History by Mark Worth
This Sunday we are observing the 290th birthday of our congregation. I said “observing,” because we haven’t planned any big celebration. Our 300th birthday is still ten years away, and that will be a big deal worth celebrating. But I won’t be your minister then. So if we’re going to have any birthday to observe while I’m here, this is the one.
Our sign out front says, “established 1717.” That’s really when the Town of Westborough was established. In 1718 Westborough voted to build a meeting house for both religious services and town meetings. Because Northborough was then part of Westborough, the first meeting house was built near what is now the junction of Oak and Milk Streets, over on the other side of Route 9. In 1720 they put in a floor, and began to use the meeting house. In 1724 the town voted to complete the meeting house, and to settle and ordain Ebenezer Parkman (pictured below) as parson or minister to the town. Rev. Parkman was ordained on October 28, 1724. The church was not organized until the parson was ordained; that was the custom of the time. And so that is the real date of the founding of our congregation, October 28, 1724.
Our first meeting house was a rough building; a nicer building was begun in 1749 and completed in 1755 (pictured: second meeting house). It stood at what is now the rotary, and was originally built without a steeple. Some years later a Paul Revere bell was donated to the town, and a steeple was added for the bell. The Congregational Church across the street from us, which was known as the Evangelical Congregational Church until about three years ago, also claims 1724 as their founding. Both the Evangelical Congregationalists across the street, and Unitarian Congregationalists – that’s us – are the legitimate descendants of the First Church of Christ in Westborough, founded in 1724.
Are we Congregationalists?
To understand how our church and our Congregationalist friends are related, first notice our name. We are the Unitarian Universalist Congregational Society, and until 1990 we were the “First Congregational Society (Unitarian).” We still have the word Congregational in our name because we are congregational in the way we govern ourselves, and are congregationalist in our heritage and history.
Have you ever wondered whatever happened to the Puritans? Why is there no “First Puritan Church of Westborough”? The Puritans established Boston and Salem in 1630. Where did they go? They didn’t go away, but in the 1700s we stopped calling them Puritans, and started calling them Congregationalists. Their churches were not led by kings and bishops like the Church of England, nor by popes and bishops like the Roman Catholics. The Puritans had self-governing congregations, and so they became known as Congregationalists.
Then, in the late 1700s, a liberal-conservative division began to develop in the Congregational churches. The liberals were eventually known as Unitarian Congregationalists. The conservatives were known as orthodox, Trinitarian, or Evangelical Congregationalists. The original Pilgrim church in Plymouth was the first to actually divide; that split happened in 1800. So in Plymouth you can find the “First Parish, Unitarian Universalist,” and right next door to it is “The Church of the Pilgrimage,” which is part of the United Church of Christ, like our friends across the street. (Picture below: stained glass window depicting the Pilgrims, from First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, Plymouth, MA).
The Unitarian Congregationalists wound up with the building when the Trinitarian Congregationalists walked out. The folks at The Church of the Pilgrimage tell it this way: they say, “The Unitarians kept the furniture, but we kept the faith.”
The Unitarian Controversy ~
What was the dispute? The Unitarian-Trinitarian split occurred primarily over two issues; the Doctrine of the Trinity, and the Doctrine of Predestination. Of the two, our dispute over Predestination (also called Election) may have been the bigger issue.
The conservatives said that if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, then God must know the future, including who will be saved and who will be damned, and has known all of this since before the beginning of time. And since God knows who will be saved and who will be damned, we really have no choice in the matter. Because humans are morally depraved, helpless to overcome our original sin, most of us have been predestined to go to hell for eternity. God, in his mercy, chooses (or elects) to save a few of us, but most are headed for hell, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
We said no. Human beings have free will, and even more importantly, humans aren’t so evil that the majority of us need to be damned. We thought human nature was more good than bad. And God is not cruel, but is infinitely good, kind, and merciful, like a loving father or mother. Therefore, although God is just, God is also compassionate. Most people will be saved. We can further our salvation, said the early Unitarians, by living lives of good character.
By the way, the Trinitarian or Evangelical Congregationalists also began to reject the idea of Predestination soon after the end of the controversy. They would not preach Predestination today.
The other issue was the Trinity. The conservatives accepted the Doctrine of the Trinity, which had been decreed by the Roman Emperor Theodosius in 380, and, after he fired all the bishops who disagreed with him, was adopted at the Council of Constantinople in 381. The Doctrine of the Trinity has been considered orthodox, that is “correct thinking,” ever since. It says that God is one person who is three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. One of those three persons, God the Son, is two persons, one the divine Jesus, and the other the human Jesus.
We said this is nonsense, and isn’t even taught in the Bible anywhere. If Jesus believed he was the Second Person of the Trinity, and this was an important doctrine, he would have said so, and the Apostles would have taught it. But the word “Trinity” never appears anywhere at all in the Bible! The Doctrine of the Trinity is never clearly explained in the Bible. The Bible never calls Jesus “God the Son.” Yes, it sometimes calls him the Son of God, a term that suggests he has an important relationship to God. But it never uses the Trinitarian term “God the Son,” a term that would say Jesus is God.
Moreover, Jesus, before he was arrested, prayed to God, “If it is your will, take this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). In other words, his will and God’s will are not always the same. On another occasion he said that no one knows when the last day will come; “not the angels, not even the Son. Only the Father knows” (Mark 13:32 and Matt. 24:36). So, according to the New Testament, Jesus doesn’t have the same will as God, and he doesn’t have the same knowledge, either. And then in the Gospel of John he says, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
So, if Jesus never explained the Trinity, and never claimed to be God the Son – but didsay his will and knowledge were different from God, and specifically denied that he was as great as God – why do so many Christians persist in saying Jesus is God, and criticize us for not doing so?
There’s perhaps some irony here: We were saying that their Trinitarianism was not as biblical as our Unitarianism!
Because we could not affirm the Doctrine of the Trinity, nor could we affirm Predestination, the orthodox or Evangelical Congregationalists across New England said they did not want fellowship with us, did not want to exchange pulpits with liberal clergy, and they did not want to train their ministers at Harvard College, which was in the hands of Unitarian infidels. Across New England, and especially in the greater Boston area, Congregational churches split between Trinitarians or Evangelicals on the one hand, and Unitarians on the other.
“Church” and “Society” ~
In Westborough the split between Evangelical Congregationalists and Unitarian Congregationalists didn’t come until very late, 1834. By that time the theological debates were well understood. But one big question remained, who owns the property? In order to understand the answer, we have to talk about the difference between the “church” on the one hand, and the “parish” or “society” on the other.
Here are three terms: The people who attended were the Church, the voters who conducted the business were the Parish or Society, and the building was the Meeting House.
In Massachusetts, the Meeting House was always built by the town, and it was built for both town meetings and religious services. The Church was made up of all of the active Congregationalists, men, women and children. The Church tended to be more conservative or evangelical than the general population of the town. But, in order to conduct the legal business of the Church there was another group, the “Society.” The Society was made up of all of the men of the town who were over 21 and were not specifically affiliated with some other church (the Baptists). The Society contained quite a few men who were not regular church-goers, and it tended to be more liberal than the Church. When it came to a vote in Westborough in 1834, the Society sided with the Unitarians. But the Evangelicals had the majority of the active Church members, and they walked out and built a new Evangelical Congregational Church at 57 W. Main Street, where their building still stands.
We kept the Old Meeting House, which was located at what is now the rotary. But it was no prize. It was falling apart, and the train station had recently begun operations very nearby. The train station was smelly and noisy, and you could not conduct a dignified church service in the meeting house. So we sold the meeting house to be turned into a commercial property; and being few in number, we met in people’s homes off and on for several years.
We sold the Paul Revere bell to the Baptists. Why sell a Paul Revere bell, you might ask? Well, Revere made a lot of bells. They were not at all unusual. And Revere himself was not yet famous; he was just a silversmith and bell-maker, and a “Paul Revere bell” was no big deal. We didn’t know that, 26 years in the future, a Unitarian named Longfellow would write an historically inaccurate poem that would turn Revere into a famous national hero.
Changes over the years ~
In 1849 we began to build our present building, and dedicated it in 1850.
We are legitimately the First Congregational Society. Our friends across the street are legitimately the First Congregational Church. Both are parts of the Church that was founded – by a vote of the Society – in 1724. A few years ago they dropped “Evangelical” from their name, and are now the Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. We have added “Universalist” to our name to reflect the national consolidation of the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961. So we are the Unitarian Universalist Congregational Society of Westborough, a long name, indeed!
Over the years we’ve had our ups and downs, times of crisis and times of healing. There were times we almost closed the church, and there have been times of growth and renewal.
Rev. Cynthia Frado’s sixteen-year pastorate was our longest pastorate since before the Unitarian-Evangelical split of 1834. Her long tenure was an important time of stable growth and progress. Just a few years ago, during Cindy’s time as minister, structural issues were addressed, new cushions were added to the pews, and the sanctuary was repaired, re-decorated, and re-dedicated.
In the summer of 2014 we were able to put the 1895 George Ryder Tracker Organ back in working condition, and that happy event coincided with the arrival of a talented organist and Music Director, Leonardo Ciampa.
Now (during 2013-2015) we are engaged in a search for a new settled minister. It’s an exciting time. Change can bring some anxiety, I know, but I experience you as a healthy church, a church with strong and dedicated lay leaders, a church that always seems to manage to meet its budget goals, a church that knows how to celebrate; a church with a very promising future. I’ve seen churches that fight. You don’t seem to do that. There are very few ego issues here, and you don’t let ego get in the way. This is a healthy church with a solid future.
In the meantime, Unitarian Universalism has changed over the centuries. In the 1820s and ’30s the issues were about the the Trinity and the nature of God. Not so much today. Today we see ourselves as a faith of the free. Even back in the 1820s, classic Unitarians like William Ellery Channing (pictured below left) taught that we must be free to look at Scriptures for ourselves, and to use our reason. The Bible was written by humans, for humans, in the language of humans, he said, and we should use our human reason when we read it!
Channing’s contemporary, the great Universalist preacher Hosea Ballou (above right), taught us that God is love, and every person is worthy of love. And so we affirm the worth and dignity of every person. In the 1840s and ’50s, Unitarian Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, and Elizabeth Peabody, were starting to study the Hindu and Buddhist Scriptures, to broaden our horizons and open us up to the wisdom of the East. In the 1920s, Unitarian Humanists like John Dietrich said that we might even question the existence of God, if reason leads us to that place. For us today, God is not a given; God is a question we each answer individually. Whether we speak of God or not, religion should make us more compassionate and humane, promote the highest human values, and teach humans how to live in peace.
Today, when asked what we believe, we might say that our religion isn’t so much about what we believe, but it must be about how we live. We affirm the value of religious community, religious freedom, the use of reason and conscience, and ethical living. And, if we have one doctrine, it is the Golden Rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated.
Rev. William Schulz writes, “Unitarian Universalism affirms that life is too complex and mysterious to be captured in a narrow creed. That is why we cherish freedom of belief. At the same time, we affirm that the blessings of life are available to everyone, not just the ‘chosen’ or the ‘saved’; that the Sacred or Holy is made evident in the simple and everyday; that human beings, enriched by the grace of the world, are responsible for our planet and its future; that every one of us is a part of the interdependent web of existence, hence strangers need not be enemies; and that the paradox of life is to love it all the more even though we ultimately lose it.”
May that be our Amen.
The material above is from a sermon by Rev. J. Mark Worth, who served as our interim minister until June 2015.
Faith of the Free: 290 Years in Westborough
Unitarian Universalist Congregational Society of Westborough, Mass., Oct. 19, 2014
Rev. J. Mark Worth served as our interim minister from August 2013 through July 2015 while we conducted a search for a new settled minister. During his pastorate our tracker organ was restored to working condition and we voted to become a “Welcoming Congregation,” welcoming and celebrating the participation all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.