Looking Back, Looking Forward: The Unitarian Tradition

Sermon by Rev. Sue Browning, April 8, 2018

One hundred years ago is hard to imagine. And yet we have two UUFE members who were alive in 1918: Carol Kabler who would have been two years old, and Jack Scott who was born in February 1918.

100 years ago is ‘eons’ ago in some ways, and not so distant.

So, travel back with me.

In 1918, life was hard. One article I read noted, “In short: Everything was worse, except for the commute.” (America in 1915: Long Hours, Crowded Houses, Death by Trolley, The Atlantic, Derek Thompson, February 11, 2016)

People had a life expectancy of about 50 years, and that was an improvement. In contrast, today life expectancy is about 80 years. Infant mortality was high, at close to 10% in the first year. That too would shortly improve. High school graduation rates were less than 20%. In just 20 years the high school graduation rate would be over 50%, at the time it was low.

Work for men (including many teens) was dangerous, and hours were long with manufacturing jobs requiring an average of 55 hours per week. Women predominantly worked in the home. Of those working outside the home, the article noted, “School boards preferred female teachers not only because they were more loving, but because they would do what male principals told them while accepting less than a man’s wage.”

One third of income was spent on food, and to bring your lunch, there was no plastic wrap. Most people rented their home, and homes were crowded, often including three generations. Electricity and telephone service was available in roughly 30% of households, only 20% of homes had a stove, and modern refrigerators were in their infancy. And while cars were not rare, there were only about 7 million cars registered and there were 100 million people in the country.

By 1918, the Unitarian faith in the US had been around for about a century. It had its deepest roots in New England, where most towns had a Unitarian congregation and where the Unitarian church was often across the town square from its Congregational cousin. Beyond New England, many cities had a Unitarian church and the closest ones to Easton would have been the First Unitarian Church in Baltimore, founded in 1818, and All Souls Church Unitarian in DC, founded in 1821, and First Wilmington UU, founded in 1866.

By 1918 there were also congregations across the country, and the further west you went, the less traditional the practices.

Gearing up for the service today, Ellen and I poured through old hymn books from 1877 and 1914, which like our gray hymnal included both hymns and readings. I also reached out to one of our UU historians, The Rev. Mark Harris, and have woven his perspectives liberally into this sermon.

Going back 100 years Unitarian worship, music, and congregational life would have been experienced as Christian, and services would have been biblically grounded. Organs would have been played, scripture read, especially the psalms, and the Lord’s Prayer would have been recited.

The Unitarian-ness of the service would in part have come in the nuances of wording. For example, one of the version of the Communion Service in use at the time stated,“We are assembled here to meditate together on the life and death of Jesus Christ that we may consecrate ourselves more earnestly to the service of God and one another. In his acts of love and sympathy for the suffering, his compassion and help for the weak and sinful he has left us an example that we should follow in his steps. In communion with him, and with all who have been faithful servants of God, counting not their lives unto themselves, we now offer our prayers to our Father in heaven.”

It was about God. We hear Jesus revered, but not referenced as the son of God, and he is grouped with ‘others who have been faithful.’ And communion was likely not too frequent, which was also the trend in other Protestant traditions. The Bible would have been an anchor in the tradition, and was in high esteem, AND was subject to scrutiny and healthy critique. The Bible needed to be considered in light of reason and experience. These were the long-held tenants of being Unitarian.

Sermons in this period were often direct commentary on current events. While these of course varied, and some would have been on human issues, e.g. forgiveness, and compassion, some resembled lengthy lectures, offering ethical and moral guidance on issues of science, immigration, and public schools.

The vast majority of Unitarians, both lay and ordained, had supported the US entry into WW1 in April 1917. A few months later the American Unitarian Association, after debate, took a position supporting the war. Former US president William Taft, who had been president from 1909-1913, was the moderator of the American Unitarian Association and supported the war effort. Rev. John Haynes Holmes took the pacifist position. Ultimately, the vote was 236-9 finding the sentiment of the conference to be, “war must be carried to a successful issue to stamp out militarism in the world, that we as the Unitarian body, approve the measures of President Wilson and Congress to carry on this war…”

The association went a step further when its head, Rev. Samuel A. Eliot, stated he expected disloyal ministers to be dismissed by their congregations and some were. Patriotism and being of strong moral fiber were linked. And it was a rare time when congregational polity was overridden.

For the most, part in 1918 women still couldn’t vote. After decades of false starts, change was in reach. In 1918 President Woodrow Wilson declared his support for women to vote, yet former Taft had expressed doubts. Would women be too emotional? he’d asked. While many of the women who led the suffrage cause were Unitarian, it’s interesting to review how broad (or limited?) the proactive advocacy for suffrage was by Unitarian men in power at the time – something I’m still researching. From the references I can find, Unitarian Association eventually voted by only a narrow margin to support women’s voting.

There were very few female ministers by 1918. While at the turn of the century there had been a few dozen in the west, by 1918 ordination of women had all but ended. A UUA article notes, “By the turn of the 20th century, society in general experienced a reassertion of male authority. Unitarianism’s leaders began a concerted return to a more manly ministry in order to revitalize the denomination.” (https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/river/workshop9/178592.shtml)

Where would you have learned of these happenings? The newspaper or periodicals like the Christian Register. Congregational newsletters would not have been common. Where would you have printed one? Another fun fact. As a Unitarian in 1918, it is more likely you would have been a Republican that a Democrat, aligning with support for prohibition, a hot issue of the time

The picture of the country would have been different for African Americans than for the white Americans. The Great Migration from the rural south to urban areas of the north began about this time. And during World War 1 African Americans served in large numbers, however not all branches accepted blacks in to their service, and most units would have been segregated.

Some African Americans did attend Unitarian churches, yet as Rev. Mark Morrison Reed, notes (UU World, The Black Hole in the White UU Psyche, 10/2/2017) “In UU worship and liturgy, as in our scholarship, African Americans did not exist. There was nothing by or about African Americans in UU hymnody. In 1937 there was nothing in Hymns of the Spirit, with the exception of the Civil War anthem “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” …Not until 1993, with the appearance of Singing the Living Tradition, did African American culture make a significant appearance in a UU hymnbook. “

There was one black Unitarian Minister, Ethelred Brown, who served in Jamaica and Harlem, who was marginalized by many in white Unitarian leadership at every stage of his ministry.

That was 1918.

How did the nature of Unitarian practice change to what we see today?

It happened year by year, service by service, and annual conference to annual conference, or in today’s parlance, from General Assembly to General Assembly. As we make choices as a congregation, on everything from hymns, to sermon topics, to Sunday school lessons, we are shaping the faith.

That was true in 1918 as well. I mentioned earlier that congregations in the west were less traditional. They had long challenged traditional practices common in New England, and by the late 1800s western Unitarian congregations focused more on freedom, fellowship and character and less on God, Christ and the Christian tradition. (David Robinson, Unitarian History, 119)

The open perspective in the west opened doors for new approaches, including the leadership of the humanists. One of the leaders, Rev. Curtis Reese, began framing the position in his sermons and close to 1918, and summarized “[it] holds that this is a man’s world and that it depends on man what the world order shall be like.”

It’s hard to emphasize enough how much these early humanist messages would over the next decades influence the Unitarian faith.

I wondered how others would see membership in a Unitarian Church around 1918. Rev. Harris suggests in New England, it would be seen as pretty mainstream, just another tradition. In the less traditional west, however, members were more likely to be labelled as atheists.

In 1918 much stood on the cusp of change, and our faith was no exception.

What of our Unitarian ancestry guides us today? Where is there are the openings to shape our faith? These are not questions about getting faith ‘right’ and freezing principles and worship forever. It’s about fitting how we gather as a community to the context of 2018, and being open over and over to tides of change in the years to come.

Some of what is ‘normal’ to us has evolved, even in the last 30 or so years.

A friend recently shared that her 90 year-old father had been a very active in a Unitarian Universalist congregation in a DC suburb in the 1960s and 1970s. He held leadership positions, offered sermons and led adult education courses. Around 1980 he moved and lost touch with the congregation and the UU tradition. Then in 2017 he had a reason to attend a UU service after this long hiatus. He was appalled at the lighting of a chalice. Why are we bothering to light candles he asked? Isn’t that what we spent years rejecting? And what’s of this minister wearing stoles?

Our ancestors 100 years ago may have sensed change was coming, yet picturing earth-based traditions, or ‘UU Buddhists’ would have sounded impossible. Same sex marriage and guidelines for children on Facebook weren’t a focus, yet. The practices of lighting a chalice or sharing Joys and Sorrows were not done. And ordaining women becoming the norm? Not the plan.

In our reading today, we are offered a description of an inner nature – that which is below the service, that which is stable and yet unseen. We’re reminded all else is temporary…transient.

What have we as Unitarians carried forward for 100 years?

—We carry forward regular worship as a time each week to engage heart and mind. We make time to raise the challenges and joys of being human.

—At the crux of our rituals we still sing, have readings, have sermons and collections. We welcome all ages. We have rites of passage for welcoming new members, and child dedications, and marriage, and death.

—We explore big questions, and a framework for complex conversation. When, if ever, is war needed? How are we caring for our neighbor? What does that mean for immigration and education, voting and income distribution? What is fair, and right?

—We carry forward our yearning for inspiration. We reach beyond ourselves. We have six Sources of our faith.

—We carry forward a tradition where congregations are the building blocks of the tradition – local polity. Members act in covenant with one another to make decisions, and determine budgets, and choose ministers; ministers are credentialed at the national level, after structured seminary education and practical training.

—We carry forward an impetus to connect beyond our walls. Some issues have changed. Women can vote. Civil rights laws are on the books. Social security exists. And yet, core issues continue. Treatment of all is not equal in practice, and there are concerns with voting, and prisons, and alcohol and drugs, and fair labor practices.

The roots of the 1918 and 2018 churches are similar. The presentation and traditions and language has changed, and they will continue to change. We experiment. Some are thrilled with changes, and others miss old patterns.

What matters is finding ways to connect, and ways to support one another, and ways to work toward a better world.

And while I’ve talked of Unitarians, the Universalists in 1918 had some of the same challenges – and a few twists on their path, and by 1961 came the merger. Over 50 years ago, and yes, another sermon.

Knowing our heritage helps us value this congregation. It started in Easton in 1960. It did not just pop up, but emerged in a tradition of asking hard questions, and taking the role of citizen and churchgoer as intertwined in moving toward a common good, in partnership with one another.

What can you imagine next? Don’t even reach 100 or 50 years. Let’s just reach out five or ten years. What deep parts of the Unitarian Universalist faith hold you – sustain you? Have you claimed these traditions? Honored them? And what would better fit your needs?

We close in gratitude for our roots, and the potential of our wings, as together we figure it out.

May It Be So


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