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).

… 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

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.