It Won’t Fizzle Out

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


The first reading was from a transcription of a talk given to the Women’s Alliance by Maggi Peiece, on the history of Tryworks Coffeehouse:

“And then there was one famous night where I had to take care of Friday night…. I arrived on the Friday, but nobody else did. Joe [Cardoza] was on the door. And there wasn’t even any coffee that night. And only four kids came. And one of them was Pete and he was from Fairhaven. And he said to me… ‘Is nothing happening tonight?’

“And I said, ‘There is always something happening at Tryworks.’

“And he looked at me, and he said, ‘You know, Maggi, this is sort of typical of New Bedford. Everything starts with a big article in the newspaper, and a big hoopla.’ He said, ‘Remember that first night in May, when we opened?’ And this was about July [1967]. He said, ‘Everybody starts with a terrific hope, and everybody’s going to help, and then it all fizzles out within six weeks.’

“And I said, ‘Pete, I promise you. Tryworks will not fizzle out in six weeks.’”

[Talk given 10 March 2009]

The next reading was a story told by James Luther Adams, about a time in the late 1940s when the Board of the First Unitarian Church in Chicago was debating about whether to encourage African Americans to become members of their church.

“Some years ago I was a member of the Board of Trustees of the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. A member of the board often complained about the minister’s preaching too many sermons on race relations. He often said that academics of course know little of the world of reality. One evening at a meeting of the board he opened up again. So the question was put to him, ‘Do you want the minister to preach sermons that conform to what you have been saying about Jews and blacks?’ ‘No,’ he replied, ‘I just want the church to be more realistic.’ Then the barrage opened, ‘Will you tell us what is the purpose of a church anyway?’ ‘I’m no theologian. I don’t know.’ ‘But you have ideas, you are a member here, a member of the Board of Trustees, and you are helping to make decisions here. Go ahead, tell us the purpose of what we are up to here. We can’t go on unless we have some understanding of what we are up to here.’ The questioning continued, and items on the agenda for the evening were ignored.

“At about one o’clock in the morning our friend became so fatigued that the Holy Spirit took charge. And our friend gave a remarkable statement regarding the nature of our fellowship. He said, ‘The purpose of the church is…. Well, the purpose is to get hold of people like me and change them.’

“Someone, a former evangelical, suggested that we should adjourn the meeting, but not before we sang, ‘Amazing grace… how sweet the sound. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’

“There is the vocation of the… church, to form a network of fellowship that alone is reliable because it is responsive to a sustaining, commanding, judging, and transforming power.”

[From the sermon “Fishing with Nets,” in The Prophethood of All Believers, by James Luther Adams, ed. George K. Beach, Boston: Beacon, 1986, pp. 253-254.]

Sermon — “‘It Won’t Fizzle Out’”

First of all, I must apologize to anyone who read the church newsletter, or the signboard out front, expecting to hear a sermon on civic religion; for I have gone and changed the sermon topic. What has happened is this: We are fast approaching the end of our three hundredth anniversary year. As part of that three hundredth anniversary year, I have been doing some research into the history of liberal religion in New Bedford. Now our history is important, but at a certain point we’re all going to get sick of hearing about history, so I decided to draw the line — no more research into, and no more sermons about, our church’s history after our 301st birthday in June. But I also decided that I have two more history sermons I just have to give before I am done: a sermon on Rev. William Jackson, and African American preacher who tried to start a black Unitarian church in New Bedford in 1860; and the sermon I am going to give today.

So it is that this morning I shall ignore the announced sermon topic, and preach on one aspect of liberal religion in New Bedford in the late 1960s and 1970s. More specifically, I’m going to preach about a project our church got involved with that was known as Tryworks Coffeehouse.

In order for the story of Tryworks Coffeehouse to make any sense at all, I have to talk about some of the issues liberal churches like ours were facing in late 1960s. As a child and teenager growing up in a Unitarian Universalist church in the late 1960s and through the 1970s, I remember those as being very turbulent and divisive times. Serious social issues were erupting throughout society: — the Black Power movement; the women’s liberation movement; the gay rights movement; youth rebellion; widespread use of psychoactive drugs; sexual experimentation; middle class flight from urban areas and the subsequent the suburbanization of America; increased economic and racial segregation; the attack on liberal political values that began in the late 1960s and which has continued to the present day; and so on. All these issues erupting in the wider society of course also affected our Unitarian Universalist churches.

From my own experience as a child and teenager, the way those issues affected our liberal chruches had both positive and negative effects. On the negative side, I saw youth rebellion and drug use in our churches first-hand; I saw the destructive effects that sexual experimentation had on church communities; and over time I slowly became aware that the suburbanization of America led to increasing economic and racial segregation in many of our churches; and I saw the attacks on liberal political values turn into attacks on liberal religious values. On the positive side, I remember the growing sense of enlightenment that came with my growing sense of understanding of women’s liberation, anti-racism, and gay rights, an enlightenment that came when I realized how these movements for liberation led to a deepening of our shared religious community.

Another thing that I witnessed personally was the way the Unitarian Universalist churches tried to deal with changes in teenagers. When I was in middle school, I was scared of the kids who were in the youth group at my church — we younger kids all knew those kids weren’t really part of our church, they just went to the youth groups meetings so they could use drugs without adult supervision. That was one model of youth ministry we developed in those days: let the teenagers do whatever they want without interference from adults; I do not think it was a very successful strategy. Then the adults in that church shut down the youth group, and turned it over to the Pat Green, the assistant minister, and Pat began running the youth group; he listened to the kids, but he was clearly in charge. Pretty soon, it became a big, active youth group, and my sister and I decided to join, and we both loved it; it was a safe place for us in a world that often did not at all safe. This was a more successful strategy for youth programming: to provide a safe, structured program with strong adult involvement.

More generally, Unitarian Universalists in the late 1960s and 1970s responded to the social changes going on around them and in their churches in two ways. Many times, we basically stuck our heads in the sand and pretended that everything was exactly the way it had been in the 1950s; this attitude led to things like the adults in my home church abdicating all responsibility for the church youth group. But sometimes Unitarian Universalists in the late 1960s and 1970s responded to the social changes going on around them by taking decisive leadership, and when they did so, they touched the lives of many people.

Here in New Bedford, our church faced most of the issues of that era: middle class flight from the city; increasing drug use; youth rebellion; racial tension and violence; a growing women’s liberation movement; sexual experimentation within the church and outside it; and so on. Many of these issues arose in New Bedford beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s; I talked to a social worker who worked in New Bedford in the early 1960s, and according to her the racial tensions, the middle class flight, the drugs, the problems with young people were all happening then.

How did our church respond to those issues? Perhaps the most notable action our church took in the middle 1960s was to renovate our sanctuary and put in a new organ, work which was completed in 1967. While this was a good action to take, it did not address the social issues in the surrounding world. Perhaps not surprisingly, the records show that Sunday morning attendance began dropping in the late 1950s, and continuing dropping from then through the 1970s. While it is true that our building did need renovation, that renovation apparently did not provide an adequate ministry to the real live people who came into this building each week seeking comfort and care, seeking to live up to the highest moral and ethical ideals, seeking to make themselves and the world a better place. This pattern was repeated across the denomination, and in the liberal Christian denominations as well: church membership dropped throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

At the same time, many Unitarian Universalist churches in the late 1960s and into the 1970s sought out ways to make our churches “relevant” — that’s the word we religious liberals used at the time, “relevant.” Looking back, I’m not sure we entirely knew what we meant by “relevant,” nor to whom we wanted to extend this relevance once we found it. The events and issues came at us fast and furiously, and we just did the best we knew how.

A particularly pressing issue here in New Bedford was that the young people in this area needed some kind of outreach. By the middle 1960s, young people were facing problems of homelessness, addiction, lack of direction, and a lack of caring adults in their lives. In 1966, Pilgrim Church, the liberal Christian church just a few blocks from here, decided to open a drop-in center for the young people in the surrounding neighborhood, based on an idea proposed by their minister at that time, Rev. John De Sousa (“History of Tryworks” [HTW], p. 1). Due to a lack of adult supervision, the drop-in center did not succeed (HTW p. 1), and so John DeSousa came up with the idea of opening a coffeehouse, a place where young people could experience and help create supportive programming. This idea was not original to De Sousa; churches across the country were starting coffeehouses at this time.

But De Sousa wanted this coffeehouse to be a real community ventur. Along with Pilgrim Church, he got First Congregational Church of Fairhaven, North Baptist Church, and our church to sponsor a planning meeting (New Bedford Standard-Times, 12 May 1967). In order to help draw a crowd, and to show what a coffeehouse was like, the planning committee decided to put on a concert, featuring two musicians from our church, Barbara Carns and Maggi Peirce, as well as two other performers. The announcement hit the newspaper on May 12, 1967:

“Folk music from the British Isles, sea chants [sic], blues, and popular numbers will feature [sic] the opening of an experimental coffee house in New Bedford on Sunday night.

“The coffeehouse will open at 8 p.m. at the Pilgrim United Church of Christ church house, School and Purchase Streets. It will serve as a trial meeting to acquaint and interest area churches and individuals with [the] establishment of a permanent coffeehouse. Those who attend will act as a committee of the whole in planning for a coffee house that tentatively would be open two afternoons and two nights a week.”

The concert was a success. But even though more than a hundred people showed up, only a few people actually volunteered to help run the coffeehouse (HTW). The planning committee decided to forge ahead anyway, and open the coffeehouse two nights a week. Over the next few months, volunteers slowly fell away, and fewer and fewer young people showed up. This downward trend hit bottom in July, 1967, and in the first reading we heard Maggi Peirce describe what happened:

“And then there was one famous night where I had to take care of Friday night…. I arrived on the Friday, but nobody else did. Joe [Cardoza] was on the door. And there wasn’t even any coffee that night. And only four kids came. And one of them was Pete and he was from Fairhaven. And he said to me… ‘Is nothing happening tonight?’

“And I said, ‘There is always something happening at Tryworks.’

“And he looked at me, and he said, … ‘Everybody starts with a terrific hope, and everybody’s going to help, and then it all fizzles out within six weeks.’

“And I said, ‘Pete, I promise you. Tryworks will not fizzle out in six weeks.’” [Talk by Maggi Peirce given on 10 March 2009]

This was a turning point for this ministry to young people. It was said that most church coffeehouses of that time lasted only three to six months. Looking back at the 1960s from our current perspective, we have a good idea why most coffeehouses were short-lived: due to lack of structure, lack of commitment, pervasive permissiveness, and so on. But this did not happen at Tryworks coffeehouse. Maggi Peirce and a few other committed volunteers knew they were providing a valuable service to young people, and they refused to give up.

In retrospect, the success of Tryworks seems inevitable, because we all know that it lasted for 35 years, becoming one of the longest-running folk music coffeehouses of its day. Yet when you read accounts of the early days of Tryworks, you realize there was nothing inevitable about it. Here’s how Maggi told the story in a 2002 history of Tryworks:

“In 1967-68 I knew nothing about drugs or crime. I had led a somewhat blameless youth in Ireland hiking in the mountains, learning foreign languages, and folkdancing… I did know a great deal about British folksong — but nothing of crime. I thought I’d introduce these young people to my wealth of British Isles traditional song and music and also teach them to be aware of one another, to be kind to one another.

“I allowed no talk during sets (I don’t think half of the kids in that room had ever had No! said to them). I would holler out ‘Silence for the singer!’ if they dared talk. I warned them that folk on stage were not television and radio to be turned on and off at their will. Respect for the performer had to be shown.

“No drink or drugs could be brought on premises. They were of course. A well-known drug pusher came in one night and he was pointed out to me. I threaded my way through the crowd and looking up at him said quietly ‘I hear you’re a drug pusher. You get down those stairs and out of here or I’ll throw you out myself and don’t show your face here again.’ I heard through the grapevine that I was known as ‘one tough lady.’ I also, in the early days, took a gun from a kid and a knife another night. I did these things without thinking, without fear. I was an innocent.”

Maggi’s approach to running Tryworks is instructive. Her approach represented a balancing act between being relevant to the contemporary situation on the one hand, and remaining true to permanent religious values on the other hand. The fundamental religious truth of Tryworks, as stated by Maggi, was quite simply the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do to you; or, as she put it, teaching young people to be aware of one another, and to be kind to one another.

Thus Tryworks coffeehouse was not merely another performance venue for folk music. In fact, if you read through the early newsletters for Tryworks, you will find that Tryworks sponsored rap sessions, fencing lessons, a talk on the Peace Corps, modernistic plays, films, poetry, skits, readings, participatory dancing. May 31, 1975, was “Lunacy Night,” with “crazy monologues, silly songs, stupid games.” September 26, 1970, was a “rap session — by anyone who wishes to get a gripe or talk about something near to their hearts.” There was an hour given over every week to an open microphone, a time when anyone could sign up and perform. There may have been more performances of folk music than anything else, but in the 1960s and 1970s Tryworks was not a concert series so much as it was a ministry to the young people of the greater New Bedford area.

And it is critically important to remember that Tryworks was not the only such ministry to young people during these years. Another program, also supported by our church, stands out for me. Down in the basement of our church, Tryne Costa organized an outreach program to young drug users and addicts called “Aid to Addicts.” In an interview with the Interchurch Council newsletter in 1969, Tryne described this program: “Our atmosphere is that of a spacious home. Some of these young people are literally ‘on the streets’ and this is the only ‘home’ they know. Others have such a tense home life that they have been heard to remark, ‘This is more like home than home!’ We were given a big refrigerator, which is kept stocked with bread, cheese, fruit juice, milk — all the nourishing things they often go without. There is no charge….” This too was another ministry, another outreach program based on the golden rule.

I am particularly interested in both these programs because the central figure in each one was a lay leader; not a minister, but a lay leader. Each of these lay leaders may have received support from ordained ministers, but basically these two women provided the leadership for these two programs themselves. This represents an important historical trend. Over the past fifty years, increasingly it is the lay people in a congregation who provide direct ministry and outreach, both to other lay people within the church, and to people in need outside the church’s walls. Over the past fifty years, the ordained ministers I respect the most are the ones who are effective administrators, supporters, cheerleaders, and catalysts, ministers who support the lay leaders who are doing the direct ministry. Why do I respect this kind of minister most? First of all, it’s simple arithmetic: if you have one minister supporting ten or thirty or a hundred lay leaders who are doing direct ministry, that’s a lot more ministry that’s getting done than if that one minister thinks he or she should be the one doing most of it. Second of all, it represents one of our religious principles in action: it is what James Luther Adams called the prophethood and priesthood of all believers, of all those in the church.

You know, it’s funny. These days, self-professed Christians call us Unitarian Universalists “post-Christians,” and they mean it as an insult; they like to think that we have abandoned the truth of Christianity because we don’t accept the Nicene Creed. Well, perhaps we are post-Christian, but to me being “post-Christian” means that we look for the eternal, permanent core of Jesus’s teachings — such teachings as loving one’s neighbor as oneself — we take those core teachings very seriously, but we don’t worry about all the impermanent, transient things that have been loaded on top of Jesus over the years, things like the Nicene Creed, and Catholic doctrines, and the rigid rules of the fundamentalists. This notion is shocking to many Christians today, just as shocking as when Theodore Parker first articulated this principle a century and a half ago. We go even further than that: — we know that other world religions also teach fundamental truths, and we are open to their insights as well. Thus, for us, the term “post-Christian” does not represent an insult, it represents our dedication to finding truth wherever the truth may be found.

We often find ourselves faced with circumstances in which we are very unclear about what to do next. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was very unclear what to do about drug use, and youth rebellion, and a host of other problems that confronted our church. There was no one way to deal with these issues — that is, there was no cookbook method, no doctrinal formula for confronting the problems of the day. But there were permanent truths, such as the golden rule, which could be applied to the problems of the day; and that is what members of this church did: they applied eternal truths to immediate problems, and while it wasn’t easy, they got results.

And boy, did they get results. I came to New Bedford after Tryworks closed its doors for good, but people in the wider community keep telling me about what a huge impact Tryworks Coffeehouse had on several generations of young people. Although it is not rememberd as much today, people also tell me about “Aid to Addicts,” what a big impact it had. This tradition continues today: Universal Thrift Store, founded by a lay leader and still run by lay leaders, meets the needs of today’s economic crisis by offering good clothing and household goods at low prices to anyone who wishes to shop there. These efforts will change as the needs of the surrounding community change, and as the talents of the lay leaders change. What will not change is our church’s commitment to knowing eternal religious truths, and applying them to current social problems.

Our ultimate religious goal is change and transformation. Not only do we wish to transform the world for the better, we also wish to transform people for the better. We wish to transform people for the better, but far more importantly we work for such transformation because we know we ourselves are in need of transformation, and we wish most of all to transform ourselves for the better. So it is that each of us can say, in chorus with that man in the story by James Luther Adams, “The purpose of the church is to get hold of people like me and change them.”

Mary Rotch, An Inspired 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 extemporaneous remarks and improvisation. A version of this sermon with footnotes and bibliography is available. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is a letter from Margaret Fuller to Mary Rotch. [Due to copyright restrictions, only a portion of this letter is included here.]

“I am anxious to get a letter telling me how you fare this winter in the cottage. Your neighbors who come this way do not give very favorable accounts of your looks, Aunt Mary, and if you are well enough I should like to see a few of those prim, well-shaped characters from your own hand…

“I wore your black dress at Niagra and many other places where I was very happy and it was always an added pleasure thuse to be led to think of you. — I wish, dear Aunt Mary, you were near enough for me to go in and see you now and then, I know that, sick or well, you are always serene and sufficient unto yourself, and that you have a most affectionate friend always by your side [i.e., Mary Rotch’s companion, Mary Gifford], but now you are so much shut up, it might animate existence to hear of some things I might have to tell….”

[from “My Heart Is a Large Kingdom”: Selected Letters of Margaret Fuller, edited by Robert Hudspeth (Ithaca: Cornell University, 2001), pp. 187-188. This book contains three other letters to Mary Rotch.]

The second reading is from Orville Dewey’s Autobiography. Dewey was minister of our congregation from 1823 until 1834:

“I should like to record some New Bedford names here, so precious are they to me. Miss Mary Rotch is one,– called by everybody “Aunt Mary,” from mingled veneration and affection. It might seem a liberty to call her so; but it was not, in her case. She had so much dignity and strength in her character and bearing that it was impossible for any one to speak of her lightly. On our going to New Bedford, she immediately called upon us, and when she went out I could not help exclaiming, “Wife, were ever hearts taken by storm like that!” Storm, the word would be, according to the usage of the phrase; but it was the very contrary,– a perfect simplicity and kindliness.”

[Orville Dewey, Autobiography and Letters of Orville Dewey, D.D., edited by Mary E. Dewey (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1883), p. 67.]


A few years ago, the Quaker writer Parker Palmer wrote a book called Let Your Life Speak; and it seems to me that the title of that book is good advice. I don’t care so much what you say, because people really tell about their deepest values in the way they live their lives. This morning I’d like to tell you the life story of Mary Rotch, who was part of our church from 1824 until she died in 1847. She wasn’t a writer like her friends Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller; nevertheless, she still can speak to us through her life story, and it is in that story that we shall find her deepest spiritual values expressed.

Mary Rotch was born on Nantucket to a Quaker family on October 9th, 1777. Her mother was Elizabeth Barney, and her father was William Rotch, and at birth she had three older brothers and two older sisters. It started out as a prosperous family — William Rotch was a shipowner and merchant in the lucrative whaling trade. But during the Revolutionary War, all those involved in the whaling trade on Nantucket went through hard times because they were caught between the American navy and the British navy, and subject to raids and confiscation. Beyond that, William Rotch lived out his pacifist Quaker principles in spite of great pressure to support the American revolution — for example, during the revolution, he threw a large number of bayonets into Nantucket harbor rather than let them be used in the Revolutionary cause. This did not make him popular with his countrymen; and his strength of character in the face of adversity helps us understand how the same strength of character later manifested itself in his daughter Mary.

After the Revolutionary War ended, the British slapped a huge duty on all imported whale oil. William Rotch had to sell whale oil at a loss in the British market, and the British market was nearly the only market there was. Rather than lose money, William Rotch relocated his business to Dunkirk, France, and in July, 1790, he and his wife Elizabeth and their daughters set sail and moved their household to France. Mary Rotch was just 13 years old.

Not long after they moved to Dunkirk, the French Revolution began to erupt around them, and war between England and France was imminent. As William put it in a memoir, “it was time for me to leave the country, in order to save our vessels if captured by the English.” The family left France in January, 1793, and stayed in England through 1794 so that William could oversee business there, returned to Nantucket for a year, and then settled in New Bedford in 1795. Thus, by the time she was 18 years old, Mary Rotch had lived through two revolutions, and had lived in Nantucket, Dunkirk, London, and New Bedford.

When they came to New Bedford in 1795, the Rotch family moved in to a house William had had built, a house called “Mansion House” on account of its size and grandeur. You can see what this house looked like in William Wall’s painting “New Bedford in 1810,” which hangs in the Whaling Museum — it’s the house on the northeast corner of Union and Second streets. By coincidence, 1795 is the same year our congregation built a new church building in the growing village of New Bedford, at the northwest corner of William and Purchase, just a block or so from the Rotch’s house.

Not that the Rotches went to the Unitarian church! They were Quakers, or members of the Religious Society of Friends, and they worshipped at the Friends meeting house. Indeed, William Rotch was what is known as a “weighty Friend,” that is, a prominent Quaker, who more than once represented New Bedford at the New England Yearly Meeting. Mary Rotch was also a weighty Friend, a prominent Quaker, and when she grew up she became an elder of the New Bedford Friends Meeting.

But Mary Rotch did not limit her reading to Quaker writers, as did many Quakers of her day. By 1812, when Mary was in her mid-30’s, “she and others formed a discussion group, wrote papers, and read books by such writers as Dugall Stewart and Johann Kaspar Lavatar.” Stewart was a philosopher in the Scottish Common Sense School of philosophy; Lavatar was a Swiss mystic. This was intellectually challenging reading, and well beyond what the average Quaker of the day would read.

We get a more personal picture of Mary in an 1818 letter from one Anna Shoemaker of Philadephia. Shoemaker describes her visit to the William Rotch household in December, 1818, saying, “…Mary (Rotch’s) mother treated me with great cordiality, and Mary, herself, paid me the most grateful attention. She is a lovely girl and dressed as plain as Anne Paxson but on her it looks very well, her figure is so large and majestic….” Apparently, all that generation of Rotches “were physically very big, with large frames.” And yes, at age 41 Mary was still living with her parents, for she never married and lived there in Mansion House until both her parents died.

Now we come to the time when Mary went through a major spiritual crisis in her life. In order to understand that crisis, you have to understand a little bit about early 19th C. American Quakerism.

The Quakers had a number of peculiar practices that tended to keep them apart from the rest of the world. They were strict pacifists; and so we already heard how, during the American Revolution, Mary Rotch’s father lived out his pacifism. Quakers adhered to strict plainness in their clothing, staying away from bright colors, ornaments, anything that tended to set one person above another person. They used the old words “thee” and “thou,” because when Quakerism formed in 17th C. England, to say “you” was to elevate another person to a higher social level than yours. And all Quakers of that era were required to adhere to a strict written code of religious discipline, which codified what they were and weren’t allowed to do and say, and even think.

But by 1816, Mary Newhall and other Quakers in Lynn, Massachusetts, were evolving some new and liberal ideas. Mary Newhall and her followers were soon called the “New Lights”; the more conservative Quakers became known as the “Old Lights.” Mary Newhall and her followers accused the Old Lights of sinking into a “dead formality.” The Old Lights accused the liberals of being, well, liberal. The Old Lights managed to eject Mary Newhall from membership with the Quaker meeting in Lynn, using some questionable parliamentary procedures. But that didn’t stop Newhall. She continued to preach her new liberal religious ideas wherever she could.

In January, 1823, Newhall came to New Bedford to preach, and here she found that the liberalization process was already well begun. She preached in the brick Friends meeting house at the corner of Spring and Seventh streets. On February 9, she preached; was denounced by some of the New Bedford Old Lights; was defended by one Samuel Rodman; and finally Newhall sank to her knees to “appear in supplication,” as the Quakers of that day put it — we would say, “knelt in prayer.” When a Quaker appeared in supplication, the custom was that the rest of the Quakers present would stand, showing they were united with the prayer. Mary Rotch, who was by then an elder of the New Bedford Quaker meeting, and most of those present rose to their feet to show unity with Mary Newhall — but the determined Old Lights did not. Two days later, Mary Newhall preached in our old church building at William and Purchase streets — and after Mary Newhall spoke, Mary Rotch also spoke, thus emerging as the leader of the New Lights in New Bedford. The battle was joined, and continued for some months. Finally, in March, 1824, the Old Lights maneuvered the meeting to officially disown Mary Rotch. The meeting should have reached consensus, but even though nineteen members of the meeting disagreed, the Old Lights pushed it through — Mary Rotch was no longer a Quaker.

Why did the Old Lights consider Mary Rotch and the other New Lights so heretical? It was because of their liberal religious beliefs. The New Lights believed that what they called “the Light Within” was a sufficient guide for all religion, and that the Light Within was far more important than any rules or disciplines that might be imposed upon individuals by organized religion. The New Lights believed that the Bible is less important than this Light Within; and they also believed that the Old Testament is not the literal truth, but rather it is allegory. The New Lights did not believe the Devil existed; nor did they believe in heaven or hell, except insofar as heaven and hell are states of mind here and now on this earth. The New Lights believed that Jesus was not divine; and they did not believe that Jesus’s death somehow atoned for the sins of all humanity. If you think that these New Light Quakers sound like Unitarians, I think you’re absolutely right. And in fact, most of the New Light Quakers came over and joined with the Unitarians.

Here is what Job Otis, one of the chief Old Light Quakers, said in 1825 about the New Light defection to the Unitarian church: “The disaffected party generally have withdrawn from us, and left our meetings, both for worship and discipline, quite undisturbed. Some of them occasionally attend the Unitarian Congregational meeting…. But a withering evidently attends them all, and their reputation as religious characters is very much lost with all sober and reflecting people. Most of them, even to Mary Rotch…, have thrown off all regard to plainness, and the younger part attend places of music and dancing. Much confusion, contradiction, and inconsistency appears among them in their principles, professions, views, and reasonings; and but little else than vain speculations, abstract reasonings, impiety, and unbelief.” Let me translate that for you: Job Otis is saying that the New Lights have gone over to the Unitarians, which isn’t really a church; that they now wear bright-colored clothing on occasion, listen to music, and go dancing, all of which is very bad; and instead of blind faith, they rely on Reason, which is also very bad. Or, from our point of view, no wonder the New Lights felt comfortable in the Unitarian church!

As comfortable as they might have felt in their new church home, surely it must have been a terrible thing to leave behind friends and relatives, some of whom perhaps would no longer speak to them. And surely a string of deaths in Mary’s family only made things worse for her: her sister Lydia died in Salem in 1822; her brother Thomas died in Ohio in 1823; and her mother died at Mansion House in May, 1824.

Now we come to a most interesting part of the story — how Mary Rotch influenced the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the feminist Margaret Fuller. We’ll start with Emerson.

Sometime around 1830, Emerson came down to the New Bedford church as a substitute preacher — this is some years before his well-known stay here in 1833-1834. On this visit to our congregation, “Emerson had been deeply impressed by the sight of the leading Quaker of the town, Miss Mary Rotch, quietly leaving the church when the rite of the Last Super was about to be observed.” Most of Emerson’s biographers agree that Mary’s example influenced him in 1832 when he resigned from Second Church in Boston. Emerson resigned from Second Church because he said he could no longer in good conscience preside at communion, then a monthly feature at every Unitarian church. This became the subject of his most famous sermon; and it became one of his most important theological points, that inner truth is more important than empty ritual. So Mary Rotch had a deep and early influence on Emerson.

When Emerson came back to New Bedford in the winter and spring of 1833-1834, he got to know Mary Rotch better. At that time, Mary Rotch told the young Emerson something of the controversy between the New Lights and the Old Lights, and Emerson wrote in one of his notebooks that she had been “driven inward, driven home, to find an anchor, until she learned to have no choice, to acquiesce without understanding the reason when she found an obstruction to any particular course of action.” That is to say, she learned to be self-reliant, to rely on her own inner strength, her own inner light; ideas which Emerson would integrate into his own thinking and writing.

Mary Rotch told Emerson another story. A little girl came to her and asked to do something. “She replied, ‘What does the voice in thee say?’ The child went off, and after a time returned to say, ‘…the little voice says, no.’” This story affected Emerson greatly. It affirmed for him that each of us can know what is right and what is true, if we would just listen to “the voice in thee.” Many years later, Emerson quoted (or perhaps paraphrased) Mary Rotch in his essay titled “Greatness,” expressing this same point in a different way:

”  ‘I do not pretend to any commandment or large revelation, but if at any time I form some plan, propose a journey or a course of conduct, I perhaps find a silent obstacle in my mind that I cannot account for. Very well, — I let it lie, thinking it may pass away, but if it do not pass away I yield to it, obey it. You ask me to describe it. I cannot describe it. It is not an oracle, nor an angel, nor a dream, nor a law; it is too simple to be described, it is but a grain of mustard-seed, but such as it is, it is something which the contradiction of all mankind could not shake, and which the consent of all mankind could not confirm.’  ”

If we assume that this is a fairly accurate transcription of Mary Rotch’s actual words, this gives us the very heart of her religious faith. When the voice within you tells you not to do something, then don’t do it.

Now, you might want to say that that voice within is the voice on conscience, or you might say that it is the voice of God. Orville Dewey said this about Mary Rotch: “when speaking of the Supreme Being, she would never say ‘God,’ but ‘that Influence.’ That Influence was constantly with her; and she carried the idea so far as to believe that it prompted her daily action, and decided for her every question of duty.” So perhaps we don’t have to draw a distinction between God and that internal influence; perhaps Mary Rotch is telling us that God can be interpreted to mean exactly that inner voice that prompts us towards right action.

So that is how Emerson was influenced by Mary Rotch. I’d like to mention briefly the ways in which Mary Rotch influenced Margaret Fuller.

Margaret Fuller met Mary Rotch through Mary’s niece Eliza Rotch Farrar. Eliza had lived in Mansion House with Mary from about 1819 until 1828, when Mary’s father died. Within a few months of old William’s death, young Eliza had married Professor John Farrar of Harvard College. They were married by Orville Dewey in Mansion House, and then the young couple went up to Cambridge to live, where Eliza soon met Margaret, and began to serve as something of a mentor to Margaret. I’m not sure when Eliza introduced these two amazing women, but it probably earlier than 1840.

The relationship between Emerson and Mary Rotch appears formal; but the relationship between Margaret and “Aunt Mary” seems to have been much closer. By about 1840, Margaret was staying with Mary Rotch at Mary’s summer house. No later than 1842, Margaret was staying with Mary Rotch here in New Bedford, in the house that Mary had built for herself and her companion, Mary Gifford, on South Sixth Street (our church later bought that house as a parsonage in the 1890s). They wrote many letters to one another, and we heard one of those letters as the first reading. Emerson’s letters to Mary Rotch tend to concern ideas and thinking. Margaret fFuller’s letters to Mary Rotch talk about health, and travel, and clothing; they are letters one friend would write to another. Margaret’s letters to Aunt Mary show a real love existed between the two.

How did Mary Rotch influence Margaret Fuller? With Emerson, we can find specific influences; with Margaret Fuller, the influence seems less specific but broader. I imagine that Mary Rotch could have been a role model for Margaret Fuller. Mary Rotch was a strong, confident, self-possessed woman who lived alone and who didn’t feel the need to marry a man (indeed, one of Fuller’s biographers senses a cooling of their relationship once Margaret married). Mary was not afraid of being an intellectual, and had organized her own discussion group here in New Bedford, not unlike the “Conversations” for women for which Margaret later became so well-known. We may not be able to trace a direct intellectual influence, as in the case of Emerson, but we can certainly claim Mary Rotch had a profound personal influence on Margaret Fuller.

There is only a little more to tell about Mary Rotch. She lived the remainder of her life peacefully in her house on South Sixth Street, attending church here in this building, quietly walking out before communion was served — I imagine that by setting that example of leaving before communion began contributed to the weakening of that ritual in our congregation, so that it is not at all surprising that communion died out completely here in the 1860s, without any fuss at all. In 1843, when she was 65, Mary ordered a grand tea service from Paris, quite elaborate and richly decorated, and copies of letters to and from Paris regarding this tea service are in the Whaling Museum’s Research Library. Five years later, Mary Rotch died, on September 4, 1848, at age seventy.

I suppose sermons are supposed to have a solid moral, or summing-up, at the end of them. I don’t have a moral, but let me sum up this sermon by saying, quite simply: I wish I knew more about Mary Rotch. Even though she spoke through her life, through the way she lived her life, I wish someone would ferret out some of her letters and publish them, so we can read her own words. I wish someone would write about her, not as a footnote to Emerson or Fuller, but for her own sake, as a deep religious thinker, as one of the most interesting members of our church. Hers was truly an inspired life; and her 19th C. life continues to inspire our lives today.

Glory Days, or, Hit by a Fish

On this Sunday, we recognized a Unitarian church which, like First Unitarian Church in New Bedford, is also celebrating its three hundredth birthday this year. Thus, the readings did not relate to the sermon, but instead celebrated the birthday of All Souls Unitarian Church in Belfast, Ireland. These readings are included here:

Greetings to All Souls Belfast

Whereas All Souls Church in Belfast, Ireland, affiliated with the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland and with the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, will celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of their founding this week;

Whereas First Unitarian Church in New Bedford, a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association, was established three hundred years ago this year when Rev. Samuel Hunt was settled as minister in what was then called the town of Dartmouth;

Whereas both congregations are a part of the worldwide Unitarian fellowship, sharing in the values of liberal religion;

Whereas we feel a special connection with All Souls because Maggi Kerr Peirce has been a member of both congregations;

Therefore, we do extend our warmest greetings to the congregation of All Souls Church, wishing that their congregation may thrive and continue to uphold the values of liberal religion for at least another three centuries.

Given under our hands this fourteenth day of October in the two thousand and eighth year of the common era…

[Signed by members of the Board of Trustees of First Unitarian Church in New Bedford.]

A short history of All Souls Unitarian Church in Belfast, Ireland

Read by Maggi Kerr Peirce

John Abernethy, called “the father of non-subscription”, was a prominent Irish Presbyterian minister who led many ministers and congregations out of the Synod of Ulster into a separate liberal-minded denomination, known today as the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, and affiliated with the worldwide Unitarian movement.

In 1705 Abernethy founded a meeting, subsequently known as the Belfast Society, of ministers and lay people who gathered to discuss the Bible and recent theological scholarship. Members pooled their resources to buy new books and prepared papers on the latest publications. They trained themselves to engage in theological disputation and gradually began to challenge accepted religious notions of their day. A nineteenth-century Presbyterian historian described the Belfast Society as a “seed-plot of error”.

James Kirkpatrick, an Irish Presbyterian minister, was the first minister in Belfast to argue for the principles of non-subscription. He was a founding member of the Belfast Society. In common with Abernethy and others he adopted an increasingly critical attitude towards humanly formulated creeds, particularly the Westminster Confession of Faith.

In 1706 he accepted a call from the Belfast congregation as colleague to the Reverend John McBride. The Belfast congregation, which had grown rapidly, numbered more than three thousand members. At the time of Kirkpatrick’s call McBride had fled to Scotland to avoid arrest for refusing to take the oath abjuring the claims to the throne of James II’s son. McBride had suggested that the original Belfast congregation should be divided and a second meeting house built. Eventually, after complicated negotiations, the Belfast church did just that. A new meeting house was built immediately behind the first as the home of Kirkpatrick’s Second congregation. This was the beginning of unitarianism in Belfast.

[From material written by David Steers, minister of All Souls’ Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church, Belfast from 1989 to 2000.]

Sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. About half the sermon as preached was extemporaneous, and the text below is a rough reconstruction of the actual sermon. Additionally, the text below has been slightly corrected based on further historical research. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.

Sermon — “Richard Huff, Quiet Revolutionary”

Years ago, I was watching some stupid television show, and I saw a comedy routine in which, much to his surprise, a man got slapped in the face with a fish. I said it was a “comedy routine,” although if you think about it, getting hit in the face with a fish is not really that funny. In fact, I don’t remember anything else about that comedy routine, so it couldn’t have been very funny. But I have retained this image of a very surprised man, and since then I’ve sometimes thought that that image of getting hit in the face with a fish is a good image for the way life can surprise us in very unpleasant ways.

So I tell you this, and it occurs to me that it’s possible that when you go home, you’ll be sitting down to eat lunch and ask yourself, “Now what did Dan talk about today? Something about a fish?” — and that’s all you’ll remember about this sermon. If you remember nothing else about this sermon, please also remember this:– when life slaps you in the face with a fish, you don’t have to blame yourself. It can be tempting to blame yourself when life is hard — but please don’t. You don’t have to blame yourself when life is hard on you.

Because that’s what happens in real life sometimes. Even when everything is going astonishingly well, even when you’re doing everything right, suddenly the rules of the game can change on you. This is what has happened to many of us, financially speaking, over the past few weeks:– We thought we were doing everything right, when suddenly the stock market falls apart, retirement plans lose a third of their value, the state can’t borrow money so it makes major cuts, unemployment rises, and so on. We thought we were doing all right when this financial crisis slapped us in the face with a fish, metaphorically speaking.

As Unitarian Universalists, we already know that we have to be always ready to change and grow and transform. That’s why we don’t like creeds or doctrines:– the creed that we adopt today may strangulate growth tomorrow. Therefore, out of religious principle, we like to remain ready to change and grow and transform ourselves. And yet even with our openness to change, even with our willingness to transform ourselves to meet new realities, sometimes we too get surprised by events.

This morning, I’d like to tell you about one such event that happened here in our own church some fifty-three years ago. Back in 1954, our church seemed poised for explosive growth; but the very next year Sunday morning adult attendance began to decline rapidly, the Sunday school began to decline more slowly, and that decline continued pretty much right through the quarter century. So here’s the story:

Like every church, our church has always had ups and downs. In the 1920s there were years when this church had more than a hundred children and teenagers in the Sunday school each week, and more than a hundred adults sitting in the pews for the morning service, and even more adults at church for the Sunday evening vespers service (yes, we used to have a vespers service here). And there have always been times when we weren’t so successful. In the 1930s, adult attendance dropped, and the Sunday school shrank in size. Fortunately, during the 1930s, most of the membership of First Universalist Church transferred to First Unitarian, and those folks kept us from declining even further.

In 1938, when Duncan Howlett became our minister, our attendance shot up, and stayed high the entire time he was here. After Howlett left in 1946, on the surface it seemed as though our church declined in energy and numbers for a half a dozen years. But growth and change and transformation were happening underneath the surface: the old pew rental system finally disappeared; the minister was integrated back in to the governance of the church and was allowed to address the annual meeting without having to ask permission first; the Sunday school stayed strong and large; and many groups and organizations within the church remained strong and vibrant, including the Women’s Alliance, the Sewing Circle, the Murray Club organized by the old Universalists, and other groups. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, this church may have looked a little sleepy on the surface, but good healthy activity was taking place below the surface.

The society around the church was changing rapidly at this time. Even though New Bedford slowly continued to lose manufacturing jobs, the economy finally emerged from the Great Depression. After the Second World War, lots of young couples got married and had babies, and this was the beginning of the famous Baby Boom. There was a resurgence of civic engagement; that is, people were eager to become active in community groups; the 1950s were the high point of civic engagement in the twentieth century. With the rise in civic engagement, lots of people started going to church.

In the midst of all this societal growth and change and transformation, our church called a new minister, Richard Huff. He seemed exactly the right man to be minister at our church in that time. He was a former Navy chaplain, so he could relate to all the returning soldiers. After the war he became the minister at the Unitarian church in Stoneham; when he arrived there, they were a dying church, but when he left they were thriving and growing. He was a “kind man,” a man of “great charm” and a “good preacher” (here I’m quoting what people have said to me about him); he was just the right kind of personality to be the minister of this church. All these characteristics were evident when he arrived here in 1953. But I think he had another, less obvious, characteristic that perfectly suited him to be the minister of this church at that moment in time: he was the kind of man who knew that both people and churches have to constantly change and grow and transform themselves in order to continue to thrive.

When Richard Huff arrived in 1953, attendance skyrocketed. Our church had gotten up to an average attendance of 130 adults on Sundays when Duncan Howlett had been here, probably the highest attendance our church had seen for most of the twentieth century. After Howlett left, attendance dropped down to about a hundred adults, but when Richard Huff arrived attendance shot up to 167 — that is, attendance increased more than fifty percent in his first year here! And the next year, attendance remained just about as high.

The number of children in the Sunday school did not shoot up, however. On the surface, the reason appeared obvious: we didn’t have adequate space to accommodate all the children. On Sunday morning, I have been told that there were groups of children everywhere; one Sunday school class even had to meet in the balcony of the Tryworks Auditorium upstairs in the Parish House (if you’ve seen that space, it’s hard to imagine how you’d have a Sunday school class up there). So our church began to build additional Sunday school space: part of the basement was renovated in the early 1950s, and the lower basement was renovated a few years later.

But Richard Huff and a few other forward-thinking lay leaders in the church began to realize that it wouldn’t be enough to simply build more classrooms. They began to realize that if the church were going to be serious about the Sunday school, it was time to hire a paid director of religious education. However, these were the years when many Unitarian and Universalist churches were hiring their very first paid directors of religious education; many churches were looking for qualified people to fill those jobs, and there just weren’t enough qualified people to go around. Our church tried to hire one of those qualified people, but at the very last moment she decided she did not want to leave the place where she had been living. The lay leaders and the old Sunday school superintendent tried to keep things going, but Sunday school attendance slowly began to drop.

The number of adults on Sunday mornings dropped even faster. By 1958, when our church celebrated its 250th birthday, adult attendance had dropped down to just over 100 adults on a Sunday.

In the midst of all this, Richard Huff and his family were going through a serious and major family crisis, that apparently involved all of his immediate family. He resigned as minister, and apparently left the ministry for a number of years. Eventually, though, he returned to the Unitarian ministry, and wound up as the minister in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

Our church’s attendance continued to decline after all this happened. The Baby Boom was slowing down, so there weren’t as many families bringing children to church. Then in the 1960s the social and economic situation in New Bedford grew more difficult, with urban riots and growing unemployment. And all across the nation, people just stopped going to church as much. The net result was that, like many Unitarian Universalist churches across the country, we kept shrinking right through the 1960s and 1970s.

So our church started shrinking around 1956. It would be easy for us to blame this on the changes in the society around us, the changes in New Bedford. But if it were the changes in the society around us which stopped our growth, I think the decline would have been more gradual, and I think it would have come five years later. Instead, we stopped growing so suddenly, it was as if someone smacked us in the face with a fish. I’d like to briefly explain to you what I think happened here in our church around 1956.

When Richard Huff arrived, the minister of this church was the central node through which all church communication passed. The minister was the only one who really knew everyone: the shut-ins, the staff, the people who never came to church, the children and the Sunday school teachers, as well as the people in the pews on Sunday morning. There’s even a name for this kind of church: it’s called a “pastoral-size church,” a name which tells us that the pastor, or minister, is the central communication node for the whole church. If you have a really good minister, you can take a pastoral-size church up to an average attendance of about two hundred men, women, and children; but if you get above that, one minister simply can’t manage all the communications that need to happen. Yet from 1953 through 1955, our church had an average of about two hundred and fifty people on Sunday morning: we went over that magic number of two hundred, and then we dropped right back down.

Over the past thirty years, church experts have done a lot of research on how to make the transition past an average attendance of two hundred — it can be done, but it requires a church to change the way they do just about everything. Indeed, this is the current crisis of the liberal churches. Most of our liberal churches, of whatever denomination, never get above that magic number of an average Sunday attendance of two hundred. Sometimes a really skilled minister will keep a church above that level for a few years or a couple of decades, but when that person leaves, attendance declines back down.

There’s a moral to this story. Of course, there’s a moral to this story, but it’s not the moral you expect. In fact, there are two morals to this story.

This first moral is very simple: If things don’t work out the way you expect, you don’t have to automatically blame yourself. Sometimes life slaps you in the face with a fish, and when that happens, it’s not your fault. When life is hard, please go easy on yourself.

The other moral of this story has to do with our church. It turns out that the evangelical Christians are having a similar problem, but in reverse. Brian McLaren, an evangelical Christian who has been working hard on church growth from the evangelical side of things, has said that the Christian “conservatives tend to be rigid theologically and promiscuous pragmatically and liberals tend to be rigid methodologically and a lot more free theologically.” In other words, the Christian conservatives stick rigidly to their doctrine and dogmas, but they’ll try all kinds of new organizational strategies; whereas us religious liberals are pretty free and open about what we believe, but we are pretty rigid when it comes to the way we do church. Then McLaren goes on to say: “Maybe we could trade.”

And that’s the other moral of the story. As religious liberals, we are already free in our thinking; we are already quiet revolutionaries in our religion. And perhaps we can now free up our organizational thinking so that we are just as free. Perhaps now we can become quiet revolutionaries in the way we do the business of the church, in the same way that we have long been quiet revolutionaries in the way we do theology.