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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Freedmen, Transcendentalists, and Decoration Day

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert and Erica Shadowsong, Director of Religious Exploration with Bettie Young, Worship Associate

Freedmen, Transcendentalists, and Decoration Day

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

May 26, 2013

Opening Words

We come together again to celebrate life, on a day so gorgeous, it is a celebration unto itself!

On this Memorial Day Weekend, when we remember death, we come together to celebrate life.

On this weekend when we remember those who died at war, we value their sacrifice and repeat the sentiments of their loved ones, “never again!”

In the face of their deaths, we grasp the value of our lives all the more.

And, so, though our minds be focused on honoring those who died serving our country, today our hearts will be touched – and filled – by the youngest of children among us, whose parents bring them forward to be dedicated today.

Let us rise, in body or in spirit, to sing of the beauty of our country, all of the verses of America the Beautiful, which you will find as an insert in your Bulleting.


As the Worship Associate, Bettie Young mentioned, we know Memorial Day as a federal holiday commemorating our fallen military, and that it started after the Civil War, during which more than 200,000 Americans died. But, for many Americans it is the true start of spring, and a chance to garden and barbecue.

            In fact, Decoration Day, as it was originally called, for the custom of decorating the graves of fallen soldiers, got its start as a local holiday, by newly freed men, in fact.             Yale University historian David Blight tells this fascinating story.

            “After Charleston, South Carolina was evacuated in February 1865 near the end of the Civil War, most of the people remaining among the ruins of the city were thousands of blacks. During the final eight months of the war, Charleston had been bombarded by Union batteries and gunboats, and much of its magnificent architecture lay in ruin. Also during the final months of war the Confederates had converted the Planters' Race Course (a horse track for the ruling class) into a prison in which some 257 Union soldiers had died and were thrown into a mass grave behind the grandstand.

            In April, more than twenty black carpenters and laborers went to the gravesite, reinterred the bodies in proper graves, built a tall fence around the cemetery enclosure one hundred yards long, and built an archway over an entrance. On the archway they inscribed the words, "Martyrs of the Race Course." And with great organization, on May 1, 1865, the black folk of Charleston, in cooperation with white missionaries, teachers, and Union troops, conducted an extraordinary parade of approximately ten thousand people.

            It began with three thousand black school children (now enrolled in freedmen's schools) marching around the Planters' Race Course with armloads of roses and singing "John Brown's Body." Then followed the black women of Charleston, and then the men. They were in turn followed by members of Union regiments and various white abolitionists…. The crowd gathered in the graveyard; five black preachers read from Scripture, and a black children's choir sang "America," "We Rally Around the Flag," the "Star-spangled Banner," and several spirituals. Then the solemn occasion broke up into an afternoon of speeches, picnics, and drilling troops on the infield of the old planters' horseracing track.”

            Historian David Blight sums up the story, “This was the first Memorial Day. Black Charlestonians had given birth to an American tradition. By their labor, their words, their songs, and their solemn parade of roses and lilacs and marching feet on their former masters' race course, they had created the Independence Day of the Second American Revolution.” (see footnote)

            I tell that rich and hopeful story because it adds a dimension to the dominant view of slaves as victims. It’s certainly not a story I read in my American History text book in high school – what about you? It’s just one of an endless number of examples of the way American history has been, and is, told to erase the contributions, and even humanity, of African Americans.


            I first read of it in an obscure journal published in 2001, but two years ago, it was told by David Blight in an op ed piece in the New York Times on Memorial Day Weekend.


            I tell it, too, for the opportunity to expound upon the Unitarians and Universalists among the abolitionists – especially the Transcendentalists – and I hope to help you befriend them this morning if you aren’t friends already.

            Many of the leading Transcendentalists were leading abolitionists.  Their early preaching and public speaking against slavery and for emancipation, their leadership of abolitionist efforts and organizations, and their roles in illegal anti-slavery activities are tales well-told in American Transcendentalism by the University of North Carolina professor Philip Gura.

            Any of us who studied American Literature in high school or college are likely to recognize the names of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, both 19th century Transcendentalists in Concord, MA. I learned from a colleague who then served the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Concord that the latter’s name was actually pronounced  “thore-oh.” And from his counterpart in nearby Lincoln, I learned that Thoreau really wanted to conduct his experiment in simple living on the shores of a different pond, one in Lincoln, but the property owners refused because he’d been known to be careless with his campfires! So, that is why he ended up on the property of Emerson near Walden Pond, where still stands a replica of his cabin and a cairn of stones left by admirers at its original site.

            Other Transcendentalists are also not as well-known today, except perhaps in the Boston area where one can visit their homes or come across plaques commemorating them-- Bronson Alcott (Louisa May’s father) who was an innovative educator in Concord; George Ripley who founded the experimental, egalitarian community called Brook Farm which for a brief period attracted his fellow Transcendentalists; Elizabeth Peabody who ran a bookstore on West Street in Boston that became their intellectual gathering spot and who was the founder of the nation’s first kindergarten; and Margaret Fuller, my favorite.

            Fuller was the leading feminist Transcendentalist, who for five years starting in 1839 held popular, weekly forums for women in Boston on culture, politics and feminism that she organized and conducted, at Elizabeth Peabody’s bookstore, plus she started the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial, with Emerson in 1840 and was its first editor. In 1844 Fuller accepted a job in New York City as a writer for the Tribune, the Unitarian Horace Mann’s widely read newspaper. There she became much more interested is social reform than in philosophy. She visited prisons and mental hospitals and wrote about the deplorable conditions she saw. Many of her columns were about the ills of slavery. She expanded her Dial article on feminism into the book Woman in the Nineteenth Century.

            Then, in 1846, she had a chance to go to Europe as the tutor for the son of some friends, and Greeley agreed to pay her for periodic travel reports. She was the first American female foreign correspondent. In four years, she filed 37 dispatches, 24 from Italy at the height of its revolution, which captivated her attention and enthusiasm, and led her to meeting the man she would marry, a young Italian revolutionary, with whom she had a child. After the uprising failed, the three sailed for the U.S. in 1850. But their sailing ship floundered off Fire Island, New York and all three of them drowned; her book-length manuscript on the Italian revolution went down with them. She was only forty.

            Of the male Transcendentalists, I admire the Rev. Theodore Parker.

            Parker was a great Unitarian preacher in Boston, and a fiery abolitionist on the national lecture circuit. He was known for illegally obstructing the return of slaves to their owners, as was required in all states by the federal Fugitive Slave Act. He harbored escaped slaves himself and kept a pistol in his desk drawer. His most notable statement graces the carpet installed in the Oval Room of White House by President Obama in 2010, where it is attributed to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."             

            Here is what Parker actually said in 1853: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one. . . . But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice."King wrote, as a doctoral student at Boston University, that he admired Parker. I think he improved and put Parker’s line to great use for the civil rights movement!

            At the time the Oval Office was re-decorated, the Washington Post reported that another of the quotations inscribed on the new carpet came from Parker, too:  Lincoln’s "government of the people, by the people and for the people," from the close of his Gettysburg Address in 1863. It echoes what Parker wrote in 1850, "A democracy -- that is a government of all the people, by all the people, for all the people." The article ends by summing up this Unitarian forebear of ours, “Theodore Parker, Oval Office wordmeister for the ages.” (see footnote)


            So, as you can tell already, it’s not easy to characterize the Transcendentalists.

            At the church I served for ten years in the Boston area, a juggler once visited and attempted to portray Unitarian Universalism through juggling. He started with three balls, for the Trinity. I can’t remember what two stood for. For Unitarianism there was only one, for one God. Then he dropped that last ball, and said, “Transcendentalism, folks. No God!” 

            However, from my reading, I think he should have had twenty balls up in the air for the Transcendentalists! They referred to themselves as “like-minded” because they were of the same mind about so little. And, it was only the traditional Biblical notion of God that they were without. Most of them experienced a sense of wonder akin to the divine. 

            They were a varied, vibrant collection of public intellectuals starting in Boston about 1830 into the 1850’s, when they in some cases led, and in others got swept up into, the anti-slavery movement and the lead-up to the Civil War, after which there was even less coherence among them than in the earlier period. None were young enough to serve in that war, but several of its bright lights had died by its end of other causes.

            The Transcendentalists were, or grew up as, Unitarians. Many of the men among them were ministers, though Emerson left his first and last pulpit position when his refusal to administer the Lord’s Supper ritual was not received favorably by his Unitarian congregation, and his Unitarian ministerial colleagues censored Theodore Parker for his radical theological views.

            As a group, the Transcendentalists felt Unitarianism, which was still relatively new, to be dry and cold, its reliance on reason to understand the Scriptures having removed the mystery and mysticism from Christianity, and much of its preaching to offer nothing very practical or inspiring.

            Emerson, Transcendentalism’s leading philosopher, was not easy to listen to and is not easy to read—his prose does not have much structure-- I don’t think he wrote from an outline! But, it appeals to seekers of spiritual depth still today.

            When he says, “there is deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is accessible to us,” do we know exactly what he meant? No, perhaps not, but we have a sense for it. “When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affections, it is love.” Still, though, what is that “deep power” and can we really subscribe to his idealistic, individualistic view of human nature?

            Emerson’s rather imperial sense of the individual self is one hallmark of the American Transcendentalists. Another is his controversial-for-the-time insight that divinity may be found in our experience of the natural world, and is thus directly accessible to everyone through our intuition.  And, yet a third hallmark is their activist devotion to the common good, as “movers and shakers in the forefront of educational reform; proselytizers for the rights of women, laborers, prisoners, and the indigent and infirm; and agitators for the abolition of slavery.” [American Transcendentalism, Philip Gura, p. xi].

            Surely we can see these very hallmarks in ourselves, Unitarian Universalists in the early 21st century.  We can see Emerson’s sense of self in the first Source from which we draw, “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder…which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” And we see Emerson also in our first, third and fourth Principles, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person, encouragement to spiritual growth, and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Like Emerson, many of us today experience this transcending mystery and wonder first and most in the natural world.

            And we can see the Transcendentalists’ activist devotion to the common good in our Principles as well, in that we affirm and promote “justice, equity and compassion in human relations, the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process, and the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

            We might even see Transcendentalist influence in the words of the song we sing here every Sunday, “Spirit of Life, come unto me. Sing in my heart, all the stirrings of compassion. Blow in the wind, rise in the sea; move in the hand, giving life the shape of justice. Roots hold me close; wings set me free; Spirit of Life, come to me, come to me.”           


            The advocacy of the Transcendentalists played a significant part in the eventual abolition of slavery. Yes, it took a terribly devastating war, which especially the Universalist abolitionists (with their pacifist leanings) would have prevented if they could.

            And, the freedmen of Charleston, South Carolina who were liberated by it expressed their gratitude and exultation by creating a memorial celebration such as we honour this weekend.

            Their action is a perfect example of the creation of a new ritual or tradition that encourages remembering and connecting, just as our Worship Associate this morning suggests we 21st century Americans may need. Remember, she asked, “If the old way -- Decoration Day and gravesites -- used to prompt people to stop and take time to remember loved ones, tell stories, and reconnect with their family’s values; and if our current way --Memorial Day and scattered ashes -- does not facilitate those kinds of connections; are there new rituals or traditions we could build upon to encourage remembering and connecting?”


            May we be inspired by our history to create what our era requires, and to honor the commitments to liberty and justice of our forebears, Black and White, in our lives, in these times.





(1)   David Blight’s story is at Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, July 2001,  http://www.common-place.org/vol-01/no-04/slavery/blight.shtml

(2)   The Washington Post story about the Oval Office carpet is at



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