Let me acknowledge at the outset that history isn’t everyone’s
cup of tea. Many people report that the subject was their least
favorite in high school, which may be why the average American knows so
little about the historical underpinnings of their own country.
Granted, high school textbooks – or at least the ones I remember – were
deadly dull and dreadfully biased. But it is surely a mistake to shrug
off historical study because once-upon-a-time it was served up so
poorly. The fact is, insight into the past enhances our well-being as a
community and as individuals.
In my book Making the Good Life Last I discuss the principle
of “staying put” in our homes, relationships, vocations, hobbies and
spiritual practices. Here I argue that for our own spiritual and
psychological health we need to establish and maintain certain ties,
entangling ourselves in the environment and in each other’s lives. This
can be a challenge in a culture as mobile as our own and where the
craving for novelty is so strong. But when we don’t maintain some
continuity feelings of estrangement and alienation begin to creep in.
Studying history, familiarizing ourselves with the people and events
that shaped the communities and institutions to which we belong, can be
an antidote to such feelings. I have certainly found that until I have
gained historical perspective on and an appreciation for a place, I
don’t feel fully “at home.” Gil Rendle, a well-known church
consultant, has observed: “Connection happens when people are able to
say to themselves, ‘I see myself in that story.’” To truly be part of
something we need to experience a sense of identity and common purpose
with those who preceded us.
Madison Unitarians first organized quite early in the city’s history,
but that initial effort soon fizzled. “Copperheadism split the Madison
church wide open,” Charles Lyttle writes, “and killed it
temporarily.” The so-called Copperheads, you might remember, were
northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War and were anxious to broker
an immediate peace with the Southern secessionists. This put them at
odds with Republican abolitionists, and the Madison congregation
contained both. The differences were, apparently, irreconcilable.
By the late 1870’s passions had cooled and a second effort to establish a church was launched. Frank Lloyd Wright’s father
was among the founders of the First Unitarian Society, but there were
others of even greater significance. The Society’s original Board of
Trustees included two members of the legislature, the editor of the
Wisconsin State Journal, several prominent local merchants and
distinguished faculty members of the University.
The congregation’s most enthusiastic backer was William Allen,
a professor of history who also helped establish the Wisconsin Academy
of Sciences, Arts and Letters, the Wisconsin Humane Society and the
Madison Benevolent Society. Frederick Jackson Turner, one of America’s foremost historians, studied under Allen and was himself a member of the First Unitarian Society during his years in Madison.
Three other names stand out in the first decades of the Society’s existence. Charles Van Hise, University President in the early years of 20th century, attended regularly and served as an officer in the
Contemporary Club, a church-sponsored group that offered programs and
discussions on current topics. An eminent geologist who authored the
first textbook on natural resources and later helped create the
“Wisconsin Idea,” Van Hise was once asked about his FUS membership, since he wasn’t all that religious. “Well,” he replied, “I suppose I ought to have some church connection, and the man who preaches in the Unitarian pulpit interferes least with my current of thought.”
The name “Vilas” is familiar to many Madisonians because of Henry Vilas Park and Vilas Hall on the UW campus. Dr. Charles H. Vilas, brother to U.S. Senator William F. Vilas, was one of Madison’s leading citizens in the late 19th and early 20th
century, a noted philanthropist and a staunch Unitarian. After the
Society’s original home on East Dayton Street was completed in 1886, Vilas provided
funding for the construction of a parish house, which provided needed
space for a Sunday school and fellowship hall. Somewhat later he
donated a parsonage for the congregation’s ministers and, when the
Society was experiencing financial difficulties, Dr. Vilas retired much of its debt. Ah, those were the good old days!
A third notable figure in those early years was a classically trained musician named Aubertine Woodward Moore
who served as the Society’s music director and was a fixture on the
Madison cultural scene. An indefatigable performer and organizer, Ms. Moore
conducted classes, wrote musical essays, translated songs written in
French, German and Swedish, play
ed the organ and organized benefit
concerts to pay for the Society’s first piano.
Ministerial leadership was somewhat less than consistent
during that formative period. The Society’s first minister was lured to
Minneapolis after a short pastorate, another left within a year and a
third was asked to leave, purportedly because of his wife’s
indiscretions. Nevertheless, in the latter part of the 19th
century the Channing Club was formed on Campus and The Society’s Women
founded the Alliance. Both remain alive and active today.
The ministerial situation improved with the arrival of Frank Gilmore, who served from 1900 to 1917 – the longest tenure of any minister up until then. During his time in Madison, Gilmore threw
himself into community activities. He served on the Library Board, the
Hospital Board and was a leading proponent of commercial development in
the city. In 1915 the Madison Board of Commerce commissioned Gilmore to write a book describing the city, its character and its various institutions, for use in the local schools. Entitled Madison, Our Home it contained a wealth of detail, with a sprinkling of fatherly admonition to its youthful readers.
Following Gilmore’s ministry the congregation engaged A. Eustace Haydon, a professor of comparative religion from the Chicago Divinity School. Haydon was
a pioneer in his field, a leading spokesman for humanism and a signee
to the 1933 Humanist Manifesto. For five years, from 1918-1923, Haydon commuted
weekly from Chicago to Madison to preach. One must suppose that
pastoral care and other ministerial functions were left in the hands of
the laity during his tenure.
Though brilliant, Haydon was a bit of an odd duck who was
known as the “Pigeon Man” at Chicago. It was his daily practice to
spend the lunch hour on a bench outside the Divinity School feeding the
squirrels, who would climb up his legs, and the pigeons who came and
perched on the good professor’s shoulders. Pigeons or no, as the
spiritual leader of the Madison congregation Haydon pointed it in a decidedly humanist direction, where it remained for many years.
A succession of brief, and less than stellar ministries followed, and
the congregation’s fortunes declined. By 1940 pledging units had fallen
to 48, average attendance at worship was around 30 and fewer than 20
children were enrolled in the Sunday School. Financially strapped, the
Society accepted an offer from a Full Gospel group to share its worship
space. Fortunately, a young firebrand named Kenneth Patton arrived fresh from the Chicago Divinity School determined to resuscitate the moribund institution.
Patton’s seven-year ministry was successful and controversial.
In short order the church on East Dayton was sold which allowed the
congregation to retire its debts and seek new and better quarters. Patton also initiated a radio ministry on WIBA, which continued through Max Gaebler’s ministry and the first years of my own. By the time Patton left to further his career on the East Coast, membership had doubled.
Patton provoked congregational controversy by proposing that Frank Lloyd Wright be
commissioned to design its new building. The suggestion was bold and
not altogether welcomed. Although he belonged to the Society, Wright’s
reputation had been severely tarnished: his designs, though unique,
were costly and a contractor’s nightmare, and his egocentrism made for
difficult working relationships. The congregational vote was close, but
ultimately Patton got his man and the rest is history.
But while Frank Gilmore impressed the larger community with his civic engagement, Patton’s fame
rested on the public stands he took on contentious issues. He
vociferously opposed a legislative measure that would have prevented a
Communist from holding office in Wisconsin. And in 1947, near the end
of his ministry, he announced in a radio broadcast that he was resigning
from the white race. “Wherever men face persecution and
discrimination, there is my race,” Patton said. This dramatic gesture made headlines, and while editorials and letters to the editor were critical of the position Patton had staked out, the congregation itself stood by its outspoken minister.
Several figures stood out during those post-war years when the
Society was in transition and the Meeting House under construction. Harold and Helen Groves had opposed the hiring of Frank Lloyd Wright
initially, but accepted the congregation’s decision. Then, in the true
spirit of democracy, the couple threw their full weight behind the
project. Harold chaired the Building Committee and Helen coordinated the cadres of volunteers that were needed.
The Groves were also highly regarded outside of FUS. Helen worked with the American Friends Service Committee helping to resettle Jewish refugees in Madison during World War II. Harold, a
nationally recognized economist, was the first UW professor to be
elected to the Wisconsin Assembly and then to the state Senate. He also
served as the state’s Insurance Commissioner for a time.
Another distinguished economist, Kenneth Parsons, also played a
major role in the life of the Society during that period. An
international expert on land tenure and agrarian reform Parsons served as the congregation’s president while the Meeting House was being built.
And then there was Max Otto, one of America’s leading philosophers. Otto was a pragmatist whose thought complemented that of William James and John Dewey.
He was also a humanist whose popular course, “Man and Nature, provided
students with a non-supernatural, naturalistic view of the universe.
Early in his career at Wisconsin, religious and social conservatives denounced him as an “enemy of God and demanded that Otto be dismissed. But President Van Hise refused saying:
Freedom of thought, inquiry after truth for its own sake, adjustment
of the knowledge of the past in the light of the newest facts and
highest reason — this is the essential spirit of a university, which
under no circumstances should it yield.
When it came time to decide who should preach the inaugural sermon in the new Meeting House, the choice was clear – Max Otto
– and in that sermon entitled “To Own or Be Owned” he urged the proud
congregation to put the building in proper perspective. “It will truly
be our own,” Otto intoned,
…if our religious undertaking, ennobled by the beauty of its new home, has vitality and meaning enough to transcend the fame of the building in which it is housed.
In the six decades that have elapsed since those words were spoken
the First Unitarian Society has been served by many more outstanding
members. There was Katherine Bradley, granddaughter of a
Unitarian minister, professional botanist and Director of the UW
Arboretum during the expansion of its educational and research programs.
Bradley exhibited formidable leadership as president of the
congregation, president of the FUS Foundation and as a forceful
spokeswoman for many annual pledge campaigns.
And there was Richard Hartshorne, who served as the Society’s treasurer for a record number of years. Hartshorne was
also a nationally recognized member of the UW geography faculty whose
academic works still inform and enliven his discipline.
Merle Curti, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian in the lineage of Allen and Turner
and a founder of the sub-discipline of intellectual history, found in
FUS a congenial home – except that he was disappointed in the quality of
its musical offerings. To improve matters, Curti left a
considerable bequest, income from which was to be used to support the
Society’s music program. That legacy gift is one from which benefits
still accrue today.
Another active member, John Patrick Hunter was a legend
of Wisconsin journalism and gained national headlines for a stunt he
pulled at the height of the McCarthy era. Pulling together material from
the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, Hunter drew
up a petition and took it to Vilas Park, where he buttonholed passersby
and urged them to read and to sign it. Of the 112 people he
approached, only one added his signature while twenty accused him of
being a Communist and most confessed they were afraid to sign. Hunter wrote about his experience, Time Magazine and the Washington Post picked up on it, and President Truman called the Cap Times publisher, Bill Evjue, to congratulate him on his reporter’s spunk.
Many others deserve mention – people laboring in the trenches like Charlotte Helsted who
for years fussed over the Meeting House like an anxious hen, staunching
leaks and puzzling over electrical circuits. But in the end this
overview would not be complete without mention of Max Gaebler, whose thirty-five years of active ministry are likely never to be equaled. Rabbi Manfred Swarzensky of Temple Beth El, a friend and frequent pulpit guest said of Gaebler,
He is the most brilliant clergyman in Madison…. Because of the
penetration of his intellect, his dedication to humanitarian causes and
the warmth of his personality, he has made a deep impact upon the
spiritual and social life of this community.
During Gaebler’s ministry, the congregation grew five-fold, it
survived the political turbulence of the late sixties, a new religious
education wing was added, talented music directors Carlos Moser and Ellsworth Snyder were
brought on board, the FUS Foundation was established, the Channing Club
on campus was revitalized and Flower Communion, Christmas Eve
candlelight and All Souls services were introduced.
Gaebler’s involvement in the larger community was so broad and
deep that when Madison Magazine published an article identifying the
most important Madison citizens of the twentieth century, Max Gaebler was among them. Let me conclude, then, with this excerpt from a sermon Gaebler delivered just months before his retirement:
My vision for the future of this Society is that it may continue in
its programs and in the spirit that infuses them, in order to provide
for all who choose to come here a beacon of hope and reassurance in
moments of despair; an anchor of reason and moderation when the winds of
passion threaten to destroy all that we hold sacred; a sense of
continuity with a great tradition, one that prepares us to meet
inevitable changes with confidence and imagination; a vehicle for
educated compassion that will assist us in reaching out to those who
need true friendship…; a gentle witness to the right and the true as we
perceive them…. May we find a new richness and fresh vitalities as we
seek together “to promote truth, righteousness, reverence and charity
Gleanings From Our Precursors...
Kenneth Patton, “The Complete Religious Revolution” (from a sermon delivered in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the founding of First Unitarian Society. Patton served as the Society’s minister from 1941-1948)
My installation into the ministry of this parish was the proudest
night of my life, and no occasion since has surpassed it…. The seven
years I spent here were glorious, in a bumpy sort of way….
I was immensely proud to be the minister of this Society, to follow
Foster, Hayden, Hart and Holloway. To have Max Otto, Horace Fries,
Rosamund and Bill Rice, Helen and Harold Groves, Madame King, Ralfe
Runge and many others in the congregation: it was an honor. On any
Sunday there was bound to be at least one person, usually several, in
the congregation who knew much more about what I was talking about than
I, no matter what my subject was.
You are celebrating your centennial. The past one hundred years of
this Society have been great ones… (and) you have done as much as any
local society has done to afford us, in our own time, with a complete
religious revolution…. You got me off on the right (or left) liberal
foot, and I have been true to my Madison pastorate ever since…. You
spoiled me for good. If you could build a Wright building, you could do
anything. That is still my motto….
I went on to two other pastorates. But the dream is still the same:
to do all one can, in all too brief a lifetime, to accomplish the
complete religious revolution, complete for our century. Let the future
centuries take care of themselves. We will do all we can for our
times. We will add up all the dangerous, shattering, initiatory
insights our human years have given us…and we will make the next hundred
years of the Madison Unitarian Society as glorious as its first hundred
From Max David Gaebler, “Forward Through the Ages,” (from a sermon
delivered on All Souls Sunday, 1986 – the last year of Max’s
distinguished 35 year ministry among us)
So fleeting is human memory that people, so deeply a part of our own
living, already begin to fade into the almost anonymous stream of the
ongoing human community. Another thirty years and their names will
raise living images on only a few aged memories…. Announcement came the
other day of the recent death of a dear friend. In it her family wrote
that, “it has been said that we all die twice – once when we breath our
last, once more when no one any longer remembers….”
Few there are among us whose names will survive more than a few
generations, except in the dusty files of genealogical records; even
fewer those whose individuality leaves a mark that survives the lives of
those who knew them….
This recognition that the individuality – even the very names – of
people who have lived and died upon earth gradually grows dim and
disappears is far from new. There is an ancient story that describes
how the Christian feast of All Souls began. A traveler, it is said, was
shipwrecked on an island. There he happened upon a chasm that led to
the inner parts of the earth, to the very depths of Purgatory. Through
the chasm came the plaintive cries of the souls suffering there, unable
to proceed because no one on earth remembered and prayed for them.
So the traveler, moved to pity by these voices from the underworld,
hurried as fast as he could to the monastery at Cluny, where the great
and good Abbot Odilo at once declared a day of fasting and prayer for
the souls of all the faithful who had died and whose memory had been
lost. And ever since, so the story goes, the living faithful have set
aside one day each year – by long tradition it is November 2 – to honor
the unremembered dead….
And so it is with all the rituals of daily living, with all the
institutions which constitute the structure of society, with all the
patterns which give continuity and stability to our human world. All of
these rituals and institutions and patterns gather up and reflect the
gifts of countless men and women who have shaped and reshaped them
through the generations….
This very Meeting House is peopled with the shades of men and women
and children who, for longer or shorter periods, have come here with
their gifts of labor and of thoughtfulness and loyalty, building the
life of this society out of the vitalities of their own living. Without
them, we would not be here today; they are our cloud of witnesses,
whose faithfulness and devotion challenges our own.