Profiles in Courage
I went on line this weekend to look up the seven cardinal virtues, which, of course are only talked about after one has already discussed the seven deadly sins. I bet most of you didn’t even know there were seven virtues tagging along opposite those famous deadly sins. Sins, after all are so much more fun to talk about and I think the composition of the seven deadly sins was firmly set centuries before people decided to compose a positive list of seven virtues for balance. I looked up the sins and wrote them down, but then lost the paper, but I think I remember them. There was lust, greed, anger, uh, lust, sloth, uhmm, lust and one other. Anyway, what I was really after was the list of virtues because I wanted to see how they characterized ‘courage’ in that list.
Can you imagine my surprise to find courage not on the list of the seven cardinal virtues? They’ve got patience and love and hope and all that, but no courage! Courage is not one of the seven cardinal virtues! What an oversight! I have to tell you, I agree with John F. Kennedy when he wrote that courage was “the most admirable of human virtues.” And Winston Churchill said, “Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”
In the mid-1950s, when John F. Kennedy was a freshman Senator, he wrote a book entitled “Profiles in Courage” in which he told the stories of eight Senatorial colleagues from the past. But rather than presenting chronological overview of their careers, he focused on their acts of integrity, he wrote about the events leading up to and resulting from critical moments when these men “stood alone against tremendous political and social pressure for what they felt was right.” JFK wrote about their courage. He begins his book by noting that Ernest Hemmingway defined courage as “grace under pressure.”
The first luminary JFK covers is Unitarian John Quincy Adams; distinguished Senator during the presidency of Jefferson, Secretary of State under Monroe, 6th president of the United States of America, and then served the last 17 years of his life in the U.S. House of Representatives. In his book, Kennedy focused on Adams’ early tumultuous senatorial career when Adams stood up for his conscience and the good of the country over the good of his political party and the state he represented. Don’t you wish we saw more of that today?
As you might assume with only a cursory remembrance of the times, the still young United States of America was experiencing growing pains and the difficulty of maintaining both its independent identity and its tenuous relationship with England. The British refused to recognize U.S. ships at sea and considered them little better than pirate ships. The British regularly seized our ships and “impressed” our seamen into the service of the British Navy. President Jefferson introduced an embargo bill that would punish the British for their corrupt and unjust dealings with American ships at sea. Now, it might seem a simple choice to support this Embargo, but the problem was that Massachusetts, the state Adams represented, stood to loose a great deal with such an embargo. Massachusetts was a wealth state in no small part because of their shipping and trade. When the embargo was eventually enacted, the Massachusetts shipbuilding, fishing, and trade industries suffered severely, which in turn affected their banks due to the lack of income, and their farms due to the lack of exports. The state Adams represented was near unanimous against such an embargo and much more in favor of appeasing the British. They saw the Embargo as Jefferson’s attempt to bankrupt the prosperous New England area. Jefferson was, after all, a Virginian. With Adam’s help however, the bill past, but his reputation was shot and Adams was cast as a radical. He was voted out of office nine months early, in fact.
At the time, Adams had said, “Private interest must not be put in opposition to public good.” Adams’ decision to stand courageously by his conscience rather than the opinion of the people who had elected into office carried swift and severe consequences for him. As it happens, he did go on to hold other political offices and was known in later years as a man of integrity.
Kennedy’s book focused on the moments of courage of eight Senators from U.S. history. Seeing as the first of his figures was a prominent Unitarian, I saw that we could easily illustrate the nature of courage and integrity through the lives of remarkable Unitarians and Universalists from our history. These stories touch on politics, religion, and naturally also on social reform. Dorothea Dix, for example, was a Unitarian from the 1800’s who is remembered for her tireless advocacy for the civil and humane treatment of the mentally ill. When she started her work, chronicling the disturbing conditions in Massachusetts, the mentally ill were customarily kept in farm basements, poor houses, correctional facilities and jails. Dorothea investigated every place where mentally ill persons were kept in Massachusetts, every place! Taking careful notes, she was able, at the end of her 18 months of research, to convince the state legislature to respond with a bill to relieve the present situation and provide for future accommodations. Her efforts ushered in sweeping reforms.
She went on to investigate other states, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island. One of the stories told of Dorothea Dix, involves her work to establish the New Jersey State Hospital. She met with phenomenal opposition. The New Jersey legislature even passed a resolution providing $100 for a one-way train ticket to “get Miss Dix across the Delaware River and out of the state.” Dorothea however, did not give up, and within three years, New Jersey appropriated funds to build a hospital. Indeed after visiting Europe where she instigated reforms in Scotland and Italy; and returning to the states to organize the Army Nurses during the Civil War, she retired to live out her last six years in a small apartment behind that New Jersey State Hospital.
At her funeral they read the passage from scripture: “I was hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in: naked and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me.”
Fear, of course, is the thing that stops so many of us from living the lives we wish we could live. Fear is what freezes our will to act in line with our consciences. Mark Twain wrote, “Courage is not the lack of fear. It is acting in spite of it.” Certainly a great many people have said very similar things. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “We must constantly build dykes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.” The events surrounding the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. serve as a moment of courage felt by the entire nation as much as by innumerable individuals. Many Unitarian Universalist played a part of his courageous story. The basic outline of the critical turning point in that story I offer to you in the words of Bill Sinkford, our current UUA president.
On March 7, 1965, [Martin Luther King, Jr. and] six hundred civil rights marchers left Selma, headed east on Route 80. The march ended after only six blocks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where state and local law enforcement officials attacked the marchers with billy clubs, hoses, and tear gas, driving the marchers back. The day became known as Bloody Sunday.
The following day, Martin Luther King, Jr. called on clergy of all faiths to join him in Selma.
On March 9, King led a symbolic march to the bridge, joined by 450 clergy. … On March 21, 1965, more that three thousand marchers left Selma for Montgomery. Of the estimated five hundred white clergy now in Selma, over two hundred were Unitarian Universalist.
Within that broad story of courage there are countless individual examples. Here, then is one. Among those who responded with courage to King’s call was our own Rev. Harry Thor. Harry did not stay to take part in the powerful march from Selma to Montgomery on the 21st, but he had answered the call and was present at the critical early and dangerous stages as energy built. Harry wrote about how he and five other clergy from the Binghamton area went down together.
My arrival in Selma was probably the most anxiety producing of the trip. The other clergy with whom I had traveled from Binghamton had denominational colleagues who were waiting their arrival at the Montgomery airport. I caught a Greyhound bus which dropped me off in Selma at about 10 pm. No taxis or busses were available to take me to the church were Dr. King was scheduled to speak. The bus station was six or seven blocks away from the church. Walking to the church alone did not seem like a good idea, but I had no other choice. Amid glares from white male citizens standing around in groups, I made it unharmed to the church.
Harry was too late to hear King speak that night and was only able to stay for three or four days, but his time in Selma included an attempt to meet with the mayor, time in the County Jail, and an inspiring sermon by Dr. King. The courage of Harry Thor and all those who went to Selma is seen not only in the risk they took with their reputations and the impact such a controversial stance might have on their communities back home; there was also the very real risk of physical harm. Witnessed by the beating death of white Unitarian Universalist minister, James Reeb, the cost of living with integrity can be very high.
Of course, not all acts of courage lead to a positive outcome. Let me tell you about Adin Ballou. Adin Ballou was a Universalist and a distant relative to the more famous Hosea Ballou, the Universalist Theologian and Author. Adin is best known for founding the Hopedale Community, an attempt at utopian living founded on the Universalist principles of peace and harmony through alternative modes of social and economic organization. He had long been frustrated by the chasm between the beliefs many Christians professed and the lives they actually lived. Shouldn’t our faith be taken seriously and put into practice? Should not the words we say about peace and equality be reflected in the way we live together? The Hopedale Community, like all other Utopian endeavors to date, eventually failed. Ballou’s community lasted nearly 15 years in its original form. It ended when two of its biggest financial backers pulled out because Hopedale was not drawing a profit. Ballou was a radical reformer and an unyielding pacifist, controversial in his beliefs and his endeavors; he worked to realize the Kingdom of heaven on earth.
It takes courage to persevere with a dream of the Beloved Community. Courage is not always measured in success. The most courageous people aren’t always those who succeed, but those who refuse to give up when they fail. Ballou’s commitment to radical pacifism and his goal of the Kingdom of heaven on earth were not quenched by the financial failure of the Hopedale Community. Ballou’s courage and was echoed and amplified through the generations.
And let me briefly tell you of two others shining examples. Francis David became the court preacher in the mid-1500s to the only ever Unitarian king in history, King John Sigismund of Transylvania, (which is now known as Hungary.) David was educated as a Catholic priest, but converted to Lutheranism, then Calvinism, and finally to a form of anti-Trinitarian belief later known as Unitarianism. His rigorous commitment to truth and reason compelled him through this succession. Through a series of open religious debates, David so ably defended the Unitarian position that it persuaded the then-Catholic King Sigismund to become Unitarian. When Sigismund died, and a new king (not in sympathy with Unitarian beliefs) took the throne, the old court preacher was tolerated only so long as he advocated no innovations in doctrine or thought or practice. Francis David’s conscience, of course, could not be contained and he eventually died in the dungeon of Deva for the crime of heretical innovation.
Let me wrap up with one more story: Universalist Clara Barton: known during the civil war as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” and in years after as the founder and first president of the American Red Cross. In her later years she wrote, “To compliment me, writers dwell on my courage. In the earlier years of my life I remember nothing but fear.” Clara Barton was plagued throughout her life by sadness, melancholy and a lack of confidence. Her courage, I think, lies not in her acts of bravery during the war or her fortitude in guiding the Red Cross afterward. For Barton, I suspect her courage is most evident in the mere fact that she persisted in life each day. Perhaps the needs of battlefields and the sick soldiers gave her the courage to face her days. Her courage was the common person’s courage of simply facing each day as it came, almost the reverse of how it was expressed in Adams whose courage was to act in the interest of the public good. But courage nonetheless!
Courage is not found on the list of cardinal virtues according to whatever Christian body is responsible for that list. Courage, however, is the most basic of all virtues in that it frees us to make use of all the other noble virtues available to us. The lives of these men and women from our religious history offer to us a heritage deep and rich with faith, power, and courage. Indeed their stories echo down through the generations and fire our imaginations with conviction and nerve. My friends, we are an audacious people and you stand arm in arm with Adams, Dix, Thor, Ballou, David, Barton and countless other prophets, visionaries, rebels, and martyrs. “Stand we now upon the threshold, facing futures yet unknown. … Look inside your soul’s the kindling of the hearth fire pilgrims knew. … Guard we ever their sacred embers carried in our minds and hearts.” Courage, my friends, for our list of courageous people shall always have room for your name too.
In a world without end, may it be so.
Bumbaugh, David. A Brief History of Unitarian Universalism (~1988)
Gursky, Carol Stewart, ed. Profiles of Historical Unitarian Universalists (1983)
Kennedy, John F. Profiles in Courage (1955)
Leonard, Richard D. Call to Selma (2002)
McEvoy, Donald W. Credo: Unitarians and Universalists of Yesteryear (2001)
Robinson, David. The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985)
Scott, Clinton Lee. These Live Tomorrow: Twenty UU Biographies (1964)
Thor, Harry A. Selma personal papers (1999)