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 among all.”