Carr, The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Pamela Ebstyne King, Linda Wagner, Peter L. Benson, ed., Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, Calif., 2006, pp. 73 ff.]

Sermon: “Lidian Jackson Emerson’s educational method”

It’s good to be back here, preaching to this historic congregation, in the historic town of Concord, Massachusetts. And with this congregation approaching its 375th anniversary, I thought I’d speak with you this morning about the congregation’s most famous family, the family of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lidian Jackson Emerson. Specifically, I’d like to speak with you about how Ralph Waldo Emerson and his wife Lidian Jackson Emerson raised their children, and how that might cause us to reflect on the way we raise our children.


In the first reading this morning, you heard a little about how Lidian Jackson Emerson and Ralph Waldo Emerson raised their children to be moral and religious persons. Lidian and Waldo used what we would consider to be traditional methods of religious education. Each day, Lidian went up to say good night to Ellen, and Ellen said her prayers, then Lidian said her own prayer over Ellen. On Sundays, religious and moral education continued the whole day. Ellen writes: “Mother’s method in the religious education of her children [was] to have them made familiar with many hymns, and with all the interesting Bible stories[, t]o accustom them to hearing some serious writing read aloud to them regularly, to make it a habit to omit play on Sunday and have it a day devoted to church and to religious study at home.” (1) The family went to church, the children went to Sunday school; the family went home and ate dinner together. The children would then memorize a new hymn each week while their mother went to church again in the afternoon. Afterwards, the children would recite their hymns, and their mother would read aloud to them. And when the children were old enough that they found it easy to memorize hymns, they were sometimes given the additional task of setting a prose hymn into verse.

Over time, the Emerson family changed their Sunday routine somewhat. They still went to church in the morning, and when Lidian went to church again in the afternoon the children still stayed home and memorized their hymns, and recited them to Lidian when she returned home, and listened to their mother read aloud to them. Then at four in the afternoon, the children would walk with their father to Walden Pond, even when it was raining or snowing. When they returned home, they would all have tea with their Mother. Ellen writes: “This was a very easy and happy Sunday to us all, and when we wanted hours of solitude we found space for them.” (2)

Lidian also taught her children the principles of social justice, as it grew out of her Unitarian faith. Lidian was a zealous abolitionist right up until slavery was finally abolished. Ellen writes: “She read the papers faithfully and their pro-slavery tone made her hate her country. She learned all the horrors of slavery and dwelt upon these, so that it was as if she continually witnessed the whippings and the selling away of little children from their mothers.” On the fourth of July in 1853 — that is, a couple of years after the Fugitive Slave Law had been in effect — Lidian was so disgusted by the United States that, rather than decorate their front gate in red-white-and-blue bunting, she hung black fabric instead, as if in mourning. Ellen writes: “I think the children were a little mortified, but Mother said it did her good to express her feelings.” (3)


There you have a brief picture of how the Emerson family taught religion to their children in the middle nineteenth century. Compare this picture to how we teach religion to our children today.

First, consider how many hymns the Emerson children had to memorize. If they memorized one hymn a week, even assuming they forgot a good many over time, by the time they were in high school they would know perhaps two hundred hymns. We rarely memorize verse today, but in the nineteenth century, most educated people had large quantities of poetry and verse that they had memorized. Thus while it seems odd to us, memorizing hymns fit into a larger cultural pattern.

While we might vaguely understand the idea of memorizing hymns, the idea of Lidian setting her daughter the task of rendering prose hymns into verse is completely alien to us. I don’t know of any liberal religious parents who would ask their children to write anything on a religious or moral topic. We expect the schools to teach children how to write, but it is a rare family that asks children to write verse or prose compositions on moral and religious topics.

Keeping Sunday as a Sabbath day, a day of rest focused on moral and religious thoughts, is also foreign to us today. For today’s families, Sundays are as active as any other day of the week: in the morning, there are sports practices and games, and for a few families there might be regular or irregular attendance at Sunday school; the afternoons may be taken up with errands and household chores, and the evenings are most likely devoted to homework in preparation for school on Monday. If there are any spare hours on Sunday, they are filled with social media and video games and similar pursuits. Not many families find space in their lives for “hours of solitude,” even if they should want solitude.

We do share some things in common with the Emerson family. Liberal religious families are still devoted to social justice. We may not hang back fabric on our front gates on the fourth of July, but parents might wear t-shirts that express a desire for justice in the world, and mortify their children in the process. We still teach our children about humanitarian causes, and explain to them the moral reasoning underlying those causes. Beyond teaching our children about social justice, I know of some families today who still take walks together on Sunday afternoons, just as the Emerson family did in their time.

But in general, we devote far less time and energy to intentional religious and moral education of our children than did the Emersons. We fit in religious and moral education when we can, but it is quite impossible to fit in as much religious and moral education as did the Emersons.


Not that I believe we should go back to the ways of the Emerson family. Our society today is not the same as society in the middle of the nineteenth century. We do not live in a society where the home, the schools, the church, and the town government are all founded on liberal Protestant ideals. First Parish of Concord stopped receiving direct financial support from the town government a mere six years before Ellen Tucker Emerson was born, and in her day the church was supported by income from pew rentals, where the wealthiest families paid the most and got to sit in the best pews. There was not yet a Roman Catholic church in town, there certainly weren’t any Jews, and the schools openly taught Protestant Christian values and religious concepts. A few free African Americans lived in town, and more than a few escaping slaves passed through this town on the Underground Railroad, helped on their way by families close to the Emersons; but blacks had no political or social influence, and this was a white town. That is not a society to which I would like to return.

Nevertheless, we lost something when we progressed beyond that old society. Religious education scholar John Westerhoff says that mid-nineteenth century small town America had a “robust ecosystem” of religious education, where the home, the church, the schools, and the community all taught similar religious values. (4) Ellen Tucker Emerson received substantial religious and moral education at home, and that education was supported by the church, the schools, and the whole community. That old educational ecosystem is now broken, and the average child today gets very little time spent in religious and moral education; a child might attend Sunday school perhaps twenty-five hours a year, with perhaps some additional moral instruction at home.

A democratic society needs citizens who have thought deeply about what it means to live a good life. A great part of the success of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was due to its roots in the highest moral and religious ideals of the black church. Democracy does not work well when people vote selfishly on the basis of what they think will benefit them; democracy needs people to have a larger vision of a good society.

We need a middle way between two cultural extremes. On the one hand, Ellen Tucker Emerson’s family and community lived lives and taught values that were too narrow, and did not include racial and religious diversity: African Americans, Catholics, Jews, all were left out of the Emerson family’s narrow cultural ideals. On the other hand, today’s society goes too far to the other extreme: we offer so little religious and moral education to our children that our democracy has devolved to the point where many people only vote to protect their own selfish interests. (5)

We cannot change the way families live their lives in this complicated world we inhabit — we cannot tell people that they must devote an entire day each week to focus on moral and religious thoughts — no one is going to do that. Indeed, we want people to be immersed in the wider democratic society, engaged with citizens with different values, engaged with all the problems and challenges of the broader world.

We cannot change the way families live their lives, so we must figure out the best ways to help people grow and learn, religiously and morally. We’ll still have our Sunday morning services, and we’ll keep Sunday school, too — both continue to serve us well. But we will add to them, and I would suggest that we should add intensive short-term retreats and camps and conferences.

Last week, I was at just such a camp, Ferry Beach Religious Education Week. Over the past couple of decades, this annual conference has become a sort of laboratory for religious education professionals and ministers to experiment with creating a week-long intentional community that welcomes children and teenagers with their parents, and other adults with no children including both young adults, empty nesters, and people like me who have never had children.

In this week-long intentional community, people of all ages live for a week in a community governed by the liberal religious ideals of Unitarian Universalism. In addition to explicit moral and religious education — classes, chapel services, and so on — this week-long camp provides a great deal of implicit religious and moral education. The conference center provides vegetarian and vegan food, and more than one teenager has made the moral decision to commit to a vegetarian or vegan diet while at this camp. The inevitable conflicts that arise are managed by referring to shared religious and moral values — and if you really want to put your values to the test, try resolving a conflict based on your values. The camp has a culture that allows any responsible adult to guide or correct a child when needed. Teenagers play games with children; young adults reach out to and mentor teenagers; all adults mentor each other, and all the other age groups as well. (6) This year, I had a long conversation with a young man whom I have watched grow up over the years, whose marriage had just ended;– and for my part, other adults listened to me talk about my own personal and career struggles.

Consider a child who attends this Unitarian Universalist camp. In one short week, this child gets more than a hundred hours of explicit and implicit religious and moral education. Compare this to the child who attends Sunday school for one hour a week on twenty-five Sundays a year. The child who attends this week-long summer camp gets the equivalent of four years of Sunday school in one intensive dose. Some years ago, a teenager of my acquaintance described her experience this way: all year long she would be on a sort of plateau, and then she felt as if she made a quantum leap upwards in her personal development in a week-long Unitarian Universalist camp; then she would proceed on pretty much of a plateau until the next summer camp. This teenager is now thirty years old, and after working in the public sector, moved to a job in the non-profit sector where she does conflict resolution. This is exactly the kind of spiritually developed and religiously grounded individual who can participate in democracy with a robust understanding of the good.


As you listen to me describing this camp, you’ve probably become aware that there are problems to be solved. Week-long camps of the kind I have just described are expensive, and not everyone can afford them. And many week-long camps are not intentional communities that provide solid religious and moral education of the type that serves democracy. And many week-long camps are not good at including the older generations, the grandparents and great-grandparents, people who can provide so much rich religious and moral insight and instruction.

Well, we will have to solve these problems: we’ll have to have scholarships, and better intentions, and we’ll have to include grandparents and great-grandparents. And we’ll have to try other formats:— weekend retreats in addition to week-long camps; extended families and other multigenerational groups; evening events and small groups; and more. We are in the beta testing phase; we will need to keep refining these ideas until we get it right. And you are already doing many of these things here at First Parish of Concord;— you will keep refining them, keep on working to make small groups and extended families and weekend retreats into intentional communities that help us to grow religiously and morally.

And when you come right down to it, we have the same goals that the Emerson family had. We want our children to grow up into adults with high moral values. We want our adults to keep on growing and refining our religious and moral understandings, so that we can better work with others to infuse the highest values into our democratic society. We want to support each other as we grow, and we want to hold the wider society accountable to the highest moral values.

This is what the Emersons wanted to do. This is what this congregation has been doing for the past 375 years — guiding people towards the highest moral standards, nurturing people who will go out and create an earth made fair and all her people free.

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Continue reading “Lidian Jackson Emerson’s educational method”

Children’s Religious Education Sunday

The homily below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 worship services. As usual, the text below is a reading text; the actual homily contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Homily copyright (c) 2010 Daniel Harper.


“Putting in the Seed”

You come to fetch me from my work tonight
When supper’s on the table, and we’ll see
If I can leave off burying the white
Soft petals from the apple tree.
(Soft petals, yes, but not so barren quite,
Mingled with these, smooth bean and wrinkled pea)
And go along with you ere you lose sight
Of what you came for and become like me,
Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.

From Mountain Interval, 1914, by Robert Frost.


The story was “Starry Time” from The Moral Intelligence of Children, Robert Coles, pp. 13-15. Due to copyright restrictions, it is not included here.

Homily — “The Children of This Church” — Dan

I’ll start by telling you a story. When Theodore Parker, the great Unitarian minister, was a little boy, not yet four years old, his father took him out somewhere on the family farm; then his father sent him home again. As little Theodore walked home, he passed a small pool of water, and there was a turtle sunning itself in the water. Little Theodore had a stick in his hand, and he raised it up to strike the turtle — but suddenly he heard a voice saying, “It is wrong.” Theodore went home, and told his mother what had happened. He asked her what was the voice he had heard, and she told him that some people call it your conscience, and some people call it the voice of God. Either way, the most important thing to do is to listen hard to that voice, for, she said, that voice will always tell you the correct thing to do; but if you neglect that voice, it will gradually fade away, leaving you with no guidance at all.

I told this story to some children this fall, and afterwards they wanted to talk about it. One child tentatively wondered aloud what “conscience” meant, but at almost the same time a girl asked about God. I said what I though Theodore Parker meant by God, and then she asked if we Unitarian Universalists believe in God. I said I did not believe God was supposed to be a man with long white hair and a beard sitting on a cloud; but if we meant something else by “God,” then some of us do believe in God. This answer obviously did not satisfy this girl; she wanted an answer! “How many of us believe in God?” I said. “Raise your hands if you do.” Less than half of us raised our hands. “How many of us don’t believe in God?” I said. Fewer of us raised our hands. “And now, how many people aren’t sure?” I said: still fewer, about of third of us.

The girl who asked the question still wasn’t entirely happy with my answer. “There’s another way to answer this question if you’re a kid,” I said. “You can ask your parents whether or not they believe in God, and then you can say, ‘I’m going to believe what you believe for now, and when I get old enough, I’ll make up my own mind.” This satisfied her, for the moment.

I remembered that someone had started to ask what “conscience” meant. Amy, our parish minister, was visiting class that day, so I asked Amy to define conscience for us, which she did. One boy had his own definition: Conscience is just plain old common sense. I said that many people think that conscience seems to come from inside, while for some people the voice of God would come from outside you; but for some of us, conscience also comes from outside, because conscience comes from other people. This made sense to the children. One child mentioned that we are influenced by what other people think of us, another child said we learn how to act from other people.

This kind of conversation is fairly common in this church, at least in my experience. The children in our church are quite thoughtful about moral issues, not just once in a while, but often. They may not always act on their values; of course, adults have the same problem. But they think and reflect, they wonder about things they’re not sure of, and they are willing to accept ambiguity.

One Sunday, I listened as Melissa van Arsdel told a Sunday school class the story of Queen Esther from the Bible, which is the story that underlies the Jewish holiday of Purim. It’s a long story, so I can’t retell it now — look it up on the Web if you’re curious.

Melissa told the story very well, and the children listened attentively. At the end of the story, Melissa asked the children what they thought of the story. One girl said she thought there might be a lesson to the story, and Melissa asked her what she thought that lesson might be. She gave her idea: that we should be nice to people. Other children said what they thought: that Haman got what he deserved, that you have to be careful whom you trust, and so on. Then one girl spoke up passionately, but not very articulately, saying the story meant we should stick up for our ideals. Melissa said the story could indeed mean all these things; in fact, it does mean all these things.

Then another girl asked if the story were true. When it comes to Bible stories, that’s the question we all ask, isn’t it? Some of the older children, two boys in particular, were quite certain it wasn’t a true story. The girl who had spoken so passionately earlier said decisively that it was a myth. The discussion grew a little chaotic, but the children understood that while this wasn’t factual history the way we know it today, nevertheless it contained truth — or as some of the children put it, there was a “lesson,” or a moral, in it. Even though we live in a world of binary oppositions, a world of black-and-white choices, our children can and do grasp subtleties of truth and meaning; they are willing to live with ambiguity, and to talk about the most difficult issues you can imagine, if we give them the space to do so. And looking back at my teaching notes from this past year, I see that I have had conversations with children on topics like death, and suicide, and how it’s scary to grow up, and what do you do when others betray you. Never once did we come to a final answer in any of these conversations.

Life, death, betrayal, growing older — I’m still struggling with these questions myself! — obviously I don’t have final answers to pass along to our kids. Instead of final answers, let me speak in metaphors. What I say might be truth, or a myth, or a fairy tale, or it might have a lesson in it.

All we can do — all any of us adults can do — is invite children to plant seeds with us. When we’re done putting in the seeds, we can stay there in the garden and watch as the seedlings shoulder their way up, shedding earth crumbs, always growing up towards the light. And if we stay in the garden long enough, the warm night will come, and the moon will rise, and one by one the stars will begin to shine above us, until the whole sky is a blaze of glory; and we will know that we are a part of it all.

Household Gods

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading was from book II of Virgil’s Aeneid:

[506] “Perhaps, too, you may inquire what was Priam’s fate. When he saw the fall of the captured city, saw the doors of his palace shattered, and the foe in the heart of his home, old as he is, he vainly throws his long-disused armour about his aged trembling shoulders, girds his useless sword, and rushes to his death among his thronging foes. In the middle of the palace and beneath the open arch of heaven was a huge altar, and hard by an ancient laurel, leaning against the altar and clasping the household gods in its shade. Here, round the shrines, vainly crouched Hecuba and her daughters, huddled together like doves swept before a black storm, and clasping the images of the gods. But when she saw even Priam harnessed in the armour of his youth, ‘My poor husband,’ she cries, ‘what dreadful thought has driven you to don these weapons? Where are you rushing to? The hour calls not for such aid or such defenders, not though my own Hector were here himself! Come hither, pray; this altar will guard us all, or you will die with us!’ Thus she spoke, then drew the aged man to her and placed him on the holy seat.”

The second reading was from the Hebrew scriptures, the Prophets, Zechariah 10-12:

Ask rain from the Lord
  in the season of the spring rain,
from the Lord who makes the storm clouds,
  and he will give them showers of rain,
  to everyone the vegetation in the field.
For the household gods utter nonsense,
  and the diviners see lies;
they tell false dreams
  and give empty consolation.
Therefore the people wander like sheep;
  they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd.

Sermon — “Household Gods”

Some years ago, I got in trouble in a class I was taking. This class was a creative writing workshop, and it was taught by a fellow who had published quite a few short stories in prestigious magazines. I no longer remember his name, and if you heard his name you probably wouldn’t recognize it — nevertheless, he was an experienced and accomplished writer.

Each week, we all had to submit short stories to be read over and critiqued by the class. Each week we would have to read a short story by a published writer, and all the stories written by our classmates, and comment intelligently on each of these stories. Now I have never been able to write a short story that was any good; non-fiction I can do, but fiction is beyond me; but there I was taking that class because I needed the credits and it was the only class that would fit into my schedule. Since I like to read and I’m never shy about expressing my opinions, I was always happy to read all of the week’s stories and then talk about them in class; but I wasn’t very good at writing stories.

One week I submitted yet another boring story, the inconsequential plot of which hinged on one of the characters talking about her household gods. And to make a long story short (as it were), our teacher ridiculed my story because he had never heard of household gods and wanted to know why they were in the story. What, he asked me, his voice dripping with sarcasm, did I mean by household gods, anyway? Well, I knew my mother had talked about household gods, and I more or less knew that household gods were a sort of cultural metaphor for that which is important to one’s household. This did not satisfy him, and we moved on to the next story, and eventually I passed that class.

In spite of the fact that neither that teacher nor I knew what they were, household gods do indeed exist. The ancient Roman gods and goddesses included not just the major public deities like Juno and Jupiter and Diana; there were also minor deities that lived in each Roman household, and these were the household gods. Sixty years ago, when my mother was in high school, high school kids learned a certain amount of ancient Latin, and a certain amount of ancient Roman culture; and so my mother’s generation has been exposed to Latin writers such as Livy and Virgil.

These days there aren’t many people who have studied Latin, who would know what a household god might be. My writing teacher had never heard of them at all, and although I had heard my mother mention them I knew nothing more than that. Yet if you look hard enough, you can still find household gods in the nooks and crannies of our culture:– there is a science fiction novel in which Roman household gods sends a modern woman back in time to live in ancient Rome; they do crop up in literature now and then; come to find out, there’s even a folk music group called The Household Gods. I suspect that evenn those of us who never studied Latin continue to have a vague notion that there might be guardian deities within our households.

And I suspect that many of us, though we may hotly deny it, are still under the influence of some household gods. We may not admit it, but we have let unacknowledged household gods into our homes. And this prompts me to ask: what are household gods, and what function might they still carry out in our homes?

Let me begin by describing ancient Roman household gods. Not that this is going to be a historically accurate description — ancient Roman history covers hundreds of years, and the form and worship of household gods evolved continually over that time span. But a general description will suit our purposes.

The first thing to know is the ancient Roman term for household gods: they were called “lares.” An 1894 book called “The Mythology of Greece and Rome” says this about the Lares:

“The Lares… were the tutelary deities of the house and family…. They were commonly supposed to be the glorified spirits of ancestors, who, as guardian deities, strove to promote the welfare of the family. The seat of their worship was also the family hearth in the atrium, where their images of wood or wax were generally preserved in a separate shrine of their own (Lararium). The Lares received an especial degree of veneration on the first day of every month; but… they took part in all the domestic occurrences, whether of joy or sorrow. …They also received their share at every meal of particular dishes, and were crowned with garlands on the occasion of every family rejoicing. When a son assumed the toga virilis (that is, when he came of age), he dedicated his bulla (a gold or silver ornament, like a medal, which was worn round the neck during childhood) to the Lares, amidst prayers and libations and burning of incense. When the father of the house started on a journey or returned in safety, the Lares were again addressed, and their statues crowned with wreaths, flowers and garlands being their favorite offerings.”

This makes the household gods seem rather charming, doesn’t it? You have these little household gods made out of wood or wax or terracotta, which represented your ancestors or your guardians; and they lived in their own little niche next to the fireplace, and they promised to look out for you and your family. If anything happened to your family, whether good or bad, you’d go spend some time with your household gods. When you had a nice meal, you’d give them a little bit of it; if something good happened in your family, you’d put flowers on them. You’d pay attention to them before someone in your family went traveling, and you’d pay attention to them again when that person returned safely home. I particularly like the fact that the household gods liked flowers and garlands best — I’m not so happy with gods and goddesses that demand blood sacrifices (which can be disgusting and messy) or burnt offerings (which is a waste of good food), but it’s always nice to have an excuse to put flowers in your house.

Those who could afford to do so built a special wall niche into their home, a house altar or lararium, in which the household gods were placed; and some of these house altars are decorated with paintings that might show one of more of the household gods. In one of the houses in Pompei, that ancient Roman city that got buried by a volcano, archaeologists uncovered a house altar on which was painted a representation of a snake with a beard and a crest on top of its head; this was the “lars familiaris,” a sort of protective power associated with the household. So it was that these household gods had their own place within a Roman house.

And if you were a Roman, you hoped that your household gods offered you some kind of protection. Of course, it didn’t necessarily work out that way. After all, that house altar in Pompei didn’t protect its household from being buried by that volcanic eruption. And when the ancient Greeks conquered Troy and went through the city killing and looting, the household gods of Priam, the king of Troy, could not save him; as the Roman poet Virgil tells us in the Aeneid, his poetic story of the Trojan war:
“When [Priam] saw the fall of the captured city, saw the doors of his palace shattered, and the foe in the heart of his home, old as he is, he vainly throws his long-disused armour about his aged trembling shoulders, girds his useless sword, and rushes to his death among his thronging foes. In the middle of the palace and beneath the open arch of heaven was a huge altar, and hard by an ancient laurel, leaning against the altar and clasping the household gods in its shade. Here, round the shrines, vainly crouched [his wife] Hecuba and her daughters, huddled together like doves swept before a black storm, and clasping the images of the [household] gods. But when she saw even Priam harnessed in the armour of his youth, ‘My poor husband,’ she cries, ‘what dreadful thought has driven you to don these weapons? Where are you rushing to? The hour calls not for such aid or such defenders, not though my own Hector were here himself! Come hither, pray; this altar will guard us all, or you will die with us!’ Thus she spoke, then drew the aged man to her and placed him on the holy seat.”
But of course the altar of the household gods did not protect Priam in the least, for the next part of the Aeneid tells how he was slaughtered by the Greeks.

Even though I don’t believe that Roman household gods offer some sort of magical protection, I like this idea of having household gods. I’m not looking for household gods which can provide a comprehensive insurance policy for my house and family, but I do like the way the ancient Romans used the household gods to create a religious and spiritual center in their households. I do not believe that religion is something we can do for just one hour on those Sunday mornings when we actually get out of the house and get to church; nor do I believe that religion is something that can only be done in a special place called a church. Religion is my way of living humanely, and dealing with setbacks, and appreciating the crazy beauty and mystery of life. I do not want to reinstate the ancient Roman household gods in my house, but it’s not enough for me to do religion an hour a week.

Our direct spiritual forebears, New England Protestant Christians, did not have household gods; but they did have manage to integrate religion and spirituality into their daily lives. Their religion was not limited to an hour on Sunday mornings.

These days, we Unitarian Universalists think of ourselves as “post-Christian” — some of us still consider ourselves Christian individuals, and some of us want nothing to do with Christianity. Yet although we are post-Christian, that does not mean that we have to throw out every part of the Christian tradition. We’ve taken the cross out of our church, but we still call it a church; we may not read the Christian scriptures much, but we still follow the Christian rule of meeting once a week on Sundays. So I think it is worth taking a look at the old Christian home religious practices that used to be a part of our New England religious tradition.

One of those Christian practices, once so common in New England households, was the practice of daily prayers. In our own tradition — we come from the Radical Reformation and the Free Churches — the governing principle for daily prayer is quite simple: each individual is guided by the Spirit, and so we did not require a complicated scheme of specific prayers to memorize and certain words to say. We still value extemporaneous prayer, and we sometimes still teach our children how to pray in this fashion. My favorite example of this is a bedtime prayer that the Rev. Christopher Raible wrote about. He suggested that parents sit with their children each night and use this format for bedtime prayers:

  Tonight I am thankful for… (then you say some of the good things that happened to you today)
  And tonight I am sorry for… (then you talk about the things you feel sorry for doing or saying)
  Tomorrow I hope for… (and you talk about things you hope for and how you think you can make them happen).

In the old days in New England, prayers were something everyone said on a daily basis. There were many other daily prayers that people used, the most common one being the practice of saying grace before meals.

The other common household practice from the Free Church tradition is the practice of keeping the Sabbath day. I don’t know anyone who keeps the Sabbath day any more, although a Hundred years ago, Unitarian and Universalist families did keep the Sabbath. Ellen Tucker Emerson, one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughters, wrote a description of how the Emerson family kept the Sabbath day together as a family:

“Sunday was then kept rigidly the children of these days would say, but Father and Mother considered it kept easily, while Grandma thought it not strictly enough observed…. Every Sunday I was to learn a hymn. Most of them had five verses of four lines, sometimes they had six….”

Ellen Emerson goes in some detail, so I will skip ahead:

“I am trying to show what was Mother’s method in the religious education of her children, to have them made familiar with many hymns, and with all the interesting Bible stories. To accustom them to hearing some serious writing read aloud to them regularly, to make it a habit to omit play on Sunday and have it a day devoted to church and religious study at home. When Eddy got to be perhaps three or even earlier she began to read aloud to us when we were all in bed Mrs Barbauld’s Prose Hymns and often a story-book of a religious character…. This was not always done, for I remember as if it continued a long time the practice of singing before we went upstairs… we used to sit on our three stools round Mother and sing it with her…. She had a little blue book of morning and evening prayers, and I think she read aloud one of those prayers.”

This all sounds rather charming — if we lived a hundred and fifty years ago. But which of us today would like to devote all day Sunday to memorizing hymns, and listening to serious writing read aloud, and hearing Bible stories, and reading prayers aloud, and singing a few hymns before bedtime? Which of us would like to tear children and grand children away from video games and MySpace to participate in such things? And how many of our children or grandchildren would easily consent to such things all day every Sunday? The children I know would sooner have a wall-niche constructed next to the fireplace, and pour out libations to little statues of household gods — and they would only do that, I suspect, until they got bored with it.

Most of the households I know no longer include much religious practice at home. Some households are quite good at saying bedtime prayers with young children; I know a few households that actually eat dinner together every night and even say grace before they eat; I know a few households where families sing hymns or hymn-like songs together. But I don’t know of any households where someone regularly reads aloud from “serious writing.”

If anything, I think the pagans among us do the best job of including religion in daily life within the household. I know quite a few pagan households that regularly say grace or in some way bless food before eating it. I know quite a few pagan households that incorporate regular religious rituals in their home life; and in the best Free Church tradition, they often make up these rituals themselves, as the Spirit moves them. I know of pagan households that have some kind of house altar, not unlike the house altars of the ancient Romans. And I even know some pagan households where children are taught religious songs and chants, and where people actually read aloud to each other from religious writings.

What about my own household? Traditionally — back in the days when Ralph Waldo Emerson’s children were young — clergy were supposed to be exemplars for living a good religious life. My friend Rabbi Michael is still such an exemplar — he keeps the Sabbath, and his three children keep the Sabbath. But I am not such a good role model: my life partner is pretty much unchurched, and I’m not going to impose my religious practices on her, so we don’t do any of the things I’ve talked about. Yes, I do keep a Sabbath day each week — my Sabbath day is Friday, because that’s what fits into my busy schedule, and every Friday I don’t do any unnecessary work, and I make an effort to read serious writing, and good Transcendentalist that I am I try to engage in my spiritual practices of writing and reading. But these are things I do on my own, not things I do with the rest of my household.

Many of us are no longer able to fit the old Free Church religious rituals into our home lives; and perhaps we no longer want to do so. But wouldn’t it be nice to do something at meal times besides turning on the television set? Wouldn’t it be nice to devote some time each week to a consideration of the most important things in life, rather than spending all our leisure time playing video games and sending inconsequential email messages? And if we can’t observe the old Free Church religious rituals, still less will we return to the ancient Roman rituals surrounding the household gods. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a reason to bring fresh flowers into your house? Wouldn’t it be nice to have little rituals to observe when someone in your household was goind away on a trip, or returning home? or rituals to observe when your children or grandchildren came of age?

Of course these days most of use lead lives that no longer give us any time to observe such rituals outside of an hour-long worship service on Sunday mornings. And I want to emphasize that many of us are not going to be able to impose our religion on our households. Those are the facts of life for many of us.

But pay attention to those facts of life. A little while ago, I said that I do not believe that religion is something we can do for just one hour on those Sunday mornings when we actually get out of the house and get to church; nor do I believe that religion is something that can only be done in a special place called a church. I will go further than that — like it or not, we are religious beings; doing religion is one of the ways we make sense out of the world. You can choose to get rid of conscious religion in your life — you don’t have to say grace before meals or force your children to say bedtime prayers nor do you have to go to church on Sunday mornings. You can choose that you’re not going to do those things. But you will have to find some way to make sense out of the world, and if you don’t do that consciously, you will do it unconsciously.

Our culture is constantly telling us to make sense out of the world by having more stuff — we get that new video game, or that new iPhone, or that new Toyota Prius, or that new house, and suddenly our world makes sense — for a time, it makes sense. But all religious rituals have to be repeated over and over again, and so we go out and buy more stuff; and we work longer hours so we can buy more stuff; and we make our children study hard and send them to lots of afterschool activities so that they can succeed and get the best jobs with a high salary — and buy more stuff.

Religion is my way of living humanely, and dealing with setbacks, and appreciating the crazy beauty and mystery of life. I do not wish to reinstate the ancient Roman household gods in my house; I do not wish to reinstate the home religious practices of Ellen Emerson’s family. But I need something more than an hour a week to feed my soul. I know that household gods still exist, and even if we don’t acknowledge them or know what they are they are still a powerful force, and they are living in our households right now. In our Free Church tradition, we don’t have to follow certain procedures and formulas; but we do have to give ourselves space to be moved by the spirit. We should pay attention to the household gods we are willing to admit into our households.

What will our household gods be? Will we worship consumer goods? Or can we find a way to update some of the old religious practices? Can we devote some time each day to meditation and prayer? Can we set aside time each day to reflect on what we have done, and what we hope to do? Even if we do nothing more than bring fresh flowers into our households, if we do it with the intention of focusing ourselves on the highest things, if we do it as an expression of our wonder and joy and awe before the mysteries of life,– I think that will be enough.