A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on April 19, 2009
Born in Blood: The American Revolution, Thomas Paine and the Beginnings of Unitarian Universalism
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dim stream that seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deeds redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare,
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Perhaps you’ve heard I’m from California. Auntie, Jan & I moved East about a decade ago, and I still remember it took a year to walk down Boston streets and not feel that everything was dirty. That dirty, of course, was the grime of the ages. It was what you get when buildings are a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years old. I didn’t have a similar experience until several years later when we first visited Europe. So, yes, I know there’s old and there’s old. But for us as Americans, here is our old.
For me it was quite moving to walk Boston’s Freedom Trail or to visit towns like Lexington and Concord, with their mythic names. There is a stoplight on Mt Auburn street in Watertown where I have paused a thousand times. Waiting there I look over to see a simple marker proclaiming how George Washington passed that spot on his way to take command of the continental army.
Wherever we go here in New England we find statues and monuments noting battles fought, won and lost. So it’s hard not to think at least a little about such things. And then there’s today. As many of us know, today in 1775 open conflict erupted between the American colonies and Great Britain. The battle of Lexington and Concord was fought on this day two hundred and thirty four years ago not very many miles from here. Slightly more than a year later Rhode Island would declare itself independent of Britain. Two months after the rest of the colonies would also declare independence, birthing our American nation.
I’ve thought long about what Ralph Waldo Emerson said in that poem “Concord Hymn,” which he wrote to commemorate that battle on this day those two and a quarter and a bit more centuries ago, and what he called the “shot heard ‘round the world.” I suggest there was no hyperbole in that. I suggest there was, not only a political revolution going on, but part and parcel of it, there was something profoundly spiritual happening. And that something was the birthing of American liberal religion, which would lead directly to our contemporary Unitarian Universalism.
Now our UU myth claims numerous ancestors. Many of us like to look as one of ours to the pharaoh Akhenaton, whose solar monotheism has sparked spiritual imaginations for generations. We also like many of the Jewish prophets, at least those who called us to the work of justice. More historically accurately, we claim the likes of the Transylvanian Francis David who said, you need not think alike to love alike. But we also liked the Spaniard Michael Servetus who stuck his thumb in the eye of both the Catholic and Protestant establishments, and was burned at the stake by John Calvin for impertinence.
We owe so much to the Jewish tradition, washed through the stories and particularly the teachings of Jesus, although at the same time very much in reaction to the institutions and dogmas established by Jesus’ followers. Modifying all that, we owe more than we usually acknowledge to the Greek philosophers and their Roman disciples, particularly Aristotle and the Stoics. In that regard, obviously, we are born from the same mother as are the modern Christian churches, but we are perhaps closer to our same pagan father. That foundation acknowledged, the first glimmering of what we would actually become, how we began the journey that moved the majority of us, although by no means all, outside the Christian camp, starts with the Enlightenment.
The word Enlightenment is right. While I’m confident Rene Descartes was flat wrong in positing separate substances for mind and body, at the same time he articulated a method of investigation, which opened the world to a new way of seeing. You could say he was the first to post the bumper sticker on the back of his wagon declaring, “question authority!” He said we should take nothing on faith, and question all assumptions. We should base all our reasoning on observations of the world as it actually functions. As such he is in many ways the father of the scientific method. And, I suggest, of liberal religion.
Yes, of course, there are always deeper roots. Would Descartes have existed without Francis Bacon? And Bacon, himself, followed others. And thinking of those connections, of that web of relationships that unite us all, calls another point to mind.
Today our contemporary Unitarian Universalism is, I believe, founded on two assertions. The first is an observation of the inherent preciousness and beauty within its transience of the individual person. Some among us push even that and speak of the preciousness of every thing as it is. All this is connected to our second foundational assertion: we are all woven out of each other, we are all completely dependent upon each other for our existence. Our liberal spirituality, our ethics, and our quest for justice and mercy all spin out of these two observations. I suggest this is what we’re about, seeing these truths, delving deeper into them as actual intimate personal experience, and thinking about how to act knowing these things are true about us and the world.
But that is contemporary Unitarian Universalism. What birthed us is an amazing revolution, a revolution of perspective that changed the world. We who are Unitarian Universalists owe everything to the Enlightenment. For good and, of course, for ill, everything that is us follows from that moment in time.
At the heart of this revolutionary perspective were two things. First, love for the world in which we find ourselves, as rough and violent and sad as it is, it is also the substance of our lives, precious and wonderful. Second, a fervent belief that a reasonable and fiercely honest person could find all that was necessary for life and love and joy in this world. I suggest the flowering of this perspective took place on the eastern seaboard of the North American continent in the middle of the Eighteenth century. And here’s something important. It didn’t happen easy. The revolution actually cost lives. This perspective at the heart of our spirituality was birthed in blood.
For me there are several “take aways” in noticing this. One is a hard challenge to my near pacifism. Without the revolution would this all have happened anyway, or something close enough? I don’t know. No one does. What we do know is people paid a terrible price for this shift of perspective, for this possibility of people overturning kings and claiming power for the people, and at the same time a radically free investigation of matters spiritual, a free quest for meaning. I feel, we who are the beneficiaries of this revolution, should pay attention to both the message and the cost of that message.
If we want to get a sense of our spiritual ground we can look to theologians like William Ellery Channing, Margaret Fuller, or Ralph Waldo Emerson or more contemporary thinker like James Luther Adams or Thandeka. We can look to politicians like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. But, for today, I want to turn our attention to Thomas Paine. Paine was a rabble-rouser who in many ways lived on the edge. He was also a person you probably wouldn’t want as a neighbor. Or even to sit next to in a coffee shop. A bit too intense to be a personal friend.
But the man could write. And he could stir hearts. His pamphlet “Common Sense” was denounced by those who warned that without monarchy America would “degenerate into democracy.” Even many years later after all was said and done, our more direct spiritual ancestor John Adams would opine “Common Sense” was a “crapulous mass.”
What he did, actually, was call for something very much along the lines of what we got, politically. And I suggest he pointed to a religious sensibility to which we owe a great deal. While not connected to organized religion, not that we are particularly, either; this son of a Quaker and an Anglican would articulate the seedbed of our living faith. He was a deist. And while we are not, for the most part, by definition deists, we owe a lot to those who were. A lot.
In his pamphlet “The Age of Reason” Paine declared, “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.” If you forgive the masculine by preference usage of his day, that’s an elevator speech that most of us should recognize.
He condemned all existing religious institutions as monopolies of power and as a matter of course challenged all miracles, to which all mainstream Christians, including Unitarians at that time counted as prima face evidence for the faith. Instead, as historian Eric Foner observed, “For the Bible and revelation (Paine) substituted Nature and natural laws as the source of religious knowledge. ‘The word of God is the creation we behold,’ Paine declared, ‘and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to man.’ The power of God was evident in ‘the immensity of the creation;’ divine wisdom in ‘the unchangeable order’ of the universe; (and) God’s benevolence in ‘the abundance with which He fills the earth.’”
Foner observes how this perspective by and large, was in fact shared by people “like Jefferson and Franklin, not to mention (those) far more aggressive European deists like Voltaire and Hume. But even in Europe, most eighteenth-century deists had been content to confine their religious opinions to upper-class salons, or pamphlets addressed to an educated audience.” Paine took his message to the people. And he articulated the beginnings of an examined life that would allow us, that is you and me here today, to question authority, to reason deep, and to feel fully.
Here’s my point. On this day not two and a half centuries ago, sixty-five British soldiers were killed and many more wounded. Fifty Americans were killed and many more wounded. People from twenty-three American towns were wounded or killed on that day. The next day John Adams touring the battle site declared “the die was cast, the Rubicon crossed.” Thomas Paine concurred, writing from that day “I rejected the hardened, sullen-tempered Pharaoh of England for ever...” Indeed, our forbearers had crossed a river to something new, to a promised land.
So, here we are, the direct heirs to those who fought and died on this day all those years ago. They did it for many different reasons. But at least in part they were inspired by the likes of Thomas Paine. At least in part they died in a struggle to throw off kings, temporal and spiritual. And at least in part they died so you and I could follow our minds and our hearts toward the deepest truths we can. That was the shot heard ‘round the world.
Those who don’t understand think ours is a faith where you can believe anything you want. Hardly. Ours is a grown up religion that demands we take personal responsibility, that we look deep into who we are, that we do not turn away, that we weigh and measure, and as we do this, and only then, to declare our faith as a living thing.
We need to remember, and this is the right day to do so; people died so we could do this. I feel a deep responsibility to live up to that possibility they gave me. I hope you feel the same. In the meantime, I thank those who gave us this chance to see this lovely hurt world as it really is, and to find our way in it, and in that to discover joy and peace and a life time of possibility.
And I swear by my life, to do my best to live worthy of that gift purchased with their blood.