A 1907 Unitarian sermon from Palo Alto

This is the only sermon I’ve been able to find that was preached at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, which existed from 1905 to 1934. It’s a sermon preached at the dedication of the new building of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, March 24, 1907. It was doubtless revised for publication, and then was printed in the Christian Register (later called the Unitarian Register) on April 25, 1907, pp. 465-466.

George Stone, who preached this sermon, was the first minister the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto ever had. He was actually the American Unitarian Association’s Field Secretary for the West coast, and part of his duties were planting new Unitarian churches; since Palo Alto was a college town, it was seen as a likely spot for a Unitarian congregation, and that’s doubtless why Stone went ot Palo Alto in 1905. He worked with the new Palo Alto congregation for about a year, until 1906, when they called their first settled minister, Sydney B. Snow. Evidence in the extant documents of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto show that they considered him their minister, even though he wasn’t a called minister. And in 1907, he returned to Palo Alto to preach the dedicatory sermon when their new building was complete.

But this sermon is of more than historical interest. True, we might not agree with some of the theology, and certainly the gender-specific language (e.g., “man” for “humankind,” male pronouns for the deity, etc.) now sounds dated. But Stone argues for the continual progress of organized religion; looking back at old forms of American religion, Stone says that our spiritual forebears “were passing through a stage of evolution which to us seems a sad one.” And he acknowledges that some day, he, too, will seem outdated: “Who knows but our descendants will look back upon the record of our lives with equal pity and tenderness?” Yet Stone has some powerful things to say about the purpose of public worship. A Unitarian congregation, says Stone, “stands for the solidarity of the race rather than for the single individual” — and yet, all these years later, we Unitarian Universalists are still overly individualistic, and reading Stone’s sermon might help us realize how far we have yet to go in our religious development.

“Public Worship” by Rev. George W. Stone

The mission of Unitarianism is to help mankind to a higher and more spiritual faith than it has had before; for Unitarianism is not a theology and a philosophy only, it is a life. It is, least of all, a negation or a denial of some other religion. It is a comprehensive religion, including the good in the older religions. No man is ready to become a Unitarian until he is able to do his own thinking. In order to be a Unitarian he may outgrow the old theologies, but he must not outgrow religion. Until he learns to use his freedom wisely, and not make it simply a license to reject everything he cannot understand, until then, he may not be orthodox, but he is not necessarily a Unitarian, for Unitarianism is a positive faith. It believes that love is the only divine power in the universe, and that at last all mankind will grow into it, that the process of man’s development from the animal, through the human, into the spiritual, is now going on, that it will one day be completed.

Public worship should be an expression of this faith. Shall we call it a simple faith? It may be simple to us; but to the mind long accustomed to the complexities of ecclesiasticism, so long familiar with the ancient theology only, it seems barren rather than simple. This is easily understood; for, just in proportion as the mind apprehends and the intellect becomes convinced of the highest spiritual truth, the soul grows calm and trustful, the element of pursuit is over, and only rest remaineth.

When the soul comes to that point of development where it can absolutely cast its cares on God, trusting him and his love for everything in the spiritual life, here and hereafter, self-interest, the most restless and eager passion of human nature, is satisfied. It is then that calmness, placidity of spirit is attained which is sometimes mistaken for indifference by those who cannot comprehend it. It is at this point that Unitarianism often ceases its work; that is, when self-interest has been victorious, has achieved its ends, the new-born Unitarian sometimes looks upon his work as finished. Having escaped from the dominion of fear, he congratulates himself that the battle is won, forgetting that there is such a thing as human brotherhood. If the soul that gains a victory over fear was the only soul on earth, then the victory would be won, and the victor might enter into his rest. But there is no rest, in that sense, on the earth. Said Jesus, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” So will every man and every woman, who has reached this condition of perfect trust, continue to work for others, if they have learned their spiritual lessons. There is no provision in this world for drones in any walk of life. There is nothing in this life worth having that does not cost persistent effort. Every victory in life but reveals another battle that must be fought. So with this one. When we have attained the real spirit of Christianity, we shall forget self. We shall find that not only our duty, but our inclination also, leads us to engage in the service of others. This will affect the character of our worship, for then worship will take the form of service. We shall care less for forms, and more for the spiritual uplift we receive when we See the blessings of life descend upon others. I think that the social worship — that is, worship in congregations — which distinguishes modern life has grown out of this spirit of sympathy with others. This brings me to the subject which I shall try to place before you in a practical way.

Ours is not a new church; but it is entering upon a new career, and, may we not hope, one which shall prove to be successful? Public worship, which is the subject of this discourse, is one of the subjects that deserve attention.

First, let us ignore the phases of the subject which do not interest Unitarians, and confine ourselves to those upon which we have more or less agreement. I presume no one desires to see a revival of either synagogue or temple worship. Priesthood is not a feature of our system, and, therefore, ritualism is out of the question. We must have forms of some kind and some ceremonies. We need only such forms as are conducive to the establishment of a distinctively social order of public worship. I assume that this is the object we have in view; namely, to adopt the best possible form of social public worship.

One of my ministerial brethren in New England said to me a few years ago: “I have numbers of men and women in my parish who would give up almost any doctrine with less hesitation than the old forms of public worship. That which they call the congregational form is dearer to them than theological opinions.” It is not surprising that men should be attached to familiar forms of all kinds. I think we are alike in this. Still, as Unitarians, we are committed to the principle of hospitality to new thought. Progress is one of our favorite words, and we ought to be able to rise above mere custom or routine when there is sufficient reason for so doing. There can be no principle involved in the form of public worship. There may be sentiment, emotion, taste. Forms that help one to worship may hinder another; but it is unlikely that any form would be adopted by a Unitarian church that would not, in a brief time, commend itself to those who sought earnestly to utilize it.

What is called the “enrichment of the church service” has been the subject of many addresses and of much discussion in the ministerial associations of many denominations during the past few years. Attention has been called to the rapidly increasing tendency of Unitarian young people to visit those churches which emphasize more strongly than we do a liturgical form of worship, not only to visit them, but in many cases to forsake their own, and ally themselves permanently with those churches. This shows that they are willing to endure a theology which they cannot approve, for the sake of the spiritual uplift they get from the ceremonial features of the service. We are too unconscious of the change which is coming over the religious world. We are slow to appreciate how far the basis of religion has shifted, how new the motives, the ideals of the religious life; and this spirit of progress has affected Unitarians even more than it has those in the orthodox churches. But the forms of public worship have remained unchanged. No one has attempted to give the new jewels brighter or more attractive setting. The old Puritan form of worship is used in quite ninety per cent of our liberal churches. Some of our younger people have caught a new spirit. The social consciousness seems to have increased: co-operation, noblesse oblige, these words express their central ideas. These young people seem to be unable to put these ideas into the old forms. They do not mix well with them.

The old forms were made to suit the old ideas. They did express them perfectly. Man, a lesser being, must be redeemed to be saved. Only one way of redemption,— he must accept and believe certain doctrines. Only the Church knew those doctrines. The Church being the official representative of the Most High, this redemption was conferred by the Church. The Church, therefore, indirectly, controlled the future of every soul. In Puritan New England it once furnished the passports to citizenship; that is, in early days, only church members were allowed to vote at the general election. The minister was the official head of the church. He assumed personal power over individual souls. He knew the law and expounded it. The great object of the Church was to save souls. Personal salvation was the incentive for all religious activity, the sole object being to keep out of hell and to get into heaven in the next world. This world was not important. Everything was done for the sake of a future world. The principle of insurance was the dominant one in the church. Church attendance and church subscriptions and support were the premiums the person must pay. Fear was the power behind the throne. The doleful hymns, the abject prayers, the blazing sermon with its warnings and appeals, its doctrinal demands and its fiery exhortations,— all these were merely the appropriate settings for the dreadful dogmas which were believed with pathetic earnestness by as good men and women as the sun ever shone upon. These worthy ancestors of ours were passing through a stage of evolution which to us seems a sad one. Who knows but our descendants will look back upon the record of our lives with equal pity and tenderness?

Now religion, among those who think and those who accept the results of modern research, has shifted to a new basis, a new motive; namely, man is imperfect, partially developed, but, nevertheless, divine by nature. He must be educated. The Church is a spiritual training-school. Its teachers are selected from those having the most profound knowledge of spiritual things. The minister is the leader in the church. The object of the Church is to educate men and women and children in spiritual things, to educate them for this world, to improve present opportunities to live a large and fuller life. The Church, therefore, stands in a different relation to life now from that in the olden time. It stands for the solidarity of the race rather than for the single individual. Man’s highest aim is to save others, for in that effort he finds his own salvation, as well as his greatest pleasure. We are bound together, and together we must go, down or up.

Now the power behind the throne is low. Therefore our service should furnish a setting for this finer gem,— happy hymns, the trusting prayer, the sermon with its aim to afford spiritual strength, comfort, and instruction. The atmosphere of the Church ought to be one of sunshine, hope, faith, love. No minor music, nothing that shall depress, but one continued strain of encouragement. The bright side of things should be presented. Life has enough sorrow, enough pain, poverty, and wretchedness, that we cannot escape. Surely we need not carry it with us to church. Happiness is the chief end of life: not pleasure, but happiness, and happiness will come when we graduate with honor from an institution like the Church, wherein true spiritual instruction is imparted. To know the truth is to know God. To be possessed by the spirit of love is to be pure in, heart, and purity of heart brings the beatific vision of God himself.

In this church, the minister is the chief servant. He leads the. service, but he should only lead it. Under the old system he monopolized the service. He delegated a small part of his power to a choir, but it was his service. The people looked on and saw him worship, and then went away and discussed the manner of his doing it. They entered the church with only the thought, What shall I do to be saved? and left it with the feeling that their attendance had in some way helped their chances for future happiness. This has passed away, and now men and women may come as to a feast, expecting to find spiritual food that will satisfy and nourish them. If they find it, they will come again; if not, they will remain away.

This, then, is the lesson I seek to teach, that we need not be bound to old customs when they cease to serve present needs. We may furnish the newer settings for the newer gems if the old ones do not properly display them. We need a service that includes every person that seeks to join with us in our work. We may believe in social worship without being frightened by names. If what is called a liturgy will bring us nearer together, and all of us nearer the Father, then let us be ready for that. What we need is a simple form that shall help those in the pews to the comfort that comes with sincere worship. There is help in repeating, with a congregation, the simple prayer taught us by Jesus, and used as the channel of spiritual communication by uncounted millions since he left the world.

Sentiment! you say. Yes, sentiment! But remember this: The best, the most beautiful, the most useful element in human life is sentiment. Not sentimentality. that is quite another emotion, but sentiment. From the feeling awakened by the tiny flower we see in early spring, up through children, wife, mother, to God himself,— all is sentiment. God grant we may never lose it; for without it life would be a blank, a desolation.

Let us not be afraid, then, to consider new methods. We must look forward for our ideas, not back. We may go back and look, to make sure we have left nothing useful behind, but our ideals are before us. Great sons of men have shown us h0w to live, how to suffer, how to die; but they could not know what we now know, for revelation is continuous and will be endless. Our responsibility is to the present and the future.

Finally, I have tried to show why I believe in progress in public worship. I would have the service of public worship so arranged that all may join in it: not observe it, but make it. Let the preacher preach as best he can, but he cannot worship for you. We do not believe in the substitutionary, the priestly theory. Let us have congregational worship, congregational music, congregational unity in every word and work, knowing no rich or poor, no learned or unlearned, asking only this question of those who seek to join us: Do you believe that love is the fulfilling of the law? Can you commit yourselves unreservedly to this great obligation? Will you endeavor to be governed in all things by the law of human brotherhood and love, and promise to share your liberty in common with all men?

Once within those doors, let it be understood that every one stands before the Father on a perfect equality. In the great world without, the lines of education, of wealth, of belief, may be sharply drawn. But let us make these precincts sacred by the sovereignty of good alone. So may we have for one hour, in every week, at least, a foretaste of the kingdom of God.

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