The Transient And the Permanent on Cape Cod

A little more than a year ago, I preached a sermon called “The Transient And the Permanent in Liberal Religion.” I recognized the decline in membership and Sunday attendance at this Meeting House and the financial bind that put us in, and I concluded that one of the things I could be doing is to try to help articulate a sense of mission, to answer the question of what we’re doing here.

As precedent, I reached back to the title of the one of the most influential sermons in Unitarian history, Theodore Parker’s 1841 talk at an ordination which he called “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity. In his sermon, Parker tried to distinguish between the forms of a religion and the essence of that religion. In so doing, Parker hoped to rescue the essential insights of the religion of Jesus from the orthodox Christian theology which had stifled and undermined those insights.

Parker made a sharp distinction between doctrine and truth. Doctrine was transient, changeable. What was heresy last year was orthodox this year and vice versa. But underneath the surface changes there lay a layer of truth which was unchanging.

Parker analogized it to nature. You can see the many forms nature takes in clouds and sunsets and animal life. There is an underlying unity to nature, though the theories of science which might explain these phenomena are always subject to change. Nature doesn’t change but our ideas of it do. Thus once we thought that the earth was the center of the universe, and we thought that was a fundamental fact, but it turned out to be untrue and not so fundamental after all.

Thus in the realm of religion, the questions, who is Jesus, is he fully human and/or fully divine, was he born of a virgin, did his death atone for the sins of the world, are all matters of doctrine, but the essence of Jesus is what he taught in the Sermon on the Mount: love your neighbors, even your enemies, blessed are the poor, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

These are bedrock tenets of the religion Jesus was trying to spread, and they still work today. We know that these principles are found in most of the world’s religions as well.

We have come a long way since last August. My decision to retire, prompted by the financial situation of the Meeting house, has brought us back to the question of what we are here for. I am here to help you for a few more months answer that questions, and then you are going to be answering it on your own. You may come up with a new mission or vision statement, or you may simply change the direction of your activities or concerns.

The Chinese character for crisis, I am told, is also the character for opportunity. The transition the Meeting House is facing holds the potential for it to find new ways to bear witness to its most enduring values.

This morning at the Forum we were given a glimpse into the history of Cape Cod Unitarianism and Universalism. I have just finished a review of the manuscript of that subject being put together by three authors, one of whom was with us this morning and is staying with us. It is titled “Origins of Unitarianism Universalism on Cape Cod and the Islands,” and the authors are James Gould, David Schrader and David Martin.

What I want to do this morning is to set the question of what is transient and what is permanent in this history of Cape Cod liberal churches.

Unitarians and Universalist churches were formed very differently. Unitarianism as a theological proposition goes back to the time of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and is based on a rejection of the idea of the Trinity, the use of reason in religion, a critical approach to the Bible and to other claims of direct divine revelation. But in America, what we now call Unitarianism called itself liberal Christianity and arose in the latter eighteenth century as a reaction to the irrational fervor of the first Great Awakening. It arose within the system of town churches set up by the Puritans which were taxpayer-funded institutions both of religion and government. We call that system the Standing Order, and churches which bear the name First Parish are usually churches which originally belonged to the Standing Order. There was a great theological controversy in the 1820s in these churches, and where the liberals won these fights, that First Parish today will be UU; where the conservatives won the fight, that First Parish will be UCC. If there was an attempt to turn the Chatham town church Unitarian in this era, it failed.

This is what I was taught, and which I have been teaching. I see from reading this history that my picture may be a little too cut and dried. Barnstable is probably the oldest Standing Order church on the Cape, but it split into two parishes, East and West, in 1725, many decades before the Unitarian controversy arose. The East Parish eventually became Unitarian, but pinpointing that theological shift is hard to do on the present records.

There was a Unitarian controversy in the church of the Standing Order in Sandwich, and apparently the liberals won, for the history says the orthodox withdrew after losing the vote and formed a Calvinist church, and the Standing Order church was Unitarian for the rest of the nineteenth century. But there is no UU church in Sandwich today, while there is a UCC church, so I am not sure what happened.

First Parish Brewster, the parent congregation of this Meeting House, was originally the Church of Harwich at the funding of that town in 1696. Brewster did not become a separate town until 1803, but the church became the North Parish Church of Harwich in 1747. It is very hard to establish just when First Parish Brewster became Unitarian, but it was sometime in the early middle of the nineteenth century.

A Unitarian church I didn’t know about in my earlier research was the Unitarian Church of Dennis. There is no Unitarian or Universalist or UU church in Dennis today. It began its life as the East Parish Church of Yarmouth in 1722 or 23. It had a beloved pastor who served from the beginning of the church until his death in 1763. His name was Josiah Dennis. And when the portion of Yarmouth where the church was located separated from the rest of Yarmouth thirty years later, they named the town after its beloved minister. Isn’t that sweet?

Apparently there were theological divisions within this church in the nineteenth century and it declined in membership. The present Dennis Union church was formed later and occupies the building of the former Unitarian church.

So we have on the Unitarian side, doctrinal differences which were not always resolved by votes and church schisms.

This history spends more time on the Universalist side, for there were at peak eight Universalist churches on Cape Cod and the Islands.

To form a Universalist church, you didn’t have to have a Standing Order church as old as the town. What you had to have was people willing to embrace the idea of a God who would save every soul.

Chatham was the first, then Brewster, Nantucket, Hyannis, Provincetown, Orleans, Yarmouthport, Truro, Wellfleet, Dennis, Sandwich and Marthas Vineyard. That’s more then eight, but some were very short-lived. For example, a Truro group of universalists got together, heard some Universalist preaching from ministers from nearby Provincetown, and in 1846 they raised some money, built a meeting house. The windows were about to be tacked in when a nor-easter blew down the structure. There was no effort made to rebuild.

In Cape Cod town after town in the nineteenth century, the committee which met to consider founding a Universalist church was dominated by sea captains. It was they who had the most direct experience of exposure to different kinds of people. Many had been exposed to the good Universalist preaching from Hosea Ballou or Thomas Whittemore. Some of them may have been in the slave trade; all would have known of it. And of course it was the sea captains who had the money to fund the purchase of land or the securing of a minister.

The Universalist churches freely shared ministers among them. A minister called to serve one church might find himself also preaching in one or two newer churches on a monthly basis. You see there was a sense of calling, a sense that there was good news to be spread.

This history provides surprising detail about the lives of the ministers before and after they served Cape Cod churches. Many served terms in state legislatures, or founded banks, or ran stores. Many churches established schools and the minister taught in them.

Recently I have preached on temperance and spiritualism. Many of the Universalist ministers on Cape Cod had been active in the temperance movement and went on from their Cape Cod settlements to positions in the spiritualist movement.

On the Universalist side, these were not long pastorates. The typical one seems to be about two years. This may be because the churches, recently founded, were finding it hard to pay the minister. It may have been that, with new Universalist congregations getting founded on a regular basis, there was competition for ministers and ministers were lured away as soon as they had settled.

The history says, “Universalism reached its peak about 1881, when its historian Cyrus Bradley, who started his career at Brewster Universalist, declared “Universalism is now the greatest doctrinal power in New England. It has completely revolutionized the thought of the land. The masses of intelligent people have not become Universalist, but they have drifted away from their old faith into a state of uncertainty.”

Bradley’s history of Universalism on Cape Cod is a treasure trove of detail which would have been lost had he not written it and had his son not preserved it.

The contrast between the Unitarian and Universalist churches is telling. The Unitarian Churches struggled to tamp down theological differences in order to avoid schism; the Universalist churches felt evangelical about their theology; they wanted to, in John Murray’s words, “preach the everlasting love of God.”

What is permanent and what is transient in Cape Cod? We who have been here only a decade know that the sea is a constant force for change. The shape of the shoreline is in constant flux, and the fact that a house on that shoreline now costs a gazillion times what it did fifty years ago does not alter the fact. But we also know that the very climate which makes Cape Cod Cape Cod is on the move. The Atlantic Right Whale is a severely endangered species because the plankton on which it feeds has moved north in search of cooler waters and thus the whales are feeding in the shipping lanes. And don’t get me started on seals and sharks.

Human fossil fuel burning for heat and transportation is the agent in climate change, an engine of transience in what might have looked permanent to earlier generations of Cape Codders. But the greenhouse effect is only one way in which human populations stress the environment on this peninsula. Humans also produce nitrogen loading, a result of our use of plumbing. This results in algae blooms in freshwater ponds, and huge expenditures to de-nitrify waste water.

And the human demographics are in constant change, and largely in one direction. The year-round population gets older. It may be getting whiter, but I am not sure of that. The seasonal visitors get more affluent as the cost of a week’s vacation here continues to escalate.

As a result, the flight of younger people, families rearing children, continues apace. And the churches take the hit. Ours certainly has.

But is this demographic challenge transient or permanent? That is the $64,000 question. What does this history say? This history says a lot about churches which survived, because churches which were around long enough wrote their own histories. The churches which did not make it often did not leave too many traces, just the names of ministers and their careers.

And each story is so dependent on particular facts. What led the Universalists in Orleans to leave the Standing Order church and build their own building across the street, only to seek to rejoin the Congregationalists several decades later – the result is the Federated church. Why did a group of Universalist alumni of the Chapel in the Pines in Eastham buy that building back from First Parish Brewster and continue as a lay-led fellowship which is still going today?

We are not the first church on this peninsula to deal with declining membership. I remember our late member Dick Soule telling me how First Parish Brewster with its history going back centuries, held a meeting to consider closing its doors in the late 1970s, when Dick was President. Dick was friends with Dana McLain Greeley, who had been the first President of the combined denomination, and had gone on to be minister in Concord, MA. Consulted by the Brewster governing board, Greeley recommended that they consider his young associate Jim Robinson. Jim’s call to Brewster happily coincided with an influx of young families to that town and the church started growing like topsy. And out of First Parish’s growing pains this Meeting House was born.

The excerpt from the history I read about the Universalist Church Marstons Mills may have lessons for us. People sympathetic to Universalism got the land and put up the building almost overnight when the local Methodist minister embraced universal salvation and was kicked out of his own pulpit as a result. But the church as a church only lasted five years, and had 1/3 of a minister for those five. The building, on the other hand, became an important community center where the issues of the day were discussed. This history does not say it, but I know that Liberty Hall in Marstons Mills was an important site for contra dancing in the 1970s.

Let me close by holding up two remarkable brothers which this history illuminates well, Charles and John Murray Spear. Charles Spear was the first minister of the Brewster Universalist church and the second minister of the Chatham Universalist church, dividing his time between the two churches.

He “became a nationally prominent prison reformer. His first inspiration came when he was minister in Brewster in 1830, the year that the Franco-American patriot Lafayette made his famous declaration: ‘I shall ask for the abolition of the penalty of death until I have the infallibility of human judgment demonstrated to me.’ This became the motto of Charles Spear’s magazine Prisoner’s Friend, which advocated for an end to capital punishment.” Charles Spear moved on from Brewster after eight years and edited a Universalist paper, the Religious Inquirer, in Hartford. He also was co-founder of the world’s first nonviolence organization the New England Non-Resistance Society in 1838, and organized the first and second Universalist Anti-Slavery societies in Lynn in 1841-2

Charles Spear’s younger brother was John Murray Spear, who was named after the founder of Universalism in America. The younger Spear was called to serve the Hyannis Universalist church upon its founding in 1830.

Here is a summary of this theological views as expressed in a local newspaper article when he was called: “reflect on the character that has been ascribed to Jehovah. He has been represented to you, perhaps, as the most cruel of all beings determining the misery of a portion of the human family. Consigning myriads of his intelligent offspring to sulfureous flames, there to be tormented. This is the character of a demon rather than a father ... all the precepts of the son of God, are founded on the fact that God loves his children.”

John Spear was a prominent abolitionist and a friend of William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Parker. Garrison once punned on Spear’s name: “although the weapons of our warfare [are] not carnal but spiritual, we [do] not object at all to the use of the Spear.” Thoreau said one better: ”There was a lecture on Peace by Mr. Spear; ought he not to be beaten into a ploughshare?”

John Spear left the Universalist ministry in 1852 for the Spiritualist movement. In that capacity, he built a three-story structure on a hill in Lynn which he called the New Motive Power. From our current perspective, it was a prototype computer or “thinking machine” and was supposed to channel the ideas of American geniuses such as Benjamin Franklin, John Murray (the inventor’s namesake) Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. Needless to say he could not make it work.

What is transient and what is permanent in our history? I think there is a permanent deep well of human creativity and good will which comes from people embracing justice and the beloved community. This is not a given; this flame can go out and must be rekindled periodically. It does not exist in any one institution or building. New occasions make new duties.

Unitarian and Universalist energies have born witness to the endurance of liberal values and along the way built some beautiful boxes. We need now to think outside those boxes, to discover new ways to use them to advance the work of the spirit which this hurting world so desperately needs.


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​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

819 Main Street
PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633

(508) 945-2075

Open Minds — Loving Hearts — Helping Hands

819 Main Street
PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633

(508) 945-2075 

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