Twilight Tidbit One
For this July 4, 2020 holiday, we bring you a sermon delivered on June 29, 2008 by Reverend Herb Perry in Lyndonville, Vermont. The following sermon is entitled “The Patriotism of Alexander Twilight.” Stay tuned next week for our next Tidbit from the life and times of Alexander Lucius Twilight.
“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48b)
During my interim ministry in the nearby Brownington Congregational Church some three years ago I became acquainted with and was impressed by the Old Stone House Museum which is such an integral part of that community and the wider Northeast Kingdom. After studying the museum and becoming familiar with its unusual story, I was pleased to become a volunteer docent conducting visitors on tours as time permitted. When my interim was finished I continued my relationship to the museum as a volunteer, something that I very much enjoy doing to this day.
In addition to my duties as a docent, some of us have done additional research into the life of Rev. Alexander Twilight who, as you probably know, was ordained into the ministry of the Brownington Church in 1831, after he and his wife moved to Brownington where Twilight served as headmaster to the Orleans County Grammar School. Through the years that followed he continued to serve as the church’s minister and the school’s headmaster off and on until his death in 1858.
A few years ago the museum received in the mail a packet of twenty of Twilight’s hand-written sermons. Joan Huguenin who is also a volunteer, has painstakingly transcribed all twenty of them into a form that is easier to read. I’ve been one of a small group who have carefully gone through these sermons searching for insights into the mind and thought of this unusual mid-19th century African-American educator and minister. Twilight dated each of the sermons and also indicated the community or church in which each was preached, taking note also of the number in attendance and sometimes indicating the weather that prevailed on that day. We have numbered the sermons chronologically from one to twenty.
Some have suggested that I might give a reading of one of the sermons, an idea that I’ve resisted, since the mid 19th century preachers and their congregations were much more inclined to devote long periods of time for preaching and listening to sermons than we do today. I daresay that to deliver some of these sermons could easily require two hours or more. And what we have are the bare notes that the preacher followed. How his sermons were actually preached we do not know. But just the notes for the shortest one in our collection takes nine double-spaced pages of Mrs. Huguenin’s small sized type.
One of the sermons is quite different from the others. Not only is it somewhat shorter, it also stands out because it indicates Twilight’s fondness and appreciation for America. And since this is the Sunday before the annual celebration of our nation’s independence, I thought this morning that I would begin by mentioning just a few excerpts. It happens to be number six in our collection, and was delivered in Brownington on April 8, 1853, 155 years ago. Twilight notes, by the way, that the congregation numbered 61 and he reports that the snow was deep. He takes his text and theme from the same Bible passages that were this morning’s Old and New Testament lessons. God’s question in Isaiah: “What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? Why when I expected it to bring forth grapes did it bring forth wild grapes?”
Twilight says that these words can be “applied to us as a nation, a state or a community; for God has bestowed upon us many distinguished blessings, and does demand the precious fruits of righteousness and love, for where much is given, much is required.” Continuing with this theme, he remarks: “We should always be mindful of God’s goodness and recount his mercies and blessings with gratitude and praise. And while we do this, we should at the same time seriously inquire whether we have been deserving of such blessings and distinguished favors, and if there is not also much reason for humiliation and repentance before him for the abuse of his mercies and neglect of his grace.”
He therefore calls upon his congregation “to humble themselves before God, by fasting and prayer, to implore God’s mercy and forgiveness, deprecate his judgements, and humbly ask a continuation of his blessings.” He then proceeds to speak about those many blessings, all of which he claims are evidence of what he calls “the finger of God.” They include the independence won in the Revolutionary War against considerable odds, the freedoms that have been bestowed upon the people of this nation, and the powerful working of our Constitution. He highlights such freedoms as the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, freedom from oppression. After reviewing all these blessings, he concludes that “…it must therefore be expected that a great and glorious harvest of precious fruits must have been gathered in, and all roots of bitterness and of sour and unwholesome fruits long before been rooted out. That there has by the fostering hand of God, been much good fruit produced must be admitted, but that there has and is constantly growing “MUCH FRUIT WHICH IS UNWHOLESOME AND INJURIOUS IS EQUALLY CERTAIN.”
His sermon concludes by identifying these negative forces or unwholesome fruits. They include: Neglecting and forgetting about our basic values as Americans—the failure to be grateful to God for the freedoms that are ours resulting in selfish greed and vice—resulting also in oppression and slavery and all their attendant evils. This sermon was trying to answer Isaiah’s question: “What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done in it? Wherefore when I looked that it should bring forth grapes brought it forth wild grapes?,” and reminding his congregation of Jesus’s warning: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”
All of which has been appropriate to every celebration of our nation’s independence since, and strikes me as being especially appropriate today, as we approach yet another celebration more than one and a half centuries later. Like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s recent controversial remarks—which are the product of such wild grapes as greed and corruption, racial oppression, Wright’s own memories of segregation and lynchings and torture, Twilight also courageously names the wild, let’s call them “the un-American grapes” of slavery, oppression and indifference. There is a patriotism that identifies and rails agains the nation’s sins and injustice which needs to be heard. In a fourth of July address some years ago former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said:
“We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred, and the mistrust…We must dissent because America can do better. America has no choice but to do better.”
Obviously both Jeremiah Wright and Alexander Twilight did just that, but Twilight went on to affirm a patriotic love for the fundamental values of this nation, calling upon his students in the Orleans County Grammar School and the members of his church to be personally responsible for the defense and affirmation of those values as free citizens, reminding them that “to whom much has been given, much will be required.”
A couple of years ago former Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke at a ceremony on Ellis Island where his mother arrived in this country back in 1923. He began by stating that he believes in America and in the American people. He said that he believes in “An America that each day gives new immigrants the same gift that his parents received—an America that lives by a Constitution that inspires freedom and democracy around the world—an America with a big, open, charitable heart that reaches out to people in need around the world…”
Powell went on to tell of a group of 12 Brazilian students who went to a restaurant in Chicago. They ate and enjoyed what for them was a sumptuous meal only to realize at the end that they did not have enough money to pay the bill. They were way short. Frightened, they finally told the waitress of their problem. She went away and in a short time she returned by saying: “I talked with the manager and he said, ‘It’s ok.’ The manager says he’s glad you’re here in the United States, and he hopes you’re having a good time, he hopes you’re learning the truth about us. He said the meal is on him.” That’s a story those young Brazilian kids have told over and over about America. Powell remarked “That’s the America I believe in. That’s the America the world wants to believe in.”
CONCLUSION: The patriotism of an Alexander Twilight—Jeremiah Wright (much as we may regret some of his remarks)—Colin Powell (and we can be grateful for that of many others as well) is a patriotism marked by courage and a vision that recognizes and champions our basic rights, freedoms and responsibilities—especially when those basic values have been and are being compromised or ignored. It is because of such voices that have spoken throughout our history that the fundamental decencies that distinguish what America really is about have always and ultimately prevailed. May that continue to be this nation’s purpose and destiny in spite of any betrayals or challenges that have marred our past and which threaten our future. May we remember that “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” Amen.