Friday, April 30, 2010

grim piety...

A. P. Peabody served as Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard from 1860 to 1881 (and as professor emeritus until his death.)  The following excerpt comes from one of his later works, "Christian Morals: A Series of Lectures."  The lecture is "Moral Beauty" in which Peabody decries a certain kind of "corpse cold" piety...

"As the beautiful in nature is more than the useful, so is the beautiful in action and in character more than the good. Straight lines and sharp angles do not look beautiful to the eye; nor in life, speech, and conduct do they seem beautiful to the mind. In natural beauty the lines seem continuous, so gently does curve melt into curve. In character, however good, there is no beauty in sharp angles, in brusquerie, rudeness, abruptness, least of all, in fits of goodness which have their beginnings and endings, with the life, though not bad, on a lower plane, in the intervals. Even when there is no lack of continuity, a character may have inflexible rectitude, literal veracity, habits sedulously conformed in the smallest minutiae to the rule of right, and it may have our entire approval, our sincere though cold admiration, yet may have no beauty. There is a style of goodness that reminds one of a skeleton hung on wires, in which conscience is unrestingly active, but the imagination torpid even to death, — which repels sympathy, and makes virtue unlovely. A heaven thus peopled would seem no paradise. Grim piety may be of subjective worth to the individual soul, but its objective value would be represented by a negative sign."


Thursday, April 29, 2010

the most persuasive argument...

From an 1835 edition of "The Unitarian" magazine (the final issue before it became part of "The Christian Register") A.P. Peabody provides a timeless lesson for Unitarians...

"A Holy Life the Most Persuasive Argument...

Reader, are you a Unitarian ? you have embraced what you regard, not as an obscure and unreasonable, but as a definite, rational, and scriptural system of faith, to which many of your fellow-Christians are warmly opposed. Their opposition to you is sincere, conscientious. They honestly fear that your doctrine is not according to godliness, — that it will not bring forth the fruits of the Spirit. Upon many of them argument will have no effect, for their fears will make them deaf to argument. But the eloquence of a holy life may win them. You believe that your system is preeminently adapted to form pure and holy characters. Show, then, the superior value of your faith by your works. Be tolerant even to the intolerant, liberal to the illiberal, charitable to the uncharitable. Be faithful to every religious, every social, every personal duty. Keep the will of God constantly before you as your rule of action. Be not disheartened, though opposition hold out long, and still seem as violent as ever; for, by persevering in a good course, if you win not the favour of man, you at least gain that of God. And in time, those who now oppose you may be brought, if not to believe with you, at least to hold fellowship with you. And then you will have the satisfaction of having overcome their enmity, without having employed a single unchristian art or weapon. Such victories have been won."


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

the far heaven of religious joy...

Yesterday's post reminded me of this sermon by Theodore Parker.  Best known, of course, for his fiery denunciation of slavery and injustice, and for pushing the limits of the Unitarian establishment, Parker was also deeply pious, and his "Sermons of Religion" are a BU favorite.  Their flavor is given in this excerpt:

"There is no great growth in manly piety without fire to conceive, and then painstaking to reproduce the idea,— without the act of prayer, the act of industry. The act of prayer,— that is the one great vital means of religious growth; the resolute desire and the unconquerable will to be the image of a perfect man; the comparison of your actual day with your ideal dream; the rising forth, borne up on mighty pens, to fly towards the far heaven of religious joy. Fast as you learn a truth, moral, affectional, or religious, apply the special truth to daily life, and you increase your piety. So the best school for religion is the daily work of common life, with its daily discipline of personal, domestic, and social duties,— the daily work in field or shop, market or house, " the charities that soothe and heal and bless."


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

emancipated from the thralldom of appearances...

Ulysses G.B. Pierce concludes his summary of methods that Epictetus advises if one is to live a life of philosophy.

"The law of use and disuse is also invoked by the teacher. By this law old manners and habits vanish away through disuse, and new habits are established by continuous practice. Here is the law: Darwin could have stated it no more clearly: " Every skill and faculty is maintained and increased by the corresponding acts; as the faculty of walking by walking. And thus it is in spiritual things also. When thou art wrathful, know that not this single evil hath happened to thee, but that thou hast increased the aptness to it, and, as it were, poured oil upon the fire. Wouldst thou then be no longer of a wrathful temper? Then do not nourish the aptness to it, give it nothing that will increase it, be tranquil from the outset, and number the days when thou hast not been wrathful . . . but if thou hast saved thirty days, then sacrifice to God in thanksgiving."Thus it is that old and vicious habits may be extirpated and wholesome manners developed.

Self-examination also has an important place. The disciple must watch himself as he would an enemy. He must know how the matter stands with himself. Epictetus commends to his followers the lines of Pythagoras:

Let sleep not come upon thy languid eyes
Before each daily action thou hast scanned;
What's done amiss, what done, what left undone;
From first to last examine all, and then
Blame what is wrong, in what is right rejoice.

 Epictetus also avails himself of the law of auto-suggestion. The principles of philosophy are to become part of ourselves, finding lodgement in the subconscious and becoming a second nature; so that these principles may uphold and guide one even in sleep or in despondency.

Furthermore the power of visualization is utilized. The disciple is to have always before him the form and type of character to which he aspires, the mental picture of the perfection toward which he would grow. As a sort of super-self this image must transform us into its own likeness...his recital of methods, by no means exhaustive, will suffice to show how seriously Epictetus regarded the matter. For what he contemplates is nothing less than the highest virtue of which man is capable and the fulfilment of the promise of our spiritual nature. So he admonishes us: " Hold thyself worthy to live as a man of full age and as one who is pressing forward; and let everything that appeareth the best be to thee as an inviolable law." 91 Thus the wise man and good is to educate and discipline his moral faculties until he is emancipated from the thralldom of appearances and finds himself superior to the pressure of circumstance. Such an endeavor issues in tranquillity, magnanimity, freedom ; and the Stoic, " while imprisoned in this mortal body, makes fellowship with God his aim."


Monday, April 26, 2010

Wouldst thou be good?...

What, according to Ulysses G.B. Pierce, is the Stoic way of life?  How does one start along this path? Today and tomorrow, a brief overview.  I, for one, am reminded strongly of Henry Ware Jr...

"Therefore the first step of progress is the laying aside of all self-assurance and complacency. The disciple must become a fool, in order that he may become wise: he must empty himself of all vanity before he can be filled with wisdom. " Wouldst thou be good ? " he asks; " then first know that thou art evil." Therefore the beginning of philosophy is the consciousness of our own weakness...

Moreover the disciple is cautioned not to announce the fact that he is " taking a course in philosophy." He is to make no proclamation of his new resolve, and is not to speak much of things philosophic. " Fruit grows thus: the seed must be buried for some time, hid, grow slowly in order that it may come to perfection. Let the root grow, then acquire the first joint, then the second, and then the third: in this way the fruit will naturally force itself out." ...

Epictetus next recommends that the new resolve be aided by a new mental and moral environment. As physicians advise a change of climate, so the disciple should make for himself a new and congenial atmosphere. " Do you also introduce other habits than those which you have: fix your opinions and exercise yourself in them. Fly from your former habits, fly from the vulgar, if you intend ever to begin to be something."...

(Photo:  the Door of Humility, Bethlehem)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

no royal road...

To my way of thinking, one of the most important ideas advanced by the Boston Unitarians was that of salvation as a continuous work, a "path of progress."  Ulysses G.B. Pierce reports that Stoicism (via Epictetus) says much the same...

"From the foregoing it must be obvious that such a faith as Epictetus contemplates is not to be attained in a day or without great effort. Nor does the great Stoic so imagine. He indulges no illusions on the subject. The life according to nature must obey the universal law of growth. " Nothing great," he warns us, " is produced suddenly, since not even the grape or the fig is. If you say to me now that you want a fig, I will answer to you that it requires time. Is then the fruit of a fig-tree not perfected suddenly and in an hour, and would you possess the fruit of a man's mind in so short a time and so easily ? " The path of virtue is a path of progress. For virtue not only may be taught, but it must be taught. The moral heights cannot be scaled, but are to be gained only by a long and tortuous ascent. Towards these moral summits the teacher himself leads the way, at once guide and companion; and Epictetus gives his followers certain definite instructions regarding what is at best a long and difficult journey.

At the outset it should be observed that Epictetus holds out no false and alluring hopes to those who seek his instruction. There is no royal road to philosophy. The disciple must come prepared to " scorn delights, and live laborious days." He must be willing to be laughed at and mocked. Like an athlete, he must go into training. He should count the cost ere ever he enter the lists. For Epictetus wishes no halfhearted disciples. " You must watch, you must labor; overcome certain desires; quit your familiar friends, submit to be despised by your servant, to be held in derision by them that meet you, to take the lower place in all things, in office, in positions of authority, in courts of law. Weigh these things fully, and then, if you will, lay to your hand."


Saturday, April 24, 2010

every spot is home...

Before his long and influential ministry at All Souls in Washington DC, Ulysses G.B. Pierce served congregations in Decorah, Iowa,  Pomona, CA, and Ithaca, NY.  Here is more from the introduction to "The Creed of Epictetus"...

"It is by virtue of this belief in the universal Providence that we have the Stoic conception of the World Citizen. We are to name ourselves after the most lordly of our dwellings, not after the most miserable. Therefore Epictetus commends to us the habit of Socrates who, upon being asked what was his native place, was wont to claim, not Athens or Corinth, but the universe. And with Epictetus this is no mere figure of speech, but a truth leading to many practical conclusions. For thus man is to regard himself as a living member of the universe, a citizen not an alien, a fellow-member not merely an integral part. The world is his Fatherland, and every spot is Home. " Can any man," he asks, " cast me out of the universe? He cannot; but whithersoever I may go, there will be the sun, and the moon, and there the stars, and visions, and omens, and communion with the Gods." And being members of the family universal, we are to hold nothing as profitable for self that does not contribute to the good of the whole. For as the foot is useless and dead save as a member of the body, so the individual fulfils himself only through this universal relationship. To keep this kinship inviolate and to suffer nothing to sever this relationship must be the constant aim. The good man, accordingly, is he who submits himself to God just as the good citizen submits himself to the laws of the state.

A direct inference from the belief in God as Father relates to the nobility and worth of man. For by origin, nature, capacity, vocation, and destiny man's divine ancestry is witnessed. If he could fully appreciate this truth, never would he think meanly or ignobly of himself. If kinship with Caesar would exalt one, what should be the elation upon knowing that we are sons of God! And should not this avail to rescue us from all despondency and to set us free from all fear?"


Friday, April 23, 2010

behave as an imitator of God...

Ulysses G.B. Pierce wrote "The Creed of Epictetus"  in 1916 "in partial requirement for his degree of Doctor of Philosophy" from George Washington University.  Today he begins his description of the "faith" of Epictetus...

"In the beginning God." So it might well be said of the leading ideas of Epictetus. This is indeed the central thought of his system, from which all other ideas have been thrown off, like planets from the sun. To ignore this or to minimize it is at the outset to misunderstand the great Stoic, while rightly to apprehend this is to find ready entrance into the mind of Epictetus. So he himself says: " We are first to learn that God is."...

The supreme witness to the being of God is found, not in the laws and phenomena of external nature, but in the mind and constitution of man. For into man God has put a portion of Himself. " You are a fragment of God, you have in yourself something that is a part of Him."  The moral nature of man testifies to the being of God...

In other words, the moral nature of man functions through the organ of his intellect; and that intellect must be trained: howbeit, that moral nature which thus functions is itself the presence of God in the soul of man. Thus Epictetus anticipates modern thought; and the words of Martineau seem an echo of the thought of the great Stoic: " The revelation of authority, this knowledge of the better, this inward conscience, this moral ideality — call it what you will — is the presence of God in man."...

No easy-going faith is here however. For if there is a Providence, the implications are weighty. If there is a Providence, then to blame God is to dethrone Him. Like Job, the Stoic must stalwartly refuse to " curse God." All judgment and criticism must be withheld. Hence submission and resignation have a large place in the teaching of Epictetus. As the educated person does not spell words as he happens to wish, but spells them as they should be spelled; so the man who is morally educated submits joyfully to Providence...

Epictetus was fully aware that without "a moral and pious life," formal acts of worship count for nought; but he also knew that the godly life craves expression in worship. " Had we but understanding, should we ever cease hymning and blessing the Divine Power, both openly and in secret, and telling of His gracious gifts? . . . and upon you, too, I call to join in this selfsame hymn." Yet this worship must be no vague nor vain thing. For it must kindle in man the passionate desire to become, so far as in him lies, like unto Him whom he worships. "If the Deity is faithful, he too must be faithful; if free, beneficent, and exalted, he must be so; and, in all his words and actions, behave as an imitator of God."


Thursday, April 22, 2010

the highest compensation...

One of my favorite books is "The Creed of Epictetus" by Ulysses G.B. Pierce.  I came across it a few years ago almost by accident after reading James Freeman Clarke's sermon, "The Two Handles" which is an exposition of an idea expressed by Epictetus.  In looking for other Unitarian connections to Stoicism, I found Pierce's book.  Ulysses G.B. Pierce was the minister of All Souls Church in Washington D.C. from 1901-1943 and was one of only two Unitarian Chaplains for the United States Senate.  More on Pierce and a few excerpts over the next few days.  This from the introductory chapter, "The Faith of a Stoic."

"In brief, then, to live according to nature is, in the words of Epictetus himself: " To perform the duties of a citizen, to fill the usual offices, to marry and to rear children. ... To use according to nature the appearances that encounter thee, not missing what thou pursuest, nor falling into what thou wouldst avoid, never failing of good fortune, nor overtaken of ill fortune, free, unhindered, uncompelled, agreeing with the administration of Zeus, obedient unto the same, and well pleased therein; blaming none, charging none, able of thy whole soul to say:

" Lead me, O Zeus, and Thou, O Destiny."

The life according to nature is its own justification and its own reward. It seeks not to have, but to be. Fidelity, modesty,' piety, magnanimity, these justify themselves by every approach toward them; while every lapse from virtue carries within it its own punishment. The  teaching of Cleanthes that virtue should be sought for its own sake, without being influenced by fear or hope by any external influence, was adopted by Epictetus and embellished with all his rhetorical power. This is the Stoic doctrine of equivalents, antedating by centuries Emerson's " Compensation." Thus the Ruling Faculty is at every step complete in itself, the balance being struck with every moral transaction. The mind gets all it pays for: pays for all it gets. " For wherever you have deviated from any of these rules, there is damage immediately, not from anything external, but from the action itself." Contrariwise, the highest compensation for the life according to nature is that "of being conscious that you are obeying God, that not in word, but in deed you are performing the acts of a wise and good man."


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Happy Birthday Henry Ware Jr.

Today marks the birthday of Henry Ware Jr. who was born in Hingham, MA in 1794.  The importance of Ware in my own life is apparent by the number of posts in this space featuring his words.  Happy birthday!


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Preaching Christ...

Last year I had occasion to preach several times at the wonderful church that I serve.  One day I met in Boston with a friend who is a semi-retired Episcopal Priest. We were talking about sermon writing styles and he told me that his was to study the scripture readings, and when struck by a particular passage, contemplate how Jesus might preach it.  I replied that my challenge and process was almost the opposite.  I started by thinking about the teaching and life of Jesus, searched for readings outside the Bible that illustrated the same point, and then looked for a way to present it without mentioning him!  I was, of course, exaggerating, but "Preaching Christ" in the pluralistic framework that is Unitarianism (?) has always been (and must be) an issue.  Here are wise words from William Ellery Channing on the subject.  The sermon was given in 1815 at the Ordination of another favorite of mine, John Emery Abbot.

"Preaching Christ"

Colossians 1:28  " Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus."

 "What are we to understand by "preaching Christ"? This subject is the more interesting and important, because, I fear, it has often been misunderstood. Many persons imagine, that Christ is never preached, unless his name is continually repeated and his character continually kept in view. This is an error, and should be exposed. Preaching Christ, then, does not consist in making Christ perpetually the subject of discourse, but in inculcating, on his authority, the religion which he taught. Jesus came to be the light and teacher of the world ; and in this sublime and benevolent character he unfolded many truths relating to the Universal Father, to his own character, to the condition, duties, and prospects of mankind, to the perfection and true happiness of the human soul, to a future state of retribution, to the terms of forgiveness, to the means of virtue, and of everlasting life. Now whenever we teach, on the authority of Jesus, any doctrine or precept included in this extensive system, we " preach Christ." When, for instance, we inculcate on his authority the duties of forgiving enemies, of denying ourselves, of hungering after righteousness, we "preach Christ" as truly as when we describe his passion on the cross, or the purpose and the importance of his sufferings."

Monday, April 19, 2010

original relations...

"Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?...The sun shines to-day also. "  Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sunday, April 18, 2010

the most distant orb that roils in space...

Known as a man of great conscience, John Gorham Palfrey had, by the time of the following writing, served as a Unitarian minister, Divinity School Professor, Congressmen, and noted Historian.  The following excerpt is from his "Thoughts on Providence and Prayer: in a Letter to a Serious Doubter" published towards the end of his long and devoted life...

"To some it seems unworthy of God to attend to little things. Why ? Because great men cannot attend to little things. And why can they not? Simply because they are not great enough ; because of the limitation of their greatness j because of the imperfection of their power. Their power not being equal to doing all that is to be done, they must restrict themselves to a part; and since, from their greatness, the principal tasks in carrying on affairs fall to them, the inferior task's devolve on other and less competent agents, transferring to those inferior agents the associations that attach to the inferiority of the tasks. But the multiplicity and variety of action, to which the mightiest men are utterly unequal, is easily within the scope of infinite power. God, unlike the greatest of his creatures, can do the least and the greatest things alike, and do them all perfectly, and all at once. I decline to assent to the tame anthropomorphism which would teach me that any thing is too little for God's notice. I am compelled by the perfect reasonableness, while revelling in the joyous excitement, of the doctrine of Christianity on that subject. I conceive of God as so amazingly superior to us men in all that in one another we most admire, that he can do, and loves to do, all, little or great, that we can conceive of as worthy to be done ; as limited by no place, so that with his protecting care he can at this present moment be at once with me, and with my unknown fellow-man at the antipodes, and with my unimagined fellow-creature in the most distant orb that roils in space..."


Saturday, April 17, 2010

a king in disguise...

It is a cold, rainy, and somewhat dreary spring morning in New England  and I for one could use a little encouragement from Ralph Waldo.  This from the introductory lecture of his 1841 Boston Lecture series, "The Times." 

"The Times are the masquerade of the eternities; trivial to the dull, tokens of noble and majestic agents to the wise; the receptacle in which the Past leaves its history; the quarry out of which the genius of to-day is building up the Future. The Times -- the nations, manners, institutions, opinions, votes, are to be studied as omens, as sacred leaves, whereon a weighty sense is inscribed, if we have the wit and the love to search it out...

We are the representatives of religion and intellect, and stand in the light of Ideas, whose rays stream through us to those younger and more in the dark. What further relations we sustain, what new lodges we are entering, is now unknown. To-day is a king in disguise. To-day always looks mean to the thoughtless, in the face of an uniform experience, that all good and great and happy actions are made up precisely of these blank to-days. Let us not be so deceived. Let us unmask the king as he passes. Let us not inhabit times of wonderful and various promise without divining their tendency."

Have a great day and
(Painting is "Rain Storm Union Square" by Frederick Childe Hassam)

Friday, April 16, 2010


I had intended to post some John Gorham Palfrey today but was very much struck by this from James Freeman Clarke from his "Messages of Faith Hope and Love" (posted daily at Wonderful Epoch.)  To me, the Unitarian Universalist Message is all about "fulness."  We just aren't very good at expressing that sometimes...

"LET me call your attention to what seems to have especially impressed the early disciples, which they expressed by the word "fulness." John, in our text, says of Christ, " Of his fulness have we all received." Paul speaks of our " all coming to the stature of a perfect man, unto the measure of the fulness of Christ"; and in another place he says of Jesus " that it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell." By this fulness they intend the rounded and entire union in Christ's teaching of that which had been before made separate. What men had put asunder he joined together. He united piety and morality,— love to God and love to man. Jesus, who spent whole nights in prayer, spent long days in doing good. You cannot say whether God or man were nearer to that large heart. In Jesus, mind and hand were equally in harmony. The profoundest thought went out at once to some practical application. He declared himself to be the Messiah, the Way, the Truth, and the Life; and yet he washed the feet of his disciples, talked on equal terms with publicans, Samaritans, and Romans, and had for his companions and friends humble fishermen and untaught country people."

(painting of Jesus and the fishermen by Ernst Zimmermann)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

the expression of non-agreement...

I am writing today from the Boston Athenaeum where I just visited the bust of Andrews Norton, the "Unitarian Pope."  Norton was a truly gifted and fascinating personality who will get much more treatment in this space someday.  Right now, however, I am reading his successor as Professor of Biblical Literature at Harvard Divinity School, John Gorham Palfrey.  Norton was know as a brilliant scholar who could brook no opposition from his students (or anyone else for that matter.)  Palfrey, who was a Unitarian minister before becoming Dean at Harvard, later became an abolitionist congressmen and finally an historian.  His students included many of the great Boston Unitarians.  This reminiscence from Andrew Peabody contrasting AN and JGP...

"I was for two years his pupil in the criticism of the New Testament. The contrast between him and his predecessor was very great. ... Dr. Palfrey ... with hardly less fixedness of opinion, admitted his own fallibility, invited discussion, welcomed the expression of non-agreement, and even asked his students to prepare in writing, and read to the class, their reasons for differing from him."

Over the next few days, excerpts  from an interesting later work by JGP.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

all for all, and abreast...

A. Bronson Alcott on the universality of religion and what makes a good Christian...

"'T is the inclusive spirit that holds bodies together and advances the commonwealth of mankind. All for all, and abreast, its motto...

It especially becomes Christians to free themselves from the exclusiveness of sects and creeds of every name and time. Professing to be followers of One who sought to liberate bis disciples from every bias of breeding or of race, they should at least prove themselves strong enough to stand fast in the strength of their convictions, and respect not less the convictions meanwhile of others equally honest and sincere. It were modest to commend all professors to the following of that one Christian in history, Jesus himself. Yet one may even hesitate taking the name of Christian if he implicate his private views by associating with others ; preferring rather to illustrate that sacred name by modesty of profession and purity of life. A Christian is a high type of character, including every excellence to which humanity aspires, a sympathy with all of like aspirations of whatever name or race. And now, while thought is exploring all subjects affecting human welfare, the' spiritual solvent cannot be wanting for fusing the current creeds and recombining them in a fresher faith, answering to the religious needs of the present if not future generations. In the general diffusion of light no special thought can hold the community very long under its shadow, since the revelations made to the various races are culminating in an inclusive faith suited to tho needs of all."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

dingy leaves...

   How do you read books?  When I was young, I wanted to read everything and before one was finished the next was begun.  The next book was the thing.  And while I still look for what is new, I find myself very much with Bronson Alcott in this excerpt from his "Table Talk"  on "Books."  "Few and choice"...and old. 

"ONE cannot celebrate books sufficiently. After saying his best, still something better remains to be spoken in their praise. As with friends, one finds new beauties at every interview, and would stay long in the presence of those choice companions. As with friends, he may dispense with a wide acquaintance. Few and choice. The richest minds need not large libraries. That is a good book which is opened with expectation and closed with profit...

Of books in our time the variety is so voluminous, and they follow so fast from the press, that one must be a swift reader to acquaint himself even with their titles, and wise to discern what are worth the reading. It is a wise book that is good from title-page to the end...

I confess to being drawn rather to the antiques, and turn with a livelier expectancy the dingy leaves, finding often inside the worn covers more for my reading than on the snowy pages of most opened by frequenters at the bookstores. I fancy that I am guided by a selecting instinct to lay my hand upon the very volume that had long been seeking my acquaintance...

 An author who sets his reader on sounding the depths of his own thoughts serves him best, and at the same time teaches the modesty of authorship...

The more life embodied in the book, the more companionable. Like a friend, the volume salutes one pleasantly at every opening of its leaves, and entertains ; we close it with charmed memories, and come again and again to the entertainment. The books that charmed us in youth recall the delight ever afterwards ; we are hardly persuaded there are any like them, any deserving equally our affections. Fortunate if the best fall in our way during this susceptible and forming period of our lives.

I value books for their suggestiveness even more than for the information they may contain, works that may be taken in hand and laid aside, read at moments, containing sentences that quicken my thoughts and prompt to following these into their relations with life and things. I am stimulated and exalted by the perusal of books of this kind, and should esteem myself fortunate if I might add another to the few which the world shall take to its affections."


Monday, April 12, 2010

in keeping with the spot...

Yesterday, at the library and center for the arts that I am happy serve as a trustee, we were blessed by a performance by Jan Turnquist, the Executive Director of "Orchard House" who presented a truly exceptional living history program as Louisa May Alcott.  For the past week, this blog has been looking at the character of Samuel J. May (Louisa May Alcott's uncle) and it has excerpted Amos Bronson Alcott as well. 
  Longtime readers will know that I love Concord and my family and I visit at least a couple of times a year.  Always on our itinerary is a stop at the Orchard House.  This from Bronson Alcott's "Concord Days":


MY neighbors flatter me in telling me that I have one of the best placed and most picturesque houses in our town. I know very well the secret of what they praise. 'T is simply adapting the color and repairs to the architecture, and holding these in keeping with the spot...

The view from the rustic seat overlooking my house commands the amphitheatre in which the house stands, and through which flows Mill brook, bordered on the south and east by the Lincoln woods. It is a quiet prospect and might be taken for an English landscape ; needs but a tower or castle overtopping the trees surrounding it. The willows by the rock bridge over the brook, the winding lane once the main track of travel before the turnpike branching off from the old Boston road by Emerson's door was built, adds to the illusion, while on the east stands the pine-clad hill, Hawthorne's favorite haunt, and hiding his last residence from sight.

On the southwest is an ancient wood, Thoreau's pride, beyond which is Walden Pond, distant about a mile from my house, and best reached by the lane opening opposite Hawthorne's. Fringed on all sides by woods, the interval, once a mill pond, is now in meadow and garden land, the slopes planted in vineyards, market gardens and orchards lining the road along which stand the farmers' houses visible in the opening.

This road has more than a local interest. If any road may claim the originality of being entitled to the name of American, it is this, — since along its dust the British regulars retreated from their memorable repulse at the Old North Bridge, the Concord military following fast upon their heels, and from the hill-tops giving them salutes of musketry till they disappeared beyond Lexington, and gave a day to history."

No wonder Concord is my "Mecca."  Many thanks to Jan Turnquist for her program and her work at Orchard House and

(photo:  Director Turnquist in front of Orchard House)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

You did not hear that from the Lord...

The question of the divinity of Jesus has always been a central place of contention between Unitarians and the "Orthodox" (and between Unitarians and Unitarians.)  Samuel J. May, radical in politics, was fairly moderate in his theology.  May on the Divinity of Jesus:

"One day Mr. May found two stern-looking women at his front door. He invited them to walk in, with his usual cordiality; but they said, as if doubting their welcome, " We have come to you with a message from the Lord." " Then you must come in, for there is no one from whom I should be so glad to hear." After they were seated there was a long pause; but at last one of them said, " Mr. May, we have heard that you do not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ." "You did not hear that from the Lord [May replied,] for the Lord knows I do."

Have a blessed Sabbath
(For James Freeman Clarke on this question, see this morning's post at Wonderful Epoch)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

frankness and geniality...

Two more on the character and ministry of Samuel J. May. 


Mr. May was often invited to preach in " evangelical" churches; but instead of improving the opportunity to show that he was almost a Methodist, or almost a Presbyterian, he was accustomed to say:
" The most important truths are those which relate to religion, and the best kindness we can show to each other is to impart our highest views of the Divine Character and of Human Duty. Therefore I shall tell you to-day what I believe to be the chief doctrines of the gospel; and I have also brought some doctrinal and practical tracts, which I shall be glad to have you take at the close of the service."

Sometimes he invited Orthodox ministers to occupy his pulpit, and he encouraged them to declare unto his people the whole counsel of God, as they understood it. u Preach not what you think Unitarians wish to hear, but what you think they need to hear."

and this...

"As he moved through the streets, almost every person knew him; but, whether acquainted or not, he scarcely ever passed an individual without some kind of salutation. " I can't bear to go by and look as if I did not recognize a man's existence. It seems churlish. I bow to his humanity," he said. A gentleman who walked with him in Syracuse said, " Mr. May, I should think your head would be tired nodding."


Friday, April 9, 2010

How to turn away wrath...

Another story illustrating the character of Samuel J. May.  This one is interesting on many levels...


Mr. May had a parishioner of intemperate habits, who was such a trial to his poor wife that the soot] woman went to her pastor and asked him, in her distress, if he thought it would be wrong to put an emetic in her husband's decanter, so as to give him a disrelish for spirituous liquors. Mr. May probably thought that the experiment might be worth trying; at all events, he did not tell the woman that it would be very sinful. She tried it; but the man became so ill that, in her fear, she made a full confession, even implicating Mr. May slightly. This infuriated her husband, who seldom met "the minister" afterwards without pouring out his hatred in the strongest terms. He would not listen to one word of explanation or expostulation on the part of his imagined enemy, who waited patiently for an opportunity to reassure him of his love. Once, when Mrs. May had been quite sick, she went to ride with her husband, and they drove past the house of the intemperate man, who was working in his garden, in which he took great pride. Mrs. May coveted some of the fine melons, but thought she knew it would be a hopeless request if she should ask for one; yet Mr. May said," I will see." So he guided the horse up to the fence; but the man had noticed their approach, and turned his back, while he bent over his work more diligently than before. Very soon a voice, so free from passion that he could hardly believe it came from the lips of one whom he had so often and so shamefully abused, said to him, in the kindest tones: " I have come to ask a great favor at your hands. If you will give me a melon for my sick wife, I will thank you. She has a great craving for melons. I know you have the best in town. Will you give me one for her?" The man was silent for some time, evidently struggling with himself. He had wanted to denounce Mr. May when he saw him approaching; but he was large-hearted, after all, and this direct appeal to his magnanimity thrilled him and subdued him. At last he said, gently, " I will bring some up to your house." " Oh, don't put yourself to so much trouble. We can take them in the carriage." " I prefer to bring them." He soon appeared at the manse with the best of every thing that his garden produced, refused all compensation, was at once reconciled to Mr. May, and gratefully accepted his assistance in overcoming his bad habit; afterwards regaining much of his former good standing."


Thursday, April 8, 2010

cat undertaker...

 Characteristics of Samuel J. May continued: 

Mr. May was so brotherly towards all his fellow-men that the humblest persons felt perfectly sure of his sympathy, and approached him with such faith and freedom as are seldom inspired.

He befriended a poor woman and her daughter. The latter was an invalid, and, while her mother was away at her work, she enjoyed the companionship of a fine cat. One day Mr. May was told that these persons had called upon him. He found them in the parlor. The mother had a basket which contained something that was nicely covered with a white towel. Mr. May's first thought was that they had brought him some gift; but he soon noticed that they were very sad. When he asked what troubled them, they burst into tears, and told him that boys in their neighborhood had set dogs on the cat, and it had been worried to death. Mr. May expressed his regret. Then the mother said that the cat's body was in the basket, and they had brought it there to see if it could be buried in Mr. May's premises. They did not own their house-lot, and they feared that if the cat should be buried there it would be dug up by the dogs. " We should not think of asking such a favor of anybody else; but we thought that, perhaps, you would do it for us." Amused, and yet touched by their perfect confidence in his good-will, Mr. May said to the mother, "It is too damp for your daughter to go into the garden until every thing is ready; but if you will come with me I will try to oblige you." They selected a spot between two currant-bushes, and Mr. May took a spade and made a grave large enough to contain the basket and its contents. Then he went for the daughter, and escorted her to the place. After "the funeral," Mr. May was thanked most profusely, and the women returned home. For some time afterwards the ladies of his own household kept threatening to put this sign on the front gate : " S. J. May, Undertaker for Cats."

(Illustration is a detail from Albrecht Dürer's engraving of Adam and Eve)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

overcome by kindness...

Few were more passionate for reform than Samuel J. May. As a result, he often elicited passionate opposition.  The following two anecdotes, however, show that as a minister he knew that he (and his position) was not the point.  What would you consider the essential qualities of a great minister or church worker?  More tomorrow...


An active politician, who frequently denounced Mr. May in the bitterest terms, and expected to be regarded by him as an enemy, was so overcome by Mr. May's kindness that he said in his despair of effecting a quarrel: "I have got to give up trying to hate that man. You know I have a sick child, but I went to a meeting to abuse the Abolitionists. Soon after I heard Mr. May's voice calling my name in the street. Turning round, I found his face full of neighborly tenderness ; and all he said was, ' I do hope your little boy is better.'"


Mr. May once had a parishioner who was so offended with him on account of his preaching in behalf of reforms, that he would not listen to his pastor, but would be sure to attend church if he knew that another minister would officiate. As soon as Mr. May learned how this man felt towards him, he never failed to send word when he was about to exchange, so that Mr.--- might have as many church privileges as he would accept."


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

the Lord's chore boy...

What are the qualities of a great minister (or any church worker?) Over the next few days some excerpts from  the "Memoir of Samuel J. May" which provide a pretty good blueprint...

"Mr. A. B. Alcott was once at Syracuse when Mr. May was engaged from morning until night in errands of mercy, — visiting the sick, burying the dead, helping fugitive slaves and canal boys, and prisoners who wished to reform. When he reached home at evening, and was drawing off the boots from his weary feet, Mr. Alcott said : " I have found a new name for you. You are the Lord's chore boy. You do the Lord's chores."


Monday, April 5, 2010

the place in which you live...

It was a truly beautiful Easter Day on the South Shore of Mass. with warm sunshine and a light soothing breeze. After church, the children and I took a long meandering walk at one of the "reservations" along the North River. Beautiful and fascinating, (Mass. first ever designated "Scenic River") it flows through five communities and winds for 23 miles.

I report these facts because though I have walked along the North River much, drive over it every day, and live firmly in its watershed, I have remained near totally clueless about it's "facts." And this does not just apply to the North River. My deep love of nature is matched by my utter ignorance of its particulars (for which I blame a wandering mind and a bad year in high school biology!)

For the past couple of weeks I have been reading much Thoreau (mostly for a Church School curriculum I am working on but also because I feel most "transcendental" during the changing of the seasons) and he has shamed me into resolving a summer of getting to know the place in which I live...


Sunday, April 4, 2010

the better resurrection...

These words from an Easter Sermon by James Freeman Clarke.  May everyone have a truly blessed Easter.

"WE, to-day, dear friends, enter into this region of faith. We also are risen with Christ. We sit in heavenly places with him. For heaven is not a place far off, above the skies, somewhere outside of the orbit of Saturn and Neptune; but it is a world of spiritual life all around us. Christ has abolished death to all who believe in him. Those who believe in him do not die : they go on, they go in, they go up.

While the disciples at Emmaus were talking with their Master, their eyes were opened, and they knew him. While we talk with Jesus on this Easter Sunday, our eyes are opened, and we know him. He is our friend, the friend of every soul that needs him. He is the friend of every poor, sinful, broken heart that thinks it has no friend on earth. He is the friend of all who wish to have his help. The true Christ is not in the past: he is here. He is not dead and gone : behold 1 he is alive forevermore. He has not come merely to give us a right to be with him in some future heaven. He has brought heaven down to us here. He is with us always, even to the end of the world.

Therefore, on this Easter Sunday morning, while its sun shines so brightly around us, let us all thank God, and take courage. Let us not look backward, but forward; not downward, but upward; not be desponding, but hopeful. Are there any of us here who feel lonely, bereaved, desolate ? Behold! the heavens are opened, and an innumerable company of friends are waiting for you to welcome you when you go up, and lead you to him who liveth and was dead, and is alive forevermore. Are there any of us who are hesitating to do what we know to be right, not ready yet to do our duty, still postponing till to-morrow what we ought to do to-day ? Let us on this bright Easter morning begin to do our work in full faith that God will enable us to accomplish it in this or in some other world. O weary heart, arise and be strong ! Sad soul, be glad to-day, for Christ has arisen ! Sinful soul, turn to God, and forsake your sins, and be made alive ! Take part in the better resurrection, which lifts out of evil into good. Make this day the beginning of a new life, which shall never know any end, but shine brighter to the perfect day."

(Painting is "Christ on the Road to Emmaus" by Roghman Roelant

Saturday, April 3, 2010

the freezing shadows of night...

The second part of Edmund Sears Good Friday sermon, "Calvary." 

"III. Again we look to the cross of Christ to get some just estimate of the worth and grandeur of human nature. We are very apt to fall into mere declamation on this head. The greatness of human nature implies a twofold capacity — susceptibilities for progress and enjoyment, and susceptibilities for degradation and suffering. The possible heights of its exaltation measure the possible depths of its downfall. Natures that are small and narrow and low down, have these susceptibilities in slight degree. They can neither rise nor sink very far. But all those provisions for human salvation which we call supernatural, are so many testimonies to the endless value of the human soul. You begin to see the worth of a thing when you see how much it costs to buy it or redeem it...So the cross preaches to us the love of God as a personal love; the depth-of ruin into which man is plunged by sin ; and the worth and grandeur of human nature in its unmeasured capacities for rising or falling, for bliss or for suffering.

IV. But there is another truth which comes home to us as preached by the cross of Christ. It clears away the mystery of death, for it shows death as the reverse side of resurrection. Death, as we learn it here, is not an isolated fact in human experience, and resurrection another isolated fact. Death is only the hither side of one great fact — the waning of our mortal being, that the immortal being may have freedom and enlargement This waxes as the other wanes...

Men pass in long processions, sometimes in agonized groups and companies, into the freezing shadows of night; and how many a heart to-day is broken and bleeding because its treasures have been snatched away by sudden havoc and ruin.1 The cross is the symbol which hangs aloft over all the wrecks of our slaughtered humanity ; the symbol of a love which drew all that havoc and agony up into its own experience, in order to show it the reverse side of resurrection and immortality. Our human mortality is the cloud which hangs between us and the glory just beyond; the cloud thick and heavy until the Christ turned it into white wreaths which only temper to our condition the ardent mercies of the Lord. Such is the fourfold meaning of the cross and such the light streaming from it to-day."


Friday, April 2, 2010

showers of effacing rain...

Today and tomorrow, excerpts from "Calvary," a Good Friday Sermon by Edmund Hamilton Sears.

"THE fundamental facts on which the whole Christian system rests are ranged into a series ; each one of which necessitates all the rest...

In unfolding so great a subject as the significance of the cross of Christ, we must not fall into the error of making it sole and exclusive ; as if the whole work of redemption were concentrated here. In that way we should fling disparagement on the other facts of the Gospel history. On the other hand, if we may enter aright into the meaning of this great sacrifice, all those other facts will be seen in the light of it, and the whole system of Christian faith appear in new consistency and beauty.

I. First, then, we say, that the cross is an expression out of profounder depths of the Divine Love than the world had ever known before or since... " God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son ;" and " He was in Him reconciling the world unto Himself." The Divine Justice in the Christian Gospel becomes simply the form and aspect of the Divine Goodness, moulding it and keeping it from missing its mark. Sacrifice means the giving of one's self away for the good of others, and the sacrifice of Christ is called " complete " because nothing was kept back, and it is doubly significant because the love of the Father is imaged and shown forth in the sacrifice of the Son...

II. There is all this in the cross of Christ, and of consequence there is another truth which it holds aloft, and which it preaches every day to the world. It is the depth and the malignity of human sinfulness. There is only one step in the argument which shows how vast is the moral ruin which requires such a reconstruction as this...It is a doctrine, you know, of some branches of the modern Church, that God himself in the person of Christ, suffered as a substitute for man, and so his death becomes the sole condition of forgiveness. Do not denounce the doctrine till you first eliminate what is false from it, and then take home the truth ; for it has melted the iron out of many a sinful soul, and given it peace in believing. It is not the supposed commercial transfer of our sins to Christ, and his merits to us that gives the peace. It is the thought that Christ represents here the infinite Mercy; that God himself can come over to us, and make our case his own ; that He so hates the evil that spreads canker through the tenderest places of the heart, that He will take the burden of it upon himself; that He will let our hardness and impenitence put stabs into his wounded love before He will let us go ; that not his Fatherhood alone, on the peaks of heaven, but his humanity, brought nigh and inserted in our lowly condition, is given in sacrifice for us every hour ; it is this that will make you hate your sin, if anything will, and let the heart melt in repentance, and the Divine Grace clear its stains out of you in showers of effacing rain..."
(art: Hiroshige, "Ohashi Bridge in the Rain")

Thursday, April 1, 2010

the sweet charities of life...

Edmund Sears gets to the heart of the matter in the conclusion of his sermon "The Will-Power." I have found that many in the UU community are resistant to the idea of the surrender of our wills. Brother Sears shows why it is the essential thing...

"III. All the dangers I have described we avoid when the human will is merged and lost in the Divine. Two things are essential to this, the surrender of all things, and receiving them back again as no longer ours. The former is the hardest thing the Christian has to do. It is the Gethsemane through which he passes on his way to Mount Ascension. It is the real Lenten season, and unless his forty days' fastings betoken this, they are nothing but dietary rules, and will be followed by no Easter morning. I fear there is not much of this giving up without some secret reservations. These secret reservations are the source of all your halting and weakness... But when my opinions, my pleasures, my gains, my righteousness, and all that makes up my personality as a responsible being, are brought in entire surrender to the Divine will and then received back again, a higher will than mine sways me henceforth, as the current sways the lily on its bosom. To make us do this the whole plan of Providence is arranged. It is to break down wilfulness, that the Divine will-power may take its place, and to this end sometimes He smites us blow after blow, before He can crush it down. Sometimes it takes years to break it, and sometimes like an anvil it grows harder under the strokes. Very often the spirit is broken when the will is not given up at all. Very often, too, the will is weakly given up to a fellow mortal, but no whit of it surrendered to God. Very often it yields to the tempter when it will not yield to the Lord, and becomes weak as a palsied limb. But when it does yield to Him, perfectly, and without any reserve, another will is received in its place. It is not mine, and I know in my deepest consciousness that it is God moved into the soul, and seeking to be realized in all my speech and actions. There it is always present, and I can feel its motions and its thrills of pleasure or of pain. The Christian who has once given up all things and received them back, has an experience answering somewhat to that of the Master himself. "All thine are mine, and mine are thine, and thou art glorified in them." Two things immediately follow. First, wilfulness, which is but a poor aping of conscientiousness, immediately disappears. In things merely personal and non-essential, we can be as pliant and yielding as a little child. And here comes in the full scope and exercise of all that class of virtues which worldly men sometimes mistake for pusillanimity, — meekness, gentleness, deference, and the sweet charities and amenities of life. These come as the manifestations of the Divine within us, just as his great power around us runs down into the smallest channels, and hangs leaves and blossoms on the smallest stems, and threads them with pencillings finer than the artist can copy. Hence the contradictions of the Christian character are apparent and not real. Under the most of yielding and gentleness and many-sidedness, which the Apostle describes as " all things to all men," the will-determinations may be the strongest and most absolute. Wilfulness runs into obstinacy on things indifferent. The will, absorbed in the Divine, can yield as God yields, bending to occasions and changes with myriad-minded goodness, because there is an unchanging purpose within the whole. From our reception of the Divine will we bend with gentle adaptations to the peace, the comfort, and even the whims and caprices of our fellows, so far as the unchanging purpose is not hurt nor compromised. But within the non-essential and in things that pertain to justice, mercy, and essential truth, we are made strong in God's Omnipotence. God is omnipotent in and through us, for his will is done an earth as it is in heaven. Hence the Gospel contrasts. In the depths of humiliation, " Not my will but thine; " in the heights of exaltation, " All power is given me in heaven and on the earth."

There is only one remedy for those whose will is wayward or whose power of virtue is broken down. Outward props will not avail. Legal restraints and prudential motives will not avail. These have been tried again and again, and in such cases always in vain. There is no human help when the awful power of will has been undermined, except as human help may be a guide to something higher than itself. But there is Divine help, and out of it on men once lying prone and helpless have been wrought the greatest miracles on record. Augustine was gone clean down in vice when God laid hold of him and lifted him up and put a new will into him, and he stands like a peak of granite for the centuries to date from. So the weakest will of the most wayward among you, if you would give it up to Him without reservations, would be returned to you infrangible as adamant. But to gain this you must go down with Jesus into the shades of Gethsemane, and watch with Him and suffer with Him where self lies prone and bleeding, till its surrender is complete and the angel's face beams through the shadows from above. And then the shadows of the Lenten days are fringed already with the Ascension glories."