Tag Archives: Mary Rotch

New book: Liberal Pilgrims

What it says on the back cover:

Liberal Pilgrims chronicles the experiences of Unitarians and Universalists from New Bedford, Massachusetts, offering a window on the sometimes unexpected context and development of liberal religion in North America. New Bedford’s religious liberals viewed the world from diverse perspectives, using different symbols, language, and actions to express their religion as they progressed in their pilgrimages — spiritual and religious journeys that that continue to transform the American liberal religious tradition to this day. Their stories remind us of the rich and sometimes disparate origins of liberal religious practice. And their stories challenge today’s liberal pilgrims to continue to seek out new directions for liberal religion, constantly reinventing contemporary liberal religious experience.

“Some stories have never been told in detail before. There’s the story of Reverend William Jackson, the first African-American minister to declare himself a Unitarian when he addressed a meeting of the American Unitarian Association in New Bedford. There are the stories of North Unitarian Church, a church of immigrants, and Centre Church, which changed its affiliation from the Christian Connection to Unitarianism. Other stories include the story of Reverend John Murray Spear, Universalist and abolitionist, minister of an interracial church in the 1830s, who was driven out of New Bedford when he helped free a slave. There’s the story of Mary Rotch, perhaps the most original Unitarian theologian to come out of New Bedford, and a confidante of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller.

“Each of the 19 chapters tells about a different liberal religious person, community, or art work. By examining how these people and religious communities of the past lived out their religious ideals in their times, we learn more about our own liberal religion in the present day and its potential for the future.”

Yes, it’s now officially published. Yes, it contains the story of the very first African American minister to declare himself a Unitarian. Yes, it contains additional information about Unitarian and Universalist history, much of which has never before published.

And yes, it could use another round of copy editing, but I’m getting ready to move and I just don’t have enough time to go through the book again. But I promise it’s worth reading even with the typographical errors I’m sure are in it.

Go here to buy it. Cheap: $9.46 + shipping (I make no profit on the book). Cheaper still if you buy three or more.

Mary Rotch, Quaker turned Unitarian

If you look at the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society’s online biographical dictionary, you’ll find the name of Mary Rotch. As is true of many of the names listed on the UUHS site, no one has yet written a biography of her. But she is an interesting Unitarian person, and worth knowing more about. Since she attended our church here in New Bedford, I decided to preach a sermon about her life and religious thinking. It’s not quite a real biography, but it does have footnotes and other annotations of interest to UU history geeks. The sermon appears below; scroll way down for the endnotes and other annotations.

Continue reading

Historical re-enactment

Ralph Waldo Emerson was a Unitarian minister before he became famous for his writing and lecturing. When he was a minister, he preached for some months to the Unitarian congregation in New Bedford. So this morning, as a kind of historical re-enactment, I delivered one of the sermons he preached while he was here.

It turned out to be quite a bit of fun. The sermon still sounded fresh and powerful (although I admit I choked a little on the gender-specific pronouns), and it was moving to read it aloud. For the most part, I think the congregation enjoyed it, too.

If this is the kind of thing that interests you, and you want to know more, I’ve included some historical notes about the sermon below…. Continue reading

Local theology

Let’s see if I can make some loose connections between a few things — just sort of thinking out loud….

In the past forty years, the main stream of conversation for academics and intellectuals interested in the humanities has meandered away from the narrow confines of the established Western canon, and gone off on multiple tangents. Those of us who are willing to admit to being intellectuals are no longer satisfied with reading books by DWMs (Dead White Men) — we’ve gotten fascinated by books written by women and persons of color, we’re reading books that were once only of local interest, and we’re looking in to folk literature and oral history and other, less fixed, media.

We’re meandering through a tremendously exciting intellectual landscape. Instead of just reading Walden, Nature, and The Scarlet Letter, we can read Frederick Douglass’s Narrative and discover that it is just as good a book as those old standbys from the old American Renaissance canon. Instead of just reading Henry James, we find out that Sarah Orne Jewett was pretty darn good in her own right, and less ponderous than James. We still keep an eye on the great classics — Shakespeare and the King James Bible still tower above the rest of the literary landscape as the tallest mountains — but we’ve discovered that we don’t need to spend all our time climbing Mount Everest when there are many other equally interesting mountains and hills right in our own backyards (as it were) to explore.

And somehow this all connects with what I’ve been feeling about Western theology. I know I should be interested in reading Thomas Aquinas and Kant and (because I’m a religious liberal) Schleiermacher. But I’m far more interested in learning about Mary Rotch, a New Light Quaker who was read out of New Bedford Friends Meeting in the 1820’s for her liberal views, who joined the New Bedford Unitarian church, and who apparently had a profound influence of Emerson. As a Quaker, she didn’t prepare written sermons, but some of her vocal ministry apparently was recorded, and now I’m trying to track that down. She was no Thomas Aquinas, she wasn’t even a George Fox, but what she had to say deeply influenced many people here in New Bedford, and through her influence on Emerson her ideas spread even farther afield.

It’s a truism in certain circles to say that all theology is local theology. Local theology is the intersection of a religious tradition in on elocality, its local history, its place in a wider religious community or network, and the lives of the people in that religious community along with the lives of others in that region. Schleiermacher natters away to the cultured despisers of religion (read: upper middle class) about how religion is just symbolic; Aquinas and Kant spin their ontological fantasies about the nature of God and the ground of morals; and all the while, other people are actually living out religion and creating theology through the way they live their lives. I’m much more interested in local theology than the theology of academics and DWMs.

So when someone says to me, “Do you believe in God?” I want to respond flippantly, “Depends on where I am,” or more seriously, “Do you mean the God of the academics, or the God which may or may not manifest in the lives of people living in New Bedford?” Because when people talk about God in New Bedford, they tend to mean something different than the God I heard talked about in Geneva, Illinois (in Geneva, God does not bless the fishing fleet each year) — to say nothing of the fact that those who disbelieve in God in New Bedford disbelieve in a different God than those who disbelieve in God in Geneva, Illinois. And we can distinguish an even finer grain than that, for Unitarian Universalists in New Bedford believe or disbelieve in God in different ways than Unitarian Universalists in Geneva, Illinois.

As I said, I’m just thinking out loud here. Maybe some day I’ll make some sense out of what I’m trying to say.