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From Generation to Generation

Rev. Nancy S. Taylor
Jun 10 2012


As some of you know, next Sunday, June 17th, Old South’s Historian, Jeff Makholm, will unveil the portrait of the 20th Senior Minister. (It was intended to take place in February during our 343rd Annual Meeting, but the portrait was tardy and missed the meeting.)

It is a rare privilege to serve as the Senior Minister of this church and, among the privileges, is a special bond and fellowship with my nineteen predecessors, many of whom I have come to know quite well, for whom I have developed the most enormous respect and, in many cases, affection and reverence.

Next Sunday we will have occasion to meet many of them.

Today, however, belongs to the lay leaders. I imagine the clergy and laity of this church functioning like an orchestra. I imagine God as the composer. The music we study and practice, the music on which we train our powers of concentration, the music we produce is Gospel: God’s good news. It is given to us to parry the world’s cacophony with the rich and sweet harmonies of God’s justice, mercy and beauty.

I imagine each of you as a member of this orchestra ... each trained in a different instrument. The clergy, I suppose, serve as conductor.

The purpose of our collaboration: serving as instruments of God’s music, God’s compositions ... and as we play it, we can’t help but learn it. And as we learn it, we learn to love it.

Sometimes, with musicians like Yo-Yo Ma or Sam Ou, with voices like those of Rebecca and Adriano, Julius and Matt, the conductor takes a step back, and turns the floor over to the great ones whose music swells and chills, warms and inspires.

So has it been with some of the great lay leaders of Old South ... those for whom the clergy have stepped back to feature great soloists like Benjamin Franklin, Phillis Wheatley and Samuel Adams.

But there are so many more who have served as instruments in this old, storied orchestra: people with names like Aazor, Deliverance, Theophilis, Hezekiah, Jehosheba, Obadiah and Bartholmew.

Among the orchestra have been the Pembertons and the Olivers, the Scottows and the Winthrops, the Bradstreets and the Sewells ... but also the Threadneedle family, the Wigglesworths, and the Hornbuckles.

Playing in the Old South orchestra: Boston’s first bookseller, Hezekiah Usher; the Colony’s first mint-master, John Hull; Mary Chilton, the first women to set foot on Plymouth rock; Chief Justice Wait Still Winthrop; and, a man whose name does make you wonder about his parents ... a man who joined in 1727, his name: Thankful Fish.

Also in the orchestra a woman named Anne Pollard. The Historical Catalogue of Old South Church records that Anne Pollard owned the covenant on June 5th of 1670. We know she married a tavern keeper and a notation by her name stands out ... her age at her death ... no one else’s age is given. Why? Because Anne Pollard lived to the age of 105. About 1643, she married innkeeper William Pollard (d. ca. 1679), and they had thirteen children. The Pollards opened a tavern in 1659 near the present site of the Park Street Church, and Mrs. Pollard continued the business after her husband's death.

Also in the orchestra, Josiah and Abidiah Franklin, parents to Benjamin. They owned the covenant in 1693. Josiah, with the important position of tithing man, served in his day, as it were, as first chair violin.

There are so many others. A great multitude who summoned the will to tune their instruments to play God’s gospel music of hope and justice, of mercy and beauty through the wretched horrors of slavery, through wars, disease, plague and famine, through killingly cold New England winters and violent nor’easters ...

They played on as our nation argued over the efficacy of vaccines, the cause and purpose of lightning, they produced the music of justice as we faced the calamity of the so-called witch trials. They played strains of resurrection hope when their wives died in childbirth, and when too many of their beloved infants did not survive even to be toddlers.

Boston in the 18th century was a center of interracial religious activity. Old South Church was a leader in this. Not only did one of our lay members write and publish the first anti-slavery tract on this soil, but recent scholarship reveals that Old South Church in the 1600, 1700 and 1800s was more welcoming of American Indians and of people of African descent than the average Boston church.

The Old South records reveal that we led other Boston churches in baptizing and welcoming as full members persons of color. (Source: Boles, Richard J. African American and Indian Church Affiliation: Old South Church Boston and Evangelical Congregational Church Grafton. The George Washington University)

It is awkward to boast about our Old South Church ancestors for being just the tiniest bit less racist than others of their day ... but there you have it.

The first mention that I have found of an African American becoming a member of this church was as early as 1696. The records show that on March 2, 1696, an enslaved woman by the name Lydia owned the covenant.

Sarah, also enslaved, became a member in July of 1710. Margaret joined in 1711 and Jane in 1720.

Sadly, we know nothing more of these women ... but our historical documents reveal this trend: initially persons of color were baptized or joined as members under the sponsorship and by the authority of their owners ... The records also reveal that when they had children, they brought their children for baptism under their own authority.

On January 25, 1718 the Rev. Joseph Sewell baptized an Indian woman named Jane. The records indicate she lived in the Sewell’s home ... in the parsonage.

To the historical record of Old South will be added today new names, new musicians who have come to take up their instruments in the music of God’s Good News:

The historical record will read that at First Worship on June 10, 2012, parents Veronica and Erik brought to this church for Christian baptism their son—the pride and joy of their lives—Sebastian Eli Kalk Brenner. Our descendants will marvel at this small child’s imposing name.

The record will indicate that two adults owned the covenant at First Worship this day, that six owned the covenant at Festival Worship and four more did so at Thursday’s Jazz Worship.

The record will indicate that among those who owned the covenant today are a medical student, a professor of psychology, an avid rower who is enrolled in a PhD program, and a medical doctor.

The record will not easily show just how beautiful this church is this morning ... and how beautiful the people, and how tender and full the hearts, and how sweet our children ... but our descendants, if they are good researchers, will figure those things out and surmise the rest.

The Old South record will indicate that on this day, June 10, 2012, we honored those who have been members of this congregation for 25 years to, in the case of Ted Parkins, 77 years.

The historical record will indicate these things because we cherish our records. Every year we gather and bind the Sunday bulletins, the sermons, the newsletters and minutes of meetings.

These are gathered, bound, and five copies made: two copies go directly to the Congregational Library where our archives are kept; one copy to the Gordon Library, one to the historian’s office, one is kept in the office of the Senior Minister.

The psalmist serenades the God who has gathered us together: “O God,” he sings, “you have been our dwelling place in all generations” ... in Anne Pollard’s generation as in Ben Franklin’s; in the generations represented by Ashleigh, Maggie, Sarah, Scott, Brenda and Wendell ... as in the generations represented by Ted Parkins and by Sabastian Eli Kalk Brenner.

We are related—all of us and each of us—if not by blood, than by water ... the waters of baptism. In the church, water is thicker than blood.

And it is in from these waters that the instruments of our lives are tuned to praise the Creator God, Author of the Universe ... Composer of symphonies of justice, mercy and beauty.