Monday, October 19, 2009

O Brave New World

Social Capital

The hot wars we’ve fought and continue to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, spending so much American treasure and considerable blood, have been and continue to be justified as essential components of a larger war against international terrorism specifically, in the name of freedom and democracy generally. We seem to be winding down the war in Iraq, while expanding the war in Afghanistan.

Will Iraq soon emerge as a somewhat democratic nation, where Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds live together in shared freedom? Will the disparate components of a feudal-like Afghanistan converge someday in a similarly inclined democratic nation?

Friday morning, while listening to CNN commentary about the Afghanistan situation regarding the Taliban, al Qaeda, tribal warlords, and the recently contested election I once again mused about the prospects of planting our Western version of American freedom and democracy on that far away terrain. Is it alien soil for such Enlightenment values?

This begs a question: What are the links between democracy and a civil society?

The classic analysis of this question with a timeless answer was offered early in the Republic’s history by a French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville who toured the United States in the 1830s and wrote “Democracy in America.”

Tocqueville found that Americans’ propensity to form civic (or voluntary) associations a key to America’s working democracy. He wrote, “Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types—religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute…. Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.”

Recently, social scientist,--call them neo-Tocquevilleans,--have offered empirical evidence that concludes that civically engaged communities result in a more functional society. Education, urban poverty, unemployment, crime and drug abuse, health and health care have better outcomes when civic associations actively engage and build social bonds among people.

It also appears that “the norms and networks of civic engagement powerfully affect the performance of representative government.” Researchers even suggest that these norms and networks of civic engagement, while predictors, are even more, preconditions for an effective representative government.

I project such a Tocquevillean vision on Iraq and Afghanistan and question whether it would be victory to merely prevail over terrorists and insurgents and even to win the hearts and minds of the populations. Without a social infrastructure—the norms and networks of civic engagement—democracy arguably has no fertile soil in which to flourish and freedom has no practical meaning.

Bowling Alone

As a society, we’ve been thinking about civic (or voluntary) associations) for at least a decade and half thanks to the provocative metaphor of Bowling Alone—the phrase Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam used to describe the decline of social capital in late 20th century America.

In an influential 1995 essay, "Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Capital," Putnam wrote: “[S]ocial capital refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.

“For a variety of reasons, life is easier in a community blessed with a substantial stock of social capital. In the first place, networks of civic engagement foster sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust. Such networks facilitate coordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved.”

In 1995 Putnam chronicled changes that indicated diminished civic engagement. In the area of government there had been steadily declining voter turnout, decreased involvement in public meetings relating to local, state, and federal government, and psychological disengagement from politics and government (evidenced by a lack of trust in politicians and politics, even a disdain, if not disgust with government). Of the traditional civic organizations, such as churches, school-service groups, sports groups, unions, fraternal group, veterans’ groups, and service groups, most were in decline at the end of twentieth century.

Putnam cited evidence that volunteering, generally, was in decline. One study indicated that in the fifteen years before 1989, volunteering had declined by a sixth.

Most famously Putnam wrote, “ The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so. … The rise of solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because those who bowl as members of leagues consume here times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo.”

In addition to the formal settings of social capital just mentioned, informal settings also seemed to be in decline, including the family (the most fundamental of all settings) and neighborliness, including socializing with neighbors.

Across all groups, Putnam reported a decline in trust. He declared there was a close correlation between social trust and associational membership.

He speculated on causes for the decline of social capital: the movement of women into the labor force, mobility or the “re-potting” hypothesis, and a host of demographic changes, including more divorces, fewer children, and lower real wages, and the technological transformation of leisure, particularly television.

At the end of his famous article, Putnam calls for more inquiry, wryly saying, “The last refuge of a social-scientific scoundrel is call for more research,” to try to understand the problem. He clearly stands on the side of the “social capital” offered by civic (or voluntary) associations. To the extent community flourishes among us we succeed—within and without.

Among the several lines of inquiry he asked, “What will be the impact, for example, of electronic networks on social capital? My hunch is that meeting in an electronic forum is not the equivalent of meeting in a bowling alley—or even in a saloon .…”

I’m shifting now to the question Putnam asked regarding electronic networks for building social capital.


But before going there I want to justify this relatively long-winded introduction using Robert Putnam’s metaphor and analysis of Bowling Alone. We speak a lot about community and the virtues of community. On the macro level we recognize the truth offered by the neo-Tocquevilleans: “civically engaged communities result in a more functional society.” On a personal level we all seek community—that satisfying sense of belonging and engagement, a transcendent mutuality among individuals.

Time and again, when new comers and seekers are asked what they want in a church, the number one response is community. Churches are, as Putnam pointed out, the most common associational membership among Americans. America is an “astonishingly ‘churched’ society.”

And at the summer Board of Trustee’s retreats, your UCH leadership decided that “building community” is a priority. So community is important for UCH; but as a community UCH is also important in the scheme of a functional democratic American society.

Thinking about civic engagement, voluntary associations, democracy, and community are no trivial things.

The New Electronic Social Networks

In 1995, when Robert Putnam mused about “electronic networks” the World Wide Web was just a few years old. He couldn’t have envisioned what’s become ordinary: email, cell phones, web pages and blogs, text messaging, Twitter, and Facebook.

And what’s become ordinary is already being replaced, if we give countenance to a Wall Street Journal Article, from Monday, “The End of Email.” WSJ declared, “Email has had a good run as king of communications. But its reign is over.”

What are replacing email are the likes of Twitter and Facebook.

“In its place, a new generation of services is starting to take hold—services like Twitter and Facebook and countless others vying for a piece of the new world. And just as email did more than a decade ago, this shift promises to profoundly rewrite the way we communicate—in ways we can only begin to imagine,” WSJ proclaimed.

For the unfamiliar, and we can’t forget that there are those who haven’t accepted email yet and it’s already becoming defunct, Twitter is an instant message of 140 characters sent and received by phone, IM, or web site. The message answers the question: “What are you doing.” According to the Twitter website: You “…stay connected with friends, relative, and coworkers. …[Y]ou have a sense of what folks are up to but you are not expected to respond … unless you want to. …You can step in and out of information as it suits you. … Simply put, Twitter is what you make of it—receive a lot of information about your friends, or just a tiny bit, it’s up to them.” In practice Twitter, lends itself to many, short bursts of information called “tweets.” It’s been around since 2006.

Facebook, another free service like Twitter, has been around since 2004. It began as a college phenomenon, was extended to high school youth, and then it was opened to all. Worldwide there are some 300 million users. A user creates a profile with name and provides as much or as little basic and personal information one wants to reveal, with or without a photo or other image. Then one acquires friends and becomes a friend by a simple request and assent process. (You might have a few friends or literally thousands of friends. I have 66 friends and counting.) You receive the posts of your friends and your friends receive your posts.) You send a message to your friends and have the option of attaching photos, videos, or links to other web sites. In addition you may, if you wish, comment on the posts of your friends, as they can comment on your posts, so a post my have a chain of responses (or no response at all).

I don’t tweet, though I have a Twitter account. I’ve been a Facebook user since the summer. My friends span from coast to coast and they check in as the time moves west with the time zones. (It’s interesting to monitor when friends post—what does a 2 a.m. check-in indicate. I had a surprise request to be a friend from a high school acquaintance. My daughter is a friend, as are 2 nieces and a nephew. I have a number of UCH members as friends. I like Facebook. I’ve quickly come to see that Facebook is a very useful/valuable tool—a key component of the newly emerged electronic social network.

Oh yes, there are friends who for my taste post too frequently and trivially—perhaps more suited to Twitter than Facebook. But even their life minutia is revealing. (If I really didn’t want to deal with these friends, I could screen them out or even drop them as friends.)

It seems to me that most of my Facebook friends are respectful of the electronic community, and that the community creates it own sense of decorum. Much like face to face groups politics and religion are “thin ice” areas in my face book community. Mostly, posters reveal significant everyday details. I’m often touched by the ordinary poignancy—a snapshot of a young child feeding a morsel to a grandmother in a nursing home or a mothers rhapsodic account of a young daughter baby babbling. These and such intimacies would otherwise remain unknown. Over time the posts accumulate in the intimacies of familiarity, too.

Facebook isn’t conversation over beer and pizza at the local bowling alley, but it offers a give and take among a virtually unlimited number of communities.

Of course there are downsides (especially privacy) and it is a virtual rather than actual experience (and there is much to be said about face to face relationships) but I maintain Facebook is a very important, still emerging resource for the creation of contemporary community. I recommend it.

I also recommend the world of blogging. For the initiated, a blog is a World Wide Web document on which a blogger (usually an individual) post entries. The entry, which can include images as well as the written word, is listed by date. So a blog is a chronological series of entries, usually on a particular theme.

There are a number of free blog sites, where anyone with minimal expertise and effort, can enter the blogosphere, creating a unique and personal presence. There are hundreds of millions of blogs worldwide.

I use Google’s blogger to set up my blogs. I have several active blogs: one for personal commentary on religion and the American experience and another for ethics in our postmodern world. I regularly post to an ongoing memoirish blog of personal exploration titled “An Examined Life.” I’ve created a blog for extended family about my 92 year old mother’s long life. One blog is a file for my UCH sermons. And I have a blog that promotes my anthology “In Praise of Animals” through a reader’s guide.

One of my favorite diversions is to navigate from Google blog to blog discovering little slices of individual lives. There are plenty of family blogs featuring marriages, babies, and children. I’ve discovered the realm of homeschoolers, often Christians, who use blogs to connect with other home schoolers. I’ve enjoyed aspiring and struggling artists across the country, a few who have beguiled me to follow or subscribe to their blogs. I really enjoy chatty extended family blogs from small town America.

In my experience, these randomly accessed blogs provide wonderful windows into real American lives—a mosaic of meaning and understanding that accumulates to the reflective mind. And maintaining a blog, unconsciously, causes the blogger to think beyond the self to a larger—make that social—audience.

Since I “believe” in blogs, for personal and social reasons, I am offering an introduction to blogging as one of my offering for this year’s Harvest Holiday fundraising. Everyone can have a blog—or two or three or more.

Fifteen years ago Robert Putnam speculated on the social capital of the then nascent possibilities of electronic networks. I think the possibilities, still unrealized but burgeoning, are significant and positive. For me, Facebook and and the blogosphere have opened up humanity, through unexpected intimacies. I remember, without any irony, lines exclaimed by Miranda in the Tempest.

O, Wonder
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t.

Such people: ordinary people doing everyday things, living their lives.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Seventh Annual William Channing Gannett Awards

The Gannetts: Domesticating the Infinite

Religious institutions are often accused and found guilty of having an "edifice complex"—a kind of idolatry through architecture. But church buildings are deliberate and meaning-conveying constructions. How they carve and contain space, how they endure through time and exert their influence on the human imagination through generations is part of the collective religious experience. The effect on the individual is often subtle but persuasive.

I have been greatly affected by our space, our one hundred twenty year old Church Home.

I adore our worship space for so many reasons. It is warm with wood. It is relatively intimate. Yet its symbolism is rich.

When created by the congregation one hundred twenty ago it was called a Church-Home. The symbolism is obvious: the Living Room opening into the Auditorium represents the family as the starting place. The fireplace around which the mythic family gathers is the central element. And that element repeats in the Auditorium—as this large room was originally called—to represent how the family's essential values and needs are at the heart of liberal worship. And the name Auditorium indicates that this room was also intended to be a home for community events.

So in one flowing space family, church and society are joined together.

I adore the hymn written to dedicate this space in January 1889; Here Be No Man a Stranger (though we're more likely with our contemporary sensibilities to now say Here Be No One a Stranger. "Here be no one a stranger/no holy cause be banned/No good for one person/not counted/good for all the land."

I adore the historic architectural style—not just the chapel-likeness echoing church and home on an accessible human scale. I find the Arts and Crafts/ American Craftsman architectural style very appealing. The overall effect insinuates the craft of artisans working with local materials of pine and limestone (it's known locally as Lemont Limestone). It is also something of a reaction to the industrial revolution/machine age, as well as the rise of the city. After all in 1888, when this building was constructed Hinsdale was, for some, a suburban retreat from the city, yet accessible to the city by train.

The building bows to the Chicago vernacular with the rusticated stone arches of Sullivan/Adler and other turn of the twentieth century architects who made the Chicago arch a signature of a great and very modern city—the Metropolis of the Midwest.

The general design of this building came from the religious imagination of the founding minister of this congregation—William Channing Gannett—who sketched a floor plan on a single sheet of ruled paper, which then was executed by a local architect. (There is suspicion that it was really a young Frank Lloyd Wright who designed it—an early “illegal” or “gypsy” commission.)

Mr. Gannett had an impeccable New England Unitarian pedigree—his godfather was the saint-like founder of Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing; his father, Ezra Stiles Gannett was the Unitarian Association's founding president in 1825. William Channing Gannett was an intellectual protégé of Emerson and Parker, firmly joined to the radicals of the Western Unitarian Conference.

Mr. Gannett in the year he came to Hinsdale had forged the great compromise that kept the Christian Unitarians in fellowship with the radical Emerson/Parker wing. Perhaps no one else could have accomplished that. He also was a popular essayist. Mr. Gannett's celebrated essay, “House Beautiful” inspired his good Unitarian friend Frank Lloyd Wright. It was through Wright the magazine founded in Chicago at the turn of century took the name “House Beautiful.”

In my twenty-six years as this congregation's minister, I have been much influenced by that relatively long-ago minister, William Channing Gannett through the unspoken, yet powerful influences of this Church Home and also by what Mr. Gannett spoke to in that celebrated essay “The House Beautiful,” which extols the values that make a house a home. The phrase that sticks and resonates with me is "domestication of the infinite." It implies that what we find to be ultimately valuable—and I like the classic Platonic categories of the beautiful, true, good—should inspire how we craft our world.

For those of you relatively new to this congregation, for a number of years I gave a yearly sermon that I called the "Vulgarity Awards"—highlighting aspects of our common culture that I found egregiously ugly or destructive, regarding the human condition. They were rants, really. And one year when I ranted against a rising crescendo of media rancor and other forms of uncivil public verbal displays, I saw that I too was ranting—ranting about rants. I searched my intentions and realized that what I was concerned with was advancing ideals and values. So I changed the negatively toned Vulgarity Awards to the positive William Channing Gannett Awards, to highlight certain things that I find excellent and of which you might like to partake, things that infuse the here and now with timeless values through the process of the "domestication of the infinite."

I have five Gannetts to award today:

Bronswood Cemetery

One of the intentional and more successful forms of “domesticating the infinite,” that is bringing transcendent ideals into tangible forms, is now not so much appreciated as it once was. I’m speaking of what is known as the rural or garden cemetery.

The nineteenth century had a curiously robust culture of death” associated with the Romantic Movement. In this country the culture of death gained impetus with the death of George Washington. For example, school girls embroidered tapestries with weeping willow trees, tapered cedar trees, poppies, and urns—they and their like symbols of grief for the great man.

One of the great cultural events of the New Republic was the establishment in 1831of Mt. Auburn Cemetery outside of Boston, with the entrance in Cambridge and most of the grounds in Watertown. It opened with a procession of carriages, a large gathering of Bostonians, and a famous speech by an esteemed orator of the day, Judge Joseph Story, who spoke about the purposes of this “place of repose.” Rural or garden cemeteries quickly appeared throughout the suburbs of American cities

The rural or garden cemetery imitated classical Greek practices. It removed the grave from the pallor of the church's traditional graveyard, taking it to the sunshine and fresh air of nature. In an inspired and carefully crafted landscape, a park of philosophy and even recreation, human mortality could be contemplated under liminal influences. Liminal influences included the borderlines between the living and the dead, the earth and sky, water and land, the cycling seasons, night and day, and so on.

These cemeteries have become places that serve the needs of the living, beyond the original intentions to contemplate through liminalities the meaning/reality of mortality. Mt. Auburn for example is an arboretum with over 700 species of trees as well as a bird sanctuary visited by hosts of bird watchers throughout the year.

Chicago has two famous and early garden cemeteries: Graceland and Rosehill. Either is worth a visit. But you really don’t have to venture so far as the northside of Chicago to find an exquisite setting. In our own backyard is Bronswood Cemetery, 3805 Madison Street. Bronswood, originally known as Hinsdale Cemetery, was founded in 1887, almost coincident with this church’s founding.

Now, I find this season, full autumn to be a most liminal time of year. Indeed, All Hallow’s Eve is grounded on tan ancient Celtic calendar when it was believed the veil between the realms of the living and dead grew thin and raged and could be breached.

I encourage you to take an aware and contemplative leisurely stroll through the rolling landscape of Bronswood. It’s a setting with experiences that will encourage you to return time and again.

Forrest Church

I present my next Gannet to my colleague Forrest Church who died on September 24th, a day after his 61st birthday, following an up and down struggle with esophageal cancer. Forrest was the best known Unitarian minister of his (my) generation. Son of Idaho Senator Frank Church, Forrest served as minister of Manhattan’s All Soul’s Unitarian Church over three decades.

He was a prolific author of more than twenty books on a variety of subjects including early Christian prayers and hymns, a biography of his father Frank Church, the theology of Paul Tillich, Unitarian Universalism and liberal religion, and the role of religion among the founders of the American Republic. He chronicled his response to imminent death in Love and Death published last year.

His successful ministry in transforming All Souls into one of the larger UU congregations rested on his scholarly eloquence, on his social activism and community involvement, and on his personal transparency. To the chagrin of his children he spoke openly from the pulpit and in his public writing of his alcoholism and divorce, the latter a public scandal.

Toward the end of his life Forrest spoke more and more about Love, hence the title of his recent book Love and Death. He declared, “The only thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we go.”

His notion of Love—theologically reasoned but also true to the human condition lived by one who loved—will be Forrest’s lasting legacy, particularly for UU’s who will find his liberal message of being saved by Love healing and comforting.

Relative to the intentions of the Gannet and the “domestication of the infinite,” Forrest Church strove to bring one of the greatest of all Ideals, Love into our common world. I suspect his final book, to be published posthumously; The Cathedral of the World will extol not only a contemporary Universalism but also historic Universalism’s call to love oneself, to love one another, and to love the Divine.


In the mid 1970s a computer-science visionary, Ted Nelson, coined the word intertwingled. He declared “everything is deeply intertwingled,” meaning that there are myriad links creating a great web of connection.

Whenever I think of the Internet, the World Wide Web, I think of a great intertwingling—an enchanted realm of ideas and images.

I award a third Gannet this morning to Google, the internet behemoth that is just beginning its second decade. Google's mission is "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

I love the search engine that began the empire. You probably know how a misspelling of the word googol (10 to the 100th power) became Google which quickly became a new verb “to Google.” I remember some years ago when I first Googled my name and up popped a succession of web site references.

I use many Google products: the search engine that is the most visited site on the Internet with over half the traffic of all search engines; the Google blog resources where I’ve built 8 blogs for professional and personal use; the Google sites where I have a web presence for sermons and to promote my funeral and memorial resources. All of these are free.

I use Google products to organize my photos—Picasa. I find addresses and chart my driving with Google maps. My favored email account, with layers of organization and search capabilities, is Google’s gmail. My books are listed and some excerpted in Google Books. (Did you know that Google has set out to digitalize all the books and documents in print. Its contents are amazing. For example, Judge Story’s address at the dedication of Mt. Auburn cemetery in 1834 that I mentioned earlier can be read via Google Books.)

I am a citizen of the Internet, a wanderer of the World Wide Web, thanks to Google.

It is said that the unofficial company slogan, coined by a founder, is “do no evil.” Fortune magazine has called Google the best workplace in the country; and it has contributed to society through environmentalism and philanthropy.

I love Google for its various tools that I use. And I love Google as a portal to an intertwingled realm of endless information.

La Cabinita

I often award a Gannett to a favored restaurant, usually a small and intimate place, figuratively off the culinary beaten track. This year the honoree is a cheerful and intimate storefront Mexican establishment La Cabanita in Brookfield on Ogden Avenue. It’s family owned and operated. The owner Ralphy speaks of offering an authentic Mexican restaurant experience.

Recently it underwent a renovation of sorts, removing cheesy, time-worn fiberglass booths for friendlier and more attractive tables. Festive artwork was added to the walls. A counter to order take out from and an open kitchen/grill complete the space. Floor to ceiling windows look across a parking area; but the plus side is lots of sluicing sunlight, cheerful and warming. I like to sit by the windows.

A friendly waitress will serve you. The food comes quickly. The fare is what you would expect, tacos, burritos, tortas, sopes and gorditas, tostatas. They serve breakfast and dinner plates, including soups.

I’m addicted to the chile relleno tacos on handmade tortillas, which cost a little extra but are really a treat.

My ultimate criterion for a restaurant is how it makes me feel. La Cabinita makes me happy—for the food, but also for the overall warmth. It has an unpretentious grace and family-feel, which fits the criteria that William Channing established in The House Beautiful.

Charles Fisher, RLA, PC

My final Gannett awardee is one of our very own, Charlie Fisher, and follows in the path of last year’s awardee Nancy Holt. Nancy received a Gannett for her many efforts in making our Church Home (and religious education building) more home-like. Nancy worked closely with Charlie in transforming our grounds into gracious and usable space.

Charlie grew up in this church. He is a registered landscape architect with his own business. His motto “Embracing the World's Great Garden Traditions” only hints at Charlie’s passion for the artful and ecologically sensitive crafting of public and private landscapes.

On our grounds Charlie designed the natural playground on the west end of the Religious Education Building and the adjacent butterfly garden which is a registered Monarch Way Station. For years the Religious Education Building presented a stark façade to Maple Street. Now its softened by Charlie’s planting of low trees and flowering plants by the sidewalk in front of its long length. Charlie had a hand in the planting around the “Peace Pole” near the Church building on the east lawn. Generally, Charlie watches over the trees and various plantings, such as the planting in front of the sign on the corner of Washington and Maple Streets and the memorial bench on the north edge of the east lawn.

A few years ago Charlie presented a master plan for the east lawn, including a gracious parabola and a council ring in the style of the famed Chicago area landscape architect of the early 20th century, Jens Jensen. (There’s conversation about making the council ring a memorial.)

Charlie favors designs and plantings that are harmonious with this wonderful area of the Midwest. His aesthetic, sense of beauty, is rooted in history as well as nature. And as his website declares, he is “inspired.” I think has a romantic vein—as a true artist should.

Charlie is hands on and conscientious. He is always working on our grounds and has organized others to help out. Just last week, when we faced the remains of our flower exchange in the vases at the front of the pulpit, Charlie said he would take the remainder home and eventually compost them. Charlie has strong values and morals to go with them.

I don’t doubt that some of his values/morals along with his aesthetic were influenced by our Church Home as it embodies the principles and precepts of the “House Beautiful.”

I can think of no more worthy or exemplary recipient of a William Channing Gannet Award than Charlie Fisher, because Charlie strives to “domesticate the infinite.” through his art of crafting landscapes.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

UU Heroes and Exemplars

Theodore Parker

My favorite Unitarian is Theodore Parker, who lived from 1810 through 1860. All great historical personalities are a product of the age in which they live. Parker’s years coincided with momentous times for both a fledging Unitarianism and a fledgling American Republic. And he became a major influence on both our liberal religion and our American experience.

He was born the unexpected last and therefore “heaven sent” child of a large Lexington, Massachusetts farm family. He witnessed his family’s Congregational church transform from a tolerant though evangelical Calvinism to a more reserved and rational Unitarianism. As a young man he considered converting to Calvinist Orthodoxy, but stayed Unitarian.

Parker’s contemporary biographer suspects that domestic tragedy shaped an emerging sensibility toward belief in a benevolent God, as well as immortality of the soul. By Parker’s mid 20s his parents and 7 of 9 siblings had died from tuberculosis.

He was also ambitious—surely what we now call a Type A personality. He dreamed of becoming part of the Boston, that is Unitarian, social elite.

At 16 he taught school. By 19 he had passed the entrance exams for Harvard but couldn’t pay the tuition. At 22 he’d started up his own academy in Watertown, with plenty of time for self-directed studies: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, German, church history, and the Bible. At age 24, Harvard Divinity School admitted him with advanced standing. Probably the wealthy family of his future wife, whom he’d met in Watertown, paid Parker’s way.

At Harvard he continued his polymath scholarship. He claimed to have taught himself a new language every month—20 new tongues in 2 years.

After graduating in 1836 Parker married Lydia Cabot and was called to a small congregation of 60 adults in West Roxbury, not far from the Cabot home. He had plenty of time to devote to his scholarship and writing, and gained a reputation as far as Boston as a preacher/speaker of intelligence and eloquence.

His theology diverged from the Rational Christianity of most of his churched colleagues. The new biblical criticism emerging from Germany and the new enthusiasm of Transcendentalism led Parker toward what he called Natural Religion. He interpreted the Bible through the lens of mythology, and openly doubted the miracle stories of Jesus and contended that the Bible was full of contradictions and mistakes.

In 1841 he preached an ordination sermon, “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity,” claiming that the authority of Jesus did not reside in the person rather in the message, which is universal. Had there not been an historical Jesus, still there would have been a Christian Religion, though of a different name, Parker contended.

The sermon was truly outrageous for its time and place. As a result Parker was shunned/ostracized by his fellow ministers—who to a person denied him pulpit exchanges and as a group asked him to resign from the Boston Ministerial Association because they judged him not to be Christian. This controversy raised the issue of a Unitarian creed; a notion of no creed had been a principle of William Ellery Channing and other founders a generation earlier.

Theological change was in the air. In 1845 supporters wanted Parker to be heard in Boston, so they rented the Melodeon Theater that he might preach there regularly in the morning and then travel home to West Roxbury to preach in the afternoon. He was a sensation in the city. His supporters organized the 28th Congregational Society for him. In 1846 he was preaching to a 1000 persons; by 1852 some 2000 came to his Sunday service. His congregation included the intellectual elite, such as Julia Ward Howe and husband, as well as trade persons and mechanics.

His sermons and writings ranged widely and continually progressed. His radical appraisal of Jesus continued. He attacked the sensational ways of revivalism during an era of one of the country’s great awakenings. He advocated democracy: the phrase “of all the people, by all people, and for all the people” was first spoken by him. He declared that prison should be about reforming, not punishing, the criminal. He championed women’s rights, including suffrage: many of his prayers began “In the name of the Mother and of the Father….” He even introduced the custom of flowers in the pulpit, when he placed tribute bouquets brought by admiring congregants in front of his pulpit. Before Parker flowers were considered to be paganism at best, Catholicism at worst.

Most famously, Parker was anti-slavery, an abolitionist of the greatest stature. He resisted the arrest of so-called “fugitive slaves,” including a black woman in his congregation that he helped spirit to Canada. For helping another fugitive, he was indicted by a federal grand jury, but never tried due to public sentiment. He raised funds to send “Beecher Bibles,” that is rifles to the Free-Soilers in Bleeding Kansas. And he was one of the Secret Six who financed John Brown’s insurrection at Harper’s Ferry on the eve of the War of Rebellion. (Had he and he others been identified they would have hanged as high as Brown and Sons. Count him as part of radical abolitionist contingent who made the Civil War an “irrepressible conflict.” He refused to back down or take half measures regarding slavery.

Parker died from tuberculosis, the family disease, it while abroad in Italy as a leg in a world tour to restore his health. His grave is in Florence.

I admire Parker for many reasons. I’m enough of a contrarian to resonate to his contrarian ways within Unitarianism. His prodigious appetite for knowledge is inspiring. He had read every book in his 13,000 book library and written many books and endless articles. One of the familiar social justice phrases of this day, often attributed to Martin Luther King but “borrowed” from Parker, declares: “the arc of a moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” (Parker’s actual words were, "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one… And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice."

A favorite affirmation by Theodore Parker doesn’t get any better relative to ways and means, the mission and meaning of Unitarianism:

Be ours a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere.
Its temple all space.
Its shrine the good heart.
Its creed all truth.
Its ritual works of love.
Its profession of faith divine living.

Olympia Brown

Another noteworthy exemplar of the liberal religious way of Unitarian Universalism comes from the Universalist side of our merged tradition: Olympia Brown who lived from 1835-1926. Some of you might recognize her name because the Racine WI UU congregation is named in her memory.

She belonged to a remarkable generation who pioneered women in the ministry and who championed woman’s suffrage. She was the first woman whose ministerial standing was recognized by a denomination—the Universalists. And she was one of a few original suffragettes who lived to vote in the 1920 election.

Without a doubt, her activism and perseverance had deep roots in her family’s committed Universalism.

In a nutshell, Universalism was a liberal Protestant sect somewhat similar and parallel to Unitarianism. Each resonated to Enlightenment values. Each had strong New England sources. Each had a unitarian, or non-trinitarian, theology. The Universalists believed in God as a loving parent and argued that Jesus’s atonement was for all, without reservation. Their doctrines that God is Love and there was No Hell had significant influence in reforming liberal Protestantism. Universalism’s benign sources had benevolent consequences for those who practiced it.

Olympia’s parents, Vermont Universalists, moved to Michigan where they raised 4 children. They valued education so much the parents founded their own school. Later Olympia and a sister attended Mt. Holyoke College, but they left because the school was too Calvinist. Olympia then went to Antioch College, the progressive school founded by Unitarian Horace Mann. Olympia’s experience was so positive that her parents moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, that all the Brown family might attend Antioch.

At Antioch Olympia heard the first ordained woman, Antoinette Brown, preach. “It was the first time I had heard a woman preach and the sense of victory lifted me up. I felt as if the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.”

Determined she would be a minister, too, Olympia applied to the Unitarian school at Meadville Pa and was turned down by the trustees “as too great an experiment.” Oberlin allowed she might attend, but wouldn’t allow her to participate in public exercises. The Universalist Divinity School at St. Lawrence in Canon, NY, reluctantly offered her admission. But the president, Ebenezer Fisher wrote that he “did not think women were called to the ministry. But I leave that between you and the Great Head of the Church." Olympia remembered, “…When I arrived, I was told I had not been expected and that Mr. Fisher had said I would not come as he had written so discouragingly to me. I had supposed his discouragement was my encouragement." She graduated in 1863 and the local conference ordained her as a Universalist minister.

In 1864 Olympia had her first church in Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts, where she became active in the suffrage movement, a literal colleague to the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone. In the summer of 1867, under physical and public duress, Olympia toured Kansas on behalf of suffrage, delivering some 300 speeches in favor of suffrage during a 4 month leave from her church.

In 1870 Olympia took on a discouraged Universalist church in Bridgeport CT, where P.T.Barnum held membership. She married in 1873, though her mother and sister argued marriage would harm her ministry. Olympia lasted at the Bridgeport church through 1874. Though she had detractors who questioned the authority of a female minister, Olympia also had a large group of supporters.

In 1876, with two young children and husband in tow, Olympia became minister of another dispirited Universalist church, this one in Racine WI where she stayed for 9 years, leaving a rejuvenated congregation.

Then at age 53, in 1885 she resigned from the full time ministry to devote herself as an activist for suffrage. She served as President of the Wisconsin Suffrage Association and Vice-President of the National Woman Suffrage Association.

Interestingly, as she grew older and the suffrage movement seemed to stall, Olympia welcomed a more activist, fire-in-the-belly suffrage campaign for a woman’s right to vote. When Woodrow Wilson turned his back on suffrage, an octogenarian Olympia Brown joined other activists in front of the White House to burn the President’s speeches.

In 1920, the year suffrage was attained, Olympia said, "the grandest thing has been the lifting up of the gates and the opening of the doors to the women of America, giving liberty to twenty-seven million women, thus opening to them a new and larger life and a higher ideal."

No denomination has stronger ties to woman’s rights than the merged tradition of Unitarian Universalism. And this tradition has no brighter light, when it comes to equal rights for women, than Olympia Brown.

Is there any wonder that today, more than half of the UU clergy are women?