A sermon delivered at UCC Simi Valley, July 19, 2011
When the Pilgrims set out to come to America, some of them started their journey from Leyden [laden] in Holland. They had gone there to live because they had been persecuted by the Church of England, and they believed that a congregation of Christians is able to govern itself without bishops to rule over them or councils to tell them what to believe.
Their leader was Pastor John Robinson, who was uncommonly open minded for a churchman of his time. He taught his congregation to think for themselves, to resist authority, and to keep the door open to others who wanted to join them. I’m not saying that he would feel comfortable in our church today, but he would recognize some of our ideas as being his ideas, too.
Pastor Robinson did not come to America, but he gave advice to his followers as they left Leyden. Later, it was written that “he was very confident that the Lord had more truth and light to break forth out of his holy word.” Does that sound familiar? To me, it sounds a lot like, “God is still speaking.” When the Pilgrims from Leyden joined others at Portsmouth, England, and sailed on the Mayflower, they remembered what Pastor Robinson had said.
Last week you learned from Carol Mack about that little fuss in Salem MA, so you know that New Englanders were not always as level-headed as John Robinson was. But his way of thinking was always alive somewhere in New England. The message that I want to get across to you today is that in the United Church of Christ, we are and have historically been people who believe in discerning the will of God for ourselves, using reason and every kind of knowledge that is available to us. That is why we have a concern for education and a responsibility to care about educating ourselves and our young people.
One way in which the Pilgrims suffered in England was that they could not attend universities without being in good standing in the Church of England. In the 1620s, they were urgently concerned about survival, but in 1636 the legislature of MA was ready to establish a college. Several towns, including Salem, wanted the college, but it went to Newtowne on the Charles River, now called Cambridge. The next year, in 1637 a clergyman named John Harvard immigrated along with his wife, and in 1638 he died, leaving half of his estate to the college, along with his library of 400 books. The college was named Harvard College in his honor.
When we hear that Harvard was founded by Congregationalists, that’s partly true, but it was not what we understand as a “church-related college.” Back then in New England, there was no clear line between the congregation and the town. A town meeting was held in the town church, and the leaders of the town were the leaders of the congregation. The same was somewhat true at the state level. So, while Harvard was founded by an action of the legislature, one of the principal reasons for building a college was to training young men as ministers.
Harvard remained the only college in New England for 67 years until Yale was founded in New Haven CT in 1701. The library at Yale College began with gifts of books from ten Congregationalist ministers. Yale tried to be holier than Harvard by requiring freshmen to study Hebrew as well as Latin and Greek. There was a time when Yale expelled boys who attended services at churches that the college did not approve of.
There are similar stories for another five colleges in New England– Dartmouth, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury and Amherst– all founded by Congregationalists. Each of them was governed by an independent board of trustees, and in this respect they embodied the Congregationalist regard for freedom of thought. And while that was happening in the Northeast, Congregationalist colleges were also being founded out on the frontier. Illinois College, founded in Jacksonville IL in1829, granted the first college degrees in that state. Defiance Female Seminary, now called Defiance College, was founded in Defiance OH in 1850. The German Reformed Church is also part of our tradition, and they founded Heidelberg University in Heidelberg OH in 1850.
Now I’m going to take a side trip to talk about the Disciples of Christ, but if you’ll trust me for a couple of minutes, you’ll see how things tie together. When I was in high school, my family attended a Christian church, now called Christian (Disciples of Christ). I left the Disciples of Christ, as young people often leave their parents’ church, but when I learned about the United Church of Christ, I felt that it included the Campbells’ best ideas. The Disciples of Christ and the UCC are now in full communion, recognizing each others’ clergy.
While the Congregationalists were busy in New England, there were developments out on the frontier, in WV and KY. In the first years of the 1800s, some Americans were becoming unhappy about the fact that Christians were divided into denominations, often because of old grievances brought over from Europe. Particularly, there were clans of Presbyterians in Kentucky and West Virginia that would hardly speak to each other because of squabbles that took place in Scotland a hundred years earlier. To protest against that narrow-mindedness, a preacher named Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander Campbell declared that they were no longer Presbyterians. They rejected creeds and hierarchy, and they taught that congregations should govern themselves. They wanted churches to be known only as Christian, and themselves to be called Disciples of Christ. They probably never heard of John Robinson, but they were putting some of his ideas into practice. Except that they taught baptism by immersion and weekly celebration of communion, their church life was very similar to the New England Congregationalists.
The Disciples of Christ founded Chapman University in Orange CA in 1861; this year Chapman U declared that it is also in relationship with the UCC, making it our newest church-related university.
In the decades that led up to the Civil War, the Congregational and Unitarian churches were leading agitators for the abolition of slavery. After the Amistad event, Congregationalists formed the American Missionary Association for the purpose of taking education to Native Americans and African Americans. In the decade after the Civil War, the American Missionary Association planted the seeds for six colleges that are still UCC-related. They are all listed on the ucc.org website. They were nerve centers for the Civil Rights movement in 1960s.
One of those colleges has a story that I like to tell. Fisk University was founded in 1866 in Nashville TN, with a handful of students meeting in temporary buildings that had served as military hospitals during the Civil War. Throughout the first five years the situation was always dire, the university always in danger of failure. In those days universities had chapel worship for the students, and at Fisk the chapel music was led by a white man, Mr. George L. White, who was also the treasurer of the university. He had the idea of training a choir of students to sing concerts in northern states to raise money for the university. He chose a group of five women and four men and took them north to OH on one-way train tickets. They had no money for the return trip. Some of their first audiences were hostile because they expected to hear black entertainers with banjos and jokes, but this choir was performing church anthems. Travel was difficult and money was always scarce until Mr. White had the idea that the singers needed a distinctive name to catch attention. After praying about it, he chose the name Jubilee Singers, named after an Old Testament custom of celebrating a Jubilee Year, during which debts are forgiven and slaves are set free. The Fisk Jubilee Singers attracted larger audiences, and they learned that instead of church anthems, people wanted to hear the songs that they had sung when they were still slaves. People in the north were stunned and touched by the piety and power of songs they had never before, songs like “Deep River,” “Go down, Moses,” and “The Gospel Train.” The Jubilee Singers returned home with money to keep their university going, and they began planning for an even more ambitious tour. In 1872, they embarked on a tour that lasted 18 months and took them through all of the northeastern states. They then sailed to England where the nobility embraced them. Queen Victoria received them and had their group portrait painted. That portrait now hangs in Jubilee Hall, a four-story brick building that was built with proceeds from the Jubilee Singers’ tour. The building is a National Historic Landmark.
In addition to 31 colleges and universities, the UCC has 7 seminaries that train 2/3 of UCC clergy. I’ll just mention two of them: Bangor Theological Seminary in Bangor ME, founded in 1815, is where our minister, Dr. June Goudey, taught for several years before she came to CA. Geographically, the closest seminary to us is Pacific School of Religion. It was founded in 1866 (the same year as Fisk U), and the founders had the wisdom to locate it high on a hill in Berkeley. (Two years later UC Berkeley bought real estate up at the foot of the hill.) Our friends, Susan Bjork and Susan Brecht, both studied there in recent years. The president of PSR is Dr Reiss Potterveld, whom many of us count as a friend because he served the church in Northridge for 14 years. PSR has long been on the cutting edge of social change, and it has a Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies in Religion and Ministry.
This has been quite a lecture, and I received more than one warning that this would be dry stuff. Why does it all matter? Because now in America, there are powerful forces at work to discredit science, and therefore education. Some of these forces are economic, some are political, some are even religious. Our leaders have forgotten the tremendous economic expansion that occurred when the G.I. Bill paid tuition and living stipends for more than 7 million veterans of WWII. That investment in education paid off many times over, but legislators now look at education as a drain on our resources, rather than an investment in our future.
Public schools are threatened all across the nation. There are corporations that want to take over public schools and operate them for profit. There are churches that want to be sure that their children don’t go to public school and learn about evolution. Enemies of labor unions resent that fact that many public employees still have the right of collective bargaining. Some people argue that only parents should have to pay for the education of children, forgetting that the founders of our nation agreed that democracy is impossible without an educated population. Educating children for the 21st century will not be a simple matter, but it is only made more difficult by a chorus of voices shouting that our educational system is broken. When you hear that, ask what are the motives of the people who are so ready to pass judgment.
We need to remember that the UCC stands for a tradition of education, inquiry, rational thinking. The alternatives are ignorance, blindness and illusion. The mainline Protestant churches have generally supported education, but millions of American Christians listen to preachers who deny the age of the earth, deny the evidence of fossils, even deny that human cells can be used in medical research.
Let us be a church that has no fear of the truth and light that are still coming to us, from whatever source. Along with Rev. Michael Dowd, who will lecture here in October, let us say, “Thank God for Evolution.”