A sermon by James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, January 10, 2010
CROSSING THE RUBICON: The Covenants of the First Unitarian Church of Providence
None of our private worlds is big enough for us to live a wholesome life. We need the wider world of joy and wonder, of purpose and venture, of toil and tears. What are we, any of us, but stranger and sojourners forlornly wandering through the nighttime, until we draw together and find the meaning of our lives in one another, dissolving our fears in each other’s courage, making music together, and lighting torches to guide us through the dark? We belong together. Love is what we need. To love and to be loved.
— A. Powell Davies
Most of us have heard that our first minister, Josiah Cotton, ordained and installed here in 1728, was famously condemned as “a preacher of cursed, damnable good works.” What that means might not be clear to all of us today. So let me try and explain. At that time the mainstream opinion in New England standing order Congregationalism was that human beings were so corrupt that our only hope for redemption was God’s direct intervention. Those, like Mr Cotton, who preached “good works,” were asserting a different view, which was that we have by our choices, by our actions, a direct hand in what happens here on earth and in any future life. And so Cotton in his sermons, called our forbearers to lives focused on ethics, on our choices and within that consideration, on our actions.
What I want to point out is that here, and I mean right here, in this congregation, from the beginning, we were part of a radical wing of Congregationalism that was moving toward the way of liberal religion that we enjoy here. Perhaps naturally, our second minister, the Reverend John Bass held similar views to Mr Cotton, and in fact prior to being called to us, had been deposed from his Connecticut congregation for preaching the importance of human action as a spiritual truth. More damnable good works. This pattern continued among us throughout our history.
These people who were our direct spiritual ancestors called themselves either liberals or, as there were no Roman Catholics around to confuse the issue, Catholics, that is, universal Christians. They, that is, we, that is, those who gathered together in this congregation and who would soon build this lovely old Meeting House, thought an open heart and a questing mind would win the day, could heal individuals and change the course of history. Their focus on action in the world, on good works, would come to be called salvation by character. When they looked at Jesus, they didn’t see a dying resurrecting god, but rather a wondrous exemplar of an authentic and meaningful life. As they said at the time, these liberals were vastly more interested in the religion of Jesus than any religion about Jesus.
Now, while not a primary part of their concern, these liberals, these Catholics also read the scriptures closely and, as it turned out dangerously. They began to compare early manuscripts, never a good thing for those concerned with maintaining the status quo. One thing they quickly noticed was that the sole reference to the trinity in the scriptures was a passage in the fifth chapter of the Gospel According to John. And, they noticed, it didn’t occur in any earlier manuscripts. It was clearly a forgery, added in the Middle Ages. Now they still believed the scriptures were the divine word of God, but they surmised if this were really an important doctrine, God would have been clearer on the subject, and would have addressed it directly and unambiguously.
Those who did not like the liberals, those who condemned their focus on moral culture, ethics and justice as “cursed (and) damnable good works,” found they now had a name they could condemn the liberals with. By the turn of the nineteenth century the conservatives started calling the rational and heartful dissenters, that is, our people, Unitarians.
Well, as many of you may know, one of the “founding” events for our current of North American liberal religion happened when we decided that wasn’t a bad name. The specific event took place in 1819 when the renowned pastor of the Federal Street Church in Boston, today known as Arlington Street Church, the Reverend William Ellery Channing preached the ordination and installation of Mr Jared Sparks at the First Independent Church of Baltimore. The sermon was called “On Unitarian Christianity.” From that point on we owned the name.
What you may not know is that in those pre-institutional denominational days the connections of churches were maintained by the willingness of congregations to let their ministers represent them among like-minded churches. So, for instance, there was a system of pulpit exchanges where with the permission of their congregations, ministers would preach in each other’s pulpits. And, at events like an ordination or installation, the home congregation would invite the minister and other representatives of these sister churches to participate as representatives of our larger connections. Well, we, here, this congregation was one of the six churches invited to send their ministers to that event, an event all knew at that time would be a challenge to the orthodox standing order. The subject of the sermon to be preached was known.
The Prudential Committee of what was then still called the First Congregational Church of Providence, voted to allow the Reverend Henry Eddis to absent himself from the pulpit, that is this pulpit, this Meeting House having been built some three years prior, for four weeks and to send him and two of their number to Baltimore for this event. The Prudential Committee allocated two hundred dollars for expenses, a fair amount of money. So, we were there at perhaps the most important of the marking events of our liberal religious movement in North America.
Taking on the name Unitarian the liberals had crossed a Rubicon, shaking off the old orthodoxy in favor of a new and broader view of religion, of God, and of themselves, of our human condition and how we stand in the world. Now, according to some people who like to try and figure these things out, today is in fact the anniversary of the original crossing of the Rubicon. Somewhere at some hour today two thousand fifty nine years ago, Julius Caesar declared “alea iacta est,” the die is cast! And he marched his army across a forbidden boundary and created a new world. Not without violence, not without hurt, but, without a doubt, a new world.
Fortunately our revolution was bloodless. But know it was a revolution. I want to hold up that revolution which formed the Unitarian connection, what we today call Unitarian Universalism, for you to consider, to hold in your hearts and to reflect upon.
Now there is no Unitarian or Unitarian Universalist creed. We resist and always have formulas that one must sign onto in order to belong. We need to be free to follow the intimations of our hearts and our best read on what is going on. But we are an assembly of spiritual seekers. And our covenants are the promises we make to each other within that assembly, within this gathering. They usually have three parts. There is the acknowledgment of some deep value or principal that binds each of us. The word God was the placeholder for a long time. And I have no problem with that, although, now, the word truth has taken its place for many of us. Whatever the term it is about our deepest intuition of that which binds us on this journey of the heart.
Standing before that deep call of our hearts to truth or love or God, however we chose to name it, we make promises to each other. What these promises are speak to our specific needs at some particular time. They are not meant to be once and forever. Times change, needs change, promises change.
So, perhaps naturally, two years after we participated in the public owning of that name Unitarian we here changed our covenant to acknowledge our shifting sense of spiritual perspective. Cy O’Neal has painstakingly transcribed the text of that new covenant, and for those who wish to read it, it is appended to the published version of this sermon. Now to the casual eye that covenant sure sounds ordinary Christian. Even looks a lot like a creed. Frankly even to my theologically trained eye it reads pretty ordinary Protestant Christian.
But everyone there at that time knew it wasn’t. Our official records say the vote was unanimous. I know Unitarians and I believe that is a polite fiction, the sort of thing done today where after a contentious fight and a vote is taken there’s a second vote to declare some action “unanimous.” What we do know for sure is that a couple of months later at a March 5th 1822 congregational meeting we have a single record of dissent from the Unitarian view. It went like this.
“The business was the request of Lydia Metcalf for dismissal. She states the following as her reasons for requesting dismission that she dissents from the views entertained by the Pastor and the Church generally respecting the character of Jesus Christ.” The minutes detail her objections and that “after due deliberation it was voted that she be dismissed agreeable to her request.”
In the framing of our covenant we had crossed a Rubicon. We were without doubt the voice of liberal religion in this state and while others would later join us, we would remain at the heart of the liberal spiritual way right down to this very day. From about that time we were known as the First Congregational Church (Unitarian), our current name, First Unitarian Church not being adopted until 1953. But by our covenant we would be known as seekers of the free heart and free mind. We became Unitarian.
Of course time flows and while the call of the free heart and free mind continues, the exact shape of liberal religion shifts. On the 30th of March 1882 our congregation distilled the sense of that 1821 covenant into the language currently recorded in our membership book. “In the love of the truth, and in the spirit of Jesus Christ, we join for the worship of God, and the service of man.” Now, still, for the casual reader that may sound orthodox Christian. I assure you it isn’t.
If a covenant is promises made out of our deepest values, then that covenant said we gather before our most profound intuition, our desire for truth itself, and guided by the spirit of Jesus, that is, again, by the religion of Jesus rather than a religion about Jesus, to worship God and to serve each other and the world.
This covenant served us well. And, frankly, perhaps it has had to serve us for a bit too long. We still gather before some deep calling to truth. And there is little doubt our culture is of the West and is informed by the Protestant traditions. But today fewer than twenty percent of us call ourselves Christian, and to frame our covenant so narrowly no longer seems appropriate. And even those among us who find the word God meaningful want the widest possible openness to interpretation, and probably there are more inclusive ways to speak to that sense of mystery, which informs the spiritual path we share.
And I want to hold up for you how looking at that covenant we can see that at the same time there are some constants among us. And of course there should be threads that continue from the first gathering of this congregation to who we are today. We continue to be a way of the heart and of the mind and we continue to find our meaning within our actions, both how we act among ourselves and by what we do in the world. The “service of man” may ring chunkily for us, but the spirit of service to humanity remains dear to us.
We are beginning the second decade of the twenty-first century. Many anniversaries are in the air. Our Meeting House is nearly two hundred years old. Our congregation is nearly three hundred years old. For many of us this seems a good time to review our covenant. So, as most here know, at the beginning of the year our Prudential Committee created a process for us to do so, to review our promises to each other in that spirit of the great quest for truth and to see if we can find new language, which will sing for another generation or two. We shall see.
The task has been deceptively simple. We’ve been asked what our deepest principles are. We’ve been asked what promises we wish to be made to us. And we have been asked what promises we are willing to make. All of these taken together reveal the spirit that informs our shared lives as the gathered members of this Free Church. More than two hundred of us have responded to the questions.
And now we are at the moment when those who worked so hard to gather these questions and their responses are handing the results on to a committee charged with reading them, reflecting on them, and to the best of their, as I’m on the committee, to the best of our ability, to craft language that reflects the sense of our community, our sense of the quest for truth and of the promises we wish made to us and to each other.
We will do our best, and then bring it back to you for review and based on that we will rewrite and then present the draft at our formal congregational meeting at the end of this church year for a vote to adopt or not.
This whole thing is something amazing. We have no higher ecclesiastical authority dictating anything to us. We, the members of this church, own this property, this Meeting House, our bank accounts, everything temporal. And we own the spiritual direction of this congregation. We, you, by your vote have elected me your minister. You presented me this pulpit to care for and to guard and to make a platform for the deepest ways of love and truth. You charged me to preach the deepest I can to the best of my abilities. And when the time comes you will find a next minister and do the same. As it has been so for three hundred years, and by the grace found in that great quest for truth, I hope for at least three hundred more.
What binds us together from the past to the present to the future is this covenant. It is that important. And so this is a terribly impossible task.
But, remembering all those who have gone before, who have banded together in the face of all that has been, and their hopes, and dreams and aspirations; and recalling you here today, inheritors of a great and lovely tradition, and our hopes and dreams and aspirations; and knowing we are stewards for the hopes and dreams and aspirations of those yet to come; I swear we will do our best.
I’m now going down from this pulpit, where the writing committee, Margaret Balch-Gonzales, Stephen Kolez, Martha Manno and I will meet with Cy O’Neal. Then the Steering Committee Carol Adams, Ted Martin, Marilyn Eanet and Rita Rossi will bring forward the cards and notes containing the best reflections of this community on our highest aspirations, and our promises we wish to make and to be made to us.
And with this the great communion of saints, the flow of history, the gathering of the spirit will once more be honored in this Meeting House.
First Unitarian Church of Providence
Oct. 27th 1821
Note: This is transcribed from a handwritten text at the beginning of our Membership Book. The text isn’t always clear. This is the best that could be ascertained by several people reading the book.
We whose names are undersigned, do humbly and solemnly devote ourselves to the service of God, in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
We profess our firm belief in the sacred scriptures, as containing the revealed will of Go and engage to take them for our sole and sufficient rule of faith and practice.
We do covenant and engage to, and with each other, that in consequence of our relation to the visible kingdom of the Redeemer, signified by our baptism, we will walk together as a Christian Society in the faith and order of the gospel – agreeably to the laudable practice of the Congregational Churches of New England.
And we do further engage that we will endeavor ourselves, and, so far as in our power, will strive to induce all under our care, to live in all good conscience towards God and man; professing ourselves to be in charity with those of every communion, who love the Lord Jesus Christ, in sincerity and truth.
For the faithful performance of these engagements, we depend not on our own unaided strength, but on the assistance of the divine spirit which is promised to all those who sincerely ask it.
We rely for the pardon of our sins, and our future and final salvation, on the mercy of God, as declared to us by Jesus Christ. And we beseech our Heavenly Father to strengthen us, and to enable us to keep this our covenant inviolate, and, at last, to unite us to the general assembly and church of the First born, which are written in xxx (?vin?), and to God the Judge of all, and to the xxx (?sfee?) of just men made perfect.
First Unitarian Church of Providence
March 30, 1882
In the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus Christ, we join for the worship of God and the service of man.