By the late 1840s, Unitarianism had spread so far beyond Boston that local gatherings no longer supported denominational business. In 1853, observing that many of their non-Boston colleagues were assembling for Harvard’s Commencement, the fledgling denomination initiated the May Meetings. Burlington, Vermont’s First Unitarian Congregation (Unitarian) promptly provided financial assistance for their minister and his wife to attend. In an era of two Sunday services every week, with no summer or school vacations, this would have been the only vacation some ministers enjoyed (although in more affluent congregations, parishioners customarily raised funds to support ministerial travel breaks when their health demanded it).
In 1854, the new minister to Burlington, Vermont’s First Congregational Society (Unitarian) (who had negotiated additional time off before accepting this call the year before) journeyed to the May Meetings, stayed several weeks, and returned to his pulpit on June 11 with a report on how he spent his summer vacation. This sermon, from Reverend Dr. Joshua Young, recounted what was probably the first social justice witness at a denominational Unitarian gathering: the attempt to protect Anthony Burns from being captured and returned to slavery.
Dr. (then Reverend) Young began with an admission that his hearers had probably assembled to hear denominational news and plans. After explaining why the attempt to protect a fellow human being from slavery rose to the level of denominational priority, Dr. Young said this:
“Brethren, our religion is vain, and our worship here but solemn mockery, the first moment we depart but a hair’s breadth from the great principle, that we ought to obey God rather than man, and that no law can possibly be obligatory upon us, by whomsoever passed, or howsoever enforced, if it come in conflict with the commands of Heaven… not that there is any natural, or necessary antagonism between them. The same God that created man, ordained the state; and the laws of nations, when they are wise and righteous laws… are… but reenactments of the laws of God… as a general proposition, no same man would ever think of denying, that he is, not only politically, but morally and religiously bound to obey the laws under which he lives. It is plain, however, that the duty of civil obedience is not, can not, be absolute and unconditional…”
This sermon, “God’s Law Greater than Man’s Law,” went on to anticipate that only war would right this wrong, and that war coming soon. Vermont was a strong anti-slavery state, with this minister and his wife among the local participants, of various faiths, who formed a vital link to Canada for passengers on the Underground Railroad.|
I mention this event today because Unitarian Universalists now routinely program both local and national social justice witness into our annual denominational gathering, the General Assembly, going on this week in Providence, RI. These folks might like to know that the roots of this practice are deep, strong, and original to our diverse forest.