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First Parish of Sudbury, Unitarian Universalist
Sunday, May 9, 2010 – Mother’s Day

Rev. Katie Lee Crane, preaching

 A Conversation with Margaret Fuller

 Very early, I knew that the only object in life was to grow.

- Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852)

Listen to the sermon now!

OPENING WORDS                                                                             Rev. Katie Lee Crane

Today, we are celebrating Margaret Fuller’s birthday. She was born on May 23rd 200 years ago.

She grew up to be one of our most famous Unitarians. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were close friends. She was the first to do a lot of things girls and women had never done before.

Father wanted her to have same education as a boy. – but in 1810, there were no schools for girls (at least where girls could learn the same things as boys).

Margaret learned to read when she was three. Books were her best friends. She read so much and so long that she got headaches and eye strain, shoulders hunched.

Margaret didn’t play with other children; she had a hard time making friends. She wanted to fit in but she felt different.

For example, she loved to debate things and speak up about what was on her mind, but everyone thought she was showing off. People made fun of her.

Imagine beginning your day like this: At 15 Margaret Fuller wrote: “I rise a little before five, walk an hour, and then practice on the piano, till seven, when we breakfast. Next I read French—Sismondi’s Literature of the South of Europe.” She ends the letter saying: “I feel [like I’m] growing every day….  I have learned [anything is possible]!” [1]

Because of people like her, lots of things ARE possible for us today. Thank you… and Happy Birthday, Margaret Fuller.


If you have knowledge, let others light their candles at it.

If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.

If you have knowledge, let others light their candles with it.

--  attributed to Margaret Fuller (also to Thomas Fuller, her father)

READING                                                                                           Beverly Waring

an excerpt from the sermon, Margaret Fuller: Adieu and Love as You Can, by the Rev. Christine Hillman[2].

….Margaret Fuller was not one-dimensional! She struggled and wrestled, met the issues of the day head on and made mistakes, alienated people close to her, alienated the nation for awhile, left the country to escape the mess. She wasn’t an easy woman. But she wouldn’t have been Margaret Fuller if she had been a simple person. She wouldn’t be a model if she had been simply a woman of her time. [She was] a complex woman, a person like you and me, never simple.

…She led a remarkably intellectual life, more academic than most Americans then or now, far more academic than any other girl of her time. Her father’s challenge was the force behind the education she received. He wrote from his Senate office in Washington: “Tell Margaret I love her if she learns to read.” She did—at age three.

[But] Her father … couldn’t teach her what to do with her genius or her education. Margaret didn’t know what to do with it either. One biographer said of Fuller that she was “living a problem the more oppressive and insidious because she couldn’t name it.”[3] It was a suffering that contributed to intense and pervasive migraine headaches as well as to chronic insomnia throughout her life. Margaret Fuller was not perfect but she kept on. She suffered but didn’t surrender. Her prayer was this: “Give me truth, cheat me not by illusion.”[4]

Perhaps it was because of this prayer that she gathered young women for “Conversations.” For five winters Margaret and twenty to twenty-five young women met over tea in the parlor of a friend to discuss important philosophical questions of the day. She used her intellect and education; she handed on its importance to other young women, so that they would gain access to a life of the intellect, so that they would not be cheated by illusion. Perhaps she hoped to find in that group of women someone she could genuinely talk to. In her journal she wrote: “I must take my own path, and learn… without being paralyzed for today. We need great energy, and self-reliance to endure.”[5]

Margaret Fuller was not a perfect woman; she made mistakes. …

She struggled… and wrote in a letter:

For all the tides of life that flow within me, I am dumb and ineffectual….

With the intellect I always have, always shall, overcome; but that is not the half of the work. The life, the life! O, my God! Shall the life never be sweet?[6]

…When Margaret Fuller was twenty-six years old she met Ralph Waldo Emerson, then thirty-four. He introduced her to Transcendentalism, for her a religious affirmation of the life of the mind. For several years Fuller was editor and literary critic for the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial. She absorbed Transcendentalism—and grew beyond it…. Transcendentalism, with its too often emphasis on the life of the mind, was not enough for her.

She entered the fullness of her public life in America when she wrote Woman in the Nineteenth Century, the first American exploration of women’s lives. In the same year Horace Greeley hired her at the New York Tribune as the first woman to write for a major newspaper. She visited the famous prison at Sing Sing and the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane, and wrote about the terrible conditions and what work other women were doing to make life better for the imprisoned and the mentally ill. But her book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, was reviled, creating more controversy than she could tolerate, so she finally escaped to Europe.

[She convinced Greeley to send her as a foreign correspondent for the Tribune. She sent dispatches from England, Scotland, Paris and Italy, and eventually settled in Rome.]

In Milan, Margaret met radicals during a time of growing ferment in Italy that would turn that country into revolution at the end of the 1840s. And she met nobleman Giovanni Angelo Ossoli. Somewhere along the way they married. Somewhere during that time they had a baby together. Through that time they lived in the revolution. Ossoli fought as a soldier, and Margaret became

hospital director on a small island in the Tiber River. Their baby nearly starved—left with so-called friends—separated from both of them.

After the war, Margaret, her husband and their son embarked for the United States. Within yards of the Jersey shore a storm tore at their ship, and Margaret, Ossoli and their son all died.[7]

…Her last letter to Quaker friends, written June 3, 1850, ended [this way]: “with most affectionate wishes that joy and peace may continue to dwell in your house, adieu and love as you can.”[8]

READING from Margaret Fuller, 1847, a poem by Amy Clampitt[9]

[text pending permission to publish] 


Adapted from the words of Margaret Fuller by Ed Thompson
Music composed by Laura Halfvarson Jump

We seek in nature and in art for ways to comprehend the meaning that our life enfolds, what makes us break or bend. Within each leaf and brush of paint our traits we apprehend; and in these patterns we can find a life that’s without end. A life that’s without end.

All women and all men alike may freely use the mind, and thus from thoughtless mannered ways a truer pathway find. But also freely let’s employ imagination’s part that dwells inside of every soul; and makes of life an art. And makes of life an art.

No matter what our circumstance, our nature is to grow and in that growth we may discern the gifts we can bestow. Whatever be your calling do! Sincerely, and with zest; and in that work may we then find the holy manifest. The holy manifest.

And on this journey share the thoughts that beckon, old or new; surpassing challenge, strive beyond: our lives will be renewed. With courage then, may we reach out to aid the oppressed and weak. And in that struggle manifest the justice that we seek. The justice that we seek.

SERMON A Conversation with Margaret Fuller Rev. Katie Lee Crane

Happy Mother’s Day, Margaret. So few people remember you as a mother. But today, I wonder how it was for you – to find love and have a child when, frankly, no one expected either of you – including you yourself.

I can’t get this image out of my mind – you, sitting there on the deck of the ship, almost certainly knowing what was likely to happen. It’s a mother’s worst nightmare. Henry David Thoreau described the scene in a letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson less than a week after you died.

The ship struck at ten minutes after four am, and all hands, being mostly in their nightclothes, made haste to the forecastle, the water coming in at once. There they remained; the passengers in the forecastle, the crew above it, doing what they could. Every wave lifted the forecastle roof and washed over those within. The first man got ashore at nine; many from nine to noon. At flood-tide, about half past three o’clock, when the ship broke up entirely, they came out of the forecastle, and Margaret sat with her back to the foremast, with her hands on her knees, her husband … already drowned. A great wave came and washed her aft. The steward had just before taken her child and started for shore. Both were drowned.

I cannot fathom how you must have felt in those final minutes. You were only 40. You were coming home with a husband and a son. Your manuscript of the Italian Revolution was complete. You’d never been so happy, or so you wrote to your mother. And you lost everything within sight of the shore.

You were not the same person who left four years earlier. Ironically, you had found yourself in the middle of a war zone. Finally, you belonged. Finally the powerful hunger of your intellect was no longer at war with your imagination and emotions; they seemed to be living in harmony. Or so I’d like to believe.

But I wonder if that’s true? I read somewhere that you were afraid to come home to America, afraid to return to the cultural constraints of your “bluestocking” world. Living in Europe – especially Rome – had allowed the rigid walls of stuffy New England to crumble and enabled you to explore the parts of you that had been muffled your entire life.

American poet Amy Clampitt described how she imagined you just before you sailed.

"What would Carlyle [who’d called you an old maid], what would straightlaced

Horace Greeley, what would fastidious

Nathaniel Hawthorne, what would all of Concord,

all New England, and her own mother

say now?"

Would you ever fit in back home? With an Italian husband 10 years your junior and a child? But you had no choice. You needed help and stability and an education for your little Nino.

I can’t imagine what it was like to hand him over to that steward and the stormy sea. What went through your mind those last minutes – did you see your life pass before you? Did you lament the inevitable loss? Or was there some poetic justice that you and the ones you most loved would die together before life’s realities interfered with your happiness? We will never know. But I sit there with you now… and wonder.

I met you in 1966, in Dr. Dean’s American Literature class. “Write about one of the Transcendentalists,” he said, “choose one from this list.” By the time the list made its way to me, there was no one left whose name I recognized. No Emerson. No Thoreau. But, there was a woman – you. Off I went to the library to do my research only to discover nothing – absolutely nothing – about you. You were occasionally mentioned in tomes about the others, but there was nothing specifically about you. I discovered that your papers were at Houghton Library at Harvard University in Cambridge – where you’d grown up. But I was from the Midwest, that wasn’t accessible to me. Frankly, I didn’t even know where it was.

Still I learned enough to be fascinated. Some years later, I discovered a biography by Mason Wade, published in 1941.[10] A friend found it for me in a used bookstore. I devoured it. I related to you in so many ways. The child who was smart – for a girl. The overweight girl who had more books than friends; the same girl, who, when she spoke up, people said she was “showing off.”

Your intellect dominated and yet you yearned for emotional release. You seemed incapable – then – to imagine that they might both be important. You had this drive to grow, this desire to know life as fully as possible.

I thought of you as a teacher. Someone whose experience was more like mine than most others I knew. You were to me what Georges Sand[11] was to you – what we call a role model. It was more than a hundred years since you launched your famous Conversations for women, yet women of my generation were stirring again, trying to break out of the mold we had been forced into. Like you, we were preoccupied about our identity. Like you, we were driven to convince others that it was possible to be a woman while engaging in the kinds of intellectual pursuits thought to belong only to men. And, yes, like you, we believed women had the right to choose motherhood and marriage instead of having it be the expectation.

I wonder now what it was like for you to be courted by Ossoli? At home they say you had literally driven off suitors. You declared you had no expectation of marrying. What made you open your heart to him? He was neither your age nor your intellectual equal. What made it impossible to remain “unconscionably chaste?” I have to believe that the mores of Europe – or maybe a war – enabled you to let down the barriers that Puritan New England had built around you.

But that’s jumping ahead. In 1836 you met Ralph Waldo Emerson and he invited you into the Transcendentalist circle. There you found a religious movement that affirmed the mind – but was so much more than that. It introduced intuition into the mix. It suggested that truth could be revealed through one’s own experiences – literally by seeing or hearing or touching something that moved you to a kind of knowing that was not of the intellect. You’d had such an experience at 21. You knew first hand what it meant.

This new perspective invited you to seek meanings in nature, in art, in imagination. Like Emerson, you’d read Goethe; you were drawn to the mystical. Transcendentalism seemed to offer you a new freedom. It was adventurous. It gave you space to explore who you were.

It was so different from the Unitarianism of your childhood, where scripture was considered the only authoritative source of inspiration. This new religious movement was so expansive.

Learning about Transcendentalism and about you in 1966 were surely my first steps toward discovering a new religious home in Unitarian Universalism. As I learned more and eventually joined this religious community, I remember saying “This is a religion big enough to hold me!” It sounds self-aggrandizing now, but it was so liberating. To me, there is so much that is holy. One doesn’t just find it in a church, or a holy book, or even an ancient ritual re-enacted everyday. I see holiness everywhere, often in some very unlikely places. Discovering Unitarian Universalism was, for me, the bridge that connects intellect and intuition. It’s been opening my mind and heart ever since.

In 1839 you introduced your famous Conversations. You invited women intellectuals and activists to meet together. In 1966, we had consciousness-raising groups. Same thing. We brought women together to learn and to share their experiences. Let’s face it: you started those Conversations because the men wouldn’t invite you to join theirs. You wanted friends and intellectual stimulation. And you needed money (part of that time you were homeless). A woman wasn’t allowed to lecture in public so you called your gatherings “conversations,” arguing: “There’s no law about women having a conversation!

Frankly, you were self-centered. Emerson quoted you as saying: “I know now all the people worth knowing in America and I find no intellect comparable to my own.”[12]

You were intense and complicated. They called you idiosyncratic, mercurial, inspiring, alienating, and tormented. Those who knew you acknowledge you to be brutally honest both about yourself and others. One of your biographers[13] claimed you had an uncanny ability to learn from mistakes and misfortune. She admired your skill and courage in naming your feelings and speaking your mind. You could unblinkingly acknowledge pain.

I wonder about the pain you felt on the deck of that ship. Or how you felt when you found yourself in Italy pregnant and unmarried. What drove you to leave your infant son to run a hospital in the war zone? Was it tortuous to leave? Or did you feel driven to follow a different hunger – the one that craved recognition for your bold pursuits. Maybe you had no choice. Or maybe that was your choice.

You learned and changed so much even before you set sail for Europe. Your work editing The Dial gave voice to Transcendentalism.(I’ve always suspected you were Emerson’s ghost writer.) I think it helped you find your own voice, as did your work with Horace Greeley on the New York Tribune. Meeting the prostitutes at Sing Sing and hearing their stories introduced you to injustices that you’d never imagined. Some of them were likely mothers too.

You began to understand how everyone was equal – the women in prison, the women in your circle of friends. African Americans. Native Americans. You dared to speak out publicly for education for all and loudly against slavery. Earlier, you’d insisted that abolition be off the table in your Conversations. Now it was a cause célèbre. Justice, for you, meant equal rights and equal opportunities. I can’t imagine how you’d feel if you knew we’re still fighting for the some of the same things.

You wrote your book – Women in the Nineteenth Century. But you weren’t prepared for the response.  A few said it was bold. Most said things like indelicate, horrendous. It certainly got a response. Much of it negative.

Your own response was to feel even less at home in the United States. Then it all happened so fast, really. You left for Europe in 1846. You traveled to England, Scotland and Paris. You met George Sand – Mme Dudevant! You went to Italy, settled in a room, met Ossoli in 1847. You found yourself pregnant, the two of you secretly marry, and your little Nino – Angelo Eugene Phillip Ossoli, was born on September 5, 1848. That same year you return to Rome (without Nino).You were writing, you were an activist, you become director of a field hospital. Most of this time you were away from your child.  But in 1849 – fearing for your safety and struggling financially (you were always struggling financially) – you settle briefly in Florence and live for the first time as a family.

The next year, you died.

As we celebrate the bicentennial of your birth, I want to say “thank you.” Dr. Dean was my Emerson and you, my mentor. Both of you showed me possibilities I had never before imagined. I think back to how radical it was for Transcendentalism to suggest that one might be inspired by something other than scripture. Ironically, it was still radical for me in 1966. When I read that my own experiences could also be a source of inspiration – I felt affirmed. The walls of my traditional religious upbringing crumbled and I began to build myself a new temple as big as the earth and the universe itself.

Today, we Unitarian Universalists list many sources of inspiration. One, direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, comes right out of Transcendentalism. But it is another where I lovingly inscribe your name: words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love. It is your story that helped me to find my way.

We don’t have saints in our religion. Though I admit, in those very early years you were a bit of a saint for me. Now, you are all the more important to me because you were so human. You loved and you suffered. You were a truth-teller and justice-seeker in the public sphere; you were sometimes lost and lonely in your private world. You were quirky and smart and frightened, not because you were perfect, but because you weren’t. It is all of who you were – and weren’t – that is inspiring to me. You were determined to learn and grow and seize life. And you did. I want no more or less than that for myself.

Thank you, Margaret. Happy Mother’s Day… and Happy Birthday.


The Fuller family erected a monument to Margaret’s memory at Mount Auburn Cemetery. It reads: “Born a child of New England, By adoption a citizen of Rome, By genius belonging to the World.”

[1] Bell Gale Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth, (Old Westbury, CT: The Feminist Press, 1976) p.55.

[2] The full text of Rev. Hillman’s sermon may be found at the Margaret Fuller Bicentennial website: www.margaretfuller.org

[3] Ibid., 6.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Ibid., 108.

[6] Ibid., 56.

[7] Margaret Fuller and her family died in the shipwreck, July 19, 1850.

[8] Ibid., 497

[9] Amy Clampitt, “Margaret Fuller, 1847,” Archaic Figure, New York: Knopf, 1987.

[10] Mason Wade, Margaret Fuller: Whetstone of Genius, (New York: Viking, 1941).

[11] Aurore Lucile Dupin, later Baroness Dudevant (1805-1876), a French novelist who used the pseudonym George Sand.

[12] Reported by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1884) Vol. 1, Pt. 4.

[13] Bell Gale Chevigny, The Woman and the Myth, (Old Westbury, CT: The Feminist Press, 1976).


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