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.

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 …

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.