Tag Archives: Samuel West

Associationism, part one

Abstract: In this four-part essay, I claim that the central organizing principle of Unitarianism, Universalism, and now Unitarian Universalism, has less to do with theology, liturgy, religious practice, etc., and more to do with social and institutional structures. We are unified by an institutional approach which I call associationalism. I define associationalism through describing past and existing associational structures, and then briefly set forth a possible direction for the future of associationism within Unitarian Unviersalism.

A historical and descriptive definition: Beginnings

In terms of organizational structure, Unitarian and Universalist congregations in North America are often closely related to the Congregationalist and Baptist traditions. Stephen Marini has documented how early Universalist congregations in central New England often started out as Baptist congregations; and it is well known that many New England Unitarian congregations began as Puritan congregations, and so are closely related to those Congregationalist congregations that also emerged from the old Puritan Standing order churches. We could say, more broadly, that these are congregations that come out of the English Free Church tradition.

It is important to remember that not all Unitarian and Universalist congregations trace their historical roots back to the English Free Church tradition. The Icelandic Unitarian churches in Canada were founded by liberals from the Icelandic Lutheran tradition, who happened to find a comfortable institutional home within Unitarianism; similarly, Nora Church in Minnesota was founded by liberal Norwegian Lutherans. King’s Chapel in Boston evolved away from its Church of England roots to a Unitarian theology, but it still keeps its revision of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer today. There are churches like First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia and the Independent Christian Church in Gloucester which were founded independently as Unitarian and Universalist churches without any previous denominational connections. And once Unitarians and Universalists traveled West of the Allegheny Mountains, they often had tenuous and even antagonistic connections with eastern churches, and their organizational structures were innovative, diverse, and/or fluid.

Thus it is quite simply wrong to state that all Unitarian Universalist congregations today trace their organizational structures back to the Puritan congregationalist methods captured in 17th century New England political theocracy, church covenants, and documents like the Cambridge Platform. That 17th century New England inheritance is one part of our organizational history, but it is only one part. Continue reading

Your criticism requested…

I’m writing a revisionist essay about the Rev. Dr. Samuel West, one of the early liberal ministers in Massachusetts whom later Unitarians claimed as a sort of proto-Unitarian. I feel West has been slighted to by the standard Unitarian biographies (including the bio on the UU Historical Society Web site), in the sense that his intellectual accomplishments have been overshadowed by exaggerated claims of eccentric behavior. Now I know some of my readers are interested in this kind of thing, and you are good at picking holes in my arguments, so I’m hoping at least some of you will be willing to read and comment on the rather long essay below….

Samuel West was born on 3 March 1730 (Old Style), to Dr. Sackfield West and Ruth Jenkins in Yarmouth, Massachusetts. He was apparently something of a prodigy as a child. He went off to Harvard College, and was graduated in 1754, one of the top students in his class. He decided to enter the ministry, and was ordained and installed on 3 June 1761 in the established church in what was then Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Beginning in the 1760s, West became active in politics, affiliating himself with the Whigs, and he remained involved with the Revolutionary cause through the Massachusetts convention which ratified the United States constitution. West married twice: first, on 7 March 1768 to Experience Howland, who died 6 March 1789, and with whom he had six children; second, on 20 January 1790 to the widow Louisa Jenne, née Hathway, who died 18 March 1779. Due to loss of memory (and possibly what we would now term senile dementia) West “relinquished his pastoral charge” in June, 1803. He went to live with his son, Samuel West, M.D., in Tiverton, Rhode Island, and died there 24 September 1807. (1)

These are the bare facts of Samuel West’s life. Behind those bare facts was a man of good character and superior intellect, who participated in two revolutionary ventures: the political revolution which was the separation of most of British North America from the British Empire during the War for American Independence, commonly called the American Revolution; and in the quiet and slow theological revolution that eventually led to an open breach between the liberal and conservative factions in the established Massachusetts churches. However, because West’s accomplishments are often obscured by his reputation for eccentricity, I will deal with the allegations of eccentricity first, and then give an account of his revolutionary accomplishments. Continue reading

The absent-minded minister

I’m currently writing an essay about Samuel West, my predecessor in the pulpit here in New Bedford from 1761-1803. He had the reputation for being absent-minded and eccentric. Back in 1849, John Morison, another one of my predecessors in the pulpit here, wrote the definitive biographical essay of West. Morison tells the following anecdote as evidence of West’s eccentricity, and I’m going to ask you to read it, and then tell me what you think….

“The following story was told me by his daughter, and is unquestionably true. He had gone to Boston, and, a violent shower coming up on Saturday afternoon, he did not get home that evening, as was expected. The next morning his family were very anxious, and waited till, just at the last moment, he was seen hurrying his horse on with muddy ruffles dangling about his hands, and another large ruffle hanging out upon his bosom, through the open vest which he usually had buttoned close to his chin. He never had worn such embellishments before, and never afterwards could tell how he came by them then. It was too late to change — the congregation were waiting. His daughter buttoned up his vest, so as to hide the bosom ornaments entirely, and carefully tucked the ruffles in about the wrists. During the opening services all went very well. But probably feeling uneasy about the wrists, he twitched at them till the ruffles were flourishing about, and then, growing warm as he advanced, he opened his vest, and made such an exhibition of muddy finery as probably tended very little to the religious edification of the younger portion of his audience. ‘That,’ said his daughter, in telling the story, ‘was the only time that I was ever ashamed of my father.’  ”

So here’s my question: The poor man had a rough ride back home, was probably riding all night, got muddy and dirty, didn’t have time to change his clothing, but made it into the pulpit in time to preach. I don’t get it — this is eccentric how? I readily admit that I don’t pay much attention to my own personal appearance, and have been known to wear a suit on Sunday morning but forget to put on a tie (since I don’t wear a robe in the pulpit, this does not look good). I also admit that I have been asked by Beauty Tips for Ministers to submit a photograph to demonstrate how not to dress if you’re a minister. And I admit that it would be better if people like me and Dr. West had it in us to pay attention to our personal appearance.

But by all accounts, West was an amazing preacher, and can’t we put up with dirty ruffles for the sake of good preaching? And yeah, you don’t have to tell me, if the answer is “no,” I had better find another line of work….

Biographical sketch of a Revolutionary minister

Yesterday I posted one of Rev. Dr. Samuel West’s sermons on this blog. Since long 18th C. colonial sermons aren’t to everyone’s taste, today I figured I’d post a shorter and more entertaining biographical sketch of West. Brilliant but eccentric, West was a classic example of an absent-minded country parson. Enjoy…. Continue reading

A Revolutionary sermon

This is the 300th anniversary year for First Unitarian in New Bedford, and this fall I’ll be preaching a series of four sermons on four great ministers from our past. Next week I’m going to speak about Samuel West, minister at our church in the second half of the 18th C. As part of my research on West, I found a sermon he preached in 1776 in support of the American Revolution. First, a little background on West:

Rev. Samuel West of New Bedford (not to be confused with his contemporary, Rev. Samuel West of Boston) was born in 1730 (1729 O.S.), and ordained in 1761 by the established church of what was then the town of Dartmouth, where he served for the next 42 years. In those 42 years, West was awarded the Doctor of Divinity degree by Harvard, oversaw the creation of a new parish in the eastern section of Dartmouth, moved his own church to the fast-growing city of New Bedford, and moved his church theologically from strict Calvinism to liberal Arminianism. In large because of his influence, his church later became Unitarian.

But the most remarkable part of West’s life had nothing to do with theological controversy. During the Revolutionary era, he was an ardent patriot, in a town dominated by Quakers who opposed armed resistance to Britain for theological and financial reasons. In a biographical sketch printed in Hrealds of a Liberal Faith, Rev. John Morison, one of West’s successors in the New Bedford church, described West thus:

Dr. West was an ardent patriot. He could keep no terms with those who were hesitating or lukewarm, but blazed out against them. After the battle at Bunker Hill he set out to join the American Army, and do what he might as a minister of God to keep up their courage. It was while in the army, serving as a chaplain, that he gained great notoriety by deciphering for General Washington a treasonable letter from Dr. Church to an officer in the British army, of which a full account may be found in the third volume of Sparks’s Writings of Washington, pp. 502-506. In 1776 he delivered a discourse (afterwards printed) before the Provincial Convention at Watertown….

Every year, the provincial government asked a minister to deliver an Election Day sermon at the end of May, and in 1776 this honor was given to West.

West’s Election Day sermon is a classic example of American Revolutionary prose. If the American War for Independence captures your imagination, West’s sermon stands up well even today. He begins the sermon by deriving the right to rebel against Great Britain from natural laws, using human reason and Lockean philosophy. He then derives the right to rebel from the Christian scriptures, and some of his readings of the Bible are noteworthy because of his strong reliance on reason and his willingness to draw on extra-Biblical sources to help gain perspective into the thoughts of Jesus. However, the sermon does contain at least one opinion that should make us feel somewhat uncomfortable today: he believes the government should provide financial support for churches, although he does say there shouldn’t be one established church.

West’s Election Day Sermon, sometimes erroneously titled “On the Right To Rebel Against Governors,” is worth reading today. I’m including it as a separate post (because it’s so long), in case you want to read theologically liberal, politically radical sermon from the 18th C. Here it is.