Birth Control and the American Revolution

The struggle for liberty can no longer be fought only in the courts, for the courts have proven themselves to be untrustworthy. The struggle has to be fought in the heart. We are called to change hearts and minds. That is why the gay rights movement is succeeding while the reproductive justice movement faces blow after blow. The gay rights movement focused on changing hearts along with laws. The reproductive justice movement is called to do the same.

This sermon was delivered to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel on Sunday July 6, 2014.  

Reading.  “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Song.   “This Land is My Land”  Woody Guthrie.


It may or may surprise you to know that Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere is not very accurate! He took a lot of poetic license. Paul Revere did not work alone. He was in a large network of resistance. There were two other men who worked with him that night to alert the people of the incoming British army. And, there was also a woman who went knocking door to door. The men just rode through town yelling that the British were coming! She made sure everyone actually heard the message. Furthermore, Revere was actually arrested that night! Longfellow doesn’t mention any of this. In his poem, Revere singlehandedly is responsible for helping the colonies avoid complete surrender to the British.

Longfellow’s goal in writing the poem was not to preserve history. He knew he was massaging the facts to suit his poem, but that’s because poems aren’t history. Longfellow wrote this legendary poem because he had an ulterior motive, and to understand that motive, you have to understand a bit about Longfellow’s story.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born to a Unitarian family in 1807, 30 years after the American Revolution, just about the time that Unitarianism was becoming its own denomination. His father attended Harvard, which is where he met William Ellery Channing, often considered the first leader of the fledging Unitarian church. Henry’s brother, Samuel, became an influential Unitarian minister. There are 7 hymns written by Rev. Samuel Longfellow in our hymnal. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife was also from a Unitarian family.

Unitarianism in its earliest days was about cultivating virtue. This liberal Christian denomination proclaimed that all of humanity could become what Jesus was with the right intention. This was mostly accomplished through study of the arts and sciences – philosophy, literature, poetry, biblical criticism, theology, geology, biology. As you honed your mind and deepened your understanding, you developed the virtues of patience, open-mindedness, reverence, a respect for science, generosity, reason, and rationality. You would attain that godliness that Jesus represented.

For many of the early Unitarians, this honing was not just about becoming a better human being, but about becoming an American in the fullest sense. In these early years of nationhood, and there was a real sense, especially among the educated upper class (and that’s where Unitarianism emerged from) that America needed the same kind of honing that the individual did.

For Longfellow, his contribution to this honing was poetry. He yearned for an American culture that could match the immensity and vastness of its geography.   He wanted a refined American culture that could hold its own against Europe. His poems were about holding up the ideas that he felt were uniquely American, ideas that were also, not surprisingly, very Unitarian. The early Unitarians felt certain that their values were the embodiment of America’s values.

But, there was one big problem that came to consume more and more of their energy, and that was the problem of slavery. Many Unitarians became convinced that the presence of slavery in the United States was a national shame. It didn’t help that many Unitarians were also businessmen who struggled to compete with Southern slave labor. The institution of slavery turned Unitarianism away from its singular focus on study and internal introspection, and out into the world. It kept Unitarianism from being an intellectual exercise.

Being Unitarian, at least in the North, came to mean being against slavery. This resistance cemented in many Unitarian minds the conviction that Unitarian virtues were synonymous with the virtues of the American nation.

In 1860, Longfellow was asked by an abolitionist friend to write a poem. It seemed like the nation was heading to civil war. By this time Longfellow was seen as the quintessential American poet, he was famous and influential and identified with the heart of the nation. Could he write a poem that would inspire Americans to understand what was at stake?

Longfellow dug into America’s past and looked for a hero, and he found that hero in Paul Revere. He crafted a poem about a lone man who loved his nation, who lit the lanterns and galloped through the night, warning the good people of America of the impending threat. So this poem isn’t really about the American Revolution. It’s really about the looming Civil War.

Longfellow’s intention was to sound the alarm, to rally around the best virtues of the American nation and to be ready to stand for truth and justice. But this time, unlike the American Revolution, the threat came not from an outside enemy, but from within.

Longfellow urged the American people to never forget what the American Revolution was about – paving the way for liberty. It was time to enlarge that freedom once again, to forge a more perfect union. As long as some were kept out of the dream, the aims of the Revolution had not yet been realized. The end of slavery would bring America closer to its noble endeavor.

So what did it matter that he twisted the facts and made a few changes? He had a nation to save from itself.

At every turn in this nation’s history, there have been critical points where this country has moved towards the greater realization of liberty. The American Revolution was about the right of self-determination. The Civil War was about ending slavery. The Union Movement that Woody Guthrie was part of was about ensuring that working people, common people, had the ability to share in the promises of the American Dream. The Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and the Gay Rights Movement. Each of these movements were about fulfilling the vision of what this country has said it is – a land of liberty, where each person has the right of self-determination.

If there was a mythical Paul Revere, riding through the streets of modern America in the dark of night, what would he be warning us about today?

I’m imagine I am not the only one who was devastated on Monday because of the Supreme Court Ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby’s right to decline insurance coverage of birth control for its female employees. I have a hard time imagining that Paul Revere or Longfellow or Guthrie would, in their day, have understood the right to affordable birth control as a civil rights issue, but times have changed, and we, like Longfellow, have the moral responsibility to use poetic license to take the icons of American liberty and find in them a path into our modern sense of justice and fairness. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations can have religious beliefs, and that the religious beliefs of an employer are more important than the basic health care needs of their workers. Longfellow and Guthrie both held up the right of self-determination as an anchor of American identity. So I imagine that if Woody Guthrie was standing amidst the protests this week with his guitar, and if Paul Revere was wondering which lantern to light and which roads to race through in the dead of night, and if Longfellow was to choose to write another timely poem, I imagine that they might choose this moment as a moment when our nation has fallen short of the aims of the Revolution.

In our day, birth control has become a form of self-determination. We no longer ask women and their families to bear child after child after child. We no longer make abstinence the only option to stop that cycle. We have achieved the ability, more than ever before, to determine for ourselves when our bodies will bear children and when they will not. And what is this, if not the exercise of our liberty, that we should be enslaved by nothing, especially our bodies?

But that’s not what the Supreme Court decided on Monday. The Supreme Court decided that our employers have the right to withhold a benefit that we have earned. In this ruling, our nation took a step away from the aims of the American Revolution.

For me, this has reinforced the sad conclusion that there are still those in our society who are as deeply threatened by a woman’s right to self-determination as there were those in Longfellow’s time who were threatened by the thought that human beings of all races could be free citizens of their nation. It offends their sensibilities, and obviously they still have the power to impose their fear on the rest of the nation. This ruling was not about freedom of religion. It was about the fear of women’s self-determination.

Like many of you, I have been wondering, what now? How do we move forward from this blow to freedom and liberty?

I turn to our history, the history where Unitarianism and American identity are so closely intertwined. They still inform each other. Self-determination is the cornerstone of both, and that right is as much about standing up for our own freedom as it is about getting out of the way for others to live theirs.   We cannot impose our version of morality on others.

This struggle for liberty can no longer be fought only in the courts, for the courts have proven themselves to be untrustworthy. This struggle has to be fought in the heart. We are called to change hearts and minds.   That is why the gay rights movement is succeeding while the reproductive justice movement faces blow after blow. The gay rights movement focused on changing hearts along with laws. The reproductive justice movement is called to the same.

Longfellow got that. He sought to sway the heart of a nation through poetry. We are now called to sway the heart of a nation in a similar way, knowing that there are no guarantees, that we have no way of knowing exactly how our actions will be perceived or the impact they have.   But Longfellow didn’t have that guarantee either, nor did Revere, nor did Guthrie. But, this is the moment to sound the alarm, to sing the songs, to the ride through the streets and to knock on the doors, embracing the challenge of this time with courage, faith and hope.

May the spirit of this nation, a spirit of liberty and justice for all, be with all of us for now and forever more.


This sermon is copyright of Rev. Krista Taves.  




About kristataves

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister serving the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL. St. Louis is my residence. I am a dual American and Canadian citizen living in the great state of Missouri and building my life in this wonderful and sometimes very frustrating state.
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