Mysticism in the Unitarian Universalist Tradition

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2014 Daniel Harper. The reflection was delivered by Brooke Bishara on the same date. Reflection copyright (c) 2014 Brooke Bishara; used by permission.

Reading — from Mysticism: Holiness East and West by Denise and John Carmody,

“[C]onsider Lao-tzu, reputed author of the Tao te Ching. Grappling with the Way, he found his reason clouding. All around him moved bright, busy, and certain people. They seemed clear about what they were doing, about who they were and what was happening to them. He alone seemed to feel overcast, dull, and not at all certain. They more he searched, the less he found. The long he studied, the less he knew. It is easy to picture him trekking off into silence: the Tao that could be told was not the Tao. However, painful though his dissociation was, hard as his alienation struck him, he was in love with the Tao and so was willing to suffer for it. Life without the Tao would have been no life. Clarity without reality and depth would have been horrible.”

Reflection — Brooke Bishara, worship associate

A mystic is one who seeks direct experience of ultimate reality. The mystic senses that the divine is always present, but also that in our “normal lives” we are only dimly aware of it. The mystic wants to come closer, to connect, and know the truth intimately.

About ten years ago, I had a mystical experience. It started as I was painting a picture to express a painful feeling from the past. With black paint, I painted the top half of a face along the bottom edge of the paper. It almost looked like the face was peeking just above a window sill at me. The face had a sad expression, with a hat pulled down close to its eyes. In the act of painting the image, I was allowing an old feeling of shame that I had held for a long time to be expressed. I asked the spirit for help with this feeling, and suddenly I received a surge of energy through my arms and into my chest and head. It tingled like electricity, and it was so strong that I got up from the desk and lay down on my bed. I stayed there for about a half an hour, feeling this tingling current of energy radiating through my body. I was fully awake and consciously thanking God for this gift, and for the love being shown to me. I was deeply changed by the experience.

The next day, when I had to get up and go through the regular motions of my life and work as a teacher, my eyes were open a little wider. I was awed by what had happened to me. I wanted to tell my colleagues and students, but I knew it was not for telling, not yet. Mostly, I wanted to reassure the people around me that there is, indeed, an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension. As years have passed, and I’ve told this story a few times, someone once suggested that the feeling was a release—the energy of that old emotion leaving my body. Someone else suggested that it was the holy spirit coming in to me to heal what was hurting.

I do not worry about finding the right explanation. Nor do I expect to ever have that experience again. But it has become a touchstone of my life. Though my mind cannot explain it, that experience opened a pathway in my heart that can never be closed.

Sermon — Mysticism in the Unitarian Universalist Tradition

In her reflection, Brooke has given us one of the best short descriptions of a mystical experience that I have heard. She brings out several typical features of a mystical experience: that it is an experience that is difficult or impossible to put into words; that it changed the person who had the experience; that such an experience gives knowledge of some deep and abiding force or presence in the universe; that such an experience ultimately cannot be explained, nor explained away.

I wanted to talk with you about mystical experiences this morning because such experiences lie at the very core of our Unitarian Universalist tradition; more specifically, at the core of the Unitarian half of our tradition. Unitarianism began to arise in North America at about the time of the Revolutionary War, and although the movement later came to be known for affirming that Jesus was not God, it started out as a movement that asserted the free will of individual human beings: in the late eighteenth century, the movement that became known as Unitarianism reacted against the then-dominant Calvinist notion that human beings not only are depraved, but that human beings have little free will and can do nothing to further their own salvation. So the early Unitarians said, in effect, that we human beings do have a fair amount of free will, and that each of us must take responsibility for living the best life possible.

By the 1830s, a number of Unitarians were refining that basic argument further. One person in particular — a man who had been a Unitarian minister but who left the ministry to become a full-time philosopher, writer, and lecturer — made a strong case for individual responsibility and free will in a famous essay titled “Self Reliance.” That person was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was part of the Transcendentalist circle, and who had himself been affected by his own mystical experiences. Emerson said that any person could apprehend the ultimate reality directly. You could call that ultimate reality “God,” or you could call it the “Oversoul,” as Emerson sometimes did; the name was less important than was the truth that we all have direct access to this ultimate reality. We don’t have to go through priests or clergy; we don’t have to read certain specified scriptures, nor do we have to engage in specific religious practices like prayer. We all have direct access to this ultimate reality — no strings attached.

Of course, this kind of self reliance carries with it great responsibility. Having direct access to ultimate reality has moral and ethical implications: if you have direct access to ultimate reality, this implies that you will have high standards against which to judge your own behavior and decisions. Self reliance is not an easy philosophy: freedom comes with great responsibility, and that can lead to political action.

One of Emerson’s protegés, Henry David Thoreau, explored some of the political implications of self reliance in his famous essay “Civil Disobedience.” Thoreau said that while there are human-made laws, there are also “higher laws,” and we can have direct knowledge of these higher laws. Sometimes human-made laws are unjust, and when that is true, we may be called to obey higher laws. (Notice that Thoreau starts with the assumption that we can have direct apprehension of those higher laws.) In her reflection, Brooke talked about “an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension.” Once you have that kind of experience, it is difficult to put up with human-made laws which go against that abiding love, and which instead promote hatred and warfare. So it was that Thoreau was appalled by the Mexican American War, which he felt was unjust and unjustifiable. Appealing to higher laws, he refused to pay taxes that would support that war, and for his refusal he was thrown in jail. As I said, this philosophy of self reliance is not an easy philosophy.

More than a century later, Martin Luther King drew inspiration from Thoreau when he was formulating his own theory of civil disobedience. King knew that the human-made Jim Crow laws were in direct violation of that deep abiding love that reaches beyond our rational comprehension. Appealing to that higher law, King said that it was acceptable to break the human-made Jim Crow laws. I would say King’s theory of civil disobedience comes out of his direct experience of ultimate reality. King was careful to call that ultimate reality by the name “God” — to call it “God” made it possible to explain civil disobedience to others, particularly to those ostensibly God-fearing authorities who were trying to enforce the human-made Jim Crow laws; but the name of the ultimate reality is less important than the experience. I don’t know that King was a mystic himself; but if he wasn’t one himself, he drew on Thoreau, who was a mystic; and he drew on Jesus of Nazareth, who was also a mystic.

And by telling you about Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience, I am making the point that mysticism can be a disruptive influence. Mystical experiences are personally disruptive: Brooke told us that in her reflection; she told us that her experience was so strong that she had to lie down. (I’ve had my own mystical experiences, starting in my mid-teens, and I can assure you from my own experience that they can disrupt one’s sense of the world.) When you have powerful experiences of an ultimate reality, that can cause you to look with skepticism on the way humans rationalize our actions. This is what happened to Thoreau. He had his transcendent experiences, he had direct apprehension of higher laws, of ultimate reality, and with that perspective he found himself unable to accept the half-truths that were foisted on the public by those who were trying to rationalize the unjust Mexican American War. Nor did he stop there: Thoreau also knew with perfect clarity that slavery and fugitive slave laws were wrong, that those laws went directly counter to higher laws; and he broke the human-made laws by participating in the Underground Railroad. (Indeed, we have independent documentation that he harbored fugitive slaves at his cabin on Walden Pond.) Thoreau’s mystical experiences proved to be a very disruptive influence.

Emerson, Thoreau, and the other Transcendentalists — all of them open to direct experiences of ultimate reality — went on to disrupt the world around them. They disrupted the older Unitarianism that had been founded on sound, rational Enlightenment principles. The rational Unitarians were infuriated by Transcendentalists like Theodore Parker. Parker infuriated them partly because of his challenge to their rational ways of thinking; partly because he managed to draw over two thousand people to his sermons each week (his was the very first mega-church, by the way); and partly by his adamant opposition to slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law. The more rational Unitarians may have been opposed to slavery, but they were appalled when Parker told them that not only had he harbored fugitive slaves in his own house, thus breaking the law; in addition to that, he had written sermons with a loaded pistol on the desk in front of him, expecting to have his house broken into at any moment by slave-catchers. Keeping a loaded pistol on his desk was not a rational act, as defined by the rational Unitarians steeped in Enlightenment thinking, but it brought Parker into harmony with higher laws.

Mystics can be less openly disruptive — not all of us mystics keep loaded pistols on our desks — but no less challenging in more subtle ways. I think of Mary Rotch, who had a strong influence on Emerson’s thinking. Mary Rotch had grown up a Quaker, a mystical tradition; she knew what it was to commune directly with ultimate reality. When she became a Unitarian in the 1820s, Unitarian churches still had communion services about once a month. Emerson filled the pulpit of Mary Rotch’s Unitarian church for a few months while the regular minister was on sabbatical, and he noticed that Mary Rotch would stand up and quietly walk out of the church just before the communion ceremony. He discussed this with her, and she convinced him that the ritual of communion was an empty ritual; that the direct communion with ultimate reality was real communion, and the only communion that was needed. This prompted Emerson to write his famous sermon stating why he could no longer officiate at communion services. The rational Unitarians of the day were not pleased by Emerson’s argument; to them, communion made complete rational sense, as a memorial ritual that helped commemorate an important moment from our religious history. It’s fairly easy to come up with rational reasons for most things, and I suspect that if rational Unitarianism had prevailed over Emerson’s Transcendentalism, we would still be serving communion here in our historically Unitarian church.

In our day, Unitarian Universalism is once again dominated by religious rationalism. This is not a bad thing: logic and rational thought are extremely powerful intellectual tools. But a year ago, I had a very interesting conversation with Fred Hawley about the way Unitarian Universalism is currently dominated by religious rationalism. Fred was a long-time member here in our congregation, and he gave me permission to tell you about this conversation. Fred suggested to me that our congregation was overly dominated by those who value rationality above all else, to the exclusion of other modes of thinking and being.

As I said, logic and rationality are powerful tools. Emerson and Thoreau and Theodore Parker and Mary Rotch all used rational thought and logic. But what the Transcendentalists, and other Unitarian mystics, have tried to demonstrate is that logic and rational thinking have limits; we cannot rely on them for everything. The limits of rationality became particularly evident during the twentieth century: Nazi Germany was in many ways the epitomy of a rationally-run nation; here in the U.S., separate-but-equal Jim Crow laws were perfectly rational; and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction by nuclear weapons was eminently rational. All these things were quite rational, but they were not necessarily right.

One of the things Fred Hawley talked to me about was the book Koviashuvik by Sam Wright [San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988]. Sam Wright is a Unitarian Universalist minister, who served our congregation as interim minister in 1990 and 1991. In Koviashuvik, published by the Sierra Club, Sam Wright tells about living in the Brooks Range in Alaska while the Alaskan pipeline was being built. Koviashuvik is a book about different ways of knowing. Sam Wright knew about the Brooks Range as a place where he and his wife lived off the land; the people who planned the Alaskan pipeline knew the Brooks Range in a different way, as a mere obstacle to the building of the pipeline; the people who worked on the pipeline knew about the Brooks Range as the background to their well-compensated jobs; the Arctic Terns and caribou knew about the Brooks Range in still other ways. Now, the people who planned the Alaskan pipeline were entirely rational people who knew that they had to transport oil from where it was being pumped out of the ground to where it could be refined and used. But, says Sam Wright, the Arctic Tern and caribou have equally valid, albeit non-rational, ways of knowing the world. Were the builders of the oil pipeline right simply because they used rational thought? I’m not sure the Arctic Tern or the caribou would say that was true.

I have never lived in the Alaskan wilderness, but in my work as a religious educator, I see the limits of rationality all the time. Anyone who teaches sees the limits of rationality. As a religious educator, one of the things I like to teach children is how to be radical feminists — that is, teach children that girls and women are just as good as boys and men. Now if you’re trying to teach a nine year old girl about feminism, you can give all the rational explanations that you want, and that nine year old girl will probably agree with you, but she has not really gotten what feminism is all about. But if a boy is given preferential treatment, a teacher suddenly has a moment when they can suggest that perhaps this instance of preferential treatment is part of a larger pattern, and sometimes you can watch as that girl suddenly gets it, suddenly perceives this mass injustice that pervades our society: Oh yeah, boys get preferential treatment all the time, and that’s not fair! We do this with boys, too, and they are equally capable of directly apprehending the unfairness of sexism. But in my teaching experience, this is not a rational process.

Rational exposition can work as a teaching tool, for some people, at least some of the time. More often, however, I think learning takes place in flashes of direct apprehension: suddenly you get it, suddenly it all makes sense, suddenly you can do it. Fred Hawley talked with me about this experience in relation to his favorite pastime of lawn bowling. Referring to the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Fred spoke about “flow,” when you get so involved in something that your self is subsumed in the task at hand. In Fred’s interpretation, this happens when you are not thinking about doing something; you are doing it, doing it so well that there is no thinking involved: you have direct contact with the game in that moment. You can learn all you want about the physics and mechanics of lawn bowling; but unless you actually do it, and practice it, and get good at it, mere rational knowledge of lawn bowling means you know everything about lawn bowling while knowing nothing about lawn bowling.

Teachers run into this situation, too: every teacher has run into learners who can talk a good game, but who don’t really know much of anything. Mystics also run into this situation all the time: people who have not had mystical experiences themselves trying to give rational explanations of other people’s mystical experiences. Rationality is a good and useful took, but it is merely one tool in your toolkit, and like any other tool, it is good for some things and useless for other things. What I have learned from our Unitarian Universalist mystical tradition is that rationality is a very useful tool for explaining, describing, and designing new technology. It is less useful for making moral and ethical decisions. It is next to useless for lawn bowling. Just as you should not use an ohmmeter to hammer a nail or open a can, you should not use rationality to do everything. And as for transcendent experiences and direct apprehension of reality and the feeling of “flow” — these are not particularly useful tools for explaining and describing, but they are quite useful tools for teaching kids about sexism, for engaging in civil disobedience, and for lawn bowling.

This is why we are fortunate to have such a strong mystical tradition within Unitarian Universalism: it significantly expands our kit of useful tools. If you find yourself engaging in civil disobedience, and being hauled off to prison, it might be helpful to have a rational understanding of why you are getting arrested; but Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr., might suggest that it could be more helpful to have a direct experience of an abiding love that reaches far beyond our comprehension. If you find yourself fighting very rational arguments for ignoring something like global climate change or toxics in the environment, it might be helpful to remember that people can learn through direct apprehension at teachable moments.

I certainly don’t expect every Unitarian Universalist to have mystical transcendental experiences; after all, ours is a non-creedal faith that does not enforce intellectual conformity. But when I think about all the serious problems that face us — racism, toxics in the environment, global climate weirdness — I am glad that we can draw on the mystical tradition of Mary Rotch, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Thoreau.

Mary Rotch, An Inspired Life

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained extemporaneous remarks and improvisation. A version of this sermon with footnotes and bibliography is available. Sermon copyright (c) 2008 Daniel Harper.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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