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).