Life in a Judean Village in the year 29

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2018 Daniel Harper.

Readings

The first reading is from the essay “The Aims of Religious Education” by Gabriel Moran:

Teaching is what every human being and some non-humans do. Teaching is one of the most important and regular acts that we perform in life. Humans have to learn nearly everything they know; humans learn by being taught. We are shown how to do something, and we respond. In modern educational theory, teaching has been reduced to explaining, giving reasons, or providing information. In most of the rest of history, including today’s actual practice, teaching means to show someone how to do something, a process that may or may not include explanations, reasons, and information. In its most comprehensive meaning, to teach is to show someone how to live….

The second reading is a poem by Everett Hoagland [not reproduced here in order to respect copyright].

Hymn — In 1916, in the midst of the First World War, the English poet Clifford Bax wrote a poem about the insanity of war which began “Turn back, O Man, forswear thy foolish ways.” Then, in the middle of the Vietnam War, Stephen Swartz used a version of Clifford Bax’s poem in his rock musical Godspell. We Unitarian Universalists have updated the poem with gender-neutral language — but we are still waiting for an earth made fair, with all her people free. Please rise as you are willing and able and sing hymn 120, “Turn Back.”

Sermon — “Life in a Judean Village in the Year 29”

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2018 Daniel Harper.

“Turn back… forswear thy foolish ways….” It seems as though every generation finds itself asking: When will we have an earth made fair, and all her people free? — when will the era of justice and righteousness finally begin? And it seems as though every generation finds the same answer: Not just yet. Not just yet. Yet every generation must find something to believe in, some ethical guide for action….

And what do we Unitarian Universalists believe in? The poem by Everett Hoagland that Brian led is my favorite Unitarian Universalist poem, because it captures an essential truth about us: We try to get beyond belief. Getting beyond belief does not mean that we have to be cynical and critical; getting beyond belief means getting to the realization that belief is not enough.

For most people in the United States today, “religion” means the same thing as “belief in God.” But that’s not true for us Unitarian Universalists. Our religion requires neither belief in God, nor disbelief in God. What is important is what you do with your life, and how you make meaning as you live.

This creates some very interesting side effects for us — as, for example, when we start teaching our kids about Jesus. For most of United States society, Jesus is a being that you either believe in or don’t believe in. But rather than telling kids to believe or to disbelieve in Jesus, we have them travel back in time to the year 29, to a village in the land of Judea, which was a province of the Roman Empire.

That is what our Sunday school is doing this spring — traveling in time to the year 29 in the land of Judea. And this year, for the first time, I am able to take all you people in the adult worship service back to the year 29. You see, it takes far more energy to send adults back in time, but with the solar panels on our roof and over our parking lot, we now have enough energy for our time machine to accommodate you.

Here’s our official UUCPA time machine; let’s all step inside. I’m going to set the space-time coordinates for the year 29, Roman Empire, Province of Judea. (I really wish I could cue up some eerie music right now — time machines work better if you have some eerie music.)

Ah! The time machine has stopped! Let’s open the door and step outside. We’re near the marketplace of a small village. It’s dusty and hot. Everyone we see is wearing what looks like a dress or long robe, and a cloth head covering. As we start walking around the marketplace, I’m glad that I have a ponytail, because all the men and women have long hair. However, my lily-white skin really stands out when everyone else has brown skin.

The marketplace is fascinating. Look at all the craftsmen — and most of them do seem to be men — selling all kinds of goods, from pottery to metal ware; the craftspeople are even making some of their wares as they wait for customers. Everything is so different from twenty-first century Palo Alto: nothing has been imported from China; everything is made with human or animal power, without any fossil fuel; it smells completely different; oh, and I notice that people are scratching at body lice, so I know there are no showers and no washing machines.

As we walk around the marketplace, notice how children are fully integrated into the life of the community. Children don’t go to school, they help their parents make a living. Here come some shepherds bringing their sheep to market, and sure enough there are children helping herd the sheep. There’s a potter working at his trade, with a child nearby wedging clay.

While most of the people in this marketplace seem to get along with each other, one person is obviously hated by everyone — the Tax Collector. A Tax Collector in the Roman Empire gives a new perspective on the Internal Revenue Service; the IRS, while sometimes annoying, is mostly governed by the rule of law. But in the ancient Roman Empire, there was no such thing as the rule of law; a Tax Collector could extort as much money from the people as he thought he could get away with, and that way he made a nice personal profit for himself.

The Roman soldiers who strut through the marketplace are an uncomfortable reminder that Judea is ruled by Rome. Judea had been independent for about a century under the rule of Judah Maccabbee and his successors, but the Romans first installed client kings over Judea, and then in the year 6 took direct control of the once independent land.

The current Jewish leaders, centered in the great Temple of Jerusalem, have been happy to cooperate with the Romans. The Romans gave them a major renovation of the Temple. And the Jews are the only people in the Roman Empire who do not have to publicly worship the Roman gods and goddesses. But in the village, it seems people are not entirely happy with their Roman overlords. As we walk around, we hear some people talking quietly about their dislike of Rome — but they talk very quietly, because if you’re not a full citizen of Rome, you have legal no rights. And we hear strange rumors going around, like the rumors that there are bands of rebels living in the hills, waiting to sweep down and drive Rome out of Judea.

The strangest rumors we hear concern a man from Nazareth named Jesus. He’s supposed to be a son of a carpenter, which means he should be a carpenter himself, but people are saying that he’s now a rabbi (although it is not clear that he actually knows how to read, so he’s not an official rabbi). Some of the rumors say that Jesus performs healing miracles — remember that in a world where only the most wealthy people can afford a doctor, people depend on faith healers. The rumors have it that Jesus is a holy man, a sort of Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama for the first century. People in the marketplace repeat wisdom sayings attributed to Jesus.

And then there are the parables told by Jesus. These short pithy stories, well-suited to oral transmission, get repeated and passed along, and some of these stories we’re hearing make it seem Jesus criticizes Roman rule. The parables make it sound like Jesus treats everyone as an equal. Imagine that! He supposedly says you should treat everyone else the way you yourself would like to be treated.

I’m sure we’d all like to see more of this Judean village, but the power levels in our time machine have dropped, and we need to leave now. Let’s get into the time machine and return to our own time — and let’s hope we don’t bring any body lice back.

Now you’ve heard the story behind our Judean Village program. In part, this program is our way of teaching kids about Jesus, and we make it clear that there are many different possible opinions about Jesus. We acknowledge that some people in the year 29 probably believed that Jesus was divine — but the main arc of our story also makes it clear that Jesus was fully human, and very much a product of his time and place. (I should add an important point: in the Judean Village program, Jesus is always off stage; that way, we don’t impose one limited image of what Jesus might have looked like.)

The remarkable thing about the Judean Village program, from my point of view as an educator, is how much the kids like it. We were supposed to offer Judean Village last spring, but the Children and Youth Religious Education Committee and I decided to pilot an ecology program instead. I thought we were going to face an armed insurrection by children and middle schoolers; we had to promise them that we would definitely have Judean Village this year.

Why do the kids like Judean Village so much? I don’t think Jesus is the big draw. More important, I think, is that this is education that has NOT been reduced to explaining, giving reasons, or providing information. Instead, the kids get to serve as “apprentices” to various “shopkeepers,” and they get shown how to do things like simple weaving, small-scale pottery, brick-making, making a simple musical instrument, writing with a quill pen made out of a feather, and so on. They love choosing which shopkeeper they get to learn from THIS week.

And while they’re making these simple things, there’s time to talk, to socialize with one’s peers and with other age groups — because we include all ages in the program from kindergarten to grade 8. The middle schoolers are the senior apprentices who help show the little kids how to make things, something they love to do, and something the little kids like, too. They love to try to fool the Tax Collector who comes around shaking down the various shopkeepers (please note that we try to make clear the difference between the corrupt ancient Roman Tax Collector and the IRS).

Embedded in all this fun are stories and thoughts that intrigue our kids. Our kids are confused by the many myths and stories and beliefs they hear about Jesus. To our skeptical, thoughtful Unitarian Universalist kids, the conflicting stories about Jesus in the Judean Village program help them make sense out of the cultural phenomenon of Jesus. They learn that even in his own day, people had different opinions about Jesus. They learn that Jesus was a human being, which makes sense to them. They learn that Jesus was Jewish, not Christian (because, after all, that’s true). And they learn that Jesus cared about people who were poor or homeless, that Jesus was willing to stand up to a corrupt regime.

Our way of teaching about Jesus helps our kids confront the confusing reality that some of their friends think Jesus was a god, and some of their friends think Jesus is humbug. We offer a third alternative: Jesus was a radical, rabble-rousing rabbi from Nazareth. I have used that phrase when I telling stories about Jesus, and I’ve heard back from parents that when their conventionally Christian relatives come over, and corner their seven year old child, and ask that child who Jesus was, some children reply: “Jesus was the radical rabble-rousing rabbi from Nazareth!”

We have to repeat our messages about Jesus frequently and memorably, because the wider culture around us tells our children over and over again that Jesus is a god; even atheists who say, “I don’t believe in Jesus,” are still affirming that Jesus is a god whom they don’t believe in. Our response to this societal pressure is to try to move beyond belief. Rather than focusing on the historical facts about Jesus, or the Christian dogma about Jesus, we simply tell stories about Jesus that convey important truths: Take care of people who are poor or homeless. Treat everybody the way you’d like to be treated yourself. Stand up to injustice.

Indeed, why bother children and middle schoolers with all the historical arguments for and against the historical Jesus? It makes more sense to focus on the ethical content of the Jesus stories: Jesus cared for homeless people, he stood up to injustice, he treated everyone as equals. Tell powerful and ambiguous stories, and let those stories start the process of ethical reflection.

And one way we make the Jesus stories especially powerful is by assuming that Jesus was fully human. If you’re a god, it must be pretty easy to care for poor and homeless people, stand up against injustice, and treat all humans as being equal to one another. But if you are a human, then it is NOT easy to stand up to the oppressive forces in society; it is NOT easy to care for people who were poor and homeless; it is NOT easy to treat other people the way we want to be treated. When you tell the Jesus stories with Jesus as fully human, that makes the stories far more ethically interesting.

By now, you will have noticed that this is not like the STEM education taught under a Common Core curriculum. Providing information, giving reasons, and explaining do not take center stage. We weave stories that help kids make meaning in their lives. We hope to prompt them to ask themselves: What would I do if I were faced with the massive injustice of the ancient Roman empire? — would I openly follow someone who stood up to that injustice, or would I try to live my own life and stand up to injustice quietly when I could do so without fear of reprisal against me and my family? How will I treat people who are poor or homeless? — will I ignore them so I can focus on my own needs, or will I do what I can to help out other people? More generally, how will I treat other people? — will I be able to treat all other people as true equals, as the stories say Jesus did, regardless of economic status, incarceration record, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and so on?

A kindergartner probably won’t get to this level of moral reflection. But last week, when we were talking with the middle schoolers about Judean Village, we explained that they are going to become characters in the story, which means they will help talk about the rumors about Jesus. They have to decide, as characters in the story, what opinions they would hold. Would their character support Jesus against the Romans? Would their character be pro-Roman instead? One of the middle schoolers said that their character wouldn’t be someone who would stand up to Roman oppression OPENLY, that would be too dangerous, and that their character also would be someone who’s skeptical of any rumors about miraculous people. Thinking about what their Judean Village character would do allows the middle schoolers to think about what they themselves might do in real-life situations.

So it is that the Judean Village program uses the old Jesus stories to help young people begin to think about some big ethical questions. And every time I teach in the Judean Village program, and hear again those old stories, I find that I ask myself these same big questions:

— What would I have done to stand up to Roman oppression? And how much am I willing to risk to stand up to oppression and injustice today?
— Had I lived in Judea in the year 29, would I have treated everyone as an equal? And in today’s world, how do I treat people who have a different economic status, race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation?
— How do I help people who are homeless or poor? Is there ever going to be a solution to homelessness and poverty?

Perhaps as you hear about this Judean Village program, you have started thinking about these ethical questions yourself. This is what we Unitarian Universalists do: we listen carefully those old amazing religious stories, and regardless of whether we believe them or not, we use them to make meaning out of our own lives. We listen to those old, ambiguous, rich and complex stories — and what always catches our attention are the moral questions raised by those old stories.

Questions like:
What will I do about homelessness and poverty?
How will I stand up to injustice?
Am I able to treat all others as true equals?

There is no final answer to any of these questions — there is only the never-ending effort to make meaning out of our lives.

Why do we do what we do in our Sunday services?

Script of a complete worship service. Reflection copyright Castor Fu. Sermon copyright (c) 2017 Dan Harper. Castor Fu and Dan Harper retain the copyright to the questions and answers.

Community Welcome and Announcements

KERENSA FU: Welcome to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, where we come to transform ourselves, each other, and the world. We begin our time together by greeting each other. Please turn and greet someone you haven’t seen in awhile or have never met, if you meet a newcomer, please ask them if they would like you to introduce them to everyone. Newcomers, you do not have to speak yourselves!

Is there anyone who would like to introduce one of our guests? I’ll bring you the microphone….Let’s all say welcome to everybody. WELCOME!

Guests, please stay for refreshments and conversation after the service. At the Information Table, with the red tablecloth (POINT), you can get a name-tag and answers to your questions about UUCPA from a friendly volunteer.

I have one very important announcement. I’m Kerensa Fu, this is my father, Castor Fu, and this is Dan Harper. The question we will be asking in this morning’s service is — Why do we do what we do in our Sunday services?

CASTOR FU: Dan, I have a question. Why do we have announcements in our service?

DAN HARPER: Our congregation traces its history back to the old established churches in New England in the Colonial era. Those old churches didn’t have access to cheap printing so they didn’t have printed orders of service, nor did they have telephones, email, or social media. If you wanted everyone in the congregation to hear an announcement, you had to make a spoken announcement in the Sunday service. Some twenty-first century Unitarian Universalist congregations have eliminated spoken announcements during their Sunday services, but we still hold on to this historical artifact.

KERENSA: And now, let us begin our service.

Prelude

Chalice Lighting and Centering Words — KERENSA

CASTOR: Dan, is lighting the chalice a Unitarian or Universalist thing?

DAN: Lighting a flaming chalice in the Sunday service is a ritual peculiar to Unitarian Universalists. It can probably be traced back to the Charles Street Meetinghouse, an innovative Universalist church in the 1950s. But the practice of lighting a flaming chalice during Sunday services didn’t become widespread until the 1990s.

My mother, who was born a Unitarian, didn’t like the flaming chalice — her generation of Unitarians tried to get irrational symbols out of our churches. I remember the first time we saw a flaming chalice lit in my home church — my mother shook her head, and muttered under her breath, “Graven images.” For this or other reasons, there are probably a few of our congregations that still do not use a flaming chalice. But today, most Unitarian Universalists like the flaming chalice, and feel it is a part of who we are.

Hymn — KERENSA introduces

Caring and Sharing — KERENSA leads

CASTOR: Dan, I have a question about Caring and Sharing; is it a Christian thing, a UU thing? At a lot of faith communities we visited with the middle school Neighboring Faith Communities class, we saw people would just light candles in silence.

DAN: It’s more commonly called “Joys and Concerns,” and it is a wide-spread custom in Unitarian Universalist congregations, and also in liberal mainline Protestant Christian churches. I don’t know where the custom came from, but I suspect Joy and Concerns spread during the feminist revolution that swept through both Unitarian Universalist congregations and liberal Christian churches beginning in the 1970s, when we decided we didn’t need a male authority figure (most ministers in those days were men) telling us about our own births, death, and illnesses.

Not all Unitarian Universalist congregations do Joys and Concerns the way we do. I remember going to services at the Arlington Street church ten or twenty years ago, and their practice was just as you described it: people went forward in silence to light candles. But the Arlington Street Church had a good reason for doing it that way: they had the first openly gay minister of any church in Boston, and during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s there would be lines of people extending the entire length of the church — and this is a church that seats some 600 people — waiting to light a candle for someone who was sick or dead or dying. Actually, in our own congregation, at times in the autumn and winter when attendance is high, the worship leader has to cut Caring and Sharing short because there isn’t enough time for everyone to speak.

Reading — KERENSA
[Not included here due to copyright.]

CASTOR: Dan, I have a question about readings…why do we sometimes have readings in our services?

DAN: Our congregation traces its historical roots back to the Puritan churches of colonial New England, and each week those old churches had a reading from the Bible that the minister would then expound upon for two or three hours. Sometimes the sermons ranged far afield from the Bible, as when Rev. Samuel West of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, began preaching outright rebellion against England starting in the 1770s. Samuel West’s church became a Unitarian church around 1800 — by the time that church called radical abolitionist John Weiss as minister in 1847, they had become a post-Christian church, and didn’t bother too much with the Bible. But as Unitarian Universalists became post-Christian, we retained the old custom of having readings from religious literature. In our congregation, most of our readings from religious literature come during the centering words, but sometimes we have readings just before the sermon or reflection — just as Samuel West did during the American Revolution.

Reflection — CASTOR
Copyright (c) 2017 Castor Fu; Castor’s actual reflection differed from the text reproduced here.

For the last two years I’ve been helping teach our Neighboring Faiths class. That means I got to go with middle school students to see other church services. I’ve got to go to a Muslim masjid, a Sikh gurdwara, a Quaker gathering, and Memorial Church. Each time we go on a field trip, even if it’s to someplace I’ve been before, I see things I hadn’t seen before.

At first I was fascinated just to see things which I’d heard or read about.

I thought it was great to see up close “communion” for example. The western culture class I had had focused on the idea of Transubstantiation, where bread and wine miraculously transformed into the blood and body of Christ. That seemed incomprehensible to me, because I had focused on it literally. Being there in person seeing the ritual of people silently lining up solemnly moving forward and receiving the host while organ music played and the choir sang was completely different, creating space for meditative contemplation.

I could relate it to our own flower communion and water communion ceremonies, which certainly developed (or perhaps as UU’s we might say evolved). But as time went on, and also from interesting discussions as a member of the Committee on Ministry, I found it interesting to think of these not just as historical artifacts, but also as a program which is actively created by people. Yes, ministers are people.

So as we see each of these elements, some we may like, some we don’t. So maybe ask yourself how did it get there? And remember that someone made a choice.

For example, we saw many different ways churches to deal with their finances. Here, we have a token offering, as a small reminder. In one of the catholic churches, we saw that they were literally keeping score of the amount brought in by different services. In a Mormon service, they didn’t collect money at all at the service at all, even though they are known to be pretty observant about tithing. But they did But they had a lengthy portion where they recognized the service that different members had provided or were going to be providing. In the Mormon congregation, it’s all lay led. There is no minister on the payroll. So they work hard to make sure that volunteers are recognized.

As we look at these pieces we can think about the reasons behind different elements.

Is it ritual, where repetition brings both a familiarity and a sense of order? Is the goal to emphasize community, trying to bring people together? Could it be providing space, space for other thoughts to grow? Could it be to share wisdom? Perhaps through a story or an analogy.

Hymn — KERENSA introduces

CASTOR: Dan, I have a question about singing hymns, why do we all sing, or at least try to in my case?

DAN: In Western culture, singing in worship services is a hard-won right gained during the Protestant Reformation. Prior to that, the only voices you were allowed to hear in a Western religious service were the voices of priests, or the voices of choirs and soloists under the control of priests. Five hundred years ago this year, Martin Luther started the Protestant revolution, and he insisted on the priesthood of all believers. One result of that insistence was that the voices of ordinary people were finally heard in Western religious services. The tendency continues to evolve, and our Unitarian Universalist feminist revolution took us even further, challenging the notion that only experts can do things like sing, and challenging us to make our religion be fully embodied, as it is when we sing.

There are also physiological reasons to sing together. Unitarian Universalist choral director Nick Page says the roots of group singing lie far back in our evolutionary history. And a recent article in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (vol. 160, p. 21) reports on an experiment showing how synchronized experiences enhance peer cooperation; the authors state: “Music making is … a joint creation that encourages flexibility in the face of changing patterns and dynamics.”

Castor, you say that you “try to sing,” and that points to a real problem: in today’s society we learn how to consume music, or to perform music, but not how to make music together. Fortunately, our congregation offers opportunities to learn how to sing in groups: we have two different Sunday afternoon singing groups, and our choir warmly welcomes anyone who wants to sing, regardless of skill level.

Sermon — “Why Do We Do THAT in the Sunday Service?” — DAN
Sermon copyright (c) 2017 Dan Harper.

The question that we are posing in today’s service is this: “Why do we do THAT in the Sunday service?” I’m going to try to give a few answers to this question. Mind you, I’m not going to try to provide THE answer, the final complete and utterly true answer, because there isn’t one. I’ll start by talking about our ideals, and then I’ll talk about some pragmatic and even trivial things. But although I will give you some provisional answers, my real goal is to get you thinking and wondering about why our services are the way they are.

Let me start off by repeating that we Unitarian Universalists are no longer Christians — we got kicked out of the Christian club about two hundred years ago, when we started thinking that it was necessary to get away from blind reliance on some authority figure who told us what to think and feel; as a result, we stopped affirming the Nicene creed. The Christians looked at us in horror, and said, “But you can’t be Christian unless you believe the Nicene Creed.” But we had learned the Nicene creed was something the Roman emperor shoved down the throats of the Christians in the fourth century as a condition for becoming the official state religion of the Roman Empire; we had learned that creeds were fallible human inventions and we preferred to seek after truth and goodness on our own.

In short, we Unitarians and Universalists rebel against blind obedience to authority, and we have consistently refused to have creeds. We do have the so-called “Principles and Purposes,” which are printed just after the table of contents in the gray hymnal. But the two most critical sections of the “Principles and Purposes” were NOT printed in the hymnal, so I’m going to read them to you now:

First: “Systems of power, privilege, and oppression have traditionally created barriers for persons and groups with particular identities, ages, abilities, and histories. We pledge to replace such barriers with ever-widening circles of solidarity and mutual respect. We strive to be an association of congregations that truly welcome all persons and commit to structuring congregational and associational life in ways that empower and enhance everyone’s participation.”

And second: “Nothing herein shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief which is inherent in the Universalist and Unitarian heritages or to conflict with any statement of purpose, covenant, or bond of union used by any congregation unless such is used as a creedal test.”

These two statements, flawed though they might be, represent important ideals that shape our worship services, and they shape our unique identity.

The first statement has deepest roots in our Universalist heritage. The old eighteenth century Universalists shocked their Christian neighbors by declaring God was love, and therefore God would never condemn anyone to hell. Their Christian neighbors said in reply, “But if there’s no threat of hell, what’s to keep human beings from doing evil?” To which the Universalists replied, “Evil is OUR responsibility. It is not up to some Daddy God to make us behave well; WE have to make OURSELVES behave well.” This ideal of radical love drove a few nineteenth century Universalists to become radical abolitionists, because if God loved everybody equally, that meant God loved black people the same as white people. And this ideal drove the nineteenth century Universalists to be the first denomination to officially sanction the ordination of a woman, because here again women were just as worthy of God’s love as were men. These days, we may not talk about God very much — but we are still focused on the ideal of radical love: that all persons are worthy of love, and somehow we have to create a human community that embodies this love.

As to the second statement, that “nothing … shall be deemed to infringe upon the individual freedom of belief”: this comes from both our Unitarian and Universalist heritages. In its most debased form, this gets stated as: “No one can tell me what to believe!” But doing away with creeds is a far more radical act than the childish sentiment, “You can’t tell me what to believe!” No, this is a radical act that requires us to come together as a community of inquirers, knowing that no single person can ever serve as an ultimate authority, but also knowing that the way to make progress towards the truth is to share our knowledge and test the insights others have had, and build upon those insights. So this is no infantile individualism, but rather a freedom of belief related to the growth of knowledge that can come from scientific communities. Except that we cannot test our answers through peer-reviewed journals, because we are asking subjective, personal questions like: Who am I, what is my identity? and: What is the best way for me to live my life? and: Why is there suffering, and what can I do about it?

So it is that these two ideals help shape our Sunday services:– We want to create a human community that reflects our ideal that all persons are worthy of love; and we want to create a community of inquirers that encourages us to share and test our insights so that we can make sense out of the world, make sense out of our own actions, and progress in our search for truth and goodness.

 

By now it should be obvious that our ideals sometimes prompt us to REFUSE to do certain things in our service. In other words, sometimes there are things missing from our services because of our ideals. Let me give you a couple of examples:

First, one thing we do NOT do is we do NOT have bits of the service that are only accessible to people who have some kind of special knowledge. Thus, all the language in our services is common everyday language; we do not use Latin, like some Catholics, and we do not use Old Church Slavonic, like some Russian Orthodox churches; we want everyone to understand everything that we do in the service. However, in today’s increasingly multicultural world this impulse is leading us in some interesting directions. We have a good many non-native speakers of English in our congregation, and so we sometimes use languages other than English in our services, typically accompanied by an English translation; we have used Spanish, German, and Mandarin in this fashion. But we do NOT use obsolete, archaic languages: we want everyone here to understand.

Another thing that we do NOT do is we do NOT have any secret bits in our service that only certain people are allowed to participate in. Some Christian churches do not allow everyone to participate in communion; some Buddhists have certain rites or practices that only initiates can participate in; and so on. by contrast, we want everyone to participate in everything, as much as we can make that happen. The technical term for this is that we are an exoteric religion, not an esoteric religion.

 

I must also tell you that sometimes we do things in our services, not out of our ideals, but for historical reasons, or practical reasons, or because something evolved randomly. I’ll give you an example:

We have three main pieces of music in our service: the prelude, the offertory, and the postlude. The original purpose of these pieces of music was entirely practical; they were what we might call traveling music: the prelude covered up the sound of footsteps as people came into the service; the offertory covered up the sound of the ushers walking around collecting money; and the postlude covered up the sounds of people going out of the service. In some Unitarian Universalist congregations, that’s still the way it’s done. But in our congregation, we like our musicians so much that we want to sit and listen to them play. So now we have the prelude after people have come in and seated themselves (unless you come in late); and we sit still for the postlude, then after the postlude we applaud for our musicians as if this were a concert performance. The prelude, offertory, and postlude are examples of things that originally had practical reasons behind them, but which have since been subject to random evolution.

 

To conclude, then: Some of the things we do in our Sunday services embody our highest ideals; some of the things we DON’T do in our services also reflect our highest ideals; and some of the things we do in our services are there for purely practical or historical reasons, or no reason at all.

As I wind up this sermon, I realize that I’ve said nothing about why our services include a sermon. Well, part of the reason we have a sermon in our services is to live out our ideals: the sermon should be one locus of the ongoing conversation we have together as a community of inquirers seeking after truth and goodness. Part of the reason we have a sermon is historical: the Christian tradition we came out of had sermons to explain Christian doctrine and beliefs. And part of the reason we have a sermon is practical: most religions in North America with regular services include something that looks like a sermon (though it might be called a dharma talk or the “platform” or some other name).

And as I wind up this sermon, I also realize that an hour is not enough time to give a full answer to the question “Why do we do THAT in our services?” So we don’t have time to talk about what we do in special services, like next week’s Water Communion service, or the Flower Celebration we do in the springtime. I am also very aware that the answers I have given in this sermon are partial and incomplete; if our senior minister, Amy Zucker Morgenstern, did a sermon on the same topic she would give you more information. With this latter point in mind, there are other people I would like to hear speak on this topic: anthropologist Don Brenneis, and psychologist Susan Owicki, and artist Lynn Grant, to name just a few.

But I hope that I have at least prompted to you ask yourself: Why do we do THAT in our Sunday services? I hope that by asking this question, you are drawn into a deeper examination of what it means to be a part of a religious community committed to an ongoing search for truth and goodness. And I hope that together we may strengthen our commitment to the radical love that causes us to try to root out evil wherever we find it.

 

CASTOR: Dan, now that you are done with the sermon, I have a question about why we take an offering during the service. What good does it do to give a dollar? I noticed the Mormons do not do this, and they seem to take tithing very seriously.

DAN: Like the Mormons, we trace our historical roots back to the early Christians; they took offerings of food, not money, food which became a meal that everyone got to eat together: so the offering was actually a social justice project: rich people in the church brought more food than poor people, and if you were poor you knew you’d get at least one good meal a week. (It’s worth remembering in this context that at our Second Sunday lunches and Fourth Sunday brunches we ask for a VOLUNTARY donation; some people give MORE than is asked, and some people can’t afford to put any money in the basket, and so we break even; in my opinion Second Sunday lunches and Fourth Sunday brunches are thus historically related to the offering.)

What good does it do to give a dollar? Well, we have people in our congregation who are on very limited incomes, and a dollar is a LOT of money for them; indeed, social scientists have shown that low income people generally give a greater percentage of their income to charity than do upper middle class people. You mentioned tithing, which means giving ten percent of your income away. For some people, a dollar is tithing, and there are other people who could give a hundred dollars or more a week and that wouldn’t be a tithe. Thus, it’s not the dollar amount, it’s the relative amount that matters most.

Offering — KERENSA
As a part of the free church tradition, we accept no money from any governmental body, nor do we receive money from any ecclesiastical authority, in order that we shall remain free to govern ourselves. In addition to their annual pledges, each week our members and friends may choose to give an additional contribution as a public witness that we are, and shall remain, a free church.

Offertory — Musicians

Hymn — KERENSA introduces

CASTOR: Dan, we’re about to extinguish the chalice. Why do we do that?

DAN: Extinguishing the chalice is something that was started in the 1990s by Elizabeth Selle Jones; she was a Unitarian Universalist minister who insisted that if you light the chalice at the beginning of a service, then you have to extinguish it at the end. I never agreed with Elizabeth’s reasoning, but I do think it’s a pleasant ritual, and a nice way to end the service.

Chalice Extinguishing — KERENSA
[#705 in the gray hymnal]

Postlude — Musicians

[DURING THE POSTLUDE, Castor and Dan stay at the front of the Main Hall for one more question and answer, while Kerensa takes the handheld mic and walks to the back of the Main Hall to give the unison benediction.]

CASTOR: Wait, there’s more? Why do we have a benediction, and a chalice extinguishing, and a postlude, and sometimes even a sung benediction?!

DAN: Yes, sometimes it feels like this is the service that never ends. All these things — extinguishing the chalice, the postlude, the sung benediction when the choir is present, and the unison benediction — got included in our services for good reasons, but all of them together might feel a little awkward if you stop to think about it. This is a perfect example of the random evolution of the service. I guess I’d say that maybe we don’t have to think through EVERYTHING in the service; some things, to use an expression of my Pennsylvania Dutch forebears, are “just for nice.”

Unison Benediction — KERENSA [from the back of the Main Hall]
Please rise in body or in spirit, join hands as you are willing and able, and let us say together the unison benediction. There is an insert in your order of service with the benediction in three languages; please read whichever language you are comfortable with.

Go out into the world in peace
Be of good courage
Hold fast to what is good
Return no one evil for evil
Strengthen the faint hearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Rejoice in beauty
Speak love with word and deed
Honor all beings

A Black Universalist in the 1830s

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2016 Daniel Harper.

Readings: The readings were three poems by Lucille Clifton, including:

A prose poem from Generations: A Memoir

telling our stories

quilting

 

Sermon: A Black Universalist in the 1830s

The sermon below was preached in honor of Black History Month by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Notes appear at the end of the sermon. Sermon copyright (c) 2016 Daniel Harper.

One of the best things about being part of a congregation like this one is that you get to hear other people’s stories. If you join a men’s group or women’s group, if you become a Sunday school teacher, if you simply open yourself to others during social hour, you will hear people’s stories: “When I first met my life partner…” someone will say; or, “When I was in eighth grade…”; or, “When I lived in Virginia….” So begin the little stories about someone else’s life.

No one is going to publish a big fat biography of an ordinary person’s life. Usually, the only time we get to hear the story of someone’s whole life is after they die, at their memorial service. Mostly we hear little pieces of other people’s lives; but if you listen long enough, over the course of years, you will hear enough to piece together — not a biography, but a sort of patchwork quilt of that person’s life.

So it is we can piece together the lives of ordinary people of the past; people who are not powerful, famous, male, white, and highly educated all at the same time. With such ordinary people, we mostly can know only pieces of their stories. But we can fill in the holes between the pieces with questions, and stitch it together, like a quilt, into a whole.

Now I would like to tell you the story of Nathan Johnson, a Black Universalist who lived from 1795 to 1880.

About Nathan Johnson’s early life, we can only ask questions. Who were his parents? Was he born free, or did he emancipate himself from slavery? How did he learn to read? How did he get to the north? He was born about 1795, perhaps in Virginia; [1] or perhaps in Philadelphia, either enslaved or free. [2] The first real fact we know about Nathan Johnson’s life is in 1819, when he was in his twenties, he got married in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

New Bedford in that time was a city with a surprisingly enlightened racial outlook. The Quaker residents of the city had been helping enslaved persons run to freedom since at least the 1790s. [3] The city was a terminus for the Underground Railroad. And in New Bedford, a person of color could do quite well financially: by about 1800, one black man, Paul Cuffee, of African and Wampanoag descent, had amassed a small fortune through shipping and international trade. [4]

Nathan Johnson married Mary Mingo, a free black woman born nearby, in New Bedford on October 24, 1819. Mary, better known as Polly, was ten years older than Nathan, and had been married once before. [5] She had at least two children from her first marriage: Rhoda who was an infant, and Mahala, who about seven years old in 1819. [6]

After their marriage, Polly and Nathan worked as domestic servants for Charles W. Morgan, a young man who had come from Philadelphia to marry the daughter of a wealthy ship owner; perhaps Nathan even came north with Morgan. [7] As was true of many Quakers and ex-Quakers, Morgan was probably involved with the Underground Railroad.

When they began working for the Morgans, Nathan was about twenty-six years old, and Polly thirty-six. What was it like for Polly and Nathan to live and work as domestic servants in the house of a wealthy newly-married white couple? How did Polly take care of her own children, a baby and school-aged child, while also attending to her duties as a domestic? What were their day-to-day lives like? As is so often true of the lives of ordinary people, we know little of their daily life.

We do know something of their religious lives. Polly became a member of First Baptist Church in 1820, a church with a white minister. [8] Presumably Rhoda and Mahala went to church with their mother.

But not Nathan. In February, 1822, he asked to be admitted into membership of New Bedford Friends Meeting, the Quaker congregation. His employer, Charles Morgan, described the scene in a letter: “… my black man Nathan sat during [meeting for] business and towards the close, rose & informed the meeting that he had no wish to intrude, but believed it his duty to become a member of that Society … speaking very well & properly, the request received due notice, and is under care of overseers. I was entirely ignorant of his views or intentions — though he is quite plain & has been very exemplary in every respect for a long time … Frank says they will have a new light in a dark lantern….” [9] I have to explain this last sentence: when Charles Morgan says “new light in a dark lantern,” he is referring to a brewing controversy among New England Quakers between the Old Lights or more conservative Quakers, and the New Lights or liberal faction which included Morgan and his family.

Morgan’s letter tells us that Nathan was well-spoken and articulate; that at age 17 he was treated as an adult; and that he had been attending Quaker meeting long enough to know the ways of the Quakers. It sound like he wore the characteristic plain dress of the Quakers. Finally, we learn that Nathan probably counted himself a part of the faction of religious liberals. For some reason, Nathan was not allowed to join New Bedford Friends Meeting, perhaps because he was black, or because the conservatives didn’t want to let another liberal in. Or it may be that he was already engaging violent anti-slavery activities, in opposition to Quaker pacifism. [10]

It seems unlikely that Nathan continued worshipping with the Quakers for much longer. By about 1824, Charles W. Morgan had joined the Unitarian church in New Bedford, and perhaps Nathan followed his employer to that church. This Unitarian congregation had had a black member as early as 1785. [11] But by 1824, the Unitarians were no longer welcoming towards African Americans: although there were abolitionists in the pews, the congregation was not racially egalitarian. [12]

In this same year, 1822, Nathan first became active in antislavery efforts. [13] In November, he attended a trial where a white slave catcher from the South was trying to prove that a black man was an escaped slave. Nathan saw how the anti-slavery activists protected the rights of the black man: “A person stood behind [the slave catcher] with a heavy pair of tongs in his hand ready to brain him” should he try to abscond with the black man. [14] From this time on, Nathan allied himself with the more active antislavery activists.

By the time Nathan was in his early twenties, he and Polly were doing well financially. They owned a house and several commercial properties; Polly opened a confectionary shop on the other side of their house. [15] Their businesses kept growing; by 1829, they had added a bathing house and rental apartments to their holdings. [16]

In his prosperity, Nathan was also becoming more radical. In April, 1827, he was accused, along with several other men, of entering a house at night, and severely beating a person of color named John Howard, who was visiting New Bedford. At Nathan’s trial, no one would testify against him, so the charges were dropped. The white abolitionist Samuel Rodman told his diary what was really going on: John Howard was hardly an innocent victim, but rather someone who had come to New Bedford “to get information of run-away slaves.” [17] Nathan had come far from Quaker pacifism. By 1833, Nathan had become a Universalist, who met in the old Quaker meetinghouse, which he now owned; the New Bedford Universalists at that time were mostly radical anti-slavery activists. [18]

At the 1830 U.S. census, Nathan, Polly, and Polly’s daughters Rhoda and Mahala were the only ones living in their house. [19] For Nathan and Polly never had any children of their own. Did Nathan regret not having children of his own? What sort of relationship did he have with Rhoda and Mahala? — he would have been the only father Rhoda ever knew, but what about Mahala? Once again, we have no answers to the most important questions.

Though we know so little of Nathan’s family life, we know more about the confectionary business. The wealthiest families in the city — and at this time, New Bedford was the richest city in America — purchased sweets from the Johnsons. Polly was rumored to have learned some of her cooking secrets in France, and charged accordingly. Her molded ice cream alone was worth two dollars a serving — at $45 each in today’s dollars, that was expensive ice cream! [20] For his part, Nathan carried on an international trade in sweets and nuts to supply the business. One of the items that they sold was “free-labor candy,” that is, candy made by free black workers, as opposed to slaves. Nathan and Polly were doing so well from their business ventures that they rode to and from anti-slavery meetings in a horse and carriage. [21]

And then, in September, 1838, came a most momentous occasion, though probably Nathan and Polly Johnson didn’t realize it at the time. Some white anti-slavery activists brought a young couple who had escaped from slavery to the Johnsons. [22] The man was named Frederick Johnson, but because there were so many Johnsons in New Bedford, Nathan suggested this man change his name to Douglass. [23] Yes, the famous Frederick Douglass got his new name from a Nathan Johnson, a black Universalist!

Frederick Douglass described his new friend thusly: “I will venture to assert that my friend Mr. Nathan Johnson … lived in a neater house; dined at a better table; took, paid for, and read, more newspapers; better understood the moral, religious, and political character of the nation,– than nine tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot county, Maryland.” [24]

At some point, Nathan brought Frederick to the Universalist church. One day, Rev. John Murray Spear, the white minister and radical abolitionist at the Universalist church, discovered Douglass debating the doctrine of universal salvation in the church building; Douglass, I am sorry to say, argued for the existence of eternal damnation. [25] But Spear saw that this young man had exceptional rhetorical ability, and was one of those who encouraged Douglass to become a public speaker. [26]

It should be noted that few Universalist churches were as egalitarian and racially tolerant as the one in New Bedford. Indeed, the New Bedford Universalists sometimes became frustrated with their co-religionists. When the Universalist Anti-Slavery Convention, of which they were founding members, proceeded more slowly than they liked, they shrewdly invited Frederick Douglass to accompany them to a meeting of the convention in the fall of 1841, and Douglass’s oratory convinced the delegates to censure the Southern Universalist churches that supported slavery. [27]

In 1841, John Murray Spear resigned as the minister of the Universalist church, because the congregation was unable to pay his salary [28]. The congregation’s poor financial situation was probably due in part to the Panic of 1837, a serious recession that lasted through the 1840s. Nathan and Polly’s financial situation also grew slowly worse through the 1840s. By the late 1840s, they were in debt to creditors. [29]

In the midst of this ongoing financial malaise, gold was discovered in California. In the Dec. 21, 1848, issue of the New Bedford Mercury, an article appeared that must have electrified the African American community of New Bedford, telling how an African Americans had become rich in the gold fields of California. [30] Nathan Johnson joined a mining company, the Belle Company of New Bedford, left New Bedford on April 3, 1849, and arrived in San Francisco on September 27. [31]

When he went to California, he left Polly in control of real estate valued at $15,500, and personal property valued at $3,200; [32] for a total value of $540,000 in today’s dollars. Yet in another three years, Johnson was declared insolvent, and Polly had to sell their house to a white anti-slavery activist.

I have been unable to find any record of what Nathan did while in California, or where he lived and worked. [33] Where did he live while he was in California? One place he might have lived early on is along the Yuba River, in a racially mixed community of men called “Negro Bar”; many of those men were from New Bedford. [34] But that is just a conjecture.

Whatever he did, he apparently did nothing to better his financial situation. But if he wasn’t making money, why did he stay in California? Perhaps, if he was indeed a self-emancipated slave, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 California was safer for him than Massachusetts. [35] Perhaps he was one of the many men who did not succeed as miners, and became financially destitute; the meager evidence we have points to this as a likely possibility. [36]

As far as his religious views, Nathan was no longer a Universalist but a spiritualist [37]; perhaps because so many spiritualists were anti-slavery activists. [38]

Meanwhile, back in New Bedford, Polly continued working as a confectioner. She made enough money without any help from Nathan to get her house back by 1859; she paid off that mortgage by 1870. [39] When she died on November 19, 1871, at 87 years old, she left her estate to her daughter Rhoda and her granddaughter Mary. But she also left a pension to Nathan, provided he came back to New Bedford within two years of her death. And so Nathan returned to New Bedford in early 1873. [40]

Nathan was about 78 years old when he finally returned to New Bedford, having lived in California for more than 23 years. What made him finally return? Was the modest pension enough to bring him back? Or perhaps the thought of seeing his step-daughters and step-grandchildren? Had he finally forgotten the shame of his financial ruin? There is no way to know for sure.

When he returned to New Bedford, he lived in the basement of his old house, while Rhoda and her family lived upstairs. He died on November 11, 1880, in New Bedford. [41]

There you have it: a brief portrait of the life of an ordinary person. Born in obscurity, married as a young man, he helped his wife raise two daughters. He became financially successful, but at age 54, faced with mounting debt, he had to begin again, making a five month voyage in a wooden ship around Cape Horn in the dead of winter, to join the California Gold Rush. He didn’t make his fortune, but stayed in California for 23 years, until he was 78. He finally returned home to live out the last few years of his life in a basement apartment.

The only reason we know anything about Nathan Johnson is because he and his wife Polly happened to befriend Frederick Douglass at the end of his journey on the Underground Railroad. This is often the fate of ordinary people: we only know about them when they brush up against someone famous. But isn’t Nathan Johnson worthy of our attention, even though he was ordinary? Ordinary people are equally human as great people; the old-time Universalists would say: we are all equally worthy of God’s love. And this is why ordinary people like Nathan Johnson fight so hard at great personal cost for true equality — for the anti-slavery movement then and Black Lives Matter now — because we are all equally worthy of love.

I’ll leave you with Nathan Johnson’s own words. There is at least one surviving letter from him, addressed to abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman, in which he tells Chapman that he supports the anti-slavery periodical called “The Liberty Bell,” [42] and then he says:

“I hope its notes may sound till all the People are roused, and gathered in their might, to Battle for Liberty.”

NOTES:

1. Earl F. Mulderink, “‘The Whole Town Is Ringing with It’: Slave Kidnapping Charges against Nathan Johnson of New Bedford, Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 3 (Sep., 1988), p. 343.

2. Kathryn Grover, The Fugitive’s Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), p. 94.

3. Kathryn Grover, “Fugitive Slave Trade and the Maritime World of New Bedford” (National Park Service, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, 1998), pp. 6-7.

4. Robert C. Hayden, African Americans and Cape Verdean Americans in New Bedford: A History of Community and Achievement (Boston: Select Publications, 1993), p. 67.

5. New Bedford Historical Society Web site, ”Mary J. ‘Polly’ Johnson,”
http://nbhistoricalsociety.org/Important-Figures/mary-j-polly-johnson/ accessed Feb. 12, 2016.

Also: Mulderink, p. 343; Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 94.
6. Kathryn Grover and Carl J. Cruz, “A haven for all in need,” New Bedford Standard Times, Feb. 27, 2000.

7. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 94.

8. Mulderink, p. 352.

9. Letter quoted in Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 102.

10. Graham Russell Gao Hodges makes this assertion: “At one point, he asked to join the local Quaker meeting and received careful consideration, but his street rowdiness surely disqualified him”; in David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), p. 30.

However, I can find no record of Nathan Johnson’s involvement in more violent anti-slavery activities prior to late 1822, after he would have been rejected by the Friends Meeting as a member.

11. Dan Harper, Liberal Pilgrims: Varieties of Liberal Religious Experience in New Bedford, Massachusetts (New Bedford: Fish Island Books, 2009), p. 56.

12. Harper, p. 75

13. Hodges, p. 30.

14. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 94.

15. Grover and Cruz.

16. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 112.

17. Rodman’s diary is quoted in Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 112.

18. Grover and Cruz.

The extant records of the old Universalist church do not mention Johnson’s name. See: bMS 214 in the Manuscript Collection at Andover-Harvard Library.

The records that do exist from the 1830s are those of the business side of the congregation, called the “society,” which in those days was separate from the religious side of the congregation, called the “church.” It is possible that Nathan was a member of the church but not the society, but the written records of the church (if indeed they were ever kept in writing) no longer exist.

John Buescher points out that “the constitution of the church … had no exclusionary provision.” John B. Beuscher, The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear, Agitator for the Spirit Land (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), p. 22. The congregation’s constitution may be found in: Record book of the Universalist Society, bMS 214/1 (2), Andover-Harvard Theological Library.

At the same time, the white New Bedford Universalists who controlled the congregation still harbored racial prejudice. In January, 1837, the society voted “that no transfer of pews shall be made to persons of color” (Record book of the Universalist Society, bMS 214/1 (3), Andover-Harvard Theological Library). Perhaps Nathan Johnson already owned a pew at that time; whether or not he did, after that date, no other person of color could purchase a pew.

19. Grover and Cruz.

20. New Bedford Historical Society Web site, “Mary ‘Polly’ Johnson.”

21. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 138.

22. Grover and Cruz.

23. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1855), p. 343.

24. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1849), pp. 114-115.

25. However, for an account of how Douglass’s theological views liberalized to the point of a humanistic theology, see William L. vanDeBurg, “Frederick Douglass,” in Anthony Pinn, editor, By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism (New York: New York University Press, 2001), pp. 89 ff. (Among other liberalizing influences: Douglass went to hear Unitarian minister Theodore Parker preach in 1854.) By 1870, Douglass was espousing a doctrine that placed ultimate responsibility for ending slavery and racism on humankind, rather than relying on God to intervene. For this, Douglass was accused of apostasy; one clergyman wrote, “We love Frederick Douglass, but we love God more.”

26. Beuscher, p. 171.

27. Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770-1870 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1979), pp. 592-595.

28. Harper, p. 12.

29. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 209.

30. “On a September day in 1848 a black man was walking near the San Francisco docks, when a white man who had just disembarked from a ship called to him to carry his luggage. The black cast him an indignant glance and walked away. After he had gone a few steps, he turned around and, drawing a small bag from his bosom, he said, ‘Do you think I’ll lug trunks when I can get that much in one day?’ The sack of gold that he displayed was estimated by the white man to be worth more than one hundred dollars.” Rudolph M. Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977), p. 12.

31. Passenger lists from the New York Herald of April 7, 1849, excerpted on “California Bound SF Genealogy” Web site, http://www.sfgenealogy.com/californiabound/cb092.htm accessed Feb. 12, 2016.

Nathan Johnson is also listed as a passenger aboard the ship America from New Bedford, Mass., departed April 3, 1849, Charles Warren Haskins, The Argonauts of California (New York: Fords, Howard & Hulbert, 1890), pp. 468-469. Haskins lists 35,000 people who were “the first to venture forth in the search for gold.”

For more about the voyage of the ship America, see the Sea Captains — Ship Passengers: The Maritime Heritage Project Web site, “San Francisco 1800-1899, Charles P. Seabury,” http://www.maritimeheritage.org/captains/seaburyCharles.html accessed Feb. 12, 2016. This Web site states that the log book for this voyage is now in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The log book takes note that a black preacher was on board who led services on April 8, and that many of those attending the service were also black.

32. Mulderink, p. 357; Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 135.

33. Nathan Johnson is not mentioned in Delilah L. Beasley, The Negro Trail Blazers of California: A Compilation of Records from the California Archives (Los Angeles: 1919). But it is not out of the question that documentary sources on Johnson’s stay in California may someday be found.

34. “In one community of the Yuba River, known at times as ‘Negro Bar’ and at other times as ‘Union Bar,’ several of the members, both black and white, were from New Bedford. There were about thirty whites and ten Negroes in this community, according to William F. Terry, a New Bedford white man who kept a diary.” — Quoted in Lapp, p. 61.

The 72-page William F. Terry diary is in the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley (call number BANC MSS C-F 217); perhaps an interested scholar will read it to see if it mentions Nathan Johnson.

35. “By 1851 the panic over hunters of fugitive slaves reached Massachusetts and the New Bedford Mercury [March 18, 1851] openly advised its black readers to consider California as a place of refuge.” — Lapp, p. 19.

36. For one possibility, we can turn to the downward trajectory described by Mark Twain, once a white man lost his job in San Francisco in the 1860s: “After losing his [job], he had gone down, down, down, with never a halt: from a boarding house on Russian Hill to a boarding house in Kearney street; from thence to Dupont; from thence to a low sailor den; and from thence to lodgings in goods boxes and empty hogsheads near the wharves. Then, for a while, he had gained a meagre living by sewing up bursted sacks of grain on the piers; when that failed he found food here and there as chance threw it in his way.” Mark Twain, Roughing It (New York: Hippocrene Books; replica edition of the first edition: Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Co., 1872), p. 430.

37. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 282.

38. In mid-twentieth century study, G. K. Nelson asserts: “Spiritualism was associated with the Anti-slavery movement.” G. K. Nelson, Spiritualism and Society (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 26.

For a more extended argument on the relationship between spiritualism and various reform movements including the anti-slavery movement, see John Buescher, The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-century Religious Experience (Boston: Skinner House, 2004).

Spiritualists themselves claimed most of them supported the anti-slavery movement: “It is patent to every American Spiritualist that the great majority of the believers, save and except the residents of the Gulf States, were more or less in favor of anti-slavery.” Emma Hardinge, Modern American Spiritualism: A Twenty Years‘ Record of the Communion Between Earth and the World of Spirits (New York: the author, 1872), p. 460.

39. Grover and Cruz.

40. Ibid.

41. Grover and Cruz; Mulderink, p. 357. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, shows Nathan Johnson’s gravestone in Oak Grove cemetery, p. 282; the epitaph reads, “Freedom for all mankind.”

42. The letter, dated November 14, 1844, is in the Boston Library Rare Books Collection, and is quoted in Mulderink, pp. 356-357.