My Independence Day celebration began in the 1809 Unitarian Universalist Meeting House in Nantucket. The annual program was billed simply as the reading of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, but it was much more than that.
First, I was surprised by the crowds. It was like walking to church on Sunday morning used to be. Everyone on the street Saturday morning seemed to be heading for the church. By 8:45 the church was almost full—families with babies and teenagers, older couples, young people, almost all wearing red, white and blue.
Patriotic melodies from the 1831 organ filled the room, its tall paned-glass windows open to let the breeze in. The church is surprising with its pink (faded Nantucket red?) silk pew cushions and upholstered pew backs, along with trompe d’oeil painting of the walls and ceiling. This is the “Year of the Bell” in Nantucket, by proclamation of the Board of Selectmen, 200 years since the church bell was originally hung.
Led by a master of sing-along, we sang through the repertoire of patriotic music. I felt like I was in a Baptist worship service. Everyone knew the words of the songs and sang lustily. New England may be the least churched part of the country—“post-Christian”—and this was a secular service, but people sang “God Bless America” most enthusiastically and clapped loudest when it ended. From time to time during the service, I saw people wiping tears from their eyes. How is it that in liberal New England our nation’s values are so treasured, its history and traditions so respected? Over and over again, I heard parents and grandparents explaining the meaning of the Fourth. They were intent on passing on national values to succeeding generations.
After the “Star-Spangled Banner,” a series of readers read the entire Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, interspersed with bits of Nantucket history. I realize that I have probably never heard either document read aloud in its entirety before. I marveled at the wisdom of the Founders, inventing an entirely new form of government from scratch, the first modern democracy. We think of ourselves as a new country, but our government is older than almost all the governments of Europe.
I noted that there was no flag in the church—just a single piece of bunting on the pulpit. The roots of the Unitarian church go back to the Puritans, who were Separatists; and I wondered if it is part of their tradition not to display the flag. I thought of Dr. James Dunn, who was longtime head of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in Washington, D.C., and one of my heroes. James once said that he would not belong to a church that displayed the flag. He believed in a church separate from, not subservient to, the state. I hadn’t thought of James in a long time. Later in the day, I learned that he died that morning—how fitting for this staunch defender of First Amendment rights to die on the Fourth of July.
I need not have worried about spending the Fourth by myself. The day was a splendid ending to my stay in Nantucket.
Photo and Video: Interior of the Unitarian-Universalist Meeting House, Nantucket, July 4, 2015.