Evil in Our Time

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation.


The first reading is from The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion Since 9/11, by Richard J. Bernstein:

“This new fashionable popularity of the discourse of good and evil … represents an abuse of evil — a dangerous abuse. It is an abuse because, instead of inviting us to question and to think, this talk of evil is being used to stifle thinking. This is extremely dangerous in a complex and precarious world. The new discourse of good and evil lacks nuance, subtlety, and judicious discrimination. In the so-called ‘War on Terror,’ nuance and subtlety are (mis)taken as signs of wavering, weakness, and indecision. But if we think that politics requires judgment, artful diplomacy, and judicious discrimination, then this talk about absolute evil is profoundly anti-political. As Hannah Arendt noted, ‘The absolute … spells doom to everyone when it is introduced into the political realm.’”

The second reading is from A Pocketful of Rye, a murder mystery by Agatha Christie. In this passage, Miss Marple and a police inspector are discussing who might have committed a murder:

“[Inspector Neele] said, ‘Oh, there are other possibilities, other people who had a perfectly good motive.’

“‘Mr. Dubois, of course,’ said Mis Marple sharply. ‘And that young Mr. Wright. I do so agree with you, Inspector. Wherever there is a question of gain, one has to be very suspicious. The great thing to avoid is having in any way a trustful mind.’

“In spite of himself, Neele smiled. ‘Always think the worst, eh?’ he asked. It seemed a curious doctrine to be proceeding from this charming and fragile-looking old lady.

“‘Oh yes,’ said Miss Marple fervently. ‘I always believe the worst. What is so sad is that one is usually justified in doing so.’”

Sermon: “Evil in Our Time”

I’ve noticed something recently. In our society today, we like to talk about evil in the abstract. We like to say that racism and sexism and homophobia are evil. We like to say that the other political party is evil — or that all politics is evil. We say that violence is evil. We like talking about evil in the abstract.

But we’re less willing to talk about the specifics of evil. When we do talk about the specifics of evil, we choose a few small examples of a greater evil, and focus on that. So when we talk about the looming global ecological disaster, we talk about how people need to drive electric cars, but we don’t talk about how first world countries like the United States need to make major policy changes regarding both corporate and private energy use. Nor are we likely to talk about the other large major threats to earth’s life supporting systems, including toxication, the spread of invasive species, and land use change.

I understand why we tend to focus on a few small examples of evil, rather than seeing the big picture; I understand why we see the trees but not the forest. When we reduce evil to abstractions, or to small specific actions, we don’t have to give serious consideration to the political and social change necessary to put an end to racism. It’s a way of keeping evil from feeling overwhelming.

But when we reduce evil to an abstraction, we cause at least two problems. First, reducing evil to an abstraction tends to stop us from thinking any further about that evil. Second, by reducing evil to an abstraction, we ignore the individuality of human beings; to use the words of philosopher Richard J. Bernstein, we “transform [human beings] into creatures that are less than fully human.” We stop thinking, and we stop seeing individuals. I’ll give an example of what I mean.

Prior to coming here to First Parish, a significant part of my career was spent serving congregations that needed help cleaning up after sexual misconduct by a minister or other staff person. (Just so you know, I’ve served in ten different congregations, many of which were entirely healthy. Although I’m going to give you an example based on sexual misconduct by a minister, I’ve changed details and fictionalized the story so innocent people can remain totally anonymous.)

Once upon a time, there was a minister who had engaged in inappropriate behavior with someone who was barely 18 years old. I was hired to clean up the resultant mess. Because I’ve done a fair amount of work with teens, I was ready to demonize this particular minister, thinking to myself, “Legally this minister may be in the clear, but morally I’m going to call this person evil.” Because I thought of this minister as evil, I assumed anything they did was bad.

But then I found out that this minister had helped someone else in the congregation escape from a domestic violence situation. This required extended effort on the part of that minister, extending over a period of several years. This minister whom I had thought of as evil helped the domestic violence survivor to get out of the abusive relationships, find safe housing, extricate the children from the control of the abusive spouse, and settle down to a new life of safety. I was very suspicious of this story — surely this evil minister must have done something inappropriate with the person whom they had helped, or engaged in some other evil act. But it slowly became clear that in this case, the minister had done nothing wrong, and by extricating that person from domestic violence, that minister’s actions were wholly good.

This little story was a useful reminder to me: individual human beings are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. A person whom I had considered wholly evil was not, in fact, wholly evil; was, in fact, capable of amazing goodness. I had been in the wrong: when I called that person evil, I stopped myself from seeing the good they had done; I transformed that person into someone who was less than fully human. Mind you, I still kept my distance from that minister, feeling it was safer to do so, but at last I could see them as more than a caricature, I could see them as a complex individual.

We human beings are complex creatures. I would venture to say that no one is wholly evil — no, not even that politician that you’re thinking about right now. Even that politician whom you love to hate has redeeming qualities, though you may not be able to see them. We must always keep an open mind, and assume that every human being has the potential of doing good.

By the same token, I’d have to say that no one is wholly good. This is point the fictional character Miss Marple makes in the second reading this morning. Even someone who is essentially good can carry out evil actions. I don’t quite agree with Miss Marple when she says, “I always believe the worst. What is so sad is that one is usually justified in doing so.” Unlike Miss Marple, I don’t go around always believing the worst of everyone. But I do live my life in the awareness that everyone is capable both of evil and of goodness. Every human being has the potential of doing evil, but also of doing good.

If every human being is capable both of evil and capable of good, then you can see why we should not brand someone as wholly evil, or as wholly good for that matter. When we brand someone as wholly evil, that stops us from thinking about the evil that they caused. In that example of the minister that I just gave, when I branded that minister as wholly evil, I stopped thinking. When I started seeing them as a human being who was capable of both good and evil, I began to think more clearly, and I realized that there were external factors that led them into misconduct — external factors that were still at play, and that could lead to someone else engaging in misconduct. As I began to think more clearly, I was able to work with others to make that kind of behavior less likely in the future. It was only when I started thinking again that I was able to begin to work with others to try to prevent evil from happening again.

From a pragmatic standpoint, then, it’s foolish to brand someone as wholly evil; but it’s also morally wrong to brand someone as wholly evil. When we do that, we remove their individuality; we turn them into something less than human. We deny their individuality and deny their freedom, their capacity to make free choices in the way they act. The philosopher Richard J. Bernstein points out that this is the way totalitarianism works: he writes, “totalitarianism seeks to make all human beings superfluous — perpetrators and victims.” When we brand other people as evil, we are doing exactly what totalitarian regimes do: branding opponents as evil, denying human individuality, stopping everyone from thinking. Totalitarianism thrives when people stop thinking.

It is this tendency that troubles me about politics in the United States today. We brand our political opponents as being evil. Democrats say that Donald Trump is evil, and Kevin McCarthy is evil, and Marjorie Taylor Green is evil. Republicans say that Joe Biden is evil, and Nancy Pelosi is evil, and Barack Obama is evil. Even those who are independents — and here in Massachusetts, more people register as independent than either Republican or Democrat — even political independents play this game when they say all politicians are corrupt.

This kind of thing stops people from thinking. When Democrats brand Donald Trump as wholly evil, not only are they denying his essential humanity, but they have started walking down the road to totalitarianism. When Republicans say that Nancy Pelosi is evil, they are denying her essential humanity, and they too are starting to walk the road towards totalitarianism. When political independents claim that all politicians are corrupt, they are denying the essential humanity of all politicians, and — you guessed it — they have started walking the road towards totalitarianism.

Evil exists, but totalitarianism is not the solution for evil. Totalitarianism means that one person, or a small group of people, make all the decisions. But that one person, or that small group of people, can easily slip into doing evil themselves — and there will be no one to hold them accountable, to tell them to stop. This is what is happening in Russia right now: Russia has become a totalitarian state, so when Vladimir Putin decided to do evil by invading Ukraine, there was no one to stop him.

We can only stop evil through communal action, through cooperating with as many people as possible. This is the principle behind democracy: by cooperating widely, we minimize the chance of totalitarianism. But it’s hard to cooperate with other people when you brand half of the population as evil — as happens when Democrats brand Republicans as evil, and Republicans brand Democrats as evil, and Independents brand everyone else as evil, or at least corrupt. Calling other people evil is not serving us well. We don’t want to sound like Vladimir Putin.

There’s actually a religious point buried in all of this: Every single person has something of value in them. That something of value might be buried pretty deep, but it’s there. That’s what the Unitarian Universalist principles mean when they talk about the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” That’s what the Universalist minister and theologian Albert Zeigler meant when he said, “every person and what they do and how they do it is of ultimate concern, of infinite significance.” When you brand a person as evil, you deny their inherent worth and dignity, you say that person somehow lacks infinite significance. We can say that a person has done something evil; we can say that we no longer trust that person, and that we don’t want to have anything to do with them if we can help it. But that does not mean the person is evil; some of their actions were evil, yes; but the person is not evil.

There’s another religious point that goes along with this. When we recognize that each and every person is of infinite significance, we make a statement of great hope. Each person, each individual, has within them an infinite capacity for goodness; they may also have a capacity for evil, but evil is finite and good is infinite, so their capacity for evil can be overpowered by their capacity for goodness. Every person, even someone who has done something evil, can be redeemed. Remember the fictional minister I told you about: that minister did something horribly evil, but they also had within them the capacity for amazing goodness.

In the end, the collective human capacity for goodness will win out over the collective human capacity for evil. This is what Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Dr. King was actually paraphrasing a sermon from the great Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, who said: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, I am sure it bends toward justice.” So said Theodore Parker a century and a half ago.

Today, we still have a long way to go before we overcome evil. I’m pretty sure we won’t overcome evil in my lifetime. I doubt we will overcome evil in the lifetime of anyone alive today. But I’m sure that the universe bends towards justice. Like Moses leading the ancient Israelites, or like Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, we know the Promised Land is somewhere ahead of us; we hope to catch a glimpse of it before we die; but we will not reach it ourselves. Yet we continue to strive towards justice.

We continue to hope. We continue to see the good in others whenever we can: so that we may cooperate as much as we are able; so that one day, justice may one day roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The Disabled God for Unitarian Universalists

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


The first reading is from The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability by Nancy Eiseland.

“For me, epiphanies come too infrequently to be shrugged off as unbelievable. … I had waited for a mighty revelation of God. But my epiphany bore little resemblance to the God I was expecting, or the God of my dreams. I saw God in a sip-puff wheelchair — that is, the chair used mostly by quadriplegics enabling them to maneuver by blowing and sucking on a straw-like device. Not an omnipotent, self-sufficient God, but neither a pitiable, suffering servant. In this moment, I beheld God as a survivor, unpitying and forthright. I recognized [God] in the image of those judged ‘not feasible,’ ‘unemployable,’ with ‘questionable quality of life.’ Here was God for me.”

The second reading is from the 2022 book The Future Is Disabled by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha.

“It’s radical to imagine that the future is disabled. Not just tentatively allowed to exist, not just: ‘OK, I guess there’s one white guy with a wheelchair, cool — diversity.’ But a deeply disabled future, a future where disabled, Deaf, Mad, neurodivergent bodyminds are both accepted without question as part of the vast spectrum of human … ways of existing, [and] where our cultures, knowledge, and communities shape the world….

“Some people have scoffed at me when I broached the idea of a majority disabled future — surely I don’t mean this literally? But I kind of do….

“We are in the third year of a global mass disabling event — the COVID-19 pandemic — where, as I and many other disabled activists and people have noticed and stated, the world has been [disabled]. The entire world has been immersed in a disabled reality for the past two years. Masking, hand-washing, long-term isolation, awareness of viruses and immune vulnerability, the need for disabled skills of care … are just a few of the disabled ways of being that everyone, disabled and not, have been forced to reckon with.

“The COVID-19 virus and the failure to create a just global public health and economic response to support people undergoing it is also creating a disabled world in that mass numbers of people are becoming newly or differently disabled because of getting COVID, long COVID, and/or long-term complex post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental disabilities from the grief, loss, and stress of the pandemic….”

Sermon — The Disabled God for Unitarian Universalists

Let’s start with some statistics. The statistics around disability in the United States are attention-grabbing numbers, and help us understand why disability is so important for us to talk about.

The Center for Disease Control issued a report in August, 2018, with the imposing title, “Prevalence of Disabilities and Health Care Access by Disability Status and Type Among Adults — United States, 2016” [Catherine A. Okoro et al.]. Using data from 2016, the authors of the study determined that one in four adults in the United States, or an estimated 61.4 million adults, reported a disability.

The study covered six categories of disability. Most prevalent was mobility problems, that is, serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs, with 13.7% of adults reporting this as a disability. Cognition disability, or serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions, was reported by 10.8% of adults. Disability affecting independent living, that is, difficulty doing errands alone, was reported by 6.8% of adults. Serious difficulty hearing was reported by 5.9% of adults. Serious difficulty seeing was reported by 4.6% of adults. And finally, disability affecting self-care, that is, difficulty dressing or bathing, was reported by 3.7% of adults.

Those figures are based on data gathered in 2016, data from before the pandemic. I would expect that the numbers of adults reporting cognitive disabilities would be somewhat higher today. We’re seeing an epidemic of mental illness that appears to be a direct result of the pandemic, including anxiety disorder, depression, and other ailments; this would tend to increase the numbers of adults reporting a cognitive disability. Then there’s long COVID, which can affect both cognition and independent living. As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in today’s post-pandemic world, something more than one in four U.S. adults with some form of disability.

When you listen to these statistics, you come to an obvious conclusion: disability is a normal part of life. Disability is normal, yet our society tends to think of disability as somehow abnormal. I remember hearing a disability rights activist say that those of us who consider themselves to be able-bodied should really be thinking of ourselves as temporarily able-bodied. Most of us will be disabled at some point in our lives. If we’re not disabled ourselves, someone close to us will be disabled and there’s a good chance we’ll wind up helping care for for that person. Disability is a normal part of life.

Somehow we have to get ourselves to remember that disability is normal. Religion is a powerful tool for telling ourselves stories to make sense of life. So what stories might we, as a religious people, tell ourselves to remind ourselves that disability is normal?

First of all, we have to let go of the old religious stories that say disability is always something to be cured, something to be gotten rid of. This is, unfortunately, a regular part of Western folk religion. While it is true that sometimes disability is something that can be cured, more often disability is simply a part of who we are. We are a certain gender, we are a certain race or ethnicity, we are a certain biological sex, we have a sexual orientation — these are all aspects of who we are.

This is why what Nancy Eiesland says in the first reading is so profound. Eiesland asks: What if God is a quadriplegic? What if God is disabled? What if God is disabled in any one of the many ways human beings are disabled? A central part of the teachings of Western religion is that human beings are made in the image of God. The clearest statement of this comes in the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Genesis, chapter 1 verse 27: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Later on in Genesis, there’s another story of how God created male human beings first, then created female human beings from ribs of the male human beings. But this later passage gives us a story that is, not to put too fine a point on it, a little weird; I prefer the story in Genesis 1:27. In that first story, God creates humankind in God’s image, both male and female human beings, God creates in God’s image. (As an aside, this implies that God is actually, to use current jargon, non-binary gender; but that’s a sermon for another day.) So if all human beings are created in the image of God, then logically disabled human beings are also created in the image of God. This is Nancy Eiesland’s profound insight.

Eiesland’s insight is extremely important to Western cultures, like our culture here in the United States. Even though not everyone here in the United States is Christian or Jewish, our Western culture contains has an unexamined assumption that this story of the creation of human beings is somehow true. The Declaration of Independence of the United States claims that all men (to use the gender-specific language of the late eighteenth century) are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. We human beings are created equal by God. We human beings have human rights. And the justification for human rights in the West derives in large part from the Torah, from the book of Genesis, from this story that God created all human beings in God’s image. To be able to have human rights — this is a great gift we have received from the Bible, and it’s one of the reasons we religious liberals need to reclaim the Bible as our own.

(Now at this point, those of you who are atheists, or heretics, or Buddhists, or nothing-in-particularists are saying to yourselves: This is all very fine and good, but I don’t believe in that old story. The God of the Israelites, the God of the Jews, the God of the Christians — that is not my god. But please remember we’re not talking about personal, individual beliefs here. We’re talking about the big widespread myths that underlie a shared Western culture in which we all participate, like it or not. So even if you don’t believe in this myth personally, this is a myth we want to claim for ourselves. This is one of the myths that gives us human rights in the West — surely, we can work with this, even if we personally don’t believe in it. So even for those of you for whom the Bible is not your bag, there are solid pragmatic reasons why we religious liberals want to retell this story as the shared inheritance of anyone living in our Western culture.)

To return to Nancy Eiesland: If God created all human beings in God’s image, then clearly God also created disabled people in God’s image. In other words, God is disabled. In other words, disabled persons have human rights just as able-bodied people have human rights. We all have human rights.

This is a surprisingly important conclusion. The Center for Disease Control tells us that one in four adults in the United States is disabled. If disabled people did not have full human rights — if, according to one of the founding myths of our Western culture, God did not create disabled people in God’s image — then one in four adults would not have full human rights. Clearly, we could not tolerate such a situation. Instead, we say: all people have human rights, regardless of ability.

This conclusion is surprisingly well aligned with the Universalist tradition of which we are the inheritors. The old Universalists pointed out that if God is actually as good as everyone says, God is not going to condemn anyone to an eternity of damnation in hell. Instead, the old Universalists said that all human beings are equally worthy of God’s love. Now apply this old doctrine of universal salvation to people with disabilities: all persons are equally worthy of God’s love. This is an important corrective to an unfortunate strain of the Western Christian tradition that said people with mental illness were demon-possessed, or that people with physical disabilities were either sinners or somehow cursed by God. Nonsense, we Universalists would reply. That is ridiculous. All persons are worthy of God’s love. No demons are involved, no sin is involved, and no cursing is involved. If you believe that kind of stuff and nonsense, you’re the one who is sinning. Disabilities are not marks of disfavor from God, since everyone is loved equally by God. A disability is simply that: a disability. (This notion of universal love, by the way, is one of the chief reasons I’m proud to say I’m a Universalist, even if I don’t have quite the same conception of God as the old-time Universalists had.)

All this might tend to have personal importance for the one in four among us today who happen to be disabled. But it’s also likely to be of personal importance to all of us at some point in our lives. Remember, there’s a very good chance that most of us, probably all of us, are going to be temporarily or permanently disabled at some point in our lives. I know people who have contracted long COVID, and who haven’t been able to work or to function normally for months; that would be considered a temporary disability. The pandemic has apparently caused an epidemic of mental illnesses, and some of these mental illnesses are serious enough to be considered disabilities. As I noted earlier, it seems likely that if the CDC researched the rate of disability in the United States today, more than one in four United States adults would report themselves as being disabled. This is what Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha means when they suggest that we might be headed towards a majority-disabled future.

When I think about a majority-disabled future — or even a future where one in three adults in the United States are disabled — my big concern is how we’re going to care for one another. As a whole, our society provides inadequate support for persons with disabilities. Anyone among us who are caring for an aging partner, or an aging parent, has direct experience of this. Anyone among us who has had to fight for accommodations for a child with disabilities has had direct experience of this. Anyone among us who has had to explain to an employer why we are not able to work as much as usual because of long COVID or Lyme disease has had direct experience of this — actually, while I was recovering from a pulmonary embolism a few years ago, I had to explain to the congregation I was then serving why I could no longer work fifty hours a week, but had to drop back to working just forty hours a week.

Since our society provides little support to persons with disabilities, we’re going to have to figure out how to care for one another. This is part of what Leah Piepzna-Samarasinha means when they say that disabled people’s “cultures, knowledge, and communities [can] shape the world.” People with disabilities have had to learn how to care for one another; they have had to learn skills of interdependence. We can learn skills of interdependence from the disabled community.

Actually, here at First Parish we already work on our interdependence skills. We have the Caring Circle, where we help each other out when someone is ill or needs meals or other help. And we provide to each other not just physical care, we also give each other spiritual care. We talk to each other about our health problems or disabilities, we listen to one another, perhaps most importantly we are simply there for one another. We do that spiritual care for one another when we go to social hour after the service and talk with one another; or when we pick up the phone and call someone who can’t make it here on Sunday mornings; or when we send cards or texts or set up a videoconference call with someone who is stuck at home.

Here at First Parish, we’ve already started caring for one another. Yet we can learn more about caring for one another from the disabled community. I’ll give you one example of how we can learn from the disabled community — and I almost hesitate to say this, because I know what a hot-button issue this is — but each of us might consider wearing masks more often. I know how annoying it is to wear a mask, but wearing a mask can serve as a form of mutual aid and caring that supports the health of other people, particularly people who are immune-compromised. This is one way we can support interdependence.

And as a liberal religious people, there is another small task we can take on. We can reclaim that old story in Genesis where God creates all persons in God’s image. (Remember that this is a central myth in our Western culture; you may not believe in God yourself, but the majority of people in our society do.) If we happen to hear anything that sounds like someone is casting disabled people as less than human, we might gently challenge them. In the words of the Torah, “God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God, God created them.” However you conceive of God — as a myth or metaphor, as a cultural inheritance, as a living presence in your life, as something else altogether — whatever your conception of God, we can think of God as disabled because God created all humankind in God’s image. Or to put it in more familiar language, we are all endowed with certain inalienable rights.

First Parish in Cohasset and its ministers, pt. 2

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.

Read Part One (covering 1721-1845)

The photographs, all of ministers who served at least ten years, are from the First Parish archives.


This morning’s reading is a short humorous poem by Roscoe Trueblood, minister of First Parish from 1945 to 1968:

Congregational Polity

“The minister should lead,” she said,
This she chose to say
Thinking if and when he led
That he would go her way.

But later, when they differed wide,
On points she would not lose,
“The minister should wait,” she cried,
“And let the people choose.”


Our congregation was formally organized on December 13, 1721, so we are in our three hundredth birthday year. This is one of a series or occasional sermons I’m preaching this year on the history of our congregation. This morning’s topic is the relationships between the congregation and its ministers from 1835 to the present day.

In 1835, after long-time minister Jacob Flint retired, our congregation called Harrison Gray Otis Phipps to be its next minister. He came to Cohasset directly from Harvard Divinity School, and served for six years until he took ill and died at age 30. Phipps was remembered for his kindness and his good relationships with children. (1)

Black and white portrait photograph shwoing the head and shoulders of an older white man with a full white beard.
Joseph Osgood, minister from 1842-1898

Next the congregation called Joseph Osgood, who began his ministry in 1842 at age twenty-six. He continued as the minister here for fifty-six years, until his death in 1898. This was the longest ministry we’ve ever had, or are ever likely to have. Osgood became intimately involved with the people in this congregation. He presided at nearly one thousand funerals. He officiated at nearly 500 weddings, in some cases performing weddings for two or three generations of the same family. During the first years of his ministry, there was no Catholic priest in town, so Osgood was also called upon to assist with funerals and baptisms among the growing Catholic population in town. (2)

Part of the reason First Parish called Osgood was because of his prior experience as a school teacher. As has been true of many Unitarian congregation, First Parish believed in public education, and they wanted a minister who could help them in that mission. In addition to serving as minister, Osgood devoted significant amounts of time to the Cohasset schools. He served on the Cohasset school committee for thirty years. He helped establish the first high school in town. He served as the superintendent of schools for twelve years; this was a duty of which he later said, “I felt that I had hardly strength to perform or bear.” (3) He served for fifty years on the Board of Trustees of Derby Academy in Hingham. Osgood’s enduring legacy in Cohasset is his work in the schools, and there is still an elementary school in town named after him.

Osgood was able to devote so much time to education, and to people of other religions, because First Parish was not as large as we might think. In the Norfolk County Manual and Yearbook for 1876, First Parish is reported as having just 50 members, with 68 children and teens in the Sunday school. (4) At this time, women were not allowed to vote on parish affairs, so if we include women there were probably about 100 members, roughly the same number of members we have today. Given the size of the congregation and the record of his activities, I’d guess that Osgood spent forty hours a week on his own congregation, and another forty hours a week on community activities. He later wrote that kept his health from breaking under the strain of overwork by working in his garden. (5) He also depended upon his wife, Ellen Sewall, to keep him fed and clothed and to raise their children.

Twenty-five years into his ministry, Osgood wrote: “I have, time and again, felt so dissatisfied with my own work and with my own ministry, that I was ready to lay down the burden and relieve you of my presence; but your forbearance, your consideration, your willingness to overlook all my mistakes and blunders, and to take the will for the deed when I have said and done things which I should not perhaps have deliberately said and sone, have tended very much to preserve this connection.” (6) In spite of his extraordinary accomplishments, Osgood acknowledged his mistakes and remained modest about his own abilities. The congregation for its part was flexible in its expectations, and supported Osgood when he needed support. The relationship between congregation and minister was founded on mutual respect and trust .

Late in life, Osgood began to slow down. First Parish historian Gilbert Tower wrote, “In 1895 [First Parish] was in a weak condition. In his old age, Dr. Osgood had been unable put much life into it.” The congregation hired a young minister named William Roswell Cole to serve as assistant to Osgood. Cole arrived in 1896, and when Osgood died two years later, Cole became the sole minister. Gilbert Tower continues, “Mr. Cole succeeded in starting new projects and fresh ideas so that good health, at least, if not prosperity, was restored to the Parish.” (7)

Head and shoulders portrait of a white man with grey hair and a moustache.
William Roswell Cole, minister from 1896-1919

It is tempting to to agree with Gilbert Tower that William Cole was the one who revitalized the congregation. But I think the truth is more complicated than that. First, the Panic of 1893, a serious economic depression that lasted from 1893 to 1897, caused many Unitarian congregations to struggle. No doubt Cole deserves some credit for reviving First Parish, but the improved economic situation after 1897 also deserves credit. Second, Gilbert Tower credits Cole with starting lots of new programs. But in the period from 1890 to the First World War, most Unitarian congregations were adding new programs: local branches of the Women’s Alliance, the Laymen’s League, the Young People’s Religious Union, and so on. This new programmatic approach, a major change in the life of Unitarian congregations, was a widespread social trend, not the innovation of one minister.

Cole’s leadership style was a good match for the congregation. In Gilbert Tower’s words, Cole was a “quiet, unassuming man, friendly and easy in manner with everyone.” The minister’s unassuming leadership style, probably similar to Osgood’s leadership style, allowed Cole to work smoothly with strong lay leaders.

A white man with white hair and a moustache, standing outdoors in a garden.
Frederic John Gauld, minister from 1922-1937

Cole died very suddenly of a coronary embolism on August 21, 1919, at age 54. The congregation called a young minister named George Archibald Mark, who resigned after two years because “First Parish was not active enough for him.” (8) The congregation then called Frederic John Gauld, who served here from 1922 to 1937. First Parish historian Gilbert Tower accused Gauld of being lackluster minister: “Mr. Gauld was a wonderful man and he was very much loved. However he did not accomplish much in building up the parish membership which would have been a real index of success.” (9) But Tower’s assessment of Gauld is unfair. Most of Gauld’s ministry took place during the Great Depression. Perhaps one third of all Unitarian churches closed their doors during the Depression, including many churches in small towns like Cohasset. It’s not fair to blame Gauld for the effects of widespread social forces. Instead, we should credit Gauld and the lay leaders for managing to keep First Parish alive during the Depression.

Gauld retired in 1938, and was followed by Harry C. Meserve, a talented young minister. After four years, Meserve moved on to a larger, better-paying congregation. He was followed by Walter Pedersen, who within a year needed to take a part-time job at the Hingham shipyards to make ends meet. The congregation did not approve of this, and Pedersen resigned. Then the congregation called Roscoe Trueblood, who came to Cohasset in 1945. He was well-liked, but left after four years for a better-paying position in Seattle.

That made three ministers in eight years who left First Parish because of low pay. It turns out that Frederic Gauld’s wife had an independent income, so the congregation was able to get away with paying a small salary during the Depression. But the ministers who followed Gauld were neither willing nor able to accept low pay. Inadequate compensation had an adverse effect on the relationship between minister and congregation.

After Roscoe Trueblood left, First Parish called Gaston Marcel Carrier, a talented young minister from Montreal. When Carrier asked for a substantial raise in salary in his second year, the congregation refused. The congregation wanted Roscoe Trueblood to return, and took advantage of this request for a decent salary to get rid of Carrier. I imagine there was also prejudice against a French Canadian, a common bias in New England through the twentieth century. Carrier left First Parish and went on to a brilliant career as minister in Burlington, Vermont.

White man in a black preaching gown standing in the pulpit of the First Parish Meeting House.
Roscoe Edward Trueblood, minister from 1945-1949 and 1951-1968

After Carrier’s departure, a handful of big donors pledged gave money to increase the minister’s salary sufficiently to lure Roscoe Trueblood back to Cohasset in 1951. Together, Trueblood and the congregation were able to reap the benefits of post-war demographics. The 1950s was the decade of church-going. It was also the decade of the Baby Boom. Unitarian churches across the United States grew substantially during this time, and First Parish was no exception. While neither the congregation nor Roscoe Trueblood can take credit for the demographic trends that led to growth, both minister and congregation made First Parish a healthy, happy, and welcoming place.

By all accounts, Roscoe Trueblood was quite a person: a good speaker, a good leader, and a good human being. The congregation was a good place to be during this era: friendly, welcoming to children, full of activity. (11) First Parish reached its highest membership level ever in 1969, the year Trueblood retired — 360 members. (10)

White man with a chin beard, wearing a formal business suit, sitting on a stool in front of the pulpit of the First Parish Meeting House, and playing a guitar.
Edward Trivett Atkinson, minister from 1969-1995

After Roscoe Trueblood’s retirement in 1968, the congregation called Ed Atkinson. Atkinson joined First Parish at a time when people stopped going to church, and congregations across the country began to shrink in size. Some Unitarian Universalist congregations lost three quarters of their members in the 1970s. But not First Parish: there was a decline in membership, but it was slow and gradual. Part of the credit for our success at navigating the troubled times of the 1970s must go to Ed Atkinson. He introduced some big changes. He climbed down out of the high pulpit, and began preaching from the floor. He led an effort to make this building accessible to wheelchairs. He connected with the younger generation by playing his guitar in services. During his tenure, we first began lighting a flaming chalice during Sunday services.

The congregation didn’t always agree with Atkinson’s innovations, but the relationships between congregation and minister remained one of mutual trust and respect. So his sudden death of a heart attack at age 60, on July 24, 1995, was a huge blow to the congregation. (12)

Ed Atkinson was followed by two talented interim ministers, Chuck Gaines and Jenny Rankin. This was the first time First Parish had had interim ministers. Interim ministry emerged as a specialty in the 1970s, to help congregations come to terms with the ending of one ministry, and prepare for a new minister to arrive. Jenny Rankin was the very first woman to serve as minister here, and she helped the congregation to believe that a woman could succeed as a minister here.

In 1997, First Parish called one of the most talented Unitarian Universalist ministers of the 1990s, Elizabeth Tarbox. She was well known in Unitarian Universalist circles for her haunting and compelling writing. But within a year she was diagnosed with cancer, decided not to seek treatment, and died in 1999, aged 55. This was a second huge blow to our congregation, following close upon the death of Ed Atkinson. (13)

During this troubled time, the congregation found a new minister, Jennifer Justice. A charismatic and colorful figure, Jennifer Justice had a background in theatre. Her ministry was not a success, and the congregation dismissed her within two years. First Parish was wise to dismiss her so quickly, but her unethical conduct was yet another blow to our congregation. A few years later, she was forced to resign from ministerial fellowship in the face of a denominational investigation into ethical violations relating to finances. (14)

After two years of interim ministry, the congregation called Jan Carlson-Bull, who served here from 2004 to 2010. Jan and First Parish had six reasonably productive years together. Of particular importance, Jan introduced the Circle Ministry program here, which continues to this day. But eventually tension arose between between minister and congregation. This should be no surprise. Think about what this congregation experienced in the ten years before Jan arrived: Ed Atkinson died suddenly; Elizabeth Tarbox died suddenly; Jennifer Justice had to be dismissed suddenly. Events like these strain the relationship of congregation and minister. It is to the credit of both Jan and First Parish that her ministry continued for six productive years. Jan left in 2010, and went on to a long and successful ministry in Connecticut. (15)

After a two year interim ministry with Anita Farber-Robertson, our congregation called Jill Cowie, a new minister just out of theological school. In many ways, Jill was just what this congregation needed: relatively young, with school-age children, dynamic. However, while Jill related well to some people in the congregation, there were others who did not relate well to her. This kind of divisiveness in a congregation is actually a fairly common pattern in congregations who have had unethical ministers in the past. It also appears that Jill had a different vision for her ministry than some in the congregation. She resigned in 2016, and went on to the Unitarian Universalist church in Harvard, Massachusetts. Recently she decided to leave ministry to become a social worker. (16)

In the twenty-one years from 1995 to 2016, First Parish was served by eleven ministers, two of whom died suddenly and one of whom had to be dismissed. Yet in spite of that run of bad luck, the congregation remained surprisingly healthy; for which I give credit to talented lay leaders who held kept things going in spite of frequent ministerial turnover.

Bob McKetchnie arrived as minister in 2016. Bob’s skills and personality proved to be a good match for the congregation, and the congregation started to bounce back. In March of 2020, the congregation was about to begin a major push for new members. Then the COVID pandemic hit. Yet even though the pandemic was another piece of bad luck, because of good relationships between the minister and the congregation, First Parish weathered the pandemic in remarkably good shape.

As we reflect on the relationships between minister and congregation in the past two centuries, this morning’s reading, the poem by Roscoe Trueblood:

“The minister should lead,” she said,
This she chose to say
Thinking if and when he led
That he would go her way.
But later, when they differed wide,
On points she would not lose,
“The minister should wait,” she cried,
“And let the people choose.” (17)

The relationship between minister and congregation requires constant negotiation. We cannot say definitively that the minister should lead, and the congregation follow. Nor can we say definitively that the congregation should lead, and the minister follow. Sometimes the minister is the leader, and sometimes people in the congregation are the leaders. Because this relationship requires constant negotiation, it helps when the minister and individuals in the congregation are — to borrow from Gilbert Tower’s description of William Cole — quiet and unassuming, friendly and easy in manner with everyone.

It also helps if both the minister and the congregation have a shared vision for what they want to do together. When minister and congregation share a vision, then the words of Joseph Osgood apply: there will be forbearance and consideration, there will be a willingness by all concerned to overlook any mistakes and blunders, and “to take the will for the deed” when we have said and done things which we should not perhaps have deliberately said and done. As with any human relationship, a shared vision allows people to live and work together peaceably in spite of our human failings; and a shared vision contributes to strengthening the connection between people so that we may together strive towards goodness and truth.


General information is taken from the following histories:
Cole, William R. “One Hundred Fifty Years of the Old Meeting House in Cohasset, Mass., 1747-1847.” Boston George Ellis, 1897.
Osgood, Joseph. “A Discourse Delivered in Cohasset … on the 25th Anniversary of His Ordination as Pastor.” Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1884.
Tower, Gilbert. Unpublished manuscript, 1956.

(1) E. Q. S., “Notice of the Late Rev. H. G. O. Phipps,” Monthly Miscellany of Religion and Letters (Boston: William Crosby and Company, 1842), Feb., 1842, Vol. VI No. 7, p. 92 ff.
(2) “Address of Rev. Joseph Osgood,” Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Ordination of Rev. Jospeh Osgood, D.D. (Cohasset: privately printed, 1892).
(3) Joseph Osgood, “Discourse.”
(4) “Twenty-fifth Anniversary of the Wedding of Rev. and Mrs. Joseph Osgood, Cohasset, Thursday, May 20, 1869” (Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, Printers, 1869), p. 14.
(4) Henry O. Hildreth, compiler, Norfolk County Manual and Year Book for 1876 (Dedham, Mass., 1877), p. 54.
(5) Tower manuscript
(6) Joseph Osgood, “Discourse.”
(7) Tower manuscript, p. 101.
(8) Tower manuscript, p. 118.
(9) Tower manuscript, p. 122.
(10) Membership as recorded in the annual Directories of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
(11) Information about Roscoe Trueblood from First Parish archives, and reminiscences of First Parish members.
(12) Information about Ed Atkinson from First Parish archives, and reminiscences of First Parish members.
(13) Information about Elizabeth Tarbox and interim ministers from First Parish archives, and reminiscences of First Parish members.
(14) Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Association, “UUA Clergy Removed or Resigned from Fellowship with Completed or Pending Misconduct Investigations,” www.uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/mfc/clergy-misconduct-investigations accessed November 21, 2022.
(15) Information about Jan Carlson-Bull and interim ministers from First Parish archives, and reminiscences of First Parish members.
(16) Information about Jill Cowie from First Parish archives, reminiscences of First Parish members, and other sources.
(17) Roscoe E. Trueblood, I Was Alive and Glad (Cohasset, Mass.: First Parish, 1969).

Continue reading “First Parish in Cohasset and its ministers, pt. 2”