Our “Compensation”, and Theirs…

It has been far too long since we have gathered in  our church building on Chestnut and Pine. We say: the church is not a building. The building is closed, the church is open. Yes. But. Our congregation, or its members then, made a decision to center its congregational life in a building, our building, and their decision has been reinforced over the years as we decided to decorate, build on, renovate, improve, and stay put. Some churches have sold their buildings and moved into less church-y quarters. We have not, so that building is ours, and being separated from it is a loss to us of something we have valued, something we have loved in common with those who came before us. As we live apart from it now, we can imagine what it would mean to live apart from it forever.  What, we may ask ourselves, do we want our sanctuary for? What does it mean to us? What did it mean to those who created it?

Separation from our church building is separation from church life as we have known it and as many, we hope, will come to know it again. Loss upon loss. And yet: even your grumpy Borrower Bee must admit to having Zoom-encountered new church friends she would probably never have met, and experienced the joy of outreach beyond what was usual in our ordinary church life. Events that one can be glad of in the moment and return to in grateful memory, and that would not have happened had things been normal. And that, kind reader, is an example of what R.W. Emerson meant in his essay “Compensation”, tucked into the dark southwest corner of our church, in the window dedicated to him.

Emerson’s window being placed in that darkest corner, and the naming there of that particular essay, has always been a bit of a puzzle for me. The windows on the western side of the church are mostly secular figures, but Emerson was an ordained minister and not especially gloomy.  The essay is not one of his most read today, and there are aspects of it that are deeply of their time and not of ours. The philosophy it offers, however, may help explain its physical place in the sanctuary. In it, Emerson offers what he calls a “natural history of calamity”:

The changes which break up at short intervals the prosperity of men are advertisements of a nature whose law is growth … The voice of the Almighty saith: ‘Up and onward for evermore!’ We cannot stay amid the ruins. Neither will we rely on the new and so we walk ever with reverted eyes, like those monsters who look backwards.

And yet the compensations of calamity are made apparent to the understanding also, after long intervals of time…

Words of hope “amid the ruins” are well suited to our present congregational situation, and they were probably felt equally strongly by the congregation of a century ago, when the church interior took its present form. The decorating plan of the 1920s included, most obviously, our distinctive stained glass, but the culmination of the work was the dedication of an ornate decorative wooden frame around the altarpiece, which was, and is, a copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper. Since the dedication of the frame in 1927 gained a great deal of attention, and usually the frame, a triptych, is kept closed, we have tended to forget about the painting. However, in the 1920s in America, copies of famous paintings were often bought for display in a church, and copies could be highly valued in their own right. Our Last Supper was a work of this sort, and, far from having been acquired together with the triptych, it occupied its place of honor long before the triptych was made. Adding to the confusion, the woodwork bears a plaque, made much later, which focuses on a later re-dedication of the ensemble. Contemporary newspapers, however, report on the original dedication of the painting in 1921, on 25 March, which was Good Friday.

The painting was given to the church by Mrs M.T. Garvin to honor the memory of her daughter Mrs Lillian G. Ross; she had died on April 5, 1918. The death of this apparently healthy and still fairly young woman shocked everyone who had known her, because the death was not only sudden and untimely but also seemed to have had a trivial origin: a very minor scratch apparently ended within hours in her dying from “acute meningitis” (the cause of death stated on her death certificate).

The Last Supper in the chancel faces our copy of the Frieze of the Prophets at the north end of the sanctuary. The original of the Frieze of the Prophets was painted by John Singer Sargent for the Boston Public Library as part of his controversial and never-completed sequence The Triumph of Religion, which was projected to include ancient polytheistic as well as Jewish and Christian traditions. It was installed in Boston in 1895, and the Lancaster copy was dedicated in October 1920. The Lancaster dedication was accompanied by the singing of a hymn created for the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions, itself, as its name suggests, a celebration of shared human spirituality. The Lancaster paintings were thus installed in a larger program contextualizing Christianity as a new stage in the historical progress of human religions.

The paintings, windows, and other decorations in the Lancaster church collectively expand on ideas epitomized in Emerson’s “Compensation”: the church walls testify to the “natural history of calamity” while also evoking Emersonian confidence in spiritual progress, a “triumph of religion” albeit not exactly in the form that Sargent and probably the Garvins had in mind. In Emerson’s words: “Things refuse to be mismanaged long… Though no checks to a new evil appear, the checks exist, and will appear.” From this Emersonian perspective, for example, the men honored in the Presidents’ Window are memorialized not because of their singular virtues, but because they lent their strength to great causes in that constant process of destruction and renewal that Emerson characterizes as the “changes which break up at short intervals the prosperity of men”. All three of the American presidents honored were leaders in such times: Jefferson and the American Revolution, Lincoln and the Civil War, Wilson and the Great War. Of the three, only Jefferson saw the fruitful aftermath of the revolutionary calamity he had helped his society to endure and shape.

If the stained glass represents Emerson’s “natural history” on the level of institutions and societies, the other decorations in the church often hold more personal associations.  The woodwork in the southwest and southeast corners, for example, reminds us of Mr Garvin’s Quaker heritage and his and his wife’s personal histories of loss and renewal in the wake of the Civil War. The memory of Mrs Garvin’s daughter was honored in the chancel not only with the painting there but also with a small cross that is no longer regularly displayed.

It may strike us in retrospect, but only in retrospect, that Mrs Ross died just as the first of the three waves of “Spanish flu” was spreading across America.

The geographical source and the chronology of this first wave are disputed, because, since no one had seen anything like it before, the earliest cases were nearly always attributed to some different cause. “Ordinary” influenza occurred then as regularly as it does now, and then as now was only rarely lethal. The novel influenza did not present exactly the same way, but to the extent that no one knew of its existence, it naturally remained unnoticed. There are those who believe that in its first, mild, form, the “Spanish flu” may have been circulating as early as 1916, and several sources have suggested it started in North America. It certainly did not start in Spain; it got heavy journalistic coverage there, because thanks to the war, the Spanish press was the only uncensored press in Europe and so the only one for which an epidemic was not an unpublishable state secret. In the United States, the first diagnosis of the novel influenza virus was in January 1918; the doctor who diagnosed it published a warning to the US Public Health Service, but the warning was ignored. Most cases of the flu in the “spring wave” of 1918 were mild, and more serious and fatal cases were noticed mainly because the people who died had often been healthy individuals who succumbed very quickly. The first American influenza death recognized as such occurred in March on a Kansas military base; its being recorded there may simply mean that the military offered more systematic health monitoring than did civilian life. Within a week, the same influenza killed several people in Queens, in New York; although other cases became known elsewhere, and some health authorities began to issue warnings, the disease was still not widely understood as epidemic, let alone as a first wave. Although it seems to have been in abeyance in the summer, however, that was only the end of the beginning. Wartime conditions, notably massive movements of military personnel, complicated the geographic course of the epidemic’s transmission and made it harder to track; the war also probably increased transmission generally. In turn, the increased number of contacts may partly account for an increased number of mutations, which, in their turn, probably account in part for the increased lethality of the disease in its second and third waves of late summer and fall of 1918 and again in 1919.

The renovation and ornamentation of our church in Lancaster thus belongs not only to a post-war, or early interwar, period, but also to a time of recovery from a rampant disease that at first was hardly noticed and afterward, until recently, hardly even recollected – a post-epidemic period, as it were, or perhaps, given our present condition, an inter-epidemic one. In this new time of epidemic and loss, and of physical alienation from our church building, it may be helpful to contemplate and renew not only our spiritual interconnectedness among those of us who are more or less physically here right now, but also our gratitude to those who turned their personal griefs, in experiences not completely different from our own, into memorials that could become a place of worship, beauty, and sanctuary for later generations.

President Wilson’s War

President Wilson has famously been described as a pacifist who, after campaigning for his second term as the president who had “kept us out of war” (a slogan used in his campaign), then proceeded in his second term to lead the nation into one. Yet Wilson was an odd sort of pacifist, even right from the start; his main concerns seem to have been to keep the United States out of the European war, at least as long as possible, and to ensure that, when it ended, the war would lead to a “peace without victory” (a phrase he used, but did not invent), that is a non-punitive peace that would permit all the formerly combatant countries to flourish. For America, he envisioned a policy of strict neutrality, which, however, he expected would be hard to maintain in a country whose population came from all over the world and among whom could be expected viewpoints reflecting those in the different countries we all came from. As the war in Europe began, Wilson advocated for Americans to be neutral even in their personal thinking about the conflict. His expectations were not only unmet but also condemned as naïve. Roosevelt’s answer to Wilson’s appeal for neutrality of thought takes on another unpleasant attribute of the Wilsonian position: acknowledging his own family’s German background, Roosevelt was outraged at the idea that it would somehow lead him to be sympathetic to the invasion of Belgium or the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania. In light of Wilson’s history of problems in dealing with related issues, his stated expectations about Americans’ unwillingness to go to war against Germany seem to reflect less his opposition to war than his lack of confidence in his ability to lead the nation through this particular one, for reasons that today seem to discredit both Wilson and those Americans who actually fit his expectations about them. In the event, the aggressiveness of German submarine warfare against neutrals as well as combatants (not to mention the Germans’ suggestion that Mexico could reclaim its lost North American territory if it joined on the right side) left the Americans with little choice. Slowly they entered the war, belatedly they made the necessary preparations, and eventually they mobilized four million men. It was the first time Americans had sent forces to Europe, one and a half million in the last six months of the war.

“No such migration had ever been made before in such a short time,” comments one historian, “and never before or since”, he adds, “in the midst of a pandemic” (A.W. Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic. The Influenza of 1918. [New edition, 2003.], Cambridge Univ. Press.). Fifty-three thousand American men in the American Expeditionary Forces died in action in Europe; about sixty-three thousand died of influenza. Since the earliest documentation of the pandemic in America was in the military (first on navy ships, then in the army), the military in turn became an object of fear in the United States, a situation resolved by a spread of the disease so rapid that it soon became pointless to differentiate who exactly people should be afraid of. Historians have suggested that one reason that the 1918-1919 pandemic made so little impact on Americans’ cultural memory is that, on one hand, the experience tended to become folded into the history of the war, while, on the other, contemporary record-keeping, especially in rural areas and outside the military, was poorly developed, making it hard for people who lived through the pandemic to grasp its full dimensions. Had collective memory been better, one may speculate, perhaps later generations would have been more consistently attentive to public-health preparedness, as well as to the full range of domestic consequences when we fight wars abroad.

It must be said that Wilson, once convinced that the United States needed to fight, brought to his rhetoric an extraordinary force of spiritual conviction. He referred for example to the Treaty of Versailles as the redemption of “the sacred blood that was shed”, a reference that one biographer has noted “reek[s] of holy war more than just war, let alone pacifism. And World War I became for Wilson a holy war… His deep belief in righteousness and America’s role in fostering it worldwide trumped whatever reluctance he had about war” (Hankins, 157).

Flyleaf, handwritten inscription by M.T. Garvin

Presidents, Prophets, War, Public Health

“The word of the Lord came to me: O mortal, speak to your fellow countrymen and say to them: When I bring the sword against a country, the citizens of that country take one of their number and appoint him their watchman. Suppose he sees the sword advancing against the country, and he blows the horn and warns the people. If anybody hears the sound of the horn but ignores the warning, and the sword comes and dispatches him, his blood shall be on his own head. Since he heard the sound of the horn but ignored the warning, his bloodguilt shall be upon himself; had he taken the warning, he would have saved his life. But if the watchman sees the sword advancing and does not blow the horn, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and destroys one of them …  I will demand a reckoning for his blood from the watchman” (Ezekiel 33.1-6).

According to President Wilson himself, Ezekiel’s warning to the watchmen of nations became the text that at last persuaded him that the United States should prepare to join the European allies fighting the Great War of 1914-1918. Since Wilson was the devout son of a Presbyterian minister, perhaps this is not so surprising. More surprising is that by the time Wilson was moved to act, Ezekiel’s warning was a continuing source of American public debate, making newspaper headlines beginning in 1915, not a time when most Americans, dear readers, were spending their spare time reading the Prophets. Instead, we were taking our cue from, of all people, Theodore Roosevelt, who began from this passage (not one of Ezekiel’s best, incidentally) in an article called “Peace Insurance by Preparedness against War”, which marked the beginning of what became the Preparedness Movement, led by Roosevelt and General Leonard Wood. Roosevelt, of course, had been defeated by Wilson in the 1912 presidential campaign, but only thanks to the Republican Party being split, with Roosevelt founding his own Progressive Party, popularly known as the “Bull Moose” Party, which advocated  strong social safety-net measures, such as universal public health. The issue was similarly well appreciated by Roosevelt’s partner Wood, who remains even today the only surgeon to have been the Chief of Staff of the US Army, and whose organizational skills have been credited with preserving lives not only in the military but also in local populations in Santiago de Cuba, where he was the military governor controlling the occupying American forces. Roosevelt had first met Wood when the latter was serving in the White House as the President’s physician through two presidencies in the 1890s. Wood is considered to have fallen “short of greatness”. Perhaps some of his work, however, uniting as it did both an understanding of the value of preparedness and the importance of public health, deserves to be remembered by us today. And by our watchmen.

And Ezekiel, folks, is the prophet on the north sanctuary wall in the panel second from left, second figure from the end of that panel; counting from Moses’ right hand, he’s third guy to the right, next to Daniel, who is the one holding a scroll. And that makes it truly an “Old Testament”, i.e. Christian, frieze, since although all these gentlemen are in the Hebrew scriptures, Daniel is grouped with the prophets only in Christian Bibles. In Jewish Bibles, he is tucked in with the “Writings” (Kethuvim).

News flash: US President lashes out at newspaper editor!

The description of our windows in our own church literature characterizes Wilson as the “favorite” of our founder Mr Garvin, and certainly no other window in the church generated as much newspaper publicity when it was dedicated. Some in the congregation, and even an occasional visitor, however, have expressed distaste for having President Wilson honored in this way. Whatever other issues arise, certainly Wilson’s immediate proximity to Lincoln is jarring, because his presidency (1913-1921) saw the reimposition of segregation in departments of the federal government that had previously desegregated. The situation was unlikely to have been unknown to Mr Garvin, since the Unitarians of the “Middle States and Canada” issued a joint resolution condemning it (The Guardian, Boston, November 15, 1913). Moreover, Wilson’s campaign for the presidency had appealed  to the African American community for its vote on the basis of Wilson’s “Christian” commitment to a “new freedom for all people” (Barry Hankins, Woodrow Wilson. Ruling Elder, Spiritual President. Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 124-29), and Mr Garvin, active in Democratic party politics in Lancaster, was unlikely not to have been aware of the candidate’s campaign promise. He will also have been fully aware of what sort of Christianity President Wilson espoused, namely Presbyterian, a denomination that had been split in the lead-up to the Civil War and remained so long afterward. Wilson, a southerner by birth and the son of a Presbyterian minister, experienced some of the stresses within Presbyterian Christianity first-hand, and he had become president of Princeton University partly because his immediate predecessor had embarrassed himself, Wilson, and much of the rest of the faculty when, after Wilson had invited a prominent historian  to join the faculty, the president refused to appoint him because the invitee was a Unitarian. Wilson’s own view of Christianity seems to have been that it was a personal matter, an opinion reinforced when universities controlled by churches were threatened with loss of funds; he apparently also had no intention of allowing his own Christian commitments to have much to do with his decisions about the segregation of federal agencies. He also seems not to have been able to grasp the idea that segregation was discriminatory, an issue that was argued at length in discussions Wilson had with William Monroe Trotter, the prominent  black civil rights activist, political leader, and editor of the Boston Guardian, who came to the White House with a delegation to support desegregation. As the controversy continued to rage throughout 1913-1914, however, Wilson’s interest in the issue became subordinated to his overriding concern for keeping the United States out of the impending European war, and Wilson cut off even the possibility of further discussion with Trotter after Trotter expressed the disappointment of the African American community, who had up to then seen in Wilson a “second Abraham Lincoln”. Wilson’s furious response on that occasion was, in Wilson’s own words, a response to Trotter’s “tone”, absence of “Christian spirit”, and his alleged political “blackmail” (Hankins, 131). Wilson declared himself ready to discuss the issues Trotter presented with the other members of Trotter’s delegation, because they, unlike Trotter, comported themselves more in the way that this white southern Christian gentleman then President of the United States deemed appropriate.

So: Wilson was no “second Abraham Lincoln” and even said, in response to that idea: “Leave me out!” Why was he not left out, then, of the Presidents’ Window of our church? We cannot see into Mr Garvin’s mind, of course, especially since the records he retained about church business were carefully curated to remove anything too personal. Yet we may look to the program of the church decorations to see a possible explanation. To be continued …

In this strange moment…

our UUCL community is reminded of how much more community means than just the building in which it comes together for worship. And yet. We do call our place of worship a sanctuary, and we crave sanctuary now. We need it for ourselves, we need it to hold together and repair the straining webs of all our different communities. Although our UUCL sanctuary raises up individual heroes, they all appear in groups, as leaders of communities that reach across time and space. Some of our heroes were heroes of religious faith in something approaching the way that phrase is used conventionally. Others are heroes who had no faith at all in the conventional religion of their day, and would not be revered in any church but our own sometimes rather peculiar one. As we think about the people memorialized in our windows, and why they are standing there grouped as they are, we are reminded that they and we have all been through a lot, sometimes certainly feeling alone but joined in hope and in faith that our communities will someday be repaired and healed. In the future, there will continue to be those who continue to work, as they worked, for the good of all. Some are working, even heroically, for it now.

The central windows of the sanctuary memorialize our country’s founders, and, opposite, national leaders in time of wrenching change. William Penn occupies the center panel of the east central window, and opposite him, Abraham Lincoln. The west central window, with its three panels, is generally referred to as “The Presidents’ Window”, as Lincoln is flanked by Thomas Jefferson (south panel) and Woodrow Wilson (north).

The choice of Lincoln seems obvious, since other panels, notably the one dedicated to Theodore Parker, focus on the issues of freedom and justice eventually joined in Lincoln’s presidency. Jefferson’s presence is usually said, in our church literature, to be motivated by his role in establishing freedom of religion in his home state of Virginia, and little if anything is made of the window thus juxtaposing Lincoln with a slaveholder. In general, it was part of the way the church ornamentation was planned, that people of different times and places should be represented together, to show how their different achievements contribute to progress shared along one or another specific trajectory, for example, science (in the northwest window) or philosophy (in the southwest). Yet we cannot help wondering how freedom of religion in Virginia is to be celebrated if the religion people were free to believe in supported their simultaneous belief in the superiority of white men and their inherent right to own people who were not white. No one, after all, would suggest we memorialize freedom of religion for people who consider it their sacred duty to tear out the heart of their eldest son and cast it into a burning pyre.

We sometimes think that the “Jefferson problem” has only been noticed in recent years, but then we think “noticed by whom, exactly?”.  

Sarah Hemings’s descendants will have noticed long ago, and public notice is nearly as old as the republic. A hint of this may perhaps explain a peculiarity of the Jefferson window. Like other windows in our church, the diamond panes are occasionally interrupted by small round ones, mostly plain frosted glass. Only a few have any interior lead seams, and among them, there is  one in the  Jefferson window that has so many seams it seems hardly to hold together. These are not repairs, but belong to the original design.We do not know why W.H. Ritter, the architect, designed the window that way, but one may wonder if it was not a sign of the “Jefferson problem”, especially since we know that in the neighboring Lincoln window, the crack in the Stars and Stripes can only refer to the crack in the Union, while the essay named in Emerson’s window, “Compensation”, is the source of his famous statement: there is a crack in everything God has made. Isn’t there just.

Yet the most problematic of the three panes in the Presidents’ Window is the third, the northernmost, dedicated to Woodrow Wilson. It deserves a separate small place in our thoughts, so we will return to it, God willing, tomorrow.

… 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.

A Pennsylvania Story

In December of 1926 there appeared in the Unitarian Christian Register an article by Eugene Rodman Shippen (1865-1959), our minister in 1908-09.1 A biographical note on E.R. Shippen is included in our congregational history The Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster 1902 – 2002. A Century of Free Faith. History Author: Jack Ward Willson Loose. The article is chiefly devoted to the pulpit that had been donated by his family to the Lancaster church while he was minister here, but more recently had been fitted with the bas relief sculptures that we see there today. In addition to its wooden ornaments, the pulpit also carries a plaque honoring Dr Shippen’s paternal grandfather, Judge Henry C. Shippen. The plaque tells us that Judge Shippen was born in Lancaster in 1788 and died in Meadville PA in 1839. He had moved to Meadville in 1825, when he was appointed Presiding District Judge. Not mentioned on the plaque is the special association of Meadville with Unitarianism: it was the site of the Meadville Theological Seminary, later reorganized as part of the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. After Judge Shippen’s death, his widow was active in Meadville Unitarianism, and his daughter married the son of Harm Jan Huidekoper, who had gathered a Unitarian church in Meadville in 1829 and was active in the American Unitarian Association. Judge Shippen’s son Rush Rhees Shippen (1828-1911), E.R. Shippen’s father, was born in Meadville and in the course of his distinguished career in Unitarian ministry served as Secretary of the American Unitarian Association  (1871-1881).

Plaque dedicated to the memory of Judge Henry C. Shippen

The Shippen family had long been prominent in Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Unitarianism.2 Records and information pertaining to the Shippens are extensive. For a thoroughly documented narrative covering the earlier generations of the family, through the generation of Judge Henry Shippen, see Randolph Shipley Klein, Portrait of an Early American Family. The Shippens of Pennsylvania across Five Generations. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975. The family patriarch, Edward Shippen, born in England, was a Quaker merchant who moved from Boston to Philadelphia in 1694 at least partly because of his religion. He arrived as a man of wealth and quickly attained social prestige and political power as well, serving twice as mayor, once as the first elected mayor of Philadelphia. He was, however, a controversial figure and by the time of his death in 1712 he was still wealthy and powerful, but estranged from the Friends.  

Controversy followed the Shippen family across time and space. Although politically active in Lancaster County since at least 1737, Shippens actually resided here only after  one of Edward’s grandsons, also called Edward (“Edward III”), once the mayor of Philadelphia, and a widower, remarried to a widow he had known since childhood and  who had lost her first husband  years earlier, when he was traveling in the Caribbean. The lost husband turned up, the Shippen couple were convicted of bigamy, and they fled Philadelphia for Lancaster in 1752. Judge Henry C. Shippen was a grandson of Edward III, who is buried at St. James Episcopal Church in Lancaster, while other Shippens of his generation were active as Presbyterians.

The whole Shippen family continued to own extensive real estate, and their wealth and family loyalty enabled individual members of the family to make sometimes striking life choices. The Shippens were nothing if not politically engaged, in the peculiarly personal way of politics at the time. Edward became, by far, the largest single donor in Lancaster County to the fund for the relief of Bostonians in the repressive period leading up to the Revolutionary War. His granddaughter Margaret, the daughter of Edward IV, back in Philadelphia, married Benedict Arnold and gained renown as a British spy. A number of the family moved away from the world of commerce and distinguished themselves as Presbyterian church laymen, in medicine, in the military, and as political appointees of the British government. It was in Philadelphia, in the post-Revolutionary years, when the family’s connection with Unitarianism began.

The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia is the first church to have been established specifically as a Unitarian congregation in the New World. Although it is most famously associated with the name of Joseph Priestley, Philadelphia Unitarians had established a society before Priestley arrived.3 On  the history of the Philadelphia congregation and the role of Joseph Priestley in American Unitarianism, see: Bowers, J.D. Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007;  Geffen, Elizabeth M. Philadelphia Unitarianism 1796-1861. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961. He preferred not taking a prominent role in the society, partly because he felt that the church should be led by Americans and not by people, like him, who had immigrated from England. In fact, nearly all the early adherents of Philadelphia Unitarianism were English born. In England, Unitarians were notorious for radical political sympathies favoring the French during their Revolution; the Philadelphia Unitarians were suspected of British loyalties not only during the American Revolution but also afterward, in the War of 1812.  Already small, the Unitarian society all but disbanded in the difficult political situation of the Revolutionary and immediate post-Revolutionary years. When we read on the plaque on our pulpit that Henry Shippen contributed to the Unitarian Church in Philadelphia in 1813, we understand that he will have been one of the first to help put the re-established society back on its feet after a long hiatus. Another Shippen, Charles, was on the Board of Trustees of the Philadelphia  church by 1824.

Eugene Rodman Shippen enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a Unitarian minister. Thanks to his family’s secure wealth, E.R. Shippen had the benefit of broad educational opportunities, and attended not only Harvard but also Oxford, and his interests show the influence of progressive thinking of the time, on the social significance of artistic beauty. A strong proponent of Unitarian religious art, Dr. Shippen in 1923 organized the American Unitarian Association’s Religious Arts Guild, of which he became the president, and M.T. Garvin became the honorary president. In his 1926 article, Dr Shippen proposes that the stained-glass and carved religious art in our Lancaster church was “perhaps the first to honor the heretics of Christian history in visible, permanent form”. His understanding of the sanctuary artwork, in other words, is that its values extend far beyond the purely representational value of memorializing individuals.

Instead, the works of art collectively construct an entire, original program memorializing  heresy as such, that is, advancing the idea that Unitarianism  takes issue not just with how religious worship is organized but also with what it is that those who keep the faith are expected to believe and how they may be expected to act on the basis of their beliefs. When the windows mentioned in Dr. Shippen’s article were to be dedicated, the invitations issued by the church referred to our faith in the “emancipation of the human race, politically, intellectually, and spiritually”. Art was meant to inspire us to better lives.

Dr Shippen also points out that the people represented in the artwork belong to many different national and religious traditions. Only a few years after the end of the War to End All Wars, Dr Shippen’s article thus turns his co-religionists to the value of thinking for oneself, acting not like robots blindly  accepting authority, but rather like  thinking human beings looking beyond the walls of national and religious categories  to an international vision of human potential  that might, one could then hope, prevent us from sleepwalking into another world-wide catastrophe fueled by irrational hatred of those outside our ken.  The figures we are invited to contemplate in our sanctuary, for all their variety and human fallibility, were put before us as heroes of a faith they shared, that our predecessors at our church also shared in 1926, and that is the faith we profess, and require, today.

Where have we been?

Our congregation has been very busy transitioning, focusing on where we are headed in the twenty-first century. As we think about our future, your Borrower Bee has been wondering about how the future UUCL might be able to make use of our collective past. One of the most striking realities of our congregation is its physical home, a beautiful space purpose-built, for its then Unitarian congregation,  by a respected local architect (with family connections to our church?) and planned, and adorned, thanks especially to the financial and spiritual investments of one devoted leader, Milton T. Garvin. Our woodwork was executed by a woodcarver who was also an actor in the Oberammergau Passion play. Our wooden pulpit was commissioned by the Shippen family (of Lancaster, Philadelphia, and Meadville), one of whose members, Dr Eugene Rodman Shippen, was our minister;  in later years it was embellished with carvings representing, either as statuary or by name,  renowned faith leaders who literally or figuratively spoke from other pulpits. They led the ministries of congregations not only within the Unitarian traditions of America and Europe but also from other world religions: Mohammed, the Buddha, and Zoroaster make the list of names, and the figures include not only William Ellery Channing but also James Martineau, Theophilus Lindsey, and Michael Servetus. The minister’s chair is adorned with a likeness of William Tyndale, who gave the world its first English-language Bible, spoke out against abuses, and was martyred because of it. And, of course, our stained glass windows, representing famous men and, in the women’s parlor, famous women, whose actions and attitudes we take as exemplars today. And looking at all this, we may or may not think of the attitudes that made it possible to reconcile all these diverse contributions with one another – or of the attitudes that can make it possible to reconcile ourselves with the different kinds of faith that they represent, both in themselves and as embodiments of the Unitarian religion that was embraced by the people who placed these works of religious art where they now stand.

There is, after all, hardly a figure among all those depicted in our windows that we now think of the same way as the congregation did in the 1920s, when the windows were installed.  

  • Thomas Jefferson, who promoted religious freedom in his home state of Virginia – and owned, used, and abused human beings.
  • Christopher Columbus – who discovered a World New for Europeans, but well enough known to the people then living here, and who paid for his venture far more dearly than the government of Spain ever did.
  • Woodrow Wilson, promoting the League of Nations and the Balfour Declaration, which would establish Jews in Palestine, and not, he hoped, in America.

Our church, it turns out, can be viewed as a veritable museum of racial prejudice and imperial expansionism. It is helpful to know that someone can perceive our church like that even if we realize how distant that perception is from the intent of the people who created the windows or made them ours, a part of our congregational identity.  Thinking about that may turn us to our church covenant, with our agreement that we will  trust “good intentions”. In our UU religious world, intentions matter.

If we agree to trust the good intentions of one another in the congregation today, how much more should we trust the good intentions of those who gave us the church in which we gather, and how much more fully must we understand the limitations of our own vision, surely no less imperfect? The lessons we can learn from our historic church building include also the lesson that our history can also be our teacher, helping us recognize the dignity and worth of those who went before and hoping that those around us now and those who come after will view us with similar tolerance.

Shippen Pulpit, Martineau and Servetus

Shippen Pulpit: James Martineau and Michael Servetus

Don’t hit the books! They’re the good guys! Or: Some thoughts on diversity in books and in sermons

Well, it’s been awhile, eh? UU churches are known to estivate, and your Borrower Bee has been estivating to beat the band. She’s been dropping by the library occasionally, putting up a few signs, sorting donations, and being glad to spend time in our nice, cool basement, with the books. In these troubling times, books set a good example. They come in all sizes, all ages, and every color of the rainbow, and they espouse different points of view; yet they sit together on the shelf, rubbing shoulders amicably enough, and thereby make up our library, a modest but useful contribution that none of them could make alone.

If only people could negotiate differences so easily! Our library, in fact, attests to how many different and often incompatible viewpoints have at one time or another concerned people in our congregation. Evident in a number of ways, diversity is especially noticeable in our collections that document some of the great spiritual paths that humanity has embarked on: early Christian thought (and a few shelves on the other Abrahamic religions), the history of the Amish, Buddhism (Zen and Tibetan), Taoism, Native American, atheism, humanism … As in every congregation, some parts of our UU background are widely represented in the congregation, others less so.

Of course we have a good selection of works by and about UU ministers and other distinguished leaders in our own tradition. It is especially rewarding, though, when we have a chance to encounter viewpoints we usually hear less about. Your Bee has no idea how we came to invite the guest who preached yesterday’s sermon, but she appreciated the opportunity to learn something about Islam from Dr Muqtedar Khan, a professor of political science and scholar of Islam, the religion he practices. Among other heartening aspects of his sermon, Dr Khan spoke of the connection between the words for “worship” and “service” in Arabic, a connection we also have in our English-language notion of a “worship service”. Dr Khan’s focus on serving humanity as a way of serving God, and his attention to the language of his texts, reminded me of a Biblical passage that we in our congregation may be more familiar with: Abraham’s response to three angels that he sees but doesn’t recognize as angels, right outside his tent (Genesis 18). We all remember that Abraham offers them hospitality. Less well remembered is something else. Before he sees the three newcomers, Abraham has already noticed that he is being visited by God himself — and with God right there, he hurries from his tent to take care of his other visitors. The Christian Bible at this point has Abraham now address the “gentlemen” (adonai), inviting them to stop for refreshment. In contrast, the Jewish tradition reads the text as Abraham’s turning to the Lord God (Adonai) to ask him to wait while he attends to the visitors’ needs. Both meanings are contained in the Hebrew text, but the English language insists that we take one way out or the other. For whatever reason, Jewish tradition favors asking God to wait. The Christian translation tradition seems more neutral, making God a kind of witness or divine authority whose presence sanctions the angelic mission. The Christian version of Abraham in no way asserts himself in relation to God, nor, in the Christian tradition, would he be expected to: for Christians of course God is specifically “the Father”. Perhaps the rich pictorial tradition of Christianity contributes to the substantiality of the connection between God and family hierarchy, while Judaism, like Islam, is more tentative about religious images. Our description of the Six Sources of our faith lists “Jewish and Christian teachings” as one source, a vestigial elision of two different religions into a single “Judeo-Christian tradition”.  Hearing a thoughtful sermon by a Muslim faith leader reminds us of the diversity of our heritage, and both smooths and broadens the path we choose to walk together, and the paths on which we can hope to meet our neighbors. It can also remind us that when we remember our stories, it’s a good idea to read the texts – and we have quite a few of them (notes your librarian) in our Behrens Library.