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 this morning is from an 1897 address given by Rev. William Cole, then minister of our congregation, about this history of this Meeting House:
“What was the size and appearance of the meeting-house when finished, about 1755? Its dimensions were the same as those contained within the four walls of the present edifice. It has no tower, no porch. Three doors admitted you to its worship and exercises, one where the tower now stands, one opposite on the south side, and the third faced the pulpit.
“Upon the roof at the north end was placed the belfry, without, at first, a bell—a modest belfry, something like the one on the ‘Old Ship’ in Hingham. The upper windows on either side of the pulpit were not in the original plan….
“Within the church, steps as now led up into the gallery…. The gallery was divided in the front gallery by a partition. The south side was allotted to the women to use.
“It is impossible to be sure about the arrangement of the different kinds of pews, though one would surmise that, when they spoke of pews, they meant the square box-pews, and by seats and seatlets [they meant] narrow pews. There appear to have been both kinds [of pews] in the church….
“No carpet, no oil lamps, no cushions, and no stoves lent comfort to the people or beauty to the interior. No bell as yet called to worship or struck the hours of the day….”
The second reading is a poem by Roscoe Trueblood, minister of this congregation who died in 1969. Had Roscoe Trueblood lived long enough, he would doubtless have been part of the feminist movement in Unitarian Universalism, and would have revised this poem with gender inclusive language.
The Meeting House
Here stands this house and we, for what it stands
Are gathered in these calm beloved walls
We called it church and now in turn it calls
Us members, and it speaks some clear commands:
We built the spire and raised it with our hands
Now it points us to high dreams and enthralls
Us with its beauty. And when grief appalls
There is a spirit here which understands.
So may this house be both effect and cause
Both voice and echo, then voice again
Antiphonal of man to God — to man:
So may our values couched in truth and laws
Find home and symbol safe from storm and flood,
So may we surely call it, House of God.
This poem was first published by First Parish in Cohasset, and is used with their permission.
The choir performed “Chester,” a patriotic song by William Billings. This song could well have been sung in the Cohasset Meeting House during the Revolutionary War period. The text and scores are available on the Choral Public Domain Library website.
Sermon: “Meaning in Our Meeting House”
This year represents the 275th anniversary of the raising of this Meeting House. Many of you present here, or watching online, know far more about the history of this Meeting House than I do. But I’d like to talk with you about the meaning that can be found in this Meeting House, and how that meaning has changed over the years. I’ll start in 1750, when our Meeting House was built. From there I’ll fast forward to 1855, after a number of important changes had been made to this Meeting House. Then I’ll fast forward to 1980, when some of the most radical changes were happening here in our Meeting House. And finally, I’ll talk about some surprising changes that are happening right now, in 2022.
Let’s begin by traveling back in time to 1750. In that year, our Meeting House embodied the social structures of the what was then called the Second Precinct of Hingham — we were not yet an independent town.
In 1750, where you sat within the Meeting House, what you sat on, who you sat next to — all these things were dictated by your social status. If you were part of a well-to-do family, you sat with your family, and you most likely sat in the center of the Meeting House. Half the money needed to construct this Meeting House came from taxes, but the other half came from auctioning off the space in the Meeting House where you could have a pew. The old documents referred to this as owning “ground” in the Meeting House.
If your family had a lot of money, you could afford to purchase ground in the center of the Meeting House. Then you could afford to build your family pew. You had to build the pew according to standards set by the proprietors of the Meeting House. But then, if your family was wealthy, the male head of your family would probably be one of the proprietors of the Meeting House, and so your family was one of the group that got to set the standards for pews.
If your family had less money, you’d be able to afford ground in a less desirable part of the Meeting House — under the galleries, off to the sides, or maybe even in the front of the galleries. Quite a few of the less wealthy families could not afford to build a pew for themselves right away, so the old records talk about “seats” and “seatlets.” These would have been less expensive to build — quite literally, the cheap seats.
And then there were the people who were not part of one of the land-owning families. This would have included itinerant laborers, enslaved persons, and free people of color, including both people of African descent and people of Native descent. It seems likely that the proprietors would not have allowed people in these categories to own ground within the Meeting House. But benches in the backs of the galleries were reserved for them.
Our Meeting House also embodied the strict gender divisions of mid-18th century Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1750, the Meeting House had three doors, and some of the histories suggest that women entered by the south door, men by the north door, and the minister came in the west door. Women who were not part of a land-owning family — that is, servants, enslaved women, perhaps indentured servants, and so on — had seats reserved for them in the south gallery. A partition carefully separated the women’s section from the rest of the gallery.
In other words, your socio-economic status and your gender and your race determined where you sat inside the Meeting House. Yet there was another strict division that was present but not visible in the building of the Meeting House. This was the division between those who “owned the covenant,” that is, had formally joined the church, and those who were not church members. You could own a pew and be one of the proprietors of the physical Meeting House, and yet not be a member of the church proper. When you became a member of the church, you had a special spiritual status, and you had more direct access to the minister. Joining the church was a way for women and people of color to gain in status, to gain prestige that would otherwise be denied them.
When I hear about these 18th century social divisions, our Meeting House begins to feel strange. While in many ways it still looks the same as it did back in 1750, the meaning we find in our Meeting House today differs substantially from the meaning they found.
Now let’s jump forward in time to 1855. We’ll skip over the exciting events of the American Revolution, with the choir anthem this morning to remind us of those dramatic events — the closet in the Meeting House where ammunition was hidden, the reading of the Declaration of Indpenedence from the pulpit, and so on.
By 1855, the Meeting House had been changed in a number of ways. The porch had been added to the front of the Meeting House in 1767; the tower and steeple in 1799. Stoves supplied heat to the Meeting House for the first time in 1822. Second Congregational Church had been organized in 1824, so town taxes no longer supported our congregation. The years from 1837 to 1855 saw the addition of the present pews, carpets on the floors, oil lamps, draperies blocking the windows behind the pulpit, and finally an organ in the west gallery. The north and south doors were long gone, and everyone came in together through the west door.
These substantial changes in the appearance of the Meeting House were accompanied by substantial changes in the social structure of the congregation. The congregation was now separate from the town; we had become a so-called “voluntary association,” that is, participation in the congregation was a voluntary act. I think it is no accident that the old box pews were replaced by the present pews a dozen years after church and town were separated. The new pews, our present pews, embody a different way of thinking about who is part of the congregation. The old box pews, with their high walls, would have carefully separated families from one another. The new pews allow us to see and hear one another better, they show that we are all part of one congregation. Families still owned their own pew, and the wealthier people still got to sit in the best locations. But the new pews give more of a sense of being one people worshipping together.
Interestingly, the congregation kept the old orientation of the pulpit. In the 19th century, some old meeting houses were converted into churches, by moving the pulpit from the long wall to the short wall of the building. That could easily have been done here when the new pews were installed. The pulpit could have been moved to the south wall, for example, with the main entrance through the tower, as in a conventional church. And in fact, the present stairs to the pulpit were probably added in 1838 — one architectural consultant thought that the door to the space under the pulpit on the south side is actually the door to one of the old pews.
So the pulpit was indeed modified in the mid-19th century. But our congregation chose to leave the pulpit on the long wall, maintaining this building as a meeting house. The floor plan of a meeting house has the effect of keeping the preacher closer to the rest of the congregation. This seems to me to correspond with a growing sense of egalitarianism within our congregation. Cohasset, along with Hingham, became a hotbed of abolitionism, and in 1842 the congregation called as its new minister Joseph Osgood, an abolitionist. I like to think that the egalitarian impulses of abolitionism are the same egalitarian impulses that maintained this as a meeting house.
By 1855, the interior of our Meeting House was much the same as we see it today. We’ve changed the carpet several times, there are not electric lights instead of oil lamps, and we get our heat from an oil-burning furnace instead of stoves. We also removed the heavy dark Victorian drapery that provided a backdrop to our pulpit, and in 1892 a new larger organ was built in the north gallery, replacing the old organ. Women gained the right to vote on parish affairs in the 1880s, and pew ownership ended about 1900, continuing the congregation’s trend of increasing egalitarianism. We changed the color of the walls more than once — in the 1960s, these walls were a pleasant blue color. But these are mostly minor changes, and if Joseph Osgood came back to preach here in the 1960s, I think he would have felt right at home. He would have felt comfortable in the building, and he would have felt comfortable with the social structures revealed in the appearance of our Meeting House.
But in the 1970s, a series of radical changes swept through our Meeting House. These radical changes didn’t cause too many architectural changes, but these social changes drastically changed the way we used the Meeting House.
Perhaps the most radical of these changes — I’d argue this was the most radical of all the changes to our Meeting House in its 275 year existence — was when the minister came out of the high pulpit and began preaching from the main floor. That minister was Edward Atkinson, who served this congregation from 1969 until his death in 1995. There’s a fabulous photograph of Ed Atkinson in our archives dating from the mid-1970s: he has a beard, he’s playing a guitar, and he’s sitting on a stool in front of the high pulpit. That one photograph encapsulates all kinds of stereotypes of the 1970s. [See a digitized copy of the photo below.]
But we shouldn’t let the stereotypes obscure the truly radical act of a straight white cis-gender male minister stepping out of a symbolical position of great power, and coming down to the same level as the rest of the congregation. I’m inclined to understand this act as an embodiment of the feminist revolution that swept through Unitarian Universalism in the 1970s and 1980s. Male ministers, and men in general, began to understand the power they got just from being male. This helps explain why Ed Atkinson decided to step out of the high pulpit, out of the literal position of power.
Second wave feminism brought other radical changes. We started lighting a flaming chalice in our worship services. This new religious ritual appears to have come from religious educators, ninety percent of whom were women. Lighting a chalice was an embodied ritual; it was something physical we did; it got us out of our heads and into our bodies. We adopted other new rituals that also got us out of our heads and into our whole selves including most notably lighting candles of joy and sorrow, and what we now call “Water Communion” that was originally called the “Water Ritual.”
By the 1990s, we were no longer content to sit still for most of an hour and listen to the minister — the male minister — preach to us. We began to worship with more than just our heads; we began to worship with our hands and our bodies and our whole selves. This was a radical revolution in Unitarian Universalist worship. It is still continuing. We still spend a lot of time sitting and listening. But at least now we listen to as much music as the spoken word.
Now let’s fast forward to the present day. Once again, we’re in the middle of a radical change in the way we use our Meeting House. That radical change is embodied in the livestreaming camera up in the gallery. You no longer have to be physically present in the Meeting House to participate in worship services. You can be in new Mexico, or in Wisconsin, or in Texas, or in Colorado, or Florida. Our Meeting House now exists online as well as in person.
Our online presence is so new we don’t even know how it’s going to affect us. As one example of what I mean, I’ve been hearing from our members and friends at a distance that they would like to be able to participate in some way in the candles of joy and concern. Currently we mute the microphone during the candles of joy and concern, to preserve people’s privacy. But this seems to me to move us away from egalitarianism; we have unwittingly created a class of worshippers who cannot fully participate in our services. This at a time when our society is being polarized; this in a time when we need to embrace community and egalitarianism.
And this leads me to the final point I’d like to make. It is we, the congregation, who create the meaning in this Meeting House. Yes, we are influenced by outside events — by abolitionism, by the second wave of feminism, by the online revolution. But we have a great deal of freedom in how we decide to respond to those outside events. We left behind the strict social divisions of 1750, while keeping the egalitarianism implicit in having our pulpit on the long wall. We embraced abolitionism in the mid-19th century. We embraced the feminist revolution in the 20th century.
In the 275th year of this Meeting House, we find ourselves in another time of great change. What creative ways will we find to embrace online worshippers? The moral arc of our congregation has always bent towards greater inclusiveness, towards greater egalitarianism, towards greater justice. May we find ways to keep that moral arc bending in that direction.