Thursday, October 1, 2009

UU Heroes and Exemplars

Theodore Parker

My favorite Unitarian is Theodore Parker, who lived from 1810 through 1860. All great historical personalities are a product of the age in which they live. Parker’s years coincided with momentous times for both a fledging Unitarianism and a fledgling American Republic. And he became a major influence on both our liberal religion and our American experience.

He was born the unexpected last and therefore “heaven sent” child of a large Lexington, Massachusetts farm family. He witnessed his family’s Congregational church transform from a tolerant though evangelical Calvinism to a more reserved and rational Unitarianism. As a young man he considered converting to Calvinist Orthodoxy, but stayed Unitarian.

Parker’s contemporary biographer suspects that domestic tragedy shaped an emerging sensibility toward belief in a benevolent God, as well as immortality of the soul. By Parker’s mid 20s his parents and 7 of 9 siblings had died from tuberculosis.

He was also ambitious—surely what we now call a Type A personality. He dreamed of becoming part of the Boston, that is Unitarian, social elite.

At 16 he taught school. By 19 he had passed the entrance exams for Harvard but couldn’t pay the tuition. At 22 he’d started up his own academy in Watertown, with plenty of time for self-directed studies: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, German, church history, and the Bible. At age 24, Harvard Divinity School admitted him with advanced standing. Probably the wealthy family of his future wife, whom he’d met in Watertown, paid Parker’s way.

At Harvard he continued his polymath scholarship. He claimed to have taught himself a new language every month—20 new tongues in 2 years.

After graduating in 1836 Parker married Lydia Cabot and was called to a small congregation of 60 adults in West Roxbury, not far from the Cabot home. He had plenty of time to devote to his scholarship and writing, and gained a reputation as far as Boston as a preacher/speaker of intelligence and eloquence.

His theology diverged from the Rational Christianity of most of his churched colleagues. The new biblical criticism emerging from Germany and the new enthusiasm of Transcendentalism led Parker toward what he called Natural Religion. He interpreted the Bible through the lens of mythology, and openly doubted the miracle stories of Jesus and contended that the Bible was full of contradictions and mistakes.

In 1841 he preached an ordination sermon, “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” claiming that the authority of Jesus did not reside in the person rather in the message, which is universal. Had there not been an historical Jesus, still there would have been a Christian Religion, though of a different name, Parker contended.

The sermon was truly outrageous for its time and place. As a result Parker was shunned/ostracized by his fellow ministers—who to a person denied him pulpit exchanges and as a group asked him to resign from the Boston Ministerial Association because they judged him not to be Christian. This controversy raised the issue of a Unitarian creed; a notion of no creed had been a principle of William Ellery Channing and other founders a generation earlier.

Theological change was in the air. In 1845 supporters wanted Parker to be heard in Boston, so they rented the Melodeon Theater that he might preach there regularly in the morning and then travel home to West Roxbury to preach in the afternoon. He was a sensation in the city. His supporters organized the 28th Congregational Society for him. In 1846 he was preaching to a 1000 persons; by 1852 some 2000 came to his Sunday service. His congregation included the intellectual elite, such as Julia Ward Howe and husband, as well as trade persons and mechanics.

His sermons and writings ranged widely and continually progressed. His radical appraisal of Jesus continued. He attacked the sensational ways of revivalism during an era of one of the country’s great awakenings. He advocated democracy: the phrase “of all the people, by all people, and for all the people” was first spoken by him. He declared that prison should be about reforming, not punishing, the criminal. He championed women’s rights, including suffrage: many of his prayers began “In the name of the Mother and of the Father….” He even introduced the custom of flowers in the pulpit, when he placed tribute bouquets brought by admiring congregants in front of his pulpit. Before Parker flowers were considered to be paganism at best, Catholicism at worst.

Most famously, Parker was anti-slavery, an abolitionist of the greatest stature. He resisted the arrest of so-called “fugitive slaves,” including a black woman in his congregation that he helped spirit to Canada. For helping another fugitive, he was indicted by a federal grand jury, but never tried due to public sentiment. He raised funds to send “Beecher Bibles,” that is rifles to the Free-Soilers in Bleeding Kansas. And he was one of the Secret Six who financed John Brown’s insurrection at Harper’s Ferry on the eve of the War of Rebellion. (Had he and he others been identified they would have hanged as high as Brown and Sons. Count him as part of radical abolitionist contingent who made the Civil War an “irrepressible conflict.” He refused to back down or take half measures regarding slavery.

Parker died from tuberculosis, the family disease, it while abroad in Italy as a leg in a world tour to restore his health. His grave is in Florence.

I admire Parker for many reasons. I’m enough of a contrarian to resonate to his contrarian ways within Unitarianism. His prodigious appetite for knowledge is inspiring. He had read every book in his 13,000 book library and written many books and endless articles. One of the familiar social justice phrases of this day, often attributed to Martin Luther King but “borrowed” from Parker, declares: “the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” (Parker’s actual words were, "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one… And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice."

A favorite affirmation by Theodore Parker doesn’t get any better relative to ways and means, the mission and meaning of Unitarianism:

Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere.
Its temple all space.
Its shrine the good heart.
Its creed all truth.
Its ritual works of love.
Its profession of faith divine living.

Olympia Brown

Another noteworthy exemplar of the liberal religious way of Unitarian Universalism comes from the Universalist side of our merged tradition: Olympia Brown who lived from 1835-1926. Some of you might recognize her name because the Racine WI UU congregation is named in her memory.

She belonged to a remarkable generation who pioneered women in the ministry and who championed woman’s suffrage. She was the first woman whose ministerial standing was recognized by a denomination—the Universalists. And she was one of a few original suffragettes who lived to vote in the 1920 election.

Without a doubt, her activism and perseverance had deep roots in her family’s committed Universalism.

In a nutshell, Universalism was a liberal Protestant sect somewhat similar and parallel to Unitarianism. Each resonated to Enlightenment values. Each had strong New England sources. Each had a unitarian, or non-trinitarian, theology. The Universalists believed in God as a loving parent and argued that Jesus’s atonement was for all, without reservation. Their doctrines that God is Love and there was No Hell had significant influence in reforming liberal Protestantism. Universalism’s benign sources had benevolent consequences for those who practiced it.

Olympia’s parents, Vermont Universalists, moved to Michigan where they raised 4 children. They valued education so much the parents founded their own school. Later Olympia and a sister attended Mt. Holyoke College, but they left because the school was too Calvinist. Olympia then went to Antioch College, the progressive school founded by Unitarian Horace Mann. Olympia’s experience was so positive that her parents moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, that all the Brown family might attend Antioch.

At Antioch Olympia heard the first ordained woman, Antoinette Brown, preach. “It was the first time I had heard a woman preach and the sense of victory lifted me up. I felt as if the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.”

Determined she would be a minister, too, Olympia applied to the Unitarian school at Meadville Pa and was turned down by the trustees “as too great an experiment.” Oberlin allowed she might attend, but wouldn’t allow her to participate in public exercises. The Universalist Divinity School at St. Lawrence in Canon, NY, reluctantly offered her admission. But the president, Ebenezer Fisher wrote that he “did not think women were called to the ministry. But I leave that between you and the Great Head of the Church." Olympia remembered, “…When I arrived, I was told I had not been expected and that Mr. Fisher had said I would not come as he had written so discouragingly to me. I had supposed his discouragement was my encouragement." She graduated in 1863 and the local conference ordained her as a Universalist minister.

In 1864 Olympia had her first church in Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts, where she became active in the suffrage movement, a literal colleague to the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone. In the summer of 1867, under physical and public duress, Olympia toured Kansas on behalf of suffrage, delivering some 300 speeches in favor of suffrage during a 4 month leave from her church.

In 1870 Olympia took on a discouraged Universalist church in Bridgeport CT, where P.T.Barnum held membership. She married in 1873, though her mother and sister argued marriage would harm her ministry. Olympia lasted at the Bridgeport church through 1874. Though she had detractors who questioned the authority of a female minister, Olympia also had a large group of supporters.

In 1876, with two young children and husband in tow, Olympia became minister of another dispirited Universalist church, this one in Racine WI where she stayed for 9 years, leaving a rejuvenated congregation.

Then at age 53, in 1885 she resigned from the full time ministry to devote herself as an activist for suffrage. She served as President of the Wisconsin Suffrage Association and Vice-President of the National Woman Suffrage Association.

Interestingly, as she grew older and the suffrage movement seemed to stall, Olympia welcomed a more activist, fire-in-the-belly suffrage campaign for a woman’s right to vote. When Woodrow Wilson turned his back on suffrage, an octogenarian Olympia Brown joined other activists in front of the White House to burn the President’s speeches.

In 1920, the year suffrage was attained, Olympia said, "the grandest thing has been the lifting up of the gates and the opening of the doors to the women of America, giving liberty to twenty-seven million women, thus opening to them a new and larger life and a higher ideal."

No denomination has stronger ties to woman’s rights than the merged tradition of Unitarian Universalism. And this tradition has no brighter light, when it comes to equal rights for women, than Olympia Brown.

Is there any wonder that today, more than half of the UU clergy are women?

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