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I Go a Fishing or In Defense of the Puritans

Rev. Nancy S. Taylor
Jul 26 2015

I dedicate this sermon to my father,
David S. Taylor of blessed memory,
a sometime fisherman. (NST)

We have arrived at the final chapter in John’s Gospel. Jesus is dead and gone. He was recently and ignominiously executed by the state. With his death, the world of his followers is in shambles. For three years they had followed him. They had abandoned their boats and their nets, their livelihoods and their personal lives—and devoted themselves to exclusively him, to Jesus.

But Jesus is dead now. And their world has come undone. They are huddled together. Morose. Confused. Defeated. Uncertain. Without direction. As sheep without their shepherd.

When, quite out of the blue and in reference to absolutely nothing, Simon Peter pipes up and exclaims. “I’m going fishing!”

Barely is this non-sequitur out of Simon Peter’s mouth than the others chime in: “Me too!”

In the final chapter in John’s Gospel, in the concluding chapter in the amazing story of the Messiah of God, of the Word made flesh …the followers of Jesus—those upon whom the future of Christianity depends— go fishing.

And, as sometimes happens when fishermen go fishing, they catch nothing. Not one puny fish.

Just as the sun begins to peak over the horizon, Jesus appears. Out of nowhere the resurrected Jesus appears. He is standing on the beach, his hand shielding his eyes and he is peering out towards the boat from which his followers are fishing. “Children,” he yells across the water, “Have you caught anything?” They have not.

The Son of God, Savior of the World, he who suffered under Pontus Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, who on the third day is raised from the dead——yells back: “Cast your net over there!”

They do. And their net fills with fish, so many are they and so large are they, that these muscled fisherman barely have the strength to haul in the net.

When they finally bring the net in and drag their weary, wet, starving and fish-smelling selves to shore, there is Jesus with a fire going. Jesus is grilling fish on the fire.

There is Jesus—the Word made flesh, the life that is the light of the world—at the beach, bent over a fire, preparing breakfast.

And so it is that John, the Evangelist brings to conclusion his story of Jesus: a night of old friends recreational fishing followed by breakfast on the beach.

Now, if you are a fisherman-preacher, you might take special notice of this story. It might even give you ideas! Which is exactly what happened to the Reverend Joseph Seccombe.

This fishing story turned and spun in the heart and in the soul and in the mind of the fisherman-preacher named Joseph Seccombe.

Like a shiny lure pulled through water, this story turned and spun and sparkled and lured the Reverend Joseph Seccombe. And he bit … and swallowed it whole: hook, line and sinker.

Let me back up for a minute and tell you something about the Reverend Joseph Seccombe. He joined Old South Church as a youth. He is first mentioned in Hamilton Hill’s two volume History of Old South Church in Boston in 1728. The entry, records this: “Voted: that fifteen pounds sterling be given to Joseph Secombe for his support at the College”

The College, of course, being Harvard, and our reason for supporting his education: he was studying for the Christian ministry.

Still today, these three hundred years later, this church financially supports all of our members who are studying for the ministry (though not nearly as handsomely as we supported the young Joseph Seccombe in 1728).

Joseph Seccombe did well at Harvard College, graduated and was ordained. His ordination took place in the Old South Meeting House and Rev Joseph Seccombe went on to serve the church in Kingston, New Hampshire.

It appears that every year during the fishing season, Rev Seccombe took his vacation. He packed his things, climbed onto his horse and rode to Amoskeag Falls in New Hampshire to fish.

Here’s the key: he did not fish alone. Summer vacations in the 1700’s in Amoskeag Falls on the Merrimack River were especially popular with a more aristocratic set than Joseph Secombe: shippers, merchants, minor industrialists.

On vacation from their tedious labors, these fishing enthusiasts traveled annually to Amoskeag Falls, where they boarded with locals in their homes, re-unioned with each other, took the fisherman-preacher under their wing, and fished.

Daily, except on Sunday, they rose early, before the sun shone, packed a hunk of hard cheese, a loaf of bread and a jug of beer, gathered up their rods (rods that were a hefty 15 to 18 feet long and which each fisherman had likely made for himself), climb upon their horses, and rode out to do what Simon Peter and the disciples did: Go a fishing.

Once arrived at the agreed upon spot, the fishermen spread out, wading into the Merrimack River –and there, among rapids and falls, riffles and rocks, they fished.

They fished and fished and fished catching salmon, herring, alewives, and eels.

You see, the Puritans in general were outdoor enthusiasts. They were hunters and fishermen. They roamed the woods and forded the streams. In fact, hunting and fishing—along with picnics on beaches, on islands, by lakes, in meadows—were standard Puritan recreations.

However, whatever outdoor enthusiasms stirred in their blood, the stirring had to be stilled on Sunday. Sundays were for devotion, for prayer and Bible reading, for worship services and all manner of Godly instruction, reflection and meditation. That is, until the year 1739.

It was in 1739 during the fishing season, while on his vacation at Amoskeeg Falls, that the Puritan preacher, the Reverend Joseph Seccombe, mounted the pulpit of the little, rural meeting house—undoubtedly egged on by his fishing-buddies—and preached a cheeky sermon entitled:

Business and Diversion inoffensive to God.

His sermon is an impassioned, pious and scholarly defense, not only of recreational fishing, but of recreational fishing ON THE SABBATH!

In undertaking his argument, Joseph Seccombe dared challenge and contradict the great Cotton Mather. For Cotton Mather insisted that recreational fishing on the Sabbath was absolutely prohibited for one who professes to live a Godly life. (see note below)

Now, in order to make his case that recreational fishing was not only inoffensive to God, but indeed, both necessary for the Christian and permitted even on the Sabbath, Reverend Secombe had to be well-armed with learning.

Happily, and thanks to his church (this church) who paid his way through Harvard, the Reverend Joseph Seccombe was conversant in New Testament Greek, intimately acquainted with biblical Hebrew, familiar with Latin, the language of the church fathers and a devoted student of the philosopher-physician, John Locke.

Taking as his text, the fishing story in the final chapter of John’s Gospel, Rev Seccombe argues, point by point, case by case, verse by verse, that not only does the Great Creator of heaven and earth condone fishing as necessary to the health of the body (fish being nourishing and full of protein), he also argues that it is God’s highest will for us, God’s fondest hope for us that we recreate and socialize, even on the Sabbath day: by resting from our labors, enjoying one another’s good company and delighting in the gifts and graces of nature.

Rev Joseph Seccombe points out how Jesus and his followers, enjoyed seasons of retreat and leisure from their duties. He reminds his hearers that not only does Jesus permit the enjoyment of recreation and recreational fishing, he even supports and encourages it, by pointing out where the fish are to be found!

We can imagine that the sermon was quite a hit the day it was preached. But it took three years for Seccombe to work up the nerve to publish this sermon. Even then, the preacher used a pseudonym: Fluviatulis Piscator (roughly translated: Cheeky Fisherman).

His sermon, printed in 1743 is the earliest known document pertaining to recreation in the Colonial period. All of American fishing literature traces its origin to this sermon.

The Puritans too often get a bad rap …some of it deserved, though not all. But, rarely do they get credit where credit is due. And for Joseph Seccombe’s sermon and so much more, credit is due.

Here’s the thing: in the 1700’s only a Puritan minister could have preached this sermon. Only Puritans of that day regarded education as critical to the ministry. An educated minister, afforded freedom of the pulpit is bound to pursue new ideas … explore and give voice to unexpected, even unorthodox convictions.

Herein lies the danger and the promise of an educated ministry!

I am often asked this question: How is it that the Puritans ended up with the Unitarians and the UCC as their direct descendants? How did we get from the Puritans to Old South Church in Boston? What went wrong?

Answer: a devotion to learning coupled with freedom of the pulpit. A devotion to learning, to intellectual and spiritual curiosity no matter where these might lead … this coupled with the dearly held conviction called “freedom of the pulpit”.

In other words, we have no pope, no bishop, no synod or presbytery approving my sermon or censuring my words to you.

The same was true for Rev. Joseph Seccombe. No authority oversaw, approved or disapproved his sermon or his theology. His authority to speak, preach and teach derived from his studies and his own spiritual and intellectual curiosity.

The Puritans often get a bad rap and are made fun of. Their lives and pursuits, their devotions and duties are too often dismissed as primitive and cartoonish. But many of them were intellectual giants: profoundly devoted to learning, no matter where it might take them.

That is why and how the Puritans produced the likes of Benjamin Franklin and Samuel, John and Abagail Adams; the first anti-slavery tract on this soil; the mother of African American poetry; the first medical brochure; the father of American fishing literature …and so much more.

The Unitarians and the United Church of Christ are, indeed, the true and logical descendants of the Puritans.

The next time someone saith unto you:

I go a fishing, remember to say,
Me too! And be sure to tag along.
Remember Jesus on the beach,
pointing out where the fish were to be found
and grilling breakfast for his followers.

Remember Joseph Seccombe.
Remember this eccentric and devoted fisherman-preacher,
a Puritan parson who turned Sunday into a day of delights:
a day of rivers dappled and dancing with sunlight,
the thrill of the hunt,
secretive creatures beneath the dark waters,
the pull of the rod heavy with meat,
the winning of protein and comradery.

Remember our brother Joseph Seccombe
who dared argue for the pursuit of recreation as
a spiritual undertaking inoffensive to God.

And remember this:
we paid for his education!

Note: There is a reliable story that the great Puritan cleric, Cotton Mather, fell out of his canoe in 1716 while recreational fishing. He was fishing for perch on Spy Pond, near Cambridge. Rev Mather emerged from the water wet, cold and fishless. The event caused him to reflect on its meaning. Before long he was chastising his fellow clerics for wasting God’s time in recreational fishing.