First Parish in Cohasset and Its Ministers

Sermon copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The sermon text may contain typographical errors. The sermon as preached included a significant amount of improvisation. Notes to the sermon appear as end notes.

Readings

In 1892, our congregation celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Joseph Osgood’s ministry. One of the speakers at the celebration, Rev. Edward Everett Hale, described four of Osgood’s most important teachers and mentors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hale then went on to say:

“But there is a greater instructor than either of these four, that has been training [your minister]. That is, the parish and the church to which he came in this town of Cohasset. A man comes as green as grass into a parish, and around him are all sorts and conditions of men and women. But all those men and women are ‘kings and priests.’ That word in the Book of Revelation is not a bit of flamboyant prophecy; it is the living truth of the gospel of Jesus: ‘You are all kings and all priests, and you are all ordained to this ministry.’ Unconsciously, year by year, while the green boy goes up into the pulpit and preaches as well as he can; unconsciously, week by week, all these people are preaching to him and are training him. And you can judge them by him and him by them.”

The second reading is from Leadership for the Twenty-first Century by Joseph C. Rost (Greenwood Publishing, 1991):

“Leadership is an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes….

“…The leadership relationship is multidirectional. The relationship involves interactions that are vertical, horizontal, diagonal, and circular. This means that (1) anyone can be a leader and/or a follower; (2) followers persuade leaders and other followers, as do leaders; (3)leaders and followers may change places … and (4) there are many different relationships that can make up the overall relationship that is leadership. … If a relationship is one-sided, unidirectional, and one-on-one, those are clear signs that the relationship is not leadership.”

Sermon: “Our Congregation and Its Ministers”

Our congregation’s relationships with its ministers proved to be far more complex and interesting than I had originally thought. Today’s sermon will only take us up into the nineteenth century. Then you’ll have to return on November 28 to hear the rest of the history.

As I talk about some of the past ministers of our congregation, I’m going to take a somewhat unconventional approach. Instead of just talking about the minister, I’m going to focus on the relationship between the minister and the congregation. We habitually say, “Rev. Nehemiah Hobart did thus and so.” That’s what’s known as the “Great Man” theory of leadership: things get accomplished by a few Great Men, and everyone else just follows along. But from what I’ve seen, that’s not how it works in real life.

For example, when I was in my teens and twenties, the minister of my Unitarian Universalist church was Rev. Dana Greeley. He had come to our congregation after serving as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, where he had a reputation of being something of a benevolent dictator. However, my church had plenty of strong lay leaders. Those lay leaders influenced Dana Greeley just as much as, or more than, he influenced them. If Dana Greeley had a reputation as a benevolent dictator, perhaps that was only because he was smart enough to know when to follow the lead of the lay leaders.

It is not the minister who rules things in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. The relationship between the minister and the congregation, and the relationships within the congregation — that’s where the actual power lies. With that firmly in mind, let’s look at some of the ministers of First Parish in Cohasset.

Our first minister was Nehemiah Hobart. He was the congregation’s third choice; two other ministers had turned them down before they asked Hobart to become minister of what was then called the Second Precinct of Hingham. Even after we became an independent congregation, both the congregation and the minister kept close ties to the parent church in Hingham. The minister there, Ebenezer Gay, was one of the earliest proponents of the liberal theology that became Unitarianism, and Gay and Hobart had been classmates and remained close friends.

Lay leaders also influenced the close ties between the two congregations. One of the key leaders who formed the Second Precinct was John Jacob, one of the wealthiest landowners in Hingham. John became the first deacon of the Second Precinct, the most powerful position of lay leadership. John’s brother Peter, the well-to-do owner of a fulling mill, was a deacon in the parent church. Both John and Peter Jacob were admirers of Ebenezer Gay and his liberal theology. It was only natural, then, that Nehemiah Hobart should fall into Ebenezer Gay’s theological orbit. And to further cement Hobart’s ties with liberal theology, he married one of Peter Jacob’s daughters, and then named his first son after John Jacob. Historian Robert J. Wilson writes: “The secession of the Cohasset parish provides, in some respects, an illustration of how the Hingham oligarchy managed to assimilate inevitable changes with a minimum of disruption.” (1)

After Nehemiah Hobart’s untimely death from a stroke, at age 43, (2) our congregation called John Fowle. Once again, the congregation had difficulty choosing from among several desirable candidates, but at last they settled on Fowle, who possessed some “considerable genius, and handsome acquirements.” Fowle’s ministry began during the Great Awakening. Theologically, he sided with the so-called Old Lights, that is, those who did not approve of evangelical excesses; in this sense, Fowle, like his contemporary Charles Chauncy, may be considered a proto-Unitarian. In taking this theological position, he was probably generally aligned with his congregation. However, he was nervous, irritable, peevish, and irregular. (3) This turned many in the congregation against him, and the congregation voted to dismiss him in 1746.

It seems possible that Fowle suffered from some kind of mental illness. His later career was marked by ups and downs. In 1751, he went to England, converted to Episcopalianism, and was sent back to Norwalk, Connecticut, as a missionary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. He was given a large salary, but spent so lavishly he was soon hopelessly in debt. By 1756, he was dismissed by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel for selling the mission library. He then became a small-time merchant. He died in jail 1764, and it seems likely he was imprisoned for debt. (4)

It’s important for us to know what happened to Fowle after Cohasset dismissed him. He seems to have had some real talent as a minister, and a genuine religious impulse. But clearly the profession of ministry was not a good fit for him, and our congregation was wise to dismiss him.

Our next minister, John Brown, was called to this congregation in 1747. In 1749, at age 25, Brown got into a squabble with Daniel Tower, a lay leader who was then age 57. The young pastor wanted to introduce a new psalm book, Tate and Brady. But Daniel Tower wanted to stay with the old Sternhold and Hopkins psalm book. Full members of the church (that is, those had signed the covenant and were admitted into communion) voted on the issue, and a close majority favored adopting the new psalm book. Daniel Tower then accused John Brown of taking “improper methods” to induce two members of the church to vote for the new psalm book. An investigation found Tower’s accusation to be unjust, and he was forced to “humbly acknowledge [his] fault and earnestly request the forgiveness of my Make, of my Pastor, and of the Church.” (5) From this story, we can see that the minister at this time was not a benevolent dictator; rather, he was one among several leaders in a democracy. This story also shows how passions could run high, and that democracy sometimes devolved into bare-knuckle politics.

John Brown was one of the earliest ministers in New England to be considered a Unitarian. John Adams recalled that Brown was a Unitarian by the 1750s. (6) I don’t think we can claim, with any certainty, that Brown led his congregation to Unitarianism. Instead, given that there are no stories of divisive theological conflicts in Cohasset during his ministry, I think it more likely that Brown and the congregation moved together towards Unitarianism. I also find it interesting that both Cohasset and Hingham had ministers known for their liberal theology. Ebenezer Gay, the minister in Hingham at this time, was later considered a Unitarian, and perhaps Nehemiah Hobart, had he lived as long as Gay, would also have been considered a Unitarian. For some reason as yet undiscovered, this little corner of Massachusetts proved fertile ground for liberal religion.

By 1775, at the eve of the American Revolution, Brown was a vocal Patriot. According to the Narrative History of Cohasset: “Some of the cynical sort scoffed at the enthusiasm of the patriots. When on one occasion the pastor, John Brown, urged men to enlist, one of these cynics taunted him upon urging others to do what he himself dared not do; but the warlike preacher raised his cane and threatened to thrash the ‘old Tory’ who insulted him.” (7) In 1775, every Massachusetts town had both Patriots and Tories. Clearly, the majority of Cohasset residents were aligned with the Patriot cause, and the minister was aligned with the majority. Did Brown lead the congregation, or did the congregation lead Brown? It seems likely that there was a mutual influence.

John Brown died in November, 1791, and three months later the congregation called Josiah Crocker Shaw as their next minister. He was the son of a nearby minister. Shaw quickly built a large expensive house on Highland Ave. But his was a brief ministry, for the parish records state that on June 12, 1796, “Mr. Shaw left his charge and the ministry.” The next day, Joel Wilcutt recorded in his diary: “this Day the Revnd Josiah C. Shaw went away from this town.” And on June 22, Wilcutt recorded: “Mr. Shaw’s House and furniture sold at auction.” (8)

Why was Shaw so suddenly dismissed? Writing in 1954, Gilbert Tower speculated that Shaw got into financial problems by spending too much on his new house. However, a month later, on July 23, 1796, his aunt Elizabeth Smith Shaw Peabody wrote about him in a letter, saying his “Conduct is too atrocious to admit of an excuse.” And within a few years both he and his wife were married to other people. Most likely, Shaw was dismissed by the congregation for adultery. (9) This is an example of the congregation taking charge, when a minister does not live up to its standards. This is, in fact, exactly what is supposed to happen in our type of congregation: the congregation has the ultimate authority both to call and to dismiss their ministers.

Jacob Flint was our next minister. Flint was respected and liked by his most of the congregation, but he was not a particularly good preacher. A later minister in Cohasset, Joseph Osgood, reported that Flint’s “manner of delivery in the pulpit was said to be slow and monotonous. He had an excellent ear and voice for singing. His brother, Dr. James Flint [the minister in] Salem, used to say to him that ‘he ought to sing his sermons, and not preach them.’” (10) Every minister has their strengths and weaknesses: Flint wrote well but spoke poorly. The congregation must intervene when a weakness becomes a major failing. As it happened, for Flint the big problem was not his poor speaking but his liberal theology.

In the 1820s, during Flint’s tenure in Cohasset, ours was one of many Massachusetts congregations that experienced conflict between the orthodox Calvinists or Trinitarians, who asserted the truth of predestination and the divinity of Jesus, and the liberals or Unitarians, who firmly believed in the capacity of human will to do good and who firmly disbelieved that Jesus was the same as God. Most Cohasset residents gradually moved towards Unitarianism, but those who were orthodox Trinitarians remained firm.

Jacob Flint was one of those who grew more liberal in his theology, influenced in part by his congregation and in part by his more talented younger brother James Flint. On December 7, 1823, Flint preached a sermon titled, “A Discourse, in which the Doctrine of the Trinity is examined, and some remarks made on Calvinism.” Much of the congregation had a favorable response to this sermon. At the request of some of those parishioners, it was even printed for wider circulation.

But not everyone in the congregation was pleased with liberal theology, and some of them developed a personal dislike for Jacob Flint. The 1895 “Manual of the Second Congregational Church of Cohasset” takes up the story from the perspective of the orthodox party: “The antagonism aroused by [Flint’s] doctrinal attitude was still further increased by personal resentments; until, in the summer of the year 1824, there was an irreconcilable breach in the church. More than a score of disaffected members of the parish were unwilling to worship any longer in ‘Rev. Dr. Flint’s meetinghouse,’ ‘on account’ as the records say, ‘of his heretical Unitarian sentiments.’” (11)

If the stories that come down to us are true, Flint continued to fan the flames of resentment after this breach. Supposedly he would look out the windows from the pulpit and see who was going into the new church. Upon meeting people of the orthodox party on the street, he would ignore them — and they would ignore him.

I am tempted to be gently critical of Jacob Flint for not rising above personal animosities during this bitter conflict. But it is only human to behave the way he did: to stealthily look to see who was going into the new church; to pretend to ignore those with whom he disagreed. We can observe the same kinds of human behavior in today’s great religious controversy, the battle over abortion, same sex marriage, and gender identity. We like to pretend these are political battles, but it looks exactly like a religious conflict to me. And just like the conflict between the Unitarians and Trinitarians in 1824 Cohasset, today’s religious conflict divides families and causes people to snub one another. So while it’s tempting to judge Jacob Flint for not rising above personal animosities, we might listen to the Biblical injunction to judge not lest we ourselves be judged. And I can’t resist pointing out that now our congregation and Second Congregational Church are allies in today’s religious controversies. We have come a long way from the bitter divisions of the 1820s.

The division between First Parish and Second Congregational Church provides a convenient stopping point for this sermon. I’ve only covered a century of the relationships between our congregation and its ministers. You’ll have to wait until November 27 to hear the rest of the story.

Before I close, let me reiterate what I said when I began. I do not believe in the “Great Man” theory of history. This old myth ignores lived experience. In the case of our congregation, we have undoubtedly had some excellent ministers, and we have also had some poor ministers. But the story of our congregation cannot be reduced to the story of its (mostly male) ministers.

To paraphrase Rev. Edward Everett Hale: Year by year, ministers go up into the pulpit and preach as well as they can. Yet the whole time, week after week, the people of the congregation are preaching to the minister, and are training and educating the minister.

The history of leadership within our congregation is actually the story of a web of interdependent relationships encompassing everyone who has been a part of this congregation over the past three hundred years.

Notes to the sermon:

General information is taken from the following histories:

Bigelow, E. Victor Bigelow. A Narrative History of the Town of Cohasset. Cohasset: Committee on Town History, 1898.
Cole, William R. “One Hundred Fifty Years of the Old Meeting House in Cohasset, Mass., 1747-1847.” Boston: George Ellis, 1897.
Flint, Jacob. “Two Discourses Containing the History of the Church and Society in Cohasset.” Boston: Monroe and Francis, 1822.
Osgood, Joseph. “A Discourse Delivered in Cohasset … on the 25th Anniversary of His Ordination as Pastor.” Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1884.
Tower, Gilbert. Unpublished manuscript, 1956.

(1) Robert J. Wilson, The Benevolent Deity: Ebenezer Gay and the Rise of Rational Religion in New England, 1696-1787 (Univ. of Pennsylvania, 2015), pp. 48-50.
(2) Some recent histories have claimed that Hobart died of epileptic fits. “Epileptic” is a misreading of the word “apoplectic,” the term that appears in the early histories. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “apoplexy” as “A malady, very sudden in its attack, which arrests more or less completely the powers of sense and motion; it is usually caused by an effusion of blood or serum in the brain….” Apoplexy is not a precise medical term, but it is most certainly not epilepsy. “Stroke” is probably the closest modern equivalent, so that’s the term I use here.
(3) Using the words of Flint (1822), who may have known Fowle and certainly knew people who remembered him.
(4) Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, vol. 9, pp. 151 ff.
(5) This story comes from Tower (1956).
(6) Letter from John Adams dated May 15, 1815, quoted in Samuel A. Eliot, Heralds of a Liberal Faith, vol. I: The Prophets (Boston: American Unitarian Assoc., 1910), p. 2.
(7) Bigelow (1898), p. 288. In 1775, Brown was only 51. I’ve found nothing to explain why he needed a cane at that relatively young age; there were plenty of militiamen in their 50s and 60s. This story may be apocryphal.
(8) These excerpts from Joel Wilcutt’s Diary appear in Tower (1956).
(9) Massachusetts Historical Society, Adams Papers Digital Edition, Adams Family Correspondence vol. 11, “Elizabeth Smith Shaw Peabody to Abigail Adams,” footnote 2, www.masshist.org/publications/adams-papers/index.php/volume/AFC11/pageid/AFC11p336 accessed 17 October 2022.
(10) Osgood, 1884.
(11) This quote from the 1895 “Manual of the Second Congregational Church of Cohasset” appears in Tower, 1956.

Helen Kreps, Unitarian Feminist

Sermon copyright (c) 2020 Dan Harper. Delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. Numbered notes are at the end of the sermon.

This morning I’d like to tell you the life story of Helen Kreps. Her life story is of interest to us in part because she was a member of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto which existed from 1905 to 1934; but more importantly because her experiences in that church led her to an unusual career path for a woman of her day. At the time of her death, she had almost completed her studies to become a Unitarian minister — a very unusual career path for a woman of her generation. Then after I tell you her life story, I’d like to reflect a bit on what it meant for her to be a feminist.

Helen grew up in a military family and had a sometimes adventurous life. Her mother, Helen Amelia Thompson, whose early life is obscure, (1) married Jacob Kreps, (2) a graduate of West Point and a career military officer. (3) They married on January 21, 1891, in Meadville, Pennsylvania, by an Episcopalian minister. (3a) Jacob was then serving with the 22nd Regiment on the upper Great Plains, and he moved his new wife out to live in army forts. Jacob and Helen’s first child, Nora Elizabeth Kreps, was born in North Dakota in July, 1893. Their second child, Helen Katherine Kreps, was born on October 17, 1894, at Fort Pembina, North Dakota (4). Fort Pembina, on the Red River Valley in North Dakota, was then in the process of being abandoned by the War Department, and few men stationed there. The abandonment of Fort Pembina came to a dramatic conclusion on May 25, 1895, a when fire broke out and burned many of the buildings, though not the officer’s quarters where the Kreps family lived (4a) — surely a terrifying situation for a family with two children under the age of two.

By 1896, Jacob’s regiment had moved to newly-built Fort Crook, Nebraska, where he became the Regimental Quartermaster. Fort Crook was the very model of a modern army base; an 1896 newspaper described it thus:

“New Fort Crook is conceded to be the finest and most conveniently arranged post in the United States Army. The trees, which are young and now afford to shade and serve only slightly to relieve the monotony of the grounds, under fostering care will grow rapidly. … On the western side of the parade ground and separated from it only by a stretch of lawn and a macadam driveway is the row of line officers’ quarters, twelve buildings in all, and in the center of this row is to be the commandant’s quarters. Ten of these buildings are exact duplicates and are intended for married officers. … There are mantles in the parlors, sitting rooms, and in the bedrooms upstairs, bath rooms with hot and cold water, steam heat in all of them, and the entire finish of the rooms on the first floor is in hard wood.” (5) What an improvement over the soon-to-be abandoned Fort Pembina!

The family continued to move frequently, as is often the case with military families. After two years at Fort Crook, in April, 1898, Jacob’s regiment was posted to the Philippines. Jacob left behind a pregnant wife; their third and youngest child, John Kreps, called “Jack,” was born in July, 1898. By 1900, the three Kreps children were living with their mother in Coronado City, California, presumably to be near the port in San Diego, a major link to the Philippines. (6) By 1902, the family was back at Fort Crook, and Jacob remained there until 1903, when he moved the family to Pittsburgh; there, Helen and her sister were in a wedding party for their uncle’s wedding. (7)

In January, 1906, the family moved yet again, this time to northern California. Jacob rejoined his regiment at Fort McDowell on Angel Island near San Francisco. There they all experienced the great earthquake of 1906. Jacob’s battalion was in downtown San Francisco the morning of the earthquake, and he participated in relief efforts in the weeks after the quake. We have to wonder what Helen and her siblings thought of the earthquake. Really, we know nothing of Helen except the fact that she had been part of a wedding. But as she become older, she begins to emerge as a person in her own right.

In June, 1908, when Helen was 13, the family moved to Nome Alaska, where Jacob took command of Fort Davis. Helen attended Nome High School. While in high school, she wrote an essay about the Eskimos, the indigenous people living near Nome. Though Helen called them “simple and thoughtless,” and “dull in intellect,” she also said they were a “simple, honest, affectionate people” who did not know what theft was until they met people of European descent (8). Her racial stereotyping is typical of her time, but she was at least willing to acknowledge that there were ways in which the indigenous people were superior to European Americans (9).

Nora and Helen both graduated from Nome High School in 1910. Jacob had to go to Kansas with his regiment, while Helen and Nora and their mother moved to Palo Alto so the girls could attend Stanford University. But Helen and Nora were not able to enter Stanford that year, as Helen wrote in a letter to Nome:

“Well, Bob, we aren’t in Stanford after all, though we hoped to enter there this semester… The cause, briefly, is that they wouldn’t accredit the high school… Consequently we have to graduate again from high school here before we will be allowed to go to Stanford… It was a terrible disappointment to us. So you see for yourself that they do not teach up to the standard methods up in Nome.” (10) In this letter, sixteen year old Helen goes beyond her personal disappointment to critique the educational methods of her high school.

Staying in Palo Alto during the academic year of 1910-1911, (11) the girls enrolled in Palo Alto High School to get their diploma from an accredited school. (11a) While at Palo Alto High School, Helen entered an essay competition sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, a progressive social movement, and won second prize with her essay, “Alcohol and the Laborer.” (11b)

Beginning in the fall of 1910, Helen attended the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. At this time, Rev. Florence Buck, one of the few women Unitarian ministers of the day, was filling in for Rev. Clarence Reed. Helen was deeply influenced both by Unitarianism, and by seeing a woman in the pulpit. (12) One suspects that Helen was also inspired by other strong women in the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. Many of the Unitarian women in Palo Alto were active in the successful 1911 campaign for women’s suffrage in California. There were, for example: Alice Locke Park, an early feminist who was active with both the state and National Woman’s Suffrage League; Annie Corbert, a native of Nantucket Island who was president of the Santa Clara County Equal Suffrage Association; Emily Karns Dixon, heiress and president of the Palo Alto Suffrage League; and Helen Sutliff, a career librarian at Stanford and active in the suffrage movement. Perhaps Helen, the daughter of a career military officer, didn’t completely agree with Alice Parke’s pacifist views; but certainly any of these women could have served as powerful feminist role models for a bright 16 year old girl.

Helen and her sister Nora entered Stanford in the 1911-12 academic year. Their father now in New Mexico, but they stayed in Palo Alto. At Stanford, Helen majored in German — her father was of German descent. She participated in the summer, 1914, session of the Marine Biological Library, was elected president of the Stanford English Club, and worked as a filing clerk in the library. (13) She and members of her sorority, Delta Delta Delta, hosted a Christmas party for the poor children of Mayfield. (14) She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, was vice-president of the English Club, and a member of the Press Club. (15) She graduated in 1915 with high honors.

After graduation, Helen stayed in Palo Alto and worked in the Stanford library as a cataloguer during the 1915-1916 academic year. Her father had retired from the U.S. Army in 1914, so she was living with her father, mother, and sister; her brother Jack was in a boarding school nearby in Los Gatos. (16) During the 1915-1916 year, Helen became more deeply involved with the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. She taught the first and second graders in the Sunday school at the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, and she also made regular financial contributions to the church beginning in early 1916; presumably at this time, she became a member of the church, though the membership records are now lost. (17)

Perhaps during this year after graduating from Stanford, Helen was deciding what to do with her life, for in the fall of 1916, she took a bold step: she entered the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry. This was a bold step because at that time, Helen was “the only woman in the state of California who has entered a theological school.” (18) She explained to a meeting of Unitarians in October why she decided to go against societal expectations for women to become a minister:

“The church today … must make it worth while for its members to attend. It must hold forth ideals and principles which appeal to the modern conscience. It must clothe the fundamental truths and beauties of religions in up-to-date raiment. People can not now be expected to attend services merely because their parents did. They must go because they get something which makes life richer or better. I think a woman in the ministry can exert a powerful influence not only on the members of her sex, but on the entire congregation. But she must be mentally equipped.” (19)

Clearly Helen Kreps was mentally equipped for Unitarian ministry, given her distinguished degree from Stanford. But she was more than mentally equipped; Earl Morse Wilbur, the president of the school, commented on Helen’s exceptional character:

“Quiet and modest in bearing though she was, never asserting herself or her views, yet we instinctively felt that in her there was depth and breadth of character, and as she moved about among us she won a respect and exerted an influence that belong to few. I remember saying to myself at the end of her first chapel service, in which the depth and sincerity of her religious nature were revealed, that I should count myself happy if she might sometime be my minister; and those who were present at the devotional service which she conducted at the Conference at Berkeley last spring will not soon forget the impression she then made.” (20)

In spite of her obvious gifts for Unitarian ministry, Helen felt she had to continue to explain her reasons for entering the ministry. In the summer of 1917, she addressed the Associate Alliance of Northern California, the umbrella organization for Unitarian women’s groups in the region, saying provocatively that she “thought it strange that there were so few women in the pulpit,” especially considering that the women in the Unitarian ministry had been so successful as ministers; Helen mentioned Rev. Florence Buck as one such woman minister. Helen pointed out that women were doing great work in the current war effort, and that “woman’s entrance into the pulpit would supply just the touch needed to fill to completeness her work for the goodness of humanity.” (21) What Helen was telling her audience was that women could offer a great deal more in service to humanity, than only serving as wives and mothers.

In her second year in graduate school, the 1917 to 1918 academic year, Helen and Julia Budlong, a classmate of hers also preparing for Unitarian ministry, did their part for the war effort by taking a class in Red Cross nursing at the University of California at Berkeley. By this time, Helen’s brother Jack was fighting in the trenches in Europe, and her father had been recalled to duty to serve on the home front. (22) The decision to take a class in nursing was to prove fateful for Helen.

During the summer of 1918, before her third and final year of theological school, Helen supplied the pulpit of All Souls Unitarian Church in Santa Cruz. One sermon title has survived; on June 1, 1918, she spoke on “The Moral Aims of the War” — perhaps a natural topic for the child of a retired Major of the U.S. Army. (22a) She returned to the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry in the fall. She was well on her way to receiving her degree summa cum laude, (23) and was looking forward to being ordained as a Unitarian minister in June. (24)

But then the world-wide influenza epidemic struck the Bay Area in the autumn of 1918. By October, influenza had taken hold on the Berkeley campus. More than four hundred students were ill. Stiles Hall, Hearst Hall, and Harmon Gym had been converted into temporary infirmaries. (24a) Helen Kreps and her classmate Julia Budlong, both cross-registered in the theological school and at Berkeley, responded to a call for volunteer nurses: “When the emergency call came for nurses to care for the hundreds of victims on the campus they both volunteered without a moment’s hesitation. It was expected that the trouble would be over and that they would return to work within two weeks. Instead they paid as dearly for their patriotic service as many soldiers have done. Both were soon stricken with the influenza.” (25)

Helen’s case proved to be the more severe of the two. She developed pneumonia, and remained ill for months. She was moved to the military hospital in San Francisco to receive treatment. Her health slowly began to improve, and there was hope that, after a long recovery, she would be able to return to her studies in the autumn of 1919. (25a) But while still in a weakened state, Helen contracted diphtheria, and died on February 23, 1919, at Letterman General Hospital in the San Francisco Presidio. (26) She was buried in San Francisco National Cemetery, not far from where her father and mother were later buried. (27)

In a moment I’ll talk about Helen Kreps’ feminism, but given that we’re in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic that’s similar to to the 1918 influenza epidemic, I feel I should speak for just a moment about the ethics of how societies respond to pandemics. Helen Kreps’ story brings into sharp focus the human cost of pandemics. How do we balance the deaths of people like Helen Kreps against the damage done by social restrictions? How do we balance individual suffering and death against the economic costs of pandemic control? I don’t have an answer to this ethical balancing act; in fact, I’m troubled by those who claim that they do have a final answer. It is quite clear that some form of social restrictions are needed to prevent uncontrolled spread of the disease. Beyond that, we know that people sink into poverty when such social restrictions prevent them from working. Although economists tell us that economic recovery is faster where social restrictions are imposed, (28) it’s still a balancing act. We also know that the current shelter-in-place order is making things worse for people who are suffering from domestic violence, mental illness, etc. In such an impossible situation, there can be no final definitive answer.

Given what we know of her mind and character, I would speculate that Helen Kreps might have had some interesting comments on this ethical question. But rather than speculate, I’m going to turn to Helen Kreps’ feminism, about which we know more.

The first thing that strikes me about Helen Kreps is this: she exemplifies one of the best aspects of both the ministry and of military culture: a strong call to duty. Why did she take a nursing class, when she was all too busy with her studies? She felt a call to duty; her father had come out of retirement to help with the war effort, her brother was fighting in the trenches in Europe, her mother was the managing director of the Red Cross chapter in Palo Alto; the least that Helen could do was to train as a nurse. Why did Helen drop her studies and volunteer to be a nurse at the university infirmary? She felt called to the duty of using her training to help her fellow human beings. For most people today, duty has become less important than individual freedom. (We see this, in fact, when people refuse to follow COVID-19 restrictions; they are placing their individual freedom before duty to humanity.) But for Helen Kreps, duty was more important.

Helen Kreps felt the call of duty, and that call of duty led her to become a feminist. She was not a feminist because she longed for individual freedom. Instead, she told an audience of women Unitarians the reason she was preparing to be a woman minister was because she wanted to use her gifts to work for the “goodness of humanity.” This may sound old-fashioned. Today, we are more likely to hear people justifying feminism on grounds of personal freedom, on the grounds that all persons have certain rights which they must be allowed to exercise. Indeed, the principles and purposes of our Unitarian Universalist Association begin by asserting, not a call to duty, but the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Yet Helen Kreps makes the point that humanity needs the skills and talents, not just of men, but of every gender. So she decided to become a Unitarian minister in order to use her intellectual gifts, and her depth and breadth of character, to bring goodness to all humanity.

Today, when we are justifying equality for women — or equality for non-white people, or equality for non-heterosexual people, or equality for poor wnd working class people — we are most likely to talk about freedom and individual rights. Freedom and individual rights are certainly important, but the life of Helen Kreps shows us a larger possibility: the reason we fight for equality is not just to achieve freedom for individuals, but more importantly that equality will contribute to the greater goodness of all humanity.

I do wonder what Helen Kreps would have accomplished if she had not died of influenza. I think she would have continued to have been inspired by the ideal of duty to humanity. Even though the Unitarian men running the American Unitarian Association essentially did away with jobs for women ministers through most of the twentieth century, Helen Kreps was particularly brilliant and gifted. I think she, like her mentor Florence Buck, would have found a way to influence Unitarianism for the better. She would have been another voice reminding us that our religion does not exist just to serve our individuality; but that we also exist to strive for the greater goodness of all humanity.

Notes:

(1) Helen Amelia Thompson Kreps lived from July 17, 1863 to Nov. 5, 1955. It is difficult to find anything about her prior to her marriage; she may be the Helen Thompson in the 1880 census who was living in a boarding house on Center St., Meadville, with her mother Sonora.

(2) Jacob Fordney Kreps lived from Oct. 22, 1860 to June 10, 1939. He was the son of a distinguished Civil War veteran.

(3) I’ve taken the main outlines of Jacob Kreps’ early military career (up to 1898) from M. H.T., “Jacob F. Kreps,” West Point Assoc. of Graduates, apps.westpointaog.org/Memorials/Article/ 3011/ accessed Nov. 18, 2016. For his career after 1898, I also used George W. Cullum, ed. Wirt Robinson, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Supplement, Volume VI-A, 1910-1920 (Saginaw, Mich.: Sherman A. Peters, Printer, 1920), p. 366 [entry 3011].
(3a) Marriage License Docket of the Orphan’s Court of Crawford County [Penna.], lic. no. 2462, Jacob F. Kreps and Helen A. Thompson, dated Jan. 19, 1891.

(4) Army and Navy Journal, Nov. 3, 1894, p. 163.

(4a) William Ash, “Fort Pembina,” Rootsweb, sites.rootsweb.com/ ~mnrrvn/Essay-Fort-Pembina.html accessed 13 May 2020.

(5) Omaha Bee, June 22, 1896, quoted in “Fort Crook,” History of Nebraska Web site, history.nebraska.gov/publications/fort-crook
accessed 9 May 2020.

(6) 1900 U.S. Census. The Army and Navy Journal, p. 902, May 10, 1902, reported: “Captain J. F. Kreps 22nd U.S. Inf. has joined his wife and children at Coronado Beach, Cal., after having spent more than three years in the Philippines.”

(7) Unsigned announcement, The Index, vol. X no. 16 (Pittsburgh, Penna., Oct. 22, 1904), p. 13.

(8) Alaska History, vol. 20, p.44, Alaska Historical Society.

(9) Preston Jones, Empire’s Edge: American Society in Nome, Alaska, 1898-1934 (Univ. of Alaska Press, 2006).

(10) Helen Kreps, letter to the Nome Nugget, May 6, 1911, p. 4; quoted in John Poling, A History of the Nome, Alaska Public Schools: 1899 to 1958 (Master’s thesis, Alaska College, 1970).

(11) According to the Directory of Palo Alto and the Campus, (Palo Alto: Times Pub., 1911), Helen and Nora lived with their mother at 521 Addison St.

(11a) Daily Palo Alto, Sept. 7, 1910, p. 1: “Among new students who have entered the Palo Alto High School are Misses Nora B. sod Helen C. Kreps from Nome.”

(11b) “School Essayists Are Awarded Prizes,” Daily Palo Alto Times, June 2, 1911, p. 1.

(12) Earl Morse Wilbur, “Helen Katharine Kreps,” pp. 64-65, and “Our School for the Ministry,” p. 63, Pacific Unitarian, March 1919.

(13) Stanford University Alumni Directory, 1921; Annual Registers, Stanford University, 1912-1915; Stanford Daily, Dec. 3, 1914.

(14) San Francisco Call, Dec. 26, 1912, p.1.

(15) Kappa Alpha Theta, Jan., 1915, vol. 29, p. 100.

(16) The family lived at 1129 Emerson. Directory of Palo Alto, Mayfield, and Stanford University (Palo Alto: Willis Hall, 1915). In this year, her brother Jack was in a boarding school in Los Gatos (Palo Altan, April 17, 1914, p. 5).

(17) Records of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. After making contributions in 1916, the notation “discontinued thru removal” appears under her account in the church ledger books.

(18) Pacific Unitarian, Oct., 1916, p. 313.

(19) Ibid.

(20) Wilbur.

(21) Pacific Unitarian, June/July, 1917, p. 215.

(22) Wilbur. Helen’s mother, Helen T. Kreps, was acting Managing Director of the Palo Alto Red Cross in 1918 (Daily Palo Alto Times, Sept. 6, 1918, p. 3).

(22a) Santa Cruz Evening News, June 1, 1918, p. 6.

(23) Ibid.

(24) “In memoriam: Helen Katharine Kreps,” Kappa Alpha Theta, May, 1919, p. 291.

(24a) Rex. W. Adams, “The 1918 Spanish Influenza,” Chronicle of the University of California, spring, 1998, p. 52 (online PDF https://cshe.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/chron1_excerpt_adams.pdf accessed 14 May 2020).

(25) Wilbur.

(25a) Ibid. Two other college women who served as nurses also died, Elizabeth Webster and Charlotte Norton, as well as two staff nurses employed by the university; these four deaths were reported by Robert Legge, University physician, in the Annual Report of the President (Univ. of Calif., 1919); but it is not clear why he did not also report Helen’s death.

(26) Stanford Daily, Feb. 25, 1919.

(27) She is buried in section OS row 96 site 5 of San Francisco National Cemetery.

(28) Peter Dizikes, “The data speak: Stronger pandemic response yields better economic recovery,” MIT News Web site, posted March 31, 2020 https://news.mit.edu/2020/pandemic-health-response-economic-recovery-0401 accessed May 14 2020.

Another way

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Harper.

We Unitarian Universalists are known for our openness to the beliefs and practices of other religions. But we also have our own native spiritual practices, and today I’d like to tell you about spiritual practices from our own tradition, rooted in the relationships between human and non-human beings. I have to warn you, though, that this native Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice is a challenging spiritual practice to follow; which might explain why we have mostly ignored it, and instead turned to popularized spiritual practices from other traditions that aren’t so demanding.

And this native Unitarian spiritual practice starts with the story of how Henry Thoreau, who was raised a Unitarian, went to live at Walden Pond.

When Henry Thoreau got out of college, he had to decide on a career. First he was by his home town of Concord, Massachusetts, as a school teacher. He lasted two weeks. A member of the school committee dropped in to see how the new teacher was doing, and told Thoreau to improve discipline by using more corporal punishment. Thoreau called on half a dozen students at random, beat them, and handed in his resignation that night. (1)

Next Thoreau went to work for his father in the family business of manufacturing pencils. But this was a job and not a vocation; so he also started writing regularly in a journal; and, along with the rest of his Unitarian family, he became an abolitionist, trying to abolish slavery in the United States.

Henry Thoreau still wanted a job that would be a calling, a vocation. So he and his beloved older brother John started their own school. This school, what we today might call a progressive school, was a great success. Their school only lasted for two years, until John’s tuberculosis worsened to the point where he could no longer teach, and so they closed the school. Over the next year, John started to recover from tuberculosis — but then he accidentally nicked his finger with a razor, contracted tetanus, and died a week later.

His brother’s death deepened Henry’s struggle to find his path in life. Henry drifted along, trying different things, until three years after John died, when he got permission to go live on a woodlot owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, right next to the railroad tracks on the shores of Walden Pond.

Henry built himself a small cabin there. He cleared some ground and planted a garden. He spent much of his days outdoors. He read deeply in ancient Greek and Roman literature, in the Bible, and in the holy books of other world religions. In his journal, he wrote about what he had seen in the outdoors. He wrote a memoir about a camping trip he and John had taken, rowing down the Concord River to the Merrimack River, then upstream till they could go no further, then traveling by land to the White Mountains, then into the mountains and all the way up Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England.

Henry Thoreau didn’t got to Walden Pond to pretend to live in the wilderness; he didn’t live there to escape from the world. In fact, the opposite is true: his cabin on Walden Pond was a station on the Underground Railroad. Some people are embarrassed by Thoreau, saying: Oh, but when he was at Walden Pond, he went to his mother’s house to eat dinner and get his laundry done! Yes, and while he was at his mother’s house he plotted with Concord’s radical abolitionists on how to help slaves escape.

So far from trying to escape from the world, Thoreau got himself arrested while living at Walden Pond. He refused to pay the poll tax, which, he said, was an immoral tax because it went to pay for an unjust war against Mexico. He spent just one night in jail because someone — he never learned who it was — paid his poll tax for him, probably out of embarrassment that this Harvard graduate wound up in the town jail with drunks and uneducated bums.

Henry Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for two years and two months, keeping track of when the flowers bloomed, watching the trees come into leaf, and then he went back to live with his parents and sisters. He had finished the business he had to transact at Walden Pond: his spiritual path led him elsewhere.

I think Thoreau is very difficult for many of us Unitarian Universalists today because he is more concerned with transcendent reality than with his career. He made his money manufacturing pencils and working as a surveyor. But his real concern was not his paid jobs, it was his spiritual life.

Our priorities tend to be the other way around: we think our careers deserve more time than our spiritual lives; or maybe we think that our careers are a spiritual matter. Here in Silicon Valley, we worship our jobs, and we like the fact that we can brag about working seventy hours a week — actually, I’m now down to about fifty hours a week, most weeks, except when I work more than that — and we don’t like it when Henry Thoreau tells us, quite convincingly, that we need only work a couple of months a year to provide for the necessities of life. If we did this, says Thoreau, we could spend the bulk of our lives contemplating the divine reality that we mostly ignore. But rather than confront this embarrassing truth, we turn our attention to other, less demanding, spiritual paths. Take, for example, the current Silicon Valley fascination with mindfulness. “Mindfulness” turns out a mis-translation of the ancient Pali word “sati,” a subtle Buddhist concept that means something like “memory of the present.” (2) But we prefer our Westernized and mis-translated version of mindfulness because it demands so little from us. Mindfulness is pursued by executives from Fortune 500 companies, so it must be good. Mindfulness means we do not have to give up our seventy-hour-a-week jobs, because we can be mindful at work, which will make us more productive, and allow us to spend even more time at work.

“As for work, we haven’t any of any consequence [says Thoreau]. We have the Saint Vitus’ dance, and cannot possibly keep our heads still. If I should only give a few pulls at the parish bell-rope, as for a fire, there is hardly anyone within hearing, notwithstanding that press of engagements which was his excuse so many times this morning, but would forsake all and follow that sound, not mainly to save property from the flames, but, if we will confess the truth, much more to see it burn, since burn it must, and we, be it known, did not set it on fire.” (3) Today we do not even need to leave to comfort of our cubicle to watch the fire, we just wait for someone to post a video on Facebook. And so we are distracted for a pleasant moment in our seventy hour work week.

Because he will cause you to doubt about the value of your career, I cannot recommend Thoreau as a spiritual guide. But if you are crazy enough to want to follow Thoreau’s spiritual and religious example, I’ll tell you about three life-changing spiritual practices recommended by Thoreau.

The first spiritual practice is to spend a great deal of time outdoors, closely observing the natural world. Thoreau spent hours each day outdoors, checking to see when the various species of flowering plants first bloomed each year, watching how dead animals decay, closely observing all the minutiae of life around him, and then recording his careful observations of human and non-human beings in his journal. I’ve tried this a couple of times recently — spend most of the day outdoors, observing the relation of humans to non-humans, the interdependence of living things, how living things depend on non-living things — and I can report more than just about any other spiritual practice, it has gotten me closer to a transcendent reality. The problem with this spiritual practice, however, is that it makes me a less effective employee of this church, because I begin to believe it as important to watch Black Phoebes build their nest under the eaves outside the door to my office, than answer the email you have sent to me.

The second spiritual practice is to read the holy books of the great world religions. Thoreau lived at a time when the scriptures of non-Christian religions were being translated into European languages for the first time. Of course he already knew the Western Bible, and the spiritual writing of the ancient Romans and Greeks. But he was also able to read deeply in books like the Confucian Analects, and make those stories become a part of him, as when he writes: “Kieou-he-yu (great dignitary of the state of Wei) sent a man to Khoung-tseu [Confucius] to know his news. Khoung-tseu caused the messenger to be seated near him, and questioned him in these terms: What is your master doing? The messenger answered with respect: My master desires to diminish the number of his faults, but he cannot come to the end of them. The messenger being gone, the philosopher remarked: What a worthy messenger! What a worthy messenger!” (3) So it was that Thoreau understood the place of humans in the universe: as much as we might like to think we are like gods, we are in fact limited fallible beings. Books like this keep us from thinking we are better than other humans, or thinking that humans are somehow better than non-human beings. Thus we open ourselves to the web of relationships of which we are a part. And the problem with this spiritual practice is that it is a blow to your pride, from which you may never want to recover.

The third spiritual practice is to find your own way to truth. Thoreau did think that everyone should go build a cabin on a woodlot borrowed from Ralph Waldo Emerson. He did not care whether or not we read the Confucian Analects. He was not trying to recruit us to join the Underground Railroad. He wanted us to come face to face with reality, to see the world as it really is, to ignore illusions of progress represented by commercial success. This has been the task of religion since the dawn of time: to get us to see things as they really are. But this is a dangerous task. Thoreau said: “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a scimitar, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career. Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” And this is why you should ignore this part of our Unitarian Universalist religious tradition. It is safer to stick to the popularized versions of religion. Go take yoga classes, but do not delve into the depths of Hindu philosophy. Practice mindfulness, but ignore the difficult path of Buddhist enlightenment. Read leadership books that quote ancient Chinese philosophers, but do not attempt to diminish the number of your faults. Come to church here if you like, but do not take seriously the ravings of prophets like Isaiah and Jesus and Jeremiah who say we can make this world a better place.

So I will close by telling you this: Don’t read Thoreau. He will only cause you trouble. If you are young, he will tempt you to drop out of school and go hike the Pacific Crest Trail (which is our North American version of the pilgrimages to the holy land), and then you will not get into Harvard and your life will be ruined. If you are trying to raise children in Silicon Valley, he will tempt you to tell your children: “Stop doing homework and spend time outdoors!” and then they won’t get in to Stanford and their lives will be ruined. If you are retired, he will tempt to become like the retired admirers of Thoreau I once knew who devoted their time and money to social justice causes and filed their bills as follows: Bills To Be Paid; To Be Paid When There’s Money; Refuse To Pay for Ethical Reasons. Trust me, this is a recipe for trouble.

No, you should stay away from people like Thoreau. He will make you crave only reality. He is like all those religious prophets, telling us that we need not live the way we do now, that we can follow a better way.

Notes:
(1) The facts of Thoreau’s life are taken from the standard scholarly biography: Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, enlarged and corrected edition (Princeton University Press, 1982).
(2) For the origins of the word “mindfulness” in English, see Virginia Heffernan, “Mind the Gap,” New York Times Magazine, April 19, 2015, p. 14.
(3) Walden, “Where I Lived and What I Lived For.”
(4) Analects Book 14.26.1-2. In James Legge’s translation: “Chu Po-yu sent a messenger with friendly inquiries to Confucius. Confucius sat with him, and questioned him. ‘What,’ said he, ‘is your master engaged in?’ The messenger replied, ‘My master is anxious to make his faults few, but he has not yet succeeded.’ He then went out, and the Master said, ‘A messenger indeed! A messenger indeed!’”