More on Thoreau

Lecturette from the second and final session of a adult RE class on Thoreau — typos and all.

At the end of last week’s session, you asked me to address a number of points about Henry David Thoreau. In no particular order, you asked me to talk about the following:

(1) Thoreau’s notion of civil disobedience
(2) How Thoreau was affected by Eastern religions
(3) The circle of writers and thinkers who came and went in the town of Concord during Thoreau’s life
(4) Why Thoreau left his Unitarian church, and place his departure in the context of wider trends in Unitarianism
(5) Thoreau’s later influence on Unitarianism, and then on Unitarian Universalism Continue reading “More on Thoreau”

A heretical introduction to Henry Thoreau, pt. 1

Opening talk from a class on Henry David Thoreau, given at the UU Church of Palo Alto on 18 April 2012.

Henry Thoreau is one of those literary figures that everyone likes to think they know. But having read him (and even studied him in a desultory way), and having read a good deal about him, and having lived the first forty years of my life in the very landscape of Concord, Massachusetts, in which he lived, and having been licensed as a tour guide in Concord, and having preached about him, and having in short devoted rather too much attention to Thoreau — the more I know about him, the more I feel that we tend to impose our sense of what we want Thoreau to be onto who he actually was.

What I would like us to do is to try to understand Thoreau as he really was, not as we would like him to be. That means that we cannot understand him as an environmentalist, because that is not a term he would have known, nor am I convinced that he would have been comfortable with that term. That means that we cannot claim Thoreau as a Buddhist, or a Unitarian, or an atheist or humanist, as various people have done over the years, for as an adult he would not have accepted any of those labels. That means that we should not think of him as one of the key figures in nineteenth century American literature, for in his own lifetime and throughout the nineteenth century he was spectacularly unsuccessful as a writer, especially as compared with his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson; and while Thoreau may today be considered a key figure in American literature, arguably he remains misunderstood primarily because his gifts in broad humor and the telling of tall tales are rarely acknowledged.

So who was Thoreau? Continue reading “A heretical introduction to Henry Thoreau, pt. 1”

Happy 375th birthday

My home congregation, First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, the Unitarian Universalist church I grew up in, just celebrated its 375th birthday. My dad, who is still a member of that congregation, attended the festivities. In fact, he was one of the honored guests at the birthday banquet last night:— he was one of 16 people who have been members of the congregation for 50 or more years. He and my mother joined First Parish not long after I was born, and there’s a story behind that.

My mother had grown up Unitarian, had been the Superintendent of the Junior Department of the Sunday school of the Wilmington, Delaware, Unitarian church back in the 1950s when they had something like 600 kids in their Sunday school, but when she and my father moved to Concord, she did not go to church. The minister at that time called on her to find out why she wasn’t coming to church, and she told him it was because she had an infant (me) and a toddler (my older sister Jean), and there was no child care during the Sunday services. So the minister recruited a woman named Betsy Connelley, along with some other people, to serve as volunteer staff in a child care service they called “Pooh Corner” (and before the wiseacres in the audience ask, it was named after Winnie the Pooh, and the name had nothing to do with the diapering process). Once there was child care, my parents could attend Sunday services, and 50 years later, my dad is still a member there. Moral of the story: provide great child care in your congregation.

Dad told me that one of the honored guests sitting with him last night was none other than Betsy Connelley. She still remembers me, and asked me dad to say hi. One of the best things about congregations is the sense of continuity they can provide; they are communities in which human connections can be held for generations.

So here’s to First Parish in Concord on its 375th birthday!

Robert Gould Shaw, liberal religious patriot

For Independence Day, here’s the story of Robert Gould Shaw to inspire you. Excerpted and slightly modified from a sermon I delivered yesterday at the Palo Alto church.

Robert Gould Shaw was born in Boston in 1837 to a wealthy Unitarian family. His parents were Francis George Shaw and Sarah Sturgis; they had inherited money from Francis’s father, and Francis was involved in business and philanthropy. When Robert was five, the family moved to West Roxbury, near the famous Brook Farm community; and when Robert was in his teens, they moved to Staten Island, where the family helped found the Staten Island Unitarian church. The Shaws were abolitionists, and they may have been active in the Underground Railroad, helping escaping slaves to flee to the northern states.

Given the wealth and influence of the Shaw family, Robert surely could have avoided military service during the Civil War. But he chose to enlist. On April 19, 1861, Shaw joined the private Seventh New York Volunteer Militia. That short-lived unit disbanded after a month or so, and he joined the Second Massachusetts Volunteers (Infantry), and was commissioned as Second Lieutenant on May 28, 1861. He became First Lieutenant on July 8, 1861, and Captain on August 10, 1862. While with the Second Massachusetts, he took part in several battles, including the battle at Antietam. In late 1862, he was offered the chance to command a regiment made up entirely of free African Americans from the north. He became Colonel of Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on April 17, 1863.

A small volume titled Memoirs of the War of ’61, published in 1920 by George H. Ellis (who was the printer for Unitarian tracts and books), tells the story of Shaw’s military service through excerpts from his lettersBelow are the excerpts relating to the 54th Regiment, which show his courage, and his growing realization that the men under his command were indeed his equals; for even though he was an abolitionist, like most white people of his day, he began by thinking African Americans his inferiors:

[Upon accepting command of the 54th Regiment, February 5th, 1862. Shaw wrote:] “There is great prejudice against it — at any rate I shan’t be frightened out of it by unpopularity.” March 25: “The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me.” March 30: “The mustering officer who was here to-day is a Virginian, and he always thought it was a great joke to make soldiers of ‘n——s’ [African Americans], but he tells me now that he has never mustered in so fine a set of men, though about 20,000 have passed through his hands since September. The skeptics need only to come out here to be converted.” Morris Island, July 18: “We are in General Strong’s brigade. We came up here last night in a very heavy rain. Fort Wagner is being heavily bombarded. We are not far from it. We hear nothing but praise for the Fifty-fourth on all hands.”

Shaw was offered the post of greatest danger and greatest honor in the assault on Fort Wagner, and accepted immediately. Here is a contemporary account of what happened, written from South Carolina on July 22 by an unidentified person attached to General Strong:

The troops looked worn and weary; had been without tents during the pelting rains of the two previous nights. When they came within six hundred yards of Fort Wagner they formed in line of battle, the Colonel heading the first and the Major the second battalion. With the Sixth Connecticut and Ninth Maine and others they remained half an hour. Then the order for ‘charge’ was given. The regiment marched at quick, then at double-quick time. When about one hundred yards from the Fort the rebel musketry opened with such terrible fire that for an instant the first battalion hesitated; but only for an instant, for Colonel Shaw, springing to the front and waving his sword, shouted, ‘Forward, Fifty-fourth!’ and with another cheer and shout they rushed through the ditch and gained the parapet on the right. Colonel Shaw was one of the first to scale the walls. He stood erect to urge forward his men, and while shouting for them to press on was shot dead and fell into the fort.

Thinking to humiliate Shaw and his family, the Confederate Army, shocked that a white man would serve with African Americans, buried Shaw in a common grave with his soldiers. But his parents were pleased by this, and wrote:

We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company — what a body-guard he has!

The story of Robert Gould Shaw is a classic story of patriotism. He gave his life in service of his country; more to the point, he gave his life while serving the highest ideals of his country, the ideals of freedom and equality for all persons. And in this case, the ideals of his country, and the ideals of his Unitarian faith, were clearly aligned. It is a classic story of patriotism, yet even so, Shaw’s patriotism questioned a dominant notion of his day: that African Americans could not serve with distinction in the military. So you see, this is a story of how a religious liberal pushed the boundaries of patriotism.

Notes:

Quote from Shaw’s parents from Seeking the One Great Remedy: Francis George Shaw and Nineteenth-century Reform, by Lorien Foote (2003: Ohio University Press). Other quotes by and information about Robert Gould Shaw from Memoirs of the War of ’61 (1920: George Ellis); the online biography of Shaw at the UU Historical Society Web site; and other online and printed sources.

A list of curriculum books in the New Beacon Series

The best organized series of Unitarian Universalist religious education curriculum, and certainly the series which maintains the highest quality overall, was the New Beacon Series in Religious Education, produced from 1937 to c. 1957 under the editorship of Sophia Lyon Fahs by the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Ask someone who went to a Unitarian or Universalist Sunday school in the 1950s, and they’re almost certain to remember Beginnings and How Miracles Abound and The Church across the Street. Ask someone whose children went through a Unitarian or Universalist Sunday school in those days, and they would probably add the Martin and Judy books for preschoolers.

In the Palo Alto church’s Sunday school this year, we used the book From Long Ago and Many Lands from the New Beacon Series. It has been so successful that I’m thinking of continuing on with the next book in the series. I searched the Web for a complete listing of the New Beacon series arranged in order of the age of the students, but could find nothing. Below find just such a listing. Please leave corrections in the comments.

  Continue reading “A list of curriculum books in the New Beacon Series”

Excellent online biography of Sophia Fahs

Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California, is close to completing a massive project: a Listing of Religious Educators, capsule biographies of some 160 key figures in Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox religious education.

A quick scan seems to reveal that just one Unitarian Universalist religious educator makes it onto the list: that person is Sophia Fahs. The capsule biography of Fahs, written by Lucinda A. Nolan, Assistant Professor of Religious Education and Catechetics, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., is well worth reading. Of particular interest is Nolan’s careful and concise summary of Fahs’s theological development; through her curriculum books, Fahs had a major theological influence on Unitarian Unviersalism in the middle third of the last century, so her theological development had a significant impact on Unitarian Universalism’s theological development.

In addition to the capsule biography, Nolan provides an excellent bibliography, and offers several interesting excerpts from Fahs’s many books and articles. Many of the things Fahs said continue to be relevant today, such as this excerpt from Fahs’s last article, published in 1971:

“I believe that during the past as well as today Christian churches have been neglecting the children, even though Sunday Schools have been growing in size and equipment; and few theological seminaries give the education of the ministers to children their whole-hearted interest and respect…. At present it takes a very strong purpose and a willingness to sacrifice prestige for a man or a woman to enter the field of the religious education of the young. Ministers in preparation should be helped to feel more keenly the critical importance of the children.”

Since Fahs’s day, Unitarian Universalism has become a post-Christian religious body. Yet as someone who has moved from parish ministry to education ministry, I can attest to the fact that what Fahs said then remains true today: Unitarian Universalist ministers who start working with children and teenagers move down in the ministerial pecking order; and seminaries still do not adequately emphasize the critical importance of children and teenagers.

Link to the Fahs capsule biography.

The “Y.P.R.U. Song”

Scott Wells recently sent me a copy of Songs and readings: A book of hymns, responsive reading, meditations and other service elements for use in families and churches; Including Naming of an Infant Child, Marriage, Thanksgiving and Burial of the Dead, as compiled in 1937 at the First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City, Utah, under the editorship of Jacob Trapp, then the minister there. This is an explicitly humanist hymnal, although it would not appeal to today’s fundamentalist humanists for Trapp is willing to use the word “God” in a metaphorical or symbolic sense.

As I paged through this little book, something caught my eye: the “Y.P.R.U. Song”; that is, a song for the Young People’s Religious Union, as the Unitarian youth movement was called in those days:

Y.P.R.U. Song

Forward shoulder to shoulder,
   Fling the banner of youth,
On through worship and service
   To the glorious truth;
Light of our torch wide shining
   Colors always unfurled;
Strength, vision, and courage
   We pledge to the life of the world.

Far horizons are calling,
   Here, humanity cries
Deep in unfathomed darkness,
   High in the radiant skies.
Forward, questing and daring,
   Mighty our chorus is hurled —
Strength, vision, and courage
   We pledge to the life of the world;
   We pledge to the life of the world.

These lyrics caught my eye because they sounded so very different from my own Unitarian Universalist youth experience. When I was in Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), the successor organization to the YPRU, I never heard these kind of sentiments expressed. My youth experience emphasized self-knowledge and individual expression in service of personal spiritual growth, rather than “strength, vision, and courage” in service of the “life of the world.” Yes, we in LRY were committed social justice, and yes we embraced the questing exploratory experience typical of liberal religion. But I can’t imagine us ever singing such a song. I remember us singing along to Suite: Judy Blue Eyes: “It’s getting to the point where I’m no fun any more/ I am sorry/ Sometimes it hurts to badly I must cry out loud/ I am lonely…” — but never anything like the “Y.P.R.U. Song.”

I liked my LRY experience. But a little introspection goes a long way with me. I think I would have liked LRY better if there had been less introspection and a little more of flinging banners of youth and hurling of mighty choruses.

Today’s current youth group model still favors introspection, which serves some teenagers very well indeed. But I’ve seen more teenagers drift away once they realize that introspection is the main course.