Saturday, December 01, 2007

Who's Not a Famous UU?

Lately I've been going through those "Famous UUs" lists and trying to figure out why we claim this person or that one: Do (or did) this person ever belong to a UU (or Unitarian or Universalist) congregation? (John Adams, for example, belonged to First Parish in Quincy, Massachusetts.) Did s/he ever claim the UU (or U or U) label in public or in writing? (Thomas Jefferson called himself a Unitarian -- or rather "an Unitarian" -- in some of his letters.) In the days before Unitarian or Universalist congregations got organized, did s/he hold one of the defining beliefs: universal salvation or non-trinitarianism? (Isaac Newton and John Locke seem to have been non-trinitarians. Ethan Allen believed in universal salvation.) Or are we just claiming this person for no reason other than because we want to identify with him/her?

The problem I'm having is that these Famous UU lists take on an urban legend quality. If I decide to add somebody ridiculous -- Confucius, say -- to my list of Famous UUs, then my list starts showing up on Google and people copy it. Before long there are twenty web sites claiming that Confucius was a UU, and it's impossible to track down who first made that claim or what they were thinking.

So anyway, I've been hacking through these lists trying to figure out what the basis for the claims are, and it occurred to me that we need to start putting negative results out there, so that a "Confucius was not a UU" article will show up when people google "confucius UU".

Let me start with Carl Sandburg. I know why people want to claim him: Not only was he the kind of guy who would fit in well in a UU congregation, but he went to Lombard College, which was started by the Universalists. In the 1961 biography by Harry Golden (the first one I pulled off the shelf at my local library) it says that Sandburg read a lot of Universalism at Lombard and "to this day he is perfect in all the arguments that God is good and will not send us to hell."

But Golden goes on to say: "Since his confirmation at age thirteen in the Lutheran Church of Galesburg, however, Sandburg has not been on the membership rolls of any established church or religious institution." Golden mentions that various denominations, including the Unitarians, sometimes claim Sandburg, and so he asked Sandburg "the direct question" of what religion he held. He got this answer:
I am a Christian, a Quaker, a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Shintoist, a Confucian, and maybe a Catholic pantheist or a Joan of Arc who hears voices. I am all of these and more. Definitely I have more religions than I have time or zeal to practice in true faith.
Now, that's a great answer for a UU to give. But given the chance to label his religion, Sandburg listed almost everything except Unitarian and Universalist. I think we've got to accept that.


Another name that shows up on a lot of lists is Alexander Graham Bell. Even the not-specifically-UU site adherents.com has him listed as a UU. (The fact that they have him as a UU and not a Unitarian or Universalist probably means that they just copied his name from one of our lists.) But I can't find any evidence to support that claim. On the contrary, the National Presbyterian Church lists Bell as one of the worshippers at its predecessor, the Covenant Presbyterian Church. That's a lot more specific than anything I can find connecting him to Unitarianism or Universalism.


I'll try to post more negative results as I get them. Feel free to add your own (positive or negative) research to the comments. Anybody have anything definite about Ray Bradbury or Paul Newman?

10 comments:

Robin Edgar said...

Let's face it. . . If Carl Sandburg ever spoke openly about being "a Joan of Arc who hears voices" in the company of U*Us, to say nothing of some U*U clergy I know, he would risk being intolerantly and abusively labeled as being "psychotic", or a "nutcase", or otherwise denigrated as being seriously mentally ill. Perhaps there is very good reason why when given the chance to label his religion, Sandburg left Unitarian Universalism off the list. I think U*Us have got to accept that.

SC Universalist said...

Sandburg's wife and daughter were members of the Unitarian Church in Asheville NC, and he attended services with them on a regular basis. His funeral service was held by an Unitarian minister.

Earthbound Spirit said...

RE: Ray Bradbury
This website: Educational Paperback Assoc. has extensive information on Bradbury. Under personal information it lists his religion as Unitarian Universalist. I don't know how accurate it is, but it is a website for educators and seems to have no vested interest in claiming him as a UU. It also lists Bradbury's email address. The man is still alive and actively writing. You could email him and ask...

Kenneth said...

Oh, I am dying to post a blog entry "Confucius was a Unitarian" linking to you!

Doug Muder said...

I did not know that about Sandburg. Adding "asheville" to my Google search has turned up a lot of interesting stuff. Thanks.

And thanks for the Bradbury reference. Some of the message board posters on raybradbury.com kept saying he was a UU, and no one seemed to contradict them. But anonymous people on web sites aren't very authoritative sources. Thanks for the lead to Educational Paperback.

Christine Robinson said...

Sandburg

If you go to the National Park Site of Sandburg's house, you'll see his office as he left it when he died, and prominent amongst the stuff is a flyer from the Church of the Larger Fellowship. That makes him a UU in my mind. (but I totally agree that Confucious would be a stretch.)

kim said...

I am under the impression that Paul Newman is a member of the UU church of Westport, Connecticut.

Kelly Harrison said...

Consider this, the person that presided over his funeral was Rev. Pete Tolleson a Unitarian Universalist minister from Charleston. He was on vacation in Hot Springs, NC (my hometown) with his family when he received a call from the funeral director asking for a UU minister to preside over Mr. Sandburg's funeral. To add, the UU Congregation in Asheville has Sandburg Hall because Mr. Sandburg's family wanted a place for coffee and social hour. Rev. Tolleson is a good friend of mine and continues to attend the UU of Asheville. July 2014

affirmandpromote said...

On Alexander Graham Bell-- it was one of those death bed I was always a Unitarian and only just found out kinda of deals that lands him on lists. Paul Newman's wife was a long time UU and they took their children to church and Sunday School at a UU church but he never joined that I know of but I still consider that a strong connect as the son of a father who was memorialized with stories of his membership at our UU church where he almost never attended and didn't have a membership that I know of but where he gave money and where he claimed affiliation.

Joy Wallens-Penford said...

I was so moved by my visit in 2014 to Sandburg's home in Flat Rock, NC, that I began researching his life just deeply enough to develop a Sandburg-based service for my UU congregation in Brattleboro, VT. It was timed for African American History month (February 2015) as a nod to his being the pre-eminent Lincoln biographer. A snowstorm pushed the date off serendipitously to April, the very week of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's death. We blended some Sandburg poetry, famous sayings, a Rootabaga story, music from his "American Song Bag," excerpts from his speech to Congress on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, and excerpts of LBJ's memorial speeches when Sandburg died, with a little Ragtime for good measure (he referenced it in his Chicago poems) -- all set to an accompanying slide show. Although I felt in my heart that Sandburg's principles certainly were in line with those of Unitarian Universalism, thus my conviction that this service would appeal to my UU friends, the closest direct reference to such a connection was his statement about what he wanted from life (with pauses for his thinking of the list as he responded to the question): "to be out of jail,... to eat regular,... to get what I write printed,... a little love at home and a little nice affection hither and yon over the American landscape,... [and] to sing every day.” Furthermore, he added, "I want Emerson in every room."