The Universalist church in Assinippi

White clapboard church building with steeple

I stopped by the First Universalist Church of Assinippi; Assinippi is a village in Norwell, Mass. It is beautifully sited on a small rise just a few feet from the boundary between Norwell and Hanover. The congregation dates back to 1766, when people living in the area petitioned to be set off as a separate congregation. At that time, this was a part of the town of Scituate, and the people who lived here had to travel several miles to get to church. Their petition was denied, although they kept petitioning to become a separate congregation.

Over the next couple of decades, they built a spare meetinghouse. They also became convinced of the truth of universal salvation; both John Murray and Hosea Ballou were said to preach to the congregation, probably beginning in the late 18th century. Finally in 1812, Massachusetts allowed them to formally organize as a Universalist congregation.

In recent years, their numbers have declined. The latest UUA Directory places their membership at 8. But they have a long and proud history as a center for Universalism in southeastern Massachusetts.

I’ll include excerpts from some local histories below the fold that give more details about the congregation.

Continue reading “The Universalist church in Assinippi”

“Transcendental Meditation” lawsuit, and more

Yesterday, Religion News service (RNS) posted an article titled “Lawsuit alleges religious coercion through meditation in Chicago Public Schools.” The story tells about a former student in a Chicago public school who is suing the Chicago public schools and the David Lynch Foundation for engaging in religious instruction in a public school by teaching “Transcendental Meditation.” I put “Transcendental Meditation” in quotation marks because it’s a trademarked term for a specific form of meditation, originally taught in the U.S. by the self-styled Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi (birth name not known for certain). The RNS story is definitely worth reading, because the reporter makes clear the difference between teaching about religion, which is allowed in public schools, and actual religious instruction, which is not allowed in public schools.

The article also led me to the TM-Free Blog, which presents a critical view of “Transcendental Meditation.” This blog makes it clear, among other things, that “Transcendental Meditation” is a religious movement — I’d characterize it as a New Religious Movement based on Hinduism. Also of interest, a 2022 post alleges that “Transcendental Meditation” has links to right-wing politicians in India. And there’s a link to a document produced by the “Transcendental Meditation” folks titled “Introduction to the Holy Tradition,” which is worth reading by anyone interested in religious texts produced by New Religious Movements.

Another link from the article led me to a Penn State news release titled “People with anxiety may strategically choose worrying over relaxing” about a psychological study showing that persons with anxiety disorder or major depressive disorder may experience negative effects while using relaxation techniques — this is another study in a growing body of research showing that the benefits of relaxation techniques do not work equally well for all persons.

History resource

Our congregation — as is true, I suspect, of many older congregations — is in the process of researching our past relationship with non-White people. Some of the questions we’re currently wondering about:

  • Was slave labor used to build our 1747 meetinghouse? (Almost assuredly yes, but we can’t document it yet.)
  • What was the social status of non-White people? (People of African and Native descent could not sit on the main floor in the 18th C.; we believe this was also true of indentured White servants, but we can’t yet document that.)
  • Did the congregation have non-White members in the 18th or 19th centuries? (A couple in the first half of the 18th century, both Native, then apparently none until the 20th century.)

These questions are difficult to research. So I was grateful to learn about the Atlantic Black Box website. The subtitle of the website sums up their efforts: “Researching and Reckoning with New England’s Role in Colonization and Enslavement.” I’ve been finding lots of resources for doing local history research on non-White people. Their short essay on “Researching Slavery and Black Life in Early New England” alone has already proved to be quite helpful to me.

If you’re part of an older congregation in New England — definitely worth checking this out.

Update, 23 April: Of related interest: Congregational Library’s “Black and Indigenous Research Guide” for New England Congregational churches, whichincludes a number of digitized 18th C. documents.

Did he really say that?

“Pastor” John MacArthur — I’m putting the title “pastor” in quotes because he doesn’t sound very pastoral to me — has decided to proclaim that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was not a Christian. And before you ask, yes, MacArthur is an old White guy. Here’s what MacArthur said, according to Religion News Service:

“…Martin Luther King, who was not a Christian at all, whose life was immoral….I’m not saying he didn’t do some social good. And I’ve always been glad that he was a pacifist, or he could have started a real revolution….”

MacArthur was called out by a number of Black pastors. Rev. Charlie Dates, pastor of a Progressive Baptist church in Chicago, said:

“He cannot get away with this. He has to know that Black and Black-adjacent clergy around the country wholeheartedly disagree with him on theological grounds. He’s not the keeper of who’s Christian and who’s not.”

I’m sure MacArthur will simply ignore what Black Christian clergy say to him. MacArthur is another one of those Old White Guys in Power (OWGIPs) who think they get to set the rules. Actually, I’d say that people like MacArthur are the real heretics. They put themselves in the place of their God, trying to take away their God’s power to judge humankind.

With people like MacArthur saying stupid stuff like this, no wonder Christianity has such a bad name these days. Just try to remember that MacArthur is not really a Christian — Charlie Dates and Martin Luther King, Jr., are the real Christians.

A cartoon of John MacArthur saying, "Martin Luther King, who was not a Christian at all, whose life was immoral....I’m not saying he didn’t do some social good. And I’ve always been glad that he was a pacifist, or cluelss White guys like me would have been in big trouble."

Juanita Nelson oral history

Juanita Nelson (1923-2015) was a war tax resister, a participant in the Civil Rights Struggle, and a back-to-the-lander. I just found a great oral history interview with her on the website for Massachusetts Department of Higher Education website.

One of the reasons I’m interested in Juanita Nelson is that she had no particular religious leanings one way or another; as she put it, she was not “religiously oriented.” And she was this way long before it was cool to be a None (i.e., to have no particular religious affiliation). Yet much of her life was spent seeking out and building intentional community, and spent in pursuing the highest moral and ethical values — and in that sense, she was what I’d call religious. She was also “religion-adjacent,” in part because she spent the last half of her life homesteading on land provided by a Quaker retreat center, and in part because so many war tax resisters are members of the historic peace churches.

Another reason I’m interested in her is that she’s a fascinating person in her own right. Someone should write a full-length biography of her — I’d buy it!

Native American members of a church that became UU

(I don’t usually link to my sermons, because reading sermons can be about as interesting as watching paint dry. But today’s sermon had some interesting history in it, and I’ll provide direct links to the interesting bits so you can skip the boring bits.)

In the 17th century, our congregation, First Parish in Cohasset, had at least two Native American members.

Sarah Wapping joined our church on January 7, 1738 [N.S.], exactly 296 years ago today. Not much in the historical record, but I found a few things to say about her.

Naomi Isaac joined our church on September 19, 1736 [N.S.]. I may have found out more about Naomi Isaac’s life — though you have to read the footnotes so you can see why much of what I say is only tentative.

None of this is to imply that either Naomi Isaac nor Sarah Wapping was a Unitarian Universalist. Our church was not Unitarian in the 1730s. It was a fairly liberal Christian church for its time and place, since it was under the influence of Ebenezer Gay of Hingham; but it was not yet a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

Nevertheless, it’s still very interesting that our congregation had Native American members i the mid-eighteenth century. There were Black members, too. Thus, in spite of a rigid racial hierarchy, in the mid-eighteenth century ours was a multiracial congregation. Then by 1790, the town of Cohasset had become entirely White (the 1790 U.S. Census reports no non-White population at all), and the congregation was also entirely White. The town and church went from moderately racially integrated, to entirely segregated in the space of half a century.

Year in review, pt. 2

In part 1, I reviewed the year in U.S. religion. In this second part, I’ll review they year in Unitarian Universalism.

How non-UUs viewed us

Let’s start with how others perceived us this past year. Unitarian Universalists are a tiny, tiny group, but we made the news with four stories this year. I’ll start with the lesser stories, and save the big one for the end.

1. Religion News Service (RNS) covered the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) back in June, and wrote about two main stories. One story, with the headline “Unitarian Universalism revisits identity, values at 2023 gathering,” talked about the proposed revision to ARticle II of the UUA bylaws. It was the kind of article where you felt the reporter was working pretty hard to make it sound newsworthy. Revising bylaws isn’t going to be of much interest to non-Unitarian Universalists.

2. RNS was much more interested in the fact that the “Unitarian Universalists elect first woman of color, openly queer president,” especially considering the fact that this new president was taking over from the first woman who served as president. They wrote (by my count) four separate articles on this basic story.

Continue reading “Year in review, pt. 2”

Year in review, pt. 1

It’s been an eventful year, both for U.S. organized religion generally, and for Unitarian Universalism in particular. In this post, I’ll start by reviewing some of the key developments in organized religion in the U.S. In a second post, I’ll review some of the explosive developments within Unitarian Universalism.

1. Culture wars and religion

Religion is right at the center of the ongoing escalation of the culture wars in the United States. And the role of religion in the culture wars has gotten more complex than ever. To try to make sense out of it all, I’ll consider some of the culture wars battlegrounds separately.

Continue reading “Year in review, pt. 1”

What exvangelicals do instead of church

Exvangelicals are forming “spiritual collectives” — which have superficial resemblance to Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations, because they’re LGBTQ+ friendly, open to non-Christian sources of wisdom, and don’t have doctrines or dogmas.

There are also big differences. Exvangelical spiritual collectives have a different worship style. Their preachers are more likely to do their preaching (which they may call teaching) wearing a dark polo shirt and khakis — while most UU ministers wear stoles and robes while preaching. Exvangelical spiritual collectives are still evolving rapidly. They describe themselves as “experimental” — while I don’t hear many UU congregations talking about being experimental. Exvangelical worship services remain close to their evangelical roots. Their liturgies and governance still look like low-church evanglicalism— while most UU liturgies and governance practices are much closer to mainline Protestantism. As for age demographics, there are a lot more young adults in photos of these exvangelical groups.

In spite of the obvious differences, I’d love to sit down with people from these spiritual collectives and learn more about them. How are we UUs different from them? How are we the same?

More alleged misconduct, and a glitch in the notification system

I received an email today signed by Sarah Lammert, the executive secretary of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The MFC was notifying congregational leaders that Rev. Stephen Furrer had resigned from fellowship with the UUA rather than face a “Full Fellowship Review…for sexual misconduct.”

Mostly when these emails are sent out, there is just the simple notification that the minister has either resigned from fellowship before charges could be brought, or was removed from fellowship. Unusually, this email added: “The Rev. Furrer served many congregations as a settled or interim minister over more than four decades as a minister. In reviewing his record, it became clear that the Rev. Furrer had a broader pattern of boundary violations which impacted at least four of these congregations in differing degrees.”

Presumably the UUA will contact those four congregations. And perhaps the UUA will contact all the congregations the Furrer served. But there are others of us who might have reasons for wanting to know if Furrer had served a particular congregation — for example, a minister or DRE thinking of accepting a job at a congregation may want to do a little research to see if a congregation has a history of past clergy misconduct (something congregations frequently neglect to tell job applicants). Or, for another example, congregational leaders wondering if Furrer once served a nearby congregation, with possible effects on their own congregation.

So, out of curiosity, I checked the online UUA Directory of professional leaders. Not surprisingly, Furrer’s entry in that directory had already been removed, which is entirely appropriate. However, this leaves us with no official record of his employment history. His own personal website still happens to provide a listing of his ministerial positions up to 2018. That list follows, with my annotations in square brackets []:

1981-1982 Asst. Minister, Berkeley, CA [not clear if this is the Berkeley fellowship or the Berkeley church Confirmed this was the Berkeley church]
1983-1987 Settled Minister, West Redding, CT
1987-1988 Interim Minister, Saco, ME
1988-1991 Settled Minister, Vineyard Haven, MA
1991-1993 Interim Minister, Berlin, MA
1993-1999 Settled Minister, East Suburban Pittsburgh, PA [presumably part-time, combined with the following two contract positions:]
1994-1996 Contract Minister, Morgantown, WV
1996-1999 Contract Minister, Indiana, PA
1999-2000 Interim Minister, Binghamton, NY
2000-2009 Settled Minister, Santa Fe, NM
2009-2010 Interim Minister, Santa Monica, CA
2010-2011 Interim Minister, Long Beach, CA
2011-2013 Interim Minister, San Francisco, CA
2013-2014 Interim Minister, Redwood City, CA
2014-2016 Interim Minister, Fullerton, CA
2016-2017 Interim Minister, Rancho Palo Verdes, CA
2017-2018 Interim Minister, Livermore, CA
2018-???? Developmental Minister, Bellevue, WA [a quick glance at their website shows this was through at least 2021]

All this raises an interesting point. The UUA maintains an online list of ministers who have been removed from fellowship, or who have resigned from fellowship pending misconduct investigations. Once they’re out of fellowship, they disappear from the UUA Directory, which is appropriate. But the UUA Directory is the only place where you can find a public list stating which congregations a given minister has served. The unfortunate result is that histories of clergy misconduct may be obscured.

There’s a simple fix. The online list of ministers who have been removed from fellowship, or who have resigned from fellowship pending misconduct investigations, should include a list of where each minister had served, and when.

Oh, and here’s a caveat so I don’t get sued by someone — I have no personal knowledge of this case, and as far as I know this case has not been adjudicated in a court of law. Thus I cannot comment on the truth of the allegations. I’m simply using this case as an example to point out what I consider to be a flaw in the way the UUA reports cases of alleged clergy misconduct.

Update, 12/8: A sentence that got dropped during revision was restored (last sentence, third paragraph); two minor typographical errors fixed.