On this 341st anniversary of our gathering, as we receive new members who have come to “own the covenant” and as we honor our long-term members, some of whom have been members of this body of Christ for more than seventy-five years, listen:
“The history of Old South Church is more than the record of one New England meetinghouse still in existence after three centuries. Deep under the foundations of the three structures that have housed its … worshippers lie whole chapters of American history and the slow emergence of certain ideas and principles upon which this nation is built—liberty, freedom of conscience, human brotherhood.”
—Ola Elizabeth Winslow, from the Foreword to “And Plead for the Rights of All: Old South Church in Boston, 1669-1969”
Indeed, deep under the foundations of the three structures … lie whole chapters of American history:
The Cedar Meeting House
Beneath the foundation of our first structure, the Cedar Meetinghouse, there is a chapter written by Thomas Thacher, our first minister. He was called to the service of this church in 1670. Thacher was a physician before he was a minister. It was in 1677, during an outbreak of the measles and smallpox—to ease the pain of a suffering and under-doctored population—that Thacher wrote and published a medical broadside, the first patient information brochure on this soil.
There is a chapter written by Samuel Willard, our second minister. He served during the so-called Witch Trials of 1692. Courageously he stood in opposition to the witch trials. He spoke against the hysteria and worked to turn the tide of public opinion. Willard risked his reputation—and risked that the charge of witchcraft would be turned upon him—and prevailed upon the governor to end the proceedings of the special court of Oyer and Terminer.
There is a chapter about Benjamin Franklin whose father, Josiah (Abiah) brought him to the Cedar Meetinghouse the very day he was born—on a bitter cold January, 1706—to be baptized by Samuel Willard … from whom, perhaps, he inherited some uncommon common sense.
There is a chapter by Phillis Wheatley. Born in Gambia, Senegal, she was kidnapped at age 8 and sold into slavery. She was transported to this land on The Phillis, after which she was named. She was purchased by a Boston family named Wheatley. They taught her to read and write and encouraged her scholarly and intellectual endeavors. By age twelve she was literate in English, Latin, and Greek and a student of science, geography, and history. By age twenty she had traveled to Europe, was a published poet by whose own fame and fortune she won her freedom.
The Old South Meeting House
Under the foundation of our second home, the Old South Meeting House, lie several chapters about the American Revolution and the leadership of Samuel Adams (whose name is carved into the leather cover of this Bible and painted in gold).
There are chapters on freedom of speech and civil civic discourse … so much so they called our meetinghouse a Mouth house …. for all the constant discourse about matters of great and grave consequence.
There are chapters on taxation with representation, and how a free people might govern themselves given, as our founders observed of themselves, the tendency of human beings to sin: to pride, greed, envy, lust, sloth, anger, gluttony. They tried to frame a way of governing that was both liberal and flexible in its outlook and reach and, which understood the capacity of the individual to fail and fall short.
There is a chapter about Thomas Dawes (whose communion tankard we have on display this morning). He, too was baptized by Samuel Willard. He grew to become a Colonel, patriot, one of Boston’s first architects (it was he who restored the Meeting House after it had been taken over by the British and mishandled) and he was an elector of the first three presidents.
There is a chapter about Jacob Manning, our 16th senior minister. Manning was a radical abolitionist who preached and labored for a nation free of the heinous institution of slavery. It was under Manning’s leadership that our Meeting House became a recruiting station for the Union Army. Manning himself sought special leave from the congregation to serve as an Army chaplain, ministering to men in the misery of war. The leave was granted. He left for the killing fields, took ill, and never recovered.
There are chapters under the foundations of this church about abolition and suffrage, about the founding of City Mission Society, Seafarer’s Friend and the YMCA in America.
The New Old South …
Deep under the foundations of this building there are chapters on public housing.
There are chapters on bussing and desegregation. There is a chapter about our Senior Minister Emeritus, Jim Crawford. It tells of how Jim folded his 6’ 8” frame into children’s yellow school buses as he accompanied little black children into all white areas to go to school.
There is a chapter about this church’s outreach and ministry to men with HIV/AIDS.
There is a chapter about the New Century Hymnal and its use of fully inclusive language for God … a hymnal that was published in 1994, but remains today a radical Christian document.
There is a chapter on LGBT Rights and the freedom to marry and another on healthcare for all.
There is a chapter about Desmond Tutu preaching from this pulpit about the plight of the Palestinians and bringing down upon himself—and upon this congregation—the wrath of some and tears of gratitude of others.
Deep under the foundations of the three structures lie whole chapters of American history. True. All true. But deeper still, deeper than the foundations, deeper than the thousands of timber piles driven 30 feet into the fill beneath us … deeper still is the foundation upon which Thomas Thacher built his ministry of healing and preaching: the healing, preaching ministry of Jesus.
Deeper than the foundations of the three structures, is the foundation upon which Samuel Willard bravely stood, when he confronted the hysteria of his day. He remembered the mob that would have stoned a first century prostitute, had it not been for Jesus’ courage and compassion and appeal to reason. Just as Jesus had, Willard placed his own body between so-called witches and an angry mob wielding stones. The hysterical men eventually dropped their stones and walked away.
Deep under the foundations of the three structures is the faith of Phillis Wheatley who, as a girl from Senegal—a black girl in a white man’s world—had the audacity to decry slavery as antithetical to the gospel of love she discovered for herself in the pages of the New Testament, in the story of Jesus. She claimed that slavery was bad for white people … bad for white souls! She wrote a whole chapter of American history on that foundation. Her chapter is written in poetic verse.
Deep under the foundation of the three structures are springs of living water: the waters of baptism, filling this font, flowing all the way from the Jordon River where John baptized Jesus … the waters of baptism flowing into our own baptismal font, we approach the font freely, submitting ourselves to be marked and claimed by God for the work of love.
Mega churches are a largely suburban phenomenon. They are housed in stadiums, shopping malls, and corporate settings. Intending to provide comfort by arranging spaces that are familiar, and “every day,” they have expunged from their spaces any traces of the past.
We, on the other hand, are surrounded, inspired, challenged, chastened and measured by those who have gone before us … those whose memories and stories with cherish and from whom we hope to learn.
This week—at Jazz Worship, First Worship and Festival Worship—we add to the list of those who have gone before us, those who will write the next chapter in the long and extraordinary history of this people of God.
Sarah, Suzanne, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Erzulie, Juile, Justin, Peter, Christian, Danielle—this is the work you take up. The writing of the next chapter is in your hands. You must stand firming on the foundation laid by Jesus. You will not be alone. You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses …
The God who has sustained us thus far, will carry us forward.