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 …

… 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

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.