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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 heros 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.

The theme this month is “Journeys”, so let us pray …

sometimes you’ll hear a commentator on the news say “well, we’re going through a rough patch…” or “we’ll just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other…”, or any number of other metaphors that involve traveling through the difficulties of our lives. But Behrens Library happens to have among the many prayer books on its shelves a few examples of prayers in which that journey is not metaphorical at all, and the shaking up we get in the rough patches really does call on the travelers to trust the driver, and hope that the driver has placed their own trust appropriately. A Ghanaian truck driver is the author of one of the most explicit “journey prayers” imaginable. It appears in the Oxford Book of Prayer, pp. 127-29, and begins as follows:

Lord,
the motor under me is running hot.
Lord,
there are twenty-eight people
and lots of luggage in the truck.
Underneath are my bad tyres.
The brakes are unreliable.
Unfortunately I have no money,
and parts are difficult to get.
Lord,
I did not overload the truck.
Lord,
'Jesus is mine'
is written on the vehicle,
for without him I would not drive
a single mile.
The people in the back are relying on me.
They trust me because they see the words:
'Jesus is mine'.
Lord,
I trust you!

The whole long poem is an exciting ride, from the “straight road” where the driver can keep his “eyes on the women, children and chickens in the village” to the “death-road to Kumasi”, with its “temptation to take more people than we should. Let’s overcome it! The road to Accra is another problem. Truck drivers try to beat the record … and finally to Akwasim”, where “I am reminded of you , and in reverence I take off my hat. Now downhill in second gear …” The driver sings hallelujah when the trip is ended, and he is probably not the only one. And we can be grateful, too, to the book’s editor, George Appleton, for his fine selection of prayers from a wide variety of sources and suited to many occasions.

 

How Does It Feel … ?

The borrower bee doesn’t always follow the news, but today she turned on the radio to hear about immigration chaos in Texas, followed by news of someone tweeting about it, followed by … and oddly enough it reminded her of the first chapter of a book in our own Behrens library, called How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?, by Moustafa Bayoumi. The title is taken from W.E.B. du Bois’s book The Souls of Black Folk, and racism directed against black people in the United States is a recurrent theme in the book, but a minor one. Mostly the book presents what its subtitle says: Being Young and Arab in America. It is an expansive book, but engaging, well-researched, well written and well-constructed. We have the book in our library because the author gave a lecture at UUCL (March 2018), but the book was first published in 2008. It won several prizes then and our edition is a later edition that offers additional materials, including questions for discussion.  What has struck me, to my regret, is how well the book continues to speak to current events and provide useful background. Each chapter presents the story of one person, and the stories are arranged in a way that, among other things, starts at what you might think of as the beginning, namely with an experience of an immigrant family’s detention. They were not, however, detained as they were entering  the United States, but instead after  they had been living here for years and without having done anything whatever that ought to have led to their detention, except for being Arab in Brooklyn in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The chapter (called “Rasha”, for its heroine) is helpful for us today, in at least two ways. First, Bayoumi provides historical background and statistics about immigration detention in the United States. Although September 11 provided special impetus, the system, with much of its physical manifestation and its financial incentives for abuse, had been in place long before. And, second, thanks to his ability to transform narrative into art, Bayoumi shows what this experience meant for the young woman whose life he is writing about. Since the issue of detaining entire families in immigration facilities (or other facilities into which they are off-loaded) is sometimes treated as new, this opening chapter in How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? is a good introduction for those of us who are fortunate enough not to have needed to think about it deeply before. Highly recommended.


… and we’ve got some new ones, too.

Even an expansive church library will still be different from a general public library: we offer resources for our ministries and also serve as a repository of materials that can remind us of our history. That doesn’t mean all our books will be about religion or how we practice our faith. There is also space on our shelves and in our hearts for writing that looks at the foundations of our faith and of our identity. Faith, identity, and the tension between individuality and social connection are all pretty fraught these days, and sometimes we get tired and confused and don’t ever want to hear those words again. And that’s a good time to pick up the latest of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s books on ethics, social categories, and identity. Until recently a philosophy professor, Appiah is known both for his approachable style (he writes a popular newspaper column “The Ethicist”, dealing with readers’ daily-life dilemmas) and for his nuanced response to what may seem like cut-and-dried situations. He views religion not only or even mainly as a matter of belief but also as shared behavior: what people do together as their shared spiritual practice — an approach well known among anthropologists but in the world of the Christian faithful, not so much. Since Appiah’s approach to religion chimes so well with our own UU faith, readers at UUCL can take pleasure in Appiah’s nuanced exposition as he lays out his evidence for how world religions actually work.

In addition to the one on religion, other chapters in The Lies That Bind discuss race, class, country, and culture. Perhaps most important, the book will surely interest anyone concerned about how societies try to make sense of sexual and gender complexities. The first chapter takes up sexuality as the leading example of how categorizing people works, and how it fails, while later chapters offer abundant discussion of the rich varieties of human sex and gender expression. One of the appealing aspects of Appiah’s writing is that, while appealing to a vast range of information about many different world cultures and subcultures, he often starts from the complexities of his own situation: he is Ghanaian but has never held Ghanaian citizenship, he is both English and American, the pairing of his British accent with his milk-chocolate complexion startles taxicab drivers in the United States, and he is gay and married. His parents’ marriage created a family scandal not because it was biracial but because the bride was Anglican and her bridegroom Methodist. He writes with verve and good cheer, no small thing in a time when everybody seems to be angry with everyone else and people often rightly worry about their place in society if they don’t fit in the suffocating categories their little worlds assign. Read this book! You’ll feel better!

We’re planning a book sale …

… actually it makes your Borrower Bee a little sad, as it means losing some good old friends. Still, that gives us shelf space so we can bring in some new ones, while our hope is that the books that are leaving us (April 14) will find the good homes they have certainly earned. Besides the original gift that established the Behrens Library, we have benefited from many donations from members of the congregation, so the library is in that way, as in others, a treasure house of our congregational history. Sometimes making new history means letting go of older stuff that no longer fits our spiritual needs and our collective mission. In books as in other aspects of life — on to the future, even if we have not yet discerned our path. Our minister’s sermon yesterday took up the theme of paradox, which illuminates our library life — illuminates quite literally. She compares our congregational journey to that of Jonah in the belly of that great fish. Hey, it’s dark in here! Reminds me of another great piece of library wisdom: a book is man’s best friend outside of a dog. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read …

… and their use in our church life

Besides the slim volume on the Fellowship Movement, also of note among our new books is the current edition of a well-known book by John A. Buehrens, Universalists and Unitarians in America: A People’s History.

Behrens Library also has several copies of slightly earlier editions, and the book is highly recommended reading for the course on UU History and Heritage currently underway at UUCL. The course is taught by our developmental minister, Rev. Barbara Coeyman, with course meetings on Tuesday nights, from 7 to 9, at UUCL. The course is free but registration is required.

Among our newer acquisitions …

We don’t spend all our time shuffling old books around. Sometimes we add new ones! We have a surprising range of topics, but today I’d like to point out a couple of newish goodies that fit neatly into our core UU mission. They’re mostly, in fact, from either Skinner or Beacon, the UU publishing lines. Among the books that appear in the blog picture, one book  is in an area that isn’t directly connected to our own congregational history but highlights an interesting aspect of the history of UU-ism, namely the Fellowship movement. Fellowships have sometimes been formed by liberal religious groups too small or too isolated to become fully-fledged church congregations, and there was a moment in our history when forming fellowships was a very active way of supporting liberal religion. Even now many UU congregations are small and always have been, and some small congregations have no interest in getting bigger, even if it is hard to keep them going, or, in some cases, even if anyone who wants to locate them needs a really, really good map. The book we have just acquired on The Fellowship Movement discusses the movement in full and serious historical context, but my favorite bits are the stories about, literally, wandering country roads with a torch trying to find some of our more elusive co-religionists. There is also some pretty wry commentary on UU congregations too small to support a minister, and on the fact that some of them think they would rather not have a minister, thank you very much, as well as colorful  descriptions of why some ministers probably wouldn’t want them either.  And this, of course, is just the American story. One of my favorite readings in the sober British Unitarian press of the early 20th century discusses the Unitarian Religious Revival. The point of the article seems to have been to raise the question of whether there was one and whether one was wanted. The answer seems to have been ‘no’, on both counts. But being British, of course, the discussion was very polite and one was so glad the question had been raised. The issues of congregational size and the formation of new congregations continue to be important, of course, and they have direct connection to current questions of the covenantal relationships that exist among congregations and congregational polity. For the history of those issues in American UU-ism, you can check out the Minns lectures by Alice Blair Wesley.

A little more about our beginnings …

Our church founder Mr Garvin was an interesting man of his time. Born in 1860 into a Quaker farming family, he had moved to Lancaster by age 14, when he began working in a local store. He rose to be the manager there and finally the owner; under the Garvin name and in improved quarters at a new site, the store flourished. Mr Garvin died in 1936 but his store remained a mainstay of downtown Lancaster before finally succumbing to the suburbanization of retail commerce in 1975. Mr Garvin was thus a self-made businessman. He was also a progressive one, taking a strong hand in modernizing downtown Lancaster.

Of course it is a fine thing for a merchant to improve his neighborhood, but it also benefits the merchant. In piously Protestant Lancaster, sponsoring a Unitarian church was a different kettle of fish. The shrewd Mr. Garvin cannot have failed to recognize that in erecting a Unitarian church by a prominent architect in one of the loveliest neighborhoods of Lancaster he was quite boldly advertising a new product in the religion department, and he probably anticipated that it would encounter serious competition from the established brands. Here Mr. Garvin’s Quaker background, with its proudly nonconformist heritage, may have helped him to act on his generous impulse when he learned that new parents who had suffered the loss of their child were further afflicted when their church refused its rites of burial because the child had died unbaptized– for this is in fact the origin story of the church. The original name — the Church of Our Father — invokes the special role of parenthood, and the sacred bond of parent and child receives further elaboration in the remarkable stained glass window in the church vestibule. Because of later additions and remodeling, the vestibule is now little used, and congregants typically enter the sanctuary from the opposite side. It is worth a detour to view the vestibule window, however, since it differs sharply in style from all the other windows in the church and has an interesting history of its own. We’ll get to that! In the meanwhile you can learn more about our history when you visit the Behrens Library. Look for Unitarian Universalist Church of Lancaster 1902 – 2002 — A Century of Free Faith.