The symbol story

The following was written by Rev. Don King, and comes from the September 12, 1976, issue of the Pioneer, the newsletter of UU Society of Geneva:

The banner which hangs at the front of our church was made during the spring and summer by a group of women in the Alliance. The symbol which it displays was the result of an evolution which began during World War II and is still going on.

It began with the flaming chalice in the ellipse designed by Hans Deutsch, a refugee helped by the Unitarian Service Committee, and grew out of the need for some identifying mark in a world of many languages, stamps, and seals.

The basic part of the symbol is a chalice. The burning flame in the chalice is symbolic of helpfulness and sacrifice. The chalice with the flame remotely suggests a cross, which shows the background of our heritage [editor’s note: Don King was a humanist].

Fred Weidman, in Dearborn, Michigan, had the symbol made into jewelry and other decorative items. It was widely used by the Unitarian Service Committee, the American Unitarian Association, and many local churches.

About the same time, 1946, a group of Universalist ministers, including Richard Knost and Albert Ziegler, devised a symbol to represent their interpretation of Universalism. They put a Latin cross in a circle, but put it off center.

The circle, considered a perfect figure and being without beginning or end, suggested God and eternity. The cross indicated our Christian origins. As a whole, they symbol exhibits a tension and suggests an urge to strive for improvement in ourselves and our world. Revelation is not complete or final, but partial and growing. There is still much truth to be known.

In addition to the obvious uses — jewelry, lapel pins, letterheads, church bulletins — the off-center cross appeared in many churches in motifs of decoration and as an altar symbol.

With merger in 1961, and in some united churches still earlier, came efforts to devise a symbol which would combine the two already in use.

The Continental Association [i.e., the UUA] used two interlocking circles, symbolizing the union of the two denominations. These circles appeared on mailings from the office in Boston to identify them as Unitarian Universalist.

Several persons hit upon the idea of putting the flaming chalice in the circle. Such a device became the official symbol of the Midwestern Unitarian Universalist Conference and identified its letterheads and envelopes. It appeared on the banner of the Midcontinental Messenger from October, 1960, until February, 1964. A large mosaic was hung on the wall of the office at 5711 Woodlawn in Chicago.

While making a drawing of this symbol to be used on envelopes, Betty King [Don’s wife] hit upon the idea of putting the flaming chalice in the interlocking circles. Her sketch went to the printers and cuts and mats were made. Both symbols appeared in the August, 1962, issue of the Midcontinental Messenger. It was widely copied and still frequently appears on a church bulletin or on a special program [editor’s note: Betty King’s drawing is quite similar to the current UUA logo].

Fred Weidman had four copies of the chalice in the single circle made.

No widespread attempt has been made to design jewelry, but Betty King had about a dozen necklaces made and sold or gave them to friends. The Fellowship in Springfield, Illinois, had plaques made with the interlocking circles and chalice mounted on a wall shield.

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee used it for several years, but now has abandoned it for a sort of ‘mod’ chalice design.

[The above is Copyright (c) 1976 by the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva.]

I think Don King’s short essay is an interesting addition to the flaming chalice lore that circulates around our denomination. I particularly like the fact that he says this is a symbol which has evolved over the years, and which keeps on evolving.

Note that Don King makes no mention of the now-familiar three dimensional chalice which is lit at the beginning of many of today’s Unitarian Universalist worship services. Persumably, that was not happening back in 1976 here in Geneva.

One thought on “The symbol story

  1. Administrator

    Comments transferred from old blog

    Regarding your final paragraph, in his article “Art and Symbols for a Universal Religion”, the famous Unitarian and Universalist minister Kenneth Patton wrote, referring to the furnishing of his experimental Charles Street Meeting House: “On the bookcase is a lamp made from Greek and Roman design, which is a symbol of light, life, wisdom, the hearth, the home, and aspiration. The lamp is lighted at the beginning of the service and snuffed at the close.” (Maryell Cleary, ed., “A Bold Experiment: The Charles Street Universalist Meeting House”, p. 137). Although not called a “chalice”, Patton’s lamp is clearly an antecedent to the lighting of the chalice in today’s UU churches.
    Comment from jaummrc – 4/18/05 6:13 PM

    Good point, jaunmrc, about the lamp that Patton lit at each worship service in the Charles St. Meeting House. There’s a number of us who believe current chalice-lighting rituals derived from Patton’s lamp. Certainly, the earliest 3-D chalices I know of looked amazingly like Patton’s lamp. As yet there is no documentary evidence, nor any oral history or reminiscences, that might make the connection something more than a surmise. Still, it’s fun to speculate.
    Comment from administrator – 4/19/05 8:50 PM

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