What about land acknowledgements?

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The reading this morning is a poem by Lucille Lang Day. The poet says her “mother, who was one-quarter Wampanoag, was raised from age seven by a couple who taught her that Native American ancestry was something to hide.” The poem tells a little bit about how she found out about this family story that had been intentionally suppressed.

“I Always Knew It” — link to the full poem

Sermon — “What about Land Acknowledgements?”

I’d like to talk with you this morning about land acknowledgements. A land acknowledgement is one of those statements, which are now commonly given at the beginning of events, or which appear on websites of organizations, that go something like this: “We acknowledge we gather on land that is the traditional and ancestral homeland of the so-and-so people.” Sometimes these land acknowledgements consist of just a bare statement that Native Americans once lived wherever you are. But the more interesting land acknowledgements include some of the history of the Native Americans in question.

At this point, I could go into the ethical, moral, and political arguments for and against land acknowledgements — and there is real debate about their value. (1) Yet while these ethical, moral, and political arguments about land acknowledgements might be fascinating to some, I’d rather start with the stories of some of the individual Native Americans we’re thinking about acknowledging. So I’d like to tell you some stories about Native Americans from Cohasset.

(A word about terminology: Since we’ll be talking about the time before the United States of America was a country, it’s anachronistic to refer to “Native Americans,” because there was no country called America. Since the Native American groups that currently exist in our area often refer to themselves as “Indians,” I’ll use the term “Indian.”)

Our story begins in the early seventeenth century as Europeans first began to make contact with the Indians who lived in coastal Massachusetts. Some time in the years 1616 to 1619, a contagious disease wept through the Indians who lived here on the South Shore. Scholars continue to debate about what, exactly, the disease was. It could have been smallpox, measles, or some other highly contagious disease from Europe for which the Indians had no immunity. (2) A huge percentage of the coastal Indians of Massachusetts died — no less than four out of five Indians died, and in places as many as 19 out of 20 died.

Because so many of their people died, the Indians living along the coast found themselves vulnerable to attack by their traditional enemies from further inland. This helps explain why, in 1620, the Wampanoag Indians in the Plymouth area were keenly interested in allying themselves with the Pilgrims. That military alliance lasted for about fifty years, until King Phillip’s War in 1675. After that war, Indian military power in southeastern New England was essentially broken. The Indians who remained here had to figure out to adapt to European social norms.

By 1640, there were about 300 Europeans living in Cohasset — then called the Second Precinct of Hingham. (3) The history of Cohasset in the eighteenth century tends to focus on those Europeans. But Indians also continued to live here, and I’d like to tell you about three of them.

Mary Judah

First, I’d like to talk about Mary Judah.

Our church was formally organized in 1721, and the first minister’s record book contains a sad entry for Mary Judah from which we can reconstruct a bit of her life: “Feb. 1, 1739 [New Style]. Long Mary, alias Mary Judah, was found Dead in the woods upon the High Way between this & Hingham and as tis supposed Perished in a storm of cold & snow the Sabb[ath] before. An elderly Indian [woman].” (4)

February 1, 1739, was a Sunday, meaning Mary Judah’s body wasn’t found for a whole week. If she had been enslaved, surely her enslavers would have noticed, and gone to search for her. Or if she had lived with someone else, again they would have noticed. So it seems she was an elderly woman living entirely alone. Since she was older, Mary Judah would have been born in the mid-seventeenth century, a time when the Indians of Cohasset were still living in the traditional way. Most likely, Mary Judah was keeping to the old Indian ways as best she could. As a result she wound up living on the margins of European society, both economically and politically — eking out a subsistence existence in the face of encroaching European agriculture, with essentially no political rights, though at least she was not enslaved.

Photo of an old handwritten record book.
Minister’s record of Mary Judah’s death. Image copyright (c) 2024 First Parish in Cohasset, used by permission; all rights reserved.

Sarah Wapping

The second person I’d like to talk about is Sarah Wapping.

On November 25, 1736, the minister of our church wrote in his record book that he officiated at the marriage of Sarah Wapping, an Indian from Cohasset, and “Cesar,” a man of African descent (who, according to the custom of the time, was allowed no last name). Cesar was enslaved by Captain Caleb Torrey of Scituate, and his and Sarah’s marriage intention was recorded in the Scituate town records. (5) We can assume that Sarah was either enslaved, or functionally became enslaved upon her marriage.

After her marriage, Sarah attended services at our church here in Cohasset; we can assume that she went to live with Cesar and his enslaver, but for some reason Sarah was willing to walk several miles to the Cohasset church each Sunday. Sometime in 1736, she decided to join our church. Remember that in 1736, this congregation was one of the established Christian churches of Massachusetts Bay Colony; we became Unitarian a century later, but back then we were a liberal Christian church.

There are many reasons why Sarah Wapping, an Indian living in Cohasset, might decide to become a Christian, that is, become a member of one of the established churches of Massachusetts Bay Colony. First and perhaps most obviously, Sarah Wapping probably felt genuine sympathy with the Christian ideals of the church. Beyond that, she may have been attracted to our church’s eighteenth century covenant. In that old covenant, church members promised to one another “that with all tenderness & Brotherly Love we will with all faithfulness watch over one anothers Soul.” To someone who was enslaved, perhaps that covenant offered a recognition of their essential humanity, or as we’d say today, their inherent worthiness and dignity.

More pragmatically, becoming a member of the church may have been a smart move for Sarah Wapping, in that it helped to raise her social status in the community. Many people in those days were reluctant to become members of the church, because they would be held to a higher standard of moral behavior; men, in particular, were likely to put off becoming church members until they knew they were dying, at which time they didn’t have much opportunity to engage in sinful behavior. Thus if you became a member of the church, you entered a morally elite group, which gave you a certain social status.

Sarah Wapping was baptized and formally joined the church on January 7, 1738 (N.S.) — 296 years ago today. The fact that Sarah Wapping had to be baptized before joining the church tells us that she probably didn’t come from a Christian family; otherwise she would have been baptized as a child. So it seems likely that she was raised in a traditional Indian family.

In the months before January 7, Sarah would have met with the minister at least once — probably more than once — as part of her preparation for baptism and full church membership. On January 7, she would have been required to stand up before the rest of the church and give a public statement of her moral failings. This would have happened in the old meetinghouse, which stood south of here on Cohasset Common, across from the present Parish House.

That’s all I was able to find out about Sarah Wapping. After this event, she apparently disappears from the historical record. But we can speculate that she probably had children. Her children would have been born into slavery, and they were might have been considered black, while also maintaining their connection with the Indian communities in southeastern Massachusetts. Sarah’s children, or at least her grandchildren, would live to see slavery abolished in Massachusetts in the late eighteenth century. It is entirely likely that at least some of her descendants live in southeastern Massachusetts to this day.

Photo of a part of a handwritten document.
Minister’s record of “The Names of Those Adult Persons who Owned the Covenant” — Sarah Wapping’s name is at lower right. Image copyright (c) 2024 First Parish in Cohasset, used by permission; all rights reserved.
Photo of part of a handwritten document.
Minister’s record of Sarah Wapping’s marriage. Image copyright (c) 2024 First Parish in Cohasset, used by permission; all rights reserved.
Part of a microfilmed handwritten document.
Digitized copy of the marriage records of the Town of Scituate, with Sarah Wapping’s marriage intention.

Naomi Isaac

The third person I’ll tell you about is Naomi Isaac.

On September 19, 1736, Naomi Isaac, another enslaved Indian, became a member of our church. I was able to find out a bit more about Naomi Isaac, and based on some admittedly slender historical evidence, I’ve pieced together a hypothetical life story for her.

Naomi Isaac became a church member about the same time Sarah Wapping got married; the two women would have been rough contemporaries. When Naomi joined the church, the minister’s record book refers to her as “an Indian girl.” If we guess that she was roughly eighteen years old, she might have been born somewhere between 1716 and 1720. Since she did not need to get baptized before she joined the church, it seems probably that she came from a family of Christian Indians.

Assuming she had been raised as a Christian, her decision to join our church was not as big a step as it was for Sarah Wapping. Naomi Isaac must have liked the religion in which she had been raised, and wanted to commit more deeply to it. Then too, like Sarah Wapping after her, Naomi Isaac might have been attracted to our congregation by the wording of the covenant. She may also have desired the increase in social standing church membership would bring.

As did every church member, Naomi Isaac would stood in front of the hundred or more people who came to services each Sunday and confess her moral failings. Again, this was in the old meetinghouse. At about 25 by 35 feet, that first meetinghouse was smaller than our present meetinghouse, and more intimate. I like to think that Naomi Isaac served as an inspiration for Sarah Wapping. We can imagine that Sarah Wapping was in the congregation that day, looking down from the balcony where enslaved people and Indians had to sit (but no more than twenty feet away from the pulpit), watching as the young Naomi Isaac become the center of attention of the entire church.

On February 7, 1737, four and a half months after Naomi Isaac joined our church, someone named Naomi Isaac got married to a man named Caesar Ferrit in Dorchester. I could not confirm that this is the same Naomi Isaac. In fact, in the mid-nineteenth century, there was a romantic story told of how Naomi was the ward of a rich man in Boston who had arranged a wealthy marriage for her, but she chose instead to marry Caesar Ferrit, the coachman for the rich man; and some have interpreted this to mean that this second Naomi Isaac was White. (6)

I think there may be a tiny nugget of truth in that romantic story, some of which got covered over by later romance. Naomi Isaac of Cohasset was either enslaved or an indentured servant. I speculate that her master moved to Boston, taking her with him. Then she decided to marry Caesar Ferrit against the wishes of her master. I like to think my speculation is correct, because it shows both Caesar and Naomi to be resourceful and forceful people. I also imagine that Caesar managed to purchase Naomi’s freedom, for she was able to leave her master and go with him. While I believe my interpretation fits the historical evidence, I cannot say with complete certainty that Naomi Isaac of Cohasset is the same woman as Naomi Isaac who got married in Dorchester — yet I think later events in Naomi’s life bear out my interpretation.

After Naomi Isaac and Caesar Ferrit married, they lived in Milton, where their first children were born. Around 1750, they moved to Natick, where their youngest children were born. The town of Natick had been founded for the so-called “praying Indians,” that is, Indians who had become Christian. While Natick was intended to be an Indian town, in practice other non-White people wound up living there too — people like Caesar, Naomi’s mixed-race husband. But Caesar could also claim Indian ancestry. Although he had been born in the West Indies and came to Massachusetts later on, he said that he had two European grandparents — one Dutch, one French,— an African grandparent, and an Indian grandparent. (7)

Naomi Isaac Ferrit appears in the written record eight times — first when she joined our church, next when she got married, and then in the birth records for six of the seven or so children she had. After the birth of her children, she disappears from the historical record. But let’s assume that she lived until April 19, 1775. In the early morning of that historic day, she would have helped her husband Caesar, then aged 55, get ready to respond to the alarm that the British regulars were on the move. She would have watched as Caesar, and their youngest son John, marched down the road towards Lexington with the rest of the Natick militia company.

Caesar, John, and the rest of their company arrived in Lexington not long before British regular troops returned through the town on their retreat from Concord. The two Ferrits took cover in a house near the meetinghouse on Lexington Green, and from its cover fired upon His Majesty’s troops. The regulars searched the house to find those two snipers, and the Ferrits hid under the stairs in the cellar to avoid capture. In short, Naomi’s husband, and her child John, were two of the hallowed veterans of the Battle of Concord and Lexington, engaging in an act of bravery at great risk to their lives.

Caesar Ferrit proved to be quite a Patriot. Although many veterans of the Battle of Concord and Lexington went back to their farms, in late April Caesar enlisted for a tour of duty in the Massachusetts army. Then later in the war, he enlisted once again. His military service was remembered for the rest of his life. In 1796, three years before his death, the town of Natick petitioned the state for a pension for him. (8)

One of Naomi’s sons-in-law, Thomas Nichols, had a very different experience on April 19, 1775. Thomas was a free Black man who married Patience Ferrit, Naomi and Caesar’s second daughter. On April 19, 1775, Thomas was being held in the town jail in Concord, having been accused of “enticing” enslaved persons “to desert the service of their masters.” While his father-in-law and brother-in-law were firing at the British troops on Lexington Green, he witnessed the events of April 19 from the Concord jail. After being held for three months, the authorities found that there was no evidence to support the accusations against Thomas, so he was sent back to Natick. (9) The story of Naomi’s son-in-law shows how the Indian communities and the Black communities of Massachusetts became intertwined. And I wonder if Thomas really was helping other Black people liberate themselves, and managed to get away with it — if he was one of the early precursors to the conductors of the Underground Railroad. I like to imagine that he was.

That’s all I was able to find out about Naomi Isaac. After the birth of her children, she apparently disappears from the historical record. Yet her legacy may live on in a very literal way. In our own time, descendants of the Natick Indians gather each year for the Natick Praying Indians Powwow, held on the last weekend of September. I like to think that some of Naomi Isaac’s descendants are among them.

Photo of part of a handwritten document.
Minister’s record of “The Names of Those Adult Persons who Owned the Covenant” — Naomi Isaac’s name is at bottom left. Image copyright (c) 2024 First Parish in Cohasset, used by permission; all rights reserved.

This brings us back to the topic of land acknowledgements.

I’ve spun out some stories for you about what might have happened to some specific individuals who were Cohasset Indians. I readily admit that my stories are partly speculative. Nonetheless, I believe there’s some truth in the stories I’ve just told. If we were to decide to offer a land acknowledgement, we might want to acknowledge the three women I’ve talked about this morning. And I’ll end this sermon with one of many possible land acknowledgements for our congregation:

“We gather on land that is the traditional and ancestral homeland of Mary Judah, Sarah Wapping, Naomi Isaac, and other Indians of Cohasset. We think it’s likely at least some descendants of Sarah Wapping and Naomi Isaac, former members of our congregation, are still alive today. We acknowledge the many contributions these women and their descendants have made to our society, including their children’s service in the Revolutionary War. And we wonder how we can ever repay them.”


(1) According to “So you began your event with an Indigenous land acknowledgment. Now what?” reported by Chloe Veltman on National Public Radio, All Things Considered, March 15, 2023
[https://www.npr.org/2023/03/15/1160204144/indigenous-land-acknowledgments] — some Native American leaders believe land acknowledgements are a waste of time, while others believe they are useful. It’s a complicated issue!

(2) The debate is very much alive among epidemiologists. E.g., in 2010, a new possibility was outlined by John S. MarrComments and John T. Cathey, in “New Hypothesis for Cause of Epidemic among Native Americans, New England, 1616–1619” (Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 16 no. 2, Feb. 2010 https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/16/2/09-0276_article). The authors of this study say: “Classic explanations have included yellow fever, smallpox, and plague. Chickenpox and trichinosis are among more recent proposals. We suggest an additional candidate: leptospirosis complicated by Weil syndrome.”

(3) Bigelow, Narrative History of Cohasset, p. 106.

(4) Woody Chittick, “Slavery in early Cohasset,” n.d.

(5) Information from Family Search website.

(6) The romantic story is in the Natick Bulletin, “Local Centennial Events,” June 18, 1875; quoted by George Quintal, Patriots of Color (Boston Nat. Hist. Park, 2004), p. 102.

William Biglow, History of the Town of Natick, Mass. (1830) says this about Cesar Ferrit and his wife:

“April 19th. — On this memorable morning, as one of the survivors lately expressed it, every man was a minute man. The alarm was given early, and all marched full of spirit and energy to meet the British. But few had an opportunity to attack them. Caesar Ferrit and his son John arrived at a house near Lexington meeting house, but a short time before the British soldiers reached that place, on their retreat from Concord. These two discharged their muskets upon the regulars from the entry, and secreted themselves under the cellar stairs, till the enemy had passed by, though a considerable number of them entered the house and made diligent search for their annoyers.

“This Caesar was a great natural curiosity. He was born on one of the West India islands, and was accustomed to boast, that the blood of four nations run in his veins; for one of his Grandfathers was a Dutchman, the other a Frenchman; and one of his grandmothers an Indian, and the other an African. He married a white New England woman, and they had several children, in whose veins, if Cæsar’s account of himself be true, flowed the blood of five nations. His son John served through the revolutionary war, and is now a pensioner.”

While this story seems to argue against Naomi Isaac Ferrit being the same as Naomi Isaac of Cohasset, its claims must be weighed against its late date, nearly a century after Naomi would have left Cohasset. Biglow gives no source for this anecdotal evidence, but if this story were told to him by Naomi’s descendants it could well have been to their advantage to have their mother posthumously “pass” as White; many people in Massachusetts considered it shameful to have Indian ancestry, and persons with Indian ancestry were regularly discriminated against, right up through the twentieth century. (Note, too, that Caesar’s wife’s is not named in this account.) For all these reasons, I’m inclined to place little trust in Biglow’s account.

Also, I was unable to find anyone named Naomi Isaac anywhere in Massachusetts in the usual genealogical records, for this time period. This proves nothing in of itself, but is worth considering when evaluating other evidence.

(7) J. L. Bell, “Thomas Nichols of Natick,” Boston 1775 blog, April 28, 2016. (https://boston1775.blogspot.com/2016/04/thomas-nichols-of-natick.html). See also the previous footnote.

(8) J. L. Bell, “The Service of Caesar Ferrit,” Boston 1775 blog, April 30, 2016. (https://boston1775.blogspot.com/2016/04/the-service-of-caesar-ferrit.html).

See also: entry on Caesar Ferrit in George Quintal, Patriots of Color (Boston Nat. Hist. Park, 2004), pp. 102 ff.; and entry on Caesar Ferrit, Massachusetts Soldiers and Sailors of the Revolutionary War: A Compilation from the Archives, Volume 5, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Office of the Secretary of State, 1899, p. 632.

(9) J. L. Bell, “Reviewing Thomas Nichols’s Case,” Boston 1775 blog, April 29, 2016. (https://boston1775.blogspot.com/2016/04/reviewing-thomas-nicholss-case.html)

More resources on land acknowledgements

“Beyond Land Acknowledgements: A Guide,” Native Governance Center website

One current organization of Native Americans in our area which may include descendants of Sarah Wapping and Naomi Isaac: Praying Indians of Natick and Ponkapoag

The Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag lists last names of tribal members in the 1800s. None of the last names mentioned in the sermon — Wapping, Isaac, Ferrit, or Nichols — appear on their list. However, the time frame they’re looking at is one or more generations later, and thus might include descendants of the people I mention.

Other Native American groups in our area include the Cothutikut Mattakeeset Massachusetts Tribe, with ancestral lands in Bridgewater

The indigenous people in Cohasset were most likely part of the Massachusetts people, not the Wampanoag people. There are several well-known Wampanoag groups in southeastern Massachusetts. Descendants of Cohasset Indians might have joined one or more of these Wampanoag groups, through marriage or in other ways.

A Revolutionary Religion

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon was actually delivered by Bev Burgess, worship associate, because I was out of town on family leave.


The reading this morning is an excerpt from a biography of Rev. William Emerson, the grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and minister of First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, in 1775. This biography was written by Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, minister of the Concord church in 1975, and published in his book Know These Concordians: 24 Minutes Biographies (1975). Although Greeley was a pacifist, he was also a patriot, and fully appreciative of William Emerson’s military service in the Revolutionary War.

In 1765 William Emerson became the minister in Concord. He seems to have been as conscientious a pastor as he was studious as a scholar; and the indication is that he called constantly on his people, and likewise entertained both people and visitors at the Manse. He was friendly and warm, even if held somewhat in awe by many of his parishioners.

Eight years rolled by before the spirit of rebellion against the oppressiveness of King George III began to come to a head. The Concord minister had been among the patriots who were early spokesmen for the cause of freedom. With Jonathan Mayhew in Boston and Jonas Clarke in Lexington, he had used his pulpit to point out the injustice of the British rule, and to stimulate the imaginations and undergird the moral courage of his listeners. He had plenty of company in the town in support of his views, but he did not fail to exercise a role of leadership. So when the First Provincial Congress met in Concord, having moved there from Salem, it was not strange that as John Hancock of Boston was elected president, and Benjamin Lincoln of Hingham as secretary, so the Reverend William Emerson was elected chaplain. It is said that in the following Spring he watched the battle at the North Bridge from his house (on the 19th of April) and properly recorded it in his diary afterward, although there is also the suggestion that he may have been closer to his men, and encouraging them in the battle, and not just a spectator….

Before we speak of his departure to Ticonderoga, we must mention his going to Cambridge after the battle [at Concord], his constant service with the army, his breakfast and frequent meetings with George Washington, his preaching to the soldiers, and his participation at Bunker Hill. He himself did not distinguish between General Washington and the humblest soldiers. All men seemed to count equally in his sight….

On August 16, 1776, he bade a brave farewell himself to his family and his town, and knew not that he would never return…. He was at Ticonderoga, and then contracted a fatal disease, typhoid or dysentery, and died in Rutland, Vermont…. He had expected his own death, and his letters home were very tender…

The ‘Old Manse’ which he built for his bride, Phebe, and his family, is a continuing monument to him, but so is a bit of the independence of the United States of America.

Sermon: A Revolutionary Religion

We are rapidly approaching the United States of America semiquincentennial, or two hundred and fiftieth birthday. (There are, by the way, several words used for a two hundred and fiftieth birthday, but “semiquincentennial” is what the National Park Service calls it.) Most of the United States will be celebrating the nation’s semiquincentennial in 2026, but those of us who live here in Massachusetts know that the real semiquincentennial anniversary commemorates April 19, 1775, what we call Patriots’ Day.

April 19, 1775, marked the real beginning of the Revolutionary War. The momentous events of that day are sometimes called the Battle of Concord and Lexington, but to use that term ignores the fact that several other towns also saw armed conflict. In fact, the first colonist blood of the war was shed in the town of Lincoln, just after midnight, when one of His Majesty’s troops slashed Lincoln militiaman Josiah Nelson on the head with a sword. And some of the most heated fighting took place in Menotomy, which is now called Arlington. And dozens of towns sent militia men and Minute Men to the battle. But for the sake of convenience, I’ll call it the battle of Concord and Lexington. (1)

As we approach America’s semiquincentennial, I would like us Unitarian Universalists to remember that our co-religionists were right in the thick of the Revolutionary War from the very beginning. Both Unitarians and Universalists were deeply involved in the American Revolution.

The first major engagement on the morning of April 19, 1775, was in Lexington, where at sunrise several hundred Redcoats fired at a small interracial company of colonial militiamen, killing eight and wounding several more. This engagement took place on the town green, right next to the church. The congregation that met in that building is still in existence, and is now called First Parish in Lexington, and it later became a Unitarian Universalist church. The commander of the Lexington militia was a man named John Parker, who famously said, “Stand your ground. Don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.” But John Parker should also be remembered because the small company he commanded included both Black and White militia men. (2)

John Parker did not live long enough to hear the name “Unitarian” applied to his religion, though we usually consider him to have been a Unitarian on the basis of his church affiliation. But the succeeding generations of the Lexington Parkers were very definitely Unitarians. One of John Parker’s grandsons, Theodore Parker, was a Unitarian who inherited his grandfather’s revolutionary spirit, in more ways than one. Theodore grew up to become a Unitarian minister, a Transcendentalist, and an abolitionist. As an abolitionist, he sheltered people escaping from slavery in his own house, and later recalled that at times he had to keep a loaded pistol on the desk beside him as he wrote his sermons, in case the slave catchers came to his door. (3)

To return to the events of April 19, 1775 — After marching through Lexington, His Majesty’s troops continued on to Concord, where their spies had informed them that the colonists were storing ammunition, cannon, and firearms. Realizing that they were greatly outnumbered, the colonial forces withdrew from Concord center. This was a strategic withdrawal, for they knew that the alarm was being spread throughout the countryside, and that soon militia companies and Minute Men from other towns would swell their numbers. At about ten o’clock in the morning, they marched down a hill and engaged a small unit of Redcoats guarding the North Bridge that lead back into Concord center. Right next to this bridge stood the house of Rev. William Emerson, the patriotic minister of the Concord church, about whom we heard in the reading this morning. William Emerson made sure his wife and family were safe in their house, then went on to join the colonial troops. (4)

And here comes another Unitarian grandchild connection. One of William Emerson’s grandchildren was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who became a Unitarian minister, then left ministry to pursue a career as a public intellectual. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the famous “Concord Hymn” to commemorate the events of April 19, 1775:

“By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard ‘round the world.”

Emerson fired his own shots heard round the world, with his electrifying essays on topics like self-reliance, and nature. He was not as physically combative as his contemporary Theodore Parker — he never kept a pistol on his desk, nor did he help fugitive slaves escape to Canada (though his wife might have) — but Emerson was intellectually combative. He made clear the crucial importance of each individual. When we talk about the radical concept of the inherent worth and dignity of every human personality, much of what we say comes straight from Emerson. And with his disciple Henry Thoreau, who also grew up a Unitarian, Emerson helped lay the foundations for the modern environmental movement, another revolutionary movement that carries on American ideals.

The Emersons and the Parkers are just two examples of the connections between Unitarianism and the American Revolution. I could also mention Kings’ Chapel in Boston. King’s Chapel started out as part of the Church of England, but by 1775 they were a congregation of Patriots who felt compelled to sever their ties with anything British. And when they severed their ties to the Church of England, they found they also wanted to sever their ties to the doctrine of the Trinity. So in 1785 they became the first avowedly Unitarian congregation in the new United States of America.

Now let me turn to the Universalist side of our heritage. I’ll begin with a brief mention of Benjamin Rush, one of those who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. While Rush never joined a Universalist church, he was a firm believer in the central message of Universalism, that all persons would be saved. Universalist historian Charles Howe writes, “Rush’s shift from Calvinism to universalism was profoundly influenced by the social changes of the Revolutionary era. He embraced republicanism as an essential part of” his religious outlook. (5) Thus, to embrace the political doctrine that all persons are created equal, lead Rush directly to the equivalent religious doctrine. We could only wish that today’s Christian nationalists would follow Benjamin Rush’s example.

Another Universalists who was in the thick of the Revolution was Rev. John Murray, the first prominent Universalist minister in British North America. He converted to Universalism while a young man in England, then after the death of his wife came to the New World in 1770, where he began preaching the happy religion of Universalism. By 1774, his preaching had attracted the attention of a group of wealthy merchants in Gloucester, Massachusetts. They had become convinced Universalists and wanted to find a Universalist minister. Murray was as interested in them as they were in him, but the Revolutionary War intervened before he could go to Gloucester. In order to support the Patriots’ cause, John Murray entered military service as the chaplain to the Rhode Island Continental Army during the defense of Boston.

By March, 1776, Murray was apparently part of the inner circle of the Continental Army. On March 10, James Bowdoin, a member of the Massachusetts Council, recorded that “Mr. [John] Murray, a clergyman, din’d with the General [George Washington] yesterday, and was present at the examination of a deserter, who upon oath says that 5 or 600 [British] troops embarked the night before without any order or regularity….” (6) There are two things of interest to us in this passage. First, John Murray was close enough to General Washington to dine with him. Second, John Murray was intimate enough with General George Washington that he was able to be present as they were finding out crucial military intelligence. Perhaps Murray’s military service included military intelligence work as well as chaplaincy.

Nor was John Murray the only Universalist or Unitarian clergyman who helped with military intelligence. The Rev. Dr. Samuel West, minister of the Dartmouth church which later became First Unitarian of New Bedford, was also involved in military intelligence. After the Battle of Bunker Hill, West joined the American army as a chaplain. The details of his service as a chaplain have been lost, except for one incident. While in the army, he assisted General Washington by deciphering a letter written in code by Benjamin Church, an American officer who was suspected of being a spy. In the eighteenth century, it was not uncommon to encipher personal correspondence since there was no formal postal service, and letters were not secure; therefore, just because the letter was enciphered was not evidence that Church was a spy. Washington needed to have the cipher broken, and the brilliant Dr. West was one of only three men who were capable of doing so. West worked alone, the other two worked together, and then their deciphering was compared. Their versions agreed perfectly, and through the efforts of West and the two others, Church was revealed as a British spy. (7)

So you can see that both Unitarians and Universalists were deeply involved in the Revolutionary War. In the United States today, the Christian nationalists claim that they are the only religious patriots. We Unitarian Universalists have a far better claim to being religious patriots, not just because of our historical connections (which the Christian nationalists lack), but because our religion upholds the Revolutionary ideals of democracy and equality of all persons (ideals which the Christian nationalists constantly subvert).

I wish we Unitarian Universalists would reclaim our patriotic identity. But sometimes I feel that we Unitarian Universalists have lost sight of our Revolutionary connections. When we issued a new hymnal in 1993 — that gray hymnal which we still use — all the patriotic hymns got left out. I can understand leaving out “America the Beautiful,” because the whole rhyme scheme of the first verse depends on rhyming the word “brotherhood,” which goes against our Revolutionary ideals by excluding women. But I do think we could have left in “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” if for no other reason than the last phrase of the first verse: “Let freedom ring.” Every time I hear that phrase, I can hear Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., using that phrase in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Martin Luther King, Jr., upheld the Revolutionary ideals of our country by calling for freedom for all persons, regardless of race. Thus when I sing “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” I hear King’s call for ongoing justice in America.

If we were to bring patriotic hymns back to our hymnal, we might also consider “The New Patriot,” which we sung as our first hymn. This hymn was included in the 1977 hymnal that was published by First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, and it captures some of the essence of today’s Unitarian Universalist patriotism. We Unitarian Universalists value our own democratic country, but we also value world community. We owe allegiance to the United States, upholding the high ideal that all persons are created equal — but we also want to extend that high ideal to all persons everywhere.

This should be the broader vision of Unitarian Universalism. We should continue to uphold our patriotic support of the United States; at the same time, we should continue to hold the United States accountable when our country falls short of living up to its highest ideals. We should continue to uphold our country’s sovereign rights; at the same time, we should continue to work towards world community. And both here at home and abroad, we should continue to promote not just our democratic ideals and our ideals of equality, but also things like our ideals of environmental protection.

Another way to say all of this: We should continue to be patriots. We should continue to display the American flag inside our Meeting House, upstairs in the gallery. And we should continue to hold our country accountable to our high ideals of equality for all persons, for example by flying the rainbow flag from our Meeting House. And we should also be the “New Patriots” spoken of in the final hymn, patriots “whose nation is all humanity.”

As we approach the semiquincentennial of the beginning of America, perhaps we will also want to find other ways to show our Unitarian Universalist patriotism. I don’t know what that would look like for us here in Cohasset, but I’ll tell you a little story of how another Unitarian Universalist congregation showed its patriotism.

When I worked at First Parish in Lexington, the church of John Parker and Theodore Parker, they still celebrated communion once a year, even though the majority of the congregation were atheists who had no interest in traditional Christian communion. But they had a different approach to communion. On the Sunday nearest April 19, they retrieved a few pieces of ancient communion silver from the local history museum. Some people would show up that Sunday dressed in 18th century garb (mind you, they left their muskets at the door of the church building, just as the Lexington militia did when they went to Sunday services back in 1775). Celebrating communion on Patriots’ Day was both a historical re-enactment, and also a public affirmation of the ideals of equality and democracy that are central both to Unitarian Universalism and to the United States.

I don’t think we should start holding Patriots’ Day communion services in our congregation. Cohasset is not Lexington. (8) But I do think we should remember that our ancient Meeting House was the scene of stirring events during the American Revolution. The old church records show that some sort of hiding place was made somewhere in this building to hide firearms and ammunition during the Revolution. (9) And then, in 1776 Rev. John Brown, then the minister of our congregation, gave a stirring reading of the Declaration of Independence from this very pulpit.

As we approach the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the birth of the United Sates of America, we owe it to ourselves — we owe it to the town of Cohasset — we owe it to our country to commemorate these stirring events, and to renew our commitment to the highest ideals of democracy. I’m looking forward to opening our Meeting House more often to visitors, with people from our congregation serving as docents to talk about our Revolutionary history. I’m looking forward to commemorating John Brown’s stirring reading of the Declaration of Independence this July, on the Sunday closest to Independence Day. And perhaps you will think of other ways we can celebrate our history, celebrate our patriotism, celebrate the semiquincentennial of the United States. So together we can keep alive the highest ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality.


(1) The information about the Battle of Concord and Lexington comes from standard reference books, esp. Frank Warren Coburn, The Battle of April 19, 1775, in Lexington, Concord, Lincoln, Arlington, Cambridge, Somerville, and Charlestown, Massachusetts (Lexington, Mass.: privately printed, 1912), and Robert A. Gross, The Minutemen and Their World (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976).

(2) For an excellent detailed account of one Black militia man, see: Alice Hinkle, Prince Estabrook: Slave and Soldier (Pleasant Mountain Press, 2001). My copy is signed by the man who for many years acted the part of Prince Estabrook during the annual re-enactment of the Lexington engagement.

(3) For the story of the loaded pistol, see Albert Réville , The life and writings of Theodore Parker (London: Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., 1865), pp. 112-114; and Francis E. Cooke, The Story of Theodore Parker (London: Sunday School Association, 1890), pp. 100-101.

(4) In his book Know These Concordians: 24 Minute Biographies (Concord, Mass.: privately printed, 1975), Dana Greeley gives the oral tradition sources which state that William Emerson joined the soldiers; I find Greeley’s argument convincing. William Emerson’s diaries are published in Amelia Forces Emerson, ed., Diaries and Letters of William Emerson, 1743-1776 (Boston: privately printed, 1972).

(5) Charles Howe, “Benjamin Rush,” Unitarian Universalist Dictionary of Historical Biography, https://uudb.org/articles/benjaminrush.html

(6) Quoted in J. Bell, “I hear that General How said…”, Boston in 1775, March 6, 2023 entry,

(7) This story is told in my book Liberal Pilgrims: Varieties of Liberal Religious Experience in New Bedford, Massachusetts (New Bedford, Mass.: privately printed, 2008).

(8) So there is no confusion, I should say that I, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, would politely refuse to officiate at communion services, for much the same reasons that Emerson gave in his famous sermon, “The Lord’s Supper,” available online at https://emersoncentral.com/texts/uncollected-prose/the-lords-supper/

(9) Eric Kluz, a retired architect and long-time member of First Parish, told me that during a 1980s renovation of the east wall of the Meeting House, a late 18th century firearm was found hidden in the south east corner in the wall, at about the level of the pew back. The town records show that a “closet” was built in the Meeting House to hide arms and ammunition; perhaps this closet was made behind the pews in the southeast corner of the building. That firearm was donated to the Cohasset Historical Society.

Three Hundred and One

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


The first reading is from the book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley, by sociologist Carolyn Chen (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022, p. 209). In this book, Chen shows how work has become religion in Silicon Valley, and she documents how destructive the worship of work can be. She then says:

“How do we break the theocracy of work? The late writer David Foster Wallace observed, ‘In the day-to-day trenches of adult life there is actually no such thing as atheism. Everybody worship. The only choice is what we get to worship.’ We can stop worshipping work, Wallace suggests, by choosing to worship something else. But we cannot do it alone, in the private sanctuary of our personal prayers and devotions. Since worshipping work is a social enterprise, choosing not to worship work must also be a collective endeavor. We can do this by intentionally building shared places of worship, fulfillment, and belonging that attract our time, energy, and devotion. These are our families, neighborhoods, clubs, and civic associations, as well as our faith communities. We need to recharge these ‘magnets’ that have grown weak. Contrary to what time management pundits tell us, we do this by letting these magnets attract more and not less of our time, energy, and passion. This is not a call to end work; it’s a call to energize non-workplaces. It’s an invitation to reflect on how we as a society expend out collective energy.”

The second reading comes from Rabbi Howard I Bogot, from his 1979 essay “Why Jewishness?” in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (vol. 56, no. 1, 1979, p. 108).

“For many years I have carried with me an Emerson-like quote which reads as follows: ‘The gods will write their names on our faces, be sure of that; and man will worship something, have no doubt of that either. He may think that his tribute is paid in secret, in the deep recesses of his heart but it will out. That which dominates his imagination and his thought will determine his life and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.’”

Sermon: “Three hundred and One”

On Tuesday, December 13, First Parish will celebrate its three hundred and first birthday. This past fall, I’ve given a few sermons looking back at the past three hundred years. So today, just before the end of our three hundredth birthday year, I thought I’d give a sermon about the future.

I am not, however, going to try to predict what the next three hundred years will hold for our congregation. I’m willing to try to look ahead for a dozen years, or at most for twenty years — in other words, look ahead for another generation. Think of the youngest child in our Sunday school, and think ahead to when that child heads off to college or to a job: what will First Parish look like then? I’m not willing to look ahead for the next three hundred years, but I’m willing to try one generation.

But even trying to look ahead one generation is difficult. We are in the midst of a major change in American religion. When I started out working in Unitarian Universalist congregations, back in 1994, we could feel pretty confident that in 2014 our congregations would look much like they did in 1994. During the teens, though, we started seeing an increasing number of people who had no religious affiliation at all. Sociologists began to call these people the “Nones,” as in when you asked them what their religion was, they’d respond, “None.”

In the past decade and a half, the number of Nones in America has just kept increasing. Many people assume this is a trend towards increasing secularization, but I don’t think that’s a good assumption. Surveys show that a large percentage of Americans continue to believe in God or in some higher power. (1) It’s not that religious belief is going away; rather, it’s a matter of people not affiliating with religious organizations.

This is partly due to another demographic trend. Since the 1960s, Americans have been disengaging with all forms of community and organizations. Political scientist Robert Putnam popularized this idea back in the year 2000 in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (2) Putnam blamed much of the disengagement on individualized entertainment that was first delivered through television, and later through the internet. Think about it this way: on Sunday morning, it’s easier to stay home and look at NetFlix or TikTok than it is to drive to Cohasset center, find parking, and walk over to this Meeting House. Maybe the quality of interaction is better here in the Meeting House than what you’ll find on TikTok, but for many people the convenience and the ability to individualize one’s interaction makes up for the lower quality of interaction.

Interestingly, right after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the authors Thomas E. Mann, Norm Ornstein and E. J. Dionne, pointed out that many people “rallied to [Donald Trump] out of a yearning for forms of community and solidarity that they sense have been lost.” (3) I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Whether you agree or disagree with Donald Trump’s politics, there is no doubt he was adept at bringing a crowd of his supporters together, making them feel a part of something larger than themselves. In fact, his rallies look to me more like religious revivals than political rallies. Nor is it only Republican candidates who create that feeling: recently, we’ve seen how Raphael Warnock uses that feeling of a religious revival to rally people to vote for him.

Indeed, both the Republican party and the Democratic party have begun to resemble religions. Each party has doctrines and dogmas that they promote; and they are eager to denigrate the doctrines and dogmas of the other religion — sorry, of the other party. Each party has a mythological dimension, myths that they tell about heroic figures. There are rituals specific to each group, including things like chanting and pilgrimages. Adherents of each party can have strong emotional experiences, akin to traditional religious experiences like praying or worshipping in a church. There’s even material culture associated with each party, objects that take on almost religious significance, like MAGA hats or Barack Obama posters. All this looks a lot like religion to me. (4)

But it’s not just political parties that have taken on religious dimensions. Other forms of social interaction are also taking the place of traditional religious congregations. Think about sports events. The World Cup, with the special fan clothing, the fans making long pilgrimages to a distant land, the chanting and sense of identity — this all looks like religion. Or, closer to home, as someone who grew up in the Boston area, I can tell you that around here, baseball often feels like a religion. I found it difficult to explain to people in California how belonging to Red Sox nation was more like a religious affiliation than simply rooting for the home team. I’m told Red Sox fans are quite similar in this regard to Green Bay Packers fans. So you can see that for the true believers, sports looks like religion to outsiders, and from the inside, to true believers, sports feels like religion. (5)

And then there’s work. Over the past few years, sociologist Carolyn Chen of the University of California at Berkeley has focused her research on Silicon Valley workers. She finds that these workers “point to their jobs and careers” when they are asked “what brings meaning to their lives.” That’s the ultimate purpose of religion, isn’t it? — to help us bring meaning into our lives. Instead of turning to sports or politics, many Silicon Valley workers are finding the ultimate meaning and purpose of their lives through their work.

I could go on, and tell you about other social and cultural phenomena look a lot like religion — celebrity worship, humanistic psychology, network Christianity, yoga, and so on. But you get the point. Religion is taking on new forms. No longer is religion confined to local churches and synagogues. Religion can no longer be neatly categorized into denominations and world religions. American religion now includes sports, and politics, and work.

So where does that leave First Parish? How can we compete with a Raphael Warnock rally, or a Donald Trump rally? How can we compete with Red Sox baseball, or with downhill skiing? How can we compete with the jobs of knowledge workers? What we can do is we can offer an alternative.

For there’s a problem with sports, politics, or work as religion. Each of these things asks our devotion, not for our own sake, but for the sake of another. Donald Trump and Raphael Warnock ask us to participate in the religious rituals of their political rallies, not to make us better people, but so that they can win an election. There’s nothing wrong with supporting a political candidate, there’s nothing wrong with helping someone get elected. But when our support of them starts looking like religion — when we start getting our personal meaning and fulfillment out of it — then someone else is using our fulfillment to meet their own ends and goals.

Similarly, there’s nothing wrong with sports. I sometimes worship at the altar of the Red Sox, and will happily tell you about the time I got seats four rows back from the visitor’s dugout when the legendary knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was pitching against the New York Yankees. But we have to remember that professional sports is a business. If when I get my personal meaning and fulfillment in life by boosting someone else’s profit, I’m no longer an end in myself; someone else is using me as a means to their own ends.

Perhaps most troubling to me is when knowledge workers find their entire life’s meaning in their jobs. When you work for a corporation, you are a means to an end. You may get something out of your job, but the ultimate end of your job is to create profits for the company. As important as your work may be, you are more than your job. To be fully human is to be an end in yourself.

In the second reading this morning, Rabbi Howard Bogot talks about a quote he carried around with him for many years, a quote from an anonymous twentieth century source. That anonymous but wise person pointed out that those things which dominate our imaginations and our thoughts have a tendency to determine the course of our lives and our characters. Therefore, concludes this wise anonymous source, “it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”

This anonymous quote helps us understand the big change in American religion that’s going on right now. People are leaving the old religious organizations, the churches and the synagogues — leaving the traditional religious groups like denominations. But that doesn’t mean that religion is going away; religion is simply taking new forms.

Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with religion taking on new forms. But there is problem with some of these new forms of religion: they have the capacity to tear our society apart. When politics becomes religion, it can take the relatively benign form of political rallies. In a more extreme, more toxic form, it can turn into something like Christian militias and Christian nationalism. And Christian nationalism has gotten to the point where one proponent is calling for the United States to be governed by a Christian Taliban. (6) Thus, in an extreme form, politics as religion can wind up being dangerous to democracy.

When work becomes religion, it can take the relatively benign form of someone absolutely loving their job, so much so that they’re willing to work more than 80 hours a week and sleep on a couch at their workplace. In an extreme form, as in Silicon Valley where workers are expected to spend most of their lives at work, sociologist Carolyn Chen has documented the the destructive side effects of excessive devotion to jobs: destruction of families, destruction of civic organizations, and disinvestment in public government. Thus, in its extreme form, work as religion can become dangerous to our society. (7)

As I gaze into my crystal ball and try to catch sight of what next ten or twenty years will look like here at First Parish, I spend a lot of time thinking about this big change in American religion. How should we here in First Parish respond to this drift away from organized religion?

First of all, our kind of religion is no longer the norm. We cannot automatically assume that when someone walks into our Meeting House, they will know what we’re doing, what’s going on here. We now have to explain what organized religion is like, what it does. We now have to explain that religious congregations like First Parish are civic organizations, places where we join together both to help ourselves and our families, and to make our communities stronger. Religious congregations like First Parish are cornerstones of democracy. Religious congregations like First Parish exist, not for the sake of the congregation, but for the sake of each person in the congregation. We come here, not to profit someone else, but to profit ourselves.

We used to spend a lot of time explaining to newcomers what we believed. We would tell people that we didn’t have a creed or a dogma, that we search together for truth and goodness. In the past, that was how we differentiated ourselves from other religious congregations. But now, I’ve been finding newcomers are more interested in learning what it is that we do. When I try to explain what it is that we do here at First Parish, a few things come immediately to mind.

First of all, each week in our worship services, we affirm our highest values. We recall ourselves to our deepest humanity. We strengthen ourselves for the week ahead.

Next, we are the leaders of our congregation. While we do have paid staff, leadership is shared among all who are part of our community. We all make the decisions together, we all staff the committees, we are the volunteers.

Next, we join together to make the world a better place. We support charitable causes, we volunteer together, we help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

Perhaps most importantly, we raise the next generation to become moral, joyful, humane people. And this is yet another way in which we help bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

As you can see, what we do is quite different from what the new forms of religion do. Again, the new forms of religion — work and politics and sports and so on — are mostly done for someone else’s profit. No one is making a profit from what we do here in First Parish. What we do benefits each one of us, and all of us collectively. What we do benefits the wider community, and ultimately the whole world.

In addition to telling people what we believe and showing them what it is that we do, there’s another way we should be explaining ourselves to curious newcomers. We need to show people that we have a different way of being in the world. Our kind of being is not a selfish kind of being. Our kind of being is being-with-others. As an old prophet once put it, we strive to love our neighbors as we love our selves. (8) Sometimes I like to call this inter-being, or or sometime we might use the phrase “the interdependent web of all life.” When others sense within us this love for neighbor and love for self, they may find that they want to be a part of this community. They may want to feel part of the interdependent web of life.

When I look ahead to the next ten or twenty years at First Parish, this is what I hope we put at the center of our community: loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. Or if you prefer, living as if the interdependent web of life truly mattered. These are the permanent center of our religious community. And if we can keep these at our center, if we can show in our lives and in our being that these are of greatest importance to us, we will continue to be a force for good in the next ten years, in the next twenty years, indeed for the next three hundred years of our existence.


(1) See e.g., Pew Research Center, “Nones on the Rise,” 9 October 2012, www.pewresearch.org/religion/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/ accessed 10 December 2022.
(2) Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).
(3) E. J. Dionne Jr., Norman J. Ornstein, Thomas E. Mann, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported (St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2018).
(4) To help define define religion, I’m using Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion from his book Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998). Smart’s seven dimensions of religion are: Ritual; Narrative and Mythic; Experiential and emotional; Social and Institutional; Ethical and legal; Doctrinal and philosophical; Material (i.e., objects that symbolize the sacred). According to Smart, different religions emphasize different dimensions of the sacred.
(5) There is a great deal of scholarly writing about sport as religion. For just one example, the book From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion (Mercer University Press, 2001), ed. Joseph L. Price, contains a collection of essays on this topic, with titles like “The Final Four as Final Judgement,” “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival,” and “The Pitcher’s Mound as Cosmic Mountain.”
(6) Christian nationalist Nick Fuentes has called for this, according to “Who Is Trump’s Dinner Companion, Nick Fuentes?,” Religion News Service, 27 November 2022, religionnews.com/2022/11/27/who-is-trump-and-kanyes-dinner-companion-nick-fuentes/ accessed10 December 2022.
(7) For more about the destructive side effects of work as religion, see the final chapter of Chen’s book Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022).
(8) Jesus of Nazareth, as reported in the Gospel according to Mark, 12:31.