Rev. Stephen Kendrick is the Senior Minister at First and Second Church in Boston.
Good evening and welcome to the First and Second Church, and to a very special evening ahead of us.
He was a Boston boy, born in a yellow clapboard parsonage on Summer Street on May 25th, 1803. It was election day. The boy grew up playing on the Boston Common, sitting in the pews of the First Church of Boston.
And then, when he became a Concordian, it would take a whole day to come back by stage, to sit in the Boston Athenaeum, to read and reflect. And although he was ambivalent about Boston's stolid and mercantile culture, he also loved it as well.
From his journal in 1842: "Boston is not quite a mean place, since in walking yesterday in the street, I met George Bancroft, Samson Reed, Sam Ward, Theodore Parker and George Bradford, and had a little talk with each of them." Imagine such a 'walk' today.
He grew up in that parsonage which was only a half a mile away from "Old Brick". It was the Church of his father, William. And we recognize him this evening as well, for he was Minister of First Church, as his son, Waldo, was to be Minister of the Second Church.
William is not well remembered, and yet, he served in his ministry, for the town of Boston, on the School Committee, the Singing Society, the Humane Society, the Agricultural Society, the Philosophical Society, the Society for the Promotion of Science, the Anthology Club, an Overseer of Harvard College. And he helped organize and to begin the Boston Athenaeum and the Massachusetts Historical Society. Leo [Collins] is proud of saying that William also published a marvelous book of hymns. And when he died, he was writing a history of First Church.
We are so pleased, therefore, to host this celebration.
John Buehrens could not be with us tonight because of a family event. And so, on behalf of the First and Second Church as well as the Unitarian Universalist Association, I welcome you.
And I wish to say at the very start a special thanks to these singers, to their choral leaders, to William Bolcom, whose "May-Day" [anthem] is going have its premier here tonight, to the fine Emerson scholars who will share literally years of insight with us tonight.
And I also want to thank some people who did a lot of work to make this event come to life: the [Emerson Bicentennial] Committee that stands before me, whose names are recognized in your order of service of commemoration. [Rev. Barry Andrews, Chair, Joan Goodwin, John Hurley, Robert D. Richardson, Jr., David M. Robinson and Nancy Craig Simmons.]
I want to thank Leo Collins, whose [Emerson] Garland we will be singing from tonight; Bonnie Hurd Smith, whose marvelous exhibit [of the Living Legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson]—if you have not had time to take a look at it—is wonderful! It will begin its journey here tonight; go on, and eventually, I hope, go to parishes all across the country, and certainly, General Assembly in Boston this June; Janine Mudge, a member of our congregation, who pulled together so many last minute details and for the reception; and Barry Andrews, who made everything come together. We appreciate all of these people's hard work tonight.
We celebrate tonight a legacy, true, but it is a living one. Now, what would Ralph Waldo Emerson think of us, gathered for the 200th commemoration of his birth? I suspect he would have been a little ambivalent, because he proclaimed that religion is to be lived anew in each life. He was a little suspicious, perhaps even dour, about paying too much attention to the pull of the past.
From his very first sermon, he said: "For what is the past? It is nothing worth. Its value, except as a means of wisdom, is, in the nature of things, actually nothing. What are the great men and great things that surround you? All they can do for you is dust, and less than dust. For you can do for yourself. They are like you, stretching forward into one hope, the citizens in trust of a future world."
"It is true. You prefer to look to the future and not the past." He said, "You can only live for yourself. Your action is good. Only once it is alive. Once it is in you. The new individual must work out the whole problem of science and letters and theology. We can owe our fathers nothing."
And yet, and yet, here we are: two hundred years on. And the question remains, for those of the free faith. Perhaps we owe him nothing. But my feeling tonight is of an immense gratitude.
Whenever Emerson was asked to contribute to a commemorative event, he never failed to rise to the occasion. He was then, truly, a Boston boy—deeply inbred, with a sense of tradition and its power, and the community's need, and the right to make anniversaries an important event. Something about which we know ourselves.
And thus we will sing tonight the Concord Hymn which he wrote in 1836. And touchingly, the words in the Emerson Garland, the hymn he wrote for his successor at Second Church, Chandler Robbins, when he was installed: "We love the venerable house our Fathers built to God". And words that mean a lot to all of us tonight. Emerson wrote, "And anxious hearts have pondered here The mystery of life." And all this there is a balance we acknowledge tonight, yet, that religion moves us forward.
But we also need to remember, and to revere our past. So let us be true to his radical spirit, his thought. And let his legacy be, in the deepest sense, a prod, a spur, a bracing challenge, a provocation, an invitation. And to the person that you have met today, what more can a teacher offer us?
He said in his essay, Worship, "the choral song which arises from all elements and all angels: It is a voluntary obedience. It is necessitated freedom." It is this freedom that we acknowledge and celebrate tonight.
Welcome to all of you for this special celebration for the life and the legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson.
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Last updated on Tuesday, April 10, 2012.
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