Samuel West, Eccentric Revolutionary

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is taken from a sermon preached on May 29, 1776, by Samuel West, who was the minister of this church from 1761 to 1803. The sermon from which this reading is taken gives a moral and religious justification for the North American colonies to rebel against Great Britain. It was preached by Samuel West to the House of Representatives and Council of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. West said:

“Thus we see that both reason and revelation perfectly agree in pointing out the nature, end, and design of government, viz., that it is to promote the welfare and happiness of the community; and that subjects have a right to do everything that is good, praiseworthy, and consistent with the good of the community, and are only to be restrained when they do evil and are injurious either to individuals or the whole community; and that they ought to submit to every law that is beneficial to the community for conscience’ sake, although it may in some measure interfere with their private interest; for every good man will be ready to forego his private interest for the sake of being beneficial to the public. Reason and revelation, we see, do both teach us that our obedience to rulers is not unlimited, but that resistance is not only allowable, but an indispensable duty in the case of intolerable tyranny and oppression. From both reason and revelation we learn that, as the public safety is the supreme law of the state, — being the true standard and measure by which we are to judge whether any law or body of laws are just or not, — so legislators have aright to make, and require subjection to, any set of laws that have a tendency to promote the good of the community.”

[The complete sermon is online here.]

The second reading comes from a short biography of Dr. Samuel West, written by John Morison, who was co-minister of our church from 1838-1844. This short biography was later edited by Samuel Atkins Eliot in 1910 when he was president of the American Unitarian Association; Eliot, as it happened, was the grandson of Ephraim Peabody, who was co-minister of our church from 1838-1844; and Samuel Eliot preached from this very pulpit more than once. In any case, here is how John Morison described Samuel West’s theology:

“Dr. West’s sympathies with humanity were too quick to make him a good Calvinist. His sermons were largely of the old Biblical and textual type, but theologically they were Unitarian in thought and temper. He asserted free will for man in opposition to the Calvinistic doctrine of preordination and election, and he believed in man’s ability of moral choice in opposition to the doctrine of total depravity. In his election sermon of 1776 he said, ‘A revelation pretending to be from God that contradicts any part of natural laws ought immediately to be rejected as an imposture, for the Deity cannot make a law contrary to the law of nature without acting contrary to himself.’ In his Forefathers’ Day sermon [of 1777] he said: ‘Love and unity are the essential marks of a true Christian. Were we possessed of true Christian candor, by a fair and impartial comparison we should find that many differences in explaining matters of faith are only mere verbal differences, and entirely vanish when we come to define our terms.’ It was natural that under such a minister, broad and tolerant in spirit, robust in thought, fervid in patriotism, incisive in logic, inclusive in fellowship, that [West’s church] should pass without break or discussion into the liberal ranks.”

[Samuel Atkins Eliot, ed., Heralds of a Liberal Faith: Vol. 1, The Prophets (Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1914).]


This is the three hundredth anniversary of the establishment of our church, and with that in mind, this fall I am going to continue a series of sermons begun last fall in which I talk about exceptional people from our church’s past. I suppose you could call this the “Three Hundredth Anniversary Sermon Series.” But in my own mind, I have come to call this series “Inspired and Inspiring Lives.” We Unitarian Universalists don’t have saints, but we do have people to whom we look when we need inspiration as we live out our own lives. We don’t have saints, but yet we do seek out moral exemplars, individuals who lived worthy lives, and whom we might emulate to good purpose. And it is good for us to talk about people from whom we can draw inspiration — being fully aware of their flaws and quirks of personality, but also being fully aware of what makes them good or even great human beings, and how we might emulate their goodness or greatness.

Last fall, I gave you sermons on three inspiring and inspired lives: — I spoke about Maja Capek, minister of North Unitarian Church, who escaped Czechoslovakia ahead of the Nazis, and wholed a church of immigrants here in New Bedford ; and I spoke about John Murray Spear, the first Universalist minister in New Bedford, who fought for abolition of slavery and who built a racially integrated church here in this city in the 1830s and 1840s. And beginning this morning, I’m returning to this topic.

This morning I would like to talk with you about a person from our past whom I have come to greatly admire: Rev. Dr. Samuel West, minister of this church from 1761 to 1803. In the readings this morning, I have tried to give you a sense of how Rev. Dr. Samuel West contributed to the American Revolution. In the first reading, we heard an excerpt from West’s Election Sermon of May 29, 1776, and how West helped the political leaders of his time to understand how to steer a carefully plotted course between submission to the tyrannies of the British government on the one hand, and anarchy on the other hand. In 1776, there were many great thinkers here in the British colonies who were trying to prove that, on the one hand, they must rebel against Britain, but that, on the other hand, rebelling against Britain did not mean doing away with all government altogether. And we all know that West was not the greatest of these thinkers, — he was not as great as Thomas Jefferson, or Thomas Paine, or John Adams. Yet his Election Day Sermon of 1776, which was widely distributed here in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, is noteworthy for its clarity; it is still readable today, and abridged versions of it are still widely available on the Internet.

Indeed, I think you could argue that West could have made a much bigger contribution to the American Revolution, except for the fact that he lived down here on the south coast of Massachusetts. Remember that in those days, this region was dominated by the Quakers, who were pacifists, and who therefore were unlikely to declare themselves as passionate revolutionaries. If Samuel West had gotten a church in Boston, it seems likely to me that he would have been right in the thick of the planning of the American Revolution; but in those days, New Bedford was a long way from Boston, a long ride on horseback over rough roads.

Selfishly, I am glad that West remained here in New Bedford. It is West more than any other minister, more than any other single person, who put his mark on this church; it is West who led this church away from its Calvinist beginnings into liberal religion; and there we have stayed ever since. That West served here has been the best possible thing for our church (in my selfish view); but I feel that West paid the price for our good fortune, for he was unable to participate in the Revolutionary cause as fully as he might have otherwise done.

West paid another price for living down here in old Dartmouth, and later in the brand new city of New Bedford. West was a gifted scholar and, by all accounts, a brilliant man. John Morison, in his short biography of West, tells us that: “Among his own society [West] found little intellectual sympathy. [The people of his church] were a plain, industrious, uneducated people.” On top of that, West was very poorly paid. When he arrived at this church in 1761, he was promised a salary of sixty-six pounds, thirteen shillings, and sixpence per year; in terms of today’s dollars, that would be roughly $20,000, a low salary for someone who had a degree from Harvard College. It is true that West also received additional compensation in the form of two cows and a horse that were to be maintained by the congregation for his use. But what it also true is that West never received the whole of his salary:– by 1788, 27 years after he started, the congregation owed him a total of 769 pounds, twelve shillings, and eleven pence; this was nearly two hundred thousand dollars in today’s money. Or put it this way: over a 27 year period, the congregation paid him less than half of what wasn’t a very good salary to begin with. Nor was there much that the congregation could do about the situation: this whole region was sparsely populated and predominantly Quaker, so there just weren’t that many people from whom to get the money to pay Dr. West.

Thus we can see that circumstances were against Samuel West being able to play any role in the great events of the American Revolution: — he was both poor, and he lived in a provincial backwater of Massachusetts. Yet West rose above these circumstances, and was an active participant in the Revolutionary cause.

The most prominent of West’s revolutionary activities have been recorded for history. After the Battle of Bunker Hill, West joined the American army as a chaplain. While in the army, he assisted General George Washington by deciphering a treasonous letter written in code by an American officer to a British officer. He was at the Provincial Convention in Watertown, after that revolutionary body had to evacuate Boston, and her preached a sermon for them which was later reprinted. He preached the Election Day sermon in May, 1776, before the House of Representatives. In December, 1777, he delivered a patriotic message for the anniversary sermon at Plymouth, to commemorate the landing of the Pilgrims.

In the winter and spring of 1779-1780, West was a member of the General Court which met together to prepare a constitution for what became known as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; this document was finally ratified in June of 1780, and remains the oldest written constitution in effect today. In the winter of 1787-1788, West was part of the convention by means of which Massachusetts approved the United States constitution. There was real doubt as to whether Massachusetts would adopt the United States constitution, and it was Samuel West who played a key behind-the-scenes role. According to historian Francis Baylies, in a letter he wrote to John Clifford of New Bedford, this is what happened:

“The fate of the Constitution in the convention was doubtful, when Governor Hancock, without whose aid it certainly could not be adopted, was seized with his constitutional disorder, the gout, and, withdrawing from the chair, took to his bed. The friends of the Constitution were convinced of the necessity of getting him out. Dr. West (who was Hancock’s classmate at Harvard) was selected as the person most likely to influence him. He repaired to his house, and after a long condolence on the subject of his bodily complaints he expressed his deep regrets that this affliction should have come upon him at a moment when his presence in the Convention seemed almost indispensable. He enlarged upon his vast influence, his many acts of patriotism, his coming forth in former days, at critical periods, to give new energy to the slumbering patriotism of his countrymen, and on the prodigious effect of his name. Heaven, he said, had given him another glorious opportunity, by saving his country, to win imperishable honor to himself. The whole people would follow his footsteps with blessings. The governor, who knew that Dr. West had always been his sincere and disinterested friend, listened to his suggestions, and made up his mind to appear again in the Convention. Wrapped in his flannels, he took the chair, addressed the Convention, proposed the conciliatory plan suggested by his friend, and the result is known. There is little doubt that Hancock turned the scale in this State in favor of the Constitution, and in my mind there is little doubt that Dr. West induced him to do it.”

So you see, while Samuel West may have had to play a minor role in the American Revolution and the formation of the new United States of America, it was nevertheless a crucial role.

Now this is all very interesting, but I am more interested in learning about West as a human being. What comes down to us about Dr. West, above all other aspects of his personality, is that he was somewhat eccentric. The historian Francis Baylies has recorded how absent-minded Dr. West was, saying:

“During the session of the Convention Dr. West spent many of his evenings abroad. He generally returned with his pockets filled with fine handkerchiefs, silk stockings, silk gloves, small pieces of cambric, and many other articles which could, without attracting attention, be slipped into his pocket. His distress, on discovering them, was ludicrous; for, aware of his absence of mind, he supposed that he might have taken these articles unconsciously and without the consent of the owners, but his fellow-boarders generally contrived to convince him that they were designed as presents, — which was the truth.”

Many other examples of Dr. West’s absent-mindedness have been recorded. He was known to arrive at the church on horseback, and stop at the horse-block so that his wife could get down from the pillion behind him, only to find that his wife wasn’t there; he had forgotten to wait for her, and had left her at home.

On another occasion, Dr. West’s horse came running up to the house of another minister, one Dr. Sanger, in another town; the horse had on a saddle, but Dr. West was not on the horse. So Dr. Sanger and some boys living in his house went back to look for Dr. West, figuring that the horse must have thrown him. They found him sitting in the middle of the road, in deep thought, and asked him, “Is it you, Dr. West? How come you’re sitting in the middle of the road?” To which he is said to have replied, “Yes, I suppose it is I, and I suppose the beast has thrown me.” This particular anecdote was recorded by one Charles Lowell, who was one of the boys living with Dr. Sanger at the time.

People who met him remembered Dr. West’s “eccentricity and roughness,” and his “oddity of manners.” It is easy to remember such personal quirks, but I want to know more about who Dr. West was as a human being. And the historical record does give us a more rounded view of who he was as a human being. The following anecdote was recorded by John Morison:

“[Dr. West’s] metaphysical investigations must have colored all his thoughts. He usually preached without notes, and was always prepared. Once, when in Boston, during the latter part of his life, he was invited by Dr. Clarke, of the First Church, to preach for him. About an hour before the services were to commence, Father West requested his friend to give him a text. At this Dr. Clarke was alarmed, and asked if it were possible that he was going to preach without notes, and with no other preparation. ‘Come, come,’ said Father West, ‘it is my way, give me a text.’ Dr. Clarke selected Romans ix. 22: ‘What if God, willing to show his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction.’ Dr. West looked over the Bible a few minutes, turning down leaves here and there, and then went into the church, where he preached a cogent, logical discourse, an hour and twenty minutes long, on that perplexing subject. The strong men of the congregation were intensely interested, and Dr. Clarke, on coming from the pulpit, exclaimed, ‘Why, Father West, it would have taken me three months to prepare such a discourse.’ ‘Ha, ha,’ was the reply, ‘and I have been studying it twenty years.’  ”

And here is another, very brief, anecdote recorded by John Morison. Dr. West “would sometimes follow the young men who were studying theology with him to their bedchamber, and remain discoursing to them nearly the whole night.”

These last two anecdotes imply that Dr. West must have been a man of uncommon intellect and ability. Perhaps he wished that he lived in a city where he would have had more intellectual stimulation; surely he must have wished that his church had paid him regularly and in full. Rather than bemoan the lack of intellectual stimulation, Dr. West had a rich life of the mind — rich enough that others thought he was absent-minded. And he found ways to remain in conversation with other intellects: — he traveled regularly to Boston, then the intellectual capital of New England if not of the United States, he trained theological students, presumably in his home.

We can piece together more of Dr. West’s personality from the historical record. We know he married and raised a family, and when his first wife died, he married again. We know that he was a trusting man — he was perhaps too trusting of others, being sometimes unable to know when he was being deceived. We have already learned that he gave much time and energy to public service, at the state and indeed at the national level. And it is also clear that he helped his little church grow and thrive, for in 1795 he moved the church from its old location up in what is now Acushnet down to the corner of Purchase and William Streets in the new and bustling city of New Bedford, so that it could grow and thrive even more — he may not have gotten his full salary, but he was able to convince the church to pay for a new building!

There is one last little tidbit that I find very interesting: the people of this church called Dr. West “Father West.” I am sure they meant this as a compliment, and as a testament to his character. I imagine the people of this church saw Dr. West as a kind of friendly father-figure: — a good man, an intelligent man, a leader who put his church’s welfare above his own.

It seems to me that, of all the ministers who have served this church, Dr. Samuel West stands out as the most impressive human being of any of them. Perhaps some of our other ministers surpassed his intellectual capacities, but Dr. West’s intellect was only a small part of who he was. Perhaps he was eccentric and absent-minded; but that appears to have come part-and-parcel with his great intellect, and his general lack of intellectual companionship close to home, and his eccentricities never descended into bizarreness. Perhaps he had odd and even rough manners; but he more than made up for that by his essential goodness and his deep and abiding faith in human nature. Perhaps he never had much money throughout his life here; but he proved that one does not need to be wealthy to be a useful member of society.

Dr. West combined a great intellect, an essential goodness and decency, and the energy and ability to serve the world around him in spite of adverse circumstances. He had a vision of how this might be a better world, and he worked towards that vision in spite of the obstacles in his way.

Dr. Samuel West was one person whom we might consider emulating. Not that we should emulate his eccentricity; not that we should try to emulate his poverty. Nor should we try to slavishly emulate every detail of his life. We should consider emulating the core of his life: — He lived in times that called for energetic service to a greater cause, and he served; this we can emulate. He pushed himself to use his intellect beyond what those around him could appreciate; this we can emulate. he lived a good and decent life; this we can emulate. He offered leadership to his church, based on thoughtful consideration of what would best serve the greater good of humanity. He was also able to be agood follower — he was not one of the primary leaders in the American Revolution, but he trhrew his best energies behind the efforts of those leaders — and so we can say that he offered good “followership” as well as good leadership.

It is in his religious views that we can especially emulate Dr. West. He transcended the narrow Calvinism in which he was brought up; he knew that human beings can and often will make sound moral choices, and so he refused to believe the utter depravity of humanity which many around him preached. And his religious convictions informed his political convictions : he knew that, on the whole, people do make good moral choices, and that, on the whole, individual people will transcend their narrow private interests for the greater good of human society; at the same time, he knew that our highest allegiance must be to our consciences, and from thence to that which is highest and best in humanity, which he called God.

We Unitarian Universalists don’t have saints, but we do have moral exemplars, people to whom we look when we need inspiration as we live out our own lives. Dr. West is one of the great, if not the greatest, moral exemplars in our church’s long history; may we draw inspiration from his life.


This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is an Orphic Hymn to the ancient Greek goddess Athena:

“Only-begotten, noble race of Zeus, blessed and fierce, who joyest in caves to rove: O warlike Pallas, whose illustrious kind, ineffable, and effable we find: magnanimous and famed, the rocky height, and groves, and shady mountains thee delight: in arms rejoicing, who with furies dire and wild the souls of mortals dost inspire. Gymnastic virgin of terrific mind, dire Gorgon’s bane, unmarried, blessed, kind: mother of arts, impetuous; understood as fury by the bad, but wisdom by the good. Female and male, the arts of war are thine, O much-formed, Drakaina, inspired divine: over the Phlegraion Gigantes, roused to ire, thy coursers driving with destructive dire. Tritogeneia, of splendid mien, purger of evils, all-victorious queen. Hear me, O Goddess, when to thee I pray, with supplicating voice both night and day, and in my latest hour give peace and health, propitious times, and necessary wealth, and ever present be thy votaries aid, O much implored, art’s parent, [bright]-eyed maid.”

[#32, The Hymns of Orpheus. Translated by Thomas Taylor (1792). Modern edition: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.]

The second reading is from Pseudo-Apollodorus, a Greek mythographer of the second century of the common era. It tells the story of how the ancient Greek city of Attika came to choose Athena as their special goddess:

“Kekrops, a son of the soil, with a body compounded of man and serpent, was the first king of Attika… In his time, they say, the gods resolved to take possession of cities in which each of them should receive his own peculiar worship. So Poseidon was the first that came to Attika, and with a blow of his trident on the middle of the acropolis, he produced a sea which they now call Erekhtheis. After him came Athena, and, having called on Kekrops to witness her act of taking possession, she planted an olive tree, which is still shown in the Pandrosion. But when the two strove for possession of the country, Zeus parted them and appointed arbiters, not, as some have affirmed, Kekrops and Kranaus, nor yet Erysikhthon, but the twelve gods [and goddesses]. And in accordance with their verdict the country was adjudged to Athena, because Kekrops bore witness that she had been the first to plant the olive. Athena, therefore, called the city Athens after herself, and Poseidon in hot anger flooded the Thriasian plain and laid Attika under the sea.”

[Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.14.1, trans. Frazer.]


This is the second of a short series of sermons on Greek goddesses. This morning I would like to speak about Athena, goddess of wisdom and of war; but before I do so, let me remind you why I think it is a good idea to preach about Greek goddesses in a Unitarian Universalist church.

Beginning in the 1970’s, we Unitarian Universalists began to realize that, when it comes to religion, women were often “overlooked and undervalued.” We actively worked to root out sexism from our shared faith. In the 1980’s, we rewrote our principles and purposes using gender-neutral language, and in the 1990’s, under the influence of ecofeminism, we added a principle about our commitment to respect the interdependent web of all life. In 1993, we published a new hymnal that included feminist hymns and songs. And many of our congregations were very active in addressing sexism at the local level. Over the past thirty or forty years, we have changed our selves and our attitudes, and have done away with a significant amount of sexism within Unitarian Universalism.

But of course the surrounding culture is still dominated by the idea of a male father god, and it is very hard for any of us to escape this idea. It is easiest to see the effects of the surrounding culture on our children: like it or not, they do learn the idea that God is a white man with a white beard sitting on a cloud somewhere up in the sky, and it can b e hard to talk t hem out of that idea. Thus we find ourselves devoting a significant amount of time in our Sunday school presenting the children with alternative ideas about God;– last year in the Sunday school, we spent much of the year with the children’s book “Hide and Seek with God,” a book which presents alternative God-images from the Christian tradition and from other world religions. This is the kind of thing we do so that our children can get past the idea that God is an old white man with a white beard sitting on a cloud.

Of course, as much as we don’t want to admit it, we adults are also influenced by the surrounding culture. Sometimes we catch ourselves making the assumption that the dominant male images of God are in fact the only images of God. For example, I have noticed that when people talk about the pro-atheism books by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the discussions of these books tend to assume that God is singular, all-powerful, all-knowing; in other words, assume that God is the typical patriarchal male God of traditional Christianity. Both the atheists and the supporters of God weaken their arguments when they ignore the fact that there is more than one god-image out there.

In spite of recent scholarship which has uncovered female god-images in the Bible, and in other world religions, too many of us adults cleave to the old god-image of a white man with a beard sitting on a cloud somewhere up in the sky. Yes, even we Unitarian Universalists fall into this trap. We forget that Unitarian minister Theodore Parker was addressing his liberal Christian prayers to father God and mother God back in the 1850’s; and we Unitarian Universalists often forget that god-images can be either male or female, or gender-neutral, or differently gendered, or that gender does not even apply to the divine.

To keep myself from falling into the trap of thinking that the divine must be male, I like to spend some time thinking about the goddesses, like the Greek goddesses, who are a part of our Western culture. It’s not that I’m going to worship or believe in these goddesses; but remembering that our Western culture has lots of female god-images helps keep me from falling into the cultural trap of assuming that all god-images must be male. It’s a way of examining and challenging my unconscious assumptions.

Now you know why I’m preaching a series of sermons on Greek goddesses. Now let me turn our attention to Athena, a goddess who challenges many of our assumptions.

And to begin to tell you how Athena can challenge our assumptions, I should begin by telling you the story of Black Athena. Back in 1987, a scholar named Martin Bernal published a book titled Black Athena. In this book, Bernal stated his belief that the roots of Greek culture — and therefore the roots of all the Western European culture that sprang from it — the roots of ancient Greek culture lay in Africa. On the face of it, this is not a particularly remarkable thing to say. All the cultures of the ancient Near East, all the gods and goddesses of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean world, seem to have been interrelated. Certainly the African culture of Egypt is an older culture than ancient Greek culture. So to say that the Egyptians had tremendous influence on the later cultures of ancient Greece should not be very controversial.

And the ancient Greeks knew that Athena herself had a connection to Africa. Plato, in his dialogue the Timaeus, tells us that in Egypt, there is a city called Saïs, and the citizens of that city have a guardian goddess: “The citizens have a deity for their foundress; she is called in the Egyptian tongue Neith, and is asserted by them to be the same whom the Hellenes call Athena…” [Timaeus 21e, trans. Jowett]. Thus Plato said that the Greek goddess Athena was somehow related to the Egyptian goddess Neith. It was an obvious connection to make: both Athena and Neith were goddesses of war and goddesses of weaving, and they shared other characteristics as well.

But when Martin Bernal wrote his book Black Athena he created a storm of controversy. One of the things that made his book controversial was Bernal’s image of a dark-skinned Athena. In our world, which is so conscious of skin color and race, it was shocked some white people, and some people of color, to think that the goddess Athena might have been black,– when for all these years most of us in the Western world have thought of Athena as being white.

We sometimes try to erect hard-and-fast boundaries in realms where there are no hard-and-fast boundaries. Racial and cultural boundaries appear to have been more permeable in the ancient Near East than we may want to believe. Ancient Near East gods and goddesses moved from one culture to another, and from one religion to another. Indeed, when I hear Wisdom revered in the Bible as a female figure of goddess-like importance, as in the responsive reading this morning, I wonder what other goddesses she was related to, and even if she was perhaps related to Athena, who was also a goddess of wisdom.

I imagine there was a web of cultural connections throughout the ancient Near East: connections between various goddesses and gods; connections between the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa; connections between peoples of all different skin colors from black to white to various shades of brown. In our minds, we have divided the world into distinct continents, and people into distinct races, but some of the divisions that we make are too arbitrary.

I started out saying that Athena might help us to be aware that the divine might just as well be female as male, or have no gender at all. The image of an African Athena can help us be aware that the divine might have black, brown, or white skin color, or be utterly beyond human racial categories. So this is another way in which thinking about Athena helps us to challenge our assumptions about our god-images.

One of the things that has bothered me about Athena is that she is both the goddess of wisdom, and the goddess of war. Since I think of war as a kind of madness, it seemed to me that Athena was combining two contradictory elements within her. How could she embody both war and wisdom?

The poet Robert Graves gives us a clue as to how this might be so. Graves says that although she is indeed the goddess of war, Athena “gets no pleasure from battle, as [the god] Ares and [the goddess] Eris do, but rather from settling disputes, and upholding the law by pacific means.” [The Greek Myths]

What particularly interests me is that Athena does not reject violence altogether. But when she does go to war it is for good reason; and should she decide to go to war, she uses her wisdom to develop adequate strategy and tactics, so that she never loses a battle. Ares, the male god of war, likes violence for the sake of violence, and he is often defeated because of his inability to plan out his strategy and tactics. [Graves, Greek Myths, 25.a] By contrast, Athena does not like to go to war, but she will do so if justice requires her to do so. Athena’s attitude towards war has helped to challenge my assumptions about peacemaking.

Last June, Rev. William Schulz gave a talk on his Unitarian Universalist theology of peacemaking. Schulz, a Unitarian Universalist minister, was president of Amnesty International from 1993 to 2006. Schulz said that in his years at Amnesty International, he “was exposed on a daily basis to the most sordid and gratuitous violence.” He saw, over and over again, and sometimes first-hand, the results of torture and government-sanctioned violence. In the face of such acts of violence, he felt that he could not uphold the ideal of complete and utter pacifism. He said he could not believe in what he called the impossible ideal of complete pacifism; instead, he believed that sometimes true justice requires military intervention.

As an example, Schulz said that if the United States military had enforced a no-fly zone over Darfur over the past three or four years — and such enforcement would include the possibility of shooting down aircraft which violated the no-fly zone — then much of the genocide now going on in Darfur could have been avoided. For that reason, Schulz does not support the way the war in Iraq has been handled because he believes that the Iraq war has so over-extended the United States military that we have been unable to respond to other, more urgent, humanitarian situations such as the genocide in Darfur.

William Schulz might get along quite well with Athena. Like Athena, he believes that any use of violence has to be guided by justice. Like Athena, he also believes that any use of violence has to be guided by long-range strategy and tactics, so that one’s military forces don’t become overextended. When I say that Schulz would get along well with Athena, I don’t mean that literally of course; to the best of my knowledge, Schulz is a humanist, and I don’t believe he is a goddess-worshipper. But like Athena, Schulz challenges us to move beyond the traditional Western Christian notions of religious pacifism, to go beyond the old Christian teachings on “just war theory.” Both Athena and William Schulz value practical wisdom over abstract adherence to principles, and they challenge us to consider the possibility of a theology of peacemaking that allows for limited use of violence in order to prevent more violence.

Athena has led us quite far afield, hasn’t she? First she challenged us to rethink our religious images of race and gender. Then she challenged us to rethink our religious notions of pacifism and peacemaking. Where will she lead us next?

In the second reading this morning, we heard how both Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Athena tried to take possession of the city of Athens. Poseidon laid claim to Athens by striking his trident on the ground, which opened up a well filled with sea-water; but this salty water was not of much use to the Athenian citizens. Then Athena came along and planted an olive tree; this tree produced food, cooking oil, and wood for the Athenians. Presumably, no one living in Athens had ever seen an olive tree before, because cultivated olives are not native to Greece. Not surprisingly, the Athenian citizens said that Athena had made the best claim to their city, and she became their ruling goddess. This is why we call the city Athens even today; it is the city named after Athena.

In the past few months, I have found reason to think about this story of how Athena gave the olive tree to Athens. On January 19, the New York Times ran a story titled “A New Global Oil Quandary,” the opening paragraph of which read: “Rising prices for cooking oil are forcing residents of Asia’s largest slum, in Mumbai, India, to ration every drop [of cooking oil]. Bakeries in the United States are fretting over higher shortening costs. And here in Malaysia, brand-new factories built to convert vegetable oil into diesel sit idle, their owners unable to afford the raw material. This is the other oil shock.”

You see, for much of the world, particularly the developing world, cooking oil represents an important source of calories. Even if you grow your own food you almost have to go out and buy cooking oil because it is hard to make it on your own. Right now, the price of cooking oil is rising very rapidly around the world. All food prices are rising rapidly; in the past year, the worldwide price of food has risen more than fifty percent. In some places, people are spending more than eighty percent of their income on food. Food riots have been taking place from Mexico City to Haiti to Indonesia. Military analysts tell us that the rising price of food is contributing to global insecurity.

When we first hear the story of how Athena gave the olive tree to the people of Athens, it sounds — quaint. How nice! the people get a tree from Athena, and they make her the goddess of the city. But in a world with shortages of cooking oil, suddenly the story doesn’t sound so quaint. The gift of a tree that provides both food and cooking oil is a gift of survival, a gift that prevents starvation. In the modern world, such a gift could prevent wars and violence. We are already seeing violence and instability resulting from rising food prices; whereas access to reasonably-priced food and cooking oil would tend to lead to a peaceful world.

The story of Athena and the olive tree challenges us to think about the relationship between food and war and peace. No wonder those ancient Athenians prayed to the goddess Athena: they were praying for food security, which meant that they were also praying for peace. Athena challenges us to understand the relationship between food and security; she challenges us to consider food supply in any theology of peacemaking.

These old stories about the goddess Athena challenge our religious ideas of race, gender, war and peace, and food security. And these various issues seem to me to be interconnected, that they are woven together in the larger religious issue of peacemaking. True peacemaking requires us to have the wisdom to understand the underlying causes of violence; as much as I might prefer the complete pacifism of Jesus of Nazareth, true peacemaking in today’s world may well require us to have enough wisdom to know when it is appropriate to use limited military force in order to prevent further violence.

Memorial Day

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is by Dana Greeley, who was my Unitarian Universalist minister when I was in my teens and twenties. Lest you think this is a commentary on the current political situation, I must tell you that this was written thirty-two years ago:

“War is insanity in this day and age. It is total destructiveness; it is total immorality; it is total waste. The end of war should be our goal today. Negotiation should be our commitment. We ourselves ought to be both wiser and more ethical than our fathers, but we are not….

“I covet for America not the fear of the nations but a stronger moral leadership, and not the hatred but the respect of humanity. You may disagree with me, of course; but I make a plea, as strongly as I can, both for the strengthening of the United Nations and for the abolition of war.

“How can we broaden and deepen our own lives? How can we make ourselves more world-oriented, and make the life of our church and our community broader and deeper and more world-oriented? We are the citizens of America! We are America itself, and if we are giving and forgiving and magnanimous and resolute and peaceful, America will be giving and forgiving and magnanimous and resolute and peaceful.

“If we can overcome anger and violence, America will overcome anger and violence. If we can believe and demonstrate that love is better than hate, America will do away with hatred and with arrogance and fear. If we can be persuaded that right makes might more than might makes right, then America will rely less on its… weapons, and even alter its policies. Do we believe in truth and goodwill and the oneness of humanity more than we believe in falsehood and retaliation and war?…”

The second reading this morning is a poem by Thomas Hardy titled “The Son’s Portrait.” It should be noted that to an Englishman like Hardy, a “lumber-shop” does not sell wood, a “lumber-shop” sells junk, or more politely, antiques:

I walked the streets of a market town,
    And came to a lumber-shop,
Which I had known ere I met the frown
        Of fate and fortune,
    And habit led me to stop.

In burrowing mid this chattel and that,
    High, low, or edgewise thrown,
I lit upon something lying flat —
        A fly-specked portrait,
    Framed. ‘Twas my dead son’s own.

“That photo? . . . A lady — I know not whence —
    Sold it me, Ma’am, one day,
With more. You can have it for eighteen-pence:
        The picture’s nothing;
    It’s but for the frame you pay.”

He had given it her in their heyday shine,
    When she wedded him, long her wooer:
And then he was sent to the front-trench-line,
        And fell there fighting;
    And she took a new bridegroom to her.

I bought the gift she had held so light,
    And buried it — as ’twere he. —
Well, well! Such things are trifling, quite,
        But when one’s lonely
    How cruel they can be!


Tomorrow is Memorial Day; or, to use the original name, Decoration Day. It began as a day to remember the Union soldiers who had died during the Civil War, who had died to end the horrendous institution of slavery. And it is instructive for us today to recall how, exactly, Memorial Day began.

According to David Blight, a professor of history and black studies at Yale University, Memorial Day was first celebrated in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865. The city of Charleston had been evacuated, and the only non-combatants remaining in the city were African Americans who could not get out. The last months of the Civil War saw Charleston bombarded by Union gunboats; and the Confederate Army had established a prison camp on the site of a race course. Two hundred and fifty-seven Union soldiers died in that prison camp, and their bodies were unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave as the Confederate army retreated.

In April, 1865, the African Americans remaining in Charleston decided that those dead Union soldiers deserved a proper burial. And so they worked to create a proper gravesite for the Union dead buried in that mass grave. African American carpenters built a good, solid fence around the new grave yard. African American laborers worked to convert the old race course into a restful and beautiful place. At last, they disinterred the bodies of the dead Union soldiers, and placed them respectfully into individual graves.

By the end of April, the work was done. To officially open the new grave yard, the African American community organized a parade. Some ten thousand people showed up to march in that parade, beginning with African American schoolchildren who were finally being taught in free school, and ordinary adult African American citizens. White Americans were also invited to join the parade; invitations were extended to some nearby Union regiments, and to a number of white abolitionists. All these people gathered in the new graveyard. They listened to preachers. They honored the dead. They sang songs like “America the Beautiful,” and “John Brown’s Body,” and old spirituals. And at last they settled down to picnic lunches, while they watched the Union regiments drilling in what used to be the infield of the old race course.

That’s how the very first Memorial Day was celebrated. Professor David Blight says, “This was the first Memorial Day. Black Charlestonians had given birth to an American tradition. By their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of roses and lilacs and marching feet on their former masters’ race course, they had created the Independence Day of the Second American Revolution.” [Commonplace, vol. 1, no. 4, July, 2001; American Antiquarian Society/ Florida State University History Department.]

I tell you this story by way of introducing the idea that Memorial Day, or Decoration Day, is more than just a long weekend to begin the official summer season, more than just a convenient excuse for a three-day weekend. And I tell you this story by way of demonstrating to you that Memorial Day celebrations should not be ceded to the self-proclaimed patriots who glorify war. Memorial Day is a day to show respect for those who have died in battle; it is a day to show proper respect for graves and gravesites. Memorial Day is not a military holiday; it is a day organized by ordinary citizens. So it is that Memorial Day has become more than a military holiday; it has become a day to remember and to honor all our dead.

Our society has a tendency to gloss over unpleasant details. We are relentlessly optimistic. It is good to be optimistic, but it is not so good to be relentlessly optimistic to the point where we rewrite history to take out all the unpleasant parts. Our society calls the Second World War the “Good War,” optimistically glossing over the bad bits like all the ordinary citizens who were killed and wounded. Our society mentions the First World War, conveniently forgetting that while it was called “The War To End All Wars,” it was really only the beginning of a century of wars. We think back with a certain fondness to the good old Civil War, passing lightly over the unpleasant fact that while the Civil War ended chattel slavery, it did not end the oppression and exploitation of African Americans. In other words, we have a tendency to conveniently forget unpleasant facts.

We’re not unlike the unnamed war widow in the poem by Thomas Hardy. She had had a long engagement with a young man; at last they wed;

    “And then he was sent to the front-trench-line,
        And fell there fighting;
    And she took a new bridegroom to her.”

That war widow found a new husband, which is understandable. Perhaps it wasn’t understandable to the young man’s mother, but we can understand the need to get on with life. But when that war widow sold off her husbands’ photograph, it sounds as if she was trying to forget inconvenient facts. Yes, we can understand the impulse that made her sell the photograph. It can sometimes seem easier to push the dead out of our memories, to get rid of everything that reminds us of them, so that we don’t have to think about anyone who has died. In particular, we don’t want to have to think about anyone who has died in a war. If we have to remember those who died in war, then we might also have to remember that we bear at least some responsibility for all the wars our country wages. It’s easier to just sell off the old photographs, so that we don’t have to remember. And yet, when we hear about the war widow who did just that, in Thomas Hardy’s poem, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea. It sounds a little bit cold-blooded. I would have liked it better if she had tucked the photograph up in the attic, or at least respectfully burned it.

On the other hand, what are we to make of the narrator of the poem, the woman who is the mother of the young man who died in the front-trench-lines? She buys the portrait of her dead son, and that we can fully understand; I know I would want to rescue it from a junk shop myself. But then to bury the portrait; that seems to place an undue importance on an unimportant thing. I don’t feel comfortable with that idea, either.

Too often, our celebrations of Memorial Day go to one or the other of these extremes. At one extreme, many people completely ignore the true meaning of Memorial Day. Of course celebration and picnicking ought to be a part of any observance of Memorial Day. Back in May, 1865, the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, observed the very first Memorial Day with celebration and picnicking. They celebrated the end of war, and more than that they celebrated the freedom of African Americans. They had picnics, too. But they didn’t ignore the deeper meaning of the day; rather, they balanced the celebration and the picnicking with a consciousness of the importance of the holiday.

At the other extreme, we find a small number of people who use Memorial Day to glorify war, glorify militarism, and gloss over the unpleasant realities of past and present wars. It should be clear that these people pervert the meaning of Memorial Day as much as the people who completely ignore the deeper meaning of the day. Memorial Day isn’t a day to glorify war, it is a day to recognize and honor those persons who died in war; originally, it was a day to honor gravesites, and to remember and honor the individuals who have died.

I want to propose a middle ground between these two extremes. Memorial Day isn’t just a frivolous holiday, a day to go on vacation and spend money; and Memorial Day isn’t a day to glorify war. It’s a day to honor the dead. We honor those who died in military service, but Memorial Day has grown larger than that. It’s a day to honor the sacrifices of those who fought and worked for the greater good.

That should not be a controversial proposal to adopt, though it will be a difficult proposal to adopt. We face so much pressure to think of Memorial Day merely as nothing more than the holiday which is the official start of summertime, that it will take some effort to remember to set aside time to honor our dead. All of us here are honoring the true intent of Memorial Day, because by coming here to church we are treating Memorial Day as more than just another three day weekend.

And I would like to propose that one way we can honor our dead, in this age of increasing intensity in warfare, is to commit ourselves to putting an end to war. In our first reading this morning, Dana Greeley wrote, “War is insanity in this day and age. It is total destructiveness; it is total immorality; it is total waste. The end of war should be our goal today.” Perhaps the best way to honor our dead soldiers is to end warfare altogether.

For at least a couple of thousand years, people have argued about whether we should expend our efforts trying to end war completely; or whether we should accept that war is inevitable, and that we should instead work to place acceptable limits on war. Followers of Jesus of Nazareth, followers of Gotama Buddha, followers of those religious prophets who proclaim that our highest moral purpose should be love of our fellow human beings — many of these people have maintained that we must put an end to war. But other high-minded people have taken the pragmatic view that we have not yet ended war, we are not likely to end war, and therefore we have to work within those realistic limits.

The crucial point that Dana Greeley made back in 1975 was that the stakes are now so high that we must end war, not only for moral reasons, but for pragmatic reasons. In the days of the Civil War, you could argue that there was no other option but to go to war; if we wanted to move our country beyond our dependence on slavery, war seemed inevitable. The costs of the Civil War, the bloodiest war our country has ever fought in, the costs were very high indeed. But today, war has become incredibly more costly, incredibly more destructive. The invention of atomic bombs and missiles which can carry those bombs to any point on the globe now mean that one war could conceivably end all or most human life on Earth. Even without atomic weaponry, the wars of the past three decades or so have involved a huge loss of life among non-combatants; the careful limitations on war that the pragmatists had worked so hard to implement are no longer being observed. Technology has also led to the development of additional weapons of mass destruction — the chemical weapons which were used in the First World War, the new biological and radioactive weapons of mass destruction — and these weapons of mass destruction also upset the pragmatists’ careful limitations on war. In today’s world, the costs of war have gotten so high that I believe we can no longer consider war to be an acceptable answer.

I’m sure some of you will disagree with my views. Further, I’m quite aware that I don’t have the final answer to the problem of warfare. But this I believe:– that as the technology of war has evolved, so we must evolve our moral beings. We are awed by all the high technology our country has been able to use to prosecute the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We should be awed far more by our growing ability to negotiate non-military solutions to world conflicts. Rather than expending so much time and money on improving our military technology, the more important task is to continue to improve our moral beings, with the goal of evolving so far that we no longer need to use our military technology.

Therefore, I believe that a proper observance of Memorial Day would have us going back to the original observance of Memorial Day, back in 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. Let us recall what about that original observance of Memorial Day we should continue in our own observances.

The African American originators of Memorial Day had a parade with military regiments — but in that parade, the military regiments were outnumbered by the ordinary citizens. Such a parade represents our ideals of the democracy for which all our wars have been fought. In a democracy, we honor the ordinary citizen above all; just as we honor the rule of law above military might. And such a parade would also represent our religious ideals. In our religious tradition, we honor the inherent worth and dignity of each person more than we honor the mass mind of the military regiment; and we honor the forces of love and respect which bind us together more than we honor military might.

Those originators of Memorial Day spent time honoring their dead. We should continue to do this today. We can honor those who die in military service, even if we happen to disagree with the principles of the war in which they were killed. And we can honor those people who may have fought for truth and justice using non-violent means, people like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Ghandi. We can honor all our dead on Memorial Day, reflecting on how that which was good in them can live on in us.

Those originators of Memorial Day spent part of their day listening to preaching and political speeches. I believe that we should continue this part of the original Memorial Day. The art of public speaking, and the art of listening to public speaking, are necessary for democracy. Democracy does not proceed by having one person, or small group of persons, imposing their will on everyone else. Democracy thrives when we can debate, openly and in public and face-to-face, the crucial issues of our day. Democracy thrives when we can listen to others and learn their wants and needs, when we can see them as people just like ourselves. Whereas sitting in front of the television set, conducting opinion polls, and expensive advertisements tear at the fabric of democracy. And from a religious point of view, we consider the art of speaking and of listening to be necessary to the practice of our religion. Our religion does not proceed by having one person, or small group of persons, imposing their will on everyone else. Our religion thrives when we can talk openly and in person about the most important moral and ethical and religious issues. Our religion thrives when we listen to one another and learn to love one another as we love ourselves. In our religious tradition, sermons are the center of our worship services, because we believe so strongly in the power of the word to change us for the better.

And finally, those originators of Memorial Day, back in 1865, ended with a picnic. We should continue that tradition today. After we honor our dead, we should celebrate life. After we listen to formal speeches and sermons, we should indulge in the joy of casual conversation over a shared meal. That first Memorial Day was a time to honor the dead, but it was also a time to celebrate the return of peace. At last, the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina, no longer lived in fear of war and violence and destruction. They recognized that it was a time of celebration.

As it was at that first Memorial Day picnic, so may it be today. Even though we remain entangled in a war that is seemingly without end, we work towards ending warfare. We can celebrate democracy, even as we commit ourselves to re-energizing our democratic principles and practices. We can celebrate our hard-won freedoms, even as we commit ourselves to ongoing improvement of our moral beings that will allow us to build an even better world in the years to come.