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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, November 27, 2011

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Transcendentalism, the Question of Authority Within Unitarian Universalism, and Where it All Takes Us

The Transcendentalist adopts the whole connection of spiritual doctrine. (She) believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy. (The Transcendentalist) wishes that the spiritual principle should be suffered to demonstrate itself to the end, in all possible applications to the state of (humanity)...

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, in The Transcendentalist (adapted)

Not too long ago a Congregationalist minister told me, “James, I have a joke.” I sighed. My orthodox friends seem to like to look for jokes about Unitarian Universalists. “Yes,” I replied. She said, “Did you hear about the notice for the Bible study group at the Unitarian Church?” She paused. Dramatic affect. Then concluded, “It read, ‘Bring a Bible and some scissors.’”

I paused. First, it was one I hadn’t heard before, which is something of a novelty. But, also, I wasn’t absolutely sure it was a joke. I know the Bible Study group here at First Unitarian may not use physical scissors, but it does some serious cutting into the text. And I realized I also thought maybe literal scissors and cheap old paperback Bibles could make a pretty good adult education program. Sort of Do It Yourself Bible: In the Spirit of Thomas Jefferson. As is my wont, this then set me to thinking a bit farther. Where’s the humor here? What makes this a joke?

The issue, I suspect has to do with authority. Who says? Today, I’d like to explore just a little about “who says” within Unitarian Universalism. Where is it that we put our trust? How do we hope to find our way through the confusions of life? Is there a north star in our comprehensive faith, which we all know lacks a creed or a single text we consider authoritative? I suggest the answer is yes, indeed. And with that, I extend to you a small invitation to consider where we came from and with that, perhaps get a sense of where we might be going.

The Abrahamic traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are religions of the book. In all these religions authority is said to reside in the text. The problem for anyone who actually reads them is the texts are not so clear as one would like them to be. So, in Judaism and Islam there are interpreters, scholars who have immersed themselves in both the texts and generations of commentaries. Decisions are found within the consensus of the scholars, rabbis in one, imams in the other. In Christianity the seat of authority has been debated, sometimes bitterly, sometimes with a wake of blood following the debates.

The first majority perspective was that interpretation was the proper responsibility of the chief pastor, the bishop, or, possibly those appointed by him. The second perspective, which arose in the Reformation, was that the individual held that authority. The Holy Spirit could guide the reader. By the beginnings of the Enlightenment that idea of the individual being able to interpret the scriptures began to be parsed. And with that a third view emerged suggesting it was reason, rationality, the ability to sort things out that allowed people to understand the scriptures.

Now, toward the end of the eighteenth century and the first part of the nineteenth, when Unitarianism and Universalism both began to differentiate out from American Protestantism, they both began with appeals to scripture. And for them the preferred tool with which to approach the Bible was with reason. But within a generation the application of that tool began to show the scriptures themselves were inadequate, too limited, too much simply the product of human minds in particular times and places, and while occasionally representing what seemed universally applicable principles, only here and there.

Also, other sacred texts began to be available to English readers. First the Koran was translated, then the texts of India and China, perhaps most significantly the Bhagavad Gita at the end of the eighteenth century and the Tao Te Ching in the middle of the nineteenth. As they read them people began to wonder what source might inspire all these different texts, was there some authority prior to the books?

For Unitarians in particular this question of authority, of what was authoritative spiritually, and who says, led to a great crisis, which would lead in a straight line to us. For the rest of this, let me anchor our reflection to a story. Funny how often the universal is found most clearly in the particular.

Elizabeth Palmer, Eliza, was born in 1777 and raised in the congregation at King’s Chapel up on Beacon Hill in Boston during the long ministry of James Freeman. She married Nathaniel Peabody, a dentist. They moved to Salem where they had seven children. Elizabeth was the oldest, born in 1804, Mary followed in 1806, Sophia in 1809, Nathaniel in 1811, George in 1813, Wellington in 1815 and Catherine in 1819. Catherine died within two months of her birth, Wellington died while a medical student, and two years after that, George died, as well, leaving the three sisters and a brother. While the Peabody women were all brilliant, it seemed a dark star rested over the heads of the men, first the father, and later the sole surviving son would have marginal careers. Significantly, perhaps, only the three sisters have Wikipedia entries.

Mary would marry Horace Mann and while in the shadow of her brilliant husband, United States congressman, abolitionist, educational theorist and university president, nonetheless she had a remarkable public life. She, too, was a social activist, pamphleteer and writer. As a widow she edited her husband’s writings as well as writing his biography. She would also work with her sister Elizabeth in establishing kindergartens in America. Sophia would marry Nathaniel Hawthorne. Originally an artist, she devoted herself to her husband’s career and after his death to his memory.

When she was eighteen Elizabeth declined an offer of marriage, instead beginning that career as a teacher. It appears later both Horace Mann and Nathaniel Hawthorne expressed interest in her before turning their affections to her sisters. In the end she never married. And, given what happened to her brilliant sisters, and what we received as our cultural inheritance, indeed the course of our living liberal faith through her focused life, perhaps this was all for the best. Of course, in such matters, who really knows?

Possibly the most important man in her life was the great Unitarian divine William Ellery Channing. She first met him when she was nine years old, they would end up having a life-long relationship. As a young adult she would work as his amanuensis, transcribing and editing his sermons and other writings. At first her teacher and mentor, Channing would eventually cherish her as a friend and collaborator. Following his death she would write his biography.

Elizabeth opened and operated a number of schools over the years. In 1834 she helped Bronson Alcott establish the radical Temple School in Boston. She was one of the two women, with Margaret Fuller, to become a member of Emerson’s Transcendental Club.

In 1839 Elizabeth opened her West Street Bookstore in Boston, which instantly became the center of the Transcendentalist movement. She published several books by Margaret Fuller and several of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s earliest novels. She was also publisher, sometimes editor, and occasional contributor to the Transcendentalist journal, the Dial. Including in its last year of publication her translation of a chapter from the Lotus Sutra, the first Buddhist text to appear in English. The single issue of her journal Aesthetic Papers published Henry Thoreau’s “Resistance to Civil Government,” better known these days as “Civil Disobedience.” She stood at the center of a spiritual revolution.

Inspired by Friedrich Frobel’s kindergarten work in Germany, Elizabeth opened the first kindergarten in America, and worked tirelessly to support it as a movement. If you went to kindergarten, it was because of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. She was also political, was a fierce abolitionist, supported the liberal revolutions in Europe, women’s suffrage, as well as the rights of Native Americans, and particularly in her later years, the Paiutes.

But it is her work as a Transcendentalist that I most want to hold up in these few minutes we have together. Here I believe within this consideration we can find the source of authority within our contemporary Unitarian Universalism. And with it, some dangers, all traditions have them, as well as in the example of Peabody’s life possible directions for us as we go forward into this new century.

Just as with our contemporary liberal faith, precisely what Transcendentalism is supposed to be is open to a multiplicity of interpretations. And, I find it interesting how Transcendentalism, like contemporary Unitarian Universalism seems to be a real problem for people of more orthodox persuasions. Tapping into the anxiety about Transcendentalism, the anxiety of those who worried about heterodox ideas, Theodore Parker, writing under the pseudonym “Senex,” mocked them, pretending to be a country Unitarian who has just heard of the new thought.

“Alas, he writes. “Alas for the churches in New England. We be all dead men, for the Transcendentalists have come! They say there is no Christ; no God; no soul; only ‘an absolute nothing,’ and Hegel is the Holy Ghost. Our churches will be pulled down; there will be no Sabbath; our wives will wear the breeches, and the Transcendentalists will ride over us rough shod.” Of course, ride rough shod with what? What is the new authority that so many feared?

The scholar Jeff Wilson succinctly describes this emergent tradition. If you listen closely, I think you’ll hear where it is we put our authority from that day to this. “(T)he central tenet of the rising Transcendentalist cadre, was that human beings contained within themselves a mysterious internal principle that guided them toward religious truth—an intuitive capacity more profound and reliable than scriptures, ecclesiastical institutions, or tradition. This spiritual sixth sense pointed toward ‘transcendental’ truths such as the universal brotherhood of all people, the ability of the human individual to commune directly with the divine, and the presence of the sacred in the manifestations of the natural world.”

Here we find our authority. The who that says is found within our human hearts and minds, discovered as we open both as wide as possible. Now, it is worth noting how there can be differences and approaches within the large tent of Transcendentalism. Personally I feel less kinship with Emerson who often appeals to Platonic ideals, with which I have little affinity, and much more to Thoreau who saw the power of the thing in itself, which is where I put my confidence. But, both found their vision, their intuition right here in this world. Through curiosity and openness to what is seen and smelled and tasted and heard: what we need is found here, in this place, in my heart, in yours.

I feel Transcendentalism’s greatest value lies in how it held up our natural consciousness as the seat of divinity itself. But that immediately raised its own questions, the “so what” which follows the “says who.” Is this all about the reformation of the self or the reformation of society? On the one hand Ralph Waldo Emerson saw this as a call to the examination of self, on the other Theodore Parker thought it a call to action. Over the ensuing years we’ve seen how each focus, if unconnected to the other can be a problem.

Jeff Wilson observes, “Both the self-culture and social-reform versions of Transcendentalism have been bequeathed to modern Unitarian Universalism, part of the theo¬logical richness of our denominational heritage. But we have also inherited the tension between them. The very freedom and individual affirmation of Uni¬tarian Universalism can lead to spiritual navel-gazing, while constantly channeling religious impulses into political activities can leave one spiritually immature. “Egotheism” (as Elizabeth Peabody termed it) and activism-as-religion—two risks that Unitarian Universalists are vulnerable to—turn out to have a much older history than we might imagine.”

As I see it Unitarian Universalism offers out of this deep intuition of unity, between us, nature and God, two streams, two dangers, and an invitation to a middle way. Self-reflection is a current, and a valuable one, unless it is all we do. Seeking justice is a current, and a valuable one, unless it is all we do. By itself one is sterile, by itself the other is undirected, power without ultimate purpose. Together, we have a whole life, and a way of healing.

So, what does this whole life look like? Well, for that let’s come back to Elizabeth Peabody. By midlife she was overweight, indifferent to her dress, and as Philip Gura in his magisterial study of the Transcendentalists, notes, “famously absentminded.” Gura goes on to add how Thomas Wentworth Higginson recalled her as “desultory, dreamy, but insatiable in her love for knowledge and for helping others to it.” Henry James’ caricature of Elizabeth in The Bostonians as Miss Birdseye portrays a distracted idealist unaware of the real world around her. Supporting this perspective, historian Bruce Rhonda suggested her “energies had the air of noble but hopeless lost causes.”

No doubt her heart turned to those most in trouble, but I think this emphasis on dreamy and distracted misses the real person. There is a “yes and” quality to this remarkable woman, which I think points to what we can be in our contemporary liberal religion. I suggest a whole Elizabeth Palmer Peabody to be an exemplar of what it is we are, at our best. The great Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist and social activist, Theodore Parker probably put it best when he described her as "a woman of most astonishing powers ... many-sidedness and largeness of soul... rare qualities of head and heart... A good analyst of character, a free spirit, kind, generous, noble."

Returning to the original question, to the question of authority, Leslie Perrin Wilson, Curator of the Special Collections of the Concord Public Library summarizes Elizabeth’s Transcendentalism, and I suggest it is also a pretty good description of our contemporary Unitarian Universalism, that the seat of authority for us, is “a sense of the oneness of God, (humanity), and nature.” That’s our authority. Here’s who says. In this intuitive insight that we are precious and unique, but also bound up together as one leads us on a quest of individual insight, the reformation of society, and the healing of the world as inextricably linked.

So, what would this look like in practice? What is the so what? Wilson goes on to suggest “Elizabeth Peabody had a particular affinity for finding unity amidst all kinds of diversity--social, cultural, historical, aesthetic, and linguistic--and above all a powerful drive to express her philosophical idealism in concrete ways.” For me this sums up what we are at our best within our liberal faith and what, I hope we will continue to be as our lives and this wondrous tradition unfold within our culture and history.

It’s as simple as this. And, as hard… Amen.