Calming the Quarrel

Reading

The reading this morning is rather long, but I think you’ll find it engaging. It is a Buddhist story, Jataka tale no. 33, translated by Viggo Fausboll, and published in 1873 in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. I have lightly edited and modernized the language.

“Living in harmony.” The Master related this story, while living in the grove of banyan-trees near Kapilavatthu, in reference to a dispute he had just witnessed. The Master, admonishing his royal relations, said: ‘Dispute between relatives is not becoming. Even animals which had conquered their enemies while living in concord, when quarreling suffered great destruction.’ Then his royal relatives called upon him to tell this story.

Once upon a time, when Brahmadatta was king of Benares, the Bodhisattva was born a quail. He lived in the wood, with a following of many thousands of quails.

One day a quail-hunter went their dwelling-place and counterfeited the cry of quails. When the hunter saw that they had assembled, he threw his net over them, and after drawing it together, he filled his basket. He went to his house, sold the quails, and thus had his livelihood with that money.

The Bodhisattva said to the quails, “This quail-hunter destroys our kin. But I know a means by which he will not be able to catch us. As soon as he throws the net over us, each of you put your head into one mesh of the net. Then fly together and lift the net and carry it to a thorn-bush. This being done, we shall escape each from under his place.”

Saying, “Very good!” they all promised to do so.

The next day when the quail-hunter threw the net over them, they lifted the net together, and having cast it on a thorn-bush, they themselves fled away from underneath. It took so long for the fowler to extricate the net from the thorn-bush that it became dark, and he went away empty-handed.

Day after day, the quails continued in the same way. Each day the quail-hunter went to his house empty-handed. His wife grew angry, saying, “You come empty-handed every day. I think you are keeping another household.”

The fowler said, “Dear, I have no other household. Those quails live in harmony, and as soon as I throw my net on them, they fly away with it and cast it on a thorn-bush, and so escape. But fear not, they will not always live in harmony. Thou must not grieve. When they fall into disunion, I will take them all. Then I shall come and make your face smile.” Then he repeated this short poem:

While they agree, the birds go
and carry off the net;
but when they quarrel
they will fall into my power.

Not long thereafter, one quail, descending on the pasture-ground, unawares trod on the head of another. The other was angry, and said, “Who trod on my head?” The first said, “Be not angry, I trod upon you unawares.” Yet the first quail was angry. They began to quarrel. Before long, one said scornfully, “It is thou, I suppose, that liftest the net all by yourself.”

Hearing them quarreling, the Bodhisatta thought, “For those who quarrel there is no safety. Now they will not lift the net together. Then they will incur great destruction, and the quail-hutner will capture them. I cannot stay in this place any longer.” So he gathered together his close followers and flew away.

Soon the quail-hunter returned. Once again, he counterfeited the cry of the quails, and when they had assembled he threw the net over them. Then one quail said mockingly, “They say that last time while lifting the net, the feathers on thy head fell off. Now this time, lift!” Another said, “While thou wert lifting the net, thy wings on both sides dropped. Now you lift.”

While they quarreled thus, the fowler threw his net over them, gathered them together, and filled his basket. He went home, showed all the quails to his wife, and made her smile.

Having finished telling this story, the Master said, “Thus, O King! dispute among kinfolk is the root of destruction.” Having given this moral instruction, he completed the story by saying: “At that time the unwise quail was Devadatta, while I was the wise quail.”

Sermon: “Calming the Quarrel”

The reading this morning is one of the Jataka tales. The Jataka tales are ostensibly stories about one of the Buddha’s previous lives. At the same time, they are stories that often help us reflect on the problems of day to day life.

The Jataka tales typically start with a brief description of a problem faced by Buddha’s followers. The problem reminds Buddha of one of his previous lives — for, being an enlightened being he can remember all of his five hundred or so previous lives. The Buddha tells the story of this previous life, and concludes by drawing a moral to instruct his followers in how to live a better life. So there’s a framing story that presents an opening problem, a story told by Buddha, and a conclusion of the framing story, with a closing moral.

This reading this morning was Jataka tale number 33, the Sammodamāna-Jātaka. You have probably heard it before, in some form or another, for it is one of the best-known stories in the South Asian cultural legacy. It’s a simple story, the kind of story you tell to your children to keep siblings from fighting with one another. Although perhaps we hope that children don’t feel the full horror of the ending of the story. When the quails quarrel, the quail-hunter captures them, and crushes them in a basket, where not doubt they panic and trod on one another’s heads and smother one another, until they are pulled out and sold for someone’s dinner. In short, as a result of their quarreling, they die a miserable death.

This story reminds me of the current situation in the United States. We face problems that can kill some of us. Those problems include things like a decrease in the number of decent jobs, an opioid crisis, racial injustice, a looming environmental disaster, and conflict with aggressive nations like Russia and North Korea. We have been told — we know in our hearts — that if we could just work together, we could address these problems. If we could keep our common goals in the forefront of our minds, we could work together. Only if we work together can we extricate ourselves from the danger.

So (to paraphrase a catchphrase made popular in 1896 by Christian Socialist Charles Sheldon), when we are faced with overwhelming social problems, we first ask the question: What would Buddha do? Then we ask the question: Can we follow the Buddha’s lead?

What does Buddha do in the story of the quails? He first tries persuasion and leadership. He gently explains the problem to the other quails: the reason so many of them are disappearing is that a quail-hunter is using a net to catch them. He then explains what they can do to avoid the problem: they can fly up together, lifting the net. And finally he persuades them to try.

Can we follow the Buddha’s lead? At first glance, it looks like we can follow the Buddha’s lead. We face more complex problems than the quails faced. We face — among other things — loss of jobs, an opioid crisis, racial injustice, environmental disaster, and international conflict. But if we worked together, we could address these problems.

On the other hand, we also know that not everyone is in complete agreement with the nature of the problems facing us. The quails in the story seemed to be in agreement about the problem facing them. But we today do not agree about everything. For example, some people in the United States would add same-sex marriage to the list of problems facing us; while we Unitarian Universalists generally support same sex marriage. So at second glance, it looks like we cannot follow the Buddha’s lead.

But if we look again, I think we can indeed follow the Buddha’s lead. We do not have to agree on everything in order to work together. As an example of what I mean, I can point to the last two Unitarian Universalist congregations I served. Both those congregations did a lot to fight homelessness. Both of those Unitarian Universalist congregations had to team up with other congregations in order to carry on an effective fight against homelessness, and some of those other congregations we worked with were bitterly opposed to same sex marriage. But we managed to put aside our differences to work together towards a common goal.

And I suspect the story of the quails glosses over some of the problems the Buddha faced to convince the other quails to work together. The story makes it sound easy, but I’m willing to bet that the Buddhas had to do a lot of persuading and explaining to get the quails to work together.

The real miracle in this story is that the Buddha did all that persuading and explaining without losing his temper, without losing his cool. He managed to not get into any fights with the other quails. He managed to stay calm and centered. And remember too that at this point he wasn’t yet the Buddha; he had not yet achieved Enlightenment. In that incarnation, he was merely a Boddhisatva, that is, someone who has the potential to reach Enlightenment. The progressive Buddhists I know believe we all have the potential to achieve Enlightenment, meaning each of us (in that specific sense) is a Boddhisatva.

In other words, we — you and I — have the capability to do what the Buddha did in his incarnation as a quail. We have the capability to persuade and explain how to work together for the common good. And to do that, we will have to be like the Buddha, and remain calm and centered.

That’s the hard part, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty good at persuading and explaining. But in order to be good at explaining and persuading, you have to stay calm and centered. I found this out when I was selling building materials. I quickly learned that if you came across as desperate, you were likely to lose the sale. Similarly, if the Buddha had come across as desperate, half the quails would just stop listening to him. He cultivated a state of being where he was both fully aware of the danger — it was, after all, a matter of life and death — and he did not let the danger ruffle the calm of his soul.

And this, it seems to me, is one of the big problems we face in the United States today. We are letting danger ruffle the calm of our souls. We go from passive to frantic very quickly. When we become frantic, we are no longer effective at either explaining or persuading.

So how can we stay calm and centered? This is something that religion is actually quite useful for. In fact, helping people stay calm and centered is one of the default settings in just about any organized religion. And most organized religions offer a number of different techniques we can use to stay calm and centered. We human beings are a diverse lot, and organized religions typically offer more than one path to being calm and centered. Buddhism, for example, encourages people to meditate, to study sacred texts, to chant, to gather together in community, to give offerings and alms, and Zen Buddhists even get to practice archery.

Or, more to the point, take our own organized religion, Unitarian Universalism. In our worship service alone, we offer a diversity of paths: we can sit in community, we can sing, we can listen to music, we can share our joys and sorrows, we can listen to a sermon, we even have a short time of silence for those of us who need silence. Beyond Sunday morning worship, you can join a Circle Ministry group, you can go on a meditation retreat, you can do hands-on volunteering, you can lead worship yourself in the summer. These are all spiritual practices you can find in our congregation, practices that can help you get calm and centered.

And I suspect the most important aspect of Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice, or indeed of any organized religion, is the communal aspect. Thich Nhat Hahn, one of the most interesting Buddhist thinkers of the past few decades, used the term “inter-being” to describe how we are linked to all beings. Thich Nhat Hahn said, “You cannot be by yourself alone, you have to inter-be with everything else.” (1) We Unitarian Universalists often use the phrase, “the interdependent web of existence,” which means much the same thing. (2)

“You cannot be by yourself alone.” This is the most important part of learning how to be calm and centered. “You have to inter-be with everything else.” This is how the Buddha remained calm and centered in the story about the quails: he was always fully aware of how he was “inter-being” with all the other quails, and indeed with all existence.

So in our spiritual practices, this is what we must always remain fully aware of: we are all part of each other; we all “inter-be.” It’s fairly easy to remember that when we gather for Sunday worship services. We mostly like one another, and while there are inevitably feuds and squabbles in every congregation, the bonds between us end to be stronger than the weak forces trying to pull us apart. So we gather for Sunday worship — or for Circle Ministry, or to volunteer, or for a mediation retreat — we gather together with people we more or less get along with, and that is the key to our spiritual practice. We remember what it is to get along with other people. We remember inter-being.

The next step is to take that spiritual practice out into the wider world. When we hear something inflammatory on social media, we can remember that feeling of inter-being. Instead of lashing out, we remain calm and centered. Remaining calm and centered, we can stay focused on what’s really important: that we must work together if we’re going to get out of this mess we’re in. And so we can remember that we don’t need to react to that inflammatory social media post. When we don’t react to that social media post, that helps other to back down, so that they can return to being calm and centered. So it is that calmness can spread, and so it might be that we can learn to work together again.

Not that this is an easy task. It’s hard to remember about inter-being. It’s hard to really and truly believe in the interdependent web of existence. That’s why we keep coming back to communities like this one; we all need constant reminders. Well, maybe not all of us. It does seem that there are a few special persons, like the Buddha, who don’t need constant reminders. The rest of us rely on each other, we rely on our gathered community, to help us stay calm and centered. And then we’re able to take that feeling of calm, that feeling of being centered, out into the world. May it be so: may we spread calm wherever we go in our lives; may we live our lives as if we are all interdependent.

Notes

(1) Dharma talk by Thich Nhat Hanh, 1998, “The Island of Self” http://www.purifymind.com/IslandSelf.htm This dharma talk was reprinted in a slightly different form in the book No Mud No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering (Parallax Press). Available as a print book or ebook from Parallax Press or it can be borrowed online from the Internet Archive.

(2) The phrase “interdependent web of existence” comes from theologian Bernard Loomer, who was affiliated with the Unitarian Unviersalists and the Presbyterians. Loomer used the phrase to describe what Jesus of Nazareth meant by the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven.” One can also find parallels between the concepts of interdependence and intersubjectivity, and the Jewish Philopher Martin Buber’s book I and Thou. While all these concepts have distinct differences, arising in part out of the distinctly different religious traditions from whence they come, nevertheless the parallels are striking.

How Can We Know What Is True?

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

Readings

The first reading comes from Plato’s Republic, 514a-515c, as translated by Francis Cornford. In this passage, the character of Socrates is speaking.

“‘Imagine the condition of [people] living in a sort of cavernous chamber underground, with an entrance open to the light and a long passage all down the cave. Here they have been from childhood, chained by the leg and also by the neck, so that they cannot move and can see only what is in front of them, because the chains will not let them turn their heads. At some distance higher up is the light of a fire burning behind them; and between the prisoners and the fire is a track with a parapet built along it, like the screen at a puppet-show, which hides the performers while they show their puppets over the top. Now behind this parapet imagine persons carrying along various artificial objects, including figures of men and animals in wood or stone or other materials, which project above the parapet. Naturally, some of these persons will be talking, others silent.’

“‘It is a strange picture,’ Glaucon said, ‘and a strange sort of prisoners.’

“‘Like ourselves,’ I replied….”

The second reading this morning is from the Christian scriptures, Matthew 13:1-9. This is the translation by Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar.

“That same day, Jesus left the house and sat beside the sea. Huge crowds gathered around him, so he climbed into a boat and sat down, while the entire crowd stood on the seashore. He told them many things in parables:

“‘This sower went out to sow [said Jesus]. While he was sowing, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground where there wasn’t much soil, and it came up right away because the soil had no depth. When the sun came up it was scorched, and because it had no roots it withered. Still other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them. Other seed fell on good earth and started producing fruit: one part had a yield of one hundred, another a yield of sixty, and a third a yield of thirty. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!’”

Sermon: “How Can We Know What Is True?”

The question facing us this morning is how we can know what is true. In today’s divisive political climate here in the United States, this has become a most pressing question.

As one example of what I mean, consider the politics surrounding the teaching of systemic racism. There are now laws in several states that forbid teaching about systemic racism. The proponents of these laws say that teaching about systemic racism is divisive and destructive, because it turns white people into oppressors, and anyone else is a victim. The people who want us to teach about systemic racism in the schools say teaching about systemic racism shows that individuals are not responsible for structural racism, and thus it can empower people of all races to help end structural racism.

One side claims that teaching about systemic racism makes racism worse. One side claims that teaching about systemic racism will help end racism. How can we know which claim is true?

Probably many of you have strong opinions about this particular issue. If you have strong opinions about this issue, you’re probably thinking to yourself right now: “I know which claim is true! The other side is wrong! How can anyone possibly believe what the other side believes!” But the other side has equally strong opinions. Just like you, they are now thinking: “I know which claim is true! The other side is wrong! How can anyone possibly believe what the other side believes!”

How can we know what is true?

And this brings us to the first reading, the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic. In this allegory, the character of Socrates asks us to participate in a thought experiment. What if, says Socrates, we were chained in a cave? What if the only things we could see were shadows cast by puppets moving in front of a large fire that was behind us? We would think those shadows were real, because those would be the only things we knew.

Socrates went further with this thought experiment. What if you were one of those people chained in that cave, then you were removed from your chains, and caused to stand up, and stare at the fire? At first, your eyes would be dazzled, and you would not be able to see clearly. In fact, you would doubt the evidence of your eyes. You would be used to seeing the shadows cast on the wall of the cave, and you would be convinced those shadows were real. So you would believe that the fire was false.

And then, says Socrates, what if you were taken out of the cave, up into the sunlight? Your eyes, accustomed from birth to being in a cave, would be completely overwhelmed by the bright sunlight. You would not be able to see at all for an extended period of time. Again, you would believe in the reality of the shadows. You would doubt the evidence of your senses.

But if you are kept up in the sunlight long enough, you would learn how to see in that bright world. Eventually you would even be able to see the Sun, the ultimate source of light and life. Then if you went back down into the cave, and told what you saw to your friends who were still chained down there, they wouldn’t believe you. They’d think you were deluded.

This allegory is so much a part of Western culture that I think many of us believe it to be true, without even thinking about it. We actually believe there is just one truth, like the sun in Plato’s allegory. We think of ourselves as the ones who have gone up out of the cave to look at the sun. And then, if anyone disagrees with us… well, they must be the ones who are still chained in the cave.

In fact, this is how most Western religion works. Most religions in the West claim that theirs is the only truth. For example, many Western Christians say: We have the truth and all non-Christian religion is wrong. Different branches of Western Christianity look at each other and say: Our branch of Western Christianity has the truth, and everyone else is wrong. Then the Western atheists come along and say: No, WE have the truth, and all you Christians are wrong. Each group is quite convinced they are the only ones who have the truth. To use Plato’s allegory, each group is convinced they are the only ones who have left the cave and perceived the sun, the ultimate source of truth.

That’s not the way it works in other parts of the world. For example, in East Asia it is common for people to follow more than one religion. Thus in China one person might follow Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, and Chinese folk religion, all at the same time, or at different times of life. Contrast this with the West, where a multi-religious identity is still uncommon; you’re either one religion or another, or no religion at all; you only get to choose one religious category.

Here in the United States, we are particularly fond of this either/or thinking. You are either Christian or non-Christian. You either believe in God or you don’t. You are either Republican or Democrat. You are either liberal or conservative. You have either escaped from the cave and seen the sun, or you are still trapped in the darkness.

Either/or thinking makes it hard to have productive arguments. If someone says you are wrong, you are liable to reply: You may think I’m wrong, but I know I’m right. I’M the one who has climbed out the cave and seen the sun. Maybe you climbed up far enough to see the fire that casts the shadows, but you didn’t get all the way out to see the sun. I’M the one who has climbed out the cave and seen the sun. I’M the one who is right.

Either/or thinking makes us rigid. Either/or thinking can make us oblivious to complexity. We become so sure we’re correct that we may no longer be aware when we’re actually wrong.

Now some people try to get out of the bind of either/or thinking by claiming that there is more than one truth, that you may have your truth but I have my truth. There are “alternative facts.” Or as Rudy Guiliani put it: “Truth isn’t truth.” This is what’s known as postmodern thinking.

I don’t want to go down that path. I’m reasonably convinced out there somewhere is Truth-with-a-capital-T. I don’t want to do away with Truth, I simply want to answer the question: How can we know what is true?

This brings us to the parable reportedly told by Jesus of Nazareth. In the parable, a person goes out to sow some seed. Depending on where the seed falls, it either gets eaten by birds, or it sprouts and quickly dies, or it gets choked out by weeds, or or it sprouts and produces fruit in large amounts.

Many contemporary Western Christians are quite sure they know what this parable means. It means that there are some people who know what the truth really is, and others who don’t. And of course the people who know what the truth really is are the ones who are telling the story.

I have a different interpretation of this parable.Jesus does NOT say the seed grows in one place but not in another. Jesus does NOT say only only a few people know Christian truth, and the others are ignorant and miguided.

In this parable, Jesus is not talking about Chrisianity — there was no such thing while he was alive. Instead, he is talking about what he called the Kingdom of Heaven. What Jesus meant by the Kingdom of Heaven is some kind of ideal state of being, where all people recognize their interdependence; or, to use Jesus’ words, all persons love their neighbors as they love themselves. All people, indeed all of life, is bound together in an interdependent web of existence.

To explain his idea of the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus used an ecological metaphor. Jesus asked us to imagine seeds being sown. Plants produce more seeds than than are needed to keep the species alive. Plants produce enough extra seeds so that birds and other animals may feed on them. They produce enough extra seeds so it doesn’t matter if some seeds don’t reach maturity. Even if some of the young plants are out-competed by other plants, there will still be more than enough to produce seeds for the next generation. This is how ecological systems work.

Jesus added another layer of complexity to this short parable. In the parable, the seeds which do not sprout can be understood as Jesus’ analogy for the people who don’t perceive the Kingdom of Heaven. As I understand the philosophy of Jesus, he felt that the Kingdom of Heaven is always present — the interdependent web of all existence is always present — though often we fail to perceive it. First, there are the people who have lost all understanding of the interdependent web. Second, there are the people who, for the sake of short-term profit, deliberately ignore the interdependent web. Third, there are the people whose understanding of the interdependent web gets choked out by competing trivial concerns.

Finally, there are the people who fully realize that we are bound together in an interdependent web of existence. We are bound to all other human life. We are bound to all non-human life. We are interdependent.

Despite what popular culture believes about the teaching of Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is NOT pie in the sky, bye and bye, after you die. To quote Joe Hill, that’s a lie. Jesus tried to tell us that the Kingdom of Heaven — the interdependent web of life — exists right here and right now. Jesus also tried to teach us how to know that truth. He continued the ecological metaphor. We can know the truth in relationship to one another. Truth happens in community.

Community, by the way, is the power of the scientific method. Scientific method is a communal approach to finding truth. Science does not happen without the scientific community. It is the community which tests and refines new concepts. It is the community as a whole that slowly works its way towards the truth. Mind you, I am NOT saying that Jesus was some kind of proto-scientist. The questions which interested Jesus differ from those which interest today’s scientific community. But in both cases, to know the truth requires being in community.

Community is also why we come to Sunday services. We are a community which seeks after truth and goodness together. No, we have not yet reached ultimate truth here on Sunday morning. Reaching the truth is a process. By participating in various communities that seek to know Truth, we can over the course of our lives make significant progress towards the Truth.

You will notice that a communal search for truth differs from the way most people interpret Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the common interpretation of the allegory of the cave, one individual at a time escapes from the cave, sees the sun, and so knows the Truth. Although I don’t think that’s what Plato intended, that’s the way our highly individualistic society interprets this allegory. Unfortunately, that’s also the way many people interpret Jesus’ allegory: you have an individualistic relationship with a personal God, and you know the truth through that one-on-one individualistic relationship.

That individualistic way of knowing truth is not working well for us right now. In politics and in social media, you’ll find little pockets of people who are quite sure they’ve found the ultimate truth, and they shut themselves off from any dissenting views. If you gently challenge these little pockets of people by suggesting that they might not have the final and complete truth, you are liable to find yourself on the receiving end of vitriol.

How can we know what is true?

We know the truth in relationship to other people, and in relationship to other beings. We know the truth by being in community, by being in relationship to all other people. We know the truth by recognizing that we and all other beings are part of the interdependent web of life.

First Parish in Cohasset and Its Ministers

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

Readings

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon: “Our Congregation and Its Ministers”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes to the sermon:

General information is taken from the following histories:

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

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