Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Voices of the past, a historical commentary of church and city

So today I went with someone else from church to the Minnesota History Center to do archival research. It's for our 150th anniversary, but it is also so much fun. Reading through the conversations, thoughts, travails of those who came before brings it into the present in ways most who take history never get to experience. Today I want to spend some time talking about my lessons from history.

In our case, the early history of Minneapolis and our church run parallel, particularly since most of the early city leadership belonged to First Universalist of Minneapolis, or First Universalist, Church of the Redeemer during the early years. This journey has been an eye opener for me, having worked on this project now for several months. When it began, I had heard much talk of two of the early pastors. Reverend Tuttle came to us in 1866. During the now famous debates with another Universalist church's pastor over Darwin's theory of evolution. Tuttle took what we now know was the wrong side. Indeed later he realized it himself, but at the time he felt quite convinced of his stance.

Perhaps because of this, most people I know from church want to skip over Rev. Tuttle right to his replacement, Dr. Marion Shutter, who delivered a brilliant series of lectures in favor of Darwin's theory. Indeed that was my inclination before my research began. My first research project was about the early theology of the church. This involved reviewing both Tuttle and Shutter. What I learned led me to a very different conclusion from where I started. Let me explain.

Many think Shutter was the better proponent of liberal theology. In the area of science, I would concede some but not all ground. But in terms of human interactions and the liberal spirit, my support goes with Tuttle. For instance, before Tuttle came to Minneapolis, he had been pastor in a church in Rochester, New York in the 1850's. It was the eloquent Tuttle who stood up alongside Frederick Douglas, daring to speak on behalf of abolition of slavery despite an angry crowd that had gathered. It was Tuttle who had also befriended Susan B. Anthony, and it was in his church that future meetings of the national meetings for the women's suffrage movement. He often said he learned from these two striking reformists that religion has an important role in forming the society in which we live.

What often is understated however is the sheer force of his conviction, and the eloquence that convinced people to behave in ways they might not ordinarily. In his congregation one found the first mayor of Minneapolis as well as the first senator. A member of the church who created the park system that is still part of Minneapolis' shining glory. The University, the Symphony, Lakewood Cemetery, the first playground for children, the list goes on. These people included manufacturing giants, founders of companies like Pillsbury and General Mills. No one can drive the streets of this city without seeing their names scattered about.

But here is a reality check. I'm not at all sure that without a Tuttle to encourage them, we would have seen all this altruism. From his pulpit he constantly reminded his flock that to whom much is given, much is expected. From his point of view, it was just part of one's responsibility in a world where God loves all people. After all Universalism is about universal salvation, and so there is a universal responsibility for those less fortunate.

James Tuttle had a way to see the greater ability in others. It was he who sought out Charles Loring, who went on to do well in business and build our parks system. Tuttle was very much enamored by nature, and the beauty that is the gift we all are given at birth. He talks about responsibility for those gifts as well.

See what I learned in this study was that James Tuttle had the poet's heart, and it was that heart that led great people to do greater things. He wrote a wonderful sermon after our church was burned to the ground and had been rebuilt. It was how we were lifted from the ashes, and how all of nature does this regularly. We live, we die, but from the ashes of death comes life renewed. Even he reminds us, the mythical Phoenix was born of ashes. In that sermon, very agrarian and environmentally friendly when all was not that way, he said:

"There is no death! The dust we tread
Shall change beneath the summer showers
To golden grain and mellow fruit
Or rainbow tinted flowers.

The granite rocks disorganize
To feed the hungry moss they bear
The forest leaves drink daily life
From out of the viewless air."

Under James Tuttle, ordinary men were transported to loftier ideals.

So compare now to Shutter. He could preach a sermon well too. Clearly he was very well educated and a prolific writer. Indeed much of what we know of Tuttle comes from Marion Shutter. Still there was a critical difference between the two men, and it is that difference that leads me to my conclusions. First in fairness however, I need to share my own bias. I believe, now and then, there has been class distinctions and it is the nature of many in the wealthier classes towards greed and power. These were after all manufacturing giants in a time when the lot of the worker was not all that great. Part of the liberal spirit, an important part, is finding ways to lift up those who may have been left behind for a host of reasons. Adequate pay, job protections for instance.

Shutter right from the beginning seemed to enjoy the company of the wealthy, using his pastoral presence in my opinion to serve them rather than to speak to that higher liberal calling. His sermons about Communism, his anger with labor unions, indeed at one point labor marched in front of our church because our pastor came to church in a chauffer driven car, one who was not unionized. He was outraged and truly embraced his role as enemy of labor. So I asked myself, how liberal is it to have a limousine drive you to work? Hardly what today we would embrace as "the liberal spirit." The more I read of his work, the more I encountered a man driven by insurmountable ego. Just today I read an incredibly self serving biography of Marion Shutter, written in third person by Marion Shutter.

Not to deny the good he did. It was his wife who helped form the Unity Settlement House which was one of the early social service agencies serving Minneapolis and later was in fact turned over to the city after many years. He was an integral part of the church for many years and an eloquent spokesperson for religious liberalism. It was Marion Shutter who went to the other city pastors and raised money to build the chapel at Fort Snelling.

But of the two, Dr. James H. Tuttle seemed to be the more human, the more passionate, the more loving of the two. He was the poet, the motivator, the one who led others to reach beyond themselves to something higher. He even conceded readily when he realized he was probably wrong on the evolution question. I guess I just like people who can admit they are wrong. I also think that James Tuttle breathed into First Universalist the spirit that still guides it today. The liberal spirit.

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