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.

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.