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.

Meaning in Our Meeting House

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.

Choir anthem

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.

Man with beard sitting on a stool in front of the pulpit of First Parish in Cohasset. He is playing a guitar and wearing a three piece suit.
Rev. Edward T. Atkinson circa 1974. Photo courtesy First Parish archives.