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Home Spirituality Sermons "On Belonging to the Faith: Charles Dickens and Unitarianism"
"On Belonging to the Faith: Charles Dickens and Unitarianism"

Written by Diana C. Archibald, Ph.D.   


“On Belonging to the Faith: Charles Dickens and Unitarianism”
A Sermon by Diana C. Archibald, Ph.D.
Delivered at First Parish in Bedford, Unitarian Universalist
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Thoughts to Ponder
“Mrs. Joe was a very clean housekeeper, but had an exquisite art of making her cleanliness more uncomfortable and unacceptable than the dirt itself.  Cleanliness is next to Godliness, and some people do the same by religion.”
—from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
“Isms! Oh Heaven for a world without an ism. The wickedness of us moles to each other in our isms is enough to have brought a comet on the head of [us], a thousand years ago.”
—from a letter by Charles Dickens, April 27, 1844
Opening Words:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Tale of Two Cities
For our readings this morning, we have two short selections from the writings of Charles Dickens. First, a bit from his travel book American Notes, in which he attacks one of his favorite targets on any continent, religious zealots:
Wherever religion is resorted to as a strong drink, and as an escape from the dull, monotonous round of home, those of its ministers who pepper the highest will be the surest to please. They who strew the Eternal Path with the greatest amount of brimstone, and who most ruthlessly tread down the flowers and leaves that grow by the wayside, will be voted the most righteous; and they who enlarge with the greatest pertinacity on the difficulty of getting into heaven will be considered, by all true believers, certain of going there: though it would be hard to say by what process of reasoning this conclusion is arrived at. —American Notes (1842), ch. 3
The second selection is from a private letter to Reverend D. Macrae and shows that Dickens’s religious emphasis, in his work, is on the New Testament rather than on the Old:
With a deep sense of my great responsibility always upon me when I exercise my art, one of my most constant and most earnest endeavours has been to exhibit in all my good people some faint reflections of our great Master, and unostentatiously to lead the reader up to those teachings as the great source of all moral goodness. All my strongest illustrations are drawn from the New Testament; all my social abuses are shown as departures from its spirit; all my good people are humble, charitable, faithful, and forgiving. Over and over again, I claim them in express words as disciples of the Founder of our religion….
Perhaps you may have heard that February 7th was the 200th birthday of English author Charles Dickens. This celebrated literary genius wrote fifteen novels, countless short stories and articles, and is arguably one of the greatest novelists of all time. Creator of A Christmas Carol, Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Bleak House––sorry if I haven’t yet mentioned your favorite but I’m stopping here––it’s no wonder, really, that Dickens has been the subject of numerous sermons, … especially in this bicentenary year of his birth. His compassion for the poor and downtrodden is notable and commendable. His colorful and memorable characters provide ample fodder for sermonizing. His commitment to giving a voice to the silenced, making visible the overlooked, and bringing to life the dead is truly remarkable. Today’s sermon, however, is not a celebration of Dickens’s life and contribution. I’ve got something else on my mind as I stand today in this free pulpit.
Several years ago when our senior minister, John Gibbons, discovered my scholarly interest in Charles Dickens, he remarked brightly, “Ah, well, of course you know that Dickens was a Unitarian!” I replied that I had always heard that he was a Broad Church Anglican. At which, the Right Reverend John E. Gibbons whipped out, The A to Z of Unitarian Universalism by Mark W. Harris (2003). Here is the entry, a summary of the case in favor of Dickens being called a Unitarian:
DICKENS, CHARLES: The most popular novelist in the history of the printed word, Dickens became a convert to Unitarianism after he visited America in 1842. Born in Portsmouth on February 7, 1812, he was brought up in the Church of England, but apparently never subscribed to orthodox doctrines. … An interest in Unitarianism was stimulated by the great liberal cleric William Ellery Channing. Dickens had an opportunity to meet many of the Unitarian elite, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Samuel Longfellow, Andrews Norton, and Washington Allston (Channing’s brother-in-law). After his visit to America he attended worship services at the Essex Street Chapel, but settled on the Chapel in Little Portland street in London’s West End as his church of choice. He developed a friendship with the Rev. Edward Tagart. Dickens’s antagonism to evangelical churches is evident in The Pickwick Papers. After Dickens’s sixth child, Alfred, was christened, Robert Browning referred to him as an “enlightened Unitarian.”
Dickens had a wide scope of interests and became especially concerned with the role of churches in society. He had little respect for the dogmatism of the Catholic Church, and he considered it a tool of oppression, calling it “that curse upon the world.” Dickens wanted to truly help victims of poverty and, coupling this with his virulent anti-dogmatism, he wrote: “Disgusted with our Established Church and its Puseyisms, and daily outrages on common sense and humanity, 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 practice Charity and Toleration.” Dickens became a social crusader, and his hatred for all types of privilege is seen in many of his works, including A Christmas Carol,…. Many of his novels were spiced with biblical phrases, and his disdain for self-righteous clergy, sectarianism, and irrational beliefs such as the virgin birth were touchstones for his liberal, benevolent faith. Dickens died on June 9, 1870. (152-53)
My first reaction was skepticism. The entry felt like it was trying too hard, as if Dickens–”the most popular novelist in the history of the printed word”––was too big a “catch” to pass up and no matter how thin the connection, he must be paraded about in order somehow to legitimize Unitarianism. You know, a sort of Dickens slept here publicity stunt. Some of the inconsistencies in the entry raised those red flags for me. For instance, if Dickens had an “old idea” about “joining the Unitarians” and “never subscribed to orthodox doctrines,” then why describe him as a “convert”––”somebody who has changed from one way of perceiving or understanding a belief system to another”? Also, the Browning quotation puzzled me. Why would a Unitarian have his children baptized in an Anglican church? Plus, the specific events and works of literature mentioned were all very early in Dickens’s career. Harris makes it sound as if Dickens joined a Unitarian chapel and that was that. But I knew that when he moved to his last home, at Gad’s Hill Place, he returned to his Church of England roots. Why was this fact not even mentioned? It seemed like a case of only using the evidence that supports a case and suppressing the rest.
My recent investigations into the connections between Dickens and Massachusetts for a major exhibition I am co-curating in Lowell < > have shown me that there is, in fact, more evidence on the side of those who claim that Dickens should be called a Unitarian than I thought at first. Scholars are split about two thirds saying he was Broad Church Anglican or non-affiliated and one third insisting he was either a Unitarian in sympathies or a closet Unitarian. I won’t go into these scholarly debates in today’s sermon, but suffice it to say there is conflicting evidence and plenty of room for questioning any conclusion. As for the clergy, like the literary scholars and biographers, they disagree.
How about the Christians? I read one sermon from Queens College, Oxford last Sunday that said Dickens merely “flirted with Unitarianism” and was clearly a Christian. Likewise the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Dunedin, New Zealand, attempted in his commemorative sermon to “draw out the religious underpinning of Dickens’s literary imagination…. essentially formed by the great Christian narrative of salvation.”[1] And the Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer preached that Dickens is “sermon worthy [because] … In a nutshell, [he] was a social reformer in the spirit of the 8th century BCE Hebrew prophets (Amos and Hosea), Isaiah, and in the spirit of Jesus…. [who] preached during troubling times… [of] political unrest, religious idolatry, [and] the wealthy taking advantage of the poor.”[2] 
What do the evangelicals say? Well, I read at god&, “Sermon Notes: Rescuing Christmas from the Humanism of Charles Dickens,” a rant about how very wrong-headed Christmas Carol is because “Jesus did not come into the world to reveal to man his own potential [to do good]. Jesus … died for the ungodly.”[3] Then, I found at Sermon Central (I kid you not!) a sermon by J. John, “The Billy Graham of Great Britain,” about Dickens’s Christmas Carol being an excellent Christian example showing the hellish consequences of sin.[4]
What about the Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists? The Canadian Unitarian Council’s website boldly proclaimed on Feb. 8, 2012, “Who’s UU: Charles Dickens.”[5] Larry Smith, an interim UU minister in Delaware, argues that since, “Dickens wrote his story about Scrooge when he was at the height of his enthusiasm and activity in the Unitarian church on Little Portland Street. … [Christmas Carol] is a revelation of nineteenth century Unitarianism,” thus claiming merely the text and not the man as belonging to the faith.[6] But Rev. Smith is the exception when it comes to UU’s talking about Dickens. By far the majority feel like (Medford, MA) preacher Susan Jhirad, who proclaimed in her sermon “Dickens the Unitarian,” that she was “proud he once was among us.”[7] It is no wonder that the assurance that Dickens was “one of us” is so widely accepted as fact when The A to Z of Unitarian Universalism (quoted earlier) lists Dickens, when the UUA Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography also includes an entry on Charles Dickens,[8] and when that fountain of all wisdom… Wikipedia, says Dickens was a Unitarian, and we all know what a reliable source that is![9]
So was Dickens a Unitarian or not? Did he belong to our faith or not? Can we claim him or not? My response: Why do you ask?!
Let me be clear. There is simply not enough evidence to know for sure. Dickens was extremely careful about keeping his own personal religious beliefs private. Yes, for a few years he “joined,” in his words, the Unitarians in England. He “took a pew” in a Unitarian chapel, and while he did not publicize his membership in this dissenting sect, the evidence is clear that for a time he belonged to a Unitarian congregation. Further, he maintained close friendships with many Unitarians both in England and America. But he also left that Unitarian chapel later in life and took a pew at an Anglican church. He chose to have all of his ten children baptized in the Church of England, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey. I agree with the minister of the UU church in Stoughton MA who, in 2002, asserted that “while Dickens had much in common with the Unitarianism of his day, he was too much of a creative and independent thinker to be pigeonholed in the commonly held ideals of any particular household of faith (even our own). His ideas were a bubbling cauldron, a creative confluence of different influences.”[10] Dickens was distrustful of Isms and was not, by and large, a joiner. So why do we insist on enlisting him in our ranks?
Some might say this is harmless--why complain; it’s just human nature to want to show how our faith tradition is filled with admirable people. The UU History and Heritage Society website prominently displays a quotation which reads: “It is a curious error to suppose that you can carry on effectively a great liberal tradition while remaining ignorant or almost ignorant, of the beliefs and achievements of the people who have handed that tradition over to you.”[11] I suppose it is in that spirit that the R.E. curriculum called UU Superheroes was developed with lessons that introduced all kinds of UU “heroes” the kids could look up to and be proud of. But we ought to be very careful about who we hold up as a hero if we choose to do this. On the one hand, we ought not to claim someone for our faith who did not claim it for himself. And on the other hand, we ought not to idolize celebrities and turn a blind eye to their faults. Dickens is a poor choice of a hero on both counts.
Our insistence on claiming him for the faith is disconcerting when the man had an opportunity to speak for himself and ultimately did not choose Unitarianism. We are not a hero-worshipping faith. We do not and should not need to enroll famous people in our ranks to feel that our religion is meaningful and worthwhile. We don’t need Dickens. And frankly, anyone who looks a bit more carefully into that man’s history may find reasons not to wish to hold him up so high. After his wife bore him ten children, he left her for an 18-year old actress. When his wife’s family complained about his misconduct, he retaliated by publishing a letter in which he described Catherine as an unfit mother and bad wife. As a recent biography of Catherine Dickens, written by Lillian Nayder, ably demonstrates, Catherine was a model of subservience and obedience, and Mr. Dickens’s successful attempt to write his wife out of his life and into the pages of infamy is a true injustice.[12] That the Dickens entry in the UUA Dictionary of … Biography not only asserts unequivocally that Dickens was a Unitarian -- essentially speaking for him -- but also perpetuates Charles Dickens’s slander of his wife is deeply troubling. Among the many points omitted in this entry on Dickens, is the fact that after Dickens publicly humiliated his wife, the Unitarian minister, Reverend Tagart, chastised him and ended their sixteen-year friendship. I’m not saying Dickens was some sort of monster--just that he was a flawed human being like the rest of us. So what are we doing claiming him when he himself did not choose us? What drives that need to enroll him in our ranks? Incidentally, Dickens is not the only famous person of ambiguous Unitarian or Universalist extraction to be forcibly gathered into the fold posthumously. And UU’s, of course, are not the only ones to do this sort of thing.
I’ll give you an extreme example of this sort of posthumous conversion. Please do recognize that I am not equating the UU adoption of Dickens with this case but merely pointing it out to help us see our own actions in a new light. I’m sure some of you heard the outcry a few weeks ago over the Church of Latter Day Saints’s use of proxy baptism. Elie Weisel, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, recently discovered that his name was on a list of those who, after their death were to be baptized by proxy into the Mormon church. Now, of course, this case is much more extreme and different than Dickens’s. But part of the offense rests in the fact that if someone did not convert during his life, he ought not to be converted forcibly when he is dead. Isn’t there something we Unitarians hold sacred about each individual’s right to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning? If a person does not choose openly to claim to be one of us, then we must respect that choice. No matter how tempting it is to choose for them.
One more quick story and then my conclusion. When I was in the seventh grade, I asked my grandmother what religion we were. My family did not attend church when I was growing up, and I naively thought that perhaps some of what was missing in our family might be fixed by religion. I became a Lutheran, upon the advice of grandma. I was confirmed in the Lutheran church, in fact. But during high school I switched to an evangelical Christian church. I helped to convert my best friend, in fact. When I was away at college, I majored in religion, but a Feminist Theology course my senior year raised several questions about Christianity for which I began earnestly to seek answers. After being dismissed from my leadership position in Intervarsity Christian Fellowship because I asked too many questions and suggested we use gender-neutral god-talk, I ended up leaving the Christian church altogether. Once I began to allow myself to think freely, the questions just piled up. Several years later (before I had heard about Unitarian Universalism), on a rare visit to my old friend, who had remained an evangelical, I had a remarkable experience. She and her husband explained to me that I was still a Christian. “Once a Christian, always a Christian,” she told me. “You accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, so you are going to heaven. God is just disappointed in you.”
Am I saved? Am I, indeed, still an evangelical Christian? Or am I a Lutheran? After all, that is the church into which I was baptized and confirmed, and I even attended a Lutheran college. But I signed the membership book here at First Parish, so does that make me a Unitarian Universalist? Who gets to decide? For the living, we can choose, I suppose, though once we’re dead I guess anyone can claim us.
In conclusion, I note that our UUA President Peter Morales just last month put forward a proposal called “Congregations and Beyond” that begins: “We have long defined ourselves as an association of congregations. We need to think of ourselves as a religious movement. The difference is potentially huge.”[13] He proposes that we re-envision what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist, broadening our concept of belonging past mere membership to “connection.” He writes:
“The central conviction driving this proposal is that our core values appeal to far more people than are attracted to (or likely to be attracted to) our congregations. We have always treated this as a problem to be solved by devising ways to get people to become members of our congregations. But the reality of today’s world is that not everyone who shares our core values will want to become part of a traditional congregation. The fact that so many share our values is an enormous opportunity, not a problem. The future relevance of our faith may well depend on whether we can create a religious movement beyond, as well as within, the parish.”
I might add, to take this one step further, that the reality of Dickens’s world was also that not everyone who shared Unitarian “core values” wanted “to become part of a traditional congregation” … or in Dickens’s case, to stay in one! And while we may well want and need to broaden out conception of who is a part of our religious movement today, let’s be very cautious about enrolling those who cannot speak for themselves.
Closing Words
I’ve been trying to figure out how to work in three of my favorite short quotations, and I think these simple statements will do for closing words:
“I used to sit, think, think, thinking, till I felt as lonesome as a kitten in a wash–house copper with the lid on.”
“There is a wisdom of the Head, and ... there is a wisdom of the Heart.”
“No one is useless in this world… who lightens the burden of it for any one else.”
In other words, don’t think yourself into a copper kettle––open you hearts and help one another. Good words!

[12] Lillian Nayder. The Other Dickens: A Life of Catherine Hogarth. (Cornell U. P., 2010)


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