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PAGE 318 MISSING!
HOW TO MOVE A CHURCH, IF YOU ARE LUCKY
Elien and I went house shopping and contracted to buy a house in the process of being built in a new development four miles southwest of the church, across the sometimes dry and other times wet bed of the Great Arkansas River. Early in August we moved into our new home, but hold everything before you come to see us at that address, whatever it was: better call first for we may have moved again.
When we arrived in Wichita we found the forty members of the church in solid agreement about one thing. They were convinced, rightly or wrongly, that the church had to be moved to a more desirable place in the city before it could grow large enough to be a viable institution. They could point to a number of facts to support that conclusion. Other than the foundation there was nothing about the church building that had not been damaged by the ravages of time. However its structural damage was not as bad as it looked. There was no suitable Sunday school space in it. The only place to park was on two very busy streets. No family of the church lived within a three mile radius of the church. All the members lived from three to six miles or more from the church. Ninety percent lived in the east and northeast part of the city. Central Street was fast becoming a commercial and industrial street. Most of the people living in the area were involved in the large Catholic church next door. The whole dwelling area was on the way down and out.
In the discussions that led to the appointment of a search committee for a new location, I said nothing. I really thought it was a waste of time. At the same time I thought it would be cruel to dampen their dreaming and hoping. The idea crossed my mind that if they found the ideal spot at a real bargain price, even if it were given to them, they had no money to build as much as a chicken coupe on it. It is embarrassing to recall how wrong I was. Remember, Boston was paying all my salary. The church income was barely enough to take care of the other expenses of the church. Also, they had just voted to give the Isom's a generous house allowance.
The moderator of the meeting asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to serve on the search committee. A dozen or more raised their hands. By a voice vote the volunteers were elected. Z Wetmore was named its chairman. Remember he and wife were among those who had resigned from the church. Z had hardly missed a meeting at the church since the first service in September. He acted as a member and was treated as one. I thought to myself that Z would never call the committee together. Again, how wrong I was. He immediately called for a short meeting of the committee just after the business meeting, to decide when to meet to get organized and ready for work.
In the northeast part of the city, three blocks from the University of Wichita, there was a stately southern type mansion, surrounded by a third or more of a city block, beautifully landscaped and shaded by a variety of trees. The property was on an end lot that extended the entire length of 15th street about 1/3 of a block on Fairmont on one side and Holy Oak on the other. The property was separated from the sidewalks and the streets by an evergreen hedge that edged the property on three sides. When Z was named chairman of the search committee, as I was to learn later, he called the owners of this mansion and asked if they wanted to sell it. They did not want to sell.
In less than a week the search committee met, divided the city into four parts, assigned an equal number of the committee members to each part. Each group was given the responsibility of exploring a fourth of the city for a suitable site for the future home of our church. In the meantime the committee was having the church property appraised. The appraiser allowed, if we could take as much as two years to find a buyer, we could get sixty thousand dollars for it. That encouraged the committee and the rest of us. The committee stepped up its search and the rest of us took more interest in what they were doing.
The hot summer was slowly passing. Before it was over the temperature was to rise above a hundred degrees during more than forty days, above a hundred and ten degrees every day during one week. For six weeks of the summer I worked on a surveying team, from sun up to sun down to. Around the first of August the search committee tried a Methodist church for sale in the northeast part of the city. On a hot Sunday afternoon the committee persuaded ninety percent of the members of the church to look at this property. The location was acceptable, except there was not a tree within sight of the place. The building was a patch work job. A room added here, another there, as needed or as money permitted. Most of the members were not impressed. This response made the committee hesitate to recommend buying the place. One hot day in mid-August I was in the study trying to decide the sermon topics for September and collecting the other items for the monthly newsletter that had to be mailed soon after Labor Day. The phone rang. The caller wanted to know if I was the person, associated with the Unitarian church, who called back in May wanting to know if the property at Fairmount and fifteenth street was for sale.
I had no idea what kind of property was at that address. I informed the caller I was not the guilty party and suggested she call Z Wetmore. He might be able to help find her party. I gave her Z's number. A few minutes later Z called and told me the property at Fairmount and fifteenth street was for sale. He suggested we go look at it. He made the arrangements and at eleven thirty we were inspecting the place. Inside and out the place was too beautiful to be true.
There was a front porch the length of the building, with towering and stately columns, reaching up to the ceiling of the second story to support the banistered flat roof. A carport was at one end, under which the driveway ran that led to two streets. At the other end was a large screened-in porch with a banistered flat roof. Back of the house was an attached three car garage, over which there was a beautiful social hall in which a hundred people could be seated. As many as a hundred people could be seated in the living and dining area. In the basement there was a room as large as the living room, another one as large as the library above it, a half bath and two other rooms, plus the furnace and air conditioning room. Not counting the garage space there were seventeen rooms, three whole baths and two half baths, seven fire places with gas starters and a number of large closets It was an off white brick building in excellent condition. They wanted sixty two thousand dollars for it. Z and I excused ourselves for a brief conference outside.
Z: "The search committee is meeting this evening to decide what to recommend about the Methodist church. I would like for the committee to see this before the meeting". He paused for half a minute and continued, "I want the whole membership to see it".
Looking at my watch , I said, "It is now after twelve thirty. There is the problem of notifying everybody in time to see it before your meeting".
Z: "Hell! We have telephones don't we?"
Me: "If you are game", I replied, "I'll call half the membership if you will call the other half".
Z went back in the house and arranged for the members of the church to inspect the place at five thirty that afternoon. Ninety percent of the families had a representative there to look at the place. Everyone became possessed with the idea of buying it for the new home of their church. Some of them followed the committee back to the church. In the meantime Z had learned the owners wanted a $15,000.00 down payment, and it would be six months before they could give us possession of the property. At that meeting the committee and others worked out and agreed to make the following offer. Keep in mind we thought we had not less than six months before we would have to fork over any money.
We would make a fifteen thousand dollar down payment, at the time we received a title to the property. We would get the down payment, we thought, by borrowing that amount on the property of the church, pay the interest on the loan until it was paid off when the church was sold. It was thought that the owners could get a larger loan on the place than the church could. We would agree to assume the responsibility for the largest loan they could get on the property, if the owners would carry the balance on an open note for two years, or less if the church property was sold.
Since the church had accepted their original asking price we would ask them to give the church a gift of two thousand dollars. The committee picked five persons to present the offer to buy. I was one of the five and Z was another. Memory refuses to tell me, for sure, the names of the others. At the agreed time and place we showed up the next day, dressed in our best clothes, looking as rich as we could. The owners accepted our offer, agreeing to give the church two thousand dollars at the time they received our last payment.
It was understood that our offer depended upon an official vote of the church, approving the offer. Since the regular church service did not start until the Sunday after Labor Day, we allowed it would take a month to arrange, according to the church by-laws, a legal meeting of the church.
Before the first regular church services there were two or more meetings to explain the agreement to buy and answer any questions. Also there was an arrangement for other inspection tours. At these meetings an old familiar face showed up for the first time in over a year when she withdrew from the church in protest - Mary Wetmore. Now she had returned to praise rather than protest. Mary was more enthusiastic than Z for buying the property and made a speech in favor of doing so at every opportunity. However it must be said that she was hardly more eager to buy the property than ninety-nine percent of the other people of the church.
Never before or since have I been associated with a group of any kind that were so united and determined to do something as much so as the people of the Wichita church were to buy the property at 1501 Fairmount. Had something prevented us from getting that property I believe it would have killed the church. It certainly would have been a terrible blow to the people's morale. Economically I knew we were skating on thin, if any ice at all. Attempting to walk on water would have been a better description of our adventure from any sensible economic point of view. But the enthusiasm was so high I could not force myself to ask as much as a sensible economic question.
On the hope we could sell the church, within two years, we were committing ourselves to raise sixty thousand dollars. First, there was the fifteen thousand dollar loan on the church. This had to be paid in full within two years. Second, there was the fifteen year loan on the mansion that had to be paid at the rate of two hundred and eighty dollars a month. At that time I doubt if the total income of the church would have been enough to meet those payments. Third, there was the twenty thousand dollar two year note that had to be paid in full within two years, plus interest. Also, there was the monthly house allowance promised the Isoms.
In the meetings, when the subject of buying the property was discussed, no one ever raised the question as to how we would pay off the loan on the church and pick up the twenty thousand note, if we failed to sell the church within two years. Where we would get the two hundred and eighty dollar monthly payments for the loan on the mansion was not even mentioned in any of the meetings from the beginning to the end. The silent attitude seemed to be, buy now and try to figure out how to pay later. There were two members, Dan and Beverly Shouse, who were sane enough to ask such sensible questions. But they did not do so in any of the meetings. Only in private did they dare suggest we should give such matters some serious attention. Dan and Beverly wanted the church to buy the property as much as any of the rest of us, but they wanted some reasonable evidence that we were able to pay for what we bought. The rest of us preferred not to be bothered by such details. It must be admitted that when enthusiasm is in the driver's seat, more often than not, individuals, as well as groups, do not act sensibly.
To get a minister-at-large the church had signed an agreement that the property of the church would go to The American Unitarian Association, if and when it ceased to be a Unitarian church. We thought we had better get the reaction to what we were trying to do from the people at the headquarters in Boston. We described the property we were trying to buy and sent them pictures. We explained why we were trying to make this move and how we hoped to pay for it. We told them it was our assumption that the new property would go to the Association should we ever cease to be a Unitarian church.
I am sure the people in Boston questioned the economic soundness of our adventure, but they crossed, perhaps their fingers and toes and remained silent, out of respect for the freedom of the church to try to do what it wanted to do, even if it fell flat on its face. They just sent us the proper forms to fill out and sign when we got possession of the property.
It was a foregone conclusion that the people of the church would approve the committee's terms for buying the property. Minutes before the special meeting was to begin a member of the church cornered me to remind me that Z and Mary were not legal members of the church. He was wondering what we would do if some one questioned their right to vote. I allowed that no one could be that cruel. However, it was a chance we had to take. Moments later I had an idea. Without consulting anyone I walked into the study, closed the door and wrote Z and Mary's names, and the date, in the membership book. Not being their own signatures their names in the book did not make them legal members. The idea was, if the question about their membership was raised, I could honestly say their names were in the book. Fortunately, the question was never raised. It was months later, maybe more than a year before I told Z what I did. The rascal had been peeping in the book without telling me what he saw. Neither made objection to my little scout deed and never spoiled it by writing their own names in the book.
Dan and Beverly, as I remember, did not attend the special meeting of the congregation. The vote to approve the committee's terms to buy the property was unanimous. Privately there had been some reservation about asking the church to be responsible for the earnest money that was required. To prevent having to deal with that in public a number of the committee members signed a note making them personally responsible for such money, if we faltered on our promise to buy. It may have been as late as the third Sunday of September when the congregation committed the church to buy the property.
As soon as the news of the purchase was printed some people of the neighborhood filed a legal protest that would deny the use of the building as a church. Their main objections seemed to be two: one being the fear we would use outside loudspeakers. There was one church in the neighborhood that already used such speakers. Its neighbors thought one such church was one too many. The other objection had to do with traffic and parking.
Z had been a lawyer in Wichita for decades and knew all the long and short ways of handling such legal problems. The church depended on Z and his son to handle all legal problems, without pay of course. After explaining to the neighbors that we did not use outdoor or indoor loud speakers and that we were a small congregation of less than a hundred souls and had enough off street parking to meet the requirement of the law middle of the month it was ready for us to occupy. We moved in the week before Christmas and celebrated by throwing a big New Year party in the social hall over the garage.
Moving the church four miles northeast created a problem for the Isoms. Actually it just doubled the problem they had created for themselves in buying a home four miles southwest. A zig zag sixteen mile drive, diagonally through the city, every time we went to church seemed too much for us. Since there was plenty of room in the new place, and it would save the church the house allowance, it was suggested the Isoms take an apartment in the new church. It would be a beautiful place to live. Most of the time we would have the whole place to ourselves. Also, it would save us, in the course of a year, hundreds of sixteen miles trips across the city. All things considered we decided it would be worth sacrificing some privacy. Our house sold immediately at a small profit and we moved in the church before the congregation did.
Rose and Mary Beth had a two room apartment with a swanky bathroom, plus the flat roof of the screened porch for sun bathing or whatever. Elien and I used the room next to the girls' apartment and used the bathroom next door. We used the kitchen and utility room of the church. We received guests in what was the library, the most beautiful room in the house. It was now my study and was furnished in part with some of the pieces of our living room furniture. Three summers later, while we were away on vacation, the church surprised us and bought a parsonage two blocks from the church.
OUR FIRST LUCKY BREAK
We solved the problem of the down payment by raising the money. At the time the deal was closed in December we had no idea where the money was coming from to pay the monthly two hundred and eighty dollar payments on the long term loan. In less than a week before we moved the old church and parsonage were rented for two hundred and eighty five dollars a month. It was to the minister of the Four Square Gospel Church. She stayed there for about four years and paid her rent promptly every month. When she moved out it was rented to another church group for only a few dollars less. Without such luck we would have gone down stinking creek without a paddle.
SECOND LUCKY BREAK
We had good chances to sell the old church property, during the first six or eight months it was up for sale, for as much, perhaps, as forty five thousand dollars. But we were getting enough rent out of it to make our mortgage payments and were content to wait for a sixty thousand dollar sucker to come along. The first year passed. Six months of the second year slipped away without an offer to buy at any price. There was that twenty thousand dollar note coming due in six more months. In undertones we began to ask each other how, without the sale of the old church, were we going to pay that note? Three more months passed without a nibble. In the meantime luck had slipped undetected into our midst.
Paul Gerling had joined the church. Paul was a master mind in the Credit Union business. He was the most active manager of such unions in Wichita; also, the dean of the credit union movement in Kansas. Henry Peterson had recently joined the church. Henry lived in Dodge City and made the three hundred mile round trip to church a few times each year. Henry and Paul got their heads together and came up with the following suggestion.
The church would sell ten year one thousand dollar bonds that paid six percent interest. Paul and Henry would set up a church credit union and Paul would manage it. The credit union would loan the money to buy a bond to those wanting to buy one but did not have the money to do so. The credit union would get the money by getting members who had savings or investments, to invest some of such monies in the credit union. Believe it or not the union had all the money it needed to make loans to all who asked for one. Those who kept their monthly payments up to date would receive more in interest on their bonds at maturity than they paid in interest to the credit union.
Z did all the work necessary to make the bonds legal. All it cost the church to get this elaborate money getting scheme set up was the printing cost of the bonds - twenty five dollars. How many invested money in the credit union and how many borrowed from it to buy a bond I never knew. I do know the credit union had enough money to make all the loans requested. Elien and I thought it would be cheaper for us to borrow a thousand dollars on an insurance policy for a bond.
At a pot-luck bond buying rally, one Sunday afternoon, well over twenty thousand dollars of bonds were sold. On the date due the $20,000.00 note was paid and later went up in smoke at a note burning ceremony. The church was always able to redeem a bond before due date in cases of need.
The Unitarians of Wichita are indebted to Z Wetmore and luck, more than to anyone else for the church being where it is today. Without his untiring efforts, his determined will and his blind faith, that defied all the reasonable facts and arguments of the mind, we never would have attempted to buy the property at 1501 Fairmount in 1955. But Z would have to admit that we would have failed and lost everything had it not been for the help of pure luck .
WARNING! If you are not lucky don't try to move a church or anything the way we did. Unless Lady Luck comes to your rescue more than once you will fail - miserably fail. It was pure luck that saved us from paying the price for acting like economic idiots
From that experience I learned never to under estimate what even a small group of people can do, if they want to do the same thing strongly enough. They can do the unbelievable. They will attempt the impossible and will succeed - if they are lucky.
The church finally sold the old church and parsonage, two or three years after we moved to Des Moines. Since then they have built a round auditorium, about six feet from the west end of the building. They removed the screened porch and connected the two buildings with an enclosed walkway. According to the 1984-1985 year book of the American Unitarian Association, the Wichita church now has 176 members. Among the last things I did before leaving Wichita was to go through the membership book and counted the active members. I did this for my own information. I counted 171. That was twenty-four years ago. All things considered the church had to have some luck even to increase its membership by six during all those years.
After the first three years we were there, the church, to have made a modest gain in membership, would have had to add an average of fifty new members a year. The last two years we were there the number of members increased very little. The high turnover in the membership of the church was due in no small way to two related factors over which neither the church nor its leadership had any control. One of those factors was that a large percent of the people, attracted to the Unitarian church in Wichita, were new people to the city; people who had come, primarily, to take jobs in one of the airplane companies or jobs as teachers in the University of Wichita.
The other factor was that they did not move to Wichita with any intention of making it their permanent home. They came to get two or three years of job experience in their chosen craft or profession, hoping such experience would help them move on to some other part of the country, or world, where they thought they had rather live.
The flat land of the Wichita area does not have much going for the city other than jobs it may have to offer. As soon as those jobs give those, who come to take them, the experience that will enable them to move, they move. There is, however, something about the plains of Kansas that can grab you and hold you there, if you hang around long enough for it to get into your blood stream. Most newcomers do not stay that long. I remember where I was. I was driving along Central, notice I did not say down or up, near the court house when the vast horizontal dimensions of life, as suddenly as a flash of light, burst forth on the conscious level of my being from the dark dungeon of the unconscious. It is a feeling that's not easy to express. I judge it to be a feeling that had been nurtured and brought to the level of consciousness by the slow growing impact of the boundless plains of Kansas . It's a sense of having plenty of elbow room for your thoughts and feelings, for your whole being, to expand from horizon to horizon. It is a feeling, I think, that would be hard to come by in the mountains.
My brief sketch of the story of moving the church would be of far more interest to those who participated in it than to those who did not. The participants could add many details I left out. I am not sure I would want to repeat the experience. I am glad to have had a part in a little adventure with a small group of people who were so united and motivated by a single objective. It is an experience that will convince you beyond all doubt of the truth in the old saying, "Where there is unity there is strength".
The space I have given to the story might suggest that the problems of moving the church demanded a lot of my time. The truth is those problems took very little of my time, or that of any of the members of the church. Luck solved the larger ones. The others were dispensed with in a short period of time. During the Wichita years, as during all the years of my active ministry, most of my working hours, and many of my "non-working" hours, were given to the reading, studying and writing I used to prepare sermons and the other parts of the church services.
My extensive reading program had been curtailed during the two years in Louisville for lack of time. When I got to Wichita, to paraphrase many commercial ads, I began a "new improved" reading program, which, during the first two or three years, was designed to help me to describe, philosophically, my own brand of Unitarianism. By the time I arrived in Wichita I knew there were certain assumptions that all, or nearly all, Unitarians believed and respected: such as the democratic process; the assumption that Unitarians do not claim as a group or as individuals to have any absolute or infallible truth to share with each other or to dish out to others; that Unitarians, of whatever brand, knowingly or otherwise are humbled by what Albert Schweitzer has described as "the fact of all facts, namely, we are surrounded by mystery". Therefore, there is no written or unwritten creed to which a person has to subscribe to be a member of a Unitarian church. No one was expected or encouraged to profess to believe anything he or she did not believe. Everyone was encouraged to come with her or his beliefs, doubts and unanswered questions showing and sharing the same with one another, hoping thereby to be helpful to each other. The minister, or any other speaker, was not expected to speak for anybody else other than himself. The speaker, whoever she or he might be, was expected to share her honest thoughts and beliefs concerning whatever subject she was talking about. Each hearer was expected to listen with an open mind and only after thoughtful reflection agreeing with what he could believe and hold the rest behind a question mark until the question could be answered with either a yea or nay.
I already knew that such opinions and beliefs were widely shared among all Unitarians, regardless of ones particular brand of Unitarianism. Such were the convictions that held us together as a group of churches and fellowships around the world. Also, I knew there were three groups of Unitarians, each group believing some things that those of the other groups did not believe. There was the group that called themselves "Christian Unitarians", another group calling themselves Unitarian Theists. A third group called themselves "Humanist". Whatever the beliefs of Christian Unitarians they insisted on calling them Christian beliefs, Christian as they defined that term, for they insisted it was their right and responsibility to define what they meant by Christian. Their meaning of the word, Christian, left out big hunks of its meaning as it was described in the Baptist church in which I grew up. The Christian Unitarians still use a lot of Christian terms and forms of church services or worship. Some of the churches observe the Lord's Supper.
Whatever Theist Unitarians believe they want to justify themselves for doing so because they think their beliefs measure up to the expectations of what they call God. As the Christian Unitarians reserved the right to define the term Christian, the Theist Unitarians reserved the right to define the term God. In his "Preface to Morals", Walter Lipmann, speaking of Unitarian Theists, observed, "When they finish defining God they have defined him away".
That is certainly what the Unitarian Theist's definition of God does to God as defined by Southern Baptists, as well as that of every other Christian group that I am acquainted with. The third group of Unitarians call themselves Humanists. The basic association of these Unitarians is that the universe is natural, rather than natural and supernatural; that there is, within the range of human knowledge, no supernatural power or person who can or will intervene to help or hurt the natural universe; that the human race is a part of the natural universe just as everything else is - the stars, the earth, the planets, insects, birds and all other forms of beings in earth and sky. Because of their association with the supernatural the term God and the Christians terms are not used by Unitarian Humanists to identify what they perceive to be the ultimate value, with which we have to deal or the ultimate source and judge of what is ethical. To that extent I knew, when I arrived in Wichita in 1953 I was a Humanist Unitarian.
MY NEW IMPROVED READING PROGRAM
During my two years in Louisville my intensive reading program was seriously curtailed for lack of time. When I arrived in Wichita I revitalized my reading program. It was aimed at locating and studying the thinkers, primarily of the twentieth century, who were humanists as described in the foregoing paragraph. The purpose of such a reading program was to help me to clarify to myself, first of all, what brand of humanist I was. The titles of the first three mimeographed sermons in the fall of 1953 indicate what I was trying to do in these sermons. The titles were, "WHAT IS MAN'S RELATION TO THE UNIVERSE?, WHAT IS MAN? and WHAT MEANING SHALL MAN GIVE TO HIS LIFE?" In the first of those sermons there is this telltale paragraph that suggests one thing we might do that would help to answer such questions. I quote myself as of October 4, 1953.
"The other thing we might do is to make a study of the works of modern thinkers who have sensed the need for a new world and life view and have tried, in a straightforward way to come to grips with the problem. I can name here only the few I know something about: Max Otto, in his book, "Science and the Moral Life", faces the problem honestly; W. T. Stace, in his small book, "The Gate of Silence", and in some of his other books, exposes the reader to the depth and width of the problem: Fred Hoyle, in his book, "The Nature of the Universe", dumps the reader out into a universe so vast that no one can comprehend it. Maxwell Anderson, in many of his plays, takes us down on the city streets and shows us the need for a more valuable worldview. In my judgment the person known to me, who has done the most constructive and comprehensive work on the problem is Albert Schweitzer.
Schweitzer packs his theory of the universe into one short sentence. "All there is is will to live". He does not offer this as something supernaturally revealed, but rather as what the universe appears to be in the light of all we now know. We know that we are something that wills or wants to live. We observe that all animal and plant life, from the smallest to the greatest, are manifestations of life forms struggling to continue to live and reproduce their likeness. We are told that within the atoms of matter there is much activity, even by the particles within the atoms of stone and dirt. It is known that within the stars and the near absolute zero spaces of the heavens there is constant coming and going on the parts of the huge and tiny parts of the universe; that there appears to be an endless process of stars coming into being and stars ceasing to be. From the knowledge derived from all such observations Schweitzer concludes that all there is is some form of will to live whose essence is still hidden in the dark womb of mystery.
Unlike the old supernatural world and life view Schweitzer's theory of the universe does not try to assure us that there is a supernatural power or person, who considers human beings the crowning glory of creation for whose pleasure and comfort all the rest of the universe was created. Schweitzer's world and life view offers no assurance that our human existence has any meaning other than what we may give it. It does place us in a living relationship with all things organic and inorganic. It does give us the sense of being related to the totality of things in the universe.
A major objective of my reading program during the Wichita years was to find out how many other knowledgeable people, of the 19th and 20th centuries, had sought for meaningful answers to the three questions named above that I used as sermon topics early in my work in Wichita. To keep my reading nose to the grindstone I would announce, a month in advance, that I would give a sermon on the life and thought of a certain author. Paul Hein, a member of the Wichita church and a man of many talents, gave me a Christmas present every year that was the bound mimeographed copies of my sermons during the previous church year. The bound copies of the sermons, during the 1954-1955 year, reveals that I gave nine such sermons, one each month. All of them were given the same title except the name of the author - "The Religion of…".
I insert here two of those sermons. I do so because they are worth repeating and they are representative of the fruitful ideas I gathered from my reading program. The authors I covered in my reading program that year were Emerson, Albert Einstein, T.H. Huxley, Julian Huxley, Luther Burbank, Abraham Lincoln, John Dewey, Jean Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell.
THE RELIGION OF EMERSON
John B. Isom, Sept. 12, 1954
Readings selected from Emerson
"The last lesson of life, the choral song which rises from all elements and all angels, is a voluntary obedience, a necessary freedom. Man is made of the same atoms as the world is. He shares the same impressions, predispositions, and destiny. When his mind is illuminated, when his heart is kind, he throws himself joyfully into the sublime order and does, with knowledge, what the stones do by structure. The laws are his counselors, the good laws themselves are alive, they know if he keeps them, they animate him with the leading of great duty, and an endless horizon. Honor and fortune exist to him who always recognizes the neighborhood of the great and always feels himself in the presence of high causes . . . There is a certain wisdom which is common to the greatest man with the lowest."
SERMON: Emerson once said that "traveling is a fool's paradise". Yet few, if any, of his contemporaries, traveled as much as Emerson. He made a number of trips to Europe and traveled extensively in the United States. He made one trip, his first trip to Europe, primarily to see three men whose ideas had influenced him greatly - Wordsworth, Coleridge and Carlyle. If you care to know how much those men influenced Emerson read some of his essays and then immediately read some of their writings. For example, Wordsworth exclaimed:
"The calm existence that is mine when I am worthy of myself."
This same idea is repeated over and over by Emerson in his insistence that we be self-respecting. Also, Emerson's persistence on self-reliance is a huge paraphrase, in prose, of the last lines of Wordsworth's "Happy Warrior":
"Who, not content that former worth stand fast,
Looks forward, persevering to the last,
From well to better, daily self-surpass:
Who, whether praise of him must walk the earth
Forever, and to noble deeds give birth.
Or he must fall to sleep without his fame,
And leave a dead unprofitable name,
Finds comfort in himself and in his cause.
The same attitude is expressed by Coleridge in these lines:
"Look thou then to thyself, and leave the rest
To God, thy conscience and the grave".
Emerson had no kind words for those who looked upon manual labor as being disgraceful. He said, "All honest men are daily striving to earn their bread by their industry. And who is this who tosses his empty head at this blessing in disguise, and calls labor vile, and insults the faithful workman at his daily toil?" That is certainly consistent with the ideas expressed in Carlyle's essay on labor. "There is hope", Carlyle wrote, "in a man that actually and earnestly works...Work is of a religious nature - work is of a brave nature which is the aim of all religion . . . All true labor, in all true work, were it but true hand labor, there is something of divineness . . . Work is worship." Emerson was also influenced by all the other great minds of his time and by the ancient writers as well. In his essay on history he makes this observation: "The advancing man discovers how deep a property he has in literature, in all tales as well as in all history".
By some of the things Emerson wrote, the lazy reader might be encouraged to believe that he did not need to know the facts and fables of history, and the thoughts of others, to be wise. Emerson did not think so. He was willing to cross oceans to meet and talk with people with ideas, and do so when traveling was far less comfortable than now. In his reading habits he jumped all fences that he might graze everywhere to feast on what other people had thought.
Emerson was born May 25, 1803. During the peak years of his manhood the great public question that had to be debated, and was settled by the war between the states, was that of slavery. It is true that Emerson had his say on the question and took his stand for abolishing the system. However, he was not a reformer, like Theodore Parker, who, Emerson greatly admired and paid him this high tribute: "His demanding merit as a reformer is this, that he insisted beyond all men in pulpits I cannot think of one rival that the essence of Christianity is its practical morals". Nevertheless, even though Emerson was not such a reformer as Parker, he was a reformer, but on a deeper level.
He confessed that his reasoning faculty was weak. Those who have read his essays know that his ideas are not always presented in a logical order that can measure up to the logical style of Schweitzer. But Emerson did have "the moral imagination" to know that the cause and cure of such social evils as slavery were to be found in the thinking and feeling habits of people. As Schweitzer in our time, Emerson in his time felt that in order to improve the practical morals of human society, human beings must learn to think and trust new thoughts. "Trust your own thoughts", he declared. Both men believed it is by new ideas that history must be made new.
In Emerson's time more and more people were discovering that they could no longer believe the basic assumptions of Calvinism and Puritanism, yet most of them lacked the courage or concern to trust and act upon what seemed reasonable to them - what Emerson called "spiritual sluggishness". His stronger word for it was "hypocrisy". Having not the courage to resist the pressure to conform to the dead ideas of tradition, nor the self-confidence to obey their own best and highest thoughts. People, as Emerson saw it, were becoming "stuck in the stagnancy of conformity". The religion he preached, as I understand it, was aimed at digging a network of mental ditches that would drain the stagnated swamps of the collective mind of society, thus compelling each individual to see himself as he is and come to terms with his own highest thoughts and sentiments; to assume the personal responsibility for his own improvement and perfection. Integrity is the one word that best defines the religion Emerson preached. The use he made of the word so enriched its meaning that I can find no synonym that's half tall or wide enough to substitute for it. His religion of integrity says many things and different things to different people. I can only share what my limited study of his writings permit his use of the word to say to me. I can only briefly discuss what I consider to be its more universal demands.
His religion challenges a person to find in her own thoughts and feelings the supreme judge of good and evil. "Truly speaking", he said, "It is not instruction but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces I must find true in me, or reflect it; and on his word, be he who he may, I can accept nothing". "Nothing", he declared, "is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind". Or, as Schweitzer has said it, "The veracity towards oneself". In other words, a person must be true to himself before he can be expected to be true to another. Emerson forcefully reminds his readers that the non-transferable duty that nature imposes upon every rational being is that of finding in her own thoughts and feelings convictions that she can truly respect and follow sincerely.
Emerson's beliefs that support such a conviction are expressed best, perhaps, in his essay, "The Over-Soul". He said, "As there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so is there no bar or wall in the soul where man, the effect, ceases and God, the cause, begins . . . We lie open to one side to the deeps of all spiritual nature, the attributes of God . . . Therefore let man learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart, this namely, that the highest dwells within him. . . If he would know what the great God speaketh, he must go into his closet and shut the door as Jesus said."
What it all adds up to is this: a person cannot be his best by pretending to believe even the ethical precepts of Jesus. Undigested moral precepts, however noble, cannot maintain a healthy ethical conviction any more than undigested food can maintain a healthy body. One of the great tributes paid to Emerson was that he did not draw people to himself but drew people to themselves: that he did not make people his disciples but challenged people to be disciples of the highest voices of nature that spoke through the integrity of their own minds.
In 1855 Whitman sent Emerson a copy of Leaves of Grass. Scholars who have studied these two great men believed it was by reading Emerson's essays that Whitman developed confidence in his own ability. Thoreau also was encouraged by Emerson to believe his own deep convictions were worthy of his own obedience. He believed a person should have the faith and courage to obey, not what God spoke to Moses, or to Jesus long ago, but what God speaks now to him through his own thoughts and feelings. "That is always best", he declared, "Which gives me to myself. That which shows God in me, fortifies me. That which shows God outside of me, makes me a wart and a wen . . . It is a low benefit to give me something, it is a high benefit to enable me to do somewhat for myself".
The importance of finding in one's own life something he can truly respect and believe worthy of being offered to others for their consideration, was brought home to me, a few years back, by what a young man from India said to me. At the time of the death of Gandhi I happened to be making a study of his life and works. Before he was shot I had announced that on a given Sunday I would speak on the life and thought of Gandhi. After he was killed I thought it would be better if I could find someone from India to speak rather than I. I found a young Indian student in the city studying the local program of soil conservation. Gaswami was his name. He agreed to come and speak to the church about Gandhi. We became friends and visited each other a few times during the rest of his stay in the community. One day I asked him how many Indian students were, at the time, studying in the United States. He gave the latest number he had. Then I asked him if he knew how many American students were studying in India. He hesitated and seemed a bit embarrassed by the question. It seemed to suggest something he had never thought of before. When he spoke he said, "You know that we do not have anything in India to offer an American student."
I reminded him that India had Gandhi who, no doubt, will be remembered as the great man of our age; that his life, work and ideas were worthy of every student in the world. I can never forget his answer to my question, "We do not have anything in India to offer an American student." I wonder how much such an altitude towards themselves is responsible for the sad state of affairs that Gandhi found in India. His answer helped me to understand better why Gandhi gave so much of his time and thought to goading and challenging his own people to stand up, clean up, and find something in themselves worthy of their own respect and devotion, something they could be proud of and really believe to be worth sharing with the rest of the people of the world for their serious study and consideration.
Emerson said to Whitman, "Trust thyself", and offer the world the best you find within yourself. Whitman obeyed and the result was "Leaves of Grass". Gandhi said the same thing to his own people, the results are Nehru and modern India, something worthy of their own respect and worthy of the thoughtful consideration of the peoples of the rest of the world.
Emerson's religion of integrity also demanded that a person find the glory and reward of life by doing broad justice in the present. He observed that "Man postpones or remembers, he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. (But) he cannot be happy and strong until he lives with nature in the present, above time".
That has been, and still is, a hard lesson for human beings to learn and harder still to practice. It says that life must be made worthy of the present, if at all, by doing broad justice where we are, in the present. If we are to live life at its best and share in its highest glory and enjoy its richest rewards we must do, here and now, what "a sweet, natural goodness", demands of us. Emerson expressed that sentiment in one of his more beautiful statements. He said:
"The time is coming when all men will see that the gift of God to the soul is not vaunting, overpowering, excluding sanctity, but a sweet, natural goodness, a goodness like thine and mine and that so invites thine and mine to be and to grow".
THE RELIGION OF EINSTEIN Einstein's letter
October 10, 1954, Wichita, Kansas by John E. Isom
Preface: Einstein's letter
I sent Mr. Einstein a copy of the following sermon, offering to make amends for any misrepresentation I may have made of his point of view. He wrote back.
I read your sermon with interest and completely agree with its contents. The question about the meaning of life etc. seems to be somewhat unfamiliar. The reason is that, in my opinion, one cannot speak of the meaning of life in an objective sense as one speaks of the mass of the sun. I see no possibility of such an objective meaning outside of the human sphere. If this is really a quotation it must be a defective translation from the German text .*
I am grateful for your work. It is a contribution to the attempt to strengthen morality and make it independent of animalistic beliefs. It also corrects misinterpretations. Yours sincerely, Albert Einstein
*The quotation, I assume, he refers to is the last paragraph of the opening sentences. It was taken from the first paragraph of part one, on page one of the abridged edition of his book, "The World As I See It".
"The most beautiful and the most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feels amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in the most elementary forms this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness".
"What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer that question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not only unfortunate but almost disqualified for life". …Albert Einstein
"A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestation of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most primitive forms, it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitutes the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or the absurd egoism of feeble souls. Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature."
"The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future to him is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair. The scientist's religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement of the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself free from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of the ages."
"What an extraordinary situation is that of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he feels it. But from the point of view of daily life, without going deeper, we exist for our fellow-men in the first place for those on whose smiles and welfare all our happiness depends, and next for all those unknown to us personally with whose destinies we are bound up by the tie of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depends on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving. I am strongly drawn to the simple life and am often oppressed by the feeling that I am engrossing an unnecessary amount of the labors of my fellow men . . . The life of the individual has meaning only in so far as it aids in making the life of every living thing nobler and more beautiful. Life is sacred. That is to say, it is the supreme value to which all other values are subordinate". …..Albert Einstein.
Schweitzer And Einstein
Early in life Einstein became absorbed in this question: "How can all the complicated and immeasurable activities observed in nature be reduced to a singe mathematical formula?" It is interesting to note that while Einstein was preoccupied with the task of thinking out a basic and comprehensive theory by which all occurrences in nature may be understood and explained, another young German student, whose first name is also Albert, was preoccupied with the task of thinking out a basic and comprehensive theory by which the ethical impulses of human beings may be understood and explained. It is highly interesting to me to discover that Einstein and Schweitzer, as I understand them, have come to about the same conclusion concerning religion and morality. There is a kind of dualism in the thinking of both men that they do not pretend to reconcile, yet they live with the conviction that what may be known objectively and what is sensed subjectively are somehow parts of the same whole. Both men share and are emotionally and ethically guided by the same conviction that life, as such, is the supreme value, the most sacred reality to be dealt with.
The Task And Nature Of Religion
In trying to digest Einstein's religious thinking I ran into some difficulties. I am not sure I have all the important things he has written on the subject. The use he makes of such terms as "God" and "religion" is not always clear to me. I hope my appraisal of his religion will not be too far wrong.
In defining the place of religion in his life he said, "The purpose of science is to develop, without prejudice, a knowledge of the facts and the laws of nature. Even the more important task of religion, on the other hand, is to develop the conscience, the ideals and the aspirations of mankind". This statement and a few others, standing apart from the rest of his comments on religion, gives the impression that in his thinking religion and science have nothing in common. However, the religion I see reflected in his writings and activities is the result of the infusion of his scientific search for truth and his emotional search for ideals, motives and goals, so much so as a child is the infusion of the physical characteristics of his parents.
As I understand his religion, as revealed in his writings, there are three things that must not be overlooked if we are to grasp its significance for us and our generation. First, his religion has nothing in common with any kind of belief in a personal God. Second, at the heart of his religion is what he calls "cosmos religious feeling". Third, the ethical motivation of religion is determined by a feeling of sympathy or reverence for life. (Continued on Next Page)
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