… remembering where we came from …

In our service memorializing the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and the long history of the generations who worked to make it a reality, we noticed that Unitarians and Universalists were sometimes working with allies in other movements and sometimes working at cross purposes. We also noticed how easy it is to narrow our focus, seeing most clearly the achievements that we identify ourselves with. But why? Maybe we should look at it from the other end of the telescope: is our UU identity so limited? Are we really heirs only to those New England Congregationalists we keep on (and on and on) talking about? Our own congregation has connections not only to Boston but also to Northumberland and Philadelphia, for example, and, good Pennsylvanians as we are, let us not forget that our congregation and the building in which we meet was shaped, literally, by a man, Mr Garvin, born into the group of Quakers known as Hicksites, often accused, and often rightly, of being unitarian in their beliefs. It was one of the things that got them in trouble, and their suspect theology and arguments about it led to divisions and weaknesses in American Quakerism. As we heard in Reverend Barbara’s sermon on Sunday, Susan B. Anthony was also from a Hicksite Quaker background, from the time when the Great Separation, as it came to be known, was just bubbling up and cracking her denomination wide open. And the Philadelphia Unitarian congregation was enriched by new Hicksite membership when the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting disowned the Hicksites there.

For Mr Garvin, Unitarian activism was in no way at odds with his Quaker advocacy for peace. He was born, after all, in a border area in the months before the Civil War started, and his family lived on both sides of the Mason Dixon Line. He talked about growing up without a father, but he also grew up mostly without his mother as well, and in a war zone, and he seems not to have left much of a record of how he remembered that. He did, however, revisit the people and places in Maryland where he had spent his childhood, and he restored what he could of the places, in memory of the people there. In 1933 a visitor studying the Quaker meeting houses of the area contacted Mr Garvin about his family’s former meeting house, and Mr. Garvin responded:

‘I am sorry I have not a copy of the history written by Belle McSparran on the occasion of the dedication of a smaller meeting house, which my uncle and I erected there in 1911. The old, log meeting house, which was built in 1826, had been unused for some years, and was beginning to fall apart, in fact, had about fallen down, and the graveyard was in a wretched condition. My grandparents, Thomas and Tobitha Garvin, are buried there, and so we had the place cleaned up and a fence put around. Then we decided it would be possible to put up a chapel there for the use of the neighborhood, of any denomination, or no denomination. This present chapel was dedicated June 9, 1912, and since that time, it has been much used for many purposes. A First Day School was conducted for several years and was largely attended, but that has passed away. There has been less demand for the chapel during the last four or five years than had existed previously.’

The letter is quoted from a manuscript notebook compiled by T.C. Matlack, which is also the source of the photograph of the Octoraro Meeting House. These materials are used with the kind permission of the Quaker and Special Collections of Haverford College Library.

So things pass away when the demand is less. Quakers often did not even mark the graves of their deceased, and the old meeting house, the Octoraro Meeting House as it was called, was never more than a small building used by a few families too far from the larger community to get to meetings there. The Meeting House fell into disuse, Mr Garvin rebuilt it, it fell into disuse again, and hardly anyone nearby remembered anything about it even within Mr Garvin’s lifetime.

And so our congregation derived much of its early strength from someone who had a superfluity of it to give, from a source we have little attended. When we identify ourselves as a UU congregation, we can be proud of the richness of all our sources, because our UU movement has been the place where so many and so diverse a range of people have chosen to build their shared home. And we can honor the memory of all our ancestors, as they have worked to honor the memory of those who went before them.

Octoraro Meeting House

Our Southwest Corner: Shadows, The Philosophers’ Window, and Mr Garvin’s View

One of the appealing things about our church is that it is small enough for newcomers to get to know people. It also means, unfortunately, that when our community loses people, we probably feel our loss even more. And in recent months, we have had our share. Which may make it a good moment to turn to one of our sanctuary windows, the one I think of as our “sad window”.

The southwest corner of the sanctuary isn’t really sad; it has both the organ and the piano, which make quite a joyful noise most of the time (I can’t quite remember why we were all dancing in the aisle before the service started a couple of weeks ago, but it clearly had something to do with Diane at the piano), — but still, it has the least sunlight of anywhere in the sanctuary, and it’s the home of the Philosophers’ Window, which, starting off with Socrates, isn’t all that jolly.

A Little Owl (Socrates’ window)





Philosophers’ Window: Socrates, Emerson, Milton

That corner of the church has other solemn associations. The second pew from the front on that side is the spot Mr. Garvin always occupied, and he’s still nearby: his ashes are in the west wall between the south and central windows. From his place in the pew he would have seen, above the wooden covering of the organ pipes, a wooden low-relief sculpture showing a small family group, and below it, the Psalm inscription: He setteth the solitary in families. The inscription must have been important for Mr. Garvin. The biographical sketches of him that appeared, with his co-operation, during his lifetime mention his growing up without his father. Actually, the youngster grew up mostly without his mother, too, since he lived on an aunt and uncle’s farm, while his mother moved away when she re-married. She had been widowed at the age of only seventeen, before her son was even born. Since that was right before the Civil War broke out, the Garvins’ situation was far from unique: it created a whole generation of widows and orphans. So Mr Garvin was quite familiar with what it meant, setting the solitary in families.