Follen Church – a UU Spiritual Home since 1840
Follen Church is the oldest standing religious structure in Lexington, Massachusetts. Ground was broken for our building on July 4, 1839, and it was dedicated on January 15, 1840—-one day after the tragic death of its designer and first minister, the Reverend Doctor Charles Theodore Christian Follen.
Charles and Eliza Follen
Dr. Charles Follen had trained for the law in his native Germany, but, fleeing political persecution in Europe for his radical organizing, he came to Boston. He was recommended to friends here by the Marquis de Lafayette, among others, and found a post as the first instructor in German at Harvard University. (He was also the first instructor of gymnastics.) Follen was a man whose deeply held spiritual beliefs led him to see action for social justice as essential. He soon began to study for the Unitarian ministry under the wing of the Reverend William Ellery Channing (famous both as a Unitarian theologian, and later as a strong voice against slavery).
Follen met and married Eliza Cabot, of the noted Boston Cabot family. Together they were early, and outspoken, advocates for the abolition of slavery. Charles Follen ultimately lost his position at Harvard, due largely to his anti-slavery views (and his persistence in expressing them!). Eliza Follen continued to work for social justice until her death in 1860 (for more information, see the Boston Women’s Heritage Trail).
At the same time as Follen was becoming settled in his adoptive country, the rural village of East Lexington was emerging as a local center for transportation and small manufacturing. The East village had been trying to establish itself as an independent social and economic entity for some time. Further, the prominent Robbins family (at the time considered quite eccentric) also shared a deep commitment to equality and anti-slavery with the Follens, highly unusual for its time in the early to mid 1830’s.
The Follen Church Society’s First Home
In 1833, Eli Robbins commissioned the building next door (now the East Branch Library) to be built as a free and open meeting house, intending it for anti-slavery speakers to whom other doors in town were closed. Even so, it was some years before a public anti-slavery speech, besides the Follen Church sermons, was held there. In 1835 it became the first home of the Follen Church Society.
The Robbinses, as village leadership, sought to begin a religious community where those views were supported and expressed. In the “free” pulpit of the East Village such radical egalitarian views could be expressed in a way that they apparently could not at the larger established church in the town center.
The community of East Lexington lacked the money for building and staff, however. The East village had failed to convince the town—despite repeated attempts—to share the tax revenue that supported the First Parish in Lexington. Charles Follen persuaded the villagers they needed to raise the money to build their own church and hire their own minister. They agreed and set to work. Years of fund raising for this building included the first East Village Fair—still an important source of revenue to the community. In 2014 we will hold our 176th consecutive fair.
Not only the Fair continues as an unbroken tradition to this day. Even our building puts both the moral and social beliefs of its founders into practice. As Charles Follen said in his prayer at the groundbreaking,
[may] this church never be desecrated by intolerance, or bigotry, or party spirit; more especially its doors might never be closed against any one, who would plead in it the cause of oppressed humanity; within its walls all unjust and cruel distinctions might cease, and there all men might meet as brethren.
Our octagon was designed by Charles Follen, who had studied architecture as well as law in Germany. He designed this sanctuary so that all in it could see and hear, and most importantly, be heard. Most churches of the time had a high pulpit, elevating the minister above the congregation. Follen, by contrast, put himself on an equal level with his congregants.
The chancel in the sanctuary is raised now, but originally was level with the pews. The octagon shape is designed both as an acoustical enhancement, and so that the congregation is gathered fan-like around the minister and in relation to one-another.
Even some of our furnishings bring us into contact with our ethical and spiritual past. Our small lectern has a big history. We call it the Emerson lectern, because Ralph Waldo Emerson preached from it (next door) when he was our minister. From 1836-1838 we were Rev. Emerson’s last regular pulpit, before he left the ministry became the leading light of Transcendentalism. He usually walked to Follen on Sundays from his home in Concord center. He preached twice on Sunday as was customary, and again there was often a lecture on Thursday evenings.
After more than 170 years, Follen Church remains a vital part of its community, working in today’s world to honor the dreams of our founders.