Friday, December 21, 2007

Keeping Sol in Solstice

At this time of year I like to go back to a story I wrote in 1992. It's called Midwinter, and it's an imaginative reconstruction of how an ancient rural culture might have celebrated the winter solstice.

It's told from the point of view of the grand-daughter of the old wise woman. I wrote it to be read out loud, and it's suitable for children. Enjoy.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

More Questions About Famous UUs: Dr. Seuss?

I continue to try to verify lists of famous UUs. Linus Pauling? Yes. He belonged to the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. The UUA web site has a biography.

Supreme Court Justice John Marshall? Sort of, but not really. Several references have him as an Episcopalian, and while he seems to have doubted a lot of the doctrine, there's not much to positively label him a Unitarian. This account by his daughter claims that "he was a Unitarian in opinion, though he never joined their society." That would almost do it for me, but the same account says that he changed his mind shortly before he died. If she's a reliable source for the one, then I guess she's a reliable source for the other. In any case, at best he was unitarian in the sense of belief, and not a member of a Unitarian congregation.

The one that's giving me fits today is Dr. Seuss, Theodor Geisel. UU minister Douglas Taylor starts a sermon "Theodore Geisel was a Unitarian Universalist author better known around the world as Dr. Seuss." But he doesn't say how he came to that conclusion. Now, of course, the Dr. Seuss books have all kinds of great UU ideas in them. A few biographical details point to him not being a church-goer: He was married by a justice of the peace. He was cremated without a funeral. I'm getting a humanist/agnostic vibe, which might fit with a CLF-type UU who never clicked with a UU congregation. Or maybe he just didn't connect with any religion at all, UU or otherwise. Anybody out there have a lead on this?

Another one I wonder about is Samuel Morse, the telegraph guy, who appears on a lot of Famous UU lists. His father was Jedidiah Morse, who was Channing's main opponent in the pamphlet wars that led to the Congregational/Unitarian split. Wikipedia says of Samuel "Although he respected his father's opinions, he sympathized with the Unitarians." Wish I knew what they mean by that. Sympathized could mean he joined, or it could mean, "Dad, why don't you lighten up on those Unitarians?"

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 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?