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The Anniversary Sermon

Delivered on the occasion of




Syracuse, New York

Sunday, October 16, 1938


The minister, Dr. W. Waldemar W. Argow




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The text is taken from Josiah Royce’s writings: Thru the long centuries of human history there has been building a Beloved Community in which all souls that love, all souls that aspire, are alike bound together in one life…….. We are thine, O Beloved Community! Take us, use us! Let our whole lives be an offering laid on thy living altar.


The honor which is mine this morning brings me to my knees in humility as I contemplate the magnitude and splendor of these hundred years which now are enfolded in the ages. Who is sufficiently gifted with insight, eloquence or skill to appraise the far-ranging scope of influence May Memorial Church has exerted in shaping and directing the life of Syracuse and of the men, women and children who have received their inspiration from this spiritual mother? Not yet has a measuring rod been devised by the genius of men with which to measure the length of goodness, the depth of compassion, the breadth of mercy, the height of aspiration. Only the radiance of human lives can give us evidence of this magnificence.


It is not my intent to review the fascinating epic of May Memorial Church and its achievements. This has been done most ad­mirably by Mrs. Arthur W. Saddington and Mrs. Warren B. Walsh in a pamphlet to which we gave the title, “A Backward Glance O’er Traveled Roads.” The real story of May Memorial Church is no mere record of calendar events, nor simply the activities of an organi­zation of men and women who associated themselves for religious endeavors. Nay, its history is the story of a living vital power moving in the hearts and minds of men and women, boys and girls. May Memorial Church lives in us and we live in it. It lives in our attitudes and points of view, our standards and values, our con­victions and ideals, our hopes and concern, our choices and dreams. It lives in us as we move about in our homes, our businesses and professions, our friendships and public concerns. We are different because in us there lives and moves a dynamic power, born not of things temporal or things transient, but of things eternal. The debt we owe this spiritual mother can never be repaid in any other coinage save that of loyalty and devotion.


This goodly inheritance is something vastly more than stone and mortar fashioned into a building; it is something greater than a record of deeds nobly done in the ebb and flow of years; it is something infinitely finer than a rosary of sacred associations hallowed by the sentinel of time; indeed, it is an uncompromising insistence upon certain imperative truths which are essential to the survival and growth of Democracy and with it the salvation of mankind. This morning these walls are vocal with clarion voices that seek to arrest our attention, and thereby make us mindful of­ the price with which we were bought. Before us they pass, out of the halls of memory where devotion has enshrined them; and as they pass, their voices become oracular, calling us to heed the rising tide that threatens to destroy us.


I would be unfaithful to my trust, and would profane the prophetic mantle of John Storer, Samuel May, Samuel Calthrop and John Applebee as time lays it upon my shoulders, if I did not on this day of high remembrance seek to make vivid to your hearts what it was our founding fathers felt was the supreme fact about life itself. For them this church was something vastly more than a mere protest society against certain theological dogmas which were current in their day. Nay, not so! They had an insight into the nature of Reality which was born out of a divine convulsion in their souls, and which they felt was absolutely essential for the out-working of civilization as begun in America. Their re1igion was inseparably bound up with their philosophy of life; of the rights and place of the individual; of the purpose and scope of the state; and, of the ultimate power by which men could and would work out his destiny upon this terrestrial ball. For them these funda­mentals were as basic to human nature as the multiplication table, the law of gravitation and the tidal forces that swelled the ocean. Without their enthronement in the mind and soul of man, and then in their out-working of human affairs, man would sink back again into the mire of animality from which he had climbed at great cost.


Grant me now the privilege of recounting the inheritance which is enshrined in this philosophy of life they have bequeathed unto us.


They held these truths to be axiomatic and self-evident, validated by a kind of instinctive intellectual apperception, namely, the   sacredness of the individual who in and of himself possessed certain specific absolute rights which God has given him and which could not be taken from him without doing violence to him as a person. They maintained that no group of men, whether that group be the state or society, had by reason of its superiority in power and number given the individual their rights, therefore could not abrogate them. Among these rights was the right to think the thoughts he wished and then to express them as he wished; the right to shape his life as to him seemed best, provided that in so doing he left others free to do the same; that he had the right to associate himself with others into any kind of government, society or organization he chose, to promote his and their well-being. Thus our fathers held that liberty was as essen­tial to the survival of man upon the earth, as was food and water for the survival of his body. They contended that the only authority to which the individual was finally responsible was the author­ity, not of the state, a Book, a Council, a society, but of truth; and this truth was to be arrived at thru the exercise of free discussion and free investigation. They insisted that religion was man’s quest of the highest as the individual conceived the highest, and was not therefore to find its sanctions in a body of traditions, set as dogmas or an ecclesiastical council. For them man's great quest was the achievement of individuality, and that cooperation of man with man was the medium for its realization.


Moreover, they insisted upon the trustworthiness of the human mind as capable of solving its problems, however perplexing and stupendous they may be. It was for this reason that they placed such complete reliance upon a free press, free assembly, free speech and academic freedom, knowing that when intellectually honest minds foregather for a solution of their problems, there the highest good would emerge. To that end they insisted upon the individual's re­sponsibility to help and be helped by others within the pattern of this individual freedom. For them the verdict of history was that man had come to be what he was only as he overcame obstacles and assumed responsibility for the intelligent direction of his own destiny. To achieve this they placed wholehearted reliance upon truth as the only power of might which would in the long run be the final arbiter. The swirling sands of history had revealed to them that whatever may be at the heart of life, truth at least was there and that truth, apprehended by man's free exercise of the mind, would at long last bring him to his highest estate.


Furthermore, they contended that the purpose of human life was not to preserve or glorify the state as a superior entity, greater than himself; not to maintain or enhance this nebulous thing called society, but to unfold and to realize the potentialities that lay dormant within each person. They had no illusions about the inequality existing between persons, and that therefore it would be folly to level the highest down to the level of the lowest, or even try to raise the lowest to the level of the highest. Yet despite this they held to a rigorous trusteeship of every person to help every other person to realize his or her potentialities. Duty was for them the essence of the moral law. It was therefore the duty of every person to help every other person to help himself become all that he was capable of becoming. And this was to be done within the pattern of liberty. Never did they conceive of liberty as an absence of restraint, allowing the individual to pur­sue his own selfish way; nor on the other hand did they think of liberty as certain concessions granted them by the state or society. On the contrary, for them liberty was the medium in which, thru the exercise of self-imposed disciplines, the individual was to win his liberation from the limitations of his undeveloped nature. To put it graphically, liberty was to be like the wide open reaches of the air in which the bird was to exercise the power of flight thru the disciplined use of his wings. They never conceived of the state of society as owing there anything whatsoever. Contrariwise, they held that every man owed every other man everything. They talked less of what society owed them, and more of what they owed society­ Free men are debtors one to another and not pensioners of society or the state.


Again, they contended that the achievements of the individual’s hands, talents and genius were as sacred as his own being, and that these were not to be destroyed by violence or confiscated by a process known as law. To be sure, since this work of his hands of necessity involved the labor and efforts of others besides himself, a portion of it should be used to maintain the mutual process we call societal organization. True, wealth was in part of social origin, but only in so far as it was produced by individual persons. An impersonal mass of “social” bricks never fashioned themselves into a building. Therefore, no matter how intricate society may become in its relationships, the unit of it will forever be the in­dividual. Destroy him and you destroy society. A hundred worthless pennies can never make a worthful dollar.


Therefore, above all else, they contended that man the individual was before any form of social organization or government existed; that he is greater than the state or even society, and that he did not enter society to become less than he was. Society and the state receive their worth from the individual; the individual does not receive his worth from them. Since therefore he was prior to the state, the state can, and even may be destroyed without in any way affecting the essential spiritual genius of man the individual. If man’s first concern had been security, he would never have left the safe confines of the jungles and embarked upon the perilous venture of spiritual emancipation. If, therefore, the supreme function of the state or society is to provide security, and man makes this his chief concern, then indeed is he doomed to a return to the jungle from which he climbed at great cost.


When our fathers declared these truths as the very substance of life itself, the world was just beginning to evolve out of a spiritual darkness, and seeking for the light. It was their fond hope that gradually thru the exercise of this native liberty, all the world would at length be led to their acceptance, and man the individual would ascend from glory to glory. They believed that a coming dawn would fret the inky darkness until the vigil stars would change from evening to morning stars. But a day has come­ when we face not an evolution toward a higher concept of life and its ascending glory but a reversion to an existence wherein the individual, and with him his fellows, move steadily backward and down ward into an animality from which he has slowly emerged. Today we face not an ignorant world as our fathers did, but an arrogant antagonistic world, one that has tasted the sweetness of a growing liberty, and now has decided to eat the bitter fruits of spiritual decadence. Our fathers fought an offensive battle; we must fight a defensive battle, taking our last stand on the issues whether man is first a body that has a mind, or whether he is a spiritual entity that uses a body. On the outcome of these issues hang the fate of what we call civilization.


It ought to be evident that liberal religion with its uncompromising declaration of the inherent rights of the individual as the most precious of all realities, becomes for us today the very life-blood which alone can make human survival possible. To support and proclaim it is from henceforth no longer an optional matter, nor one of sentimental preference. Indeed, it now becomes a challenging crusade greater than any which man ever faced since the day when the first individual felt a divine irritation in his breast urging him to part company with the beasts. This day calls for a greater heroism than that of our fathers. It demands an intellectual discipline, a moral discernment and a spiritual sensitiveness which they never knew. Our heritage is great; so great that we may risk our all to keep it inviolable. That we can do it, and that we are equal to it; I doubt not at all; for in our veins flows the blood of an heroic race which builded better than it knew.


Here then is our great heritage! From henceforth it is entrusted to you older men and women of the golden years; to you in mid-years, the toilers at the helm; to you youth with the glow of hope throbbing in your veins; and to you little children who are the great tomorrow! I swear you upon the alter of a great memory to honor it! I swear you upon the wealth of a vast inheritance to preserve it! I swear you upon a great hope to enhance it! I swear you upon the urgency of a great challenge to answer it!


From this hour tremulous with destiny we step over the thresh­old of the past into the untried future with steadfast tread and abounding assurance that the future belongs to those who follow the footprints of the Eternal in his march to certain victory!


May Memorial Church of the glorious past, we salute thee for all though hast given us! May Memorial Church of the hidden future, we hail thee, and pledge to thee our loyalty and devotion! And when the last day is dipped from the glass of time thou shalt find that we thy children have kept faith with the trust thou didst bequeath to us!


“I’ll summon out of this unfathomed store, great souls who in the midst of hopeless days kept faith and knew the loveliness of God. Such splendid lives, and still more splendid deaths, which rallied their faltering age with valientness and left strong memories to breed strong hopes. For such undying fellowship has power to swell our shrunken souls to nobler mould and make us true men. I’ll still proclaim the vision splendid till it strikes God-fire in old and broken heats, and urges on the world to consummate its dream. God’s unsurrendered; so am I! Therefore, I live communicate with hope. I’ll light my candle – and I dream”




Prepared for web page display on April 1, 2006