Gravity of Unitarian Universalist History: Thoreau and the Sharps

Sliding Uphill or Down:

Gravity of Unitarian Universalist History: Thoreau and the Sharps

A Sermon Offered

at Countryside Church Unitarian Universalist

Palatine, Illinois

September 18, 2016




From the Eulogy of Ralph Waldo Emerson on the death of Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau was sincerity itself, and might fortify the convictions of prophets in the ethical laws by his holy living. It was an affirmative experience which refused to be set aside. A truth-speaker he, capable of the most deep and strict conversation;

His virtues, of course, sometimes ran into extremes. In 1847, not approving some uses to which the public expenditure was applied, he refused to pay his town tax, and was put in jail. A friend paid the tax for him, and he was released. The like annoyance was threatened the next year. But, as his friends paid the tax, notwithstanding his protest, I believe he ceased to resist.


From Slavery in Massachusetts, these are the words of Henry David Thoreau

Three years ago, also, just a week after the authorities of Boston assembled to carry back a perfectly innocent man, and one whom they knew to be innocent, into slavery, the inhabitants of Concord caused the bells to be rung and the cannons to be fired, to celebrate their liberty — and the courage and love of liberty of their ancestors who fought at the bridge. As if those three millions had fought for the right to be free themselves, but to hold in slavery three million others. Nowadays, men wear a fool’s-cap, and call it a liberty-cap. … So some of my townsmen took the liberty to ring and fire. That was the extent of their freedom; and when the sound of the bells died away, their liberty died away also; when the powder was all expended, their liberty went off with the smoke.


Is virtue constitutional, or vice? Is equity constitutional, or iniquity? In important moral and vital questions, like this, it is just as impertinent to ask whether a law is constitutional or not, as to ask whether it is profitable or not. … judges and lawyers — simply as such, I mean — and all men of expediency persist in being the servants of the worst of men, and not the servants of humanity. The question is, not whether you or your grandfather, seventy years ago, did not enter into an agreement to serve the Devil, and that service is not accordingly now due; but whether you will not now, for once and at last, serve God — ….


if the majority vote the Devil to be God, the minority will live and behave accordingly — and obey the successful candidate, trusting that, some time or other… perhaps, they may reinstate God… This is expediency, or choosing that course which offers the slightest obstacles to the feet, that is, a downhill one. But there is no such thing as accomplishing a righteous reform by the use of “expediency.” There is no such thing as sliding up hill. In morals the only sliders are backsliders.


Will mankind never learn that policy is not morality … What is wanted is men, not of policy, but of probity — who recognize a higher law than the Constitution, or the decision of the majority…  does not depend on what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year, but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.

The law will never make men free; it is men who have got to make the law free.

(An additional reading was a portion of a letter that Martha Sharp sent home to her son as she was in Vichy France rescuing whomever she could – including many children.)



In the film, Defying the Nazi’s, Ken Burns asks the question “what is it in a human being that gives up what is comfortable and safe and familiar for something that is not only uncomfortable but dangerous and life-threatening?”  It may not surprise you to know that I believe that what is at the heart of this faith, our Unitarian Universalism, is precisely the thing that moves people from the habitual to the heroic, from the surface to the depth of understanding, from the prosaic to the poetic. It can look like a huge leap from the outside – but in the interior it is a short distance for those who cross it.

A house of worship is not meant to be a refuge from the world – but a tonic, or a source of strength for the world. We can switch on bad news anytime and feel disheartened and anxious.  Here, while we must understand our world and the forces afoot in it — let us also, also switch on our good news and lift up the gifts of this religious tradition that can equip us for our lives and our times.

Today is about freedom.  There are many kinds of freedom – one critical freedom is the freedom to cultivate and to follow the dictates of your heart – and your conscience.  It is a great thing to know what you are called to do, to know its rightness, goodness, and to be unhindered either from the world or your own fear so that you may fulfill it and live it and serve it. I’ve watched my step daughter Lea work for nearly ten years in Sri Lanka, South Sudan, and Turkey and feel at home and whole in her life and purpose.

Today is about freedom, wholeness, dignity, interdependence, and compassion.

Wholeness and dignity are framed in our first principle.  Now, we don’t have an unthinking faith in humanity – what we claim, in part, are the noblest possibilities born with every person.  This humanism means that our lives matter.  A 19th century Universalist – Eunice Waite Cobb – a physiologist, feminist – the wife of a Universalist Minister wrote words that capture this sense: “I do not ask for this faith because I shrink from paying the great debt of nature… I ask for it that I may have respect for myself – that I may feel life is worth living – that good is worth striving for… And above all else, I ask for that faith because it makes life grand, and gives to us sublime possibilities.”  That is a bold claim.  Many religions east and west have held this earthly life in far lower esteem.  But to Unitarians and Universalists in the past and to Unitarian Universalists in the present – what happens here matters – not for some future life or reward – but because our own inherent worth calls us to recognize inherent worth all around us.

Our lives here matter and because we know they matter we often say at child dedications: “This child has come forth, with stardust in his hair, with the rush of planets in his blood, her heart beating out the seasons of eternity, with a shining in her eyes. A living personality is waiting to unfold, and we can nurture her/his growth in freedom.”  This faith values the self and we believe in the capacity of each life to contribute to the well-being of the world – even knowing that there are those who place themselves beyond this covenant with life and humanity. We see and serve the sacred in one another. And — as we see stardust in the hair and hear the seasons of eternity in the heartbeat of a child — our love of and hope for humanity extends into a deep love of this entire world.

This respect for humanity and for the world as a whole— are keys to the power of Unitarian Universalism to transform lives, to offer freedom – if you take them out and use them to enter life more fully.

Henry David Thoreau wrote keenly of reverence for this world.  His influence on present day Unitarian Universalism and on history cannot be overstated. It’s always a little unsettling to drag a 19th century figure into the 21st century, but his voice still has relevance.  He inspired generations to use the keys of reverence for the world and reverence for humanity.  Too often people who have used these keys have not recognize that they were in any way connected to Unitarianism or Universalism.

This year in Children’s Religious Education, the focus is on Unitarian Universalist Identity and history.  Now, that should always be part of our RE program – but I feel the importance of it now more than ever.  And I believe that adults need that same background.

When I look at the condition of the world and of our nation I feel and see that, these keys and perhaps – perhaps — our very faith — are what our hearts and the world needs.  As I revisited the life and writing of Thoreau this summer I knew that he had messages for us right now.  I also admit that it was, initially, a wretched article in the October, 2015, New Yorker Magazine, entitled Pond Scum, that pushed me back to study him.

Thoreau came of age in Concord, Massachusetts during a time of spiritual flowering in America.  He was 11 years old when the Unitarian Reverend William Ellery Channing preached a sermon in which he said “I see the marks of God in the heavens and the earth, but how much more in a liberal intellect, in magnanimity, in unconquerable rectitude… I do and I must reverence human nature… There are seasons, in human affairs, of inward and outward revolution, when new depths seem to be broken up in the soul …  and a new and undefined good is thirsted for.  There are periods when…to dare, is the highest wisdom.”

In Concord the energy of this flowering was particularly vibrant. The Emersons, Hawthornes, Thoreaus, and Alcotts, all buzzed around the place and because they did, so many others came to buzz with them. Another contributing influence was that the ideas and ideals of the American Revolution had not only inspired structural political change – but had awakened people to the liberating capacity of the human spirit.  Instead of being vassals, born sinners, and slaves – (more on that later) they could be men and women of worth, dignity, and rights covenanted – joined in great purpose together — for the well-being of all.

Henry grew up less than a mile from the place, where in 1775, the shot was fired that was heard round the world.  The house that directly overlooks the Old North Bridge belonged to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s grandfather and often hosted young Emerson, as well as later housing him, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and even Thoreau for a time. They felt and were writ into the story and what they felt was not simply the inheritance but the responsibility of freedom.  In short order the failure to address slavery with the other freedoms won in the revolutionary struggle would awaken many white people with the dissonances to the injustice and – as we know – would cost this nation until the present day

Henry was a serious and, more than likely, an unusual kid. He wrote in Walden “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.” It’s probable that he heard that drummer from an early age.  He was terribly smart, thirsty to learn, and highly skilled in math and engineering, as well as building and observation – scientific and human.

Throughout his life he had a number of disappointments and tragedies – rejections of love, failure at running his own school, the loss of loved ones – in particular his beloved brother John, and the shame he experienced when he and a friend, cooking some freshly caught fish, saw the fire leap from the fire pit to the surrounding brush, and then rapidly engulf 300 acres which included part of Concord itself and many acres of virgin forest.  He was – for many years – derided in Concord and called “woodburner” He attempted to write as though he was unashamed and that he was like a lightning strike that caused a fire. However, the same year, he witnessed a different fire and he wrote vividly about the cries of the trees and was deeply affected by the suffering of nature.  And the very next year he went to live alone in the woods.

He often had need of solitude — it gave him space to think and to study.  But it also gave him a break from the stress he often felt at human interaction. Emerson (in his eulogy) wrote of him that “he was always … able, but rarely tender, as if he did not feel himself except in opposition…This habit, of course, is a little chilling to the social affections…”I love Henry,” said one of his friends, “but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree.”

I have myself, critiqued Thoreau. I’ve condemned him for a seeming retreat from humanity, for pretending to be independent when friends often brought him food and other necessaries, for padding home to his mother’s around weekly for a home cooked meal, and from retreating from civilization by a suspiciously mere 1.7 miles. And I judged Thoreau to be self-centered and individualistic in the extreme.  In the aforementioned article in the New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz she wrote:

“The real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” Fortunately, before trying to get my mistaken impressions published in the New Yorker I studied him more deeply.

Since going back to explore Thoreau’s life I’ve wondered whether – in his brilliance and sometimes awkward personality – he might not have stood somewhere on the autism scale. It gave him a distance from and perspective on life and human nature that comes across so clearly in Walden and in Civil Disobedience.  And the evidence of his life – with the exception of two years lived in what might be thought of as a heavily wooded suburb – is the evidence of a man who loved his family, loved the young people in his community, sustained deep friendships, and served a higher purpose than his own individual life. In addition, there is a biting humor that Emerson certainly reported in him and that appears in Walden in some statements that Schulz seems to have taken more seriously than they must have been intended.  As when, for example, he scorned the idea of a doormat as a sort of gateway to evil.

Thoreau did not go to the woods to live simply or even purely, as Schulz accused him – but to live deliberately – to discover the conditions for freedom.  Schulz suggested that, as a hermit, he could not have known about and certainly didn’t care about the masses of people desperate or otherwise.  However, Thoreau did not live in a vacuum –  but in a cultural center of New England, where he saw people everywhere pushed by social convention, by economic necessity, and by greed.  A low key example was that he wrote about the advantage of walking rather than taking the train.  “the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot. Well, I start now on foot, and get there before night; You will in the meanwhile have earned your fare, and arrive there some time tomorrow, or possibly this evening, if you are lucky enough to get a job in season. Instead of going to Fitchburg, you will be working here the greater part of the day.” The walk – Thoreau would argue – was a pleasure and tonic in itself.  On a larger scale Thoreau lived only 14 miles from the Lowell textile mills – which, by 1840, employed close to 8000 women alone – people working long and hard shifts for pennies and living lives of quiet desperation.

He went to the woods to learn how a person might become free.  He did this not through sitting in an armchair and thinking but by putting his whole self in.

He studied nature with devotion – reading it as you might a sacred text — and he saw that both humanity and nature were losing their freedom in the machinery of the industrial revolution. (On the screen is projected the phrase: In wildness is the preservation of the world.) He did not merely mean wilderness – but that in nature and it’s wildness there were lessons about the wildness in us – the freedom and the fear of freedom.

He wrote: I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.  He expected wonders because he saw that they were as naturally tucked into our own selves as a flower is tucked into a seed.

His family were abolitionists, his mother and aunt were particularly active and the family home was on the Underground Railroad.  He supported and helped with this work – in the course of his brief life he helped to conduct, it is estimated, close to 300 people from slavery to freedom. For much of Massachusetts, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law changed everything – it made every Massachusettsan directly complicit in slavery – not simply by purchasing inexpensive cotton – but by returning refugees back to slaveholders.  It was on this very date, September 18, 1850 that it was passed into law.  In February 1851, Shadrach, a fugitive, was arrested in Boston. A mob freed and delivered him to the Thoreau’s home where he resumed his journey toward freedom. In 1854, in the heat of the protest against the capture and return to slavery of Anthony Burns, Thoreau took his journal entries and published them as the essay “Slavery in Massachusetts.”  Then, in 1859 he rose to speak on behalf of John Brown, who lead the disastrous raid on Harper’s Ferry to inspire a slave rebellion.

Brown was maligned everywhere for the violent attack.  Thoreau spoke surprisingly: ” ‘All is quiet at Harper’s Ferry,’ say the journals. What is the character of that calm which follows when the law and the slaveholder prevail? I regard this as a touchstone designed to bring out … the character of this government. We needed to see it by the light of history.  When a government puts forth its strength on the side of injustice, as ours to maintain slavery and kill the liberators of the slave, it reveals itself a brute force … looks up from its seat on the gasping four millions, and inquires with an assumption of innocence: “What do you assault me for? I have done nothing wrong.” The only government that I recognize is that power that establishes justice in the land, never that which establishes injustice.”

Thoreau studied the religions of the world, he studied his own heart and mind, and he studied nature and each thing he did, he did fully and deeply.  Out of those studies he lived a life that was sincere, authentic, deliberate, inspired, and inspiring – a life of service and sincerity.  Thoreau once wrote in a letter to a friend a line that has become rather famous: “Aim above morality. Be not simply good—be good for something.” He studied freedom and freely followed his heart and conscience.   It was not a great distance that he had to cast himself – he studied freedom and used his heart and conscience as a compass.

In times of struggle and suffering – if you can study freedom and follow your heart and conscience you can establish a source of peace and real joy.  Instead of being frozen by feelings of helplessness and despair, you are free to make what difference you can.  I know firsthand, that this path of love, will and commitment will fill you with peace, confidence and love.  It can give you the courage to spend the night in jail or leave your two small children and travel to another continent and into danger to save other people.  It can give you the strength to write home and disappoint your young son and the confidence that he can, ultimately, understand your service to children in danger, far away

The Reverence Alice Wesley wrote: “Ultimately, the only freedom adequate to human dignity is the freedom to do what love asks of us. And the greatest blessings of life come to us and through us to all the world when, with intimate and freely bonded companions, we are trying together to live with the integrity of faithful love.”  These are the blessings of deep covenant with life and with your own deep capacities. In the hymn we sang earlier – Hear the cry fear won’t still, hear the heart’s call to will, hear a sigh’s startling trill, In your soul, in your soul? Beyond fear, in love and will, in deep attention and listening to the world – there is strength, freedom, and peace.

And that was simply what Thoreau – even in his prickly way – did.  That is the path of peace and strength.

In 1940, on a ship heading for freedom in America, a refugee asked Waitstill Sharp what he was paid for helping so many people escape, why was he doing this? What was the pay off? Rev. Sharp replied that he was not paid – except by his congregation back in Massachusetts to be their minister.  The man replied that he didn’t often encounter such altruism.  Then the Rev. Waitstill Sharp replied, I’m not a saint.  I’m capable of any of the many sins of human nature.  But I believe that the will of God is to be interpreted by the liberty of the human spirit. So I do what I do without any piety at all, but ad magna Gloria libertatis humani spiriti.” (To the greater glory, the freedom of the human spirit.)” Amen.