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How Did We Get Here? Our Congregation’s History– Sermon for February 19, 2012

Unitarian Universalist Society

Sacramento, CA

Hymns:

Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing; Come, Sing a Song with Me;

For the Earth Forever Turning.  Vocal music:  Bright Morning Stars, duet by Eric and Emily

 

Prayer

The banners around the top of our sanctuary were created by artists and craftspersons in the congregation in 1982, near the conclusion of Theodore Webb’s ministry here.  He served this congregation as minister from 1971 to 1983, and attends now as Minister Emeritus.  These words of prayer, written by Ted, were published in a Meditation Manual by our denomination(1984), in which all the poems and prayers came from people of a Universalist heritage—those who had been Universalists prior to the Unitarian and Universalist merger of 1961.

(Read prayer page 45 from To Meet the Asking Years).

 

Reading

In Sacramento, the first public expressions of Unitarian theology in Sacramento took the form of public lectures in 1858 and 1860.  In particular, on May 31 and June 6 of 1860, Thomas Star King came over from San Francisco to give lectures to benefit the Sacramento Library Association.   A Universalist minister in Boston, Starr King had been called in 1860 to serve the Unitarian Church in the City, our first one on the West Coast.   His preaching and political activism are credited with keeping California in the Union.  His fundraising on the coast provided 1.25 million dollars during the Civil War for the founding of a national Sanitary Commission, which later became the Red Cross.   This is from his May 31 lecture, “Substance and Show”:

[A]  life-spirit inhabits every flower and shrub, and protects it against the prowling forces of destruction.

Look at a full-sized oak, the rooted Leviathan of the fields. Judging by your senses and by the scales, you would say that the substance of  the noble tree was its bulk of bark and bough and branch and leaves and sap, the cords of woody and moist matter that compose it and make it heavy.

But really its substance is that which makes it an oak, that which weaves its bark and glues it to the stem, and wraps its rings of fresh wood around the trunk every year, and pushes out its boughs and clothes its twigs with digestive leaves and sucks up nutriment from the soil continually, and makes the roots clench the ground with their fibrous fingers as a purchase against the storm wind, and at last holds aloft its tons of matter against the constant tug and wrath of gravitation, and swings its … arms in triumph over the globe and in defiance of the gale.

Were it not for this energetic essence that crouches in the acorn and stretches its limbs every year, there would be no oak….

 

Sermon

The sermon today covers the first century of the life of this congregation—its life and near-death experiences.  Next month I’ll speak about the last half century of UUSS, a time which many of our members can remember.  I’ve been here for only the past four years, but I’ve read our church histories, written by Rodney Cobb and Irma West, and combined and published a few years ago by three of our current members.

Given that the Board of Trustees has scheduled a meeting for the members to vote on calling me as a settled associate minister, it seemed important for me to think about the identity of this congregation, to understand who we are by asking the question:  How did we get here?

The Unitarian minister Arnold Crompton attributed the growth of Unitarianism on the West Coast to several factors.  First, Unitarians came to the West Coast when other Americans did:  after the Gold Rush began in 1849, and after the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad made it easier to get here.  These “transplanted” New England Unitarians wanted a church like those back home.

Also, the tightening of the lines of [religious] orthodoxy [made liberal Christians seek out others like them].  In the larger society, scientific challenges to traditional theology also boosted the appeal of religious liberalism.

Another factor was that “great ministers… by their preaching, their leadership, and their lives attracted people to their churches and denomination.”    The first Unitarian church on this Coast was founded in 1850, in San Francisco.  Thomas Starr King, a Universalist from Boston, came to  serve it from 1860 to 1864.  Then he died of tuberculosis at age 39.  His successor, and other Unitarian clergymen from the East, led important churches in the major West Coast cities.

And there was a missionary outreach.  Indeed, in 1865, the American Unitarian Association raised $100,000 for the spread of Unitarianism in the West.  Energetic ministers and agents of the denomination “established churches or planted seeds of future churches.”  One of these men, the Reverend Charles Gordon Ames preached on Sundays in San Jose and in Watsonville, and in 1867, he added Sacramento to his schedule, coming up here in his horse and buggy to preach for us.[i]  His tireless ministry led to regular meetings of religious liberals in Sacramento.

Our first minister was Henry W. Brown, who arrived from the East and gave his first sermon on a Sunday evening in December 1867, at the Metropolitan Theater.  Three months later, on March 29, a group of people signed an “article of agreement” to “associate ourselves in a body corporate, to be know as the First Unitarian Church of Sacramento.”  The purpose of the church was “the worship of God and the service of Men.”  With 17 families, the newly gathered congregation established bylaws.  Progressive for the time, the bylaws allowed that of the seven trustees of the church, three of them could be women. (p. 14 of In Good Times and Bad, the UUSS history)

Then, about five years later, the church disappeared.  This was in the nation’s financial panic of 1873, when banks were closing.  Reverend Brown returned to Boston and nothing (apparently) happened for 14 years.

In 1887, a new congregation was established (or re-established).  The next minister was was Charles P. Massey, a businessman from Philadelphia.  Services were held in various meeting halls downtown, such as Pioneer Hall, and later at a new meeting hall named the Pythian Castle at 9th and I streets.

Another financial panic ensued in 1893.  This led the Board to release the minister.  Church records show minimal activity until 1911, when Board meetings again took place.  But the congregation may have had money saved for a building program, for six months later it bought land at 27th Street between N and O streets.  In 1915, the congregation built a church on 27th Street.  An article in the Sacramento Bee said it was “constructed of cedar shakes, with brown stained woodwork.  The windows are of amber glass in simple leaded patterns…. The structure cost $8,000.”  So in 1915, we had our first home, and our first visible symbol in the community, since our founding in 1868.  Prior to this, our church history says, the visible symbol of Unitarianism in the community was a person—not its ministers, but a lay leader, Dr. Henry L. Nichols.  A charter member, he held one or another elected position in the church for 47 years.  Imagine being on the Board for 47 years!  A transplant from Maine, Nichols was a leader in Sacramento, one of the organizers of the local Medical Society.  He was a crusader for pure drinking water in the city and served as president of our Board of Supervisors, and as California Secretary of State.  Another founder of the Medical Society, Dr. Alexander Nixon, was also a Unitarian.

When the church was built on 27th Street, the Reverend Charles Pease was our minister, serving for five years.  In the midst of rising inflation, an insufficient salary made it hard for him to stay, and he left in 1918.  Later, the denomination sent out an extension minister who served the church for a year.

Then came Berkeley B. Blake.  He was a local attorney who was a member of our board.  He had run the Sunday School when Charles Pease was minister, and he had some seminary training.  The church ordained him, and in 1922, Blake began serving as the part-time minister for two congregations—ours, and the one in Woodland, about 20 miles west of downtown.  (It no longer exists.)  During Blake’s five years in our ministry, he and the Rabbi of Temple B’Nai Israel held a joint Thanksgiving Day service.  This began a long tradition of yearly activities between the two congregations.

Blake moved on to the Bay Area, to serve in the denomination’s regional office.

In 1927 a young minister came to us by the name of Robert E. Starkey.  Starkey’s burdens in ministry included religious and political tensions about the 1928 presidential election, between a Roman Catholic Democrat, and a Quaker Republican, who was Herbert Hoover.  Then began the Great Depression, late in 1929.  Spending declined in the church, and attendance was erratic.  In 1931, Berkeley Blake, our former minister and now a denominational official, learned that some of the church’s board members were unhappy with Reverend Starkey.  They were planning to meet with him.  Blake advised Starkey to recognize his “lack of success” and submit his resignation, for the good of the church.  He did resign, to the dismay and protest of many church members.  So the Board called a congregational meeting to let members vote on whether to accept Starkey’s resignation.  The vote supported his continued ministry, but Starkey left anyway.  He moved his family to Berkeley.  Six years later, suffering mental anguish and about to be divorced by his wife, he took his life.  The crew of a boat pulled him from the water near the newly constructed San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, “his clothing torn to shreds.”  Starkey was the first suicide from that bridge.

Though it’s not a surprise that funding declined in the Depression, our congregation had always had a struggle with money. From its early years, it had never been self-sustaining.   In the words of our historian, the congregation was “shy about raising money and soliciting members.” The Unitarian Society appealed many times for help to the American Unitarian Association, in Boston.  This help came in the form of subsidies for ministers and grants for meeting space.  For example, though there was no activity here from 1895 to 1911, there is evidence that Board members applied to the denomination for money in 1901.  Money from Boston covered $6,000 of the $8,000 cost of our new 1915 church building (75). In the 1920s, the denomination gave us $2,000 toward Berkeley Blake’s yearly salary of $2,400.  By 1927, Blake’s pay was a whopping $3,000 a year, and then he left for the regional job.  Our history shows, also, that a number of church families often came to the rescue as financial angels (27).

In 1932, without a minister, we held services at night, so Bay Area ministers could make it here after finishing their services at home.  The Depression lasted nearly a decade, during which modest levels of support came from Boston.  Our leaders complained that Boston had always sent us ministers who were young and inexperienced.  The church needed a skilled minster, and for this it asked for a large increase in aid… for just one year.  This is all it would take for us to become self-supporting!  The denomination said no.  So, in 1935, the 20 remaining members halted Sunday services and rented out our building to a Unity church.

However, the Women’s Alliance continued to meet–twice a month.  In fact, during all those ups and downs of church operation over the years, the Alliance met continuously since 1889.  It provided literary and artistic programs for the benefit of the city, and raised funds to give to the congregation and other causes.  Often, it was the Alliance that kept us afloat.  In 1922, the Alliance had 241 dues paying members. The church had only 47.  Though women had been limited to only three seats on the Board, they had represented 2/3 of the church’s membership.  It was through the Alliance that women expressed their leadership and their power.  One of its leaders was Julia Bray, who had joined the church in 1913.  She taught in public schools here for 31 years, and passed away in 1949.  The first fund created by the congregation for memorial gifts was the Julia Bray Fund for religious education.

For nine years, from 1936 to 1945, the church down in Stockton shared its minister with us.  He was Arthur Foote II.  He and his wife lived in Stockton.  In 1945, the Footes left California for a large church in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Along with changes in leadership and membership numbers, our first 100 years included theological changes, reflecting those of many Unitarian churches.  From its early days the Sacramento Society identified itself as a liberal Christian church. Liberal means not only non-Trinitarian, but non-dogmatic and inclusive.   Our sermons dealt with the nature of the Divine, the human nature of Jesus, and the importance of his ideals. How inclusive was this Christianity?   Well, Charles Massey preached these words:

 

[there is] a need for religious sentiment with which to meet the emotions of awe, of wonder, of terror, of love, of delight arising from the mystery by which we feel ourselves eternally surrounded. These emotions belonging to such gifted souls as Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Mohammed and Jesus have been regarded as revelation.

 

He said this in 1889!  And all of us, he said, even “the humblest among us,” have the ability to test such revelations by our own experience. (17)

The church bylaws in the late 1800s said that the members gathered “in the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth for the purpose of sustaining liberal Christian worship.”  In 1913, the church removed that phrase.  In its place, they added this:  “We, whose names are here subscribed, associate ourselves together as a Religious Society for mutual helpfulness in right living and for advancement of sound morals and liberal religion in the community; and we … pledge ourselves to bear our part in common cause and to care for the welfare and influence of the Society.” (23, emphasis added)

In the 1920s, divisions arose in many Unitarian congregations—including this one—as religious humanism emerged to challenge theistic beliefs of the liberal as well as the orthodox variety.  Humanism affirmed reason, intellect and science, and showed faith in the inevitable, never-ending improvement of humanity.  Sometimes humanism saw science as our salvation.  The majority of members who identified themselves as holding more “traditional Unitarian” ideas may have felt threatened by humanism.  According to our historian, such divisions may have added to the stress on Robert Starkey’s troubled ministry with us in the late 1920s.

In the mid-1940s, however, it was clear that religious humanism was dominant in this congregation.  It was also clear that the church was poised for growth in the years after World War Two.  Sacramento itself was growing at 1,000 people per month.  People were moving to California, and the Baby Boom was booming.  Our next minister was Theodore Abell.  He had gone to a Methodist college in Ohio and become a Methodist minister.  At age 30, he was expelled for his lack of belief in church doctrine.  In Southern California, Ted Abell was introduced to Unitarianism and Humanism.  He founded and led the Hollywood Humanist Society, and hosted a radio program.  He came up to Sacramento and served in the State welfare department as a social worker.  He began working for us part time, until the church could raise enough money to pay him full-time.  He served us for 15 pivotal years.

His efforts included raising the proportion of men involved in the church from 1/3 to close to 50%, typing a mimeograph for a monthly newsletter and ensuring the retention of it and other records for archival purposes, and encouraging the congregation to pay its own way and stop relying on the denomination for subsidies. This reliance didn’t end until 1951.  In particular, Ted Abell urged us to pay for facilities that would be adequate for our needs.

In 1950, Sunday school attendance shot up from 20 to 79 children.  The church bought a house next to out building on 27th street, and built a religious education building on the lot.  Money still being a challenge, they built it themselves.  The chair of the building committee, Wayne Perkins, worked hard on it, even though he no longer had young children.  He said he was doing it “for other people’s children” (67).  On Easter Sunday in 1951, 200 people attended, our largest crowd ever to that date.  In 1953, we held a Big Rally to wipe out the mortgage debt and start a new building fund.  In the 1950s, most American congregations were thriving and bursting at the seams, including ours.  Soon we would have 200 children.

In 1956, Society members voted to buy a farm of almost six acres, out here, four miles from our Midtown site.  Again, members did much of the construction work themselves.  This included making the hexagonal molds for the windows in the poured-concrete walls of this Main Hall and the Religious Education building.  We raised money in a capital campaign, took out a 10-year bank loan and a smaller loan from the denomination.  The first event in this completed church was a strawberry social in June of 1960.

While all that work was taking place, controversy brought a tragic air to our success.  Six months earlier, a congregational meeting considered a bylaws amendment that would make a compulsory retirement age of 68 for any minister.  Ted Abell was already 68. Voting members balked at this amendment.  They revised the amendment to apply only to future ministers, and to raise the age to 70.  They passed a resolution praising Ted Abell’s ministry and asking him to stay, but only by a vote of 93 to 40.  Hurt by all this, and hoping for unity for the congregation’s future, Abell resigned.

His last day in the pulpit was June 19, 1960.  Members thanked him and his wife for their service with a gift of a new 1960 Plymouth Valiant.  Yet he was no longer our minister by July 10, when we held our first service here in this space.  Why did we have such an awkward way of urging the minister to quit?  I’m not sure.  Perhaps lay leaders noted a decline in his behavior and his cognitive abilities.  Indeed, one or two members had noted behaviors, which later would be understood as symptoms of a brain tumor.  By September he was very sick, and on November 22, Ted Abel passed away.

I can scarcely imagine a more dramatic time in the life of a congregation.  Well, times got better here, and they became difficult again.  Awkward struggle and brilliant success are woven through our history, as they are through most institutions and indeed through most nations, throughout human history.  Failures and new starts, heartache and hope are part of our story.

This is our story.  It seems to me that those who came before us were doing the best that they knew how.  This is all that we can try to do—the best that we can.  They did so much work, not only for themselves and their children, but for us and for our children.

They of did so much work not only for their own ambitions and needs, but for us, for all of us who have come after them.  It is good to say thank you, and to continue doing the best that we know how.  So may it be.

 

 

 

 


[i] Arnold Crompton, Unitarianism on the Pacific Coast (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1957).

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