Fellow Christians, tear down that creche!

[Boston’s founder] John Winthrop, a lawyer and manor lord from Suffolk who rejected England as a sinful nation, drew his exalted vision of Boston, a place that then existed only in his great expectation of what it might become, from the Sermon on the Mount: “Ye are the Light of the World. A city that is set upon a hill cannot be hid.” (Matthew 5:14) This mission to found an actual city and then transform it into a city of God was thereafter fixed in Boston’s sense of self.  *********  Winthrop’s grand trope has long both inspired and haunted Boston as an ideal of polity and purpose. “A Model of Christian Charity”, Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, delivered  aboard the Arabella before his followers arrived in America,  articulated the mixture of idealism and anxiety which has characterized conceptions of Boston over the centuries.  *********  A mission statement for their errand into the wilderness, . . . .Winthrop’s vision of Boston came to be seen by succeeding generations as his expression of faith,  his creation of mind,  his invocation of the promise of American life.

So writes Shaun O’Connell in his wonderful new book,  Boston: Voices and Visions, a series of brilliant essays on different aspects of Boston history followed by a half dozen or so selected readings from original texts like Winthrops.  More literary in some cases than historical,  these are not always the selections I’d make,  but they are always pertinent and, as I say, the real juice of the book is in O’Connell’s introductions to each era.

As this scholar makes plain,  to invoke so great an idealism — it is not every city that takes its title deeds from the Sermon on the Mount — and the certainty of so urgent an anxiety in its wake, was absolutely to look for trouble (in worldly terms). Yet when America’s great 20th-century narrative historian Samuel Eliot Morison asserted that  “New England was founded consciously,  and in no fit absence of mind”,  he meant every word of his own and Winthrop’s.  So did novelist John Updike three and more centuries later when he ventured that  “there are distances in New England,  hard to see on any map;”  even that in the now legendary Red Sox/Yankee rivalry he’d  “rather loose with Boston than win with New York”.  Pointedly,  Updike asked  “what makes Boston . . . think it deserves championship teams all the time?”  And then answered himself:  “the founding Puritans left behind a lingering conviction,  it could be,  that earthly success reflects divine election and that this city built upon a hill is anciently entitled to a prime share.”

Updike’s point is crucial.  When some complain at Trinity Church, Copley Square, that all five priests are from the South I remind them that so was the founder of MIT,  built in Copley Square also in the 1870s by William Barton Rogers,  a close friend of Trinity’s then priest-poet and later saint-bishop,  Phillips Brooks.  Brooks was a Bostonian.  But his architect wasn’t.  H. H.  Richardson was also a Southerner.  And what an insight into Boston that so many Southerners over more than a century are drawn here. Ask instead,  fellow Bostonians,  what draws them?  It may well be because  “the founding Puritans left behind . . . .”

Listen to Emerson,  America’s Plato,  Boston’s iconic thinker,  one of whose addresses President Barack Obama had bound up with his innaugural address.  Of Boston Emerson writes:  “this town has a history.  It is not an accident,  a railroad station,  crossroads tavern or army barracks,  grown up by time and luck to a place of wealth,  but a seat of principle.  I do not speak with any fondness” — Emerson was born in Boston —  “but the language of coldest history when I say that Boston commands attention as the town which was appointed in the destiny of nations to lead the civilization of North America.”

Boston’s founding,  indeed,  as Winthrop makes plain,  was more mystical,  and the beginnings of most capitals more practical,  more commercial or political.  But it is easy to get carried away with all this.  As Digby Baltzell documented at great length in his majesterial Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia,  Bostonians have never been uninterested in success,  have never been interested in loosing,  and seldom have.  Recall the oft quoted statistic here about the economies of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston taken together surpassing  today that of China!   British journalist Chris Wright declares that  “the Revolution is, after all, Boston’s defining moment.  The city sits of a a historical fault line,  the fissure of which marks the breakaway point of the Old World and the New,”  while in the same place his colleague Camille Dodero pronounces Boston  “the founding city of the most powerful nation on Earth,  and the chosen home of some of the world’s greatest minds.” All of which suggests the  practical nuts and bolts planning of revolutionary activist Paul Revere  —  listen,  my children,  and you shall hear the national myth  —  as much as the mystical constitutional musings of John Adams.

Centuries later Adams’s words would enable a Massachusetts chief justice from South Africa to derive from his vision the revelation that the commonwealth was the fourth jurisdiction in the world —  country,  state,  empire,  whatever  —  where same-sex marriage should be legal. Not content,  the Boston city-state has just this week supplied the spearhead of Republicans  (I’m including the two from Maine,  for most of its history,  we are inclined to forget,  part of Massachusetts)  who made successful President Obama’s efforts to repeal  “Don’t  ask,  don’t tell,”  in this case a tardy achievement in global terms but one as a gay man I take special pride in.

As a Christian  —  another full disclosure:  I am a life-long active Episcopalian,  a parishioner of Trinity Church/Copley Square  — I take no less pride in the fact that Boston in its earliest form nearly four centuries ago was equally independent and rigorous in its determination to take liberties  —  note the word ‘liberties’  — with even so weighty a matter as the observance of the earthly birth of Jesus Christ himself.  Boston’s founders banned Christmas.  The New Testement,  they pointed out,  knew nothing of it,  thank you.  It was entirely without scriptural authority.  And emeshed in superstition and debauchery.  So Boston banned it.  Not shunned it.  Banned it.  And made the observance illegal and kept it so until a royal govenor of my own Anglican tradition overruled them.  And when that 17th-century Puritan vision failed to hold its own even among the sons of light,  not only in an expanding metropolis but in an increasingly diverse nation,  the Puritans’  by then Unitarian descendents in the early 19th-century took up the matter again more practically and re-invented Christmas entirely,  turning holy day into holiday,   thus bequeathing us the festivities we observe today.

In the last of the several capacities in the light of which I pen this essay  —  final disclosure  —  as an Americanist historian specializing in Boston/New England studies  I have to say finally that whether all this be for good or ill is beside my point here,  where I am concerned,  as a certain detective used to say,  with  “just the facts, ma’am.”

M O T H E R    C I T I E S

To anyone with any sense of history,  any sense of place at all,  never mind what Yale historian Vincent Scully used to call  “piety of place,”  it is everywhere obvious,  though often hidden under the surface of things,  that  as many call Jerusalem the holy city,  or Rome,  or,  in the case of my bank manager —  of whom more soon  —  Mecca,  many have looked over the centuries with a similar reverence toward Winthrop’s city.  Sometimes comfortably,  sometimes not,  on the global stage Boston in the New World,  as Geneva in the Old World,  is historically the Puritan capital as much as Rome  is the Papal capital.  A holy city and fixed as such for as long as our civilization endures,  Boston, can be as it has been much enriched and diversified,  but never can it’s character be  fundamentally altered.

One does not found a great nation,  perhaps,  more than once.  Boston will never do anthing more important than launch the United States of America in world history,  never be anthing more significant than what Whitehead called the Western world’s capital of learning,  both the achievement of Puritan and Emersonian Boston.  Similarly,  Rome will never do anthing more significant than launch the Roman Empire or be more than the fount and center of Western Catholicism.  Both  “mother cities” are fixed in history probably for all time,  on the one hand  by Augustan politics and Saint Paul’s letters,  on the other by John Adams’s thought and Emerson’s journals. 

The great symbol of this in the New World is John Singer Sargent’s mural cycle, The Triumph of Religion, the chief glory of the Sargent Gallery in the Boston Public Library in Copley Square,  about which I once wrote an essay for the Anglican Theological Review —  you see what a good Episcopalian I would seem to be  —  entitled  Renaissance Rome and Emersonian Boston:  Michaelangelo and Sargent–Between Triumph and Doubt.”  A comparison of Sargent’s murals with John LaFarge’s across the square in Trinity Church needs really to follow to complete my thesis,  but where else in Western art do the the two modern and differing conceptions of true religion meet at such an intersection?

Meanwhile,  every year against the darkening skies and against the bitter East wind of that eloquent passage of the year betwen Thanksgiving and Christmas,  I think of such things increasingly,  and never more than as the shadows grow longer and deeper across Boston Common and Public Garden as I head home.  Sometimes I even read The Scarlet Letter:  Nathaniel Hawthorne,  Boston’s Dostoevsky as the latter is the Hawthorne of the old Russian Imperial capital,  does not grow less powerful or less urgent as the centuries pass outside King’s Chapel burying ground.

Now the New World Puritan capital has as much to answer for as the Old World Papal capital,  both as to religion  (so often in each city it has turned hateful and bigoted)  and politics  (as often problematic as inspiring),  and Bostonians no less than Romans —  all of us,  and including  now Catholic and Protestant Bostonians and Jewish and Hindu and Muslim Bostonians and so on  —  do well to condemn the Puritans for being so narrowminded and bigoted.  Yet Morison is right:  “readers of New England history must be cautioned against ascribing to puritanism alone a coarseness that was common to the age,  and a bigotry that was common to all Christian sects.”

Boston’s great historian was also apt  — Morison was,  like me,  an Anglican high churchman —  to point out that  “if American democracy came out of puritan New England  [it] may equally well be traced to  [Anglican]  Virginia,”  and that  “it came from the English and not the puritan in our ancestors.”  He added too that the  “connection between puritanism and political liberalism” was clearer when it was the Puritan’s only defense against king and bishops while they were still in England than in New England after they had settled here. Too true,  too true.

Religion and politics again. Yet what is perhaps most compelling about the Puritans  ( and hardly seperable from the nation they were indeed at least the northern half of the origin of)  was their majestic conception of their place in history,  hardly less grandiose and arrogant than the Papal view of theirs.  When in the second volume of his monumental The New England Mind,  Perry Miller declared Puritanism not only the most eloquent New World  “spokesmen for what we call the Renaissance”  and  “the most coherent and most powerful single factor in the history of America”, he did not neglect to insist that  he judged them to be, much  more than Virginia’s Anglicans,  the  “founders of an American nation.”

In  “God’s Controversary with New England”  —  astounding title; in some sense it says it all  —  Miller’s powerful last chapter,  the greatest scholar in his field of that generation reached conclusions scholars have sometimes since  argued  with but never dismissed out of hand,  that  “New England was the ultimate perfection of the [Protestant] Reformation . . . because it knowingly and rationally undertook the task and bound itself by an explicit committment.”  Among Miller’s drolleries: “a community cannot migrate en masse to the celestial pastures as the Puritans moved to Boston.” But of  Winthrop’s famous shipboard sermon,  perhaps in sight of the New World,  Miller insisted:  “the greatness of Winthrop’s address…the daring flight of his imagination,  consists precisely in the genuis with which … the act of migrating he made one with the taking of a covenant.”  “If God made a treaty with New England”  —  again,  astounding words, and it was a deliberately biblical allusion,  the Puritans played their part very well,  reflecting  their  high sense of themselves.  “The Puritan scholar studied all history,  heathen or Christian”,  Miller wrote,  “as an exhibition of divine wisdom,  and found in the temporal unfolding of the divine plan that the entire past had been but a sort of prologue to the enactment of the New England commonwealths.”

To ban Christmas was not daring for such people.  Aethists today think  they are so hot!   The Christian Right is  equally sure it is so devout!  Boston’s 17th-century Puritan clerisy , however, would have had both for breakfast.  “The Puritan founders had their terrible faults,” wrote historian Richard Hofstadter.  “But the Puritan clergy came as close to being an intellectual  ruling class  —  or, more properly, a class of intellectuals intimately associated with a ruling power  —  as America has ever had.” And these  most ardent,  most earnest,  most well educated Christians on this continent,  to which all Americans owe much, waged many battles.  Like it or not,  however,  they waged  none for Christmas.

 G L O B A L    P E R S P E C T I V E

A necessary corrective to a study so rooted in one time and place as Perry Miller’s great tome is a book like Bard College professor Jacob Neusner’s World Religions in America,  which brings the global perspective home,  so to speak,  and overcomes the parochialism that among Bostonians often claims too much  —  or,  among sophisticates particularly,  too little  —  for whatever pieties of place or thought are under discussion.  Neusner’s book is doubly interesting in that respect because it deals both with world religions begun elsewhere and subsequently introduced into the United States  —  Hinduism and Buddhism,  for instance,  which have played important roles in Boston for well over two centuries now  —  and also with world religions that originated in America and have subsequently been introduced elsewhere in the world.

Perhaps the best known of these last is Mormonism,  with its aggressive missionary work worldwide.  But the religion my historical field requires I study most closely is the First Church of Christ,  Scientist,  Boston-based for well over a century. Now in decline in the United States,  it is most influential in England and Germany.

It is a religion easy to dismiss,  unless,  that is,  you have read William James,  more influential himself today even than Freud,  and while by no means a believer he was much concerned with Christian Science.    With good reason founder Mary Baker Eddy,  she of “Our Father/Mother God,” was chosen recently by so mainstream a popular journal as TIME Magazine as among the hundred most influential Americans in our entire history.  In many ways comparable to Saint Paul,  Eddy is the only woman ever to found a world religion,  one conspiciously led subsequently by many other women.  She thus fostered the idea of women holding positions of religious authority,  an idea now widespread at least among Western religions,  which have developed roles for women’s leadership.  “While later developments cannot be traced solely to the work of Mrs. Eddy,” Dell de Chant writes in Neusner’s book,  “it was she who had the daring to do it first and the brilliance to do it well.”  Today,  the Episcipal priest who is the rector of Boston’s pre-eminent church and the successor now of Saint Phillips Brooks is the Reverend Anne Bonnyman.

As much a corrective in another way to Perry Millers New England landmark is Boston University professor Robert Neville’s book,  Boston Confucianism:  Portable Tradition in the Late Modern World.  In his introduction another BU professor,  David Eikel,  explains that this movement,  nearly a half century old now,  has had considerable success in bringing  “historians of Chinese Confucianism into dialogue with Anglo-American philosophy to create a hybrid unique to the United States . . . . [with]  Neville’s colleague John Berthrang and Harvard’s Tu Weiming,  the Boston Confucianists have attempted to draw out aspects of traditional Confucianism that may be used as resources for ethical practice in today’s societies.”  As startling for some is the book’s front cover: a statueof Confucius,  of course;  but against the backdrop of Boston’s modern skyscraper skyline.

Finally,  for overall context there is  Christianity: The First Three Tousand Years,  the monumental work of the famously learned Oxford church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch.  It’s a long pilgrimage  —  more than a thousand pages  —  and he reaches Jerusalem and Rome,  of course,  long before he embarks for Boston.  But when he arrives in due course in the New World Puritan capital  —  on page 719  —  though he approaches Winthrop’s vision of  “a city upon a hill”  with characteristic reserve,  pointing out that all Puritan undertakings made such expansive claims,  he drills down at once to the heart of the matter:  “the found[ing] in the year of Our Lord one thousand six hundred and thirty six,  by Act of a Great and General Court of the Company  of Massachusetts Bay convened in Boston on the eight/eighteenth day of September of that year” —  of Harvard College, the senior partner  —  the junior was Boston Latin School  —  of the Puritan educational establishment that created almost at once what MacCulloch calls,  not the most powerful,  nor even the most devout,  but  “possibly the most literate society then existing in the world.”

Religion and politics again.  And somewhere between three and four centuries later,  when British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead pronounced Boston the Western world’s capital of learning,  he was witnessing to a later stage of that literacy,  yes?

Literacy,  too,  in the largest sense.  Few any more stop to realize the first Bible produced in the New World  —  by John Eliot,  Boston’s  “Apostle to the Indians”  as Miller calls him  —  was not written in English,  but in the Algonquin language,  which may serve to remind that other traditions than the English Puritan took up the American journey,  willingly or not.  But especially for other European groups enticed thereto  —  Spanish,  French,  Irish and Italian and,  later,  Asian  —  these others were enriching rather than originating and not foundationally formative. All were eager,  as it turned out,  not to form rival countries,  but to join and identify with the nation the original thirteen English colonies had fought so hard to forge on the basis of the English Common Law,  Magna Carta,  and British parliamentary democracy as it was then evolving,  traditions more Protestant than Catholic,  traditions not favored by Continental Europe or Native Americans,  but clearly understood as enabling and empowering the hugely diverse mix of cultures out of which has emerged the 21st-century United States.

Why else did so many call John Fitzgerald Kennedy the first Irish Catholic Brahmin or Massachusetts Govenor Michael Dukakis the first Greek-American WASP or Massachusetts Congressman  Father John Drinan the first Roman Catholic Episcopalian, that ( also very liberal)  faith tradition having through its New England prep schools somewhat superceded at least socially the Unitarian influence of Harvard. It went, moreover, both ways: Samuel Eliot Morison, as I have pointed out, although as liberal and conservative on many issues, was a strict Anglo-Catholic)..

Indeed, what inevitably happens when Manchu meets Ming or Catholic Protestant or whatever,  is something new,  a development compounded and perhaps even shaped by the equally creative evolution of in- place ruling classes.  Thus the decline of the Puritan clerisy and the rise (out of it) of the Boston Brahmin caste in the 18th- and  19th-centuries,  which urged its more practical and cosmopolitan  “do-gooding” thesis on Americans equally as strongly as their ancestors had urged their more mystical and devout austerities.

Now Unitarianism,  not my special field in itself,  is a large and complex subject,  about which only a few key aspects are pertinent here.  Never mind that its leader,  William Ellery Channing,  though he did disbelieve the Trinity appears to have accepted the divinity of Christ, nor that Morison nonetheless called 18th-century American Unitarianism  “a cult that had almost reduced Christianity to an inspired system of ethics.”  More important for us here is the fact that Channing,  who historian Digby Baltzell called  “the true saint of the new Boston religion [succeeding to the state of Puritanism] . . . . re[placed the Calvinist view of man’s depravity with a new sense of his dignity,”  and that Harvard became Unitarianism’s bastion by 1810,  claiming a heritage of liberalism thereby ever since that is perhaps the dominant aspect of the character of America’s most influential  seat of higher learning to this day.  About all this Morison penned a memorable paragraph”

The eighteen-twenties were the palmy days of Unitarianism,  when Thomas Jefferson predicted it would sweep the South . . . . Faith in the divinity of human nature seemed the destined religion for a democracy,  closely allied to confidence in the power of education to develop the reason,  conscience and character of man.  But,  alas for them,  the Unitarians overlooked the emotional and aesthetic side of  human nature;  nor were the theological dogmas of the Protestant churches so obliging as to crumble at a touch of reason,  like the wonderful one-hoss shay.  The fundamentalist tide that had ebbed Southward flowed back;  the transcendentalists floated off,  and the Roman tide rolled in;  but not before Harvard had become a fortress of the liberal  outlook and faith. In that sense,  but in no other,  Unitarianism sealed Harvard with its spirit.

It was sufficient.

U N I T A R I A N    C H R I S T M A S

The Unitarian way with Christmas was very different than the Puritan way.  High dismissal of superstition and revel became an emphasis on giving and on family and a  merry acceptance of secular good cheer.  Indeed,  the popularity of the expression  “Merry Christmas” was one result.  To be sure,  religion flavored the observance.  But never any more hint of it was heard than the first performance in America,  for instance,  in 1818 of the complete Messiah by Handel at King’s Chapel,  by then America’s first Unitarian church.  The modern secular Christmas was by no means the least gift of Unitarianism to America. Or so I thought.

Clearly,  however,  this historian needs to get out more and spend less time with his computer,  becoming more alert to the consequences of how uninterested Americans,  even Bostonians,  can be toward their own history. 

That is the only remedy I can propose  for what happened to me lately making my innocent way across Boston Common from bank to lunch on one of those bitter cold days I have spoken of here which make me feel as does nothing else at one with Increase Mather and John Adams and Emerson and Brandeis,  all of whom quick-marched across Boston Common on similar days.  In my case,  as certainly never in any of their perigrinations,   I was stopped short in my tracks by what I’m sure would equally have stunned them all.  Striding along,  and by the way, much enjoying various Advent and Christmas hymns pealing out from the Park Street Church  —  as a good Christian should,  looking forward as I was to Midnight Mass at Trinity  —  I was suddenly confronted by something I thought we’d lost long ago:  a Christmas creche,  on axis with the State House.  And as a good American should,  I swore,  forgetting myself for a moment,  looking at statues I would honor in church that were distinctly embarrassing, even appalling,   to discover in a public park in front of the Massachusetts capital. 

Has Boston lost its mind?  Or at least its history?  Will a statue of George III be next?

Now,  of course,  various city and state officials would doubtless try to calm me by pointing out that the creche is privately financed and that public parks are open to any and all expressions of religious belief.  All of which,  also of course,  is to appeal to the letter not the spirit of the issue,  and is quite beside the point I’m making.  What,  I wondered,  did my Muslim bank manager,  make of all this?  Or the Jewish friend I was about to lunch with.  I knew neither I thought well enough to ask.  Would a nearby menorah console,  I also wondered?  Not me.  Two state advertized religions is as bad as one.  Perhaps worse.  Finally,  I wondered:  what would Charles Dickens — who also knew bitter cold winter walks on Boston Common — what would Charles Dickens have thought?

Why Dickens, you ask:  he was the guarantor of Unitarian Christmas.  Listen to Professor Michael Timko:

In A Christmas Carol,  without once mentioning Jesus,  Dickens shows it is possible to experience a conversion  —  not necesarily based on a specific religious experience  —  but a personal regeneration one to help others . . . . For Dickens,  that was the true meaning of Christmas,  [which he transformed]  into what we think of as traditional today,  an occasion to give to those less fortunate and to gather family and friends around laden dinner tables and Christmas trees.

C H A R L E S    D I C K E N S    I N    B O S T O N

I often think that Dickens must have begun to conceive A Christmas Carol in Boston,  in 1842,  during his first visit to the city that year.  He stayed about two weeks.  To be sure the matter would not come to a head for a year and a half afterwrds,  when Dickens took up the actual writing in England in October of 1843.  But his famous Christmas book was a part of a series of books written by him in 1842-45  —  the others were American Notes of 1842,  Martin Chuzzlewit of 1844 and The Cricket and the Hearth of 1845  —  the other three of which,  before and after ‘Carol’,  were all importantly impacted by Dicken’s American tour,  and also highly anti-American in tone —  with the conspicuous exception of Boston!

Indeed,  it is not hard to pinpoint what most struck Dickens as so praiseworthy:  it was he battery of philanthropic institutions of the city,  particularly the Perkins Institute for the Blind,  which noticeably inspired him in American Notes  and also in Martin Chuzzlewit and also in Cricket and he Hearth.  For A Christmas Carol to be exceptional in not being influened importantly by his American tour  —  negatively,  for instance,  by his inspection of Western Penitentiary in Pittsburg  (which he called  “Hell with the lid off”)  or positively by the joy he took in the Perkins Institute  (“Boston is what I would have the whole United States to be” he wrote according to biographer Michael Slater) would to my mind be startling.

Of course the effect of A Christas Carol on the whole Anglo-American world  is well known;  less so is America’sand Boston’s effect on Dickens’s book.  And in keeping with the invariable thesis of Boston-Centric Global Studies,  which is to stress that Atlanticist and Global history is never a one way but always a two way street,  our chief vector here will be to explore the less well-known aspect:  what Dickens took home to England from America and returned fourfold in his now legendary Christmas book.

There’s more to it than Boston.  There is the whole context of Dickens’s attitude to 19th-century industrial capitalism and his life-long concern with both child labor and prison reform.  There were also more strictly literary influences,  one especially significant as deriving from Washington Irving’s Sketch Book of 1820,  written while Irving,  an Americam,  was living in England.  In three of those sketches Irving idealized an old English baronial Christmas of the sort Dickens would build on,  a fact sometimes overlooked because of the subsequent estrangement of the two men:  Irving,  more New York than Boston oriented,  resented Dicken’s overall anti-American tone sans Boston.

In the event,  however,  Dickens it was  (as The Boston Globe editorialized in 1915) who  “democratized the festival . . . . He took Christmas from the baronial hall to the cottage;  from the country to the city.  The medieval Christmass had been a rural and somewhat aristocratic festival.  Dickens took it below the poverty line and up the side street into the dingy house.”

Irving was right though about Dickens’s overall anti-Americanism,  particularly with ereference to slavery.  But according to Timko,  a City University of New York literary historian,  editor of the Dickens Studies Annual,  Dickens response to Boston had also to do with the fact that he met there both Emerson (who did not much like him) and Channing and became close to the great abolitionist senator,  Charles Sumner,  and also poets Henry Wadsworh Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes  —  all Unitarians.  Writes another Dickens scholar,  Robert Newsom of the University of California:  “[Dickens] interest in Unitarianism was virtually the only enthusiasm he managed to bring back with him  [from America].”

Timko completes the story:  “on returning home Dickens took a pew at the Little Portland Street  [Unitarian]  chapel in London and became close friends with its minister,  Edward Taggart”.  Wesley Hromatko adds:  “while he was most active at Little Portlan Street Chapel Dickens created the first and greatest of his Christmas boks, A Christmas Carol. ”  Meanwhile he wrote back to America to another Boston Unitarian friend,  Harvard professor  (and later president)  Cornelius Felton:  “Disgusted with our Established  [Anglican]  Chruch and its Puseyisms and daily outrages on common sense”  —  Dickens was not a high churchman  —  “I have carried into effect an old idea of mine,  and joined the Unitarians,  who would do something for human improvement,  if they could;  and who also practice charity and toleration.”  In that letter,  in fact,  Dickens makes plain acccording to Timko his impatience theology and dogma.  Indeed, Timko adds”  all Dickens’s novels reflect the central ideas of nineteenth-century Unitarianism.”

Does all this sound familiar?  And even if a year or two years after Boston the effect was dimming,  there was a sociable visit from Longfellow in London almost a year later to remind him of  the  “Boston religion”  as M. A. DeWolfe Howe called Unitarianism well over a century ago now,  when it was so identified with the old Puritan capital it was often defined as a belief in the fatherhood of God,  the brotherhood of Man and the neighborhood of Boston.

It is an old gibe, somewhat challenged by recent scholarshop by John Allen Macauley and J. D. Bowers,  who suggest Jefferson was not wrong to think the religion would be popular in the South.  Certainly too in the matter of the Unitarian Christmas New York prooved itself,  as so often it does,  more Boston’s ally than rival in its contributions to same.  For instance:  Thomas Nast,  who illustrated Clement Moore’s The Night Before Christmas ,as we call it now, was a Unitarian,  but not a Bostonian.  He was a New Yorker.  Boston,  however,  became the Unitarian —  more largely the Emersonian  —  capital as of old it had always been and in some sense always will be the Puritan capital.

Most influential in Dickens’s case was William Ellery Channing himself. Some have claimed  (Unitarian pastor Dan Baudreault) “it was . . . Channing who upon the occasion of Dickens’s visit to the US during the [1842] lecture tour convinced the novelist he was a Unitarian.” If so that was quite a breakfast Channing and Dickens had on Beacon Hill,  their only meeting.  Channing died later that same year.  Certainly there was an impact.  In American Notes Dickens writes he mentions Channing  “so that I may have the gratification of recording my humble tribute of admiration and respect for his high abilities and character.”  Dickens’s London ministers eulogy of Channing after his death,  moreover,  like Lonf=gfellow’s visit,  would have been another reinforcement of what there is some evidence for calling Charles Dickens’s conversion to Boston Unitarianism.

T H E    C R E C H E    A T    T H E    M G H

You can still have the experience of a classic Boston Unitarian Christmas  —  from which proceeds so much ( if not all anymore I guess)  of the modern American secular Christmas  —  at the Massachusetts General Hospital,  where later on the same day of my confrontation with the Boston Common creche I found myself stopping for tea and muffin and was myself more than gratified to disover that some Bostonians had not forgotten their history.

It is hardly enough to say the MGH was the idea of a Unitarian minister.  To catch the breathtaking sweep of the thing,  consider the following:  if  with his foundational national myth centering on Paul Revere’s ride,  Unitarian poet  “Longfellow invented America”,  in the words of his latest biographer,  Charles Calhoun,  who stops little short of that assertion,  and if the novelist Charles Dickens during his Unitarian period  “invented Christmas” as we moderns observe it,  is that a startling enough pair of factoids,  neither of which is unreasonable and both of which are more or less true,  to convey some sense of what the Anglo-American world owes to Boston’s Yankee Unitarian Brahmin’s  of the 19th-century?

Querry:  how important was Unitarianism to the origins of Boston medicine?  “Religion,  to be sure,  was a factor in the development of a culturally coherent Boston elite”,  writes Ronald Story,  “which seems to have been so overwhelmingly ‘liberal’ . . . in affiliation and outlook that contemporaries referred to Unitarianism as  ‘the Boston religion’.  That they did so in the face of a vaster increase in the number of area Methodists,  Baptists and Catholics only underscores the clear dimension of this elite attatchment to the ‘liberal’ faith,  an attachment which persisted . . . well into the twentieth century.”

Perkins Institute,  for instance,  which so galvanized Dickens’s faith,  was one of a number of satelite institutions around the centerpiece of the MGH,  where according to Story  “Harvard graduates in medicine comprised . . . 95% of the MGH doctors through 1852,”  graduates he also  notes of a school where  “every one elected to the [governing] Corporation between 1805 and 1860 was Unitarian,  with the exception of three Episcopalians.”

If anecdotal documentation is preferred to statistical,  consider that William Ellery Channing’s brother,  Walter Channing,  was apprenticed as a medical student  to MGH medical co-founder James Jackson and was thereafter appointed by Jackson to be his and the MGHs first assistant physician.  And it was another student of Jackson’s,  John Dix Fisher,  later dean of Harvard Medical School and attending physician at the Mass General  (and also a founding editor of The New England Journal of Medicine and Surgery)  who in 1829 founded the Perkins Institute.

First things first,  however:  it was a Unitarian minister,  the Reverend John Bartlett,  a Harvard graduate who had studied as well under William Ellery Channing,  and as a Boston area minister had brought the Second Congregational Church of Marblehead over to Unitarianism,  who called the meeting which sparked the founding of the MGH. Described as  “a progressive thinker with an avid committment to social action”,  Bartlett was chaplain of Boston’s akmhouse before taking up the Marblehead pulpit and had a particular interest also in mental illness.

Indeed,  although both the New York Hospital and the Pennsylvannia Hospial in Philadelphia pre-date the MGH,  in respect to the sort of general hospital in response to such  “broad issues of public policy”  as oppoesed to merely  “indigenous local conditions”,  medical historian Gerald N.  Grab asserts  “the first of these new [general]  hospitals was established in Boston,  where the [establishment of the MGH] reflected the emergence of a new business elite,  religious divisions between Congregationalists and Unitarians,  and the rapid growth of an intellectual and medical community.”

John Bartlett was not on my mind,  however,  when I sought out a cup of tea at the  Mass General,  where my presence was entirely happenstance.  My mind on “Unitarian Christmas” I might have instead encountered carolers singing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”!  The Unitarian effect was that widespread,  a case of medicine and music.  Written by Boston area Unitarian minister Edward Hamilton Sears,  that carol has been called  “the first clear expression of what became the social gospel movement,”  because it was  “the first Christmas carol with a social-ethical message.”  The nativity of Jesus doesn’t even come up.

Neither does it at the Mass General really.  In the first place I noticed the hospital’s  White Building main lobby is as it should be entirely devoid of Christmas decorations.  None.  Then,  further in,  at Coffee Central,  where I bought my tea and muffin,  there appeared what I can only call the iconography today of Unitarian Christmas:  nine plaques that celebate in succession  Jewish Chunukah,  Hindu Diwali,  Native American Creation,  Chinese New Year,  The Winter Solstice,  Eid Murbarak for Muslims,  Epiphany and Christmas for different varieties of my faith , and  —  and here I think a good idea is almost carried too far  —  there are two plaques,  for secular and religious Christmas  —  one with a Christmas tree and one with  a creche scene!

What saves it all though is that on the terrace outside,  where the fire laws allow such,  is a huge real Christmas tree,  with great red ribbons and sparkling lights.  But perhaps you did not know . . .  in 1832 in the decade just after the MGHs opening the first American Christmas tree was set up by a Boston Unitarian.

Now one can never be sure of such claims,  of course,  although in this case it was the celebrated British novelist Harriet Martineau,  herself Unitarian,  however,  who that very year recorded that  “I was present at the introduction into the new country of the German Christmas tree.”  But while there are rivals for this honor,  what seems to have been the case is that Boston’s Unitarians may claim the first decorated tree,  with gilded eggs and candles,  and quite a sight it must have been in the Follen parlor on what is now Follen Street in Cambridge.  There Charles Follen,  a German Unitarian who married into the Boston Brahmin Cabots  —  Unitarians,  of course  —  resided after he took up a professorship at Harvard,  in fact leading  to what Thomas S. Hanson called  “the first systematic teaching of German in the US.”  All the while he was in easy alliance with Boston’s Germanophile Transcendentalists.  Follen also became a cose friend of William Ellery Channing,  alas long dead when Charles Dickens made his triumphant return to Boston in 1867.  Of course he led off his reading in Tremont Temple with A Christmas Carol.

 H O N E Y    F I T Z ‘ S    T R E E

By the days of Boston mayor John F.  “Honey Fitz”  Fiyzgerald,  in the 1900s and 1910s,  Boston’s Unitarian  —  Dickensian  —  Christmas was in full swing,  most memorably extending to carol singing on Beacon Hill all along streets of candlelit windows,  and the good mayor was not a man  whose imagination was unlikely to rise to such an opportunity.  Forthwith there would be,  begining in 1912,  on Boston Common,  not a creche,  but a  Christmas tree,  forty feet high no less and covered with over 3000 electric fairy lights.  “New York divided the honor of having the original American municipal Christmas tree,”  the press reported in 1913,  “but it was Mayor  Fitzgerald’s  conception,”  the report ran,  and I’m sure it would have been a brave man to have denied him that accolade.  The next year it was announced Chicago and Pittsburgh and Washington had their own trees.

By 1920 Boston’s tree had grown to 70 feet and the ceremonies of picturesque old Brahmin Beacon Hill and those of the rather more  diverse and grandiose Common decor had fused just as President Kennedy’s grandfather hoped they would.  Reported The New York Times in 1927:

Beacon Hill is a fairyland  on Christmas Eve.  Nowhere in this country is there a more colorful celebration . . . . The carol singing and the candle lighting are known far and wide . . . . The Unitarian Building . . . will be illuminated and singers in costume will carol from its iron balcony.  The State House,  as heretofore,  will be a dream of beauty with thousands of bulbs in the windows.

Nor was the old Puritan Christmas entirely forgotten.  “We may well remember and profit by the old Puritan honesty in religion and politics,  which is needed to invigorate and purify our own individual and national life,”  editorialized the  Globe  in 1874.  Then in 1891 the same newspaper opined that the old Puritan Christmas should be seen as  “a protest . . . against mistaking the show for the substance of things”.  Even so late as 1924 this newspaper,  disticntly not the Brahmin but the Irish voice,  editorialized that the Puritans had  “made another Christmas . . . .Thanksgiving.” 

Today, to close the circle,  it is Thanksgiving  in our  multi-cultural country that has become  the all-American feast.



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[Boston Common Christmas Tree]  Bullard,  F.  Lauritsan,  “Boston’s Christmas Eve”, THE NEW YORK TIMES  (25 Dec 1927)

[Boston Globe editorials on Puritan Christmas]  24 Dec. 1874, 1891, 1914.

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Pacey, W> Desmond  “Charles Dickens and Washington Irving”< AMERICAN LITERATURE (January 1945)

Seavey, Gail.  “A Thinking Unitarian Christmas” FIRST UNITARIAN NASVILLE TENN (2008)

Slater,  Michael.  CHARLES DICKENS  (Yale) 2009

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Story, Ronald.  HARVARD AND THE BOSTON UPPER CLASS (Weslyan) 1980

Timko,  Michael  “Charles Dicken’s Novels” LIBERAL RELIGION AND LIFE/UU WORLD MAGAZINE (Winter 2002)

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