What I thought of while watching “Wonder Woman”

A version of this post was originally created as for the June 10 newsletter for the Universalist Christian Initiative.

I don’t think it is a spoiler to state the the film Wonder Woman (link plays audio) has been re-set to take place in World War One, and that is has scenes of wartime fighting. (She’s been around seventy-five years as a heroic Amazon warrior-princess and was introduced in the Second World War.)

I like the film very much, and if you like action films you should see it; it includes themes that I can’t discuss without giving away the plot. It was it in mind that I afterwards started reading John van Schaick’s The Little Corner Never Conquered, an account of the work of the American Red Cross in Belgium in World War One, and immediately thereafter. It’s available at Archive.org here.

Picture of Red Cross officers including John van Schaick

The “little corner” refers to that part of northwest Belgium unoccupied by the Germans, west of the Western Front, but though unoccupied was still atacked, creating refugees, and maiming and killing countless numbers of people. Van Schaick (pronounced “van skoik”) was a Universalist minister, and indeed a ministerial predecessor of mine in the Washington parish, known since 1930 as Universalist National Memorial Church. Even now, the parish parlor is named for him, his wife Julia and her parents. But van Schaick was not there in a ministerial role — he took a leave of absence — serving with the American Red Cross; he and Julia and the others were there to help those who could not help themselves, and did so with humility worth emulating. They accepted constraints (still not universally held); they did what was needed by taking the lead and cue from Belgians. They were there to support, not to control. All of this starting a hundred years a few weeks ago…

It’s a thrilling read, but not an adventure story; understatement hides horrors. John repeats Julia’s work as a nurse’s aide — a matter-of-fact list, from a day book? — caring for wounded American soldiers behind the lines:

Took down records of the wounded American soldiers, four papers for each. Collected patients’ letters, took them to censor, who was a wounded officer on top floor. Translated a letter written in Italian into English, so censor could pass on it. Got the passes for the slightly wounded going out. Fed soldiers helpless through wounds in hands or arms, or very ill. Gave out newspapers, fruit, matches, cigarettes and writing paper. Handed out uniforms for men going out for the day and other clothing like socks and underwear. Washed feet. Prepared special soup on alcohol lamp. Bathed very ill men on head and hands with cologne. Put into English lists of surgical appliances and material the French surgeons were asking of the American Red Cross. Attended funerals of the boys who died and was the only woman at the grave of some of them. Got the wreaths for these funerals, tied them with our colors and put them on the casket. Brought back the American flag from the grave. Wrote to families of the dead boys. Prepared little boxes in which boys could keep bullets or pieces of shell taken out of them. Helped an American sergeant entertain his French sweet-heart and her mother who had come to visit him. Telephoned. Sorted, counted and sent out dirty linen. Got men ready to take motor rides. Wrote letters for men. Interpreted for doctors, nurses and patients. Mended clothes. Picked up trash. (p. 52)

How horribly maimed must have the “very ill” been? The thought of Julia Romaine van Schaick’s care, as an stand-in for all those who risked health, safety and life humbles me. She was not there in a religious capacity, but her humanitarian care looks a lot like the soul of ministry to me. Remember them, too, in these centennial years — and remember those who put themselves at risk today in your charitable giving and, if the opportunity opens, with your talents. And remember: stories like these call us to higher service, if we would listen.

Want more? Yesterday I visited the National Postal Museum. A new exhibit on World War One opened. If you can’t make it to Washington, D.C., see highlights on their website.

My Fellow Soldiers: Letters from World War I

Happy Desert Mothers Day

In brief, the Desert Mothers were third- and fourth-centry acetic, monastic women who took to the Egyptian desert. They, and the Desert Fathers, often developed a reputation as spiritual teachers. Their wisdom continued as an oral tradition and later set down.

Here are two sayings from particulary well-regarded Mother Syncletica:

Do not let yourself be seduced by the delights of the riches of the world, as though they contained something useful on account of vain pleasure. Worldly people esteem the culinary art, but you, through fasting and thanks to cheap food, go beyond their abundance of food. It is written: “He who is sated loathes honey.” (Prov. 27.7) Do not fill yourself with bread and you will not desire wine.’

She also said, ‘Those who have endured the labours and dangers of the sea and then amass material riches, even when they have gained much desire to gain yet more and they consider what they have at present as nothing and reach out for what they have not got. We, who have nothing of that which we desire, wish to acquire everything through the fear of God.

(Apophthegmata Patrum: The Sayings Of The Desert Fathers, Sr. Benedicta translation)

Painting depicting Syncletica of Alexandria, from the Menologion of Basil II (c. 1000)

Reflecting on Neoliberalism

I was telling some friends that I thought the biggest un-talked-about story in Unitarianland is the discussion of Neoliberalism that came up during the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches early in Holy Week — not the best time for ministers overseas to take note, to be sure.

Andrew Brown, the minister to the Cambridge church, wrote about this at the time (“Neoliberalism’s Destructive Influence Both Inside and Outside the Modern Unitarian Movement, ” April 13,  Caute) and so I would recommend you read that; I’m running down the links he suggests and going to find that George Monbiot book I bought and never got around to reading. (We’ve all done that, right?)

What made me think this was important was the how sungly most of us are within a Neoliberal worldview and how that undercuts our faithfulness; limits our ability to use it effectively where appropriate; and (getting back to the issues that were captivating American Unitarian Universalists this Holy Week) distorts the ways we speak with one another.

I was going to write up this beautiful analysis, but by the time I did that (if I ever did that) the moment would be lost. Instead, I recommend the above article — and that we keep it on our radar.

“Ancient History of Universalism” is ready

Later: I’ve already made one fix to a note, and created a pretty hacky PDF of the book — ignore the title page and how the chapters are numbered at the top — by request. Again, better asthetics later.

Download the PDF at http://universalistchristian.org/books/ancient-history/ancient-history.pdf.

I’ve also created an ePub — to download at http://universalistchristian.org/books/ancient-history/ancient-history.epub — and I’d appreciate feedback on its readability.


Two days ago, I mentioned how I was processing the Ancient History of Universalism for the web. I’ve gotten to a good stopping place and would like to share the work with you.

It’s on the site I use for my Universalist Christian Initiative, at http://universalistchristian.org/books/ancient-history/.

A fascinating read, but a slow start so you may want to jump into the middle. Chapter nine is a story of intrigue with a vivid mental picture of what is now the West Bank. I imagine it would have been thrilling to those who would have had no other way to “see” it.

And be sure to dig into the footnotes, which in several places show the progress of scholarship in the generations after Hosea Ballou, II, particularly this note on whether Theodoret was a Universalist and whether Universalism was condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Other notes, apologies from Ballou, for works he could not afford to buy or borrow to consult leave a twinge, particularly since they can be looked up online in scanned reproduction today.

Like this … A Latin and Greek text condemning Origenism. (extract)

As you may note, it’s a very basic design; the whole book with notes and index (no internal links, I’m afraid) is a mere 162 kb. My goal is to make bulky resources like these easy to download on the fly, with aesthetic improvements later. If you see typos — I couldn’t have gotten them all — send me a note and I’ll make periodic fixes.

Some process notes. I got the messy text from https://archive.org/details/ancienthistoryof1872ball, I edited the text with the Atom editor, in Markdown, and processed it with pandoc. (If you’re comfortable with the command line.)

pandoc -s -S --toc -c basic.css inputtext.md -o output.html

I was inspired by a set of very vulgarly-named and written websites promoting simple web design, the names of which are outside the standards of this blog. Search for the most vulgar words you know, plus “website” and you’ll surely find one, but there’s a competition of imitators. I also consulted Practical Typography’s section on websites for confirmation.

I’ve worked up the outline of a style guide for this book, which I learned years ago helps maintain consistancy and easy for modern readers. I really should type that up.

Preparing an online version of “Ancient History of Universalism”

I’ve been writing a blog since 2003, and this is post #4,000. I saw this coming and thought it deserved a little something extra.

Earlier this week I was speaking with a friend and colleague about Universalism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and recalled to him Hosea Ballou II’s 1828 Ancient History of Universalism, which traced the doctrine from the period from the end of the writing of the New Testament to thhe Fifth Ecumenical Council, particularly in the East. Among other things, the work positions Universalism within the entirety of Christian history and not as an innovation then a scant two or three generations old. And given the role Hosea Ballou II played within the denomination, his influence would have been important in his lifetime. I thought to read it, and knowing from my early (1990s) transcription projects that the best way to read one of these old works — and retain any memory of it — is to edit it for web publication, and that’s what I am doing to celebrate post #4,000.

It’s not the first edition nor the second, but the 1872 edition, with added notes. I’m about half-way through, and will post it online as a web page and intend to create an epub edition, suitable for most book readers. (If you want a print reproduction copy of the first edition, get one here.)

And what value is it today? Among other things, to see how a leading and influential Universalist saw his faith and contrasted with others (allegory is silly; reason, good) and to have handy access to those texts (including biblical texts) that early Universalists used to support the faith. And perhaps past both of these, to enjoy a grand piece of period scholarship and to inspire new studies; I’ve since ordered a modern history of Origen to take me where HB2 couldn’t.

I’ll post afresh when and where the files go up.

Hiram, Maine Universalist church disbands

No sooner did I beg off following news from the UUA Board than a couple of people kindly noted news in the Board packet for the meeting this weekend. There was — with a gigantic and startling packet of recent Board correpondence — the news, that the First Universalist Society, Hiram, Maine had “dissolved.” (I prefer the term “disbands” as it seems less like it was dropped in a barrel of acid.)

The Hiram church was not large. In my copy of the 2001 UUA directory, it reported four members. Even in 1878 (a quick look at the registers online) only show 28 families in the parish. The inland town has also never been large, and while in a beautiful setting that doesn’t mean that any church could keep residents, or attract ministers. Its existance, in any form, was its accomplishment.

It was listed as federated. I don’t know what it’s federation partners were, but if they continue I hope they have long years of ministry ahead. (Perhaps this community church, converted last year to a cultural center?) If not, I hope the people of Hiram find and create ministry where they can.

What church is that in the header?

A friend asked if the church in the header was Universalist. Indeed it is, or was. That is Universalist Meeting House, Hingham, Massachusetts. The image, now in the public domain, was extracted and hosted a Flickr.

This is the original source, The History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts.

Phoebe Hanaford was one of its pastors. The church disbanded in 1929 — so many disbanded in that decade — and the building, which still stands, has been converted to a private house.  Its papers are in the Unitarian Universalist archive at Harvard-Andover Library.

How I’ll approach the Unitarian Universalist Association

A couple of centuries ago, had I been a General Baptist — a group later folded with the Unitarians — I might be at the annual conference, held in London each Easter Monday. This Easter Monday I want to revisit my relationship with the Unitarian Universalist Association. You may see your experience in my words.

First, I’m not storming off in a huff, but hasn’t this last week been a challenge? Or is that the last year? Last decade? But there is this malaise, and it’s only improved by not thinking about the UUA.

In fact, not being in a pastorate since 2003, I’ve had little functional connection to the central institutions of the UUA, but had thought it better to stay as engaged as possible. I felt that was my responsibility. Even now I have some forms on my desk to fill out. So I follow the programs, read the Board minutes, stay informed and attend General Assembly when possible. But even though there aren’t fewer words, there’s less to read. Theological conversations? Engaging with counterparts overseas? A new hymnal? (New churches for that matter?) I look at the work of the UUA that appealed to me twenty years ago, and see less every year. Much of what continues has been sourced outside the UUA (or dropped), and with unseating of the independent affiliates (and the undermining of the Commission on Appraisal) that “outside” is also sidelined. GA workshops, save the UUCF communion service, are worthless to me. (Lunch is always an option.)  If I seem farther away from the center, maybe it’s because the scope of the UUA has shrunk, and I’ve spoken to others who feel the same way.

Instead, so much of the work of the UUA seems invested in maintaining the UUA itself. And the language of “your UUA” and “our saving faith” (definition forthcoming) seems to replace program with identity. But as Universalist Christian, that’s a non-starter. I could use programs, but the majority identity, itself under stress from demographic changes that all the old mainline churches face, actually makes it harder to make a claim a place in a theological federation.

So, what’s left that mostly works? Ministerial credentialing, the retirement plan, and (for those in search) settlement. I read the UUWorld, and I really like Elaine McArdle‘s writing. If everything else magically vanished, I might notice, but might not care. (Others will have other lists, of course.)  If the other work is meaningful, it would find a new home anyway.

There are, of course, friends and colleagues who do good work, and I want to support them; I can do this directly. There’s a vacuum (vacUUm?) that will needed to be filled. But there’s no reason I should examine UUA membership data if it’s clear from the outset that the outcome is “smaller.” If the UUA does not make communal religious life easier and richer, then others will find a way to do it better. Maybe the next president — I have no opinion about who that should be — will improve things, and if that happens I hope someone will tell me. In the meantime, I will focus on the innovators, the activity at the fringes, co-workers in the ecumenical world and my personal friends. I don’t have time to worry about the UUA, and so that’ll be the last I have to say on the subject.

Easter Sunday, 1954

A couple of weeks ago, I found the online archive of the Unitarian Universalist Church, in Muncie, Indiana, and found the summary order of service from April 18, 1954: Easter Sunday.

Here it is:

April 18, 1954 service

This was First Universalist Church, as it was know then, and just renamed from St. John’s Universalist Church. Let’s decode the service.

The “tell” is from the first line. The service is the Easter service from Services of Religion, prepended to the “red hymnal,” The Hymns of the Spirit.

This makes the hymns (483) “Fairest Lord Jesus” and (192) Charles Wesley’s famous “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” The doxology (500) begins “Praise God the love we all may share.”

Responsive Reading 72, entitled “Easter,” is mainly drawn from the third and fourth chapter apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon (the citations in the index should read verses 1-9, not verse 19; it’s a mix of KJV and RV, with some heavy edits) and reads:

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
And there shall no torment touch them.

In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die,
And their departure is taken for misery,
And their going from us to be utter destruction:

But they are in peace: and their hope full of immortality.
And having borne a little chastening, they shall receive great good:

For God proved them, and found them worthy for himself.

And in the time of their visitation they shall shine forth,
And the Lord shall reign over them for ever.

The faithful shall abide with him in love:
Because grace and mercy are to his chosen.

For in the memory of virtue is immortality:
Because it is recognized both before God and before men.

When it is present men take example at it:
And when it is gone they desire it:
And throughout all time it marcheth crowned in triumph,
Victorious in the strife for the prizes that are undefiled.

But a righteous man, though he die before his time, shall be at rest.

For honorable old age is not that which standeth in length of time,
Nor is its measure given by length of years:

But understanding is gray hairs unto men,
And an unspotted life is ripe old age.

Being made perfect in a little while,
he fulfilled long years;
For his soul was pleasing unto the Lord:

And they that be wise shall shine
As the brightness of the firmament,

And they that turn many to righteousness
As the stars for ever and ever.

For the path of the just is as a shining light
That shineth more and more unto the perfect day.


It’s interesting that the anthems proceed thematically from Thursday to Sunday. I tried to track down the organ music and anthems, but none of the titles are distinct enough to shake anything useful out of Google.

And the preacher? The Rev. Sidney Esten (1892-1965) was not the church’s pastor. (That was the famous Russell Lockwood, would be installed that fall; perhaps he hadn’t arrived yet?) After studying at St. Lawrence, Esten was ordained and served at the long-gone Anderson, Indiana Universalist church; he also taught school. Money was tight, and — per his obituary from the Indiana Academy of Science (PDF) — it seems Anderson was his only pastorate. But he married people and supplies pulpits for years. (Sounds familiar.) He later got a graduate degree and taught science in an Indianapolis high school. He was a  “noted authority on birds” — indeed, feeding birds when he died suddenly.

I would have been happy to have been there. Can you image the flowers? Happy Easter to you, when it comes!

Muncie, Indiana Universalist records online

The Unitarian Universalist church in Muncie, Indiana has a Universalist foundation, and so I was happy to find a digitized archive online today while I was casting around for citations for today’s Universalist Christian Initiative newsletter.

Haven’t dug much into it. Enjoy!

http://libx.bsu.edu/cdm/landingpage/collection/UUCRec