Ecological Spirituality and Our Congregation

Sermon is 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.

This sermon is one in an occasional series where I attempt to relate one of the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association to current events, and to our congregation.

This week I thought I’d speak to you about the looming environmental disaster. The second reading this morning serves as an adequate reminder of the challenges we face, and I don’t think we need to rehearse the details of environmental disaster. I am sure most of us here this morning are all too aware of the problems we face. Nor do I want this to turn into one of those doom-and-gloom sermons. Instead, I’d like to reflect on what we might do as a religious community.

And it seems to me that we need a spiritual response to environmental disaster. Technological fixes will be necessary. Changes to our neoliberal capitalist economic system may be in order. Yet it seems to me technological and political and economic fixes are necessary, but not sufficient, for addressing environmental disaster.

This is not an original argument on my part. Back in 1966, historian Lynn White, Jr., presented an influential paper titled “The Historic Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” White contended that our current ecological crisis began in the Western world when our culture made the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. During the Enlightenment, the Western world began to draw a firm boundary between human beings on the one hand, and on the other hand all non-human organisms and rocks and soil and air and everything else. Furthermore, the Western worldview began to believe that we human beings are more important than anything else. And Westerners justified this new worldview with religion. For example, there’s a passage in the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 1:28, which reads: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” [KJV] This was interpreted by many Westerners to mean that we humans were separate from the rest of Nature, and we could do whatever we want with everything else on earth. Even now, in our allegedly secular age, this religious worldview still dominates our thinking.

We may not quote the Bible any more in our secularized world, but it is an unquestioned axiom for most Westerners that we human beings have dominion over the non-human world. We humans get to make all the decisions. We humans don’t really need to consider any non-human viewpoints. If we do consider non-human viewpoints, we do so at our sole discretion.

This new Western worldview set up categories of binary opposites. We Westerners like to believe that there is humanity on the one hand, and Nature on the other hand. Nature is waiting to be tamed or subdued by humanity. Similarly, we tend to believe that mind and body are separate, with body waiting to be tamed by mind. And again, we Westerners believed for many centuries that man and woman were binary opposites, with women waiting to be tamed or subdued by men. Many people here in the United States still believe this about women. And we Westerners have believed for many centuries in a binary distinction between Civilization and Savagery, with Savages waiting to be tamed or subdued by civilized men (and I do mean men; in this worldview, it’s the men who do the subduing). So Westerners gave themselves permission to kill off the indigenous peoples of the United States, and to develop the brutal system of chattel slavery for people of African descent.

Our post-medieval Western worldview tends to categorize everything into binary opposites: mind – body; man – woman; civilized – savage; humanity – everything else. For each of these binary opposites, one of the opposites is more powerful and has dominion over the other binary opposite. This worldview helps justify colonialism, sexism slavery, and so on. This worldview gives license to the more powerful of the binary opposites to dominate the Other.

This remains the dominant worldview in the United States, and has real-world effects. Many people in our country still believe in the binary opposite of men and women, with the result that transgender people are discriminated against, women are no longer allowed to have abortions in many states, and women still earn less than men for the same work. Many people in our country still believe in the binary opposite of white-skinned people and non-white people, with the result that we can document significant differences in health and wealth among people simply on the basis of their skin color, and we also have a loud minority of white people who say that people of color should be ruled by white people. Many people in the United States still believe in the binary opposite of humanity versus the non-human world, with the result that it is considered perfectly acceptable to exploit the non-human world, as long as it benefits at least a few human beings.

I suggest that this is a religious or spiritual problem. We Westerners think of religion in terms of belief, but religion and spirituality are really about worldviews. Thus it becomes a spiritual exercise to stop thinking that one binary opposite should subdue or dominate the other binary opposite. We need to figure out a different worldview. And we Unitarian Universalists are especially well placed to do this work. We’re already heretics. We already know how to reinterpret Western religion so that it becomes less destructive.

Let’s return to that passage from the Hebrew Bible: “God blessed [the human beings], and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” As Unitarian Universalists, we have already come up with alternative ways to interpret this passage from the Hebrew Bible.

Our first reinterpretation of this Bible passage comes from feminism. As the second wave of feminism took hold within Unitarian Universalism, way back in the 1960s, we began to understand that “to have dominion” and “to subdue” are not the same thing as “to completely destroy.” As feminists, we would agree with Rosemary Radford Reuther, who in her book “Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing,” pointed out that the role of humans in this Bible passage is not that of “an owner who can do with it what he wills,” but rather that of a steward who is caring for the earth. We have not been given permission to cause some of God’s creations to go extinct.

Henry David Thoreau came up with another way to rethink that old passage from the Hebrew Bible. In 1862, in his essay “Walking,” he said, “in Wildness is the preservation of the world.” It should be remembered that Thoreau was raised as a Unitarian. However, he became an ardent abolitionist, and he left Unitarianism in part because the minister of the Unitarian church in Concord, where he lived, was at best a lukewarm supporter of abolitionism. So you can see that Thoreau rejected the binary opposition of white people over black people, of free people over enslaved people. Similarly, he rejected the binary opposition between humanity and the non-human world. He acknowledged that human beings could indeed “fill the earth and subdue it.” But he felt that our preservation depended upon reserving parts of the world for wildness.

Still a third interpretation of that old passage from the Hebrew Bible comes from theologian Bernard Loomer, a Presbyterian who joined the Berkeley, California, Unitarian Universalist church late in life. Loomer said that we misinterpret Jesus. Jesus was not God, but rather proclaimed the Kingdom of God. What Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God was precisely what Loomer termed the interdependent web of life. (Loomer, by the way, was the one who introduced Unitarian Universalists to the phrase “the interdependent Web of Life.”) In the Kingdom of God, not a sparrow falls but God knows about it; in the interdependent web of existence, all living beings are intimately connected, and not a one dies but that all are affected. We humans have dominion, but not in the sense of having power over other living beings. Instead, God told us humans that we have dominion, God was telling us that we power with, not power over, the non-human world.

More recently, we Unitarian Universalists have been exploring yet another spiritual worldview. We have been listening carefully to other spiritual worldviews. In fact, we’re experiencing this in the musical selections that Mary Beth has chosen for us this morning. I would especially draw your attention to the offertory music, a piece by Navajo composer Connor Chee titled “Hózhó” (and I’m afraid I’m mutilating the pronunciation of this Navajo word). In the composer’s notes, printed in your order of service, Chee explains the concept of hózhó, or balance. By listening carefully and respectfully to his music and his explanation — by listening to his spiritual worldview — we can experience another understanding of how human beings could relate to the non-human world. We don’t want to be condescending or impose Western standards onto the Navajo worldview, nor do we want to try to coopt Chee’s spiritual worldview and try to take it over for ourselves. We remain who we are, but through this cross-cultural encounter we can learn and grow.

So these are just some of the ways we Unitarian Universalists have already become aware of emerging worldviews, emerging spiritual outlooks. We need to shift our spiritual worldview, because the old Western religious worldview is what got us into this environmental mess. That old Western religious worldview showed us how to have absolute power over other humans and non-human beings. In these days of ecological crisis, we need to shift our focus slightly. An ecological worldview allows us to see, not how to have power over other beings, but how all beings are interconnected. The science of ecology expresses this in terms of systems theory, and interlocking feedback loops, and non-linear systems. Since all beings are connected, the harm we do to the least of those beings is harm done to the entire ecological system.

And actually, ecospiritualities aren’t really all that new. There is an ecospirituality in what Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God, about loving one’s neighbor as oneself. There is an ecospirituality when the Dao de Jing says, “…in giving birth you do not possess it, in doing it you do not retain it, in leading it you employ no authority…” [10b, trans. Robert Eno]. There is an ecospirituality in the traditional Navajo concept of hozho, balance.

That narrow old Western worldview is still dominant in our society. I find myself slipping into that old way of thinking. That’s one reason why we bring our children here, to nurture them with a different worldview. That’s one reason why we come here each week: to remind ourselves of other ways of being in the world, so we need not slip back into that old dominionist worldview. It might look like we’re just sitting in these pews, here in this two hundred and seventy five year old meeting house. Yet what we’re really doing here, week after week, is reminding each other of another way of being in the world. And when we leave here and go out into the world each week, we begin to reshape the worldview of rest of our society. What we do here affects the rest of the world, because we are all part of the interdependent web of life.

Education and Our Congregation

Sermon is 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.

Reading: “For You O Democracy”

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the [life-long] love of comrades.

For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you…!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs.

— Walt Whitman


Sermon: “Education and Our Congregation”

We Unitarian Universalists have our “seven principles,” a statement of values that our congregations agree to. These seven principles are not a creed, mind you; they’re a set of value statements. And one of those seven values statements talks about how we “affirm and promote” … “the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” I will make an even stronger statement than this. We do not just affirm and promote democratic process. I’m convinced our Unitarian Universalist congregations have an important role to play in maintaining a healthy democracy.

Yet in spite of my firm conviction that our Unitarian Universalist congregations help maintain a healthy democracy, I find it difficult to explain how we do this. The role we play in maintaining a healthy democracy is not simple and straightforward; it is subtle and complex. This morning, I would like to speak with you about one of the more important ways we help maintain a healthy democracy. And that is that we train our young people — our children in teens — in the democratic process. Our religious education programs support healthy democracy. It may not be part of the explicit curriculum we teach, but democratic process is central to our implicit curriculum; it is woven into everything our young people do in our congregation.

Our Unitarian Universalist religious education programs have four main goals. First, we aim have fun together and build community. Second, we want children to gain basic skills associated with liberal religion, such as public speaking, skills of cooperation, interpersonal skills, intrapersonal skills, basic group singing, and so on. Third, we aim to teach basic religious literacy. Fourth, we want to prepare young people to become Unitarian Universalists, if they choose to do so when they’re old enough to decide on their own.

Now let me explain how each of these four educational goals helps teach young people how to participate in democracy.

The first of our educational goals is to have fun and build community. On the surface, this is an entirely pragmatic goal. Religious education is but one of a great many options open to children and teens. If our programs are going to compete with sports, robotics, or video games, our programs had better be fun. But on a deeper level, we need children and teens to feel that they are a part of a community before we can reach some of the other goals. For example, when we offer Our Whole Lives comprehensive sexuality education classes, young people need to feel relatively safe talking with one another when it comes time to talk about difficult issues and to think about personal goals.

This same principle applies to us adults. We can work more effectively together on committees if we first take the time to get to know one another. It’s easier to rely on one another for help during life’s adversities, if we’ve taken the time to get to know one another first. Then, too, when the inevitable conflict arise, it is easier to manage those conflict productively if we know one another first.

For both adults and young people, we know the basic techniques of building community and having fun together. Eating together is a great way to have fun and build community. Before starting a Sunday school class, or a committee meeting, we take time to check in with one another, each person sharing something about what’s going on in their personal lives. Working together on a common project is actually one of the most effective ways to build community.

This is true of society beyond our congregations, too. Out in California, I volunteered at a homeless shelter, and one of the other volunteers belonged to the local Christian evangelical church. We strongly disagreed with each other about things like abortion, homosexuality, and climate change, but our shared work at the homeless shelter meant we developed respect for each other. Once people have developed mutual respect through sharing work and fun, we are much less likely to demonize one another when we start debating polarizing political issues. Since demonizing others is destructive to democracy, then we can see how learning to build community helps strengthen democracy.

The second goal for our religious education programs is to build the skills associated with liberal religion. Partly, we want to give young people skills to work together towards common goals. We want them to be able to serve on committees when they get older, so we teach them how to compromise, how to look for common ground, how to disagree respectfully, and so on. We want them to be able to communicate their ideas clearly and without being nervous, so we help them speak in small groups such as classes — and a key feature of our Coming of Age programs for grade 8 through 10 is helping young people to speak with ease and comfort in front of the entire congregation. We teach them interpersonal skills, skills like listening well to others, searching for common goals, being empathetic, and so on. We teach them intrapersonal skills, skills like learning how to identify one’s own feelings, learning where the core of one’s being is, moderating one’s own feelings.

Our democracy would be stronger if more people learned these skills. Our democracy needs people who can aim for the highest ideals but who also know when and how to compromise. Our democracy needs people who know how to speak well in public, not to manipulate others, but to encourage people to work together. Our democracy needs people who have enough self-awareness to know what they feel and to know how to listen to the feelings of others.

Another of the skills associated with liberal religion is group singing. Believe it or not, group singing can also serve to strengthen democracy. When we sing together, interesting physiological and psychological things happen to us. Group singing releases hormones that help moderate the amygdala. The amygdala, sometimes called the “lizard brain,” generates some of our most primitive and destructive emotions, so moderating the amygdala is a good thing. In addition, when we sing together, our breathing and our heart rates synchronize, and I believe this physiological response can help people of all ages learn empathy at a deep level.

So all these skills associated with liberal religion, even group singing, can help young people build a strong democracy.

On to the third educational goal: religious literacy. This is not an abstract academic educational goal. Several years ago, I attended a presentation by a doctoral candidate who was researching religious literacy. She found that good religious literacy programs in high school and middle school measurably reduce bullying. Her research supports what the American Academy of Religion says about religious il-literacy: “One of the most troubling and urgent consequences of religious illiteracy is that it often fuels prejudice and antagonism, thereby hindering efforts aimed at promoting respect for diversity, peaceful coexistence, and cooperative endeavors in local, national, and global arenas.” So says the American Academy of Religion in their religious literacy guidelines for grades K-12.

You have to understand that for most people, religion has little to do with intellectual assent to doctrines or philosophical positions. Instead, religion has more in common with the expressive arts, with political life, with culture more generally. The big divide is not between religion and science, but between science and the arts and humanities. Just as the arts and humanities teach us how to have a deeper understanding of other human beings, so too does religious literacy.

And thus we can conclude that learning religious literacy will help strengthen democracy.

Finally, a brief mention of our fourth educational goal: we want to prepare children and teens to become Unitarian Universalists if they choose to do so when they’re old enough to decide on their own. Even this educational goal has a bearing on educating for democracy. Large democracies are made up of smaller groups with different priorities and values. In a healthy democracy, people in these smaller groups have a firm understanding of who they are. They have a nuanced understanding of their core values, and they know that they can choose these values freely. This is exactly the kind of self-knowledge that’s involved in helping young people decide if they are Unitarian Universalists. So even this fourth goal of ours strengthens democracy, by helping young people grow in self-knowledge and self-awareness.

So we teach community building. We teach skills that happen to be useful in a democracy. We teach religious literacy, or cross-cultural understanding. We teach self-knowledge and self-awareness.

All these educational goals teach things that lead to a healthy democracy. A healthy democracy needs people who are know how to build community with one another. A healthy democracy needs people who have skills like empathy, listening well to others, public speaking, and many of the skills that are associated with doing liberal religion. A healthy democracy needs people with skills in cross-cultural understanding. A healthy democracy needs people with self-knowledge and self-awareness.

So you see, the ways in which we teach democratic process to our young people are sometimes subtle and often complex. Yet these are exactly the kinds of skills our young people need to learn. We live in a time when our democracy is in danger precisely because so many Americans lack the skills we teach. When we teach our children the things we teach, we are sending people out into the world who have the skills our country needs.

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.