In the mid-1800s, a young man named William Loring Worcester and his father, Rev. John Worcester, took an unhurried camping trip in the valley of the Nile River and all over the Holy Land, consulting the Bible as they went. Imagine these two, taking their time, finding and discovering the places they had only read about; and in that time period, much of what they saw would not yet have been greatly changed by the advance of modern civilization. Both men were significant figures in the early New Church movement in America. They were particularly fascinated by and well-versed in the knowledge of correspondences, so that what they were looking at probably held unusual depths of meaning. William must have taken copious notes and made drawings, along with taking black and white photos, as evidenced in the books he went on to write.
The camping trip happened right after William graduated from Harvard, where he had studied science because his father advised him that a knowledge of science “was one of the best preparations for a New Church ministry,”* and William intended to enter the ministry. After the camping trip, William attended the New Church Theological School which existed at that time in Cambridge, Massachusetts. William was then ordained and began his ministry as an assistant to Rev. Chauncey Giles in Philadelphia. (Rev. Giles is the author of the piece about the ministry of flowers which was the subject of my November 2022 post.)
In Philadelphia, William’s “attention was drawn to the needs of the children of the Church for instruction first in the letter of the Word, and then, as they grew older, in the deeper meanings which that letter contains.”* He ran the Sunday school for the church society. He was unusually good at fitting his communications (oral and written) to whatever age group made up his audience. “Even the smallest children listened with rapt attention as he told them the Bible story.” Undoubtedly he could explain Bible stories in a vivid way, having been to many of the story locations.
Along came The American New Church Sunday School Association, which started a little magazine called “The Sower,” in reference to the famous parable which the Lord told on a literal level to the crowds and then explained afterwards to the disciples on a more spiritual level. This Association was trying to bring together New Church Sunday schools around America, and they wanted someone to provide Sunday School lesson material every week. William Worcester was an obvious choice to provide that weekly material, and “this he did with marked devotion for many years.”* After his death, these years of work were gathered together into the volumes often referred to as the “Sower Notes,” officially titled The Sower: Helps to the Study of the Bible in Home and Sunday School. The dedication reads “In appreciation of the outstanding service to the Church through the wise and sympathetic instruction of her children of all ages, these volumes are issued as a memorial to the gifted teacher who in the main is their author, William Loring Worcester 1859-1939.”
Speaking from my own experience, his writing style is easy to follow, his knowledge and understanding is vast, and his affection for his material shines through. I grew up having the “Sower Notes” read to me, as have many New Church kids in the past. What’s wonderful is that the “Sower Notes” are good for adults, too. Beginning with Genesis and finishing with Revelation, the lessons begin by talking to young children, then have sections that go a little further for older children, and then deeper still into the spiritual meaning for the oldest children. The sections aren’t long, and even an adult reader who has been raised in the church will learn a lot.
Rev. Worcester’s camping trip experiences definitely provided ways for him to make the “Sower Notes” much richer. What most people don’t know is that he also wrote two volumes (for the Old and New Testaments) entitled On Holy Ground: Bible Stories with Pictures of Bible Lands. Using his experiences in the Holy Land and Egypt, as well as black and white photos he (or his father?) had taken and other photos he researched, he wrote about the Bible stories from the perspective of someone who had been there. The second volume begins, “Let us sit down on this green hill-side under the olive trees. They are friendly looking trees, with their gnarled, twisted trunks and willow-like leaves, silvery as the wind turns them up and shows the under side. In the old time there were large orchards of olives on this hill-side, and from them the hill was called the Mount of Olives. We look down the slope into the deep Kidron valley, and across the valley are the hills on which Jerusalem stands. Imagine the city as it was in Gospel days.” He then describes the city, leading to a description of the temple and exactly what it looked like where Zacharias was standing when he saw the angel who told him that John the Baptist would be born. It was the temple Herod had built, and although it was very beautiful, made of shining white marble with huge gold-covered doors and gold decorations, it was missing something very important: “Zacharias was in the holy place, the larger and outer room of the temple. A veil hid from him the most holy place, where the ark with the tables of the commandments should have stood, with the cherubim on its golden lid. It should have stood there, but it had long ago been lost, perhaps when the city was taken by Nebuchadnezzar and the army of Babylon. Still it was the most holy place, never entered but once each year when the high priest burned incense there before the Lord.” (Quotes and information from pages 303-306.) Having set the scene vividly, we now reach the story of what happened to Zacharias in the temple. Unlike the “Sower Notes” (which simply tell you the references you can look up in the Word), On Holy Ground includes the text from the King James Version. Most pages have at least one small black and white photo.
If you are wondering whether Rev. Worcester’s science training turned out to be useful, I would say to take a look at the other book he wrote which is well known and loved in the church (with many reprints), The Language of Parable, A Key to the Bible. This book grew out of a class that he held for high-school-age students. Using his knowledge of science and the Writings, but still maintaining his warm and simple writing style, Rev. Worcester writes a series of brief chapters. The first chapter explains how correspondences work and each subsequent chapter explains the correspondence of something in the natural world, from birds to ivory and pearl, from childhood and youth and old age to houses and cities. Because he understood science, he was particularly good at illustrating the fact that the natural object corresponds with its spiritual counterpart because they both function in the same fashion and perform the same function but on two different levels of reality. When I read this book as a teen, it was the first time that I realized that correspondences are not an arbitrary system of symbols where “this” equals “that.” Light corresponds to truth because light does for our bodies what truth does for our minds: it allows us to “see” or “understand.” Reading this book changed the way I read the Word. It was wonderful.
For anyone who would like access to these books, you can purchase facsimile reprints on Amazon or Abe Books. Or you can check out these free online versions:
*Information and quotations about William Worcester were gleaned from the “Preface” to The Language of Parable and from the “Foreword” to Volume 1 of The Sower.