The Life and Legacy of Mary Livermore

An Abiding Faith in Human Destiny: The Life and Legacy of Mary Livermore
Rev. Tim Temerson
UU Church of Akron
January 22, 2012
Today I’m going to tell you an amazing story - a true story about one of the
most extraordinary women in American history and in the history of Unitarian
Universalism. Mary Livermore doesn’t get much coverage in today’s history books
and I’m guessing many of you have never heard of her. But during the second half
the 19th century, Mary Livermore was one of the most important and influential
voices in American public life. She was a famed lecturer and public speaker, a gifted
writer and journalist, a courageous and committed social activist, and a founder
and organizer of the United States Sanitary Commission, which was the precursor
to the American Red Cross. And finally, Mary Livermore was one of the most
important leaders and voices in American Universalism – a voice that still speaks
powerfully and passionately to our time and our own Unitarian Universalist faith.
Now I must tell you that in addition to all the wonderful things she
accomplished in her lifetime, I chose Mary Livermore as the subject of today’s
service because I feel a spiritual kinship to her. You see, having grown up in a
religious tradition that left her feeling wounded and very uncertain, Mary’s life was
transformed when, as a young woman, out for a stroll on a Christmas Eve, she
walked into a Universalist church in a small village on the southeastern coast of
Massachusetts called Duxbury. Well, about a dozen years ago, my life was
transformed when I set foot in a Unitarian Universalist congregation in that same
small town - Duxbury, Massachusetts.
I’m going to spend a good of time talking about Mary Livermore experience
that Christmas Eve because I believe it is the key to understanding her
extraordinary life. Universalism opened Mary’s heart and warmed her spirit. It
made her feel welcome and valued by God and by the universe. From that moment
until the day she died, Mary lived from a place of great hope, great joy, and great
determination to do all that she could to build a world of love and justice and peace
for all people.
The story of Mary’s awakening to Universalism begins in Boston where she
was born in 1820. Religion and religious concerns dominated Mary’s childhood and
youth. Her father, Timothy Rice believed wholeheartedly in the doctrines of
Calvinism, which teach that a God of judgment and punishment arbitrarily chooses
those who will be saved (known as the elect) while relegating the vast majority of
humankind to eternal damnation. Listen to Mary’s description of the impact
Calvinism had on her father and her family. “My father’s nature was so large and
generous that his heart was continually at war with his creed. Nature had made him
an optimist, while his creed transformed him into a pessimist. He mourned and
wept while he taught that the doom of endless perdition hung over the majority of
the human race. He never escaped this early belief and so lost the joy of life which
nature had designed for him.”
Mary’s religious upbringing led her to lose the joy of life as well. She saw a
world filled with beauty and belonged to a loving family. And yet she was told time
and again that God would most likely consign her and her loved ones to hell. Mary
experienced a deep-seated crisis of faith when a beloved younger sister died. She
was terrified that her sister was going to punished for eternity and even proposed
ending her own life so that she could take her sister’s place in hell.
The loss of her sister threw young Mary Rice into a terrible spiritual crisis.
What was the point of living, of loving, of caring for others and the world if the
universe is governed by a deity who would condemn a sweet, young child to eternal
punishment and torment?
After Mary completed her education, she accepted an offer to teach the
children of a plantation owner in Virginia. Although she was treated well and
enjoyed her life as a teacher, I think it’s safe to say that Mary’s experience on that
plantation, and especially her encounter with the horror and brutality of slavery,
deepened her crisis of faith.
One day while out for a walk on the plantation, Mary witnessed the brutal
whipping a slave named Matt. She had never experienced such violence and such
brutality. In many ways, the overseer who wielded that whip reminded Mary of the
God of her childhood. And I think it safe to say that Mary’s encounter with slavery
and especially with the whipping of Matt led her to lose faith not only in the God of
her childhood but in the promise and possibilities of life in the here and now. She
had been raised on a God who was harsh and vindictive, and she experienced that
same vindictiveness when she witnessed the whipping of Matt. Perhaps Calvinism’s
view of God and humanity was right after all – the world was corrupt, evil, sinful,
and not worth saving. Maybe, just maybe, God’s anger was justified.
Mary Rice returned from Virginia with a heart and a spirit that were heavy.
An offer to teach at a private academy in the coastal town of Duxbury soon gave
her a new opportunity and a new beginning. But as much as she enjoyed her new
life, she could not find a way out of the spiritual darkness that enveloped her.
As Mary walked along one of Duxbury’s streets on Christmas Eve, she heard
the faint sound of beautiful music and singing. The beautiful music was coming
from a church – the small Universalist church in Duxbury. Mary had heard of
Universalism but didn’t know much about it except that it was (and doesn’t this
sound familiar) strange, heretical, not really a religion, and certainly to be avoided.
In spite of her misgivings, Mary was irresistibly drawn to that small church. Her
autobiography has a wonderful illustration of this moment which is up on the
screen. The way Mary describes it, she stood by the door, hesitating to go in,
uncertain of what she might encounter, and fearful of having her deep religious
wounds opened further.
Mary overcame her fear and walked into that church. And what she heard
and experienced that night changed her life. She heard music and prayers and a
sermon that approached religion and life from a perspective she hadn’t thought
possible. Where she had once only heard judgment, now she only heard love.
Where she had once only heard fear, now she only heard joy. And where she had
once only heard of a God who is judgmental and punishing, now she heard only of a
God who is a loving parent, a good shepherd, a compassionate friend who
welcomes everyone, everyone into the divine embrace.
That night, that sermon, that Christmas Eve service changed everything for
Mary Livermore. As she describes it in her memoir, “A great peace came over me. A
pulsation of love for all the world throbbed through my being. As I glanced over the
listening congregation, I wished I might shake hands with every person present.”
What a beautiful description, a beautiful testament to the power of a religion and a
community steeped in love to heal a broken heart and to save a human life.
Universalism opened Mary Livermore’s heart and mind to the promise and
possibilities of life. If God was a God of love rather than punishment, then there
was hope for humankind. Human beings were not inherently sinful but were,
instead, like lost children of a loving God who could find their way and transform
themselves and the world into an oasis of love and compassion for all. Mary
Livermore went into that church convinced that life was ultimately hopeless and
joyless. She came out, as the title of today’s service says, “with an abiding faith in
human destiny.”
And by the way, that night in the church in Duxbury changed Mary
Livermore’s life in another glorious and blessed way. You see, the service Mary Rice
attended that night was led by a young minister named Daniel Livermore. And yes,
Mary and Daniel were eventually married and shared a 50 plus year marriage,
partnership, and friendship that brought great joy and great meaning to their lives.
After they were married, ministry took Mary and Daniel to several small
churches and communities in New England. But they soon realized that the life of
parish ministry just wasn’t for them. They decided instead to try their hands at
writing and journalism. Daniel purchased a small Universalist newspaper in Chicago
and Mary soon became his most important and famous writer. Mary and Daniel also
turned their attention to social reform, writing and organizing on behalf of
temperance, the abolition of slavery, and the rights of women.
As I mentioned earlier, Mary’s fame grew steadily and she became an
important public figure. Her work with the US Sanitary Commission was so
invaluable to the Union during the Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln himself
presented with an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. And after the
war, Mary continued her writing, her social activism, and embarked on what
became her life’s work – lecturing about a variety of subjects, ranging from social
issues like peace and women’s rights to literature, history, and just about
everything under the sun. Earlier you heard an excerpt from her most popular and
famous lecture “What Shall We do With Our Daughters,” which remains one of the
great statements on behalf of women’s rights in American history and which Mary
delivered over 800 times during her public speaking career.
Mary Livermore didn’t live to see ultimate victory in many of the struggles
she had worked so tirelessly to achieve. Mary died on 1905, 15 years before the
19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified.
But in many ways, I think the struggle at the heart of Mary Livermore’s life
had already been won. Not the struggle for equal rights or for fair and just
treatment for the entire human family. That struggle goes on. But what had been
won in her heart and in her life was a deep and abiding faith that the struggle is
worth making, that history is ultimately on the side of love and justice, and that
humankind is not destined for punishment or for vengeance, but rather that we are
created, that we are called, that we are destined to live in a world that is fair, that
is just, that is loving, and that is at peace. That’s the world Mary Livermore
struggled for and that’s world each and every one of us, the Unitarian Universalist
heirs to her extraordinary example and legacy – that is the world we are called and
that we are destined to build.