First Church and Parish in Dedham
November 6, 2011
Sermon “What Our Church History Has To Teach Us”
Rev. Rali Weaver
“From mouldering relics and obscure traditions of other times, something may be learned, which will not merely gratify a liberal curiosity, but may be made subservient to a moral and religious use.”
As I was writing my sermon I kept coming back to those words by Alvan Lamson and pondering “what moral and religious use can we make from our history?”
If I were to follow the example of the History Teacher in Billy Collin’s poem, I might simply modify the intentions of our forefathers to offer a pleasant and happy hearing of historical events.
For example with a slight shift of focus we could overlook the hardships the first settlers of Dedham encountered, and envision them leaving their homeland to explore new territories for sport, encountering a carefree cruise to this new land and arriving without difficulty on the shores of our now well-established town.
We might imagine that the years between the founding and the 1818 call of Alvan Lamson were carefree, prosperous years unaffected by war or want of any kind.
And instead of the contentious disagreement that resulted in the 1820 Dedham Decision and the reorienting of our Meeting House to face the Green we could assert that the doors were moved to accommodate the large numbers who were flooding to this meeting house to hear the new preacher and the need for more outdoor standing room than the previous High Street entrance could provide.
Naturally these stories are lies, but how do we know where to focus our attentions in a history of nearly 375 years and divine which stories can be made “subservient to a moral and religious use?”
As Mark Twain’s words proclaim in our Centering Thought we must acknowledge that even Church Histories are written from the ink of fluid prejudice.“
At King’s Chapel in Boston (where I served as the Assistant Minister for two years before coming to Dedham) has a similarly long and eminent history. Founded in 1686 they keep their 325 year history carefully documented in the Annals of King’s Chapel, which are meticulously recorded and preserved in the archives of their Beacon Street offices. Several of these historical treatises were hand written, some were set in typeface, and all were neatly bound and complete, all except the one from our time, which is currently in progress.
At King’s Chapel people were always referring to the Annals to illustrate some piece of the tradition and give credence to the “way things should always be”.
This is a famously annoying phrase for any pastor to hear. “This is the way things always were”, or “the way things should be” always sounds like a sort of long hand for “don’t change anything.”
After I was there awhile I learned to look in the Annals to see if what they were saying was actually written down or if it was in actuality an alternate construction of history offered by the teller of the story to support his or her position. It was usually the latter.
I often joked with the then minister that we should make up our own Annals and put them in the attic along with the old ones, because despite the carefully annotated history, everyone was making up their own history anyway.
Despite the wealth of written information in our complex digital age, history is rarely informed by any absolute truth and relies heavily upon the perspective of the person who tells the story.
The good news is that we could at any time in our history highlight any part of our history and offer up a different story.
Imagine how different the moral of our story would be if we focused all of our attention on the integrity of the faith of our founders, how they risked their lives to secure our religious liberty in this place.
Or if we focused on the life of any one minister or parishioner who kept the peace or incited action could we portray the history of our parish as peaceful and active one in response?
We might even identify the schism that separated family member from family member and neighbor from neighbor and tell the story of a group of people willing to risk everything to defend a righteous cause.
The introduction to the short history written at the time of our 350th celebration begins with a quote by the Dedham lawyer and historian of the late eighteenth century, Erastus Worthington who characterized two events in the life of the First Church in Dedham as being “the most significant in the whole history of Dedham”. These were the manner of our organization of 1638 and the Dedham decision of 1820.
It makes sense that Erastus Worthington who was born in the year 1776 and lived in Dedham at the time of the Dedham decision might characterize our history by just our founding fathers and the schism that exemplified the Unitarian Controversy for many generations. But what happens to us when we do?
What of any significance has happened within this parish after the Dedham Decision? If we listen to the words of Alvan Lamson we know much changed in his tenure. Old traditions, changed, old things were replaced with new, the Episcopal Church grew, the Catholic Church sprang up and First Church and Allen softened their attitudes toward each other.
Life is ever changing. A history of 375 years has many stopping points from which to tell the story. If we use our history to inform our lives, how do we determine which history is most significant?
If we define ourselves only by the most dramatic events – our liberty seeking founding fathers, or the schism between ourselves and the Allin Congregation, than who are we today?
Andy Rooney, world famous news reporter, who died just yesterday, is quoted as having said: “People will generally accept facts as truth only if the facts agree with what they already believe.”
And while this is a natural way to try and divine the truth of history I wonder if we might consider the value of examining our stories and choosing new ones to inform our future.
Time and history are not so staid as to have ended at the end of the nineteenth century. We get to write the rest of the story.
We have inherited these buildings, and these “mouldering relics and obscure traditions of other times” and it is what we do with them in our time, how we use them to create our own story that will write itself in the annals of the future.
I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that we do anything so dramatic as leaving our homes and families behind to exercise our religious freedom. We have already gained our religious freedom.
Nor am I suggesting that we create a controversy that will cause a new religious order to rise up. That too has happened.
What I am suggesting is that we find the agent of change or even better the balms for healing in our stories, and share them with the world.
This week on Tuesday we will be celebrating the 375 anniversary of the Incorporation of the Town of Dedham here in our Meeting House.
For the first time the churches will be celebrating not just a religious service together but the shared rich religious history of our town. Gone are the dividing lines that created the need for sanctuary in our founding father’s time, and gone is the schism that created the need for a state supreme court decision in Alvan Lamson’s time, and gone are the prejudices that tried to obstruct the creation of the Hebrew Center in our own time, and gone are the partialities that obscure the purpose of true fellowship.
We will gather here at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, November 8th –the anniversary of the first religious gathering, to recognize the beauty of religious freedom within our ranks today.
You may think that an obscure religious worship won’t make a great deal of impact in our world today and perhaps you are right. But as I have been preparing the order of worship and looking at past orders of worship from years before, I have realized that the outline for the service will be looked again in another twenty five years and again in another fifty and so on into the future and what we do or do not do on that night will be remembered and serve as a model in years to come. Record keeping, participating in historic events, and telling new stories are ways we can effect what is remembered.
Another way we can make our imprint in our time is by participating in the upcoming strategic planning of our church. In the coming weeks the Parish Committee will outline their plans and those discussions will impact the direction of our society for the next five years and beyond. Who will we be, what parts of our story will we emphasize? That is all up to us.
And finally we are just two years from our own 375th celebration. What stories are we going to tell our anniversary? What important events will we hold up for the next generation to reflect upon?
For my part I hope we tell the story of how part of the Parish House was used as a hospital during the revolutionary war, and speak the names of parishioners who enlisted in every war through history. I want to hear the stories of how the Women’s Alliance cared for new mothers, and isolated elders, how they supported the church financially during so many lean years, how Corrine Lewis worked to found the food pantry and celebrate the parishioners who are still involved today. I want to celebrate those of our number who are engaged in our democracy. List town meeting members past and present. Celebrate those names that advocate for the health of our neighborhoods, serve for their unions, teach our children or donate their time to the multiple good causes. I want to celebrate a different story as we approach our own 375th year and it will require that we all write it all down.
In the end I think this is what our church history, or any church history has to teach us: that the stories we tell and the traditions we practice have the meaning we ascribe to them and with a slight shift of focus we just might have a new story to tell.