An Adams Family Universalist?

A little more than a month ago, a desperate search for something I never found took me into the dusty, glass-protected 19th century books which First UU Society of Burlington retains in a staff office.  It was impossible to leave without a few volumes I considered worthy of perusal, causing the astonished current librarian to create lending records for the original parish library.  If these books should be discarded, I suspect some would end up with me.

Never mind the unrelated themes: my attention quickly settled on a historical travel volume from 1838, from the pen of Samuel Adams Devens and publishing house of James Monroe, well known for his publication of early Unitarian documents.  And this one was a gem.

Never mind, also, that Rev. Devens claimed to be on a travel mission.  Like me, he made a beeline in every place he visited for the cultural and religious leadership, overlooking many more visible delights.  In less than two hundred pages, he manages to provide portraits of early American slavery, Judaism, Unitarianism, Northern New England, whaling, and travel conditions.  But since the purpose of his travel was to provide Unitarian worship where it was not available, or to supplement what was on offer, portraits of this nascent faith form the skeleton of these reminiscences.

At the end, he appended a reverential memoir of a minister previously unknown to me, Rev. Zabdiel Adams.  Here — probably in shameless violation of some kind of copyright law — is Rev. Devens’  opening description of Rev. Adams:

“Mr. Adams was born in that part of Braintree, now called Quincy, Nov. 5th, 1939.  His father, Capt. Ebenezer Adams, was brother to the father of John Adams, and his mother, whose maiden name was Ann Boylston, was sister tot he mother of the President.  Hence John Adams and himself were a sort of double cousins.   They were educated in the closest intimacy with each other, and in after life kept up a cordial correspondence.  The President was strongly attached to his cousin, as appaears from the following observation which he made after his descease, ‘When I lost him, I lost bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.'”

Rev. Adams and President Adams lived together during their college years, at the home of President Adams’ mother.  There, as was the custom of those days, the two males alternated in providing daily prayers.  I am no expert in the Adams family’s spirituality, but that it was lively and deep is well shown by this little biography.

But Rev. Adams proved a more liberal congregationalist than was his more famous cousin, and when he settled over the then-united parish of Lunenberg, MA, Rev. Adams formed part of an expanding network of influence which came from a hitherto under-reported part of Unitarianism, the South Shore of Greater Boston.  This area (although not its most famous native son) was noted for a liberal interpretation of even liberal religion, firmly rooted by the lengthy ministry of Rev. Ebenezer Gay in Hingham (1717-1787 — your eyes do not deceive you, it’s a record unlikely to fall).   According to Rev. Devens:

“Mr. Adams was a man who… thought for himself on religious subjects, and in the expression of what he thought, was not influenced by the fear of others.  For the day in which he lived he was remarkably liberal, in his religious sentiments.

“There is an observation which shews the state  of his mind on one disputed topic. ‘There are many passages in scripture which seem to imply the final restoration of all mankind, and far be it from me to say that it is not so.'”

Rev. Adams also expressed condemnations about John Calvin’s theology, and “was one of two clergymen in Worcester county who dared to assist at the ordination of Dr. Bancroft” (1785) over the Second Parish, established to provide free thought and liberal religion in a town whose leaders declined to support that perspective as its main covenanted group (First Parish).

What distinguishes Rev. Devens’s account is his recounting of Rev. Adams’s droll sense of wit in presenting his minority perspectives.  When confronted with a sheriff who wished to “attach the body” of a parishioner who died in debt, the reverend said he had prayed over a body, he intended to bury one, and if the sheriff wished to trade places with the one already in place, Rev. Adams would not object.  The body was duly interred.

Perhaps everybody else already knows about this religious branch of the famous family, but it was interesting to me.  As a footnote, the author, Rev. Samuel Adams Devens, does not appear to have been a kinsman, but rather, as the son of a patriotic family in the crucible of the struggle for independence (born in Charlestown, MA, home of Breed’s, or Bunker Hill), one of many named in tribute to a firebrand who galled the British.

Unitarian Triumphs in Year’s Past

Today is Palm Sunday for us Western Christians, a time for recognizing the error of honoring religious leaders as secular deliverers.  Tomorrow night marks the first Seder of Passover, when Jews sit down to recognize the role of a single heroic leader in the same role.  Nowhere could these cautionary tales be more appropriate than in today’s Unitarian Universalist Association, which wrongly characterizes its historic self as some kind of modern Harriet Tubman for anyone who sees themselves as victims of oppression by a mythical US middle class cultural juggernaut.  The UUA staff has recently summarized this false self-understanding in a new document on strategies for the future of our ministry, which opens with an appalling wrong statement of both Unitarian and Universalist history:

Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors were notable for always getting into trouble.
They raised a ruckus in their time by loudly questioning outworn religious thought and
working to bend the arc of the universe toward justice.

Now, it is perfectly true that SOME Unitarians and SOME Universalists prioritized this bending of the arc as a religious priority.  But they formed no majority in the Unitarian or Universalist communities of which they were a part.  Nor were those Unitarian and Universalist communities unique in producing these social prophets — for which I, like many Americans, am profoundly and perfectly grateful.

So what were the silent majority of Unitarians and Universalists doing on all those Sundays, for all those centuries?  Most of them, of both sects, pursued typical lives for their times, using freedom of conscience and support for spiritual growth to quietly draw their own conclusions about a few theological details contained in the creeds of other Christian religions.   They also used their reflective gatherings to pursue the wisdoms we honor is our diverse sources of knowledge — science, world religions, listening to each other.

Perhaps the most amazing discovery I made while researching the history of First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vermont, it was the role of secular politics in diminishing rather than reinforcing sectarian divisions.  Here in one of the last major stops to Canada,  the Calvinist ministers waged a lively campaign against the respectability of Unitarianism, despite the fact that the Calvinist ministers themselves agreed on the importance of anti-slavery legislation, and were, in fact, leaders in the local Underground Railroad.  In fact, from the Society’s very beginnings, during the Unitarian Controversies era (early 1800s), Unitarian membership appealed to thoughtful and pragmatic individuals who disagreed with more theologically conservative (fear-based) family members.

So, if it wasn’t this Harriet Tubman function by which Unitarians and Universalists distinguished themselves, what was it?

Over the years, I have seen anecdotal reference to two aspects of Unitarian worship which attracted new members, both as individuals and as families.  One was the style of prayer.  In the 19th century, Christian prayers often emphasized praying for the leaders of the church, or for the special topics and occasions which had been hierarchically handed down.  Saints and their days.  Particular virtues and vices.  Unitarian and Universalists, by contrast, specialized in what are called “Prayers of the Day.”  What’s on our minds right now?  But far from the unsophisticated and undirected “Joys and Concerns” of modern congregational life, these were carefully written out by the ministers, using the twin lenses of traditional and non-traditional wisdoms.  Over the course of many ministries, many congregations chose to collect these offerings for sale to individuals in their personal reflections.  Far from being mere sentimental memorabilia, some of these collections are useful today.

Our second major attraction was open reverence for diverse world religious sources.  Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1838 Address to the Senior Class at the Cambridge Theological School lifted up a newly translated Hindu image of God and sacred energy, as a body of water connecting all shores it washes.   Communion disappeared from Massachusetts Unitarian churches not in the twentieth century but in the same era, and following a definitive sermon, “The Lord’s Supper,” by the same Rev. Emerson, to the Second Unitarian Church of Boston in 1832.   The earliest collection of Prayers from all over the world which I have seen from the Unitarian presses dates to 1867.  A funeral manual prepared by Christopher Rhodes Eliot and Charles Jason Staples in the 1870s also used prayers from many religions, and became the standard manual for Unitarian ministers, by a sort of acclamation.   The two compilers originally had put it together for their own use, and so many colleagues requested copies that it went through numerous editions for many decades.

What both these attractors have in common is that they centered on God and the time-honored functions of religion, namely spiritual growth and spiritual healing.  It was no stretch to catch the politically liberal undertones of inclusivity and mutual respect, but that was not the final ground of either attention or agreement.  Rather, these worship documents — of which I have read countless versions, from U and U congregations all over this continent — testify to a certain humility within the larger community that shares those secular visions.  Sunday was time for attending to a particular set of inquiries and answers about sacred questions; there were other times and places to be political.  U and U forebears strongly advocated separation of church and state.

What the UUA staff calls “raising a ruckus” was the last thing these U and U forebears sought to do as a religious central goal. It is true that Unitarians and Universalists were often forced to stand their ground religiously under attack from more conservative evangelical attacks.  But our forebears responded not with political messages, but with clear, Biblically-documented and more widely-referenced explanations of our collective theological common beliefs.

I don’t know what happened to bury our belief in religious comfort and community– rather than “raising a ruckus” — as our central mission.  I do know that ever since I came in, as one of the public ruckus raisers in 1969, our ranks have been pruned dramatically with each new political cause we espouse.  I know that more and more of the folks who are left want to hear about the stuff which attracted our 19th century adherents –comfort and dignity from inclusive but spiritual and religious sources.   I know that we still get calls for funerals and memorial services which haven’t changed that much since Staples and Eliot put together their collection of Biblical, world religious and poetic literatures, combined with simple prayers.  And whereas I used to feel obliged to hide my love of the Bible and the message of Jesus, more and more of our families want to hear more about them.

So on this Palm Sunday, I lift up again the message that Jesus was loathe to raise.  He said that if people wanted a secular king, he would play to their need and give them that momentary celebration.  I say, we cannot afford to do that any more.

A Theory about the Tea Party

At first, the street looks perfectly normal., even fine.  People are walking to and from reasonably neat cars with packages from various stores and take-outs, past gardens and lawns that witness the regular rhythms of sun and rain, night and day.   One or two FOR SALE signs stand out, but nothing to suggest a block that’s being deserted.

But suddenly, your eye starts at the sight of a five-year-old, sitting on one of the porches with a backpack.  Who is he waiting for?  Why is there no adult preparing a car for their outing?  The garage door isn’t even open.  Lights in the kitchen window suggest a homemaker at work.   She opens the door after a minute, and says he has an invitation to play with a friend across the street.  The child declines.  The door closes.

He’s next to one of the houses with a FOR SALE sign.  Does that matter?   On your way home, now carrying your light load of groceries, he’s still there.

A few days later, your daughter comes home from school with the news that Jessica’s parents have split up.  One of them has left town, for a new partner and job, while one has stayed behind.  Jessica will only see the one who’s gone for a couple of school vacations and maybe a month in the summer.  Depends on how she gets along with the new spouse who’s popped into the picture.

“Which house does Jessica live in, honey?” you ask.

“That red one with the FOR SALE sign.  She has to move into an apartment.”

“Will she still be in your class next year?”

“We don’t know yet.  It depends where they get their apartment.  But they’re trying to stay here.”

The next day you walk along the sidewalk again.  The milk sure seems to vanish when your breakfast is always granola!  But it’s a nice day., and you need the exercise.

And then you see the red house.  It’s next to the one with the child with the backpack.  And there he is again, waiting.

“Who lives next door to Jessica, honey?  Sometimes I see him sitting on the front porch with a backpack.  Where is he going that late on a Friday?”

“Oh, that’s NB.  On Fridays he waits for his dad.”

“Why does he wait so long?  Is his dad nice?”

“Sometimes his dad doesn’t come.  Lately he hasn’t come at all.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“Well, last year his dad always showed up, but now he almost never does.   NB is really upset about it.”

“Does his dad live far away?”

“He didn’t used to, but now I think he moved.”

Poor NB.  You see him again, week after week.  You introduce yourself and invite him to play with your child.  But he wants to wait for his dad.  Every week, he has made something special to show his dad.   You chaperone a field trip and meet NB’s mom.  You find out that NB works harder in school than anyone else.  He makes her send all his good report cards to his dad, with a note about when there are ceremonies for his awards.  Dad came to one of them once, but that was the first one in the fall.  This winter and spring, not a peep.

You chaperone another field trip and notice that Jessica isn’t there.  She can’t do so many of these special things since she moved farther away and has to be picked up by a babysitter on a tight schedule.  You ask your child if she wants to invite Jessica over, but she really prefers someone like NB, who is more reliable.  Although, to tell the truth, he’s not that much fun.  Still, he behaves appropriately and there are things they can do together.

And then one day your child wants to know, “Are you and Papi getting a divorce?”

“Why no, honey, Papi and Daddy are very happy.  We’ve had some disagreements lately, especially about whether to redo the kitchen, but that’s not going to split us up.  We fought hard to get married, and we were together a long time before that, and we have learned how to deal with these little problems.”

“NB’s father and mother started fighting over little things.  Jessica’s did, too.  So why are you two fighting about the kitchen?”

“Well, we want to get a new kind of stove, that would be easier for Papi to take care of, but he says we should think about doing some other jobs, too.  I just want to get a stove.  Papi says he would rather not have a vacation this year, but I really need to get away.”

“I could give up my allowance.  Then could we get the kitchen and have a vacation?”

“No, honey, your allowance is not a problem for our budget.”

But it goes on. One day your child is crying when she comes home from school. You brace yourself.  She’s a good student, a leader, gets along with everybody.  Never a bad mark.  What could have happened?

“My reading test was horrible!  Look at all these check marks!  I’m horrible!”

Two answers are wrong and another eight are correct.  A solid B.  You’re not gonna throw out the college fund over this.

But over the next few weeks, she becomes more and more distraught.  She works on her homework obsessively — even though you and Papi believe a first-grader should really not have more than a bit of review, provided they have educational toys and activities at home.

The kitchen situation isn’t clearing up as smoothly as you thought it would.  Things are a little tense.  Maybe that’s what’s bothering her.  It’s been ages since she spent her allowance on any of her favorite things, and you and Papi encourage her to do more playing and less studying.  She’s smart.

Her next reading test is a 100 per cent.  She and NB have the only perfect grades.   You invite them for a day of hiking and ice cream.

No, they both tell you, studying is what got them this far, and studying is very important for your future.  When you get a quiet moment, you ask NB’s mom if his dad has been around lately.

“Well, it’s worse than if he were totally gone,” she says.  “He calls now, and tells NB he’s so proud of his schoolwork.  He keeps promising that at some point he’s going to show up for one of these ceremonies, and NB just lives for those report cards.  But every time the ceremony day arrives, his dad doesn’t.  It’s been like this on and on.  And the more dad says he’s proud, he’s coming for the next one, the more NB refuses to do anything but study.  If he didn’t have your daughter, frankly, I’d say he has no life at all.”

“But I would say the same thing about her.  She’s terrified that her Papi and I are going to get divorced, because we’ve been arguing about whether to redo the kitchen or take a vacation.  She squirrels away her allowance, and says we can have it for whichever project we choose.  We’ve always tried to teach her to save and spend in balance, but now she won’t spend for even the tiniest thing.   We even offered to take her to the movies, and she would only go if we would let her buy her own ticket.  And then she said we should wait for the downloads and watch at home.”

“Count your blessings — NB won’t even do that.  He’s paranoid that two hours of creative film will ruin his chances of seeing his dad at the next awards ceremony.”

And then one day, NB’s mother phones Papi.  She’s in tears.  She had mailed the report card –as always — and it has come back with a notice that the addressee has moved.  NB is alternating between rage and isolation.  Even so young, he’s saying that life is not worth living.

When our daughter comes home from school, something has changed.  She gets right to her homework and spends an extra hour getting a head start on a story that her teacher says they will be reading soon.  At dinner, she eats nothing, and after dinner, she goes right back to this book that isn’t even assigned yet.  She says she isn’t so much trying to keep up with NB as just avoid becoming like Jessica, whose grades are so bad that she’s going to have to do summer school and even then, might have to repeat.

Papi and I make a decision.  We have to make a decision about the kitchen-vacation dilemma, and show her that our family is more important.  Each of us comes up with a smaller version of the things we most want.  I look at some vacations near home — no airfare — and he says he can live with the refrigerator for another few years, so long as we do the stove and dishwasher.

At breakfast, we tell our daughter.    She feels better, but she still won’t spend her allowance.  NB has gotten frantic in his studying and she has to work harder to keep up.   He doesn’t sit on his porch with his backpack anymore, but he still sends out his report cards.  His father gave him a new address and has said that this will be important all NB’s life — these grades, these habits, this capacity to sacrifice himself.

And then one day, NB’s father comes to the awards ceremony.  NB’s joy cannot be contained.  He introduces his father to everyone, beams as his father sits down with his mother for the ceremony.  As you and Papi sit down next to them, NB tells you that when it’s over, they are going out to dinner.

Class after class is called forward, to assemble, receive their awards, and return to their parents and friends.  Finally your daughter and NB move up the aisle.  As soon as they are out of earshot, NB’s father leans over and tells NB’s mother that he isn’t able to take them out for dinner after all.  His new partner needs him to pick up their baby at day-care before they can possibly finish eating.  The partner has a meeting that can’t be rescheduled or avoided, and this is how it has to be.

NB is angry, of course, when he gets this news.  Papi and I invite NB’s mom to join our dinner instead, and he can even name the restaurant.  But NB has already quieted down, not so much ending his anger as moving inside himself.  He talks for a moment with our daughter.  Together they return, faces serious, bodies already a bit stiff.

“We think it would be better to save our restaurant money and just go back to do homework,” says our daughter.  “Can NB come over with his backpack?”

His mother looks at us in despair.   Papi and I look at each other.   What can be done with these children?

The ceremony ends at about the same time as after-school tutoring.  We see Jessica racing to her babysitter’s car.  No backpack for her.  Our daughter says Jessica’s mom is too tired to help with homework and her babysitter doesn’t understand it.  I ask again if our daughter and NB want to bring Jessica into their study group.  I can help the kids while Papi gets dinner, and then I can take her home.

“There’s so much more to it than studying, Daddy,” she says.  “We have to make plans for what we’re doing next, and we have to remember everyone who got a right answer during class, so we know the answers, too.  It’s very complicated.”

“Isn’t that all the more reason to help Jessica?”

“Papi, she is never going to understand all of this stuff.  She’s already too far behind.  If we spent time trying to catch her up, we might not get our awards, and then when will NB see his father?”

Ceremony after ceremony goes by.  NB’s father shows up just often enough to keep the kids convinced that relentless study helps their relationship.

One day, NB’s mother calls Papi and me with a new development.

“NB’s father has been asking for permission to schedule more visits.  But I have told him that he is not a healthy parent for my son, based on his unreliability about the report cards and ceremonies.  He says that he is learning to be a better father, now that his daughter is talking, but I don’t see that love for NB.  I have told NB that we will no longer speak of his father as someone we expect to see at ceremonies or other visits, and instructed my lawyers to see what they can do to put this into effect.  Needless to say, my son is frantic about this.  I have told him that if his dad has really learned to love both his children, he will start showing up at the ceremonies.  If he does that for a year, we’ll talk then about something more.  I would really appreciate your family’s support for this decision.”

Papi and I tell our daughter we expect her to cooperate.  NB has to learn to live without his father.  But the two of them sink into a cycle of rage, despair and depression.   We tell her she will no longer to see NB if this continues, and we will put her in another class.

“You can separate us if you want, but I will still know what has happened to him and Jessica.  They lost their fathers, and she never sees hers at all, because she’s such a bad student.  At least I think she doesn’t — I never talk to her any more, so I’m not sure.  But HE can only see his father if he keeps getting into awards ceremonies, because one day his father might come to one of them.  He says he will next year, when his daughter is old enough for her own school.”

Hmm. that’s a puzzler.   His partner has had that girl in daycare since she was six months old.

But Papi stays on topic.  “Honey, what does this have to do with you?”

Her answer shocks us both.

“You can put me in any class you want, and I will always work just as hard.  Because all I have is two fathers, and I know why fathers leave.  Jessica’s father helps with her homework, and you always come to my awards ceremonies and help with my homework.  That’s when fathers like their kids — when they do well in school.”

All the air comes out of you and Papi; automatically, after all these years, you reach for each other’s hands.  All those times you asked her to come out with you to movies, to go out for a Saturday — what did she think you were talking about?   When you offered to take her out shopping with her saved allowance, what did she think you really wanted?

“Honey,” you finally say, “Grades have nothing to do with how much a man loves his children.  Look at Jessica’s dad — he helps her all he can, and he’s proud when she gets a B.  NB gets straight A’s and we haven’t seen his dad in years.  Papi and I love you.  We love doing lots of different things with you.  We want to take you shopping, go on vacation, take hikes and ride bikes.  The only reason we want you to get good grades is so you can have your choice, if you want to go to college after high school.  That’s all.”

Your daughter says nothing.  She picks up her computer and opens the screen in front of her.

A few days later, she says, “Can we invite NB to go bowling?”  You are thrilled, and the text goes out immediately.

But NB wants to study.  His dad has apologized for missing graduation, and fully expects to be out of his daughter’s play in time for a celebration if NB makes the next honor roll.

Your daughter sits quietly when she gets this message.  Finally she says, “I guess he’ll just never get it.  That dad has no intention of showing up when NB needs him.  I think I have to invite somebody else.”

She texts to NB and in a minute, shows his answer to Papi:  : “U’ll b sorry when ur dads leave like mine.”

It goes on like that for another few years.  NB gets angrier and angrier as his dad makes more and more excuses.   Satisfied with his grades, he keeps pestering your daughter for more study time.   He avoids Jessica, mocking her father as “a loser whose only skill is showing up.”   By the time they are writing college applications, NB’s mother worries that he has no extracurricular activities to write about.  But he’s satisfied he’ll get into a good school.  “After all,” he says, “My father taught me: it’s all about the grades.”