A sermon by Cyrus O’Neil and James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, March 7, 2010
THIS SECOND DAY OF JULY ANNO DOMINI 1722, IN THE EIGHTH YEAR OF THE REIGN OF OUR SOVERIGN LORD GEORGE...
Reflections on the First Unitarian Church of Providence
This Second Day of July Anno Domini 1722, in the eigth year of the Reign of our Soverign Lord George of Greate Britain etc. King. To all people to whom these presents shall come, greeting. Know ye that I, John Hoyle of the town of Providence in the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England, for the consideration of the sum of twenty-four pounds, do give, grant, sell and confirm the quantity of one whole acre of land scituate and lieing in the said town of Providence about a quarter of a mile south west from the great bridge that goeth over the salt River at a place called Waybauset… on which land a meeting house is to be erected which is to be appointed to the use of Godly Preachers, Ministers and Assemblies that shall peacebly and orderly worship in the Congregational… way… and also for a burying place…”
—The Deed given for the establishment of what is now called the First Unitarian Church of Providence
Roger Williams arrived in Rhode Island in 1636, just ahead of deportation back to England, trial and possible hanging, or cutting down on the paperwork, just hanging. He was a chronic troublemaker, not only did he believe in the separation of church and state but he also thought people should deal fairly with the native inhabitants. And that was just the beginning of the troublesome things he proclaimed. He was, in short, a misfit.
Among the consequences for good and ill that followed the establishment of this colony, was that those who came here with him and after also tended to be misfits of one sort or another. William McLoughlin described our state’s founders as “an intriguing assortment of idealists, patriots, entrepreneurs, politicians, rogues, and rascals.” Cotton Mather didn’t beat around the bush. He called Rhode Island “the sewer of New England.”
Our meditation today focuses on a subset of that motley crew, those who gathered together to form this congregation, which would be known over the years as the First Congregational Church, then for the longest time the First Congregational Church (Unitarian) and finally since the middle of the last century the First Unitarian Church of Providence.
Now think about it. Those who came to Rhode Island and Providence were often marginal folk of one sort or another. So, we can understand the Baptists and the Quakers, already spiritual outcasts. But why would a Congregationalist, who belongs to the established churches of the two great neighboring colonies, Massachusetts and Connecticut ever want to come here? They would be the most marginal of the marginal.
The answer is because, they were misfits, as well. Malcontents, itchy-footed, curious, adventuresome. And, they’re our ancestors. In 1700 there were about seven thousand people of European or African descent in the colony, by mid-century there would be fifty thousand. It was a go-go time. In the midst of that Congregationalists were living and worshiping together, supported by visiting ministers from the neighboring colonies. In 1721 three of these Congregational ministers who visited ever more regularly, wrote to the magistrates and other leaders of Providence requesting permission to officially establish a Congregational church here.
It took four months for these community leaders to respond. Our eighth minister, Carlton Staples wrote of it. Their letter, Mr Staples observed was “an exceedingly spicy document, aimed at the intolerant and persecuting spirit of their neighbors, full of biting irony, fortified at every point by scriptural allusions and quotations, but containing not a word in direct answer to their request.” Apparently the Congregationalists took that omission as a yes, you may establish a church here.
A small number of families began to worship more or less regularly, it’s hard to tell, but I think about nine or ten, and before long decided they wanted a church building. Funds were solicited from congregational churches outside the state. Typical, perhaps of that crowd of rogues, one of their number, Dr John Hoyle, took charge of the money and tried to build that first church on his own property. For which, presumably he would be remunerated at a price he would set at a later date. His co-religionists did not appreciate this, and he was forced to stop construction. Instead a site was donated, which would later become the Superior Court. A substantial part of the deed for that property served as our text for this service.
In 1728 the congregation felt sufficiently secure to call it’s own minister. It was a big event. Dozens of clergy were present for the ordination and something in the neighborhood of a thousand people attended. As the city appeared to have fewer than four thousand residents at this time, this is particularly impressive.
The Reverend Josiah Cotton, I believe most here know, will eventually be condemned for preaching, in the felicitous phrasing of the day, a “damnable doctrine of good works.” This would lead to a split in the congregation, led by Deacon Joseph Snow and the founding of a separate and more orthodox church on the other side of the river. It should be no surprise our second minister, the Reverend John Bass, called in 1752, had previously been ejected from his Connecticut pulpit for holding similar liberal heresies to Mr Cotton. This sort of choice of ministers would continue to find favor among our members, right down to this day.
Through trials and tribulations, the community persevered.
One of the congregation’s biggest challenges in those early years was money. Our first three settled ministers all stepped down due to lack of funds.
Then in 1770, the congregation created the Benevolent Congregational Society. Its purpose was to provide sufficient income to support a settled minister. The dues were to be collected and invested in mortgages and other loans. From these investments, it was hoped that the Benevolent Congregational Society would soon provide sufficient funds to support a settled minister.
But then the Revolutionary War intervened. It had a profound effect on life in Providence and on the congregation. Services in the church became sporadic and the activities of the Benevolent Society ‘almost wholly ceased’.
It was only with the end of British occupation in Newport that life began to return to normal. By the early 1780s, Sunday services were again held regularly. The Benevolent Society once again took up its purpose. The congregation had now gone almost eight years without a settled minister. It was time to try again.
Enos Hitchcock was 39 years old when he was installed as our fourth settled minister. Before the war he had spent five years as a ‘colleague pastor’ in Beverly Massachusetts. During the war, he had served as a brigade chaplain. He proved to be a man of generous spirit and wide interests, whose theology, of course liberal for its day, resonated well with his new congregation. In many ways, his arrival marked an important turning point in our story.
For starters, he encouraged the congregation to resolve old disputes and take down barriers. In 1784, they voted to lift the long standing censure of those who had split the congregation forty years earlier. They also opened their communion services to all who wished to participate. This was done at a time when communions were universally closed affairs in congregations through out New England.
It was also a period of remarkable growth for the town. Before the war, Providence was not much more than a very large farming and maritime village, nestled on a hillside across from the Great Salt Cove. But then the industrial revolution arrived in New England, just a few miles north of here. Providence began to grow.
Many, many members of this congregation, along with its minister, played prominent roles in that development. One notable example was John Howland. Today, his name is almost unknown in this congregation. But for much of the 19th century, he was remembered fondly here as the ‘learned barber’.
He was born in 1757 in Newport, R.I. At the age of 13, he was apprenticed to a barber in Providence. He served in the RI infantry during the war and then returned to Providence to open a barber shop of his own and raise a family. His biography at the Rhode Island Historical Society states that…“He was prominent in virtually every aspect of the city's life during the eighty-four years he resided here…”
The biography goes on to say: “Probably the most noteworthy of his achievements was his effort on behalf of public education. As he recollected later, ‘I did what Roger Williams never attempted or never had a disposition to do, I formed and brought into existence the public schools of this town...as every vote on the subject passed in town meeting was moved or written by me...’”
Throughout those years, John Howland was an active member of this congregation. He served for many years as our Clerk.
As Providence prospered, so, too, did the congregation. By 1794, the Benevolent Society had purchased a tract of land that stretched from Benefit St to what is now Hope St.
It was here that they built a new Meeting House. Regarded at the time as one of the most elegant structures in Providence, it was paid for by the auctioning of the pews and then charging an annual pew tax. This annual pew tax would become the primary means of annual support for the church.
As for the Meeting House, by the dawn of 1800, it had come to serve as a testament to the prominence and prosperity the congregation and its minister had achieved. Not long after its completion, however, in 1803, Enos Hitchcock died. It has been said that his death was mourned by the whole town as a public calamity. In passing, he left behind many bequests. But perhaps the most important of these was that, by the end of his ministry, the congregation had developed a character and nature that would distinguish it for the next 100 years..
In those years, we would move to the forefront of a new religious movement in New England that would come to be known as Unitarianism. We would become one of the earliest congregational churches in the country to create a Sunday School program.
Most notably, though, the members of this congregation would continue to play a leading role in the life of the town. A pamphlet about our congregation written in 1897 would list organizations throughout the city that were founded, managed or supported by members of the congregation. These included: …the Home for Aged Women, the Home for Aged Men, …The Charitable Fuel Society, The Irrepressible Society, …The Dispensary, The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Female Benevolent Society…and the list goes on.
What had begun as a small and nearly destitute congregation in 1723, had by 1900 become a prominent fixture in the life of the city of Providence, standing upon a legacy of generosity, compassion and reason. And a commitment to ‘damnable good works’.
But all things change and as the twentieth century unfolded, so it was for Providence and this congregation. With the Great Depression, Providence fell from its preeminent place. The old families that had created this town, and had played such a large role in the life of our congregation, moved away or died out. Money again became problematic. The practice of owning a family pew fell away and with it, the ability to support the church through pew taxes. And so, our first annual canvass was adopted in 1921.
While we lost generals and merchant princes, we continued to count among our number teachers and social works and, probably, too many professors of one thing or another. This continues to be our demographic. I suggest, nonetheless, we continue to cherish the current that led the marginal of the marginal to found a liberal church in this state, and which would inform those rogues, and then merchants, and then generals and statesmen, and now school teachers, social workers, nurses, doctors and lawyers, people underemployed, or even unemployed as well as many prominent in their fields to this wild and free religion.
That current, a faith in good works, damnable in others’ eyes or not, informed by a deep confidence that what is spiritually nourishing can best be found within our ordinary lived lives. We look to each other. We support each other. And together we have over the many years, from those first rough times, through, as we’ve heard before, revolution and civil war, and world war, through panics and recessions and depressions, through bad times, and good, advanced our community as well as our own lives.
This is a living congregation. We who occupy this lovely old Meeting House, we are heirs to those who made this what it is. And we are, God willing, going to be the ancestors to those who will follow. Thank goodness for our history and the creation of this sanctuary and outpost for possibility, hope and the love found in deepest connection. And thank goodness for the future, which we serve.
Today’s sermon owes a significant debt to the work and writings of John Carter, William G. McLoughlin, Helen Calder Robertson, James Shaw Jr., the Rev Carlton A. Staples, Alfred Stone and Charles James Shaw Jr Young. James Shaw Jr