Cast Off Tyranny

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 a good deal of improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon and meditation/prayer copyright (c) 2010 Daniel Harper.


“When in the course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

(from the Declaration of Independence)

The second reading this morning is an excerpt from the Election Day Sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Samuel West of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, to the Great and General Court of Massachusetts, in May of 1776.

“The most perfect freedom consists in obeying the dictates of right reason, and submitting to natural law. When a man goes beyond or contrary, to the law of nature and reason, he becomes the slave of base passions and vile lusts; he introduces confusion and disorder into society, and bring misery and destruction upon himself. This, therefore, cannot be called a state of freedom, but a state of the vilest slavery and the most dreadful bondage. The servants of sin and corruption are subjected to the worst kind of tyranny in the universe. Hence we conclude that where licentiousness begins, liberty ends….” (Complete text of West’s Election Day sermon.)


Let us join our hearts together in a time of meditation and prayer.

On this two hundred and thirty fourth anniversary of the declaration of independence, let us first think of all those who have fought for the existence and betterment of this country of ours. We think of the American servicemen and servicewomen who have done their duty by fighting this country’s wars and battles, from the Minutemen and militia of April 19, 1775, up to those who are serving now in Iraq and Afghanistan. We give thanks for all those who have fought within and outside this country’s borders.

We think of the many others who have fought to protect the American ideals of justice and freedom: the abolitionists who faced scorn and violence to fight against the evil of slavery; the women who faced ridicule and disbelief to fight for the right to vote and later for broader women’s rights; the Civil Rights workers who faced violence and death to fight for the rights of African Americans; those who have fought for gay and lesbian rights, for the rights of immigrants, for the rights of many different ethnic groups — we give thanks all those who have struggled for freedom and justice within this country. And we pledge ourselves to continue our fights for social justice.

We give thanks for the rich natural resources with which our country has been blessed, from purple mountains’ majesties to fields of waving grain. In light of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we pledge ourselves to use our natural resources wisely and well.

From these broad concerns, we turn our thoughts to more personal and immediate concerns….

Hymn — “Chester”

A word about this hymn: This is an old Revolutionary era hymn, which we sing as a sort of historical reenactment, to better understand the Revolutionary mindset. Those of you with an interest in theology will note that the deity to which Billings refers in this hymn is a far from orthodox Christian God, and must surely have been considered rankest heresy by the English church and government whom Billings and other New Englanders were then fighting.

PDF of musical score for “Chester”.

Sermon — “Cast Off Tyranny”

Today is Independence Day, the fourth of July, the day on which, more than two centuries ago, the United States of America declared that it was independent of England’s tyranny. Imagine the excitement as word spread through British North America: we had declared ourselves a new country! Everyone knew there were still battles to be fought, and the war for American independence dragged on for years after the Declaration of Independence, until 1783. Nevertheless, imagine what people felt in 1776! People were excited, no doubt about it — excited to cast off the tyrannical colonial rule of King George — excited to begin a grand experiment in democracy.

The second hymn we sang is one product of the excitement of the Revolutionary era. Published just two years after the Declaration of Independence, the words were written by the William Billings, the first really noteworthy American composer.1 He lived in Boston, right in the middle of one of the hotbeds of Revolutionary-era cultural and political ferment. “Let tyrants shake their iron rod, / And Slav’ry clank her galling chains, / We fear them not, we trust in God, / New England’s God forever reigns.” I suppose New England’s God differs radically from Old England’s God; I imagine a sturdy figure wearing a tri-con hat, carrying a Brown Bess musket, and bestowing the blessings of lobster and cod; a deity beneath whose stern eye the God of Old England would tremble and quake. Under the protection of New England’s God, the progress of the war would be swift: “When God inspir’d us for the fight, / Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc’d, / Their ships were Shatter’d in our sight, / Or swiftly driven from our Coast.”

During the Revolutionary era, the people of New England mingled their religion with their revolution. It didn’t matter what sect or denomination to which you belonged, you found a way to put revolution in your religion. The religious revolutions of both Unitarianism and Universalism began at the same time as the American political revolution. Before 1775, King’s Chapel in Boston belonged to the Church of England, but after their Tory minister fled Boston, the patriots who were left in the congregation rewrote their Book of Common Prayer to remove all references to the Trinity, and in 1785 they became the first overtly Unitarian congregation in North America. In 1774, Caleb Rich had organized the first Universalist congregation in Warwick, in the hills of central Massachusetts; and when the message reached their remote village, early in the morning of April 19, 1775, that His Majesty’s troops were marching on Concord, Rich took up his musket and marched as quickly as he could here to this town; he had such a long way to come that he arrived on April 20, the day after the battle, but he proceeded on to Boston and served for eight months with the Continental Army.2 So you see, not only did the Revolutionary era witness the beginnings of organized Unitarianism and Universalism in New England, but those early Unitarians and Universalists were right in the thick of the Revolutionary War.

The ideal of liberty, the ideal of freedom from tyranny, was a broad ideal in those days, and for a time in the 1770s and 1780s, I think some people felt that ideal would be broadly applied. But over time, that early ideal changed shape, and turned into something a little bit different. I’d like to tell you about that change with you by telling you the stories of two liberal ministers: Rev. Dr. Samuel West of Dartmouth, Massachusetts; and Rev. Ezra Ripley, who served this Concord congregation.


I’ll start with the story of Samuel West’s career as a revolutionary minister.3 Samuel West was ordained by and installed as minister in the congregation in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, in 1761. By 1765, he was active in the Revolutionary cause, along with his Harvard classmates John Adams and John Hancock. Because Dartmouth was a provincial town far from Boston, West could never be as active a revolutionary as Adams or Hancock, but he managed to participate in a good deal of the excitement.

When fighting broke out in 1775, West was one of the delegates to the Provincial Congress which met in Concord; so he was here in Concord, in this very spot, in the old meetinghouse, in early April of 1775. Then he became a military chaplain at the Battle of Bunker Hill. His most dramatic moment as a military chaplain came when he assisted General George Washington by deciphering a letter written in code by Frederick Church, an American officer who was suspected of being a spy; West was able to confirm that Church was indeed a spy.

West was so much in the middle of the revolution that Massachusetts invited him to give the Election Day sermon in May, 1776, a sermon which was widely reprinted. West argued that, on the one hand, the colonies of British North America must break away from the British Empire, because the Empire’s rule was no longer just. At the same time, West argued that breaking away from the British Empire did not mean doing away with all government and descending into anarchy. He did not believe in radical individualism, and his real point was that liberty must be a communal affair.

In 1779-1780, West was a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. Then again in 1788, West was a delegate to the Massachusetts convention that ratified the United States Constitution. In fact, at a crucial moment West managed to convince his old friend and classmate John Hancock to shake off an attack of gout and return to the convention to address the delegates. Hancock wrapped himself up in his flannels, addressed the delegates, and tipped the scales in favor of ratification.

So you see that West was right in the thick of the Revolution here in Massachusetts. When the excitement was over, and he went back to the sleepy town of Dartmouth, West did not give up his revolutionary ideals. A few old church records from that era, presumably written by West himself, still remain, and one notation in those old records is of particular interest. It reads: “1785, Apr. 10, Venture, a negro man was baptised and admitted to full communion. This was the slave who purchased his freedom of Deacon John Chaffee in 1770.” West and the deacons of his congregation lived out their ideals of true liberty by accepting this African American man into full church membership. And their ideal of true liberty was one in which the liberty of the individual was effected through communal endeavor. It was not enough that Massachusetts abolished slavery and gave individual African American their liberty — true liberty meant that African Americans and European Americans must be together in an integrated society.

So it was that in 1778 Samuel West anticipated the process of racial integration that would finally take place more than a hundred years later, during the Civil Rights era of the mid-twentieth century. So it was that Samuel West lived out his revolutionary ideals, not just in the political sphere, but also in the religious sphere. I believe this was typical of his generation of revolutionary clergy. I suspect that additional research would show us that other liberal congregations admitted African Americans into church membership in that brief period of Revolutionary fervor during which individual liberty and the liberty of the communal congregation were understood as being bound up together.4 Thus we find the same understanding of liberty pervading both Samuel West’s religious ideals and his political ideals.


Now let me tell you the story of Rev. Ezra Ripley.5 Ripley was born in 1751, so he was twenty-one years younger than West; he belonged to the generation after West’s Revolutionary generation.

To tell you this story, I first have to go back to Rev. William Emerson, who was the minister here in Concord in 1775. Like West, Emerson became a military chaplain; he went off to Fort Ticonderoga, where he became ill, and died on the journey home. He left behind a widow, Phebe Bliss Emerson, who had been the daughter of the previous minister, Daniel Bliss. When Ezra Ripley came to Concord, he courted and then married Phebe Emerson, and she thus was part of the immediate family of three successive Concord ministers. Although the records of those days tend to pass over the accomplishments of women, I cannot help but think that Phebe Bliss Emerson Ripley had far more influence on congregational affairs than she has been given credit for; therefore, although this story is ostensibly about Ezra Ripley, I suspect that Phebe Ripley played a bigger role than may be found in the historical record.

When Ezra Ripley came to Concord, he came to a congregation that was largely organized along the old Calvinist lines. Among other things, that meant that in order to become a member of the church, you had to publicly confess your sins to the rest of the congregation. And you couldn’t participate in the Lord’s Supper unless you were a full member of the church. Furthermore, if parents wanted to have Ripley baptize their children, they had to publicly accept the church covenant.

Over time, Ezra Ripley managed to liberalize these strict old Calvinist requirements. Parents could get their children baptized by simply affirming Christianity and saying they would raise their children in that faith. The requirements for membership were also greatly reduced. Instead requiring a public confession of sins, and public assent to the Westminster Catechism, by 1795 prospective members could simply go to Ezra Ripley, offer “credible evidence of sincerity” and make some profession of faith, and he would make sure they became members.

These reforms were entirely in keeping with Ripley’s liberal Arminian theology — we might call it a sort of proto-Unitarian theology — a theology very similar to Samuel West’s beliefs. Both Ripley and West rejected the old Calvinist notion that only a small group of the elect, a group whose members were ordained before the beginning of time, would ever reach heaven, and reach it through no efforts of their own. Instead, Ripley and West believed that we have moral free will, that we are responsible for our own destinies.

Ezra Ripley went further than West, however. By getting rid of the public confession of sins, Ripley transformed church membership from a communal decision, to a personal decision made in private with just the minister and the prospective member. This was in keeping with a trend in American culture towards increasing individualism, and away from communalism. I would put it this way: Samuel West and liberal ministers like him were quite clear in their minds that religion was a communal endeavor; Ripley moved religion towards being a personal, individual endeavor.

The next and fateful step in this process was taken by Phebe Emerson Ripley’s grandson, and Ezra Ripley’s step-grandson, Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was Waldo Emerson who turned religion into a personal matter that was between an individual and the Oversoul. Waldo Emerson encouraged each individual to become self-reliant, and break away from the strictures of society that might restrict the utter liberty of the individual. Waldo Emerson’s disciple Henry David Thoreau went still further: Thoreau rejected all institutional connections, and severed his own connection to this congregation. Why should he be restricted by anything but his own intuitions of religious truth?


Of course I agree with this religious evolution. If I had to stand up in front of a congregation and confess my sins in order to become a member of that congregation, I would not do it. And my understanding of liberty is similar to that of Emerson and Thoreau: liberty is personal liberty, the liberty to say and believe and do what I please, without being hampered by social strictures.

Yet we lost something when we evolved away from West’s ideal of communal liberty. Yes, Waldo Emerson and those like him who advocated individual liberty of course opposed slavery; but they did not want to integrate African Americans into their own congregations, as did Samuel West. Yes, Henry David Thoreau was an abolitionist and a conductor on the Underground Railroad; but his rejection of communal institutions like this church meant that he never had to come to terms with what it might mean to live day after day with people who were quite different from himself. Liberty was a personal affair for Emerson and Thoreau and their followers; it was not a communal affair; and for them, the only purpose and role of government was to stay out of the way of the individual’s personal liberty. In all this, I think Emerson and Thoreau went to far in the direction of individual self-reliance; and since their day, we have gone still farther in that direction, until we have come to a place of extreme individualism.

Not that we can or should go back to Samuel West’s old ideals of communal liberty. Samuel West believed that churches should be supported by taxes; he believed in a God that I cannot possibly believe in; he did not believe that women were the equals of men. There was no mythical past in which everything was perfect. Samuel West did the best he could when faced with the problems of his time. Ezra Ripley did the best he could when faced with the problems of his times. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau did the best they could in their time. Each generation is called to address to the special problems of its time, and to do its best.

Our generation has its own problems to face. Our generation must revisit what liberty means to us. We need to move beyond the idea that liberty is the inalienable right to express our extreme individualism by sitting at home and enjoying our leisure time by watching television, playing video games, and reading our friends’ Facebook feeds. That kind of liberty is no liberty at all; as Samuel West might have put it, “This… cannot be called a state of freedom, but a state of the vilest slavery and the most dreadful bondage.”

In fact, this kind of individualism is no longer a form of liberty; it has become a new tyranny. In our generation, liberty must take on a new form. We are coming to understand that our American ideal of liberty, our constantly evolving ideal of American liberty, must become an ideal of communal liberty. In these days, our safety and happiness, our life and liberty, depend on our working together for the common good. If we’re going to solve the problem of global climate change, and the related problem of global overpopulation — problems which have both a religious and political dimension — we shall have to put aisde our extreme individualism, and work together for the common good. If we are to finally achieve racial harmony in this country, we shall have to put aside that extreme individualism we have clung to for so long, and we shall ahve to work together for the common good.

We hold this to be self evident: all persons are created equal; all person are endowed with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and to secure these rights, we join together to institute a common government, in which we all work together for the common good.

Notes to the sermon:

1 For a brief account of the importance of Billings to the development of American music, see Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture by Stephen Marini (University of Illinois Press, 2003), pp. 78 ff. (online preview available on Google Books).
2 For Caleb Rich, see: The Larger Hope vol. 1, Russell Miller; Stephen Marini, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England, pp. 72 ff.
3 The details of Samuel West’s life come from an essay on West I am currently preparing for possible publication.
4 Mark Morrison-Reed makes this point in the manuscript of his forthcoming book on African American Unitarians and Universalists, now being prepared for publication by Skinner House Books.
5 For the account of Ripley’s life, I draw upon new research: “‘Doctor Ripley’s Church’: Congregational Life in Concord, Massachusetts, 1778-1841,” The Journal of Unitarian Universalist History XXXIII (2009-2010), pp. 1-37 (available online here).