[The following was preached at a joint worship service with First Parish of Sudbury as the two congregations kicked off 375th anniversary celebrations]

 

[Rev. Marjorie Matty from FPS] Over the next year we will be celebrating our 375th anniversary it felt important to, Rev. Tom and I to honor our congregational roots and the relationship that our two churches have shared over the generations. At times we have been very close, being one congregation, while at other times harsh actions and words were exchanged. Now in the twenty first century we are struck by how similar our call to do good works in the world is. On the national level Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ associations are quite simpatico – over the years our two denominations have done several successful projects together. It made sense for Tom and I to be allies for justice in the Sudbury community and beyond. Since I introduced, to the members of First Parish, the idea that our two congregations were going to meet some this year I have heard a plethora of stories about different connections with MCC. One member shared with me the story about his marriage to his wife in the MCC sanctuary and others about how they attended MCC at one point or another as their spiritual lives evolved.  In writing this sermon Rev. Tom mentioned that he has heard similar stories. Nancy Moore, a member of First Parish who is sitting here this morning, recalls hearing about the split between First Parish and the Memorial Congregational Church when she first arrived in Sudbury in 1969 – 133 years after it happened. She wrote, “Then I was a MCC member and choir singer and recall that much was made of the fact that when the “conservative” congregationalists left to start their own church they took with them the Bible which had been at FPS for a very long time. A schism occurred and the after effects were still reverberating. (Or so we were told by very old timers.)  So bad was the feeling created by the rift that people were not speaking to each other for a generation at least.

[Tom] The story of the split of the first congregation in Sudbury is long and complex.  It reflects changes that were happening in our burgeoning nation by ancestors striving to be faithful to their own beliefs.  The rift that formed our two congregations must have been painful for neighbors, friends, and families at the time and that pain has continued, as Nancy said, to affect us generations later.  As we explore a past of division, we look towards a future of unity – as two separate congregations who have more in common than we might think.  Two congregations caring for neighbors; two congregations searching for justice; two congregations on a journey to make the world a better place.

[Marjorie] To better understand our incredible town of Sudbury and our place in it as people of faith and service, I purchased and read the book, Puritan Village: The Formation of a New England town. It is filled with an incredible amount of information from town records, letters and diaries. One can truly get a sense of the concerns and hopes that were held by the inhabitants of the Sudbury Plantation back in the day. Sudbury’s story begins in large measure with a patriarch or three, Peter Noyes who having returned from time spent in Watertown, Massachusetts, purchased passage to new England for eleven of his nearest and dearest, most of whom were his family. During that same time period the Goodnows, Hayneses and the Rices also chose to leave England behind in search for good land to farm on these distant shores. Watertown, where they had initially landed was already commissioned and it took a significant political affair to get land there so these families endeavored to secure a plantation, which would ultimately be called Sudbury. “Land grants that were received would eventually total more than 40 square miles, including land now in Wayland, Sudbury, Maynard, Stow, Framingham, and Natick.  The lands west of the Sudbury River were first settled in 1643.”[1]

Powell the author of the Puritan Village wrote that, “Noyes united with Brian Pendleton, a wealthy London man who had enjoyed power in the first few years of Watertown and then fallen out of favor, and together they added a third man, the Reverend Edmund Brown. All three petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts for a town grant below Concord. Brown was looking for another parish. Having left old Sudbury, he arrived in Watertown in time to give the petition added support. It is very likely that the General Court, full of Emmanuel and Cambridge graduates, named the new settlement in Brown’s honor.”[2]

[Tom] Two years after the Sudbury settlement, the forbearers built the first Church and meetinghouse in 1640. Its location was on the east side of the river. However quite quickly the west side of the river became settled and it became a distance to travel and so “In June 1708 the courts gave the settlers on the west side of the river permission to build their own meetinghouse and have a minister. In 1722 services commenced and the Rev. Isreal Loring became the new minister – relations were cordial and the ministers even exchanged pulpits once a month. He remained minister for 50 years, while Edmund Brown was minister for a mere thirty-eight years. Anyway that you think about it both were long and successful ministries… This present meetinghouse was built in 1797, and is the second meeting house built here.

Here is a little side note about our early New England towns and their churches, “Each town was organized around its church. The members of the church were those who made a confession of Christian faith, while members of the parish were those who lived in the town and paid the poll tax that supported the church, but hadn’t had a religious experience of conversion in the church. Reflecting this two-tier arrangement, the minister was the spiritual leader of the church as well as the teacher of public morals to the townspeople. These were the Standing Order churches—church and parish in the same institution, with a religious leader and public preacher in the same person.”[3]

Powell shares that, “The activity of Sudbury parishes during this time, however, was inextricably tied to the life of the borough. Town officers walked in procession to the churches, attended divine services and, on occasion, fined citizens either for nonattendance at church or for unseemly behavior in the pews.”[4] One has to wonder about what the unseemly behavior actually was…

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on one’s perspective), all things eventually do change and “By the mid-1700s a group of evangelicals were calling for the revival of Puritan orthodoxy. They asserted their belief in humanity’s eternal bondage to sin. People who opposed the revival, believing in free human will and the loving benevolence of God, eventually became Unitarian. During the first four decades of the nineteenth century, hundreds of these original congregational churches fought over ideas about sin and salvation, and especially over the doctrine of the Trinity. Most of the churches split over these issues.

In town politics there was a series of discussions about separating between the different sides of the river, east and west, over economical, land grant, and taxation issues. These discussions began in 1714 but it wouldn’t be until April 10, 1780 that the Massachusetts legislature would agree to the division with the proviso that the original settlement had to forfeit the name of the town. In 1835 there was a vote at town meeting to change the town name from East Sudbury to Wayland. This is all  to say that the climate was ripe for change and Sudbury wasn’t the only town in this same conundrum.

[Marjorie] In 1818, the Parish in Dedham made the choice to call a liberal minister. One Sunday some of the members promptly got up and walked out taking the records, silver and other assets with them. A year later on May 5th 1819 at an ordination in Baltimore, “Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, who served at Arlington Street Church in Boston, delivered a sermon called “Unitarian Christianity” that helped to give the Unitarians and understanding of self and a strong platform.” By the way, “Unitarian” was considered a derogatory term at that time used to identify the liberal congregationalists. At this same time the Deacons from Dedham, on both the orthodox and liberal sides took the matter to court and, “A jury ruled that according to the law, the church was built and run at the parish’s expense for the benefit of the whole parish, and the minister worked for the benefit of the whole parish. Therefore, the parish owned the assets, and what’s more, the parish had the right to call the minister. Some cried “foul,” noting that the presiding judge, Isaac Parker, was himself a Unitarian. But when all the appeals were finally over in 1821, the ruling stood.”[5]

[Tom]  Clearly, it was a time and climate for drawing sides and divisions. It was in this environment, as the story goes, that in 1836 Rufus Hurlbut, who had served as the called and settled minister of First Parish for more than 20 years and who was, “an adherent of orthodox Congregationalism,” arrived with a colleague of his choice ready to preach one Sunday morning and the doors were locked with another Unitarian minister preaching inside.

[Marjorie] This dramatic moment is actually the climax to a battle that began 4 years earlier. My colleague the, Rev. Carl Scovel in 1959 wrote about this time gathering facts for the story from town records and other various forms of communication. Let’s picture this, the year was 1832 and there was a smoldering discontent in Sudbury brewing between the Parish and the Church, just like we heard of in Dedham. The Parish includes all of the members of the overall community, those who pay taxes to support the meetinghouse and minister, and the Church is made up of the members who attend church regularly because they had a direct experience of Christ – they were referred to as the elect. The discontent started in the Parish so noted, “We discover the premonitions of liberalism in a report of town meeting on May 5, 1832. A motion came up which aimed “To see if the town will choose a committee to wait on Mr. Hurlbut and request him to give his reasons, if any he had, why he declines exchanging with some of the neighboring clergy, as he formerly did.”[6] Mr. Hurlbut refused to exchange pulpits, he refused to say why, but everyone thought that it was because all of the surrounding parishes had Unitarian ministers… Hurlbut was protecting First Parish of Sudbury for the Orthodox Congregationalists. What I have read explains that it was only after the American Revolution that the liberals could turn their full attention on liberal Christianity. What ensued over the next several years was a struggle between what became two congregations meeting at First Parish, the liberals and the orthodox. The goal of the orthodox was to get the Parish records, which were being held by Dr. Stearns, a liberal. Apparently the one who held the records held the power and ownership of the building and grounds during that period in history. It is not known how Dr. Stearns obtained the records in the first place. But at town meetings and various Church meetings and eventually enmasse liberal parish members, who were not considered part of “the elect,” came together to vote Dr. Stearns, the liberal Unitarian, into the lay leadership of First Parish. It was a coup and the orthodox were enraged and stormed out of that meeting. Sudbury just like Dedham ultimately went to court over the election and the name First Parish and the liberals won.

In the mean time, Mr. Hurlbut knew that there was a Unitarian minister preaching that fateful Sunday morning when he came to the meetinghouse and demanded entry. He brought with him his selection of orthodox preacher – whom he wanted to preach the message that morning.  Previously, this would have been his right; as the minister was the one who selected all of the substitute preachers.  However, Mr. Hurlbut had lost the right to so at a previous town meeting.

[Tom] What happened next is a history many of us have heard…In the words of MCC’s church history “In his quiet manner, Mr. Hurlbut assured the listeners that he would raise no trouble.  As for himself, he said, to accept the change would require that he abandon his convictions, and this he could not, and would not, do. With a sob in his voice, he ended with, “I go, never to return!”  When the Unitarians refused to concede the pulpit, Hurlbut left and the orthodox “church” members, who were the majority that morning, left with him.  Thus, echoing splits happening throughout New England, the congregation divided.  The ultimate reason was, in Rev. Scovel’s words, “because there was a desire for the freedom of religious association and the freedom to think for oneself even in religious matters. These two new hard won freedoms a product of the American Revolution, in turn encouraged two movements in this country — the separation of church and state and the rise of” [7] liberal religion.

[Marjorie] After Mr. Hurlbut left and took a large part of the congregation with him First Parish spent several years engaging several ministers. It was in 1844 when Linus Shaw became the first Unitarian minister settled at First Parish. Much has happened since then such as the town installing a new clock in our bell tower in 1873, a new pipe organ was installed in 1897, the first woman minister was called in 1904, Ida Hulton, in 1921 the congregation sold the 1640 communion table for a $1000 victory bond, in 1930 the congregation refused to sell the meetinghouse and land to the town of Sudbury, in 1964 the Atikinson Building was completed, and between 1994-1998 an addition was added and restoration of the meetinghouse was completed. In 2001 our rainbow flag, symbolizing the welcoming of GLBT&Q people as valuable members of this community was vandalized and over 1000 people, including the pastor and many members of MCC, attended a rally in support of First Parish’s welcoming values. In the spring of 2013 First Parish of Sudbury called me, a UU lesbian minister as their 43rd minister to serve First Parish.

This congregation has done their utmost to be the voice of liberal reason on the Rocky Plane – It hasn’t always been easy throughout history as theological and social norms have evolved but the forbearers of First Parish have talked the talk and walked the walk, which we continue to strive to do today…

 

[Tom] The members of the congregation who followed Rev. Hurlbut had a journey of their own as they sought to find their own identity and place of worship.   Services were held in other buildings around town including the Methodist church (now the Presbyterian church) across the street, and a hall owned by William Brigham in Sudbury Centre before building a new church on Concord Road across from Goodman’s Hill Road in 1840, eventually moving, in 1880, to it’s present location in a newly built Congregational Chapel, which now serves as MCC’s parlor.  The organization incorporated under the name of Memorial Congregational Church in 1890.

 

It’s always funny for me to hear our congregation referred to as the “conservative one.”   In the many years since the split, there have been obvious changes along those line.  While many in the church find comfort in a Trinitarian theology, we recognize that our faith journeys are all unique.  We talk about a still speaking God who continues to be known to us in many ways.  In following the teachings of Jesus, many are led to a progressive call to care for others, to speak out against injustice and to continue growing in our faith.

MCC called their first female interim minister in the 1980’s and their first settled female pastor in 1996.  Earlier in 1996, the congregation voted to become Open and Affirming, explicitly welcoming lesbian, gay, and bisexual people to share our faith journey.  In 2013, that welcome was extended to include transgender persons and persons of all gender expressions and identities.

When Nancy Moore recalled the tension that still existed when she first arrived in Sudbury she also remembered on March 14, 1976 the event was marked by a “walk up” by the MCC congregation to FPS followed by a joint service and choir sing  (fortunately it was a gorgeous day). The MCC minister brought the old Bible and presented it to the then minster at FPS, symbolically ending the schism confirming an “Era of good feeling.” We thank Nancy and the many others of you who have shared your stories.

[Marjorie] At our schism in 1836, our differences were so great that we were unable to co-exist. In the years since we have come closer and closer and are now we are able to find more common ground than ever before. As we walk our parallel paths, we acknowledge and celebrate our differences and we look forward to the opportunity to support one another on our separate journeys, solidly rooted in our our shared and separate traditions, working together where our paths converge, building the beloved community.

[Tom] This year as we celebrate our joint anniversary, our two congregations will continue strengthening our bond.  We will work hard to mend relationships that go back generations and to form new friendships continuing to remind all that we meet on our journey that love and compassion are the guiding principles for religious faith.

And we will continue our traditions of living our faith as we join together to serve our neighbors, seeking to create a world of equality and justice, where sharing by all means scarcity for none.  Together we will participate in events and activities to feed the hungry, open conversations about civility in our town, and continue being a loud voice of welcome for everyone who seeks a place to belong.

[Marjorie] In Closing, we turn once again to the words of Powell from Puritan Village who writes, “If, as it seems, we today are in a period of radical social upheaval and violent transformation of communities and entire national and international populations, much perspective can be gained from close examination of a somewhat analogous period in the seventeenth century…. If we abandon our New England heritage, we do so at our peril. The Sudbury townsmen might not have been able to order their community “forever” as they hoped, but they set a remarkable example for all the generations which have followed them.”[8]

Friends and new friends, it is with the greatest respect for the members and minister of the Memorial Congregational Church that we welcome you back as we enter into the year 2015, which will mark our collective 375 years of assembling as seekers of religious truth, wisdom and freedom. There are more of us out there in Wayland and Framingham, in Maynard and Natick that share our historic roots – maybe someday we should welcome them home as well. This morning the members of MCC ventured to First Parish realizing that over three decades ago you made the walk from your sanctuary to our sanctuary carrying with you the bible that was taken so long ago… We welcome you in the spirit of collaboration and love again this morning and we look forward to the many ways that we can share our much-needed ministry in this world. I invite you to be our partners in being that liberal religious voice of reason in the town square there is no doubt that we can do more good works together then we could ever accomplish alone.

For this we pray, Blessed Be, Amen…

——————-

 

[1] http://www.wayland.ma.us/Pages/WaylandMA_WebDocs/about/hist?textPage=1

[2] Powell, Sumner Chilton (2011-05-01). Puritan Village: The Formation of a New England Town (Kindle Locations 1632-1637). Wesleyan University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/river/workshop9/workshopplan/stories/178594.shtml

[4] Powell, Sumner Chilton (2011-05-01). Puritan Village: The Formation of a New England Town (Kindle Locations 883-885). Wesleyan University Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/river/workshop9/workshopplan/stories/178594.shtml

[6] Scovel, Carl – How the First Parish Became Unitarian written in 1959.

[7] Scovel, Carl – How the First Parish Became Unitarian written in 1959

[8] Powell, Sumner Chilton (2011-05-01). Puritan Village: The Formation of a New England Town (Kindle Locations 3014-3019). Wesleyan University Press. Kindle Edition.

Past, Present, and Future – Rev. Marjorie Matty and Rev. Tom O’Brien

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