Our Benediction – A Short History
Originally shared as the reading during the Sunday, November 12, 2023 service.
Our reading this morning begins with a passage from the Christian Bible, one of the Epistles; letters that the Apostle Paul wrote to early Christian communities ruled by the Roman Empire during the first century after the death of Jesus. Paul was advising these early followers of Jesus’ about how to live in Christian community in a turbulent and dangerous time. This passage is from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 5:verses 13-18. The translation is the New Revised Standard Version:
13 . . . Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances. . .
Does this sound familiar? This is the passage upon which “The First Parish Benediction” is based. How did the words of a first-century itinerant Christian leader make their way into our 21st Century Unitarian Universalist congregation? And how did they become words that many of us know by heart?
In the middle of the 20th century, the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship included a charge or benediction that was based on this passage from 1 Thessalonians. It went:
Go out into the world in peace; have courage;
hold on to what is good; return no one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted;
support the weak, and help the suffering; honor all people;
love and serve the Lord,
Rejoicing in the power of the holy spirit.
This is the Benediction I heard in the Presbyterian church of my childhood. And some of you may have heard it in other protestant churches.
Rev. Gary Smith, our Minister Emeritus, served as senior minister here from 1988 to 2011. Gary’s first congregation was First Church in Middletown, CT, a UCC congregation. And he served there with a senior minister who was a Presbyterian.
Gary thinks he learned this benediction in Middletown and he remembers using it from time to time in the Universalist Congregation he went on to serve in Bangor, ME. When Gary came to Concord in 1988, he began to use an adapted version of this Benediction at the end of services, ending with “honor all people.” Gary noticed, after a while, that people were saying it with him. So, he put it in the order of service. And gradually, the congregation took this benediction to be its own. These words became our words. Words we know by heart.
We’ve brought this benediction into our homes and workplaces. One parishioner said, “I needed this at work today to practice what I believe: return to no person evil for evil.” Families have scribed the Benediction on the driveway so their children would read it as they went “out into the world” on the first day of school. We have translated it into Hungarian for our partner congregation, and Spanish for youth trips to El Salvador. During the 1990’s, a large church consultant from the UUA, referred to the benediction as “our mission statement.” Many of us – and our children – know it by heart.
And it has been adapted over time. It was pointed out that changing “honor all people” to “honor all beings” would be more in keeping with our 7th principle, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” And so (after some discussion) we changed it. In 2001, when we celebrated the 100th anniversary of this meeting house, I composed a musical setting of the words. Brian Schmidt, a parishioner and a regular at “Rise Up Singing,” our monthly folksong circle, wrote an adaptation of the text that can be sung to the tune of “Greensleeves.” Even folks who are not members of First Parish sing it together at the end of each Rise Up Singing session. It’s a way they have come to understand who we are and how we want to be.
The Benediction has been part of First Parish for the last 35 of or our 387 years as a congregation, weaving its way organically into our worship and our lives, adapting along with us to changing and challenging times while remaining rooted in ancient tradition.
Researched and written by Beth Norton.