Monday, July 20, 2009

Lecture #2: "The Wordy Shipmates: Understanding Our Puritan Heritage"

[This lecture is number 2 of 10 that I delivered at the UU Midwest Leadership School in Beloit, Wisconsin from 7/20 to 7/24. Click here to find the other 9 lectures.]

In the last lecture I introduced you to several ways in which Unitarian Universalists think about the origins of our religion. Now, finally, I am going to share with you the interpretive lens through which I am going to present our history and our theology. I contend that Unitarian Universalism is a manifestation of Puritanism’s evolution within the American experience. Let me say that again. Unitarian Universalism is a manifestation of Puritanism’s evolution within the American experience.

How many of you are surprised by this? If you are surprised, it is likely because when I say the word “Puritan,” you associate it with all kinds of practices that seem about as far removed from Unitarian Universalism as possible. [When asked to name qualities that they associate with the Puritans an audience will almost always offer words like: serious, judgmental, patriarchal, witch-burning, close-minded, intolerant, and so on.]

Let me tell you in broad strokes the origins of the Puritans. In England in the 1500s and into the 1600s there was great religious unrest. In the 1530s, Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Christian Church after a dispute with The Pope over Henry’s love life. The official Church of England became Anglican. At this same time the Protestant Reformation was sweeping across Europe and could also be observed in England. During this time period, a whole host of religious movements arose in England. These groups included the Quakers whom we now know for being very mild but were quite wild in their early days. (Their behavior included streaking through services led by Anglican priests; screaming from the pews that this was false religion and if anyone wanted to participate in true religion, a meeting could be found out on the lawn of the church.) They also included a fascinating group known as the Diggers, one of several religious dissenting groups intent on seizing back land held by the British royal system. And, then there were the groups known as the Pilgrims and Puritans.

If you ever get a chance, it is fascinating to read some of the criticisms of the Church of England published by these groups. (Please notice that I did say published. The printing press had been invented by a goldsmith named Gutenberg in Germany in 1440. This technology allowed Protestantism to flourish.) You can find pamphlets and books published listing complaints against the Church of England. One of the favorite targets of these pamphlets was certain Anglican priests. Remember, the Church of England was controlled by the government, so becoming a priest was a government appointment. And many of these appointments were, well, back-scratching gestures. The priesthood was often a place to send the ne’er-do-well sons of the landed gentry. Pamphlets accused the priests of illiteracy, frequent drunkenness, and inappropriate and opportunistic sexual relations.

One way of categorizing the religious dissenters is to ask if they were separating or non-separating. The separating groups basically thought that the Church of England was too screwed up to be fixed. Their only hope rested in separating themselves. The non-separating groups believed that reform was possible.

So, when the separating Pilgrims landed in Plymouth in 1620, they had written off the Church of England entirely. When the non-separating Puritans arrived in Boston in 1630 they believed, naively, that they would form a perfect Christian society that they would be a shining example to the world, and that when their brothers back in England saw what the Puritans had accomplished they would change their ways and follow a new model. The Puritans believed that their trip to the new world was only temporary.

If you are interested in learning more about The Puritans, I could recommend a whole list of boring academic texts. Or, I could show you this one fabulous book, The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell, [here is a sermon I preached on her book] who many of you know as an author and commentator on NPR’s This American Life. Vowell’s book is accurate as a work of scholarship, but it is even more than that. As a cultural commentator she draws connections between the experiences of the Puritans and the American experience today.

We’ve talked about some of the ways that the Puritans seem very different than Unitarian Universalists today. Let’s talk about what we have in common. I am going to name 10 things:

The first thing that links us is direct ancestry. The First Church in Boston was formed in 1630. Today it is Unitarian Universalist. Let me sketch out the trajectory. A church that was formed in the 1630s would, in the mid to late 1700s, experience a tension between liberal and conservative strands of Puritan thought that were competing for attention. In 1806 a series of controversial hiring decisions at Harvard would stoke the coals and ignite these tensions into a fire. Over the next 25 years, or until around 1830, most of the churches in Massachusetts would go through a schism with the conservatives forming Trinitarian Congregational churches and the liberals forming Unitarian churches.

The second thing we have in common with the Puritans is a sense of being outward looking and outwardly facing. For the Puritans, this meant showing the world what a model Christian world looks like; for us, it means a faith life that speaks to the world around us. How many of you sing in your congregations, “This Little Light of Mine”? The words to this hymn are completely cribbed from images from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus talks about how a city on a hill cannot be hidden and exhorts his followers not to hide their light under a bushel basket. In 1630, John Winthrop, who would become the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, preached the sermon, “A New Model of Christian Charity” on the occasion of the Puritans landing ashore in the New World. Peter Gomes has called it the most important sermon in the last millennium. In it, Winthrop tells the Puritans that they shall be as a city upon a hill, and a light to the whole world. It is no coincidence that our own UUA headquarters is located on Beacon Street in Boston or that our press, which publishes amazing, groundbreaking works promoting social witness and human rights is called Beacon Press.

A third thing that we share with our Puritan forebears is the idea of covenant. Now, the Puritan churches had a creed. They had a notion of correct doctrine and incorrect doctrine. But, they also had a sense of covenant. The First Church in Salem which dates back to 1629 has the following covenant: “We Covenant with the Lord and one with an other; and doe bynd our selves in the presence of God, to walke together in all his waies, according as he is pleased to reveale himself unto us in his Blessed word of truth.” According to my information, the Salem Church, now Unitarian, still recites that very same covenant today, 380 years later. The covenant is simply paraphrased, “We promise to walk together in the ways of God, known and to be made known.”

Many of our congregations have a covenant that we speak. I would wager that many of you speak the following covenant in your own congregations, “Love is the doctrine of this church, the search for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve humanity in fellowship, to the ends that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine, thus do we covenant with one another.”

The fourth thing that we have in common is that the basis for our governance is the same as the system used by the Puritans. That is because they are both based on a common document known as the Cambridge Platform. What is remarkable is that your church’s by-laws paraphrase parts of a document written in 1648. Chief among the similarities is that both Puritans 350 years ago and UUs today insist that the membership of the church is the chief decision making body of the church and that the authority to call or dismiss a minister belongs solely to the congregation.

There was actually a movement that began around a decade ago that called on UUs to become more familiar with this document and to use it to help shape our idea of what a church should be. Of course there are many parts to the Cambridge Platform that it is unlikely you will find riveting. If you want for me to get into a lengthy discussion about the difference between the church militant and the church triumphant or the invisible church and the visible church, I’ll gladly hold forth over lunch. (And no, I’m not saying that these distinctions are unimportant. In fact, I think they can help us to become better in our understanding of ecclesiastical theology.)

But, there are other parts of the Cambridge Platform that we have forgotten that might be more easily translated into a contemporary context. For example, article 15 of the Cambridge Platform speaks to the “sundry ways” in which churches are in communion, one with another. Those ways are as follows: care, consultation, admonition, participation, recommendation, and support in time of need. Maybe I am too much of a purist, but I do believe Unitarian Universalism would be stronger when our churches are more in relationship with one another, and that relationship might include a public admonishment against a church that is hurting our movement.

A fifth similarity is observed in the ways in which both the Puritans and our churches stressed and continue to stress education. The Puritans were among the most educated societies ever to exist on the planet. Sarah Vowell calls them the “wordy shipmates” because of the volume of writing they produced. They published a psalter and reading primers; sermons were best-sellers; and, literacy was the norm. It was the descendants of the Puritans, the Unitarians who would found the public school system in this country. The Puritans founded the first University in the new world. Harvard was founded for the training of ministers because the Puritans feared that when they had a shortage of ministers, they would have to get ones from England and that would be a weakness that would make them too dependent on those ministers produced by a corrupt English system.

At General Assembly, Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed spoke at a workshop and presented data that said that UUs are more highly educated than members of any other religion in the United States. The average UU has 17.2 years of formal education; or, in other words, the average (average!!!) UU has a little more than a year in a masters program under her or his belt.

A sixth similarity is that there is a sense of restlessness that pervades both the Puritans and us. If you look at their theology, as we will do in more detail in the first lecture tomorrow, you will see that they lived their lives amidst great uncertainty about the condition of their own salvation. Our anxiety lies not in the fate of our immortal souls, but it has to do with many things, including an ongoing search for truth and meaning, our own understanding that our faith is evolving, a strong sense of social ethic that asks us not to accept things as they are but to imagine how they might be, and perhaps other factors as well. If you want evidence of this in our tradition right now, you need look no further than our hymn entitled “A Fierce Unrest.” The lyrics to this hymn read, “A fierce unrest seethes at the core of all existing things. It was the eager wish to soar that gave the gods their wings. There throbs through all the worlds that are this heartbeat hot and strong. And shaken systems star by star awake and glow in song.” The last line of the final verse of this hymn is as follows, “We sing the stinging discontent that leaps from star to star.”

Related to this sense of restlessness is a strong work ethic. I will say more about this in the first lecture tomorrow, but the Puritans believed that idle hands are the devil’s plaything and that hard work was next to godliness. Today, we Unitarian Universalists might be motivated by different reasons, but it seems like we are people who are very work-focused, both in our careers and in the work we do for the improvement of the world.

An eighth similarity is really the same as the fourth, but bears repeating. We lack denominational structures that have authority over the local church. Our UUA headquarters and our district structure exist to serve congregations and not the other way around. No bishop, cardinal, or Pope; no synod or ecclesiastical council will ever show up at your board meeting and dictate from on high how you will conduct business as a church.

A ninth similarity between our congregations today and the congregations of the Puritans 380 years ago is found in our architecture and the actual physical things that we keep in the church, especially in our sanctuaries. This may be changing a little bit. The Puritan meeting house was plain. It featured transparent glass instead of stained glass. It didn’t feature a lot of extra fancy decoration and certainly no depictions of saints and icons. The pulpit was central, not the chancel or the communion table. This may be changing somewhat, but our congregational architecture and our worship spaces tend (for the most part) towards the simple, the unadorned, and the modest. Our congregations today certainly have more decorations than an old-fashioned Puritan meetinghouse, but we still hold more in common with them than we do with a high-church Catholic or Orthodox congregation. If we do decorate, it is often with woodcarving, quilts, and simple flower arrangements.

Generally speaking, our churches do not seek to create a "black box" feeling that is favored by many non-denominational congregations that use videoscreens and extensive multimedia. (In many of these congregations, the weekly worship service feels like a worship service at General Assembly. You sit in a cavernous hall with no windows; the room is dark; you watch the videoscreens.) We don’t do stained glass. We generally like clear glass that allows us to look outside and this connection between worship space and world space has theological ramifications and is a theological statement. If you’ve ever traveled to New England and seen the Unitarian Church on the town green, you can see this theological idea exemplified. Those churches saw themselves, in the words of John Buehrens, as being a religious center with a civic circumference.

Finally, there is a tenth similarity between our Puritan ancestors and our movement today. This one is probably the most interesting and would make for a very interesting discussion group or fishbowl conversation. When the Puritans got on their ships and came across the Atlantic, they all shared something in common. It was an adult decision. And considering how risky it was, it was definitely a venture undertaken by those who were strongest in faith. Of course there were those with other motivations. But if we told you that there were a good chance of death from coming to leadership school, you may have decided not to come.

So, you have this group with a very, very strong religiosity and then they have children. And their children disappoint. On the whole, the children are not nearly as passionate as their parents. It is 1662. The children of those who came over by boat have come of age. And a lot of them don’t meet the requirements for joining the church. So the ministers get together and propose a half-way covenant. Those whose parents are members are allowed to take part in the sacrament of baptism, but not communion. They are considered half members. A generation later, the half-members’ children have come of age and, what do you do? A quarter-way covenant? By the mid-1700s, there are churches where only one or two members are eligible for communion and, in Northampton, now a liberal town but then the home of the fiery preacher Jonathan Edwards, Edwards suspended communion telling the church that none of them were pure enough to take communion. The church responded by firing him.

This is kind of crazy and funny, but I think we face a similar struggle in our churches today. Those who are come-inners, who are converts, have a very different experience than those youth who grow up in the church. To join the church as an adult, you might have to attend a membership class that lasts a couple of hours. Our youth often go through a demanding Coming of Age class. Our youth often carry less baggage about Christianity than the adults. (Of course, this depends on how often they are evangelized in school.) And our youth are generally more open, due to the stage of faith development where they are, and to the context of the church in which they are raised to be curious, syncretistic, and accepting; to not have a strong aversion to certain language; and to not find it strange to “witness” about their own faith.

Reflection Questions
Were you surprised to learn that we are descended from the Puritans?
Which of the ten similarities did you recognize in your own congregation?