Linus Shaw: Patriot and Prophet?
Our worthy fathers bled
In freedom’s cause:
That we, their offspring might
Enjoy this glorious light,
Of Liberty and right
And equal laws.
- – The Rev. Mr. Linus Shaw, 1831
Today, I’m going to talk about the eighth minister of First Parish. His name was Linus Shaw and he served here, in this very building, during the Civil War.
In particular, we’re going to learn about what Rev. Shaw said about the Civil War in his Thanksgiving Sermon of 1861, but first, I want you all to guess some things I learned from Rev. Shaw’s record books:
1. How much do you think the Shaw family paid for their Thanksgiving turkey in 1854? $1.00
2. Name some gifts Rev. Shaw got at a surprise party given by this congregation in 1860? Money, a kerosene lamp, 25 pounds of fine white sugar, four bushels of rye, a cord of wood, a table cover for the parlor, meat, lard and cake. He declared: “It was one of the pleasantest occasions that we ever knew.”
UNISON CHALICE LIGHTING
We light our chalice for those who are willing to die for peace and for those who dare to live in peace.
RESPONSIVE READING For Independence by Linus Shaw
Linus Shaw wrote this poem in 1831 when he was attending Harvard Theological School. He was 26.
Hail to this glorious day,
Whose beams of light display
A nation’s joy:
- Let freedom’s happy sons,
- With heart and voice and tongue
- In praise and raptious song
:The hours employ.
May we, this hallowed day,
Our thanks and offerings pay
To God, most high:
- By whose almighty aid
- The tyrant’s arm was stayed
- His hopes in ashes laid
:In shame to die.
By him sustained and led
Our worthy fathers bled
In freedom’s cause:
- That we, their offspring, might/
- Enjoy this glorious light,
- Of Liberty and right
:And equal laws.
Fair science, too, is here
Her palaces we rear,
Our nation’s boast:
- Temples to God, we raise
- And in them pray and praise
- And sing with heavenly lays
:In rapture lost
Here peace and plenty dwell
Each grateful bosom swells,
With joy and love:
- Health happiness are here;
- Chaste mirth and modest cheer
- Fall grateful on our ear
:Our souls improve.
Here kinship, too, is found
Fraternal love abounds
And fills this place:
- Here, too, dwells honesty
- Faith, hope, and charity
- Temperance and purity
:And every grace.
To thee O Lord we owe
This happiness and know
That thou art kind:
- By thee sustained, we live
- Thy favour life can give
- And make the dead revive
:And glories find.
Wilt thou thy favour lend
Will thou our steps attend
This life’s dark why:
- And when our toil is over
- When life shall be no more
- Conduct us by thy power
:To another day.
- – Linus Shaw, July 1831
READING from “The War, and its Cause” a sermon preached at Sudbury, Mass., on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 21, 1861, at a Union Meeting of the Religious Societies of the Town by Linus H. Shaw, Minister of the First Parish in Sudbury.
On Thanksgiving Day, 1861, The Rev. Mr. Linus Shaw preached to the citizens of Sudbury, at a meeting of the (then) three religious societies of the town: Unitarian, Congregational, Methodist. His colleagues included the Rev. Mr. Erastus Dickinson of the Congregational Church and the Rev. Mr. Joseph Scott of the Methodist. He may have preached in this very building.
I love the coincidence. In two weeks we at First Parish will host the annual Thanksgiving Interfaith Community service again and, this time, twelve local congregations will be represented.
Given its length Shaw’s sermon probably lasted a lot longer than an hour I will summarize his main points, using his own words as much as possible.
He begins: We are assembled again, to engage in appropriate religious exercises, on the return of our great New England Festival…. But in one respect, especially, how different are the circumstances in which we meet to-day, from those a year ago…. [C]ircumstances altogether new and untried have risen up around us; and we are called, by a necessity which we cannot avoid,… to meet them as best we may. Within the period of the last six months, the order of things about us, and the aspect of things before us, have almost wholly changed…. The course of common industry…has been suddenly checked; and the hands which have been accustomed to the plough, the plane, or the pen, or to work the loom or the printing press, are now turned to the dreadful arts of war, and are fast becoming familiar with the rifle and the sword.
[A little familiar background:]In January of that year six southern states seceded from the Union; in February seven states created a Confederate constitution and formed a new government. In March, Abraham Lincoln said at his inauguration that he hoped to resolve the conflict without warfare. But, on April 12, 1861, confederates fired on Fort Sumter and the Civil War began. Shaw told his hearers that he could not persuade himself that he had done justice to the demands of the hour, or met their expectations, if he neglected to make this war the main subject of his remarks.
I know how he feels. It’s hard to be unabashedly grateful without acknowledging the pain and suffering of our world. I cannot do it either.
Shaw began by listing what he saw as the causes of the war both alleged and assigned. First, it is boldly asserted by many, and honestly believed by some, that this trouble is all to be traced to the Abolitionists. Second, some say: the people of the North have been unfaithful to those of the South, have refused to fulfill their constitutional obligations toward them, and have denied them their mutual rights, as a portion of the nation, thus dividing the Union. Third, he says, complaints are also made about Personal Liberty Laws, which were passed by the Legislatures of some of the Northern States. He is referring to the Fugitive Slave Bill that the South complains has not been well-executed. He debunks all of these so-called causes.
Then Shaw adds what he considers to be the root cause of a nation divided. The year 1620 was distinguished by two remarkable events. In August of that year, a Dutch vessel arrived at the mouth of the James River, Virginia, bringing twenty negro slaves and landing them on the soil. In December, of the same year, another vessel, sailing also from Holland, came and arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, with a very different freight, and for a very different object. The former vessel planted Slavery on this American soil; — the latter vessel bore our honored Forefathers hither, and planted Freedom…
[As for the cause of the present state of things, he continued] I account for it all in the natural and necessary growth of the two antagonistic principles, or forces, which, for nearly two and a half centuries have been spreading and ripening on our soil. … It must be noted that everything that is planted and takes root, must have a growth… unless it is checked…. Now, the harvest-day has come the great day of judgment and of trial of these two opposite systems which have been growing together not in harmony, but in conflict side by side, on this American soil…. Doubtless God sees that this is long time enough to have given the American people a fair trail of these two opposite systems.
And then, in a reference to a reading from the book of Matthew, he says: Now [the American people] will be ready to take the wheat and gather it safely in, and to bind the tares in bundles to be burned. But who are the appointed reapers…? They are not all of one name, or of one class, or of one purpose. He is asking will the people gather in slavery or freedom? And which will burn?
Shaw concludes that the system of Slavery was small, weak and comparatively restrained in the days of the founding fathers. But in later years, it grew and spread itself until it became powerful, bold, lordly [and] defiant; and feels itself entitled to the highest place and the highest honor, and the supreme power in the nation. He believes that people of the North have made a wiser choice (abolishing slavery voluntarily) and are appointed to nobler work: — to cherish, nourish, support and defend Freedom.
SERMON Linus Shaw: Patriot and Prophet?
Coming to the crescendo of his sermon, Shaw notes: there is more on this Thanksgiving Day to be deplored than to make us glad… A year ago… there were men, holding the highest offices in the government next to the President, who were engaged, directly and most devotedly, in undermining and destroying this government by placing it in a condition of weakness and destitution. Our Treasury was plundered of its accumulated millions. Our National War Vessels were ordered away to distant ports so that they could not be called home at once, should they be suddenly needed. …Had this dark plotting of evil men gone further…the fate of American Liberty would have been sealed forever; and our Declaration of Independence, and our noble Constitution, would have been among the dead things of the past!… [So] let it be owed with devout thanksgiving that the power that had been so wickedly employed was taken away; and opportunity was given to those who had remained faithful to the great principles of the Fathers.
Shaw obviously did not have to worry about his congregation’s non profit status! He named names and pointed fingers.
He also paused to give thanks for the genuine patriotism and noble spirit of sacrifice which our people have shown during the crisis. I would like to pause to do the same. As we approach this Veteran’s day, I acknowledge that the sacrifices of our soldiers, of their families and friends, and of the innocent people who gave their lives in this war, cannot be measured. Nor can our grief.
Shaw saw the cause in 1861 the same as in 1776; we are only defending and maintaining what our fathers gained for us. He believed that the good old “Ship of State,” the noble Constitution, having survived the storm raised by this family quarrel, [will] resume her course onward.
Well, let us assess where we are 145 years later.
The good old “Ship of State” is still afloat, having survived many storms since.
And now, too, we are a nation at war; our defense reserves have been ordered to distant ports. There are forces at least according to some who would undermine our government and deplete our Treasury out of greed. Others would say those same forces are the true patriots, the ones appointed to the noble work of cherishing, nourishing, supporting and defending Freedom. How far have we come?
We are also at war with each other: conservative versus liberal, red state versus blue state, straight versus gay, white versus black (oh yes, still!), “legal” versus “illegal,” haves versus have-nots, well-educated versus poorly-educated; the list can go on and on. Pro this-or-that versus anti this-or-that. The wedge between brothers and sisters in this country is deep and wide and it feels as though it is getting deeper and wider. What happened to the idea of a common-wealth, a common good? I don’t know. It’s been lost to greed. Which is exactly what Shaw thought fueled the institution of slavery, which, in turn, is exactly what Shaw thought threatened our independence, our freedom, and our constitution.
Shaw didn’t blame southern people per se. Slavery, he reminded his listeners, was in all the states when our government was formed. But he says: “We in the north soon got rid of it, while the people of the south chose to retain it, regarding it, at first, as a necessary evil.” Looking back 145 years, reluctantly, I would have to tell my colleague the Rev. Mr. Shaw that we may have gotten rid of slavery in this country, but we certainly have not succeeded in eradicating racism or, for that matter, eliminating the injustices of poverty and class, education or even purpose. Great chasms still exist between factions in this country.
But Shaw saw it differently. He believed that slavery persisted in the South because it was convenient and, later, because it seemed necessary to sustain the rich source of labor that supported the luxury and lifestyles of the slave owners. In the South, he says, slavery grew from necessary evil to divine right in just a few generations.
I’m not sure I agree with his assessment of the North’s so-called admirable role in abolishing slavery. I fear that, had it served the North as well as it did the South, slavery would have been held up as a national institution for progress. But that is hindsight talking. Had I been sitting in the pews that Thanksgiving Day, I believe I would have shared Shaw’s patriotic fervor.
Shaw explains that the Fugitive Slave Bill was framed by several northern states to protect free citizens who were in danger of being claimed, seized, and carried off as slaves. Before it was enacted, the fear was that any slave master coming from the South, could enter any city or village in the land and, with the aid of certain officers appointed for the purpose, could take away any person he may choose to call his slave. The person seized was not allowed the privilege or the right of a free trial in the courts. Until the bill forced the slave master to prove his claims in court, the situation gave the slave master great power and placed in jeopardy the personal liberty and rights of the individual claimed as slave.
Sound familiar? Certainly the specifics are different, but still today we are still debating the conditions under which it is possible, or some say, necessary, to limit personal liberties. We are curtailing the rights of some by denying them a fair trial in our judicial system. Shaw’s youthful, optimistic poem on Independence speaks of equal laws. But he was nave in 1831. By 1861 he knew it. And we know it still. How have people stacked or attacked the courts or attempted constitutional amendments to guarantee rights as they understand them to be? Where is the power in our government today? Whose personal liberties are at stake now? What can you point to that seemed at first like a necessary evil that has now weaseled its way into the minds of some as God-given rights?
Like Shaw, I have very strong opinions on the subject. I suspect you do too. I will not assume we agree in all cases. Except, I hope we can agree on this: our Unitarian Universalist affirmation of the value of the democratic process. Yes, it is flawed, and so are we all. But the right of free speech responsibly exercised in the public common and in the voting booth is still way at the top of my list. So, too, is the right of personal liberty and a fair trial.
Shaw quotes Justice Douglas: “Are we to resort to the sword, when we get defeated at the ballot-box?” I certainly hope not. Yet you need only to stand in the parking lot of an abortion clinic to feel the threat breathing down your neck. Today we arm ourselves with fences and ballot initiatives and signing statements and sometimes even guns. And, too often, we do it in the name of “values.” Which values are being corrupted as others are being held up as sacred?
In the hymn we sang earlier, James Russell Lowell reminds us of this: if there breathes on earth a slave, are we truly free and brave? Are we slaves who look away from others’ pain? Are we slaves, he asks, who fear to speak for the fallen and the weak? Are we slaves unwilling to be freed ourselves when we shrink in silence?
True freedom, Lowell reminds us, is when we work in earnest to make all free with heart, and hand, and voice and vote. Let us gather in freedom and burn slavery.
Sail on, O Ship of State! Sail on. Friends, do not jump ship or drown in apathy.
Wake up every morning with freedom on your mind.
Our freedom is our birthright, and we must stand by it to the end.
- -Linus H. Shaw