August 28, 2022
Rev. Maddie continues her series on the history and theologies of Universalism with a look at a Universalist pilgrimage from the East to California when the Universalist Conventions were taken to the Pacific Coast in 1915, thought by many at the time to be a “dangerous if not impossible enterprise.” We look at Frederick A. Bisbee’s memories of that time and wonder how it informed our early years of Universalism in Santa Paula.
Today we continue with our stream of Universalism within Unitarian Universalism, blending this morning with my focus on pilgrimage that I started last Sunday. Before I get into that and a fun California Pilgrimage I discovered, a little explanation that may be helpful for those newer among us. Many of you will remember that once there were once two denominations, Universalist and Unitarian, which differed considerably from each other going back in history but which met and merged or consolidated after decades of “approchement” to be the Unitarian Universalist Association back in 1961. Each congregation within both denominations had to vote whether to join and it was not a slam dunk, especially amongst our Universalist forebears.
A colleague of mine, Kimberley Debus, once served a formerly Universalist congregation where one of her members was a seventh generation Universalist. Her family had served the congregation in lay and ministerial positions for nearly the entire life of that church. In fact, the Matriarch made sure that the second thing Rev. Kimberley learned from her (after her name) was her lineage in the congregation.
Rev. Kimberly had to be careful when she talked about the denomination, to lean into the “Universalist” a bit more than the “Unitarian” – because every time the Matriarch thought Kimberly forgot she was serving a Universalist congregation, she reminded her that “Unitarian is the adjective that describes what kind of Universalists we are”…. and then she proceeded to get angry at those people who gathered in Syracuse in 1961 and agreed to the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America. Her arguments weren’t without merit – there were some concerning issues around the finances and leadership, and a fear that the Universalists would be subsumed. But yes, she was still bitter about merger. But for today, what you need to know is that there were two denominations which merged into one and our church was Universalist.
As some of you know, our congregation is the third formerly Universalist congregation in a row that I have served, the previous two being in Wakefield and Milford, Massachusetts. And in all my years of supply preaching, I led worship in many more, including two in Maine, Waterville and Pittsfield, both way south of Caribou where I recently went on a sort of Pilgrimage in search of what might our founders have brought from that frontier to this one back in the late 1880s. Along the way, I noticed that Universalism had a different flavor than the very humanist formerly Unitarian church where I became a UU, First Parish in Wayland as well as First Parish in Concord where I worked as a soprano soloist and the UU Church of Reading where I was music director, all before I went to seminary. And I came to realize that I have a great affinity for Universalism.
Over the years it has become clear to me that it is important for us all to know our history to be able to plan for our future and whatever our legacy might be. It is important to know about John Murray, Hosea Ballou (both the 1st and the 2nd), Phebe Hanaford, and stories such as the arrival of Murray in America, sometimes referred to as the Universalist miracle. And as I told my Wakefield congregation at the 200th anniversary celebration I coordinated in 2013, Universalism permeated the walls of their church and it is important to notice it. And I feel the same way about this place. I could say a lot more about that but I want to get into our special California pilgrimage for today.
Some of my colleagues know that I am interested in Universalism—and especially how it got to California—and so it was that one of my colleagues, Jane Rzepka, who was retiring sent me several books apropos to my current interest, one might say passion. Among those volumes was this one, A California Pilgrimage by Frederick A. Bisbee, published by The Murray Press in Boston in 1915. I have been trying to find out more about Bisbee who appears to have been a layperson. Reading his memoir of this pilgrimage with 300 Universalists across country was a compelling snapshot of the times. I used words of Bisbee himself as our quote in our Order of Service today:
It was an adventure of faith and a victory of faith.
It was a triumph of cooperation.
It was a revelation of our Church to ourselves,
showing undreamed of capacities and resources.
It was a prophecy of a brighter, a bigger and a better future.
That was quite the tall order for a pilgrimage out west. I am still researching but it doesn’t show up in the more recent books on Universalism, which goes to show that triumphs can be short lived and prophecies “of a brighter, a bigger and a better future” can come to not, especially since this is took place before two world wars, the Depression, the Dust Bowl and all manner of things. In fact the Harvard Square Library, one of the historical sources I often consult, says “this specific conference itself has largely fallen out of memory.” But I responded to the joy that Bisbee takes in the telling of his tales and the glimpse of Southern Californian Universalism in the early Twentieth Century that it reveals, including a brief mention of Santa Paula although I am doubtful they visited our church. I’m still researching though, so who knows!
One hundred years ago, the United Universalist Conventions met in Pasadena, California, for their 1915 convention. I am grateful to the Harvard Square Library for this synopsis of the event: “This was no ordinary gathering of early twentieth-century religious liberals… The convention proper started with a train journey that began in Boston and crossed the continental United States, stopping at Chicago, Salt Lake City, and other major cities, each time picking up Universalist “pilgrims” bound for Pasadena. Along the way, participants published a newsletter on board the train, and sang from a hymnal and song book specially composed for the occasion.
“Today, we might not think of such a journey for a religious convention as all that notable, but as Frank A. Bisbee’s history of the 1915 convention makes clear, a journey to the west for the denomination’s annual meeting was no less than a stupendous undertaking. The endeavor succeeded, though, in greater proportion than its planners could have imagined. Several hundred visitors to the Pacific Coast were treated to stunning sights available [at the time] only in photographs and the imagination: towering palm trees, warm breezes, and what remained, in many ways, a distant frontier.” All for $165 round trip from Boston!
What Bisbee remembered best about the event, though, was “that which clings closest and is most enduring is the splendid spirit of fellowship and friendship developed through those memorable weeks together, when we, a group of Pilgrims, carried the message of our glorious faith from ocean to ocean.” And he was moved to write in this record of the undertaking “that the Universalist church can do a great thing if it really wants to.”
“A large part of Bisbee’s account is of the train journey. It’s clear that half of Bisbee’s fascination and interest in the story arises from the logistical challenge of using rail lines to gather three hundred Universalists from around the country and shepherd them as a group across the still-vast territory of the United States to Pasadena, California.” I loved reading about the daily paper which was written and printed on the train. Bisbee thought future generations would be reading it and we can too if we look in the archives of the Andover Harvard Theological School Library. Just a tidbit. The name of the paper was UGCWUMAYPCUSS, an unpronounceable name which turns out to be the initials of the groups joining tgether for the Convention. The name alone shows that these Universalists had a sense of fun and which becomes clear by reading a little of the paper. Here are a couple of Sleeping Car Rules from the July 4, 1915 edition:
Tete-a-tetes shall not begin earlier than 7 AM
Do not sleep with elbow against the bell button. It disturbs the passengers, and it means nothing to the porter.
They gathered up people on the way, adding cars to the trains in New York and Chicago and all the way west. They stopped in Salt Lake City and the desert. Their first stop in California was the Riverside church.
“Once in Pasadena where the Convention was taking place, several Universalist groups met together for the first time between July 6-11, 1915: the Women’s Missionary Society, the General Sunday School Association, the Young People’s Christian Union, and finally, the General Convention (the delegate body).
“After the Convention concluded on July 11th, the United Universalist Conventions had organized side-trips of possible interest to attendees: the San Diego Exposition on July 13, 1915, and the San Francisco Exposition from July 15-18, both of which events included “Universalist Days.” Return trips by train offered further options for western sight-seeing: through the Grand Canyon, through Salt Lake City and the Rocky Mountains, through Yellowstone National Park, and finally, north via Seattle through the Canadian Rockies.” Quite the pilgrimage indeed.
Bisbee adds his thoughts throughout his account, with lots of ra-ra Universalism. There was a sign on the front of the train saying Universalist Conventions with California in the center. He says that people would catch sight of the sign and wonder who these Universalists were. He comments that throughout that great country there are vast districts where there is no church of any sect and vaster districts where they never heard of an interpretation of Christianity which is sane and sweet and salutary and scientific and sensible.” (21)
The Universalists had gone through many changes from Murray’s landing through the leadership of the Ballous and the changes from the Civil War and beyond, all of which influenced their theologies. The earliest American version of Universalism considered itself a sect or branch of the Christian Churhc as a whole. It was initially Trinitarian and Rellyan as we heard about from John Murray but it soon transformed to Unitarian through the this worldly theology of the first Hosea Ballou. As time went on, many Universalists thought they were the American church of future and were closely linked to the ideals of the American republic. By the time of our pilgrimage to California, Universalist thought included considering themselves the church of universal religion, grounded in the emergent world civilization, thinking it was the religion of the future, just as many UUs believe today. Bisbee predicts, “Some time we are going to be a real church, so big and so fraternal—now we would say cousinly or some such thing—that there will be no East, no West, no North, no South, but something of the spirit of our name will take possession of us and we shall be Universalists and live up to it.” (36) And later he says, “There is nothing bigger in the religious world than Universalism; it has room for all.” (45)
Bisbee and this group certainly had missionary fervor. After the convention was over and they attended the dedication of the church in Los Angeles and prepared to leave Pasadena, he says, “We rejoice in the fine record of our churches in Riverside and Santa Paula, but we must look at them not simply as results of missionary endeavor but as beginnings of the larger life there is yet to be.” (46)
There is much more in this little book, but I will leave it for now. It was interesting for me to think about the effort these 300 some Universalists went to to do the business of their Convention when nowadays we jump on a plane to go anywhere in the country for our UU General Assembly. This year it was in Portland, Oregon and next year it will be in Pittsburgh. There are always changes in our institutions even as for each one of us. The Throop church in Pasadena is still active but they built a new building less than ten years after the Convention…whereas our building has been standing since 1891. Pretty much none of the songs sung in the Songs Along the Way book are sung in our congregations anymore; they reflect a different way talking about faith them most of us have these days. And I wonder when the pilgrims returned and the country not long afterwards entered into World War I, what did they keep of this pilgrimage?
A pilgrimage is a journey, often into an unknown or foreign place, where a person goes in search of new or expanded meaning about their self, others, nature, or a higher good, through the experience. It can lead to a personal transformation, after which the pilgrim returns to their daily life. Have you been on a pilgrimage—something more than a tourist vacation? Perhaps you didn’t realize it was one at the time.
I am continuing on mine later this September. And I will be intentional about searching for new or expanded meanings, of myself, of Unitarian Universalism and of our world. May we each bring ourselves to greater understandings in the day to living of our lives…and in those times of pilgrimage. May it be so. Blessed be. Amen.
 Bisbee, Frederick (1915). A California Pilgrimage. Boston: The Murray Press.
 Bisbee, 6.
 Bisbee, 11.
 Harvard Library