To Plant Kindness in People’s Hearts

[On Henry Bergh and the ASPCA]


The Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister


Opening Words: [Attributed to Edmund Burke]

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.


The Morning Reading: “Kindness,” by Naomi Shihab Nye


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.


Special Music: “What the World Needs Now is Love” [Richard McLeod]


Sermon: “To Plant Kindness in People’s Hearts”


What does it mean to have a moment of conversion? And what does it take to convert other people to living in pursuit of a higher wisdom and a greater good? This happens to people every day. It happened long ago to the man we now call the Buddha.  And it happened 150 years ago to a Unitarian man named Henry Bergh.


The man we now call the Buddha, Prince Siddhartha, was sheltered and pampered as a boy. When he was born, a fortune teller had told his father that Siddhartha would grow up to be either a great political leader, or a great religious teacher. And, the fortune teller said, if Siddhartha witnessed any suffering, then a great religious teacher is what he would become. So Siddhartha’s father raised him in a protected way, such that he grew up never encountering suffering, aging, illness, or death. As a young prince, Siddhartha had become bored with his sheltered upbringing, and left the palace walls. He then saw what we call The Four Sights. First he saw an old person; he was shocked and uncomfortable to see the results of the aging process. Then he saw a sick person, which was also shocking and confusing to him. The third thing he saw was a dead man. Siddhartha had not known that people died, and he felt stunned and sad. Fourth, Siddhartha saw a Hindu holy man, what we call an ascetic. The holy man owned nothing except a bowl to beg for food, and was clothed in a simple rag. Yet he was happy and content. From these “four sights,” Siddhartha experienced what we call, “samvega:” an extreme sense of shock, anxiety, and spiritual urgency which arises from a deeply felt understanding of the suffering of the world. Such a moment compels a person to live differently, more in right-relationship with other living beings, in pursuit of a higher wisdom and a greater good. Siddhartha left behind all his worldly possessions and became a travelling holy man. And eventually he became he who we now call the Buddha, who developed the Noble Eightfold Path, or the Middle Way, or compassionate way, such that our actions bring, not harm, but good to other living beings. Many Unitarian Universalists find the teachings of the Buddha very helpful, including members and friends of our congregation.


One morning I chanced to read an email from my colleague, the Rev. Gary Kowalski. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, Gary has a special concern for animals and the ecosystem, and wrote the book, The Souls of Animals. In his email, he described a moment of conversion which was experienced 152 years ago, by Unitarian Henry Bergh, founder of the ASPCA. I found that true story so arresting that I knew I had to research and preach about that man and his mission. And I could not help but think of the parallels between Mr. Bergh’s experience, and that of the Buddha.


Up until Henry Bergh was in his early fifties, he had not done anything particularly remarkable with his life. He was wealthy, the son of a successful shipbuilder. He was married; he and his wife, Catherine, loved going to see plays and the opera, and travelling to other countries. He tried writing some plays, which were produced, but they didn’t get very good reviews. When Henry Bergh was fifty-four, he was in Russia, as a diplomat. He saw a poor Russian peasant with his horse, which had fallen, and was stuck in the mud, struggling to get up. The Russian man was whipping the fallen horse. Henry called out for his coachman to stop and translate, yelling, “Tell that man to stop whipping that horse, or I will get down and whip him.” The Russian man, affected by Henry Bergh’s shiny diplomat’s uniform, did stop, and, taking off his hat, he apologized, and asked for forgiveness.


We do not know what happened exactly that changed Henry Bergh’s heart that day. He had not even especially liked animals much before. Though he and his wife had, a few years earlier, witnessed bull fights in Spain. Henry had been repulsed at the people cheering, and wondered where their religious and moral ethics were. So those bull fights in Spain probably came back to him that day in Russia. Also, Henry’s father was an abolitionist, opposed to slavery, and his mother was very tender and kind. I also suspect that part of what affected Henry Bergh so deeply was that the horse had fallen, and was unable to get up. We must not kick someone when they are down, above all else, mustn’t we? Somehow, many experiential and moral teachings converged, and Henry Bergh was changed. From that day on, he devoted his life to saving and protecting animals from harm. He worked steadily and tirelessly to change people’s hearts, to change their behavior, and to change the laws of his state, New York state, and our nation. Our Unitarian Universalist religious education lesson for children states that Henry Bergh, “felt it would be a greater triumph to plant kindness in people’s hearts than to build a new railroad across America, as some other men were then doing.” It also says, “Sometimes, anger can be a good thing. Henry Bergh’s anger was.”


As I researched Henry Bergh’s life and work, I was inspired, and moved to tears several times. But his life and work also hold lessons for us as to how to do social justice work effectively. After his epiphany that day in Russia, he went to England, and met with the man who had founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, there. Henry Bergh learned from him the steps and strategy he would need to follow to create such a society in the United States. Then he went back to New York, and got to work. He contacted all his friends and associates, telling them, one by one and in small groups, of our moral obligation to put an end to the unnecessary suffering and death of animals. Of central importance to him was the fact that animals are mute. They cannot speak up on their own behalf, so we must be their compassionate protectors. Henry Bergh also wrote letters, editorials, and essays. And he gave lectures and speeches imploring people that the laws must be changed. At first, he endured criticism and ridicule. No one in America had been thinking about the moral obligation of our relationship to animals in such a comprehensive way before Henry Bergh. But his lectures drew larger and larger crowds, and support for his cause swelled. He amassed enough signatures on a petition to request a charter to start the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. And in April of 1866, that charter was granted, and anti-cruelty laws were passed, granting the ASPCA the power to enforce those laws. Bergh then assembled a team of ASPCA agents, who were often referred to as “the Berghsmen.” With a copy of the new law in their pockets, they went out into the streets of New York, and told people they had to stop neglecting and abusing their animals, or they would no longer be allowed to keep them. Henry Bergh also developed a sling for injured horses, a derrick to rescue animals that had fallen into excavation sites, and an ambulance for horses. He and the SPCA also instituted public water fountains for animals, so they would not become dehydrated. And he invented the clay pigeons that hunters shoot instead of killing live birds for sport. Bergh was the first president of the ASPCA, and continued as their president for the rest of his life. He worked every day, and every night, as the great protector of animals. He marched right up to animals’ owners, and into dogfights, stables and slaughterhouses, uninvited. He would prevent whole lines of carriages from taking on passengers when the horses were injured or ill, such that everyone had to walk home from work in foul weather. And he continued to speak out passionately in lecture halls and schools, in states farther and farther away from New York, and to write editorials and letters. He had a very public debate, through letters published in the New York World, with the circus owner, P.T. Barnum, who was a Universalist, about the treatment of animals in Barnum’s menagerie. Their debates centered around live rabbits being fed to boa constrictors. Bergh received ridicule yet again for his stance. But eventually, he won over the circus owner, and they became friends. P.T. Barnum helped to form an SPCA in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and was a pallbearer at Henry Bergh’s funeral.


Bergh believed that “Mercy to animals means mercy to mankind.” They called him, “The Great Meddler” and “the friend to every friendless beast.” And he said, “If animals had to await mercy until human affairs were resolved, they would still be waiting at the Second Coming.” He earned the admiration and support of his minister, Henry Bellows, who served what is now All Souls Unitarian church in Manhattan, and Unitarians Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Louisa May Alcott. And he wrote thank you letters for donations to the ASPCA, including to children who sent him a few coins. He thanked them for their support and for caring about animals.


Eight years after he founded the ASPCA, Henry Bergh was approached by a Methodist minister named Etta Agnell Wheeler, seeking his help in rescuing a child named Mary Ellen Wilson, who was being abused. Bergh helped to rescue the child, and other children soon afterward. He then helped to found, along with Elbridge T. Gerry and John D. Wright, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. There are now Humane Societies and Departments of Human Services, in every state in the nation, and the ASPCA has over a million members.


I have heard many of you say that there are more ways you want our congregation to be a vehicle for social change. I am very encouraged to hear that heartfelt passion. And we also have to keep in mind the steps and strategies it takes for that passion to result in changed hearts and a more benevolent world. Henry Bergh began by educating himself, by looking at and learning from a group and its leaders who were already doing, in England, what he wanted to do in America. And he began talking to everyone he knew about the injustice of neglect and abuse of animals, and what it would take to end that abuse. He advocated publically, in writing and in meeting rooms. He got people on his side who had more power, persuasion, and celebrity than he did. And he worked through the legislature to change laws. He assembled a team to help him, of both men and women. He took a hands-on approach. He went places uninvited. He was undeterred by criticism and ridicule. And he thanked his supporters, large and small and young and old. He worked for over two decades. And now the legacy of kindness he left behind is too great to ever be reversed. Lest you feel daunted by the enormity of what he achieved, remember that, before his moment of awakening that day in Russia, there was nothing much remarkable about him. He was fun and well-travelled and enjoyed the arts. But he wasn’t in the public eye, and he hadn’t yet realized how much he had to say. Even so, he changed the hearts of our nation. Don’t doubt that all of us in this room can do that, too, when the suffering of the world compels us to be a vehicle for a higher wisdom and a greater good.


As our annual Blessing of the Animals ceremony will be this afternoon, I’ll close this morning with this excerpt from the novel, Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. A minister is recalling and re-telling the occasion of when he and his young friends tried to baptism a litter of stray kittens [pp. 22 – 23]:


“Once we baptized a litter of cats. They were dusty little barn cats just steady on their legs, the kind of waifish creatures that live their anonymous lives keeping the mice down and have no interest in humans at all, except to avoid them. But the animals all seemed to start out sociable, so we were always pleased to find new kittens prowling out of whatever cranny their mother had tried to hide them in, as ready to play as we were…  Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a good deal. So finally I asked my father in the most offhand way imaginable what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it. He replied that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the Sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats. I got his meaning, though, and I did no more baptizing until I was ordained…


“I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. I don’t wish to be urging the ministry on you, but there are some advantages to it you might not know to take account of if I did not point them out. Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you. I don’t know why there is so little about this aspect of the calling in the literature.”

**Hymn #203 [verses 1-3, only] All Creatures of the Earth and Sky


**Closing Words [the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons]


“There is, finally, only one thing required of us– that is: to take life whole, the sunlight and shadow together, to live the life that is given us with courage and humor and truth. We have such a little moment, out of the vastness of time, for all our wondering and loving– Therefore, let there be no half-heartedness. Therefore, let the soul be ardent in its pain, its yearning, and in its praise– Then shall peace enfold our days, and glory shall not fade from our lives.”