The Unitarian Society
East Brunswick, NJ
a multi-generational service
Would you do something others might think foolish, or silly, or wild, if you thought it might bring about more fairness in our world? If, like Benny and his bagels, it would please the god of your understanding? Would you attempt something untried, something totally new, in hopes that your experiment might bring about the beloved community we all long for?
I grew up singing, on the way to my own grandparents’ house for Thanksgiving and Christmas, “Over the River and Through the Woods.” The song we just sang. Anyone else?
When I was in elementary and middle school, my family would sing it on the car rides to my maternal grandparents farm where cousins, aunts, and uncles would gather. My favorite thing – it was my brother’s favorite thing, too – was to put one black olive on the tip of each finger, running around, then munching them til they were all gone. Both my brother and I have tried to pass this onto our now adult children and but we have had no success.
When I was young, I did not know the name of the person who wrote that song: Lydia Maria Child. And I had no way of knowing the song would follow me into adult life and take on new meaning.
Lydia Maria – yes, it’s pronounced as if there is an “h” at the end – Child is one of the “prophetic women and men” who “challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love” that Unitarian Universalism claims as one of its six sources.
And she just so happens to come from within our own history – she was a Unitarian, though sometimes ambivalently so. While that song is the most visible of her legacy nearly a century and a half since her lifetime, during her life, she was one of the most famous women in America.
When she was only 22, she published what was the first historical novel in the United States. Called Hobomok, it involved an interracial marriage between a white woman and a Native American man — a controversial, almost taboo, subject at the time. The height of her financial success came from writing a book called The Frugal Housewife. Dedicated to those who are not ashamed of Economy. Published in 1829, it enjoyed 33 printings over a quarter of a century.
The economic success of this book allowed her, and her husband who was full of idealism and ideas but not so much professional stability, to make every attempt to live their values out loud. Their values were progressive as Maria was a tireless advocate for oppressed members of society, specifically Native Americans, children, Africans and African Americans held in slavery, and women.
Maria and her husband, David, decided they wanted to do everything they could to stop slavery in our country, even if their means were not particularly conventional. They wanted to do more than write about it or talk about it with others who shared their views or argue with those who didn’t.
They moved to Northampton, Massachusetts – where I used to live until I came here (that’s why I know this story) – with a wild plan to grow sugar beets. Have you ever even heard of sugar beets?
The Childs intended to start an agricultural movement that would dislodge the North’s reliance on the South’s sugar cane industry, thus dealing a death blow to the Southern slave economy.
What? You don’t remember that chapter of American history? The demise of King Cane? No?
Their venture was a failure. But it did not stop either one of them; Maria continued to experience forms of success – literary, leadership, political, though not always financial, as some of her political successes negatively impacted her financial success.
I could to tell you about the anti-slavery tract she wrote that was the most influential non-fiction work of its kind. I want to tell you of her correspondence with John Brown as he sat in the gallows, awaiting his execution. I want to tell you of her advocacy work on behalf of Native Americans or her treatise on gender equality. And I could go on, but such lists are for academic essays or lectures, not for a sermon.
Her life, and certainly the impact of her legacy, was no straight line to us today. Just as Benny’s plan to thank god by leaving bagels with the Torah was not exactly a conventional, straight line – it wasn’t prayer at the right time and prayer in the right place with the right words – but instead was a surprise to all involved – Benny, his grandfather, the hungry man, and probably the rabbi if she ever found out.
The contemporary social philosopher Rebecca Solnit tells us that
Causes and effects assume history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. (Hope in the Dark)
My Unitarian Universalist history instructor – the Rev. Mark Harris who serves our congregation in Watertown, Massachusetts, where the brother of Lydia Maria Child once served as minister – believes that her most significant influence on Unitarianism may be a three-volume collection she published in 1855 on religious wisdom from the world’s faiths. Our beloved Theodore Parker, a contemporary of Child’s, called it, “The book of the age.”
Though its content does not stand the test of time for accuracy, we can practically trace a direct line from this offering to how we understand our modern Unitarian Universalist faith with its deep appreciation for interfaith engagement without the need to claim or proclaim any single religious truth. That line can probably be traced to our religious education’s commitment to the Neighboring Faiths curriculum, nearly ubiquitous in 7th grade RE across the nation.
I am so thankful for the large and small ways Lydia Maria Child impacted our faith. I am so thankful for the visible and the invisible influences from her efforts that leave us a lasting legacy that keeps popping up. (For instance, given her advocacy on behalf of Native Americans and her contributions to the failed Peace Policy in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant towards Native Americans, it should be no surprise that we had over 50 UU ministers – 10% of those who showed up when the Standing Rock Sioux called for clergy to provide witness to the water protectors’ efforts to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. Of course there were other Unitarians and Universalists involved in advocating on behalf of justice for the native population of this continent, though that was not the only side we were on, tragically.)
I am so thankful that my family lived in a town where she tried something wild and hopeful for collective human liberation. (I also love that she thought the Unitarians in that same town were a little too snooty for her taste, and so she kept her distance.)
I raise up to you this figure from our history, singing her song as we move into Thanksgiving, in order that the next time you sing it – perhaps just later this week, you will remember how she is part of your history and you are her legacy. I raise up the song and her story at this time when the world is mired in deep injustices and danger, that it may inspire in you wild, impractical, unconventnail ideas – some of which will succeed, and some of which will fail utterly and some of which will fail, yet inform and improve future ideas or inspire future builders of beloved community.
If we truly believe that we are made for times such as these – and I do — what wild and loving possibilities await?