“Where Do We Come From?” – The Rev. Eva Cameron

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[The Minister sings twice:] “Where do we come from, who are we, where are we going to?” [Then slowly, descending & ascending]: “Where do we come from?”

On the 131st year of our presence in this community, it’s a great question to ask. Sometimes we get so busy hurrying along, doing whatever it is that we are doing at the time, that we forget to stop and look back, and remember just where we come from and who we were at that time.

Now, I’ve only been here a short while and haven’t had too much time to learn all about the long history of Universalism here yet. I have begun to learn, and will share a bit of what I have learned. But I think that it is just as instructive to learn a bit about what was happening with Universalists at the time that a group of people in Waterloo decided that they wanted to create an organization in the year 1875.

First, let’s think back to life here in Iowa in the 1870s. Now, we know that houses didn’t have electricity back then. And of course, there were no automobiles or refrigerators. So it was a different kind of life for people.

The most significant thing you might think of regarding 1875, is the Civil Rights Act of 1875 as enacted, although it was later declared unconstitutional by Supreme Court. 1875 also saw the first performance of the opera Carmen; the first crossing of the English Channel by a swimmer (a Captain Matthew Webb); the Indian Wars were ongoing with the Sioux and the Cheyenne led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The Theosophical Society was founded. Albert Schweitzer was born, as was Maurice Ravel. Andrew Johnson, our 17th President died, as did Tolstoy. The Civil War had ended a mere 10 years ago, and its effects were still strongly being felt around the country.

Waterloo, incorporated only in 1868, was a center for flour mills and saw mills. Herbert Hoover’s wife, Lou Henry, was born in Waterloo in 1875, while he was born in West Branch Iowa in 1874. And in 1876 right here in Cedar Falls, UNI was founded as the Iowa State Normal School, the original mission being the education and preparation of teachers.

Starting in 1805, one guiding document that was central to Universalism was the Winchester Profession. You might think, “How like those stuffy old Christians of our past to have a creedal document!” But what you might not know is that there was no such document prior to 1805, and the reason for the creation on this document was for the people of states that still were collecting taxes for the sustenance of THE local church (read NOT Universalist). Universalists in these states couldn’t get away from paying that tax unless they could prove that they belonged to another religion—and the civic authorities couldn’t abide the thought of a religion with no statement of what they believed that separated them from the general Christian religion of the community. So, after much debate, and finally good consensus (all in the town of the Winchester, NH), the Confession was adopted. Let me read it to you now:

We believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain a revelation of the character of God and of the duty, interest and final destination of mankind.

We believe that there is one God, whose nature is love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.

We believe that holiness and true happiness are inseparably connected, and that believers ought to be careful to maintain order and practice good works; for these things are good and profitable unto men.

Please note amidst the Christian sounding language some interesting differences namely the ‘a’ in front of the word ‘revelation.’ Also, that the ‘whole family of mankind’ will be restored to holiness and happiness. And finally, the justification for doing good things and maintaining order is not because God is going to get you otherwise, but because it is “good and profitable unto men.” (Please read humankind here!) These are radical differences from your average Protestant church of the day, where fire and brimstone were the norm.

Shortly before our church was formed in Waterloo, the Universalists ordained the first woman in the United States—Rev. Olympia Brown, in 1863. Choosing to be a Universalist at the time our church began, meant choosing to belong to a rather radical organization! Here’s a small excerpt from Olympia Brown’s writing on the state of women at the time:

“It can be no possible advantage to a man that his mother was a social toy, financially a dependent, politically a slave. On the contrary, the stream cannot rise higher than its source, and if women are fettered, dependent, ignorant, their sons will be narrow in mind, craven and cowardly. When women are free and independent, and by experience on the business of the world, shall have grown into the stature of true womanhood, then indeed, we may look for a race of noble men such as the world has never seen. The larger woman’s experience is, the better is she fitted for every duty, the more intelligently can she take any position to which she is called.”

Horace Greeley, famous editor of the New York Tribune, pondered the state of universalism in his autobiography, written just before our church was founded. He wrote:

“In our age, [Universalism has] been affirmed and systematically elucidated by the calm, cogent reasoning of Ballou, the critical research of Balfour, the fervid eloquence of Chapin [a woman ordained just after Olympia Brown, who served in Iowa City in 1874], and hundreds besides them, until it is no longer a feeble hope, a trembling aspiration, a pleasing hypothesis, but an assured and joyful conviction. In its clear daylight, the hideous Inquisition, and all kindred devices for torturing heretics, under a libelous pretence of zeal for God, shrink and cower in shame and terror; the revolting gallows hides itself from public view, preliminary to its utter and final disappearance; and man, growing ashamed of all cruelty and revenge, deals humanely with the outcast, the pauper, the criminal, and the vanquished foe. The overthrow of a rebellion is no longer the signal for sweeping spoliation and massacre; the downfall of an ancient tyranny like that of Naples is followed by no butchery of its pertinacious upholders; and our earth begins to body forth and mirror—but so slowly, so faintly—the merciful doctrines of the meek and loving Prince of Peace.”

It is true that the Universalists of this time had an undaunted hope for our future. They were often the leaders of movements for social improvement, besides just ordaining women.

A goodly proportion of Universalists had a strong sense of stewardship as befitted a denomination with the ideals they professed, and their numerous benevolences, which took a wide variety of forms throughout the nation, bore witness to this. The settlement house movement, especially popular in the 19th century, was one in which Universalists had a significant share.

One such was the creation of ‘Every Day Church’ in Boston in 1837. It was opened to serve the needs of transients and rootless people who had no church home or even any other home to call their own. Other ‘Every Day’ churches were formed around the country.

One of the first and most successful settlement houses established in New York City was the Brevoort Mission, begun by Universalists in 1858 as the First Universalist Mission Society of the City of New York, and incorporated in 1869. The founder had been Elisha Hebbard, a member of T. J. Sawyer’s Orchard Street Church. Until Brevoort Hall was purchased, the mission had been operated in his home. During its existence, it changed both location and name several times. When it moved to a building on East 53rd Street between Second and Third Avenue, and was dedicated in 1919, it became the Prescott Mission, named after the building in which it was located. Until 1926, it was known simply as ‘the Mission.’ It was also referred to for some time as Divine Paternity House, after the Universalist church that sponsored it. The acquisition of the property had been made possible by two gifts totaling $40,000.

The settlement house met an immediate need. It was particularly valuable for first-and second-generation immigrants who at first made up as much as nine-tenths of its patronage. It served a congested tenement area of more that 25,000 inhabitants and operated seven days a week. At first it reflected its religious sponsorship and identification, with a Sunday school and both a senior and junior Young Peoples Christian Union. George G. Needham, one of its incorporators, was superintendent of the Sunday school for half a century. A women’s group in the church sponsored the kindergarten. Settlement house activities soon extended far beyond religious boundaries, providing facilities for industrial education, recreation, and health services, with concentration by the 1920s on the welfare of children up to the age of 13.

Among Universalist benevolences in the Midwest were those associated with the Church of the Redeemer in Minneapolis. The first was the Washburn Memorial Home, established in 1887. It was intended for orphans and children of broken homes. They were to be admitted. “Nurtured and trained for usefulness in life . . .without any question as to. . . sex, color, or religion.”

Also in Minneapolis, they formed the Unity House-Social Settlement. It was organized to be a center of educational and humanitarian work. The plan included a kindergarten, a day nursery, a savings bank, and evening Americanization classes for recently-arrived immigrants, economics, bookkeeping, mechanical drawing, and other studies. Social hours were scheduled each weekend, with addresses and talks on topics of current interest. Although Unity House was organized to be non-sectarian, and the Methodists and Lutherans cooperated, the Unitarians and the Universalists took the lead in the management. We also see the creation of a number of homes for the aged and infirmed during this time, as they were seen as a real need.

Besides the large projects the Universalist advocated and worked tirelessly on the issues of Child Labor, Temperance, and Tenement House conditions.
Out of these efforts came the theological understanding that gospel asked of us to spread God’s love. In the early 1880s, the Universalists along with some other of the Protestants lead the country in what was know as “Social Christianity, or Social Gospel.” The assumption was that poverty and other social ills were not misfortunes without a remedy, but the result of ascertainable causes that could be identified and removed by human ability to solve social, economic, and political problems.

Our church was started just prior to a large movement that was to bring many youth and young adults into the movement. The Young People’s Christian Union of the Universalist Church (the YPCU) was founded in 1889. Prior to that, there were many local youth organizations, but little continuity or national organization. These groups went by many different names, but the most common was Christian Endeavor. There were also Chapin Clubs that were primarily for Young Women. The YPCU in the height of its power was so large that in 1892 there were 9,000 members, and in 1893 when they held a National Convention in Washington DC in attracted national attention and then President Grover Cleveland shook hands with every one of the delegates. The largest membership was 15,400 members in 1895.

Hey, teenagers, take note on what the YPCU was involved with. They held a Young People’s Sunday. (That sounds a bit like what we do, huh?) They also ran a Post Office Mission, meaning they distributed denominational literature—and within a year had distributed 5,000 leaflets in 25 states and territories, along with copies of the Universalist magazines. The Post Office Mission also created a lending library of over 200 volumes. Trying to advertise Universalism, they appointed 100 local agents in 30 different states, sponsored booths at big Exhibitions. They really were working to spread the faith, and to keep those who lived in isolated areas connected. That’s a big different from Youth Groups today.

Universalism in Iowa got off to an interesting beginning. The first society and meetinghouse was formed by 1843 in Iowa City. And I found a note that by 1871, there were 48 parishes reported, but only 20 church organizations in the state. Historian Russell Miller notes that: “The majority of the congregation[s] saw no reason why they could not remain an informal society and still observe the Christian ordinances without the bother of organizing a church.” Thirty-one ministers served the denomination in Iowa that year, including Rev. Augusta Chapin in Iowa City.

I want you to note that currently only 12 ministers serve our UU churches in Iowa (if I include the students and the retired folk), and we only have 14 societies on the books. I was shocked when reading through the records to discover that a woman minister, Florence Crooker, whom I was familiar with through her work in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was actually ordained in Waverly Iowa in 1877, with Augusta Chapin (the minister from Iowa City preaching the sermon). Imagine, there was a Universalist church in Waverly! At least perhaps there was a ghost of a church. She was asked to work there to “revive a dead church.” Two years later, she was called to work elsewhere. I have no idea if her work in Waverly was successful or not, although ultimately it is clear that the church failed.

I have yet to learn a great deal about the activities of our own church in much detail; it will be fun to learn more. But we can be sure that all these things which were happening around the country were things that were written about in the denominational newsletters, and certainly pleas went out to help these worthy causes. Church members were often asked to help with a current project someone thought of, as well as give money for the building of churches in the rapidly increasing towns that were springing up across the country like mushrooms. Dorothy Grant does have in her book about our history, the names of our ministers. And some of them were famous enough for me to read about them in history books. Our most well-known ministers were both women!

I should tell you about one of our most successful early ministers, Effie McCollum Jones. She was a very popular minister, who worked with women’s suffrage, prohibition, world peace, and other causes benefiting humankind. She graduated from Ryder Divinity School at Lombard College in 1892. She married her classmate, Ben Wallace Jones; and together they were ordained in Dubuque, Iowa. For almost two years, they served as co-ministers for our church, then moved to Vermont where she served for four years with her husband and another six alone after his death. Then she returned to Waterloo and remained here for 12 years.

Dorothy Grant, in her book, writes: “Under her guidance, the membership grew more rapidly than at any other time. She received 192 new members, developed a young people’s group of 30 members, and a Sunday School with an average attendance of 90. She and her church played a large part in civic affairs. She left Waterloo in 1916 to become the national Field Director of the Women’s Suffrage Association.”

After that, she moved on to a successful ministry in Webster City, Iowa. A newspaper from that time said, she was: “one of Iowa’s best known women . . . . She is popular wherever known and her work as a minister and lecturer is outstanding.” Think about the dates I read to you on the Communion silver, and you will realize that those very same plates and cups were around when she was here as our minister.

In reading a book of biographies of Women Ministers, I found these words about our past minister: “Several figures stand out for the encouragement they gave other woman considering the ministry. Phebe Hanaford, by word of mouth, publications and any other means she could, advertised in national and denominational newspapers the theological schools open to women. Olympia Brown and Mary Augusta Safford trained and encouraged women. Effie McCollum Jones lectured frequently defending women ministers, and claimed in 1910 she could always find a parish needing her leadership and that she had never experienced any antagonism. She urged others to try what she had always found to be a wonderful career.”

The other woman who served, and later went on to be well known was Rev. Edna Bruner. Some of you may met her, since I understand she came back and visited in the mid-1950s right after the Unitarian Fellowship settled into its home in the second floor of 401 Main St.

Echoes of those Universalists of our past are still with us here each Sunday. We pass Collection Plates that they passed for years, and the pulpit comes from their church building. Some of our members remember those days, particularly Dick Shane, whose great-grandfather was one of the original signers of the 1875 constitution. A few old hymns remain in our hymnal that they sang, encouraging us to work in the world, making this a better place.

Too, I think we share their optimistic sense of humankind’s potential for goodness and growth. Although reading the words of Horace Greeley, I waver between a sense of cynicism for how we never really achieved his sense of an ideal society which seemed just around the corner or even perhaps here—and a sense of pride, that our movement has led the way in encouraging people towards a sense of optimism, of being able to make a difference, and noting that we really have come a long way since 1875—with child labor laws, with slavery, civil rights and women’s rights. The needs are still there, some of them just a strong as before.

But I think that as a group we Unitarian Universalists have less of a tendency to want to roll up our sleeves and jump into the trenches to help. As individuals we do often work in the social sector, but I think that we have somehow lost some of our sense that working together we can be leaders for social change and social justice in the world. I hope that in thinking about our history today, we will begin add this sense of past into our visioning for the future.

My closing words today:

In celebrating our Anniversary Sunday in this way, may we be so moved by these stories of those who have come before us, that we find ourselves part of a timeless community of courageous dreamers, with whom we can anchor our common visions and hopes for a better world.

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