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Rev. Stephen Kendrick
Minister, First Church Boston

 

Good Tuesday!  Buzz Buzzewitz has been doing a stellar job transcribing my sermons (which is really hard to do, translating my at times gibberating), and I thank him.  He did this one a while ago, and recently suggested we send it on.  At first I resisted, but then I thought--does everything we read and think about need to be about the virus?  I re-read it, and realized he was right--that this is a sermon worth revisiting. Enjoy.

Stephen

ps--Peter Banos was alerted me that some person is sending out emails in my name asking for money--that ain't me.  Please ignore this horrible human being.

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Rev. Stephen Kendrick
First Church Boston May 26, 2019
'What Do We Do With Jefferson?'
 
 
I don’t go to General Assembly very often, but I was there when many years ago we gathered ourselves in Charlotte, NC. There’s a tradition at General Assembly, the tribal gathering of Unitarian Universalists, there’s often an opening dance. And so there we were, and an announcement went out, that because we were in the Thomas Jefferson district, and in honor of the greatest Unitarian ever, Thomas Jefferson, everyone was invited to dress up in colonial clothing. Now, I knew that there as going to be trouble when I saw that announcement, and there was. And trouble is not really the word. Heartbreak is the word, because all the Black delegates said, “Are supposed to come in chains?”

I mean it was shocking, and it’s taken us years to deal with the bruised feelings from this blithe
Announcement: to come in colonial clothes revealed something so deep, and so aching, and so shocking in terms of America’s original sin. And we Unitarian Universalists usually think we float above it. We’re better than that. We’re more enlightened. We get it. Hey, we’re the people of Thomas Jefferson.

So that’s where the title of this sermon comes from. What are we going to do with him? Pete Buttigieg was asked if he thought that Democratic groups all through the country needed to cancel their upcoming Jackson and Jefferson speech evenings. And he said, “I think that time has come. That’s what we’re doing in Indiana.”

And Jefferson is a special case, because he was a genius, but all you have to do is read The Notes of Virginia which he wrote before the Declaration of Independence to know that he understood that slavery was wrong. But in Jefferson’s lifetime, he “owned” over 600 people and sold 37 of them. Upon his death 5 were quietly freed, and by some strange coincidence they were all relatives of Sally Hemings, who was not freed. And by an equally strange coincidence, all 7 of Sally Hemming’s children were born during the time period when Thomas Jefferson was resident at Monticello.

If you can come to terms with Jefferson, Mr. Declaration of Independence — who was the sterling poet of the ‘American Dream’, and reconcile all this — then you’ve made some progress into the heart of the American enigma of who we are asa people. I think Jefferson is the most important person in our history to come to terms with. Lincoln, by far, the most beloved. Washington, perhaps, the most important, simply because he got the ball rolling. But it is Jefferson who we have to continually go back to and that is poignantly, and tragically so for Unitarian Universalists, who have so happily, and pridefully — and I’ve been among them — claimed him as the greatest of all. He was a genius; there’s no getting around that.  

John F. Kennedy invited an entire White House full of
intellectuals and scientists and musicians and it was for him a very important moment for his presidency, and he looked out and said, “There has not been such an assemblage of intelligence since Jefferson dined alone.” Jefferson’s high water mark in American life was surely in the mid 20th century — the creation of the Jefferson nickel, his visage on Mt. Rushmore in 1941, the dedication of the Jefferson memorial by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1943, which is on our order of service. The first volume of Dumas Malone’s best selling biography and the start of the Princeton University’s vast Jefferson paper project (which has not yet been completed) started in 1950. He looked secure, admired, and respected.

But things started to look a little different after the years of Martin Luther King. And there were cracks in the facade starting to appear. But as late as 2005, both Joseph Ellis and Andrew Burstein published biographies dismissing the possibility that Jefferson was “guilty” of siring children with Sally Hemings, the half sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife. But other historians, including Fawn Brodie, noted that fact—which now it looks as if DNA research is leading us to R. B. Bernstein, in his recent Oxford Press small biography of Jefferson said, “Rarely in the writing of American history has conventional wisdom about a debate reversed course so quickly.”

In the last letter Jefferson ever wrote, he said that he felt that the words in the Declaration of Independence were his greatest contribution to humanity. And he wrote this in one of the last sentences he ever wrote: “That the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs or favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God.” He said, over and over, that we were free.

But who constituted that word we?
He conceived himself as the guardian of individual liberty, of the inherent natural rights of all; and this was true even when he talked of slavery. For decades he worked to end the institution, even threatening to derail the young nation’s experiment in democracy. Jefferson’s credentials as a foe of slavery were impressive. He had tried to ban the slave trade in the first draft of the Declaration; he proposed the banning of slavery in the western territories, and during his presidency he oversaw the end of the importation of all African slaves.

And in his Notes From Virginia he spoke to the world about the reality of what was then called the peculiar institution: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise and the most boisterous passions, the most unrelenting despotism on the one part, and degrading submission on the other.” He wrote in a letter near the end of his life, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

So he wished to see slavery eliminated, but he couldn’t do it himself, and he wouldn’t do himself, because his economic well being was dependent on every aspect of slavery. His beautiful Monticello, just like our beautiful White House, was built by the people that he stood as patriarch over.
It is a troubled search for us, especially as Unitarian Universalists, to confront Jefferson. How tough it is. But it’s tough for all of Americans. But it is particularly poignant for us, because for generations we have looked at Jefferson as the epitome of the Enlightenment project that exemplified the origins of Unitarian thought and philosophy and theology. He was it.

When he was Vice President, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was a Universalist, wrote Jefferson asking him if he would share his religious views with the world. Jefferson was very reluctant to do this, because a lot of people, mostly New Englanders, called him a Deist, and a despot, and an atheist. And frankly, like all politicians, Jefferson didn’t really want to get embroiled in religion. But he did promise Rush that at some point in his life he would put
together a true New Testament, with all the miracles taken out so that what he called the “primitive Christianity of Jesus” could shine, shining out as he put it like “diamonds from the dung hill.” Imagine! A politician describing the New Testament as a dung hill!

He said that it is possible to extract the superstition so that you have something that was pure. He was influenced by Joseph Priestley, who I invoked very briefly last week. Joseph Priestley the discoverer of oxygen, was a Unitarian minister from Birmingham England. And he was forced out when his church was burned by a mob — and then came to America under Jefferson’s protection. Priestley’s work made a very deep and lasting impression. He said that it was possible to be a true Christian if you could somehow find the deep oneness of God within the message.

Imagine how strange it is for an American president to sit by the fireside, which he did in the White House — where he carefully extracted and created his new New Testament. What he tried to do was to create something he called Primitive Christianity. Because he felt by doing this it would be easier for the new nation to offer religious freedom to one another. Because Jefferson also created the Virginia statute for religious freedom. It was the first opportunity for all citizens to be able to be elected, to teach, to own property, that had nothing to do with their religion. Religion was to have nothing to do with your citizenship. You were free. That was his dream; that was his hope. That’s what he was trying to do when he created his own NT version. And like Adams, who also considered himself a Unitarian for more than 60 years, Jefferson saw the test of religion in its link to morality. And here’s where we’re about to get into the sticky horribleness.

The test of religion was in its link to morality. Jefferson saw the sum of all religion as expressed by its best preacher, Fear God and Love Thy Neighbor contains no mystery and needs no explanation. “It is in our lives,” he said, “and not from our words, that our religion must be read.” That’s what he said, and that’s what he believed.

That is really the core of our conundrum. So do we just tear down Jefferson’s statues, and erase his words? I don’t think that’s going to work, but there is another way. And perhaps we Unitarian Universalists need to be the ones who begin confronting his memory with this other way. You can’t erase Jefferson because Jefferson is at the very core of who we are--there’s no escaping that.

Was he a hypocrite? Yes, yes he was. There’s an old story about a person coming to the church for the first time, hearing the minister talk about love and peace, and as he’s leaving and shaking hands the minister says, “I hope we’ll see you again.” The person says, “I don’t know. I think you all are a bunch of hypocrites.” And the minister says, “Well, there’s room for one more.”

Was Jefferson a hypocrite? Yes. He contradicted his core beliefs through his economic actions, and also by something corrupt at the core of his being and self-understanding. He thought he was trying to eliminate slavery, but when push came to shove, he never could.

A young man named Edward Coles, who lived right next to Jefferson came and who visited him at about the time when he wrote those letters that I read to you earlier, was a young man who had just inherited slaves from his father.  Coles said, “If I can get you, and every other plantation owner in Virginia, to at once free their slaves we will free our nation.” And Jefferson thought about it and said, “No, I will not.”
Edward Coles took ‘his people’ and moved them to Illinois where they were all freed — where he later became governor of Illinois. Edward Coles is a footnote, an asterisk, forgotten in our history — and Jefferson remains. He couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t do it. And that is the original sin of America, right there.
 
What do we do with Jefferson? We must deal with who he was, because who he was is who we are. We can hardly take Jefferson less seriously now by merely condemning him, wishing his contradictions away.  This actually sidesteps the ongoing battle over equality in whose words he gave us in the Declaration.

When Langston Hughes wrote the poem, “Let America be America Again,” he was surely invoking the disturbing power of Jefferson’s vision. “Let America,” Langston Hughes wrote, “be the dream the dreamers dreamed. A quality is in the air we that breathe. It is a quality; that is the idea that created America, and remains its provocation, challenging us to recreate ourselves anew.” Jefferson’s words do more than inspire. They retain their revolutionary potential.

There was another man who was deeply confused by Jefferson, and that was Lincoln. Lincoln’s entire political career is a meditation on the conundrum, contradictions, and perplexity of Jefferson— the man who could write the Declaration’s words, and still be a slaveholder.

There is a July 4th sermon by Martin Luther King called “The American Dream” that I believe is terribly important and is largely overlooked. He called Jefferson’s majestic opening of the Declaration “words lifted to cosmic proportions.” Repeat: “words lifted to cosmic proportions.” They were not just a political assertion of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — that all men are created equal — these were not merely a political assertion to kick off a revolution, time-bound, to King George the Third. Martin Luther King understood them as the opportunity to rewrite world history. And then he added, in a passage that sums up our Jeffersonian predicament, “Now, ever since the founding fathers of our nation dreamed this dream in all of its magnificence, to use a big word that the psychiatrists use, America has been something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against itself.”

And that’s why Jefferson is an important religious figure, because if it’s true that in mining through the words of Jesus he discovered a religion that allows us to live our lives not as hypocrites, and to live our lives by our deeds and not our words, then this tragic division need not last forever. It has been generations long. If you think the Civil War is over, you’re wrong. The struggle still goes on. But we can’t erase the struggle; we need to fulfill it. We need to finish it. We need to understand that Jefferson, despite his hypocrisy, has given us words that may help us define ourselves — to become a nation capable of being possessed by an idea and an ideal.

Once written, the words that all are created equal, they can never be unwritten. Though battles remain over what these words may mean in our daily economic and political life, and in our religious life, it is clear as sunshine what needs to happen. Jefferson would not have been surprised by this conundrum, of the question of ‘what do we do with Jefferson.’ He explained that the Declaration was “intended to be an expression of the American mind.” And so it is. But the story is not over; it is not yet fully written. It remains in our hands, not the Founders.

Amen


 
Dumas Malone
He is best known for his six-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, published between 1948 and 1981, for which he earned the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. Among the many contributions of this authoritative study was Malone's inclusion in each volume of a detailed timeline of Jefferson's activities and frequent travels in his life.[3] Malone's volumes were widely praised for their lucid and graceful writing style, for their rigorous and thorough scholarship, and for their attention to Jefferson's evolving constitutional and political thought.[4]

Fawn McKay Brodie (September 15, 1915 – January 10, 1981) was an American biographer and one of the fi rst female professors of history at UCLA, who is best known for Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974), a work of psychobiography, and No Man Knows My History (1945), an early and still influential biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement.[1]

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