Arthur Fuller and the Welcoming Church by Mark W. Harris

February 6, 2011 – The First Parish of Watertown

Call to Worship (Responsive from Francis David) – Duffy Peet
Response: “You Need Not Think Alike to Love Alike”

In this world there have always been many opinions about faith and salvation.

You Need Not Think Alike to Love Alike.

The most important spiritual function is conscience, the source of all joy and happiness.

You Need Not Think Alike to Love Alike.

Conscience will not be quieted by anything less than truth and justice.

You Need Not Think Alike to Love Alike.

God’s truth must happen here on earth. Egy Az Isten. God is one.

You Need Not Think Alike to Love Alike.

Reading – from “History” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
from Chaplain Fuller: Being a Life Sketch of a New England Clergyman and Army
Chaplain by Richard Frederick Fuller

Sermon – Arthur Fuller and the Welcoming Church

Some people perceive me as an anti-technology guy. I don’t know why. Just because I refuse to own a cell phone, and can be seen in the street shaking my fist at people who are completely oblivious to the walk signal I am trying to follow, as they talk on and on for no apparent reason, and narrowly miss running over my toes. Just because I rail at the creation of yet another electronic group or file or my 100th password, most of which I have forgotten or lost. Just because I have email accounts I have not looked at in years. Just because I have never tweeted, or twitted, and have no clue how to send a text message or post a message on someone’s Facebook wall. I see my boys with fingers flying over their Ipods to enjoy all kinds of apps, but I have no clue, and feel like I am back with Ma Bell letting my fingers do the walking on an old rotary dial, remembering the excitement of the advent of the Princess phone. Yet I am not like the original Luddites who actually destroyed machinery in protest, as much as I might want to.

In fact, I have, truth be told, found some new technology that I absolutely love. I enjoy using the internet, although Andrea will tell you I spend an inordinate amount of time looking up the sales figures and descriptions of my books on Amazon. My newest books, the one I am selling today, and the one due in July were both written using many resources from the internet, but perhaps most pertinent of all for historical research is something called Google books where you can find the full text of countless, obscure and arcane Unitarian and Universalist materials. When I first discovered this resource I not only used it as an archive, but also downloaded entire books, including one called, Chaplain Fuller: Being a Life Sketch of a New England Clergyman and Army Chaplain, the story of Arthur Buckminster Fuller, the former minister of this congregation. But it gets better for someone who prefers to hold a book instead of looking at a screen. I discovered this one day when I was at the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. They have a machine there that will download anything from Google books, and then print it and bind it. One cold winter day I gave myself a Christmas present: Chaplain Fuller’s biography was mine to hold for a mere $15.00.

From time to time aspiring Unitarian Universalist ministers call me, and ask to be tutored in denominational history. I have especially done this for those who have not taken a course, and yet need competency in this area to achieve credentialing approval. Last year, one such student spent a few sessions with me, especially wanting to talk about Chaplain Fuller, because Fuller was his hero. Perhaps it seems odd that some obscure Unitarian minister would even be known by a student. Was it because he was the younger brother of Margaret Fuller, a Unitarian icon, a leading Transcendentalist, and America’s first feminist? No. Was it because he was the grandfather of Buckminster Fuller, the famed futurist and architect, who gave the world the Geodesic Dome, and is now the subject of a play over at the Repertory theater in Cambridge? No again. My aspiring student was in training to be a U.S. army chaplain, and had discovered Fuller’s Civil War service, and his tragic death at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and was moved by his example of courage and loyalty. In fact there are many aspiring military chaplains among our liberal religious ranks these days, including Raz Mason, who was a member here before leaving for the West coast. In the context of remembering Fuller, and his brief role in the history of First Parish, we will remember the kind of ministry he tried to live with the example of his life, and place it in the context of our usual expectations of the kind of people who become members of Unitarian Universalist congregations. How many of you have had military service? How many of us think we are the liberal, peace loving, anti-war folks, and think it odd that a soldier could be a member here? How many of us think they are not our kind of people?

It was my original intention today to do a sermon on Transylvanian Unitarianism. As you heard in the story, our institutional history stretches back hundreds of years, and that tradition continues today in Romania and Hungary, where Bela Bartok’s son was the lay president of the church at one time. Over the last twenty years many individual UU congregations in the US have developed a strong partner church program with these overseas groups, and I can tell you more if you are interested in forging a relationship. What is true of Transylvanian Unitarians is that many of them are rural people who live in villages, passing unadorned lives. Bartok was especially interested in people who lived and worked on the land. These were simple and unpretentious folk who understood the rhythms of life and nature as reflected in today’s musical selections. Bartok’s own Unitarian version of the traditional Trinity was Nature, Art and Science, a formula many of us could adopt, too. Like the Transylvanian founder of his church, Francis David, Bartok knew that salvation for people must be made in this life, in the world we create together, and so like many Unitarians he advocated a brotherhood of all people.

In thinking about the origins of our faith in Transylvania, and its embodiment in the simple folk traditions of a people, I saw a parallel with Arthur Fuller, who is featured in my book Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History. Unitarianism has sometimes been associated with the powerful and elite, especially in nineteenth century Boston, where the Boston religion was synonymous with Brahmin culture. Not every Unitarian church or minister shared this devotion to upper-class values, which included the accumulation of wealth, an ordered society, and a Harvard education. Fuller plays a key role in my study because he, “endeavored to give the Unitarian church appeal to all social classes and championed the important liberal reforms of the day.” Why did he differ from the elite and cultured stereotype?

We can see some of the origins of his advocacy of a classless faith by what he experienced as a youth. In his essay “History,” Emerson says what we do not see, what we do not live, we will not know. Fuller did not live a privileged life. The family moved from Cambridge to Groton when he was 11. Things began inauspiciously, even tragically when Arthur was involved in an accident, where he was struck in the eye. Margaret, who was still dragging her heels over the idea of moving to the country was still in Cambridge, but then rushed to Groton to care for Arthur. He recovered, but lost the sight in his right eye. His father Timothy Fuller was a lawyer, a State Representative, and a task master parent. In Arthur’s biography its says his father desired the children to acquire Spartan endurance, and that he was in advance of his day in cold-water bathing, which he practiced, in a cold room, even in winter. Apparently it did not produce good health, for a year after this move to the country, the father died of cholera. The biography reports that this loss meant that Arthur needed to call upon every emotional resource in order to cope. Arthur worked the family farm, overcoming what his brother called, “a natural repugnance to labor.” Margaret helped raise him and ensured that he received a proper education in preparation for college. With limited financial resources, Arthur had to devote some of his time while at Harvard to teaching in local schools to support himself.

Before he attended divinity school, Fuller had early in his youth set his heart upon becoming a minister. He first went West to be a teacher and a lay missionary, preaching over a wide area in Illinois. The small inheritance he received was poured into the purchase of an academy in Belvidere. In the West, Fuller adopted a preaching styled that was more typical of the spontaneous, open country. He became an extemporaneous preacher, which was at odds with the more typical manuscript, lecture style of his Unitarian colleagues. He wrote: “ I have found it better to throw aside all notes when speaking; the tastes, habits, and perhaps prejudices, of the people demand it.” (70) And after the sermons, he invited a “free expression of feeling.” This evangelical approach was in contrast to the formal corpse cold presentations that Emerson once said characterized the Unitarianism of Brattle Street. Fuller returned east to attended Harvard Divinity School, after which he supplied the pulpits both in West Newton, and at the Seaman’s Chapel in Boston where the wife of the famous Methodist preacher “Father” Taylor heard him speak. Apparently Fuller’s popular style helped convince her that “others are going to heaven besides Methodists.” So by this point in his career, Fuller had known much adversity, and had adopted a style of ministry and phrasing of speech that would attract a broad cross section of followers.

His first settled ministry was in Manchester, New Hampshire. Apparently the church in Manchester had early promise, but was wasting away into what was described as “a premature grave.” Despite frail health, Fuller poured himself into the job, so that the paper The Christian Inquirer reported, “I was permitted to see a congregation vitalized by his fervor and permeated by his Methodist spirit. It was said that Fuller won over his listeners not by his chaste and flowery language, but by the practical nature of his presentation- He argued that his religion “requires every day to be a holy day.”. He won converts, but he also alienated some with his sermons against slavery, “The black crimes the slave power had perpetrated by the aid of a supple North.” In 1850, Arthur’s sister Margaret, her husband and young son were lost in a ship wreck off Fire Island, New York. Even though he was married during this time, Fuller’s health remained poor, and his lifetime of losses led him to write,” Life has been a serious, thoughtful business, and has shown me too much suffering in the world, too much need of inward conflict, to admit of much mirth.” He received a call to the New North Church in Boston in 1853, but his Manchester ministry was characterized as follows, “He was so sincere, so zealous, and so devoted, that he entirely disarmed sectarianism, and won his way to the hearts of all.” (113)

The New North Church was situated in a changing neighborhood, eventually dominated by immigrant Italian Catholics, in fact the building where he served is the only remaining church building in Boston designed by Charles Bulfinch, of which there were once five. It is now Catholic. Fuller characterized expanding the congregation as a Sisyphean task, but he did the best he could rather than abandon the neighborhood. Shunning denominationalism, he was a force behind the church having no sectarian name. He emphasized the growth of the Sabbath School, which took in destitute children. A Baptist colleague in Boston said that Fuller was a “friend of the poor and the outcast.” Fuller believed that workers, farmers, and other “common folk would flock to Unitarianism if they received the word of God in their own simple language.” Fuller was an advocate of many of the reforms of his day, including temperance, abolitionism, public education and women’s rights. In his temperance work it was said he was “bringing men of different callings and religious persuasions into friendly nearness.” During this time his wife died, and then he soon remarried. He had two children with each spouse.

In 1859 he was called to serve the church here in Watertown, but when the Civil War broke out, he resigned and became a regimental chaplain in 1861. His ministry here in Watertown was characterized by several elements typical of his understanding of the calling. In the public meeting that was held here in town after the attack on Ft. Sumter, he protested any further compromises with slavery, and said, “Nothing is ever settled, that is not settled right. Let us stand right ourselves, and then we can demand right from others.” He seems to have had an interesting relationship with the congregation here. While he was a missionary out West he rejected the staid and pretentious manner of some New Englanders, and decided he was too much of a Westerner “to suit New England prejudices.” Let me add that I have heard my wife Andrea say, our church is more like a mid-western UU church with its informal, friendly and humanistic manner. In May 1861 he wrote that ”the majority of people here were excellent people whom I love & always shall,” but there was an element here that opposed his settlement, those stylistically who were “old and fossilized.” Nevertheless he wrote that in the short time he was here that membership grew, the Sunday school expanded, too, and more was done for benevolent movements, but the petty malice, grieved him. But apparently Fuller was not an easy person. Like his sister Margaret, it was said he had an ardent temperament. So in addition to his zeal, he was also quite candid in his speech, hard hitting, and not always tactful, traits he had developed in the West.

As he was mulling over his future, the war began, and he enlisted as a chaplain with the 16th Massachusetts regiment. He wrote, “I am willing to peril life for the welfare of our brave soldiery, and in our country’s great cause.” His evangelical and easy extemporaneous style and his broad non sectarian Christianity proved successful in his work as a chaplain. It was said he drew congregants of every faith. He conducted services and offered counsel. And as the reading from his biography indicates, he understood how all classes needed religious support and comfort. But his poor health dogged him. He had to go home during the summer of 1862, and when he returned to the war front he was not healthy enough to continue. He was honorably discharged on December 10, 1862, with the hope that he might be assigned to serve as a hospital chaplain. Yet the next day he heeded a call for volunteers to help clear sharpshooters from the banks of the Rappahannock River. He crossed the River with gun in hand, and was shot the day after his discharge, killed in the Battle of Fredericksburg. Arthur Fuller wanted to preach a broader faith, a more spiritual, more zealous faith, and he did so with soldiers, Unitarians, and seaman alike. We wanted to welcome all.

There are questions to address when we consider how we can be more welcoming. Mainline church denominations are withering away. Church doors are closing. Our UUA President Peter Morales says the people who have historically sat in our pews, are an increasingly smaller portion of American society. The polarization in American politics is a reflection that different groups are no longer mixing together. The splintering of our media have made it easier and easier to produce and inhabit a cultural universe tailored to fit our social values. The polarization we often attribute to Republicans is reflected in the makeup of all our social groupings. We, too, cluster with those with like values. But this is not good for our churches, for us, or our society. We need to go out among strangers. Even have ministers who can be like Arthur Fuller or David Rankin, who was minister here in the 1960’s and went door to door inviting all kinds of people to join the church. When we construct a world of extremes, then we are all polarized. While we say we strive for diversity, we cannot expect the other to come to us, or be like us. The founders of our nation understood the need for a “jarring of parties,” but if people of different parties no longer mingle, then our system of government, our churches, even our lives break down in boring sameness. We only talk and listen to ourselves. This is why it is good that we have more military chaplains. Too often we say we want a faith for all classes, but we seem to strangely believe that, being an educated elite, only we know what is best. Our challenge is to stop and see who we are with. The best way to achieve welcome to all is not by talking about it, but by practicing it. Who do we talk to? Who do we eat with? Our challenge is to go forth and meet and listen to the stranger, and not pine away with the belief that the world would be perfect if only everyone else was like us. A faith for all must come from all. We have to make it personal.

Arthur Fuller wanted all classes and stripes of people to become part of an inclusive and practical faith. He served ordinary folk and certainly related better to a cross section of farmers, shopkeepers and soldiers than he did with intellectuals. To me his life calls forth the question, how shall we address this continuing question of who is one of us? In the introduction to my book, I quote Arthur’s sister Margaret who once addressed their Unitarian father, “Your reluctance to go among strangers cannot too soon be overcome & the way to overcome it, is not to remain at home, but to go among them and resolve to deserve and obtain the love and esteem of those who have never before known you. With them you have a fair opportunity to begin the world anew.”

Closing Words – from Archibald MacLeish, “Geography of This Time.”

What is required of us is the recognition of the frontiers between the
centuries. And to take heart: to cross over. We are very far. We are past
the place where the light lifts and farther on than the relinquishment of
leaves–farther even than the persistence in the east of the green color.
Beyond are the confused tracks, the guns, the watchers. What is required
of us, Companions, is the recognition of the frontiers across this
history, and to take heart: to cross over–to persist and to cross over
and survive, but to survive, to cross over.