Helen Kreps, Unitarian Feminist

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.


(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.

(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!’”

Lidian Jackson Emerson’s educational method

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Parish of Concord, Massachusetts, at 10:00 a.m. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.


The first reading is from The Life of Lidian Jackson Emerson, by Ellen Tucker Emerson. Ellen Tucker Emerson, born in Concord in 1839, was the eldest daughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lidian Jackson Emerson.

“Mother used to come up to me to hear me say my prayers and my evening hymn, and then pray for me, every night after I had gone to bed, long before Edith [her sister] slept with me. When she [Edith] came she had her prayers and hymn to say, too. When we were very little Mother began to have Sunday readings and I think also daily readings with us. Chiefly hymns and the Old Testament stories, but she used some other books which were not very interesting to us. I believe she avoided the New Testament, for I found it new to me when I began to read it myself…. she seemed to think the Old Testament stories were the children’s part of the Bible. I think so too.

“I was brought up keep Sunday fitly by having tasks to occupy me. Every Sunday I was to learn a hymn [that is, the text of a hymn, not the tune]. Most of them had five verses of four lines, sometimes they had six. After I was sure I could say that smoothly I was to review another. As I advanced in years I had two to review, finally three. By the time this grew easy, the task of writing out the idea of the hymn in prose was added, varied sometimes by rendering one of Mrs. Barbauld’s prose hymns into verse. These were my solitary labors…. When Mother was ready for us [after church and dinner] I had to recite my hymns new and reviewed and the other children theirs. Then she read to us, and as we grew older she was apt to read to us one of Jane Taylor’s Contributions of Q.Q. and she read more from the Gospels. She used to say to us poems….” [pp. 101, 103]


The second reading this morning is taken from the essay “Philosophical issues in spiritual education and development” by Hanan A. Alexander and David Carr. If you don’t do philosophy, feel free to let your attention wander now, because I’ll make the same point in the sermon.

“…[L]iberal society requires that citizens with robust visions of the good actively and substantively participate in democratic debates and discussions…. [T]he quest for spiritual perspectives and values is driven by the failure of thin political liberalism … to provide sufficiently substantial conceptions of the good to guide appropriate and significant life choices…. [A]ny sensible approach to spirituality and spiritual education should aim to steer a middle course between extremes of local cultural attachment and complete disengagement from any and all rooted values. Arguably, however, some such moral and spiritual middle way is a desideratum of liberal polity, insofar as such society precisely aims to foster the critical autonomy necessary for the demands of democratic citizenship without undermining the conditions for substantial identity formation that any society requires for the making of meaningful life choices.”

[“Philosophical issues in spiritual education and development,” Hanan A. Alexander and David Carr, The Handbook of Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence, Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Pamela Ebstyne King, Linda Wagner, Peter L. Benson, ed., Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, Calif., 2006, pp. 73 ff.]

Sermon: “Lidian Jackson Emerson’s educational method”

It’s good to be back here, preaching to this historic congregation, in the historic town of Concord, Massachusetts. And with this congregation approaching its 375th anniversary, I thought I’d speak with you this morning about the congregation’s most famous family, the family of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Lidian Jackson Emerson. Specifically, I’d like to speak with you about how Ralph Waldo Emerson and his wife Lidian Jackson Emerson raised their children, and how that might cause us to reflect on the way we raise our children.


In the first reading this morning, you heard a little about how Lidian Jackson Emerson and Ralph Waldo Emerson raised their children to be moral and religious persons. Lidian and Waldo used what we would consider to be traditional methods of religious education. Each day, Lidian went up to say good night to Ellen, and Ellen said her prayers, then Lidian said her own prayer over Ellen. On Sundays, religious and moral education continued the whole day. Ellen writes: “Mother’s method in the religious education of her children [was] to have them made familiar with many hymns, and with all the interesting Bible stories[, t]o accustom them to hearing some serious writing read aloud to them regularly, to make it a habit to omit play on Sunday and have it a day devoted to church and to religious study at home.” (1) The family went to church, the children went to Sunday school; the family went home and ate dinner together. The children would then memorize a new hymn each week while their mother went to church again in the afternoon. Afterwards, the children would recite their hymns, and their mother would read aloud to them. And when the children were old enough that they found it easy to memorize hymns, they were sometimes given the additional task of setting a prose hymn into verse.

Over time, the Emerson family changed their Sunday routine somewhat. They still went to church in the morning, and when Lidian went to church again in the afternoon the children still stayed home and memorized their hymns, and recited them to Lidian when she returned home, and listened to their mother read aloud to them. Then at four in the afternoon, the children would walk with their father to Walden Pond, even when it was raining or snowing. When they returned home, they would all have tea with their Mother. Ellen writes: “This was a very easy and happy Sunday to us all, and when we wanted hours of solitude we found space for them.” (2)

Lidian also taught her children the principles of social justice, as it grew out of her Unitarian faith. Lidian was a zealous abolitionist right up until slavery was finally abolished. Ellen writes: “She read the papers faithfully and their pro-slavery tone made her hate her country. She learned all the horrors of slavery and dwelt upon these, so that it was as if she continually witnessed the whippings and the selling away of little children from their mothers.” On the fourth of July in 1853 — that is, a couple of years after the Fugitive Slave Law had been in effect — Lidian was so disgusted by the United States that, rather than decorate their front gate in red-white-and-blue bunting, she hung black fabric instead, as if in mourning. Ellen writes: “I think the children were a little mortified, but Mother said it did her good to express her feelings.” (3)


There you have a brief picture of how the Emerson family taught religion to their children in the middle nineteenth century. Compare this picture to how we teach religion to our children today.

First, consider how many hymns the Emerson children had to memorize. If they memorized one hymn a week, even assuming they forgot a good many over time, by the time they were in high school they would know perhaps two hundred hymns. We rarely memorize verse today, but in the nineteenth century, most educated people had large quantities of poetry and verse that they had memorized. Thus while it seems odd to us, memorizing hymns fit into a larger cultural pattern.

While we might vaguely understand the idea of memorizing hymns, the idea of Lidian setting her daughter the task of rendering prose hymns into verse is completely alien to us. I don’t know of any liberal religious parents who would ask their children to write anything on a religious or moral topic. We expect the schools to teach children how to write, but it is a rare family that asks children to write verse or prose compositions on moral and religious topics.

Keeping Sunday as a Sabbath day, a day of rest focused on moral and religious thoughts, is also foreign to us today. For today’s families, Sundays are as active as any other day of the week: in the morning, there are sports practices and games, and for a few families there might be regular or irregular attendance at Sunday school; the afternoons may be taken up with errands and household chores, and the evenings are most likely devoted to homework in preparation for school on Monday. If there are any spare hours on Sunday, they are filled with social media and video games and similar pursuits. Not many families find space in their lives for “hours of solitude,” even if they should want solitude.

We do share some things in common with the Emerson family. Liberal religious families are still devoted to social justice. We may not hang back fabric on our front gates on the fourth of July, but parents might wear t-shirts that express a desire for justice in the world, and mortify their children in the process. We still teach our children about humanitarian causes, and explain to them the moral reasoning underlying those causes. Beyond teaching our children about social justice, I know of some families today who still take walks together on Sunday afternoons, just as the Emerson family did in their time.

But in general, we devote far less time and energy to intentional religious and moral education of our children than did the Emersons. We fit in religious and moral education when we can, but it is quite impossible to fit in as much religious and moral education as did the Emersons.


Not that I believe we should go back to the ways of the Emerson family. Our society today is not the same as society in the middle of the nineteenth century. We do not live in a society where the home, the schools, the church, and the town government are all founded on liberal Protestant ideals. First Parish of Concord stopped receiving direct financial support from the town government a mere six years before Ellen Tucker Emerson was born, and in her day the church was supported by income from pew rentals, where the wealthiest families paid the most and got to sit in the best pews. There was not yet a Roman Catholic church in town, there certainly weren’t any Jews, and the schools openly taught Protestant Christian values and religious concepts. A few free African Americans lived in town, and more than a few escaping slaves passed through this town on the Underground Railroad, helped on their way by families close to the Emersons; but blacks had no political or social influence, and this was a white town. That is not a society to which I would like to return.

Nevertheless, we lost something when we progressed beyond that old society. Religious education scholar John Westerhoff says that mid-nineteenth century small town America had a “robust ecosystem” of religious education, where the home, the church, the schools, and the community all taught similar religious values. (4) Ellen Tucker Emerson received substantial religious and moral education at home, and that education was supported by the church, the schools, and the whole community. That old educational ecosystem is now broken, and the average child today gets very little time spent in religious and moral education; a child might attend Sunday school perhaps twenty-five hours a year, with perhaps some additional moral instruction at home.

A democratic society needs citizens who have thought deeply about what it means to live a good life. A great part of the success of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was due to its roots in the highest moral and religious ideals of the black church. Democracy does not work well when people vote selfishly on the basis of what they think will benefit them; democracy needs people to have a larger vision of a good society.

We need a middle way between two cultural extremes. On the one hand, Ellen Tucker Emerson’s family and community lived lives and taught values that were too narrow, and did not include racial and religious diversity: African Americans, Catholics, Jews, all were left out of the Emerson family’s narrow cultural ideals. On the other hand, today’s society goes too far to the other extreme: we offer so little religious and moral education to our children that our democracy has devolved to the point where many people only vote to protect their own selfish interests. (5)

We cannot change the way families live their lives in this complicated world we inhabit — we cannot tell people that they must devote an entire day each week to focus on moral and religious thoughts — no one is going to do that. Indeed, we want people to be immersed in the wider democratic society, engaged with citizens with different values, engaged with all the problems and challenges of the broader world.

We cannot change the way families live their lives, so we must figure out the best ways to help people grow and learn, religiously and morally. We’ll still have our Sunday morning services, and we’ll keep Sunday school, too — both continue to serve us well. But we will add to them, and I would suggest that we should add intensive short-term retreats and camps and conferences.

Last week, I was at just such a camp, Ferry Beach Religious Education Week. Over the past couple of decades, this annual conference has become a sort of laboratory for religious education professionals and ministers to experiment with creating a week-long intentional community that welcomes children and teenagers with their parents, and other adults with no children including both young adults, empty nesters, and people like me who have never had children.

In this week-long intentional community, people of all ages live for a week in a community governed by the liberal religious ideals of Unitarian Universalism. In addition to explicit moral and religious education — classes, chapel services, and so on — this week-long camp provides a great deal of implicit religious and moral education. The conference center provides vegetarian and vegan food, and more than one teenager has made the moral decision to commit to a vegetarian or vegan diet while at this camp. The inevitable conflicts that arise are managed by referring to shared religious and moral values — and if you really want to put your values to the test, try resolving a conflict based on your values. The camp has a culture that allows any responsible adult to guide or correct a child when needed. Teenagers play games with children; young adults reach out to and mentor teenagers; all adults mentor each other, and all the other age groups as well. (6) This year, I had a long conversation with a young man whom I have watched grow up over the years, whose marriage had just ended;– and for my part, other adults listened to me talk about my own personal and career struggles.

Consider a child who attends this Unitarian Universalist camp. In one short week, this child gets more than a hundred hours of explicit and implicit religious and moral education. Compare this to the child who attends Sunday school for one hour a week on twenty-five Sundays a year. The child who attends this week-long summer camp gets the equivalent of four years of Sunday school in one intensive dose. Some years ago, a teenager of my acquaintance described her experience this way: all year long she would be on a sort of plateau, and then she felt as if she made a quantum leap upwards in her personal development in a week-long Unitarian Universalist camp; then she would proceed on pretty much of a plateau until the next summer camp. This teenager is now thirty years old, and after working in the public sector, moved to a job in the non-profit sector where she does conflict resolution. This is exactly the kind of spiritually developed and religiously grounded individual who can participate in democracy with a robust understanding of the good.


As you listen to me describing this camp, you’ve probably become aware that there are problems to be solved. Week-long camps of the kind I have just described are expensive, and not everyone can afford them. And many week-long camps are not intentional communities that provide solid religious and moral education of the type that serves democracy. And many week-long camps are not good at including the older generations, the grandparents and great-grandparents, people who can provide so much rich religious and moral insight and instruction.

Well, we will have to solve these problems: we’ll have to have scholarships, and better intentions, and we’ll have to include grandparents and great-grandparents. And we’ll have to try other formats:— weekend retreats in addition to week-long camps; extended families and other multigenerational groups; evening events and small groups; and more. We are in the beta testing phase; we will need to keep refining these ideas until we get it right. And you are already doing many of these things here at First Parish of Concord;— you will keep refining them, keep on working to make small groups and extended families and weekend retreats into intentional communities that help us to grow religiously and morally.

And when you come right down to it, we have the same goals that the Emerson family had. We want our children to grow up into adults with high moral values. We want our adults to keep on growing and refining our religious and moral understandings, so that we can better work with others to infuse the highest values into our democratic society. We want to support each other as we grow, and we want to hold the wider society accountable to the highest moral values.

This is what the Emersons wanted to do. This is what this congregation has been doing for the past 375 years — guiding people towards the highest moral standards, nurturing people who will go out and create an earth made fair and all her people free.

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