Obscure Unitarians: The Mortons

The Morton family included two generations of Palo Alto Unitarians. Katherine Kent Morton Carruth was the daughter of Howard and Jessie Wellington Morton, all of Kansas; Katherine married Prof. William Herbert Carruth of the Univ. of Kansas. Then Carruth, a nationally-known poet, took a teaching position at Stanford in 1913. Jessie and Howard followed, probably coming to live in Palo Alto after 1915 (they were not listed in a Palo Alto city directory of that year), but before the 1920 U.S. Census. As usual, it is more difficult to find biographical information for women of this era, but I was able to find a fair amount of detail about both Howard and William.

MORTON, HOWARD— He was born Oct. 24, 1836, in Plymouth, Mass., to Ichabod, a merchant, and Betsey Morton. In 1855, Howard was a student and living with his parents. In 1860, he was still living in Plymouth with his parents and two brothers, now working as a gardener. His father died in May, 1861, and Howard enlisted in the 30th Mass. Infantry on Dec. 10, 1861. He served in the Civil War in Mississippi and Alabama, and was mustered out on Sept. 23, 1865. Not long thereafter he moved to Kansas.

In 1868, Howard Morton participated in the Arickaree, or Beecher Island fight: “The battle of Beecher Island was fought on the 17th of September, 1868, and lasted nine days. Fifty-one scouts from Lincoln and Ottawa counties, Kansas, just over the line in Colorado, stood off [the Indians]” (Kansas State Hist. Soc., 1913). In a typescript passed down in his family, Howard recalled:

“Suddenly the valley and hillside were covered with mounted Indians, charging us at full speed. The little sandy island, so near, seemed our only refuge, so we hurried across, tied our horses and mules to the trees, threw ourselves in the sand, and began to fight for our lives….The Indians were all around and making it hot for us….Our horses were staggering and falling, and we were doing our best to keep the Indians on horseback from charging over us. The chiefs tried several times to lead their men onto the island, but when they came near, our fire was too hot for them, and they broke and rode around us. And so it went on through the long day and until after dark, when they drew off for the night….The fight virtually ended the first day, although they appeared early the next morning, and for several days fired at us occasionally from the hills.”

At night, they sent two men to get assistance from Fort Wallace, a hundred miles away. The embattled scouts lived for nine days on horse and mule meat, until a company of African American soldiers under the command of Col. Carpenter relieved them. Howard’s military pension record mentioned both his Civil War service, and his service with the U.S. Army Scouts.

In 1870, Howard was a farmer in Trippville, Ottawa County, Kan. Ottawa County was considered “one of the best counties in Central and Western Kansas, having a rich soil, desirable location, being most admirably watered, and possessing a good supply of timber.” He lived next door to, or near, the Wellington family. (Trippville’s name was changed to Culver in 1879, to commemorate one of the scouts who fought at the Battle of Beecher Island.)

Howard married Jessie Kent Wellington (b. June, 1854, New York) on Feb. 14, 1872, in Tescott, Kansas, the next town west of Trippville along the Saline River. They had nine children, all born in Kansas: Mary E. (b. March, 1873); Helen (b. Sept., 1874); Katherine K. Carruth (q.v.; b. April, 1876); Howard H. (b. c. 1878); Nathaniel H. (b. April, 1881); Jessie K. (b. Dec., 1883); Charlotte A. (b. Nov., 1885); Ruth W. (b. March, 1889); and Lucie W. (b. May, 1884).

In 1898, he wrote: “I have lived in Kansas thirty-two years; I have twenty old apple trees and 400 set two years ago…. My orchard is in a bottom with a north slope….” In 1900, he wrote that he did not recommend growing apricots, since his trees “never bore a full crop” and were troubled with frost and curculio.

By 1900, Howard, Jessie, and seven of their children were living in Henry and Morton Townships, Ottawa County, Kansas, where Howard was a farmer. In 1910, they all continued to live there: Howard was still a farmer, Katherine was a teacher in the primary schools, Jessie K. and Charlotte A. were college instructors, Nathaniel was a student at the university, and Jessie W., Mary E., Ruth W., and Lucy W. with no occupation listed.

By 1920, Howard, Jessie, and their daughter Mary were living in Palo Alto. They all reported their occupation as “none.”

He was a member of the Unitarian Society of Palo Alto. Rev. Elmo A. Robinson, in the 1925 annual report, reported his death: “Howard Morton, in whose memories were mingled the old time shipping scenes of Puritan Cape Cod and the stirring strifes of pioneer Kansas.”

Howard died Feb. 7, 1925.

Notes: 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 U.S. Census; 1855, 1865 Massachusetts Census; United States General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934; 18th Biennial Report of the Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, Kansas, 1913, p. 4; “My Civil War Experiences” and “Battle of Beecher Island,” typescripts from an online genealogy, www.familysearch.org/tree/person/memories/L75M-WN3, accessed 16 Aug. 2019; William G. Cutler, History of the State of Kansas, Chicago: A. T. Andreas, 1883.; Kansas Horticultural Society, The Apple…How To Grow It…, Topeka, Kansas, 1898, p. 86; Kansas Horticultural Society, The Cherry in Kansas, with a Chapter on the Apricot and Nectarine, 1900, p. 116; Veteran’s Administration pension payment cards, 1907-1933, Morton, Caroline-Mory, Henry C. (NARA Series M850, Roll 1616).

MORTON, JESSIE KENT WELLINGTON— She was born June 7, 1854, in New York, daughter of Oliver and Charlotte Wellington. By 1860, she was living in Boston with her parents and two siblings. In 1870, the family was living in Trippville (later Culver), Kansas.

She married Howard Morton (q.v.) on Feb. 14, 1872, in Tescott, Kansas. They had nine children, all born in Kansas: Mary E. (b. March, 1873); Helen (b. Sept., 1874); Katherine K. Carruth (q.v.; b. April, 1876); Howard H. (b. c. 1878); Nathaniel H. (b. April, 1881); Jessie K. (b. Dec., 1883); Charlotte A. (b. Nov., 1885); Ruth W. (b. March, 1889); and Lucie W. (b. May, 1884). Howard was a farmer.

By 1920, she and Howard were living in Palo Alto with their daughter Mary.

She was a member of the Women’s Alliance of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto in the early 1920s.

After Howard’s death in 1925, she applied for a Civil War widow’s pension. She died April 9, 1936, in Palo Alto.

Her memoir, titled Adventure Ahead, was compiled and published in 1995 by her granddaughter, Jessie Morton Alford Kunkle. I have been unable to find a copy, and suspect it was issued in a small print run.

Notes: 1869, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 U.S. Census; 1855, 1865 Massachusetts Census; United States General Index to Pension Files, 1861-1934.

CARRUTH, KATHERINE KENT MORTON— A schoolteacher, she was born in April 21, 1876, in Tescott, Kansas, daughter of Howard (q.v.) and Jessie (q.v.) Morton. By 1898, her father, a farmer, had an orchard with over 400 apple trees. By 1900, she lived with her aunt and uncle, Thomas and Mary Sears, near Lawrence, Kansas, while attending school; Tom Sears and Howard Morton had homesteaded in Kansas in the spring of 1866, helping to found the town of Tescott.

Katherine hoped to be a concert pianist, and practiced 8 to 10 hours daily. However, she became a school teacher to supplement the family’s income. She was teaching in the public schools of Lawrence, Kansas, in 1909 when she became engaged to be married to William Herbert Carruth. She married Carruth on June 12, 1910, in her parents’ home in Tescott. The officiant was Rev. Frederick Marsh Bennett, minister of the Unitarian church in Lawrence. They had a daughter, Katharine (b. Dec. 2, 1911), known as Trena.

When the Carruths moved to Palo Alto, Katherine was active in the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto. She taught the “sub-primary” (i.e., kindergarten and younger) grade in the Sunday school, 1925-1926.

She was included on a list of Unitarians to contact in 1947 when a new Unitarian congregation was being formed; next to her name on this list is the notation: “too elderly to take part, is sorry.”

She continued to live in Palo Alto until about 1970, when she moved to a convalescent hospital in Santa Cruz. She died January 11, 1973, in Santa Cruz.

Notes: 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920 U.S. Census; Kansas Horticultural Society, The Apple…How To Grow It…, Topeka, Kansas, 1898, p. 86; Harrison Monell Sayre, Descendants of Deacon Ephraim Sayre, Edwards Brothers, 1942, p. 8; Obituary, Palo Alto Times, Jan. 11, 1973; Jeffersonian Gazette, Lawrence, Kansas, Dec. 8, 1909, p. 8; Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas, June, 1910, p. 341; Salina [Kansas] Evening Journal, June 10, 1910, p. 2; Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas, Dec., 1911, p. 114; Margaret R. O’Leary and Dennis S. O’Leary, R. D. O’Leary (1866-1936): Notes from Mount Oread, 1914-1915, Bloomington, Ind.: iUniverse, 2015, ch. 6 n.1; “Names from 1947 Project,” typescript in archives of Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto; California Death Index.

CARRUTH, WILLIAM HERBERT— A poet and a professor who taught German, writing, and comparative literature, he was born April 5, 1859, on a farm near Osawatomie, Kansas. His father was a clergyman and botanist. As a child, he “distinguished himself in the Presbyterian Sunday school by repeating without mistake an amazingly large number of Bible verses.” But he left Presbyterianism for Unitarianism early in life.

William graduated from the University of Kansas in 1880. He married Frances Schlegel of Boston in June, 1882, and they had a daughter, Constance.

William received his A.M. from Harvard in 1889, and his Ph.D. in 1893. He also studied at Berlin and Munich. He was professor of German at the University of Kansas from 1880 till he went to Stanford. Frances was professor of modern languages at Univ. of Kansas until her death in 1908.

He was also involved in the eugenics movement. The opening paragraph of an address he gave at the University of Kansas on May 8, 1913, shows that he offered the usual rationale for eugenics:

“Long before the alarmed cry of Theodore Roosevelt against ‘race suicide’ called public attention in America to this subject, thoughtful students had begun to point out appalling tendencies toward degeneracy in the breeding of civilised [sic] nations. In so far as the warning against ‘race suicide’ was merely an indiscriminate appeal for more children, a revival of the Biblical admonition to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ without forethought and safeguards, it was only a blind summons to more ‘race suicide.’ What the world needs is not indiscriminately more children, but more children from the best stock and fewer from the worst stock.”

William was an active Unitarian, both locally and nationally. He was a member of the Unitarian church in Lawrence, Kansas. He served as a director of the American Unitarian Assoc. from 1906 to 1909; subsequently he served as the national president of the Unitarian Laymen’s League. In the early 1920s, he was a trustee of the Pacific Unitarian Conference, and a trustee of the Pacific Unitarian School for Ministry.

After Frances died, William married Katharine Kent Morton (q.v.) on June 12, 1910. They had a daughter, Katharine (b. Dec. 2, 1911).  William accepted a position at Stanford in 1913, and the family moved to California.

During his lifetime, William was a well-known poet. His best-known poem, widely anthologized in its day, was “Each in His Own Tongue,” first published in 1888 in The New England Magazine. This was the title poem of his 1908 book Each in His Own Tongue. At Stanford, he was professor of comparative literature, and also taught classes in writing poetry. In 1923, John Steinbeck was in his writing class. Edward Strong, who was in the same class, recalled:

“We … competed against each other in our writing of poetry to see who would receive the better grade from Professor Carruth. When we got our grades, John got an A, and I received a B+. I said to John, ‘Now look, you’ve read my poetry and I’ve read your poetry. Do you think your poetry was any better than mine?’ He said no. Then I said, ‘Well, can you explain, then, why you have received an A from Professor Carruth and I’ve received only a B+?’ He said, ‘Because you didn’t dwell in your poetry on the theme that would win an A from Professor Carruth.’ I said, ‘Theme?’ He said, ‘Professor Carruth has been strong on one theme. Some call it evolution, and some call it God [a line from Carruth’s best-known poem]. I wrote about God. I got the A.’”

William was an active member of the Unitarian Church of Palo Alto, serving most notably as president of the Board of Trustees. He also preached there upon occasion.

Towards the end of his life, he taught a course on “Religion of the Great Poets” at the Pacific Unitarian School of Religion. One of his students there, Julia Budlong, recalled him as being “tall… and sinewy, and dry-looking, like his humor,— inclined to be absent-minded and inattentive.” Budlong also recalled him driving her in his open automobile on a wild ride from the Unitarian church to his house on Stanford’s campus, with the speedometer at fifty miles an hour the whole way.

He died Dec. 15, 1924.

Notes: George W. Martin, ed., Collections of the Kansas State Historical Society, 1911-1912, Topeka, Kansas: State Printing Office, 1912, p. 87 n.; National Cyclopedia of American Biography, New York: James T. White, 1910; Eugenics: Twelve University Lectures, New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1914, p. 272; Edward W. Strong, “Philosopher, Professor, and Berkeley Chancellor, 1961-1965,” 1988 interview with Harriet Nathan, Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1992, www.oac.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt8f59n9j3&query=&brand=oac4 accessed Oct. 12, 2013; Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas, 1913, p. 14; Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas, Nov., 1906, p. 66; Stanford University, Annual Report of the President for the Thirty-third Academic Year, Stanford Univ., 1925; Graduate Magazine of the University of Kansas, Dec., 1911, p. 114; Pacific Unitarian, vol. 35, no. 3, March, 1925, pp. 44-46.

Planting a Pear Tree

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This is a story about selfishness, and it also gives an insight into the supposed magical powers of Daoist priests. Source: Pu Songling, trans. Herbert A. Giles, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (London: Thomas De La Rue & Co., 1880).

One day in the marketplace, a man from the countryside was selling pears he had grown. These pears were unusually sweet with a fine flavor, and so the countryman asked a high price for them.

A Daoist priest, dressed in a ragged old blue cloak, stopped at the barrow in which the countryman had displayed these lovely pears.

A Daoist priest. (Adapted from a public domain image from The Dragon, Image, and Demon by Hampden C. DuBose, New York: Armstrong & Son, 1887)

“May I have one of your pears?” he said.

The countryman said to him, “Get away from my barrow, so that paying customers may buy my pears.” For the countryman knew that the priest expected him to give him one for nothing. But when the priest did not move, the countryman began to curse and swear at him.

The priest said, “You have several hundred pears on your barrow. I ask for a single pear, the loss of which you would not feel. Why then, sir, do you get angry?”

Several people who were standing around told the countryman to give the priest a pear that was bruised, or which had some sort of blemish, a pear that he could not sell anyway. If he would only do that, then the priest would go away. But the countryman was stubborn, and he refused to give the Daoist priest anything at all.

The beadle of the town, who was charged with keeping the peace and maintaining order, came over to see what was going on. This beadle saw that things were getting out of hand, so he purchased a pear from the countryman, and presented it to the Daoist priest.

The priest bowed low to the beadle, thanking him for the pear. Then the priest turned to the crowd who had gathered round, and said, “Those of us who are Daoist priests have left our homes and given up all wealth. So when we see selfish behavior, it is hard for us to understand it. Now as it happens, I have some pears with a very fine flavor, and unselfishly I would like to share them with you.”

Someone in the crowd called out, “But if you have pears of your own, why didn’t you just eat one of them? Why did you have to have one of the countryman’s pears?”

“Because,” said the priest, “I wanted one of these seeds to grow my pears from.” So saying, he ate up the pear that the beadle had given him. When he had finished eating, he took one of the seeds, unstrapped a pick from his back, and bent down to make a hole in the ground, four inches deep, with the pick. Then he dropped the seed into this hole, and filled it in with earth. Turning back to the crowd, he said, “Could someone bring me a little hot water, please, with which to water the seed?”

One among the crowd who loved a joke went into a neighboring shop and fetched him back some boiling water.

The priest poured the boiling water over the place where he had made the hole. Everyone watched closely, for though it seemed like a joke, Daoist priests were supposed to have knowledge of alchemy and magic and the mystical arts.

Suddenly the people in the crowd saw green sprouts shooting up out of the ground, growing gradually larger and larger until they became a tree. This pear tree — for it was, indeed, a pear tree — quickly grew in the spot, and sprouted green leaves, and then put forth white flowers. Bees were heard buzzing among the flowers, then the petals dropped, and before long the tiny hard green fruits had grown and ripened into fine, large, sweet-smelling pears which hung heavy on every branch.

The priest picked these fine pears and handed them around to everyone in the crowd. When at last everyone had a pear, and all the pears had been picked from the tree, the priest turned and with his pick he hacked away at the tree until, after a long time, he cut it down. Picking up the tree and throwing it over his shoulder, leaves and all, he walked quietly away.

Now this whole time, the countryman had been standing in the crowd, straining his neck to see what was going on, and forgetting all about his own business. When the priest walked away, he turned back to his barrow and discovered that every one of his pears was now gone. He then knew that the pears that old fellow had been giving away were really his own pears. And when the countryman looked more closely at his barrow, he saw that one of its handles was missing, for it had been newly cut off.

Boiling with anger, the countryman set off after the Daoist priest. But as he turned the corner where the priest had disappeared, there was the lost wheel-barrow handle lying next to a wall. It was, in fact, the very pear tree that the priest had cut down.

But there were no traces of the priest — much to the amusement of the crowd in the market-place, who watched the countryman’s rage as they finished eating their sweet, juicy pears.

Spider steals Nzambi Mpungu’s Heavenly Fire

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids, this one from Central Africa. I like this story because of the differences between Nzambi Mpungu and the Christian Jehovah, and the different reasons Spider and Prometheus have for stealing the heavenly fire. The character of Spider is probably related to Anansi the Spider of West Africa myth, and probably to other African tricksters such as Tortoise of Yoruba myth. This story is adapted from Richard Edward Dennett, Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort (French Congo), London: Folk-lore Society, 1898, pp. 74-76 and 131-135.

First you must understand who Nzambi Mpungu is. He is the father of all things, and lives a happy life above the sky, where he has a many wives and beautiful children. He spends very little time thinking about us people here on earth, and since he is a good being there is no use in offering him worship or sacrifices. True, there are lesser gods and goddesses who can hurt us people here on earth, and to them we might offer worship and sacrefice, but Nzambi Mpungu will not mind, for he is not in the least jealous.

Now you may question whether Nzambi Mpungu actually exists. But there is a man still living, near the town of Loango, who says that one day, when it was thundering and lightning and raining very heavily, and when all the people in his village, being afraid, had hidden themselves in their houses, he alone was walking about. Suddenly, and at the moment of an extraordinarily vivid flash of lightning, after a very loud peal of thunder, he was seized and carried through space until he reached the roof of heaven, when it opened and allowed him to pass through to where Nzambi Mpungu lives. There the man met Nzambi Mpungu, who cooked some food for him, and then showed the man his great plantations and rivers full of fish. Then Nzambu Mpungu left the man, telling him to help himself whenever he felt hungry. The man stayed there two or three weeks, and never had he had so much good food to eat. At last Nzambi Mpungu came to him again, and asked the man whether he would like to remain there always, or whether he would like to return to the earth. The man said that he missed his friends, and would like to return to them, and Nzambi Mpungu sent him back to his family. So you see, Nzambi Mpungu does indeed live above the sky.

Nzambi, on the other hand, is Mother Earth. Some say she is Nzambi Mpungu’s first child. She is the great princess, a mighty ruler who governs all on earth. She has the spirit of rain, lightning, and thunder for her own use. She is a stern judge, and a fearsome ruler.

Now we can begin the story of how Spider almost married Nzambi’s daughter.

For Nzambi had a most delightful daughter whom anyone would have wanted to marry. But Nzambi swore that no earthly being should marry her daughter, unless they could bring her the heavenly fire from Nzambi Mpungu, who kept it somewhere in the heavens above the blue roof of sky.

The people all wondered who could ever bring the heavenly fire down to earth.

Then Spider said, “I will bring the heavenly fire to earth, but I will need help.”

“We will gladly help you,” said all the people, “if you will reward us for our help.”

So Spider climbed up to the blue roof of heaven, and dropped down again to the earth, leaving a strong silken thread firmly hanging from the roof to the earth below. Then he called to Tortoise, Woodpecker, Rat, and Sandfly, and bade them climb up the thread to the blue roof of sky.

When they got there, Woodpecker pecked a hole through the roof, and through this hole they all entered into the realm of Nzambi Mpungu, who, as it happens, was very badly dressed. Nzambi Mpungu received them courteously, and asked them what they wanted up there.

“O Nzambi Mpungu of the heavens above, great father of all the world,” they said, “we have come to fetch some of your heavenly fire, to bring it down to Nzambi who rules upon earth.”

“Wait here then,” said Nzambi Mpungu, “while I go to my people and tell them of the message you bring.” But Sandfly followed Nzambi Mpungu without being seen, and heard all that was said. While Sandfly was gone, the others talked among themselves, wondering if it were possible that someone who went around so badly dressed could be so powerful.

At last Nzambi Mpungu returned to them. “My friend,” he said to Spider, “how can I know that you have really come from the ruler of the earth, and that you are not impostors?”

“Nay,” said Spider and all the others, “put us to some test so we may prove our sincerity to you.”

“I will,” said Nzambi Mpungu. “Go down to this Earth of yours, and bring me a bundle of bamboos, so I can make myself a shed.”

Tortoise climbed all the way down to Earth, leaving the others where they were, and soon returned with the bamboo.

Nzambi Mpungu then said to Rat, “Get beneath this bundle of bamboo, and I will set fire to it. If you escape I shall surely know that Nzambi sent you.”

Rat did as he was told, and hid under the bundle of bamboo. Nzambi Mpungu set fire to the bamboo, and lo! when it was entirely consumed, Rat came from amidst the ashes completely unharmed.

“Ah!” said Nzambi Mpungu. “You are indeed sent from Nzambi on Earth. I will go and consult my people again.”

Spider, Rat, Woodpecker, and Tortoise sent Sandfly after him once again, bidding him to keep well out of sight, to hear all that was said, and if possible to find out where the lightning was kept. Sandfly soon returned and told them all that he had heard and seen.

When Nzambi Mpungu came back a little later, he said, “Yes, I will give you the heavenly fire you ask for. But only if you can tell me where it is kept.”

Spider said, “Give me then, O Nzambi Mpungu, one of the five cases that you keep in the hen-house.”

“Truly, you have answered me correctly, O Spider!” said Nzambi Mpungu. “Take this case, and give it to your Nzambi.”

Tortoise carried the heavy case containing the heavenly fire down to the earth. When they got to Nzambi’s house, Spider presented the fire from heaven to her. True to her word, Nzambi agreed to let Spider marry her delightful daughter.

But Woodpecker grumbled, saying, “Surely your daughter is mine, for I was the one who pecked the hole through the roof, without which the others never could have entered the kingdom of the Nzambi Mpungu.”

“No, she is mine,” said Rat. “For I risked my life among the burning bamboo.”

“Nay, O Nzambi, she is mine,” said Sandfly. “For without my help the others would never have found out where the fire was kept.”

And Tortoise complained that he was the one who had to return to Earth to fetch the bamboo, and then had to carry the heavy case down to Earth, so of course the daughter should be married to him.

After listening to them all, Nzambi said: “Nay, Spider was the one who planned how to bring me the heavenly fire, and he has indeed brought it. By rights, my daughter should be married to him. But I know you others will make her life miserable if I allow her to marry Spider. Since she cannot marry all of you, I will not allow her to marry any of you. But I will give you her value” — for the people Nzambi ruled customarily gave presents when one of their children married.

Nzambi then paid fifty bolts of cloth each to Tortoise, Rat, Woodpecker, Sandfly, and Spider.

As for the daughter, she never married, and had to wait on Nzambi for the rest of her days.

Nzambi Mpungu as imagined by an African artist of perhaps a hundred years ago. This artist was a follower of the Kongo religion. The Kongo religion is related to several religions in the Americas including Haitian Vodoun and Brazilian Candomblé. Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale, original photo CC-BY-SA 3.0 Ji-Elle.

“A great positive achievement”

While watching the mass of the Abyssinian Orthodox church in Debra Lanos in 1930, during the coronation of Ras Tafari as emperor of Abyssinia, Evelyn Waugh noted that the liturgy was “quite unintelligible.” As a Roman Catholic, he had thought that the “canon of the Mass would have been in part familiar, but this was said in the sanctuary behind closed doors.” This observation led him to reflect on the exoteric (as opposed to esoteric) nature of Western Christianity:

“I had sometimes thought it an odd thing that Western Christianity, alone of all the religions in the world, exposes its mysteries to every observer, but I was so accustomed to this openness that I had never before questioned whether it was an essential and natural feature of the Christian religion. Indeed, so saturated are we in this spirit that many people regard the growth of the [Christian] Church as a process of elaboration — even of obfuscation; they visualize the Church of the first century as a little cluster of pious people reading the Gospels together, praying and admonishing each other with a simplicity to which the high ceremonies and subtle theology of later years would have been bewildering and unrecognizable….”

Parenthetically, I would note that this last observation captures the beliefs of many Unitarian Universalists: that early Christianity, in the days before the Nicene Creed — or Paul, or whomever one believes to be the bogeyman who spoiled true Christianity — was pure and simple. But let us continue with Waugh’s meditation:

“At Debra Lanos I suddenly saw the classic basilica and open altar as a great positive achievement, a triumph of light over darkness consciously accomplished, and I saw theology as the science of simplification by which nebulous and elusive ideas are formalized and made intelligible and exact. I saw the Church of the first century as a dark and hidden thing: as dark and hidden as the seed germinating in the womb; legionaries off duty slipping furtively out of the barracks, greeting each other by signs and passwords in a locked upper room in the side street of some Mediterranean seaport; slaves at dawn creeping from the grey twilight into candle-lit, smoky chapels of the catacombs. The priests hid their office, practising trades; their identity was known only to initiates; they were criminals against the law of their country. … And I began to see how these obscure sanctuaries had grown, with the clarity of Western reason, into the great open altars of Catholic Europe, where Mass is said in a flood of light, high in the sight of all, while tourists can clatter round with their Baedeckers, incurious of the mystery.” (Evelyn Waugh, “A Coronation in 1930,” When the Going Was Good [Penguin Books, 1946/1976], pp. 118-119)

Waugh, in 1930, was a recent and fervent convert to Roman Catholicism, and a good part of what he wrote here may be classed as Catholic apologetics directed at his Church of England readers. And some of what he wrote came from the fanciful imagination of the novelist, which is not to say that it is untrue, but it isn’t careful and dry academic discourse. And there is a core of truth in what he wrote: the mainstream of Western religion tends towards the exoteric, rather than the esoteric. This is as true of Protestantism and newer forms of Christianity as it was of Waugh’s Roman Catholicism. When the Pentecostal receives the baptism of the Spirit and speaks in tongues, it happens in front of the gathered congregation, and videos may be taken of the event and posted on Youtube. When the Unitarian Universalist minister delivers a highly intellectual sermon, everyone is welcome to come and listen to it, though you may need an advanced degree to keep up with the literary allusions and verbal footnotes.

Obligatory moon landing post

Fifty years ago today I was eight years old, and it was a summer day in Concord, Massachusetts. I have vague memories of watching the moon landing on our black-and-white television set. But did we watch it while it was happening, or did we watch it on the news later on? I think we watched on the news later in the day.

What I do remember is that it was a big topic of conversation among kids my age. Kids in my neighborhood also talked about how we were going to have to leave Alcott school and go to a new school in the fall. We probably also talked about the new split in the American League between the East and West divisions, and my hero Jim Longborn was still pitching for the Red Sox. But the moon landing had the biggest impact on my imagination, by far.

In fact, it would be hard to overestimate the impact the moon landing had on my imagination. I was so sure there would be regular travel to the moon by the year 2000. When I studied physics in college and understood how much energy it takes to lift humans out of earth’s gravity well, regular travel to the moon began to seem far less probable.

These days I am far more cynical. Before I get excited about moon travel, I want to know where the energy is going to come from, and what the carbon footprint of moon travel will be. These days, I’m more interested in how we might reduce carbon in the atmosphere, to lessen the impact of global climate change. Which means that I’m far more interested in the Trillion Tree Campaign that perhaps “could capture 25% of global annual carbon emissions.” I guess you could say that self interest has prompted a greater interest in ecological science than in astronomy or astrophysics.

Washtub bass

Steve lent me his washtub bass, so I could take it home and try to learn to play it.

Steve’s washtub bass is simplicity itself: a 15 gallon galvanized washtub with a hole drilled in the center of the bottom; a length of 3/16 inch braided polypropylene rope, and a broom handle with an eyebolt screwed in one end and a slot cut in the other end. Tie a stopper knot in one end of the rope, thread it up through the hole, and tie it to the eyebolt. Place the slot of the broom handle on the rim up the upturned washtub, pull the string taut, and there you are.

Playing the washtub bass is not so simple. You have to put one foot on the rim of the washtub to keep it on the ground. You adjust the pitch by changing the tension of the rope by tilting the broom handle back and forth. The range is pretty limited — I got less than an octave — and it’s a challenge to get exactly the pitch you want. The biggest disadvantage, though, is that playing it took a lot out of me: it’s a real workout to move that broom handle back and forth, and twanging the braided rope is hard on your hands. After half an hour, it became clear that it was going to take more time than I was willing to devote to building up strength and building up callouses.

There had to be a better way. I began researching other ways of building and playing the washtub bass.

Eddie Holland of Possum Trot, Kentucky, built himself a two-string washtub bass with a fixed neck that you play by fretting, not by moving the neck. He’s a heck of a player, and his bass sounds great, but by the time you buy the hardware, the tuning machines, and a couple of strings for an upright bass, his bass probably cost a couple hundred dollars.

Shelley Rickey has a washtub bass made out of a big plastic tub with an arm bolted on the side; the string is fretted by means of a short length of PVC pipe that you slide up and down. She has a video where she plays cigar-box uke and her partner plays the bass, and the bass sounds good. But it still takes a lot of muscle: “I’ve been playing it now for five years,” Shelley writes, “and have developed the arms of a lumberjack.”

Dennis Havlena of Michigan devised a lever-action arm to reduce the muscle strain. Marion Billo shows plans for Joe Birdsley’s five-gallon (plastic) bucket bass with a special attachment for keeping it on the floor. But I don’t see that these offer much advantage over Shelley Rickey’s design.

I found different playing styles, too. “Washtub Jerry” stands with both feet on the rim of the washtub; this brings the neck of the bass closer to his body, which might give him better control. I also found a photo of Amy Sutton holding down the rim of the washtub with a bare foot, which seems like it would be painful.

There are also more complicated designs for washtub basses where you don’t tilt the neck to play. Michael Bishop made a hardwood frame with a five-gallon bucket as the resonator, and a fixed neck and tuneable string. Marc Bristol, writing in Mother Earth News, September/October, 1980, issue, describes an elaborate upright bass made using a washtub as the resonator. I found a photo online of bass made on a similar plan, except the oblong washtub supports a wood sound board.

I guess if you really want an upright bass and you can’t afford a wood one, you could make one of these. But these really aren’t washtub basses; these are upright basses made in folk instrument style. The upright bass is an instrument in the violin family from Europe, but the washtub bass has roots in another continent. According to “Afro-American One-Stringed Instruments, an article by David Evans in Western Folklore (vol. 29, no. 4 [Oct., 1970], pp. 229-245), the washtub bass comes from Africa:

“Two kinds of one-stringed instruments are known to Negroes in America today. One is the familiar one-stringed bass, sometimes called a ‘washtub bass’ or ‘gutbucket’ from the materials of its construction…. Its origin in the African ‘earth bow’ has been pointed out and generally accepted. This African instrument is made by digging a hole in the ground and covering it with a membrane of bark or hide, which is pegged down at the edges. From the membrane a string is led to a nearby sapling or stick placed in the ground. The string is then plucked, the covered hole serving as a resonator. In America an inverted washtub is simply substituted for the membrane and the hole.”

(The other one-stringed instrument is a “jitterbug,” which is a single string played in bottleneck guitar style; the jitterbug derives ultimately from the mouthbow).

What I was looking for was a version of the washtub bass that didn’t require me to develop the arms of a lumberjack, yet retained the flexibility and character of the American version of the African earth bow. And what I found was the simple yet elegant washtub bass built and played by Jim Bunch. He describes his instrument as follows:

“I have built a cross brace for the pole using a board the width of the tub supported by two small blocks that fit on the rim. This allows you to support the pole closer to the center of the tub and get good notes without putting as much tension on the string and your fingers. [Moving the pole changes the string tension and the pitch, but] you can also move up and down the pole to change notes. I tend to both adjust the tension and finger 5ths when I play. I screwed a rubber table leg cover to the middle of the cross brace that the pole fits in. This allows the pole and brace to be disassembled for the trunk of the car.” (from the Tub-o-Tonia Web site, c. 2005?)

Jum Bunch washtub bass

This keeps the simplicity of the instrument; all you’re adding is a cross brace. You can still change pitch by changing the tension of the string, but it requires a lot less arm strength. And you can fret the string up and down the neck (without having to slide a PVC pipe). Using some scrap wood I had lying around, I made my own version of this, and it’s really a joy to play.

Since Jim Bunch first described his instrument on the Tub-o-tonia Web site, he has made a few modifications (see this discussion for some details). He replaced the metal bottom of the tub with 1/4 inch thick Lauan plywood; for strings, he upgraded from a 3 dollar bike derailleur cable to an upright bass woven-core G string (perhaps 50 dollars). Photos of his instrument reveal that he’s added a headstock with a nut to hold the string a bit off the finger board, as well as a tuning machine. These somewhat elaborate modifications make sense for him because he plays a lot, and he plays at a pretty high level, as you can see from his Youtube videos.

I’m not trying to perform at Jim Bunch’s level, but I feel his type of washtub bass — with the neck supported on a cross brace — is the best bet for an occasional player like me. After a couple of hours of practice, I’ve gotten good enough that I’ll be able to play in tune on simple songs at a low-key folk music jam session. And that’s all I want.

Update (Aug. 9): I’m adding sketches of Fritz Richmond’s washtub bass. Richmond played washtub bass in the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and played washtub bass with popular musicians from Maria Muldaur to Loudon Wainwright to the Grateful Dead. One of his washtub basses is reportedly in the Smithsonian. In short, Richmond is probably the most famous of all washtub bass players, so his bass and his style of playing are worth looking at. A few things I noticed: First, the neck of his bass has a metal lower part and wooden upper part; it looks like it can be broken down for easier transport. Second, videos of Richmond’s playing style show that he both moved the angle of the neck and fretted up and down the neck. Third, he uses a metal nut, which in photos looks like it’s a section of a metal guitar slide. It’s also worth noting that Richmond used a special leather-and-steel glove for fretting, and a large pick for strumming.

Addendum (July 12): details of my additions to Steve’s washtub bass: I took his washtub, replaced the line (it was rough and worn and hard on my fingers), and added a neck with a Jim Bunch style cross brace. I made the neck out of scrap wood (including a discarded floral tripod that I found in the cemetery’s trash). The string is a new piece of 3/16 inch braided polypropylene rope, which I’ve tuned roughly to D, a good tuning for many simple folk melodies. The string is tied off with figure-eight knots (a stopper knot that’s relatively easy to adjust for tuning). And Steve’s original mop handle and string are untouched, so I can return his instrument to him just the way he gave it to me. The photo below gives an idea of the most important dimension for the Jim Bunch style washtub bass — the distance between the neck and where the string is attached to the washtub.

What it means to be a liberal

In Isaac Asimov’s memoir, I. Asimov, published in 1994, he explained why he was a political liberal:

“I wanted to see the United States changed and made more civilized, more humane, truer to its own proclaimed traditions I wanted to see all Americans judged as individuals and not as stereotypes. I wanted to see all with reasonable opportunities. I wanted society to feel a reasonable concern for the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the aged, the hopeless.”

Then, Asimov surveyed the political landscape over his lifetime:

“I was only thirteen when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president and introduced the ‘New Deal,’ but I was not too young to get an idea of what he was trying to do. … I disapproved of Roosevelt only when he wasn’t liberal enough, as when, for political reasons, he ignored the plight of African Americans….

“Liberalism began to fade after World War II. Times became prosperous, and many blue collar people … turned conservative. They had theirs and weren’t willing to discommode themselves for those who were still down at the bottom….

“And eventually we came to the Reagan era, when it became de rigeur not to tax but to borrow; to spend money not on social services but on armaments. … Rich Americans grew richer in an atmosphere of deregulation and greed, and poor Americans — But who worries about poor Americans except people branded with the L-word that no one dared mention any more?

“It makes me think of Oliver Goldsmith’s lines:
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

“As a loyal American, I grow heartsick.”

Asimov wrote that a quarter of a century ago, and things have mostly gotten worse since then. Perhaps there have been modest gains in people being judged as individuals and not stereotypes, most notably in the legaization of same sex marriage; but we have also learned from Black Lives Matter and #MeToo that far too many persons are victimized because of their race or sex. But when it comes to “a reasonable concern for the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the aged, the hopeless,” we have arguably regressed since 1994: Bill Clinton eviscerated aid to poor people, George W. Bush spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq while cutting social service spending at home, Barack Obama put more effort into bailing out banks during the Great Recession than helping the poor, and Donald Trump now promotes open contempt of anyone who is not wealthy.

I continue to be a deeply patriotic American, but we are growing less civilized and less humane, and we are departing wildly from our proclaimed traditions. As a loyal American, I grow heartsick.

Happy Independence Day.

Browser privacy

I’m not keen on having anyone know my Web browsing habits; I’ll go into my motivations in the last paragraph of this post. I’ve taken the obvious steps to reduce the risks of being tracked online: using DuckDuckGo in private mode as my primary search engine, and Firefox as my Web browser. But online surveillance is only getting worse, and recently I decided to become more resistant to Web tracking.

I had already enabled private browsing and other privacy and security features in Firefox’s preferences, and I had already installed the Privacy Badger add-on in Firefox. I checked what I had done against a number of online privacy checklists (such as this one). Next step was to change advanced about:config settings based on this list.

Now I was ready to test my browser’s privacy using Panopticlick, an online service of the Electronic Frontier Foundation that checks if your browser is safe against tracking. My browser was blocking ads and invisible trackers, but it was not protecting against fingerprinting. Yikes! fingerprinting made it way too easy to track me online. So I installed the NoScript add-on in Firefox: problem solved. Now my browser runs a little differently from what I was used to, but the inconvenience is minor.

Why should anyone care about their Web browsing privacy? For my part, I don’t want to give my information away to for-profit companies: I don’t need targeted advertisements, and I don’t need them accumulating my data. And, in the increasingly polarized political climate of the U.S., even though a philosophical theologian like me should be reading Karl Marx’s works, or a speech by Fred Hampton, or theology essays by William R. Jones, there’s no reason to let others know about it. In short, I decided to give Big Tech (corporations, the Russians, the “Gummint,” whoever) as little information about myself as possible. You will make your own decision of what to do, from freely giving your browsing data away, to being very privacy-conscious by using something like the Tor browser. I suppose this is really an existential point: you define yourself by how much of your data you give away.

The Great Recession

Geographer Richard A. Walker, in his 2018 book “Portrait of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area,” writes:

“The Great Recession has been calamitous. The official U.S. government designation of a two-year lapse in growth 2008-2010 minimizes the reality….things are worse than that. The Great Recession won’t go away — regardless of the soaring stock market and falling unemployment. By any measure, recovery from the Great Recession was the slowest from any crisis on record, including the Great Depression of the 1930s [emphasis mine]. U.S. productivity remains poor overall, aggregate demand is weak because wages have barely budged, and corporations are not investing with any gusto. Loose talk of full employment by mid-decade ignores the fact that so many Americans have dropped out of the labor force entirely.” (pp. 64-65).

Two conclusions for congregations: (1) Expect fundraising to be an ongoing challenge, since many households have not recovered from the Great Recession. (2) Expect the need for congregationally-based social services such as food pantries and supporting homeless shelters will continue to be robust. In other words, we will have to continue to do more with fewer resources.