Some Notes on Unitarian Church Extension in the South
By George Leonard Chaney
Read at the Southern Conference held in Richmond, VA.
Grenfell of Labrador says: “When you set out to commend your gospel to men who don’t particularly want it, there is only one way to set about it—to do something for them which they will be able to understand.”
To do something for them which they would understand – to do something helpful – not merely or chiefly to say something intelligible – that is the way to set about church extension at the South and elsewhere. The credentials of his mission which Jesus sent to John the Baptist were things to see as well as hear: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have gospel preached to them.
When I came South in 1881—82, thirty odd years ago, it was with the desire to help our Southern brethren to redeem their waste places and to make straight paths to walk in. If I had been a farmer or an engineer, I should have preached the gospel of diversified crops and good roads, and lent a hand to make them; but being only a Unitarian minister, what I had to offer them was a Unitarian church and gospel. Happily, the gospel was worth giving, and its fitness (if applied) to give peace and progress to those who accepted it was of proved excellence. A ministry of fourteen years in its service in Boston and of eight years in Atlanta, had given me some preparedness for the task in Richmond, and I took it up, as the first and most important thing I could do, as Southern superintendent for the American Unitarian Association, to which office I had been elected. The minute I felt free to leave Atlanta I came to Richmond to live, and from this point as a centre to carry on the work at large.
Richmond was then, and is still, the Jerusalem of the South, whither the tribes go up. I would rather see a strong, earnest, living and life-giving church of our kind in Richmond than in half a dozen less exemplary cities. I call it exemplary because men do take example at it, and what is well done there is likely to do well elsewhere. It is therefore a hope fulfilled when I find myself today in a church of the good-will and sober second thought, as I like to regard our ecclesiastical body. Other men have labored, and we have entered into the fruit of their labors. The noble army of martyrs has had its following in the goodly fellowship of the prophets who in faithful succession have carried on the work here, – Chaney, Seaton, Robinson, Bowser, Pratt. Each has done his part, but no one of us, I think, quite equaled in staying quality and readiness for self—sacrifice those stanch lay members of our church, who to this day champion and support its cause. Some of them have moved to other places, but none to other opinions; some have fallen by the way, but with such joy in believing, that they have proved their religion as good to die by as to live with. Their memory commends to those who knew them the faith that made them faithful. These and their partners were the martyrs whose blood is said to be the seed of the Church.
It ought also to be remembered in any just memorial of this church that, although it was newly begun in 1890, it was built upon an old foundation. The Unitarian religion was indigenous in Virginia, and had its church, first called Unitarian-Universalist or Independent Christian in 1829 – 30.
Channing, when a young man teaching in the family of Randolph, learned here the charitable temper which made him always able to distinguish between the evil of slavery, which he hated, and the excellent people many of whom were its conscientious custodians; and Dr. E. H. Chapin, the most distinguished Universalist preacher of his day, was a minister in the church in Richmond, early in his ministry.
Jefferson, as you know, predicted that in a hundred years every young man in America would be a Unitarian. His prophecy was not so far wrong as it may seem, for everybody knows that a rational reading of Christianity and modern science has practically brought the working creed of all the churches to the same saving conclusion, that God is one and that his mercy is everlasting—the foundation principles of the Unitarian gospel.
This church died in the Civil War. Two solitary women, the last of the confessed members of the old-time Unitarian-Universalist church, when they came to its tomb, with their spices and ointments, rejoiced together to find it not dead but risen.
The old church edifice was standing in 1890, but in no sense serviceable. The only relic of it remaining is one of its pulpit chairs. From this chair, as from a genuine cathedral (ex cathedra), your word of counsel and fellowship, never of ecclesiastical authority, goes forth to all the churches of the Southern Conference and bids them welcome to Richmond and to Richmond’s early faith.
With the new beginning of our church here, began that system of local superintendency of the Southern churches, which is the condition of all effective church extension. The pity of it is that it was ever intermitted, as it was in 1896.
Today with late repentance, although, happily, not of the death-bed variety, the Association begins again its missionary mobilization under trained officers, and the minister of the church in Richmond is the field secretary of the American Unitarian Association.
We had an organ then, the Southern Unitarian, and it was my business, as its editor and superintendent for the South, to see that the churches, alliances, societies, and individual believers of our immense diocese reported in it every month. The map of the Southern field as published in an early number of this magazine, with its stars locating our societies, formed or proposed, and the places where we had interested correspondents, looked like a celestial map and was itself, as Mrs. Kate Gannett Wells declared, the only argument needed for the maintenance and development of the Southern field.
I believe that the selection of the South as pre-eminently our missionary opportunity was the real test of the capacity of Unitarianism for the work of church extension. Not the line of least resistance, but the place of greatest need, is the true course of missions.
The women of The Alliance saw this from the first and gave to the Southern work their hearty support and substantial assistance.
There was work enough outside this city for any ordinary superintendent, and the only way in which it was possible to meet the needs of Richmond and attend to the field at large, was to get a second man as assistant. Mr. Joseph M. Seaton, then a recent graduate of the Meadville Theological School, came to the rescue and did excellent work here and hereabouts. We made a Sunday visit, I recall, to Norfolk, and I like to remember it as the very acme of my missionary career. I went first, and Seaton was to follow on the succeeding Sunday. With my not infrequent enemy, the weather, I had a rainy Sunday, and the morning congregation consisted of the janitor. I doubt if any zealous advocate of a new and worthy cause ever had a less responsive audience. But no, I take that back. My wife was there, and between the musical offerings of the service, which she accompanied and for the most part was, she occupied the otherwise empty benches and gave attentive hearing to the preached word. Oh, we put it through, congregation or no congregation, and, although I do not remember a word of the sermon or what we sang, I do remember a sort of sublime feeling that after that we were ready for any service which might be put upon us.
In the evening a beggarly half-dozen turned out, and among them was a man who has since made a great reputation for himself as preacher, reformer, and editor. I heard him address a thousand people in the Plaza Theatre at St. Petersburg, Fla., the other Sunday, at a temperance rally; but I did not see any evidence of conversion to our faith in Rev. Sam Small’s sermon. His free and forcible use of hell and damnation in the disposition of his opponents was a prominent feature in his discourse.
Mr. Seaton had a better reception on the Sunday following my voice crying in the wilderness. I am thankful to hear that after many years Norfolk is looking our way, and that better seed and cultivation are promising better results.
If there ever was a State which deserved freedom and utility in religion, Virginia is that State. She breathed the breath of life into our sires when they fainted for independence, and nothing but the dead-weight of a belated and inconsistent economic order kept her from her birthright. It is our privilege to help her to come to her own in a church of freedom in religion. To do so would be to reinstate the lifelong faith of Jefferson and Marshall, and to match the passion of Patrick Henry for liberty with a religion and a church which, like Channing, its most illustrious leader, is always young for liberty.
But I am forgetting that you expect of me only stray leaves from my church-extension notes at the South, not pulpit oratory. Thus far I have spoken under the spell of the place and confined myself to Richmond reminiscences, which is really beginning at the end. Atlanta was the open door through which we entered the South. It was open only a crack, and we had to push a little to get in. A letter of introduction from my friend, Edward Atkinson of Boston, to Gov. Colquitt of Atlanta won for me the use of the Senate Chamber for a couple of Sundays, and there an audience of seventy people gave me their attention, while I preached to them the Unitarian gospel.
There was more curiosity than sympathy in that congregation, and more of courtesy – that unfailing Southern grace – than of either. So far as I knew, there was only one family of Unitarians in Atlanta. In this family there were three members, and two of them were unable to listen to preaching because of deafness. But they were highly esteemed in that community, and their friends made up in large part the not unfriendly body of my hearers. The man of this family had said, in an hour of zealous affection for the liberal cause, that he would give a thousand dollars to see a Unitarian church in Atlanta.
So loud a call from Macedonia as that could not fail of a response from our missionary body. They had sent a young minister to spy out the land, who promptly returned with the tidings of “nothing doing” or to be done in Atlanta. I was then a member of the Executive Board of the Association and very zealous in sending other ministers into the field. So, for very shame, when I was asked to go myself, I could not refuse.
After our two Sundays in the Senate Chamber, came Concordia Hall, – discordant memory, – where for six mortal months I made trial of my faith. It rained precisely forty days and forty nights in succession that season in Atlanta, but the floods did not reach us in the third story. On my return to Boston, after this inquisitorial expedition to the South, I was unable to report much progress, far less to ask an extension of time. In the exact language of my report, I said that, “with all eternity before me and the American Unitarian Association behind,” I believed a Unitarian church could be planted in Atlanta.
Eight years later, when the thing was done, I used to say that after that experience I would undertake to raise a church in the desert of Sahara. Robert Collyer used to call it, in his homely way, “Dip up a church,” as if all one had to do was to bring his pail to the waters and thrust it in.
The time would fail me if I should undertake to chronicle in detail all the tortures of the faithful few who wrought righteousness, and out of weakness were made strong; and yet “having obtained a good report through faith they received not the promise, God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.”
Suffice it to say that in Atlanta, as elsewhere, a lot of patience had to be added to faith before our church was established. The Egyptian contract of making bricks without straw was easy compared to the later business of making walls without bricks.
We had another winter of discontent in the Supreme Court Room, in the Government Post – office building, of which a not unfriendly critic said that she would not go to that Yankee Courthouse to hear Saint Paul preach. Needless to say that she did not come to hear me.
However, inside of fifteen months, thanks to individual friends inside and outside the church, we had a really truly church building of our own, with an adjoining property which paid the Association five per cent on its loan and two hundred dollars over, toward the support of our society.
In ten years this property increased in value from seven thousand five hundred dollars to forty thousand, and today if it were in the market would bring one hundred thousand. Thus the Association received its own with usury, and the new church in Atlanta today is in a better situation than it had before, and the original site is occupied by the Carnegie Library, in which, under the name of the Young Men’s Library, our church was most interested. Indeed, our church library of fifteen hundred volumes was the first really free library in the city, and its travelling libraries began that mission of light.
By way of illustration of the text from Grenfell with which we set out, I may be allowed to say that we consoled ourselves for the limitation of our Sunday opportunities by distinct and permanent contribution to education, charity, social invigoration, and administrative reform— in a word, by doing things which could be understood. The Artisan’s Institute, which began in our church, laid the foundation for the Georgia Institute of Technology, now the pride and reliance of the State. Atlanta University for the Freedmen added to its curriculum education in handwork in workshop and garden. Our Literature and Art Club and the History Class, now in its thirtieth year, united in the amenities of belles-lettres the people divided by the asperities of party religion. The Home for the Friendless and the Industrial School, with its domestication of the poorer white girls, showed how possible it was to be charitable without the lust for ecclesiastical increase, and the Woman’s Exchange offered to the proudly poor a means of alleviating their poverty without sacrifice of their just pride. I mention these specific things because they show what I mean by church extension, by world inclusion in whatever makes for the common good.
With the planting of the church in Atlanta, other things became possible.
The church in Chattanooga soon followed, – an infant crying in the night and fed by evening services from Atlanta after the morning service there was over. Then in 1884, at the dedication of the Atlanta church, the Southern Conference was formed, a process requiring more make-believe than reality at the start. With Charleston and New Orleans half a continent apart, and Atlanta midway between them, and with Louisville, Baltimore, and Washington already united to other Conferences, what was there wherewith to make a Southern Conference? There was Cincinnati, with its ever-friendly minister, George A. Thayer, and his church, and Washington, which, belonging to us all, knows no limit to its fraternity, and there was Chattanooga, still in its long-clothes.
Later on, with the young societies in Asheville, Highlands, N.C., Memphis, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, and Fort Worth in Texas, the churches in Richmond and Highland Springs, the circuit work of Rev. J. C. Gibson in Florida, and of Mr. Dukes in North Carolina, and Mr. Shultz in Texas, and scattered believers in all the Southern States who were found and fed by our Women’s Alliances and, last but not least in importance, our elder sister societies in St. Louis, Baltimore, and Louisville, acknowledging their kinship and allegiance to us, we had a Southern Conference worthy of the name. That Conference, therefore, in its present session must not think itself a recent accomplishment. Before 1896 there were four organized societies in Texas, a ministry-at-large under the devoted Shultz, and no end of corresponding friends throughout the State. Memphis had as worthy and hopeful a church as was ever ruined by ministerial misfit and administrative misfortune. Asheville, a city set on a hill, had its light kept burning. That daydream in which your president indulges of a society in Birmingham was almost a reality in 1890, and prevented only by the wrong man in the right place; and Nashville had heard the word preached as only the wise and saintly Tilden could preach it.
With so much begun in the way of church extension at the South, and with the sane and sensible method of local superintendency working well enough till we could do better, it would seem that something promising if not wholly adequate to the size and importance of the field might be done in the Unitarian name here.
What should hinder, one might ask, our cooling gospel from going on to conquer and to be conquered—for both are parts of the same progress in religion? Nothing but mistakes, misgivings, misappointments alias disappointments, such as enter into all organized religion and make one wonder sometimes whether any form of religion can keep its religion without parting with its organization.
In spite of these things, our pacifying campaign has gone on, and today, with recovered sense and seasoned wisdom, we meet to take up the work anew.
I congratulate the Southern Conference that it meets in Richmond in a church so sweetly old-fashioned that it looks as if it had been here a hundred years, as, in fact, its spirit, thought, and life have been and are, – the spirit of liberty, the sober, second thought of justice, the life that spends its life and in spending lives anew.
Source: The Christian Register found in Google Books, Vol. 94, No. 20, May 18, 1916, Pages: 11 – 13 (467 – 469)