R.E. Moves West by Mail and Train R-XYZ
by Eugene B. Navis
Last August I was waiting to conduct a service in the Universalist Church of Barnard, VT, where Hosea Ballou once preached, when I came upon some ghosts of R. E. past. In the bottom drawers of an old bookcase, amidst mouse droppings and munchings, was a treasure trove of Myrtles, Sunday School Helpers, and Sunday School Searchlights, the weekly, monthly, quarterly kind of supports mailed out to Universalist homes, Sunday Schools, and R. E. Leaders across the continent.
The Myrtle, for children, published 52 weeks a year from 1851 to 1924, sold for 50_ a year in 1915. Universalist parents read the stories to younger children around the fire, or the kitchen table or at bedtime, posed the questions and engaged the children in the puzzles. Older children read, pondered, puzzled and discovered for themselves. The Myrtle was popular. In churches, teachers adapted it for the entire lesson or supplemented other curriculum with The Myrtle. It was a good sized eight pager, filled with vivid drawings and photos, poems and dramatic stories and added enigmas, word squares, and all manner of brain teasers including those that called for Biblical knowledge.
And wonderful illustrations: The issue of September 2, 1916 shows a speeding roadster scattering bicycle riders on its way to the beach, driven by a nice young gentleman who is taking a lonely boy named Joe on a great outing.
The Myrtle cautioned children to be gracious receivers as well as generous givers. A boy with sick eyes recovering in a dark room discovers how much his ears can tell him. There is a poem about a water lily boat on a pond, and always a page of puzzles and brain teasers. Here's an enigma. First one to get the right answer wins a prize.
"At milking time," said Farmer Redds, "in my barn were twenty heads." Twenty heads and seventy two feet That was the number, all complete, How many cows and how many men Werein the barn at milking time, then? Answer: 16 cows and 4 men
And good stories - stories of children around the world: American Indians, Alaskan Eskimos, Africans, Asians, all presented as God's children with whom we need be friends. The words "religion", "God", "Universalism", don't appear very often but curiosity is honored, and kindness, truth, honesty and the affirmation of the different ways people are.
In addition to The Myrtle were copies of The Helper, lesson plans mailed quarterly for teachers,and The Search Light with advice for R. E. leaders. If we were together in a workshop, I'd give out copies samples of these, including my favorite The Onward for young people.
The Onward, published twice a month, was the organ of the Young Peoples Christian Union. Founded in 1889 and continuing in unbroken line, the YPCU merged with its Unitarian counterpart, originally named Young People Religious Union (YPRU), in 1953 as LRY, Liberal Religious Youth.
The history of YPCU and the ardent journalism of The Onward tell us why Universalists in that era did not suffer what we call "The GAP" today, that period after junior or senior high school when young people left our churches to return decades later, if at all. YPCU groups or unions, as they called them, started with high schoolers and young adults, later adding junior high unions. Unioners were to live an earnest Christian life, dedicate themselves to useful service and be undergirded by spiritual development.
The Onward recounts how the unioners served others through their commitment to the "Two cents a Week" program that paid for the building of new churches and the salary of a Universalist Minister in Japan. Universalist missions were not to save the world from sin or hell, but rather to share the good news of how Jesus showed us the ways to lead a good life daily through helping other people.
News from the Universalist missions in Tokyo flooded the periodicals for Sunday School children and youth, making real the cause for which they gave their pennies. Likewise The Onward reported on the money raised and the architects sketches of the plans for the new YPCU sponsored churches in Atlanta and Chattanooga. When such buildings were dedicated, members of the YPCU were there taking part. Leadership training, worship, and visions for and by youth were a vital part of YPCU, and so summer conferences and rallies were held at Ferry Beach, Maine, MurrayGrove, New Jersey and far more.
In 1915, with World War I raging in Europe, the work of YPCU unioners engaged in relief work for destitute Belgians was reported regularly by Dr. John Van Schaick, Jr., his wife, and Van Schaick's brother.
The issue of February 15, 1915 was titled "The Current Events Number" with the lead article on"The Abolition of War" followed by a passionate article on "Equal Suffrage" and in good Universalist fashion an equally passionate article "From the Anti-Suffrage Camp".
Devotionals... Every issue of The Onward contained materials for junior andsenior devotionals. The devotionals often started with a Biblical passage or reading and then made a bridge to some current topic. The Junior devotional on January 10, 1915 involved the children in thinking of how they could make recent immigrant children feel welcomed here. The senior devotional had a range of topics from the
current suffering of the Polish People in a time of war, to a plea for schools for Indian boys and girls in California, to "the Separation of Negroes among Federal employees at Washington."
Russell Miller, in The Larger Hope tells it this way: "when it celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1939 the YPCU had compiled a record of contributions to the Universalist church which was nothing short of phenomenal. It had either assisted in or been primarily responsible for building five churches; and there were, as well, "the scores of men and women we have given to our ministry, the hundreds of laymen we have trained, the thousands of youth we have enrolled in mission study classes... the nearly one hundred thousand dollars we have raised for missionary projects …the missionary vision and enthusiasm we have engendered, the long, long line of those who were always among the good and the true, and often the beautiful."
Surely, The Onward, like other Universalist periodicals was important in sharing and cementing the faith of many Universalists. Many denominations had newsletters, lesson series, teacher helps, and periodicals for the home from the mid 19th century into the twentieth; some of them borrowing materials from one another. Of the limited number I've seen, The Onward seems among the most original.
My second miraculous discovery was not in the mouse inhabited storage drawers in Barnard, but on my own bookcase. Thinking of Universalist R. E. moving west, I recalled a song book called "Songs Along the Way", written in 1915, when Universalists trekked across the continent to hold the "United Universalist Conventions" in Pasadena and Los Angeles. United meant that for the very first time Universalists were having a general assembly when all of the autonomous and fiercely independent organizations would meet together: The Women's Missionary Society, The General Sunday School Association, the YPCU and the General Convention- the delegate body - mostly male of course - meeting together for the first time.
Years of preparation resulted in an incredible plan for a splendiferous gathering in July 1915. A Pullman train was hired which started in Boston on July 1, picking up passengers from New York in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, before chugging on to Cleveland and Chicago, where they embarked for a banquet at the nearest Universalist Church. And now there were so many conferees that a second Pullman was needed to add the passengers all along the way through Denver and Salt Lake City to the coast.
Provisions were made to make the journey pleasurable. There were worship services in the cars, chaplains for the troubled, song leaders, copies of the song books for each person, a huge map on which to trace progress - pasted on the side wall of the dining car, a well equipped mimeograph machine, and editors and typists and -earns of paper to report each day's' news. Mind you that the women missionaries and the young Universalist Christians and the stodgy gray bearded conventioneers and the Sunday School superintendents were mingling for three thousand miles and six days.
The newsletter titled the "Daily UGCWUMAYPCUSS", called itself "a journal of fact, fellowship and frivolity". Rules were listed - among them "Tete-a Tetes shall not begin earlier than 7 a.m. in the Sleeping Cars." and "Do not use your credential cards for butter spreaders in the dining Cars."
There were, of course, songs for the occasion. We might do the last chorus of one printed in The Onward in March 1915 before the grand trek. "It's a Long, Long Way to California" a la "Tipperary", by the Rev. Elmo Robinson of Anderson, Indiana:
It's a long way to California
It's a long way to go.
It's a long way to California, But the railroad rates are low.
It's a long way to California,
But I'm going, O Joy!
And lastly one hymn of vision, passion and high resolve which they sang as they headed to this grand assembly. Here's a verse from "New Age Vision" in Songs Along the Way. Words by Henry Victor Morgan, Universalist Minister, Tacoma, Washington Tune: The Battle Hymn
My soul has seen the coming of a race
from sorrow free
Of an age of faith and science, Truth
and love and liberty,
And I sing of love's great triumph in
that year of jubilee.
God's truth is marching on! (Chorus
ends with "God's truth is marching on!']
Eugene Navias is a faithful Herald reader in Dorchester, Massachusetts who prepared this essay for the Religious Education History Group Program at the 2004 General Assembly James Buckley holds an Ed.D. from Harvard and has written over 1300 published articles in the field of History.