Bold Action in Boomtown Baltimore

You may know that the War of 1812 was a difficult and unpopular war. Many felt that it was a war of expansion: the United States becoming an empire by acquiring Canada and British territories in the Caribbean; the United States plundering, looting and burning the capitol of Upper Canada and destroying the legislative buildings of York, an unthinkable desecration that would, in later years, be compensated for by the British in the burning of the White House. Our democracy, it was argued, was imperiled by the desire of a few to become, ourselves, an empire.

Others argued against the War of 1812 on different grounds. William Ellery Channing, among many other liberals, preached against the war on ethnic and religious grounds. To Channing, the United States was born of Britain and Protestantism. To go to war against our mother and to ally ourselves with a power that spoke a foreign language—French—and practiced a foreign religion—Catholicism—was to betray our national ethnicity.

The war itself ended in a stalemate. None of our military and expansionist ends were achieved. We secured an agreement with Britain ending the practice of seizing one another’s maritime crews for military purposes, but there was no victory despite terrific cost.

There had been, however, certain advances for Maryland in the pursuit of war, most notably in our national investment in the Navy. Following the end of hostilities, ships and crews were available to protect US merchant interests, especially in our trade with the Caribbean and Africa, and international trade would be ready to flow following its several years in interruption by maritime war.

Nature played a challenging role in the post war period. Half a planet away, in April 1815, the skies were blackened over Indonesia when the most extensive volcanic activity in a millennium occurred with the eruption of Mount Tambora. It would take a year, but airborne ash would turn 1816 into the “Poverty Year,” the “Year there was No Summer.” A very late frost would kill the spring plantings of 1816 in Canada, New England, the mid-Atlantic. No crops would be harvested that year in great portions of the northern hemisphere, and the diminution of vegetation in the eastern United States and Canada and in Western and Central Europe would lead to the malnutrition and deaths of livestock. For humans, too, there would be malnutrition and starvation, a rise in epidemics and mortality, a profound increase in human misery.

In the fall of 1816, in the aftermath of “Poverty Year,” a group of Baltimoreans invited the minister of King’s Chapel in Boston to come to Maryland. King’s Chapel was the first congregation in the United States to formally adopt a Unitarian theology, and Rev. James Freeman would present a series of lectures on liberal religion in a rented hall. These lectures brought together a number of people who were accustomed to a liberal approach to their Christian faith, and a circle of interest formed to be about the founding of a theologically liberal and institutionally independent congregation.

And so our church came to be on February 10, 1817.

The organizer of our church was Henry Payson, president of Union Bank, chair of the Susquehanna Canal Commission, and a member of the Committee of Vigilance and Safety that had organized the defense of this city against British attack. The people who were attracted to the circle of founders included people in Payson’s social orbit: merchants, bankers, insurance brokers, attorneys, judges. This group was interested in investment for return, in the free exchange of the products of labor and the free exchange of ideas, in meeting face to face and eye to eye.

You see, part of the challenge of the War of 1812 was a struggle between those who saw our future in an aristocratic tendency that was rooted in landed estates and hardened caste systems and roles, and those who saw our future in industry and productivity, in the free exercise of our capacity, in social mobility and opportunity. On the one hand, an old landed gentry might look at upside of relationships of accountability and privilege in that system, the top-down relationship between the master (who might be learned and ethical and benevolent) and those who needed to be taken care of.

On the other hand, the merchant class of First Unitarian saw the world as a place for exchange: I offer what you want to buy, and I profit from my work in delivering something you require. The marketplace will be a place of opportunity, and likewise, society will create opportunities for social improvements—like the Susquehanna Canal—where all of us will benefit due to the exercise of control by a publicly created business relationship—a monopoly—which will have a public purpose and allow private financial gain.

Our church was founded with some of the liberal thought that had been developed in Boston in the late 18th century. But unlike those of our Boston co-religionists, our church was not founded among the old “Standing Order” of Congregational churches in New England where an oligarchy had controlled politics and economics and culture. No! Our church was not founded out of the landed gentry of plantation Maryland. No! We have been an entrepreneurial, inventive, civic-minded congregation from the very start—and we look at the world around us and see . . . opportunity!

We see opportunity!

Imagine. A devastating war where we almost lost our country. A stalemate militarily, but an advance in terms of mercantile flexibility on the seas. A world that has been starving, but an economy that has been willing to invest in modes of transportation that, in spite of famine, will get whatever Pennsylvania crops it has to the Chesapeake, and to the port of Baltimore, and to the world. The country was struggling and suffering and starving . . . and our people, our entrepreneurial people, our willing-to-move-our-families-and-seek-opportunities-people founded a new kind of church.

Henry Payson was a merchant who had become a banker. A banker, he invested in the people around him and the projects they were willing to undertake. He took risks with his own money and that of his investors and depositors. He played a social role in the defense of his city and its future. He served his community on the city council and as a judge in orphan’s court. And he brought together a people to found a church.

Catherine Evans reminds us of the building you can no longer see. Above this vaulted ceiling is a great dome, lifted up into space by four grand arches. At the intersection of arch and dome are four triangular pendentives—you need to see them in your imagination. These pendentives were adorned with four emblems representing Tolerance, Union, Fortitude and Peace. That is the foundation left to us: Tolerance: we respect the differences that are who we are. Union: we value our being with one another as one people. Fortitude: we have the strength to endure the trials of war and famine and even our special and misunderstood identity as practitioners of a free faith. Peace: our desire, our end, our assurance that in the hurly-burly of the marketplace, in the stress of construction and production and maybe even human progress, in the challenge of showing leadership in society, we may abide with a deep sense that things are right with the world, that peace may reign in our social relations, and even in our hearts.

This entrepreneurial spirit lives in our church today. Our children are creating service opportunities so that they might live into our congregational focus of ministry with poor and homeless people in Baltimore. Our Committee on (Shared) Ministry recommended and our Board approved a new Affiliate Minister, Susan Donham, who will soon preach from this pulpit and who will be organizing in the Spring a spirit-centered evening service of music and poetry, dance and biography. Our Social Action Clearinghouse has embarked on a project of collecting clothes to be donated directly to people who are living on the streets, or contributed to the agencies that serve the poor and homeless. Our Neighborhood Circles continue to provide hospitality to our guests and friends and members in the hospitality hour after this church service so that we might grow in relationship to one another, grow in our capacity to connect and encourage and support one another, might grow in our relevancy to this city in this day. Our organizing leaders equip us to go to the Maryland General Assembly with our sense of what is right, with our appeal for Fairness for All Marylanders, fairness for Marylanders of all gender identities. Our Zoerheide committee takes a risk and brings a national speaker to our church on International Women’s Day, March 8, and welcomes low wage women workers, many of them from other countries, to join her, making this not just a lecture but a celebration of what it means to a woman facing today’s struggles.

Our church exists at the juncture of Tolerance and Unity, with Fortitude in the pursuit of Peace. With the confidence of the entrepreneur, with opportunities granted and intuited and seized, in spite of deprivation and with insecure resources, and yet with profound personal resources, with deep convictions, with confidence that can only come from trust, our church acts boldly, as it always has, a beacon for Baltimore, of hope, of religion unfettered, of justice for all. 

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