The Unitarian Autumnal Convention

A Sermon

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A Sermon


"Jesus said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat."—Matt. v. 32.


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Matt. v. 32.

The past week has been a season of festivity to many among us, not to mention the labor that always accompanies festivity. Many excellent gentlemen have visited us from abroad—conscientious, intelligent, kind-hearted men, with wives worthy of them. They have been received with a hospitality worthy of our city and of the prosperous worldly condition of the body represented. The delegates have received prompt attention, and fared sumptuously every day. They have slept on couches such as the carpenter's son of Nazareth never pressed, and sat at tables such as never welcomed Paul. In return, honest attempts were made to give spiritual nutriment to each other and to the city which thus received them. Those efforts continued for several days—for fourteen hours a day there was almost constant utterance and consultation upon subjects deemed important. I should be wrong if I failed to take some notice of an event so uncommon.

The first effect of such a demonstration is of course to carry conviction to many minds of its own exceeding great importance. When any large body of persons assemble for the promotion of any cause, it looks very impressive. The excited school boy thinks the Whig torch-light procession an irresistible argument, till he sees

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the Democratic torch-light procession the week after; and when he grows older he learns to doubt whether a torch-light procession, ten miles long, would be a proof of the presence of light, or of the need of it. So of religious bodies. These grave divines, with their laborious discourses;—surely, we say, there could not be so respectable an assemblage in behalf of any but the one good cause. Then comes an Orthodox Convention, perhaps, and a Baptist Convention, and an Episcopal Convention, and so on—and all the delegates find admirers and hosts, and fare sumptuously every day in their turn. As we grow older we discover that it is perfectly possible for a large body of excellent persons to be interested in the construction of an edifice, which another equally meritorious body is equally absorbed in the endeavor to pull down. All cannot be right. All cannot make their distinguishing doctrines really important. Somebody must be mistaken,—yes, great conventions of worthy men and women must have often met and parted in perfect faith in their object and plan, and yet the plan and object have turned out very unimportant after all. We must not, therefore, count numbers only, but seriously inquire into the state of affairs.

An ecclesiastical Convention seems undoubtedly an imposing thing. When you think what weight is attributed by the community to a single clergyman, consider what a combination of powers may be expected from so many. It must be like the Voltaic battery where if you get a weak influence from a single pair of plates, you multiply it according to the number you collect. It seems as if the whole city must be electrified by the presence for three days of such an accumulation of power—as if every mechanic at his work must breathe freer, and know that somebody is alive some-where. Has it been so? I do not know. Certainly we have had beautiful weather—and I knew a person once who thought that with moral power enough, we could drive all clouds from the sky.

This evidence failing, yet surely (one thinks) some great and generous results must be attained. Here assembles a body of men, claiming and claimed to be the leaders of the people in abstract

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thoughts and practical action. Age will bring its experience, and youth its fire. The members of the most cultivated and most liberal religious organization, are to meet in council. When these men speak, we shall see in their, eyes and hear in their tones the promise of a new age. What they predict, history will confirm; what they bind on earth will be bound in heaven; what they loose will be loosed in heaven. The problems of the age will be first set forth and then set forward.

The great questions of the religious life will be first handled—the relations of the soul to God—the mutual relations of man's mysterious powers. We shall know if God still communes with man, or if that was only a peculiar privilege possessed by the most narrow, obstinate and disobedient of all the races of history. We shall know if it be true, as thousands believe to-day, and thousands more will believe a year hence, that the time has at length come for departed spirits to communicate consciously with man. We shall learn whether the virtues of the great and good of the past, are to always be set apart as unapproachable, or if we have any thing to do with sharing their light and taking up their duty. We shall learn the meaning of this great practical trouble of the church, that its members do not multiply so fast as its sects do,—that it is hard to raise money to build a church edifice, and when all is done, you need a greater sum of money to bribe people to come into it. We shall learn why it is that nearly all congregations are dissatisfied with their ministers, and the majority of ministers with their congregations. We shall learn why young men at the communion table are rarer than clergymen at the theatre. Then—stretching our views to the world at large,—we shall know more of the bearings of the great practical movements of the age. The Anti-Slavery agitation, which dwarfs every other political question, and would leave our politics an empty chess board without it; the question of Temperance Legislation, discussed in every state of the Union; the question whether this country is or is not to take part in European wars; the Woman's Rights

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movement, born full grown, like Minerva from the head of Jove; the question of elevating Labor and of Association, of which the Ten Hour movement and Land Reform projects are but a small part;—all these are waiting for just such bodies to take hold of them:—or, that wanting, are taken up by inferior and unconsecrated hands and doubtless ill handled. They need be ill handled no more, (we think;) there are those coming to the Autumnal Convention who can undertake them; all these, and other questions yet profounder, will be brought forward. At least nothing else will take precedence of them; though of course the universe can-not be renovated in a day, and something will be left over, for future autumnal conventions. Much will however be done; there will be a beginning made, and a rare one.

Has it not been so? Has all this rushing tide passed by, and left nothing behind it? Do the steam engines of Worcester rattle on the same, and no new enginery of thought and action begin to move and sway behind them? Have the great truths of time and eternity been no more profoundly and widely impressed? Has not one great problem, that haunts men's hearts, been solved—or ever touched? Has not one great practical movement been impelled—or even debated? Is not Worcester enlightened or elevated or bettered or strengthened, by all this concentration of piety and intellect? No matter which,—whether the corn of truth be planted or plucked or husked or shelled or ground or cooked; let this assembly do any thing (we said,) only let it do something. Let not this magnificent enterprise, shrinking from all these duties, content itself with timidly handling the harvest which others have procured and prepared, bringing as its own provision only chaff and husks to mingle with it.

How has it been? I went at four different times into the meetings I did not stay long at any time, but I have been to so many such meetings before, that I could understand more readily than you, perhaps, the real condition of things. What were these sublime questions, worthy of time and eternity, which were

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broached and handled there? They were as follows:—Shall we, the Unitarian body, have a liturgy? Shall we admit to the communion Table only saints, or every body we can persuade to come in? A third question I did not hear discussed,—What is to be-come of us, the Unitarian body?

A Liturgy: to galvanize into life, by a novelty, the chill and languor that depress one in the majority of churches;—as military companies try to resuscitate their failing energies, now and then, by a new drill or uniform. A great religious movement, that is to arouse the nation, and enlarge all men's intellects and hearts forever—and the prophets in this new crusade meet and debate, whether to pray from a book or from the heart!

The nominal question was, how to make devotional exercises (as they are called) more impressive. The way to answer the question is very simple to have live men in the pulpit and live men in the pews;—souls that are strong enough to have devotion-al feelings to express, or at least to keep silence if they have none;—congregations who really desire in the pulpit the spirit of life, and not delicately rounded phrases. And what can so instantly kill out all possibility of this, as to speak as if the whole thing were a piece of machinery, and it were a question what kind of gearing or belting would grind out " devotional exercises" the best!

The real interest of the discussion lay in this, to me—in the few forced disclosures it brought out of the feebleness and coldness of the churches. Something was said on this point; more might have been said, if the secret sorrows of nine out of ten of all the clergymen I ever knew had been uttered to the meeting. The clergy feel this,—but the church members grow accustomed to it and do not feel it. "Coldness in our congregation, (said one surprised layman in the convention)—did we not raise eight thousand dollars this very year for church purposes?" That eight thousand dollars worth of piety, to be sure, was worth considering—for it was a great complaint at the last meeting of the American Unita-

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rian Association in Boston, that pious laymen of that city would not give nearly that sum, unless they had a creed to rely upon. And in truth, a creed was given them, of eight articles—a thousand dollars apiece.

Then the second subject of discussion was the Communion Service. The question was between those who wished to exclude certain persons from that service, and those who felt that they had no right to do so. I respect the sincere liberality of this last party. But what a singular subject to debate upon! Exclude them? why, they exclude themselves. There lies the difficulty. Not one in a hundred of a congregation can be persuaded to come near enough to be excluded. It is the one great and unsatisfied aim of every young minister, for years, to get people in ; and to add one male adult per annum is a great gain. It is said that not one young man out of fifteen belongs to the church. Not one in fifty I should say. The number dwindles every year. " In 1845 the Methodists lost 31,760 church members—the Free Will Baptists 2,561, the Trinitarian Congregationalists in Massachusetts 400. The N. S. Presbyterian church has lost more than 1.000[1,000] a year for five years. Two hundred churches in Vermont made a " net gain" of ten last year, one twentieth of a member to a church. Trinitarian Congregationalist churches average less than 100 members ; Episcopal churches 50, Unitarian churches 40 to 50." These are dwindling every year ;—and a collection of clergy meet and debate the mat-ter for two days, and all which the most far-sighted and liberal can say is, that they do not intend to exclude anybody!

Why not say simply that the whole church organization has become a clog upon men, and that the rite of the Lord's Supper has grown uninteresting and distasteful, for this and for other reasons? Nothing can exaggerate the indifference with which the mass of every congregation regard the rite. No new theory can help the matter. With the Puritans, church membership meant something—it meant " I am holier than thou," and they

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said so. Church members by the old platforms, were "visible saints." It is useless for modern communicants to try to change all that, and say that they are visible sinners. The habit of the New England mind is fixed, on that subject;—you can drop the usage, but you cannot transform it. No new practice can help it. Throw the door open as widely as you please, and your numbers are hardly larger. I respect the generous intentions of those who clamor for a " Birthright church," but they seem to me wasted. The original Lord's Supper belonged to a people very unlike ours—and it was a different thing; it was like a Thanksgiving festival to us, the year after the dearest member of the household has passed away; a sad sociability, yet cordial and hopeful. The poor phantom of this which appears monthly in our churches is dear to many from tradition or association—and I speak of it with no irreverence—but how many clergymen are there who can throw around it a charm sufficient to make "the elements" other-wise than a distasteful thing ? I never knew but one—and he barely succeeded. It seems to me that the real question is of the continuance of the rite under any form. Look at facts. The head quarters of Unitarianism is Boston—this convention was held in Worcester. The largest Protestant congregation in Boston and the largest in Worcester (for I presume that our evening congregation is habitually the largest—not that that proves us any wiser or better,) have never employed this rite: they omitted it, not from irreverence or hostility, but because the omission seemed better and truer to the feelings of those concerned. I am not aware that any harm has followed or any complaint been made—though a worthy and estimable clergyman of this city predicted that no society with this omission could be kept together one year. I never had a particle of doubt on this subject; I have none now. And yet to these facts no allusion was made in the convention, nor this aspect of the question broached by old or young.

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Of the third debate, on the future plans and prospects of Unitarianism, I heard nothing. I suppose it is admitted, that as regards organized churches, the Unitarian Association stands absolutely still, at a time when public opinion is being liberalized with unequalled rapidity. The discussion of this I did not hear. But of those discussions which I did hear, the prevailing spirit was, not anger, not jealousy, not sectarian bitterness,— but only of utter and weary torpor. It was so when I was present, and every young man whom I met bemoaned the same thing. I suppose that the meetings were considered satisfactory by the Executive Committee. No breath of heresy came in. Not a difference of opinion occurred about anything of great importance to any human soul. I suppose that if all the members of the convention had from the beginning resigned themselves into a placid slumber, and dreamed on unconscious till adjournment, that the proceedings could not possibly have exhibited more unbroken harmony. The new creed was brought out and aired, like a new carriage on a state occasion. You will find it in the new Quarterly Journal of the American Unitarian Association. No objection was offered. No daring intellectual propositions were made, and no practical proposition of any kind, except to build a monument to Servetus, who died a martyr early in the sixteenth century. Is it not written "Ye build the tombs of the prophets?"

Yet there was surely no want of ability or earnestness in the company. There were in that convention men of great gifts—of kind hearts, of beautiful piety, persuasive eloquence, manly courage, and practical skill. Why were they not felt there? Why did not those qualities tell upon the results of the convention? Why did such men whisper and lament, in lobbies and on door steps, instead of carrying their oxygen into that sluggish atmosphere, so close and sluggish that men brought their bodies and souls out gladly, to drink in the gushing sunshine of these October days? Why did they not? I know not. Often in dull conventions there is a life behind, that comes not out until some

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one breaks the spell. Besides, those who speak are not always those who should speak. A man makes a speech because he has something to say,—or for the opposite reason. But more than that; there is among clergymen, and especially Unitarians, some-thing which makes them (unlike the bundle of faggots in the old fable) strong singly and weak collectively.

Some may ask—why not bear this testimony yourself, if needed? Simply because I did not feel myself entitled to speak there. I have never asked the Unitarian organization to be responsible for me, and I have no wish to be responsible for it. While treated with unexceptionable courtesy by those concerned, I suppose it was generally understood that I—that you and I—formed no integral part of the recent ecclesiastical festivities. Such was my wish, and I suppose that of all concerned. In the convention I was only present as a spectator. How I stand related to the Unitarian organization, I have said explicitly to those most concerned—I mean my clerical brethren;—not so much to you, for you care little about it.

So far as I know myself, I have no feeling of hostility in regard to that body, any more than of hope. It is too late for either. I should as soon think of bearing hostility or hope in regard to the falling leaves of this autumn. They are falling because their beauty and their work is over, and so are the organization and name of Unitarianism. Brave men worked to build it up—my own father among them. It was well done, then. Now thirty years have passed—the times are transformed—and the organization appears to me to be aimless, hopeless, powerless, and dead. What life its members have and that is much, they have as individuals. Every contact with "the body" makes them weaker. I know men who would have been strong and powerful men by this time, had they somehow lost their parishes, and learned to stand alone; that failing, they lean against "the body" now, and effect nothing. And I also know earnest men who retain that attitude, dissatisfied, yet not seeing their way clear to any other. I serve them best by doing my own duty.

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But the life of this age has plainly outgrown the life of Unitarianism. About the time I left the Divinity School—six years ago—there was, on one occasion, produced from the pocket of a pious layman of Boston, a document containing a list of the graduating class, with a classification of those who were safe and to be encouraged, and of those who were dangerous and to be discouraged. I believe the certificate of heresy did no harm to any one then—but it would certainly do good now, and I should be glad to know the practice continued. Let any young man go to a large or growing place, to form a religious society—New York, Worcester, Rochester, Cleveland, Chicago—and he will be fortunate if he can exchange his credentials from the American Unitarian Association for a recommendatory letter from Theodore Parker. He will be fortunate as regards his congregation, his influence, and his conscience.

I have never heard of a time in the history of the world, when there was such a movement going on in the human race as now;—when questions so important were grasping the public mind. Reforms, practical, social, spiritual, are rising and have been rising for twenty years, and there has been more free thinking every year. No man can check this movement. Every man can do much to guide it. Every public man is taxed to the utmost to do his duty to great thoughts and great labors. Thousands of persons every day are out-growing their old creeds and their selfish customs. Not merely questions of action, but the most subtle problems of thought—God, Inspiration, Revelation, Spiritual Communication—are debated in every merchant's counting-room, and in every shoe-maker's shop, and at every place where women congregate. The strongest man must feel weak from the inadequacy of his attainments and energies to meet the demand. And here, in the midst of this great rush and tumult of American thought and action, stands this little Unitarian body, with three hundred churches in 1844, and some two hundred and fifty now, speaking as if the fate of the world depended on its action:—as if a girl should stand upon the deck of that vast ship just launched

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at East Boston, and expect to propel or impede its motions by the waving of her fan in the air,[.]

These general facts are so plain to me, that I feel no interest in considering the details of the position of this body, since the adoption of a creed. I remember that when Napoleon asked his marshal Augereau, what he thought of the grand ceremonies on re-establishing Catholicism in France— Augereau said, "It is very fine. Nothing is wanting but the million of men who have died in putting down all that." And at this convention, the first held after adopting the new creed, I saw nothing wanting, except the brave men who built up this movement expressly and avowedly to get rid of creeds. And when I knew that the one immediate object of the creed was to keep out the one man in the Unitarian body who combines extraordinary learning and extraordinary popular influence—and when I knew the congratulations which took place, that he did nct disturb this meeting by his presence—it took from me the last vestige of respect for this organization or of interest in this convention.

For ourselves, we must pursue our own life and light. If in spite of all this the Unitarian organization still effects any good, let us be thankful for it: I have always told you that God often permits great good to be done by very poor instruments. But let us remember that the sins and shortcomings of others do not constitute our merits;—it is easier to criticise than to act. If we in this congregation are true to our principles, I believe that we shall prosper. With us are the sympathies of many who know our position, and the unconscious fellowship of multitudes who do not. I am so accustomed to sympathy from the young clergymen whom I meet, that I now expect it, as a matter of course; I find so many who prefer my position, as your minister, to their own. This I say to encourage you as well as myself. Slowly, in different parts of the country, earnest men and women are beginning to create new religious unions, which while one in spirit, vary in form—alike only in believing in the simple

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religion of faith in God and love to man. I say again, great organizations grow up like the green and beautiful trees, verdant towers of beauty; each seems a home for life to those who dwell beneath its shade;—and then in a few years each grows bare and desolate, and each falls at last and gives room for a younger growth. Sometimes the axe must be laid at the root of the tree, but more often the fall comes of itself, and a soft mantle of creeping moss is soon the only memorial of what was once so stately. The decay is sad, like all decays; yet we are not placed on earth to lament, but to labor and to live.