Notebook

Philocrites : Liberal religion : Notebook 1.20.03


April 1997

Spring Break amid the newsletters

I might entitle this post, "What I Learned Over Spring Break." I work at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, where I spent the week alphabetizing the library's collection of Unitarian Universalist church newsletters awaiting microfilming. (What a way to spend a vacation! Sigh.) Two hundred UU congregations have been sending Harvard their newsletters during the 1990s, and thumbing through them is an interesting way to catch a glimpse of Unitarian Universalism. I have a few random and highly idiosyncratic observations:

Some congregations seem to relish a lot of folksy casualness, to the point of seeming downright amateur. Other congregations produce highly professional material. I saw everything from mimeographed typewritten bulletins to off-set two-color publications. A few churches actually carried commercial advertisements in their bulletins! (I'm not sure what to make of that.)

The treatment of sermon titles by minister and newsletter alike ran the gamut, too, from fully-described lecture topics to more traditional "preacherly" titles to campy oddities like a four-week sermon series on Star Trek Theology. (Is this a trend? I'll have to break down and watch the movies someday.) A few churches apparently consider the sermon a modest affair in the worship service, and don't print sermon titles at all. Many churches list the musical offerings, sometimes with performance notes.

I was especially interested in newsletter titles. A few newsletters plucked their titles from scripture: The UU Church of Andover, MA, calls its bulletin "The Plumbline," from a verse in Amos; the Unitarian Church in Rockford, IL, calls its bulletin "Kairos," which is the Greek word in the New Testament for the appointed or proper time. "Kairos," like several other newsletter, included a logo with symbols from world religions in it. Other newsletters featured chalice logos of several varieties, and many included illustrations of their church buildings.

Several churches made witty references to their location in the bulletin titles: the Anchorage Unitarian Universalist Fellowship publishes "The Log" and the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, publishes "The Westside Story." Two favorites along these lines: the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Ashland, Oregon, which calls its bulletin "The Rogue Unitarian" — a bunch of free-thinkers, I'm sure! — and the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, which must be alluding to NASA's Mission Control when it prints "The Blast" on its masthead.

Several churches are named after famous UUs, and it's interesting to see after whom: There's a Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY ("The T. J. Tapestry"). A handful of Channing Memorial Churches dot the continent; one prints the "Channing Connection." There is an Eliot Chapel in Kirkwood, MO, (named after Samuel Atkins Eliot, I suppose). One of the UU churches in Lexington, MA, is named after Charles Follen (a very colorful character in UU history, most famous for introducing German to the Harvard curriculum and for introducing the Christmas tree to New England).

A congregation in Maryland is named after Rev. A. Powell Davies, the only 20th century figure in the bunch (although I know that there is a James Reeb Memorial Church, too; Harvard doesn't seem to be on their mailing list). A congregation in Wisconsin is named for Olympia Brown (a Universalist and the first woman ordained by a denominational group). Universalist John Murray has a few churches. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who didn't seem to have much use for churches, has a whole raft of congregations named after him. Although there are also churches named after Theodore Parker, none of them mail Harvard their newsletters. There is even a Unitarian church in Cincinnati named after St. John!

Many churches cleverly name their newsletters after architectural features. Some are fairly obvious: "Steepletalk" at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY; "The Bell Ringer" at First Parish in Duxbury, MA; the merged Unitarian Congregation of Mendon and Uxbridge, MA, calls its bulletin "Spires." But my very favorite is from the lovely domed sanctuary at First Unitarian Church in San Jose, CA, called "Our Church Circular." Whoever came up with that title deserves a prize.

My last observation is about a very popular newsletter name: "The Beacon." I'm curious how this title has made its way into every part of the continent. I would be tempted to attribute it to the so-called "Boston Diaspora," which spread Unitarianism during the mid-nineteenth century, except that many of the congregations are fairly new. Beacon Press is named after the old beacon which hung atop a pole on Beacon Hill, the tallest of Boston's three summits. The Puritans had imagined Massachusetts Colony as their "city upon a hill" which would reveal the light to all the earth — a nice bit of New Testament zeal! I imagine that the beacon gathered some of these ambitious connotations to itself. For years, Beacon Press used as its emblem an illustration of old Boston with the beacon standing out at the top. I have no idea what possessed Beacon Press to abandon this emblem a few years ago for their bland new flipping-pages icon.

At any rate, the Beacon seems to have developed a curious kind of currency among UUs — with echoes of Boston and convenient tie-ins to the flaming chalice. It appears in newsletter titles in Florida, Utah, Maryland, New York, Ohio, and California.

I had a lot of fun sampling 200 congregations in such a tactile way: all those potluck dinner announcements, canvass campaign brochures, ministerial musings, sermon titles, little bits of UU lore and aspiration. I would rather have spent Spring Break sitting on a beach in the Caribbean, but getting paid to thumb through a half-decade's worth of UU newsletters wasn't a total bust. (Ah, the varieties of human pleasure...)

UUS-L 4.97


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Philocrites | Copyright © 1997, 2002 by Christopher L. Walton | clwalton at post.harvard.edu