A History Service with Readings and Reflections
A reading from Freedom Moves West by Charles Lyttle
In the wake of the wars that agitated the colonies from 1740 to 1783 came an unprecedented undertow of infidelity, licentiousness, intemperance, and profanity, as was to be expected. But the orthodox leaders, without a trace of justice, seized the opportunity to impute responsibility for such spiritual and moral decadence to the Unitarian liberals. . . . Liberalism was charged with promoting moral indifference or anarchy, with cryptic designs of atheistic and bloody revolution . . .
Such was the reputation of their faith that the Unitarian immigrants from New England found rampant in the West. Their denomination was the latest to arrive on the scene; they had been preceded by far greater numbers of Calvinist Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Baptists, who had churches well established in virtually every community a decade before the Unitarians reached the spot.
If the Unitarians were steadfast and forthright in their faith, they encountered unfriendliness and discrimination. If a group of them drew together for the exercise of their constitutional right of freedom of worship . . . they were met by the cold disapproval of a united orthodoxy. Pulpit invective, social ostracism, political and economic boycott beset the church members . . . . to a degree almost inconceivable today.
For such reasons the founding and maintenance of a Unitarian society in a small settlement was more difficult than that of a church of any other denomination save possibly the Universalist. The venture involved in most cases really heroic independence and sacrificial loyalty. . . . The West is dotted with the graves of [failed Unitarian churches]. Historians of the extension of the orthodox denominations exult in the fast-increasing number of . . . new churches. The annalist of Western Unitarianism must count in gains by single societies, widely separated and for decades struggling for existence.
Reflection: Unitarian Universalism in the Midwest - by Margret A. O'Neall
The American Unitarians and Universalists both have their roots in the Eastern colonies and states. As the European presence expanded westward, so too did these young denominations, though it was not an easy expansion. Travel was difficult, slow and dangerous; intellectual support for liberal ministers was virtually non-existent; acceptance of non-orthodox beliefs by communities and by other churches was a long time coming; and other, more conservative denominations had expanded ahead of the Unitarians and Universalists, settled their ministers and built their churches -- so when our liberal forebears arrived with their unorthodox and tolerant beliefs, they were called infidels, heretics, blasphemers. But they managed to build and expand throughout the region.
Unitarians expanded into western New York State by 1806, and by the year 1820 churches were established in the Pittsburgh area, as well as in English Prairie, Illinois. The American Unitarian Association was formed in 1825 and the AUA's missionary work began in 1826. In that year, theological student Moses G. Thomas traveled between 4- and 5,000 miles over a 5-month period, on a "mission of inquiry" into Unitarian westward expansion. He reported that prospects seemed likely in several places: Cincinnati, Steubenville and Marietta in Ohio; Paris and Louisville in Kentucky; Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania; St. Louis and St. Charles in Missouri.
Meanwhile, the Universalists were also moving westward -- an Ohio Universalist Association was established in 1821, with counterparts in Indiana and Illinois by 1837 -- and by 1850 Illinois had 30 Universalist churches, compared to only 8 Unitarian churches in the state.
The Unitarian presence was established in Cincinnati and Louisville in 1830, St. Louis in 1835, both Alton and Chicago in 1836, in Quincy and Peoria in 1839, Hillsboro in 1841; Milwaukee-Wisconsin and Geneva-Illinois in 1842, and Tremont in 1849.
In 1842, Rockford, Illinois actually tried a joint venture of Unitarians and Universalists, but the time had not yet come, and it broke apart into separate congregations soon after.
The Western Unitarian Conference was formed in 1852 by "all the ministers and churches of the West." The Conference had its headquarters in Chicago and included the Unitarian churches of the Ohio valley, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and beyond. One commentator noted that the Western Conference was formed "to do something for ourselves and stop depending on the East." Although St. Louis' William Greenleaf Eliot served as the first president of the Western Unitarian Conference, Chicago's Jenkin Lloyd Jones was perhaps the figure most associated with the expansion of the Conference, most of which occurred during his service which began in 1875, first as its secretary and then as missionary secretary
Jones was a key organizer of the World Parliament of Religions, which was held in Chicago in 1893. With its specific acknowledgment and affirmation of religious diversity, the Parliament provided a new legitimacy for liberal religion, especially in the Midwest.
A Unitarian church was established in Meadville, PA in 1829. Meadville Theological School was opened there in 1844, to fill the need for ministers specifically prepared - toughened -- to support the western expansion. The first woman was admitted to study for the ministry at Meadville in 1868. After several unsuccessful attempts to move the seminary to a large city, finally in 1926 it was decided to transfer the school to its current location in Chicago, and the Academic Building was dedicated in 1932. In 1933, the Universalist Lombard College merged with Meadville to created Meadville Lombard Theological School.
And we cannot really talk about Unitarian westward expansion without mentioning the Iowa Sisterhood, a group of female Unitarian ministers who served churches not only in Iowa, but also in Nebraska, Colorado, South Dakota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois. These women ministers contributed significantly to growth in our movement in the Midwest -- particularly since they were sometimes willing to go into areas where men would not serve.
The Unitarians and Universalists established a strong and lasting presence west of the Alleghenies, and anchored our standing among other national denominations as the nation grew. We gather tonight to celebrate that strength in our own Central Midwest District, in our united intent to maintain and to grow our unique faith tradition.
(Primary source: Lyttle, Charles. 2006. Freedom Moves West: A History of the Western Unitarian Conference, 1852 - 1952.Providence: Blackstone Editions.)
A reading from the Rev. Charles Andrew Farley's first sermon in Alton in 1837:
"Do you now ask, ‘Which is the true church?' I answer, not the Episcopal church, not the Presbyterian church, not the Baptist church, not the Methodist church, not the Unitarian church, but the good in all these churches.
All who live under the light of nature or under the more blessed light of revelation:the child of the Ganges who worships the river, and finds healing in its waters; he who adores the Sun in its Majesty; he who cries out for the help of the great father and whose dying eyes are lit up with the hope of hunting again in the Spirit land; all, all are the children of God. All are members of the church universal, of that vast temple which the broad skies cover and the broad earth sustains and whose doors are open to the illimitable heaven."
Reflection: Unitarian Universalism in Alton, IL - by Rev. Khleber VanZandt V
Rev. Farley preached those words not in 2006, not in 1936, but in 1836 - two years before Ralph Waldo Emerson's Divinity School Address signaled a Transcendentalist shift in Unitarian thinking and theology. In fact, it was Waldo's physician brother, Dr. William Emerson, who gathered a few folks in Alton and invited William Greenleaf Eliot up from St. Louis to tell them what it would take to start a new church. The emerging congregation quickly called young Rev. Farley out from Boston and he arrived to tell his new flock that the true church is not theirs or theirs or theirs - not even ours - but rather the true church is the good in all religions. What a radical statement! And made so far out on a new frontier!
What followed for this little congregation was not all sweetness and light, however. The next year, in 1837, a mob murdered Farley's close friend, the abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy - gunshots that many regard as the first shots fired in the American Civil War. Farley, who was also threatened, left quickly for Boston and the church, like the region, fell into a deep funk.
By 1855, the Alton congregation was strong enough to buy land on a hill in downtown Alton. They built a brand-new, fortress-like building on that hill and they were off and running.
Over the years, members of the Alton church have been extremely active in community affairs. People from the congregation laid out the city streets, developed the city park system, formed the local library, helped found the civic symphony, and integrated in the 1950's the public schools they had started in the 1850's.
Social action is in the DNA of the First Unitarian Church of Alton. The Rev. Curtis Reese, who held the Alton pulpit from 1913 to 1915, fought to clean up the wild-west, organized-crime atmosphere of Alton and went on from there to become, with John Dietrich, a guiding light of the Humanist Movement in America.
A story is told about an incident during Rev. Reese's tenure in Alton when he was hounded by criminal elements and took refuge in the attic of the parsonage. It's not every congregation that can brag that their preacher was once pursued into the parsonage by a plethora of prostitutes. But we can so brag, and so we do.
These are just a few of the people and events we list when asked about the Alton congregation's rich, rich history. Alas, as with any human endeavor, there are other threads running through that history as well. The pro-individual, anti-institutional streak in the Alton congregation has resulted, for one thing, in a fluctuating understanding of leadership. The decade of the 1970's in particular has been hard for the congregation to overcome - it was a time when the doors were pulled to from the inside, a time of retreat from social justice work, and a time when the sense of mission was turned "outside in" and became one of taking care only of ourselves and a few others just like us - some of which attitude still festers in Alton and, from what I can tell, remains in pockets throughout our movement.
But today on the new frontier of the 21st century, our mission is clear: to throw open our doors and to take the hopeful message of Unitarian Universalism out of our fortress-like buildings and out of the hands of the few and take it into the communities and homes and streets and deliver it to the people who so desperately need it.
Universalist preacher John Murray's two-hundred-year-old directive is as important now as it ever was: "Go out into the highways and byways. Give the people something of your new vision. You may possess a small light but uncover it, let it shine; use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage." Give them not hell, but hope and courage.
People need to hear our message; people need us to stand up and make ourselves heard.
People need our churches; people need our churches; people need our churches. And it's high time we understood that. And it's high time we acted accordingly.
A reading from William Greenleaf Eliot's sermon, "Christ and Liberty," 1870 (read by Scott Talbot Lewis)
In October of 1870 William Greenleaf Eliot, one of the greatest pioneers of Unitarianism west of the Mississippi, delivered his sermon "Christ and Liberty" at the meeting of the National Unitarian Conference. Thought his language sounds antiquated and gender exclusive to our twenty-first century ears, his words, I think, are still worthy of consideration:
"Few things are more important to the man himself than his belief or unbelief. His inward life -- his religious character, depends to a great degree upon it. It is said that his faith is everything, his belief is nothing but this I fear is one of the bar-rowed phrases of men who substitute sentimentalism for strong religious conviction. Upon what is faith founded, considered as a pure spiritual act but upon belief in truths reverently received? ... Our liberty is too apt to betray us into apathy, which is a very different thing-as different as life from death.
When an educated man says, he doesn't not care about doctrines or what a man believes, he stultifies himself. For consider the subject to which these doctrine apply: The being of God and his nature and attributes. Is he our friend or enemy and what relation does he hold to the human family? Has he revealed himself to us, and if so, when and by whom, and what is the revelation of his will? Has he withdrawn his spiritual presence from us, or does he still work within us, to will, and to do? Is the soul immortal, or does it die with the bodily organism? Under what spiritual law does it live, now and for eternity? Is the promise of salvation a truth to be trusted, or only a pleasant dream? Can sin be forgiven and the redemption of the soul perfected, or must the sinner forever remain in hopeless misery and guilt? Can we trust in the Bible as sufficient rule of faith and practice, or must we set it aside as a collection of myths and old wives' fables?
These are not questions to which a careless ear should be turned. Upon their answer everything depends in our religious education and spiritual growth ... We need greater simplicity and directness in our inculcation of ... truth. There is no denomination ... so imperfectly informed as to its prevailing belief as our own. In our pulpits and Sunday-schools too little instruction is given upon the truths of our religion--on which however--its morality must rest. Vagueness of belief therefore prevails, and skepticism of all truth is often the natural result; and here we find another explanation why our young people leave us for other churches, and why our denominational increase is so slow. Greater definitiveness of belief is needed to hold our own, or to attract others. At present there are comparatively few of our laity, especially of the young, who have grown up in our churches, who can give a reason for the faith that is in them, or a fair statement of the faith itself.
Our pulpits say very little upon the subject, and when they speak it is to say that what one believes is nothing, what one is -- is everything. But closer scrutiny will show that when time enough is given for the fair experiment, what one believes makes him what he is and that the rejection of religious truth paves the way for the loss of religious life. Our churches and our families crave and pine for religious education. We shall perish unless we have more of it."
Reflection: A History of St. Louis UU Churches - by David Breeden
William Greenleaf Eliot was a minister not easily deterred. His first sermon in St. Louis drew something over a hundred people; his second drew eight people. One Sunday only his fellow-boarder from the rooming house showed up. Then, due to the controversy surrounding the liberality of Unitarianism, Eliot was kicked out of his temporary church.
The first Congregational Society of St. Louis was organized on January 26, 1835. There were seventeen members, counting Eliot. Dogged duty and determination paid off, however, and Eliot became an institution builder instrumental in forming the St. Louis public schools and Eliot Seminary, which became Washington University. Eliot helped plant churches as far away as Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The Unitarian movement in St Louis also founded in 1886 the South Side Day Nursery, the first daycare facility west of the Mississippi.
Though Reverend Eliot did not plant Eliot Unitarian Chapel in space and time, he certainly did in spirit, and the church is aptly named in his honor.
In 1953 families from First Church started a twice-monthly Sunday afternoon forum at the Kirkwood YMCA. Thirty-five people showed up for the first meeting. First Church asked the group to start a county Sunday school, to relieve crowding at First Church. The group decided to hold Sunday services as well. In 1959, Eliot Chapel voted to become independent of First Church and in 1961 purchased the present building.
William Greenleaf Eliot's legacy looms large in St Louis. He is probably best summed up by that odd English work, "indefatigable."
Reflection: The Fellowship Movement and Emerging Congregations -- by Rev. William Haney
The Western Unitarian Conference was originally organized for purposes of growth in the 19th-century and the Central Midwest District is the inheritor of that tradition. Today we know there are four ways of starting a new society that leads to growth of the movement. One is as an intentional "spin-off" by a larger, existing church(s). Another is a "split-off" from a larger, existing church for various reasons, some reasons healthier than others. Yet another way is by an individual minister. The fourth way is what we call today a "grass-roots start-up," which is analogous to the older Fellowship Movement initially sponsored by the American Unitarian Association (AUA). Skinner House Books published this year a book by Holley Ulbrich titled The Fellowship Movement. It is a brief history of the period that spanned from 1948 to 1967. There is good historical and statistical information in the text, most never published before. The author's statistical information is based upon regions and states, not districts. This makes a district-by-district assessment cumbersome. Also, some of the congregations that started in that 20-year timeframe included in her statistics were not a part of the Fellowship Movement. For instance, in our District, the North Shore Unitarian Church in Deerfield (1953), Dupage UU Church of Naperville (1955), Eliot Unitarian Chapel of Kirkwood (1959), UU Church West of Brookfield (1962), Prairie UU Society of Madison (1967), Unitarian Church North of Mequon (1961), each of which was a split-off, a spin-off of a sponsoring church or begun by a minister. All of the congregations formed in that timeframe regardless of origin accounts for a little over 30% of the total for the Central Midwest District, the same for the UUA. It was a time of numerical growth. Yet, many did not make it. As Ulbrich notes, "out of the 600 to 800 lay-led fellowships started between 1948 and 1967, 323 congregations survive" (pg. 63): somewhere between 40% to 54% failed.
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia I serve was started as a part of the Fellowship Movement in early 1951. It was typical of the era. The strategy of the AUA was to establish a Unitarian presence in every major university town and state capital city. Phil Stone, a professor at the University of Missouri and a Unitarian transplant from New England, wanted with a few other faculty to start a Unitarian presence. After contacts with Boston and a visit by AUA staff person Lon Ray Call in January, the small group of 10 began meeting in a building on the campus. After nearly 20 years a facility was built, and ten years later, the Reverend Gertrude Lindener-Stawski was called as the first minister. Yet, the growth of the Columbia church and other congregations entails more than numbers.
Loren Meade of the Alban Institute suggests there are four ways of growth: numerical, maturational, organic and incarnational. The numerical component of growth is obvious - numbers of members for the society and numbers of congregations for the district. The incarnational component of growth refers to how the congregation embodies the "word made flesh," how it "walks the talk" on social justice issues. The remaining two growth components - maturational and organic - apply most directly to the Fellowship Movement experience and concern programming (particularly worship and youth RE) - the maturational - and organization - the organic.
Regardless of how one assesses the Fellowship Movement, there were serious flaws from the outset. Some were due to lack of foresight and/or funds. Others were due to a lack of understanding of institutional and ecclesiastical organization, particularly the transition from lay-led to professional leadership. When the program was started, it was woefully understaffed and under-funded. There was also not much thought given to sustainable support for the newly organized societies, other than occasional pamphlets and much later in the program, youth religious education material. Nothing seems to have been said about a religious education element for children in the early period of organization of Fellowships. No information was available for the Fellowship that had a dozen or less kids ranging from pre-school to high school age. As to institutional understanding, it appears to some the main idea was to be a radical departure from the traditional church organization; even at that, the concept was never quite well articulated. Each Fellowship was left to organize itself according to any previous church experience by a dominant personality, or to just ad hoc it. It wasn't until decades later that systems thinking became a vital part of organizational development. And the key to systems thinking requires being aware of how Rabbi Edwin Friedman translated family of origin behaviors into religious institutional dynamics.
The complexities of family of origin dynamics, and how such affects congregational life, is not an issue at this moment. What is of the moment is the way the Fellowship was initially organized affected its future. The founding story is subsumed into the psyche of the institution. So much of the actions and behaviors of the institution in today's context can be traced back to attitudes and conduct patterns at the moment of its inception. We bring our past with us into the present and on into the future - that is, unless we wish to break the status quo, the homeostasis of the system and enter into a new realm of being. Too often, the growth in all four aspects of Meade's concept was forestalled for many Fellowships. The comfort of a so-called "like-minded" family community meant the homeostasis would remain in place, regardless of the challenges needed within the community and the demands of the outer world. There was a lack of maturational growth from the earliest founding until a critical mass of new members were able to alter the initial culture of the institution, and that is when we witnessed all kinds of growth, including numerical growth. Even as the Fellowship Movement gave significant impetus to our Free Church tradition, it remains an enigmatic part of our history, a history we dare not repeat.
Today, we have 12 emerging congregations in the Central Midwest District. We here today are the stewards of our "Church for the 21st-century" that will truly be "Shaping Our Religious Future." No longer can we rely upon a "do-it-yourself" mentality in the formation of our future. We need to understand that as new congregations are brought into being, each one has an opportunity and obligation to shape its future based upon how it is formed. We have the opportunity through District programming, staff and consultants to extend a sustainable hand to these emerging congregations. Not only are we to be intentional about the "family of origin" status of the founding moment, but also through our District Chalice Lighters program, we can offer financial assistance. The hope of shaping our future is in our hands, right here in our midst. Each congregation is encouraged to accept the challenge to support nearby new starts. Our Free Church covenant tradition is what binds us into a communion of congregations, and how better to express that sacred covenant than to extend a helping hand to those beginning near us. Through District oversight, may our congregations respond in a sustainable way to the needs of our future as embodied not only in themselves, but in the new societies emerging in our midst.
(all "grassroots" except as noted)
A reading from John C Morgan, "Shout it out Folks," in Salted with Fire, Scott Alexander, ed., (p 16, 18)
I am not willing to keep quiet. I am an evangelist... It's in our spiritual blood, and without it our movement suffers a great loss of power and passion. ...Spiritual communities grow by evangelism as fire grows by burning. If you light a match and then don't give it air, it will burn out. That has happened to a lot of our churches and fellowships that tried to hide our saving gospel and keep it to themselves....Some years ago, I was asked ... to take a look at 315 of our churches and fellowships that had died between 1961 and 1983. Again and again ... I found a familiar refrain: inwardness, focusing on internal questions while neglecting a wider mission, with consequent loss of heart and mission. In short, I found no evangelism.
... Fire needs nurturing. So, too, does evangelism. If we don't know what it is about ourselves which is worth sharing - know and feel the power of hundreds of years of Unitarian and Universalist history - then our evangelism will be rootless and even wither.
A simple definition of evangelism that makes sense to me as a Unitarian Universalist is this: Evangelism is sharing our dreams with others in order to transform the world....
There is power and purpose in our Unitarian Universalist dream to shape the world around us into one more loving and just. ...A strong part of our heritage is evangelistic.... If our faith is deeply felt ... it [will] be shared with others naturally. ... The times are ripe for our saving message....
Reflection: A History of UU in West St. Louis County - by Rev. Krista Taves
In 1984, the top three blockbuster movies were Ghost Busters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Beverly Hills Cop... one. Top songs in 1984 included "When Doves Cry" by Prince, "What's Love Go To Do With It" by Tina Turner, and "Karma Chameleon" by the Culture Club. George Orwell's book 1984, was reprinted became a bestseller.
Ronald Reagan won the 1984 election, beating the democratic team of Mondale and Ferraro. It became clear that the Soviet Union's leader, Chernenko, was on the way out and a reformer, Gorbachev, was jockeying for position. Who could have predicted the changes he would usher in with one word, "Perestroika.".
Our continent was beginning to recover from the first major economic decline since World War II, and in St. Louis, the manufacturing sector began to breathe again. Economic growth meant so many things, including, a renewed explosion in suburban development, which, once again, crept across farms and creek beds, absorbing small towns and little known boroughs into their plans of winding streets and romantic sounding names.
The first mention of beginning a congregation in West County shows up in Eliot Chapel's Board Minutes around 1983. Revs. John Robinson of Eliot Chapel and Earl Holt of First Unitarian St. Louis had been discussing the need for a fourth congregation in the St. Louis area. Conversation began between their churches about working together to make this happen. Both invited members to consider joining the effort to found a new church. Both congregations promised financial and ministerial support. On Sunday September 9, 1984, Emerson held its first service, officiated by Rev. Earl Holt. On their charter Sunday, February 24, 1985, 18 people signed the Membership Book.
It was a courageous time to begin a new church. It was no coincidence that John Morgan studied 315 churches to see why they had closed. The last two decades had not been kind to Unitarian Universalists. Like other mainline churches, we had been shrinking. The merger with the Unitarians and Universalists in 1961 had left us unsure of who we were and what unified us. Combined with the social unrest of the 60s and 70s, we emerged battered and confused. And yet, what did the two large churches in St. Louis decide to do? They chose to let go of existing members, likely members who had a strong commitment to Unitarian Universalism and served their churches well, and asked them to follow the city's growth - into the suburbs of West County. Much of it was still forest and field, but no matter what you may think of suburban development, this was the reality of life, and forward thinking people made the brave decision to go ahead of the development so they would be ready when it caught up to them. And catch up it did!
West County became the fastest growing part of town. It also became one of the most conservative. Emerson Chapel was a beacon of liberal religion, as well as an oasis for those feeling isolated in their communities. And therein lay the challenges for this congregation, as for as many Unitarian Universalist congregations, between the need to be outward oriented and the temptation to become an inward focused family-like church.
From the beginning, Emerson Chapel was determined to grow and thrive. Emerson hired its first part time minister in 1986. In 1990, full time ministry came through the Extension Ministry Program, and in 1991 the congregation bought its current 3 ½ acre property. Unfortunately they could not afford both ministry and mortgage and said a sad farewell to their minister in 1994. It would have been tempting to turn inward to soothe the bruising and the lost dream. Emerson did finish off the decade without a minister but, they made the forward-thinking decision to invest in a Director of Religious Education and our classrooms filled. By the turn of the century, plans for a new sanctuary took shape and as did plans for full time ministry. The right combination of lay leaders and part time ministers, the incredible generosity of members and friends, made it all possible. Today, Emerson, at 95 members, enjoys a wonderful sanctuary, full time ministry, 60% time DRE, and is exploring expansion or relocation, for our current facilities are at and sometimes beyond capacity.
The question now is, what are we here for? We had this dream to become a full-service church, and we got there. So what now?
This question is not ours alone. It is the question of this faith. What are we here for? I believe we are here to share our dreams with others so as to transform our world. If we don't believe our religion can transform the world, then what kind of religion is that? If we don't believe our religion is worth sharing, then how much worth does it really have? If we hold this religion only for ourselves, like a prized possession, we will sever it from its roots, and it will wither and die.
The story we have told this evening is of a people who knew why they were here, and what their faith called them to do. They were rooted in the foundation of a strong history, planted in the needs of the moment, and always, living, with an eye to the future. We have inherited their legacy and it is up to us to reclaim and embody the passion that is in our spiritual blood to share what it is we have. The times are ripe for our saving message. Let us not be afraid to share it.