Bring, O Past, Your Honour (Audio Available)

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 15 January 2017

175 anniv

We’ve entered our 175th year as a congregation. How many events in our lives are counted into the hundreds? I love this sense of being strongly connected to history. Our lives are marked by annual events that are more than just our own celebrations. They are observances that have arisen out of the actions and experiences of people who lived and died long before us. They are the work of those who planted the seeds, who watered the roots, who made it possible for us to grow into us. 

We are a people completely different from our ancestors, and yet somehow, their spirits are woven into our spirit. There is something wonderfully mysterious, like DNA, that gets passed from one generation to the next that has its origins in some fantastical place that we have yet to understand.

“You must know your congregation’s DNA. You must know its story.” That’s what I was taught when I was in seminary. We’re living in a time when so much tradition and history has been lost. We don’t necessarily know who we are, so we come seeking a story to call our own. We come seeking a story that can inspire us to live with meaning and with purpose.

Years ago, someone shared with me an article from anthropologist, Lori Leitgeb, who had focused her doctoral thesis on Unitarian Universalists in the United States. She argued that we Unitarians and Universalists strive to differentiate ourselves from other religious groups “through a careful construction of our historic past.” She wrote that our ministers and leaders use history “to motivate current members to follow their spiritual ancestors to be critical thinkers who speak out against injustice and uphold liberal values of the church.”

The paper was a critique. Its author accused us of tending toward self-glorification by telling the stories of key individuals in our history. Have we distorted the truth to tell ourselves what we want to hear? Possibly. But what religious tradition doesn’t have its individuals to glorify? Moses, Jesus, the Buddha, Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Emerson and Thoreau – each a story to be told, a lesson to be learned, a great teacher to venerate.

Someone once told me that in times of anxiety, people aren’t able to hear intellectual reasoning. They can only hear stories. Maybe we emphasize certain versions of the truth to tell ourselves what we need to hear. In those times in our lives when we need something to move us forward, it’s often the stories that create revolutions. 

We are so fortunate to have a rich resource of archives, an amazing collection of papers, ledgers, artefacts and minute books from the earliest days of the Unitarian Society of Montreal, (as we were once named before our first minister, John Cordner, lobbied to name us the Church of the Messiah in the 1850s, before we finally changed our name to the Unitarian Church of Montreal). You can find all our stories carefully preserved in an special archival storage room upstairs. There you can read through pages and pages of meticulously handwritten minutes from the very first gathering of those who founded this congregation 175 years ago. There you can skim the list of 86 signatures that brought the first constitution of this congregation of Unitarians into legal existence on June 20, 1842. 

Throughout our history, as a group, we ministers of the Unitarian Church of Montreal have told many of the same stories of the brave heretics who made our history. We speak of Michael Servetus who dared to challenge the Trinity and was burned at the stake in the early 1500s as our first Unitarian martyr. We tell stories of William Ellery Channing who dared to say in the early 1800s that we humans had the capacity for good in the world, that we had a likeness to God — a radical concept at the time. 

We speak of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who resisted early Unitarian orthodoxy, who urged us to seek the divine on our own through the transcendent. We tell stories of the great Universalist Olympia Brown who became the first female minister in North America in the 1830s and fought for women’s rights. These are stories of resistance, of fighting orthodoxy and intolerance that helped to shape who we would become.

If you read the published account of Montreal’s Unitarians 1832-2000, you’ll find a strong emphasis on key individuals. You’ll find the stories of past ministers like John Cordner, or William Barnes, the minister who would give the coat off his back to a shivering homeless man, or the great orator Angus Cameron who stood up against religious intolerance in Quebec and defended the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ right to distribute pamphlets, or Leonard Mason who courageously married Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (for the first time) and then fought for civil marriage. 

These ministers’ writings comprise much of what has been collected and preserved from our history. And yes, we do tell these stories to motivate ourselves to follow our spiritual ancestors to be critical thinkers who speak out against injustice and uphold liberal values of of our tradition. What could be more inspiring?

Yet here’s what I truly appreciate about our ledgers and minute books from the 1840s. They contain the words of the people, not their ministers. Remember who these people were in their strength and in their limitations. They had come from places of relative ease in Boston and London to find their fortunes in the wilds of bitterly cold and backward Montreal. They were believers in free-will and self-determination, and when they arrived, they encountered a closed society.

One hundred years ago, in June of 1917, on the occasion of this congregation’s 75th anniversary, the Rev. Frederick Griffith preached about of the rude awakening faced by those early Unitarians when they first settled in Montreal. (Griffith, by the way, was our third settled minister, the third minister in 100 years — which is truly amazing!) Griffith said: “…in 1842 here was a city of astonishing intolerance, of hard Calvinism, of such bitterness and hostility as we know to-day only through books or oral tradition…The pioneers of our faith were scorned, abused, even persecuted: their word was condemned and their most sacred things reviled…”

The early Unitarians of Montreal were accused of circulating “soul-killing tenets,” in major part because they did not accept a literal interpretation of the Trinity. They sought the freedom to think for themselves, and to practice their faith as they chose. Much was against them. They had attempted to form a Unitarian society as early as the 1830s, but cholera broke out in Quebec killing nearly 2000 in Montreal, including the very first minister they had hoped to engage. The Revered David Hughes and his daughter were dead within a month of their arrival from England. Then the Rebellion of 1837 divided the Unitarians, as some joined Les patriotes in an attempt to overthrow British colonial rule, while others remained loyal to the crown. 

Finally, through the persistence of two women in the community, Elizabeth Cushing and Elizabeth Hedge, a renewed effort to form a church led to a series of three meetings that began on Monday evening, the 6th of June 1842. The names of the two Elizabeths do not appear in the minutes, but by June 20th their work had been done and our official history had begun. 

On the night of June 20, 1842, there was a moment that is always worth retelling as we recall our history. The congregation’s constitution had been passed and then a motion was made “for the greater safety and more perfect security of the Church that no person who may become a member of this society be admitted to vote on Church matters unless they formally reject the doctrine of the Trinity.”

The motion was thrown out almost unanimously. Think about that. To be a free church, without a creed or test of faith, meant leaving the door open for all members to express their individual understanding of Christianity – even for those members whose beliefs might be diametrically opposed to beliefs of the majority. Were they making room for non-Christian believers? That wouldn’t happen until much later in our history. Yet those earliest Montreal Unitarians laid the foundation for embracing the wider theological diversity we know today. They chose to resist intolerance, even if it meant allowing those who had once been their harshest critics to join them

.Is it self-glorifying to remember these stories? I don’t think so, as long as we keep them within their historical context. We are moving forward, and we are changing, just as we always have. Let us never forget where we come from, but let us also remember that while we are a product of our past, we are not the past itself. Strands of our DNA remain, but we are constantly building new foundations upon the old.

In that 75th anniversary sermon, Frederick Griffith preached these words to the congregation of his day:
The pioneers of 1842 would see nothing here which was familiar to them. The faces would all be of strangers; this lovely church would be stranger still to those who possessed their hopes and faith alone as they met in a modest, yes a frugal upper room; our order of devotion would hardly be recognized at all; the spoken word and the teachings have changed so that [they] would need to ask what is this that you say and what doctrines are these which you set forth… But I trust and I believe that they of 1842 would not feel strangers long because they would find abiding here something more characteristic than rituals, more lovely than our Gothic fane, more distinctive than the passing activities of a passing day. The great and most important things have all remained, and what is best here and now is the reaping of what they sowed. They would feel at home among us after the first adjustment to unfamiliar surroundings to new faces, and would be glad to see so fair and rich a harvest. But to them the real harvest would not be this visible church or the visible adherents of it or its works. To them the harvest would be mostly outside the changed religious life of this community, the larger tolerance, the greater freedom, the wider sympathy between those who differ, the saner thought, the greater faith and cheer and hope in the teachings of all the churches. Because the best service which this church has rendered during its seventy-five years has not been unto itself but unto the larger community. … Not long ago a leader in another church said to me “I never pass your church without thinking it is to many of us like a lighthouse to a mariner. It shows the way, it gives us direction and courage.”

Griffith’s words are powerful. To be a bridge between ourselves and the greater community; “to be a lighthouse as to a mariner”; to show the way; to give direction and courage, these are great things to which we can and must continue to aspire. 

Of course, we will have those moments when we will know that we have fallen short of our legacy. That’s why we have to remember our story. Of course, the city is changing around us and we are changing within us, so that we are different from the people who gathered together on our first anniversary, our 75th, our 150th anniversary, or today as we begin to celebrate our 175th anniversary. There is a continuous thread that connects us to our past. Something continues – a flame to be carefully guarded and nurtured, its spirit more important than its form.

Happy 175th anniversary year, dear Unitarian Church of Montreal! We’ve only begun to tell your story.

Read Barbara Goode's recollections, The Unitarian Church in the 50's and 60's.

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