On Ancestors, Slavery, and Religious Dissent

Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Heroes of faith in every age, far seeing, self-denying, wrought an increasing heritage, monarch and creed defying. Faith of the free!”[1]—words from 20th-century Unitarian minister Vincent Silliman. I wanted us to sing this hymn before this sermon because it points to a dynamic in our faith that at times proves confusing both to Unitarian Universalists and to those who observe us from outside. Liberalism in the United States has both political and religious roots, and continues today to express itself both politically and religiously. In both politics and religion the American liberal tradition—at its best—orients us towards freedom, liberty, justice, equality, inclusion, human rights and, I add today, environmental sustainability. In both politics and religion the American liberal tradition—at its best—calls us to protest, to dissent, to offer prophetic witness when we encounter barriers to freedom, when we encounter injustice, inequality, exclusion, human rights violations and threats to environmental sustainability. The “faith of the larger liberty” is both political and religious. It is “monarch and creed defying.”

What occasionally causes confusion is the way our religious yearnings blend with our political concerns. We might come to worship on Sunday morning looking for explicitly spiritual sustenance, and suddenly the service takes on a political tone or reflects on a political issue. How is this religious? some might wonder, forgetting that this blending is an aspect of our liberal tradition. It might happen on a Sunday morning, but it also happens at the state capitol or, as it did for me last Monday, on the corner of Barbour and Westland Streets in North Harford, advocating with other clergy and Governor Malloy for drug policy reform.

Recall that the Puritans who founded colonial New England—the Puritans from whom our Unitarian ancestors were directly descended—were both political and religious. They were religious dissenters at a time when religious dissent had immediate political implications. And of course, for their dissent they were persecuted. As children many of us learned the Puritans left England in search of religious freedom. This idea of the free church would eventually become a centerpiece of not only the American liberal tradition, but of American democracy itself. The 20th-century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams said that in America “the conception of the democratic society is … a descendent of the conception of the free church.”[2]

That’s likely overstated, but there is a connection between the Puritan quest for religious liberty and the later American quest for political liberty. What I always find ironic is that, had they had our word ‘liberal’ in their vocabulary, they would have rejected it. They were anything but liberal. They were coercive theocrats who adhered to strict Calvinist doctrine and who could not conceive of the separation of church and state. Politics and religion were completely intertwined. They established a state church and levied taxes on all citizens to pay for it. They enforced attendance at Sunday worship. Though they originated as dissenters, they could not tolerate dissent within their own society, and often confronted it with state violence.

The Puritans brought the traditions of religious freedom and dissent to the New World, but they were not responsible for carrying them forward. Throughout the colonial era, individuals, groups, sects—including eventually Unitarians and Universalists—continued to rise up in defiance of Puritan religious orthodoxy and political rule until the congregational church was dis-established in the 1800s. One such new sect which formed in the late 1600s was the Rogerenes, named for their founder, John Rogers, whose father, James Rogers, a wealthy New London, CT merchant, was the 8th Great Grandfather of UUS:E member, Fred Sawyer. Oh yes! This is the sermon James Rogers’ 21st-century Unitarian Universalist descendant purchased at last year’s UUS:E goods and services auction!

Fred leant me a copy of Allegra di Bonaventura’s 2013 book, For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England.[3] (She’s an assistant dean at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Yale.) Di Bonaventura weaves together the stories of five colonial New London families—the Winthrops, the Livingstons, the Hempsteads, the Rogers (who founded the Rogerenes), and the Jacksons who were slaves of African descent. The book provides an intimate and rare portrait of slavery in colonial New England—a story not often told. It also offers an intimate and rare portrait of colonial New England family life, marriage, romance, death, work, commerce, politics, law, punishment, religion, religious dissent, and religious activism. I highly recommend it and I am grateful to Fred for suggesting it.

Fred is interested in his ancestors, the Rogers, and what lessons their lives might hold for us. For me it has always been an important spiritual practice to take time to remember that we are here because others came before us and bequeathed to us, if nothing else, the gift of life. It is important to look back and honor our ancestors—both our blood relatives, and our spiritual forebears—those “heroes of faith” about whom we sing in “Faith of the Larger Liberty.”

What happens, however, when we look back and discover some difficult fact about our ancestors? For example, white people who discover that their ancestors owned slaves. Given what we know about slavery—countless lives lost, bodies violated, families separated, work stolen, language and culture assaulted—and given the reality that we still live with the legacy of slavery and witness in, for example, our criminal justice system, attempts to reinscribe it through polices that lead to mass incarceration of people of color, learning that one’s ancestors held slaves can be very disconcerting. Upon learning that the Rogers held slaves, Fred seemed not troubled, but accepting and curious. What do we do with this information? He’s interested in understanding not only what it meant to hold slaves in this era, but also what it meant to set them free. Many Rogerenes ultimately freed their slaves and, in later generations, became outspoken opponents of slavery. While the historical record isn’t entirely clear on why they began freeing their slaves, and while they did it slowly and with some ambivalence, we can make some claims about it with a high degree of certainty. First, their religious experience led them to oppose slavery. Second, there were great risks involved in such opposition. Di Bonaventura points out that Puritan clergymen, as town leaders and moral arbiters, “led in slaveholding as a group, owning bondsmen in greater numbers than did their parishioners.”[4] To oppose slavery was to oppose the theocracy itself.  Religious yearnings blending with political concerns.

The Rogerenes were adept at opposing the theocracy. Who were they? They were a religious sect responding to an ongoing experience of the Holy Spirit. The founder, John Rogers, son of James Rogers, became acquainted with an English sect known as Seventh-Day Baptists or Sabbatarians in Newport, RI while on business trips there. Sabbatarians worship on Saturday. Rogers took to it wholeheartedly, and started a Sabbatarian church in New London. Once he had converted his father and some of his siblings, he broke off from the Newport church and started his own sect which eventually became known as the Rogerenes. Described as fanatics and outlaws, they worshipped not only on Saturdays, but any day of the week and—worse—they engaged in menial labor on Sundays. They refused to pay taxes in support of the established church. They called for the separation of church and state. They welcomed men and women of every background as full congregants—African slaves, free blacks, Indians, Europeans, rich poor, men, women, children—they were truly egalitarian in this sense. They lived together, ate together, worshipped together and baptized each other in the Thames river. Di Bonaventura speculates that their experience of egalitarian spiritual community is what led them to become uncomfortable with slaveholding. It was difficult to proclaim spiritual equality while continuing to benefit from a profound social, political and economic inequality. Over the years they provided emotional, spiritual, legal and financial support to their slaves, most notably to John and Joan Jackson who were involved in 45 lawsuits in CT and MA over a period of decades, starting with John’s attempts to win Joan’s freedom, and then in their combined attempts to win their children’s freedom.

Although di Bonaventura doesn’t mention it, I’m reminded of that well-known passage from the Christian New Testment book of Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[5] They seemed to be living a version of this vision.

The Rogerenes hid nothing. they seemed undaunted by Puritan power. This is likely due to the fact that they were wealthy themselves, and as much as the Puritan hierarchy detested them, it needed their wealth to fund the ongoing development of New London. In a sense, the Rogerenes could afford to be provocative. Even so, the Puritan authorities did not sit idly by. They had the Rogerenes arrested, fined, publicly punished, incarcerated. Here’s a passage from For Adam’s Sake that gives a sense of how both sides operated. In this passage, local authorities have caught John Rogers and his brother-in-law, Samuel Fox, eel fishing on Sunday and convict them of ‘sabbath-breaking.’

Fox paid his fine…. John Rogers was not so compliant. He refused to pay and was imprisoned in the makeshift New London jail.

The Sunday after her brother’s incarceration, Bathshua (Fox’s wife) staged a protest…. She entered the meetinginghouse in the midst of Mr. Saltonstall’s morning service and loudly announced before the assembled congregation that she had performed menial labor in violation of the law. Authorities seized her immediately and put her in the stocks. The commotion of her outburst and apprehension … allowed her brother to escape. When Saltonstall later began the afternoon service, John Rogers appeared back in action—thrusting open the meetinghouse doors pushing a wheelbarrow. It must have been quite a site when the Rogerene leader rolled up toward the pulpit, shrilly calling out his wares (the wheelbarrow almost certainly contained shoes of his own making; the wealthy merchant had taken up the humble craft of cobbling as biblically sanctioned manual labor)…. Members of the congregation pounced on Rogers… Town authorities [then forced] the Rogerene leader to stand fifteen minutes on a ladder with a rope around his neck…. The exercise made little impression on Rogers and they flung him back in jail.

From his crude confinement, John Rogers hung a handwritten “Proclamation” out a window, declaring his opposition to “the Doctrines of Devils”…. For this … the authorities charged him with blasphemy, an accusation that led to his transfer to a more secure imprisonment in Hartford, where he awaited trial and certain conviction in the General Court…. At his sentencing the court required Rogers to submit a bond to secure his good behavior. Rogers deemed the order a sacrilege and refused to comply, so he remained in prison.

[He] ended up serving more than three years in prison at a time when long-term incarceration was extremely rare and highly impractical…. Once Rogers finally did finish out his term, Saltonstall, whose delicate pride had been wounded in the attacks on his sermonizing, brought a civil suit against him for defamation. Saltonstall also served on the bench of the court that determined the outcome—a conflict of interest which the colonial court blithely tolerated—so it was no surprise when the plaintiff-judge won a spectacular and highly retaliatory damage award of six hundred pounds.[6]

In discerning what the Rogerene story may mean for us 300 years later, I want to make three points. First, I don’t support the interruption of someone else’s worship service. You may recall that anti-abortion activists invaded a UU service in New Orleans last July and that I was appalled. To some degree I feel for Mr. Saltonstall’s flock. But the Rogers lived in a different era, where there was no separation of church and state, where the religious and political authority were the same, where the minister was also the judge who heard his own case and decided that case in his own favor. In such a society where alternative religious viewpoints are illegal, interrupting Sunday worship may be the only option when political and religious freedom is at stake. What resonates for me is their willingness to speak out, their willingness to accept consequences in order to express their deeply held convictions. As Unitarian Universalists we are not formal heirs of the Rogerenes, and yet something in their story, their spirit, their courage, their willingness to speak and act on their truths, their concern for freedom both religious and political—something in them resonates with our UU spirit, our UU convictions, our UU principles. They swim in that same great river that eventually became the American liberal tradition we have inherited.  They are kindred spirits in this “Faith of the Larger Liberty.”

Second, the Rogerenes apparently achieved something that was remarkable and difficult in their time, something which remains remarkable and difficult today and yet which we are called to achieve: a diverse, egalitarian, beloved spiritual community. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female.” We might add: there is no longer gay or straight, trans or cis, young or old, documented or undocumented, rich or poor, imprisoned or free, addicted or sober, mentally ill or mentally well—at our core we are all one, we are all connected, we are all worthy of welcome, respect and love.

Finally, the Rogers family held slaves. They clearly benefitted from holding slaves—it was one source of their wealth. And yet their religious convictions caused them to become increasingly uncomfortable with slaveholding. I said earlier we continue to live today with the legacy of slavery in America. We continue to live in the midst of extraordinary racism. I feel blessed to inherit a liberal religious tradition that calls me to examine and confront this legacy, to confront it within the church, to confront it within the halls of government, to confront it on urban and suburban streets, to confront it with that New England spirit that is both monarch and creed defying.

While we UUs are not formal spiritual descendants of the Rogerenes, I’d like to suggest that we share some of the Rogerene religious and political DNA. We might say we both descend from a common ancestor–a common free church, free faith liberal spirit. We encounter in them not only a distant cousin, but a spiritual ancestor swimming in that great river that gave rise to the faith of the larger liberty, and whose memory we can invoke as we endeavor to build that land where justice rolls down like waters, and peace like an ever-flowing stream; where all are one, all connected, and all worthy of welcome, respect and love.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Silliman, Vincent B., “Faith of the Larger Liberty,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #287.

[2] Adams, James Luther, in Stackhouse, Max, On Being Human Religiously (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976) p. 9.

[3] Di Bonaventura, Allegra, For Adam’s Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013).

[4] Di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, p. 32.

[5] Galatians 3:28.

[6] Di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, pp. 49-51.

What Safety Requires

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

See Video here.

“Building bridges between our divisions, I reach out to you, will you reach out to me? With all of our voices, and all of our visions, friends, we could make such sweet harmony.”[1] I will not be surprised at all if you find this song to be wildly out of sync with the story I read from the Rev. Tom Schade, “Troubled People in the Church,” about a man who disrupted church activities, behaved disrespectfully, made people feel uncomfortable and, at the suggestion of police, was barred from church property.[2] The song and the story are out of sync. The song is about building bridges between people who are divided. The story is about a division—between a troubled man and a church—that is, at least in this moment, unbridgeable. In a moment like this our good news that all are welcome, that each may enter as they are, hits a wall—Tom Schade calls it a brick wall. It turns out there are circumstances when not all are welcome, when not all may enter as they are. Sometimes our collective safety requires that we set limits.

When I write these words—our collective safety requires that we set limits—when I hear myself speak them—something about them doesn’t feel right. And the source of that feeling is clear to me. Unitarian Universalists gather our congregations around seven principles.[3] As is the case with any principles, we ask a lot of them.  We often embrace them as ideals. We often expect a kind of ethical clarity to emerge from them. We often regard them as pure and elegant statements of human wisdom, as essential guides for living. We treat them as inviolable—at least we aspire to. So when our safety is at stake, when we are forced to bar someone from church property, when we utter the words “You are not welcome here,” it might feel like a violation of our principles. In kicking someone out, isn’t it possible we’ve disregarded their inherent worth and dignity—our first principle? Isn’t it possible we’ve failed to treat them with justice, equity and compassion—our second principle? Isn’t it possible we have failed to accept them and encourage them in their spiritual growth—our third principle? Isn’t it possible we’ve trampled upon their right of conscience, that we’ve somehow violated the democratic process—our fifth principle? In my view the answer is no, we haven’t failed on any of these counts. We haven’t violated our principles. But it can feel that way.

Our ministry theme for May is relatedness. When I look back over my sermons from this congregational year—and really over the last decade—relatedness is a central—even essential—spiritual theme for me. The language of relatedness on my lips should be familiar to you. I often refer to the biological and physical fact of our relatedness. With every breath we take we are reminded, if we are paying attention, of our relatedness to and our dependence on the green plants and algae that convert the sun’s energy into oxygen. We would not exist in the absence of this relatedness. This is a fact. Furthermore, it is not wrong to say that we are related to the planets and the stars. We are made of the same stuff and we come from the same place—the same primordial soup—13.75 billion years ago. As the late physicist Darryl Reanney once wrote of the mysterious beginnings of the universe, “somehow, out of that mystery there exploded a fireball of unimaginable power. And this we can say confidently: all that was, all that is and all that shall be, was contained in that fireball.”[4]  I often speak—we often speak—of a oneness with all there is, a connectedness to all there is, an interdependence with all there is. Our condition is not ultimately one of separateness. Our condition is ultimately one of relatedness.

This fact of our relatedness has ethical implications. From our perception of ourselves as related to the whole of life emerges our sense of obligation to care for life. From our perception of relatedness to other people emerges our sense of obligation—even our desire—to care for other people; to create a more just, equitable and sustainable world for all people. From our perception of our relatedness to other people emerges our capacity for compassion towards other people.

Well, when our spiritual task is to perceive our relatedness to the whole of life and, in response, strive to bring justice, equity and compassion to other people—to build bridges between our divisions, as the song says—it will always feel somewhat disconcerting when we need to prevent someone from coming onto church property, when we have to say to someone, “You are not welcome.” Setting such a limit doesn’t feel very compassionate.  I had to say it to a member of the congregation I served prior to coming here. It’s a harsh thing to say. It’s a hard thing to say. It’s distasteful.  I can assure you it is the last thing clergy want to contend with. But there’s a lesson here: The ideals to which our principles point cannot always be realized in practice, especially when the health and safety of the community is at stake. And the fact of our relatedness to the whole of life—the fact of our oneness, our connectedness, our interdependence—does not mean there should be no boundaries, no borders, no limits.  Borders, boundaries and limits are also facts of life. I like the way Rev. Schade puts it: “Animals have skins; trees have bark and eggs have shells for a reason.”[5]

I confess I have an agenda this morning, and here it is: As a congregation we are about to begin a conversation which will last for many months, possibly longer, about policies to ensure congregational safety. The incident at the First Unitarian Church in Worcester didn’t happen here, but something like it could happen. No house of worship has control over who decides to visit its public events. If the incident had happened here, how would we have dealt with it? Answering that kind of question is the purpose of a safe congregation policy.

Of course, a disruptive person like that is one kind of threat to the health and safety of a congregation. There are others. The one that is most prevalent in the public mind today—and has done more to shape attitudes and practices around congregational safety than anything else in recent memory—is the child sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. While there were many unique factors in the Roman Catholic structure that created the conditions for this tragedy to become as widespread as it did, I contend no religious body should consider itself completely immune from this kind of threat. It’s never the path of wisdom to convince ourselves that it—whatever it may be—can’t happen here. It is a good practice, a healthy practice, a safe practice to put in writing what our expectations are and how we intend to maintain safety for everyone.

Ever since I’ve been serving as your minister, our leadership has talked about the need for a comprehensive safe congregation policy. We began working on the policy four years ago. We’ve been moving ahead slowly and methodically. We’re being proactive rather than reactive. That is, we feel our congregation is already very safe and we’re trying to codify in writing what that means. We are not reacting to a specific breach of safety. Congregations that try to create safety policies in reaction to a breach of safety often overreact and, in a state of panic and chaos, create policies that are too restrictive and impossible to put into practice. We haven’t been reacting. We’ve been researching what works; we’ve been studying best practices. We’ve been striving for balance. Over the last five years, many people have worked on different versions of the policy. Rich Thralls led a team in writing the first draft. David Cloakey and John Saddlemire spent some time with it. Denielle Burl, who officially became a member of UUS:E this morning, did a total re-write for us last summer. Our former president, Jo Anne Gillespie, and I have prepared the most recent version, with input from Vicki Merriam, our Director of Religious Education; Josh Hawks-Ladds, Wayne Starkey, and Crystal Ross from our Personnel Committee, and the current Policy Board members. My point here is that a lot of people, over many years, have had a hand in creating this comprehensive safe congregation policy. I am deeply thankful to all of them as this is not easy material to wrestle with.

But we’re not done. We’re not officially putting the policy into practice until all of you have had a chance to read it, wrestle with it, and provide input. We want the entire congregation to be familiar with a variety of critical safety issues and how we would respond to them in the unlikely event they occurred. We want you to feel as comfortable as possible with topics that, by their very nature, are uncomfortable. For example, what kinds of behavior qualify as disruptive? (Your sense of ‘disruptive’ might not be the same as your neighbor’s.) What kinds of behavior would lead us to remove someone from membership or bar them from our property? (It is unlikely it will ever happen, but having some consensus around this as a congregation—and writing it down—is one of the structures that will ensure it will never happen.)

It gets more uncomfortable: What if someone who has been convicted of a sexual offense—someone who has served time in prison—wants to start attending services and other activities? Can we welcome such a person and maintain safety? (Congregations have had to deal with this very situation.) Even more uncomfortable: How do we respond in the event that some kind of abuse takes place on our property or at one of our programs? Do we know our obligations under state law when it comes to reporting suspected child abuse? And finally, while we already require criminal background checks as part of our hiring process, there are some congregations that now require them for any volunteer who works with children. We aren’t proposing that now, but should we move in that direction? These are hard questions to answer, but being a truly safe congregation requires that we answer them, together.

There was a time when congregations never talked about these kinds of issues. People could barely conceive of these things, let along imagine they could happen at a church. People who did dare to talk about them found themselves discreetly and not so discreetly shushed. Today, we can imagine them. They’re in the media with great frequency. They’re in the public consciousness. We do ourselves a great service by talking about them and agreeing collectively what we will and will not tolerate and how we will respond to breaches of safety in the unlikely event they occur. As we have these conversations I expect to find, and even encourage, a range of opinion and some amount of healthy conflict around how much freedom to allow and how much freedom to curtail; around where the rights and needs and conscience of the individual bump up against the rights and needs and conscience of the community; around how much skin, bark and shell we require in order to ensure safety.

Liberal religious congregations like ours are places where freedom matters: freedom of belief, freedom of conscience, freedom to search and explore, freedom to question, freedom to doubt, freedom to engage with others, freedom of expression, freedom to speak (as in from this pulpit), freedom to love who we love (whether straight or gay). We deeply value freedom. Some might feel that in the act of naming limits on behavior in a safe congregation policy we might be putting ourselves on a slippery slope—that if we can put limits on certain egregious behaviors, perhaps we will feel emboldened to put limits on less egregious behaviors and our freedom will slowly begin to whither. We will slowly stifle its essence and its power in our lives. So what’s the right balance? Because we also know freedom suffers when people don’t feel safe. If, for example, someone rudely dismisses you in an angry and threatening tone every time you speak, you likely won’t feel free to speak. We could argue that the person who treats you this way has the freedom to speak to you however they want—this is a free church—but if the result is the silencing of your voice and the diminishing of your spirit, then we don’t have safety and the congregation is at that point failing to carry out that part of its mission which says we are “an open-minded, spiritual community seeking truth and meaning in its many forms.” We don’t want a slippery slope that begins to stifle our freedoms, but we do want balance, and that means being clear as a community about what safety requires.

Rev. Schade talks about this in the context of providing ministry to people with mental illness. About the disruptive person who visited their church he asks, “is he mentally ill?” His answer?  “It does not matter; bad behavior is not acceptable, no matter the cause. This congregation,” he goes on, “includes many people who suffer with various forms of mental illness. In fact, if a church is to serve people [with mental illness], it needs to be a place where health and safety can be expected.”[6] He’s right. Mental illness in adults—often, but not always—can be linked to a pervasive lack of safety in one’s earlier life. Providing a truly safe congregation is the first step to providing effective ministry to people with mental illness. We can extend that notion. If the church is to provide effective ministry to anyone, it needs to be a place where health and safety can be expected. Without some explicit foundation of safety, we cannot pursue our ministry to its fullest. Without some explicit foundation of safety, we cannot freely practice our religion. Without some explicit foundation of safety, we risk the erosion of our principles and the weakening of our prized freedoms.

Our relatedness to the whole of life is not just a pretty spiritual metaphor. It is a fact. When we commit to honoring the inherent worth and dignity of all people—our first UU principle—our commitment is grounded in the fact of our relatedness. When we commit to practices of justice, equity and compassion in human relations—our second UU principle—our commitment is grounded in that fact of our relatedness. But “animals have skins; trees have bark and eggs have shells for a reason.” Our relatedness happens in the midst of borders and boundaries; some divisions are not bridgeable; and our collective safety—the collective safety of any human group—requires the setting of limits. We look to our principles with faith and love in our hearts, trusting they are the surest path to our ideals: that all are welcome, that all may belong as they are, that we each may live according to the dictates of conscience. But we know our ideals are not reachable in all instances; we know life can me messy and harsh and we are sometimes called to make decisions and take actions that may feel like we’re moving against our principles. So we do our best. Friends, we do our best. We agree on those instances where our ideals are not practical. We establish safety as best we can. We do so, trusting that our freedoms will flourish, that our ministries will thrive.

Amen and Blessed Be.


[1] The Women of Greenham Common Peace Occupation in England, 1983, “Building Bridges” in Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1023.

[2] Schade, Tom, “Troubled People in the Church,” May 2, 2012. See: http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Troubled-People-in-Church.html?soid=1102662658575&aid=BBJ4iQi4cxI.

[4] Reanney, Darryl, Music of the Mind: An Adventure in Consciousness (London: Souvenir Press, 1995) p. 18.

[5] Schade, Tom, “Troubled People in the Church,” May 2, 2012.

[6] Schade, Tom, “Troubled People in the Church,” May 2, 2012.