From Pens and Postage to the Digital Age
by Stefan Jonasson, Minister of the Unitarian Church in Arborg, Manitoba, Coordinator of Services ro Large Congregations for the UUA, and Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of the CLF
Like many other Unitarian Universalist congregations, the church of my younger years owes its existence to the Post Office Mission, a forerunner of the present-day Church of the Larger Fellowship. The Post Office Mission was established in 1881 through the efforts of Sallie Ellis, a member of the Unitarian church in Cincinnati, who enlisted the support of her minister, Charles W. Wendte, and the women’s auxiliary of her congregation to promote our liberal faith and serve the needs of isolated Unitarians by distributing sermons, tracts, and other publications through the mail. She placed newspaper ads in various dailies and received such an overwhelming and encouraging response that the model quickly spread to other congregations and women’s auxiliaries. By 1885, the original Cincinnati mission had distributed 22,000 tracts and Sallie Ellis had personally written more than 2,500 letters to inquirers!
Inspired by this successful ministry through the mail, the Minnesota Unitarian Conference launched a branch office at Unity Church in St. Paul, where Jennie McCaine took charge of the missionary enterprise. Not only did this ministry reach existing Unitarians in sparsely-populated communities, but it also proved its value in several unexpected ways—by enhancing the spiritual lives of those already involved in congregations and by reaching out to those for whom it was their very first encounter with the liberal gospel. Moreover, the Post Office Mission offered a safe point of contact for those who were experiencing doubts about their existing faith, allowing them to explore liberal religion quietly and carefully as they considered whether or not it could be a meaningful path for them. Several new ministers were recruited for the growing mission field and, in time, “Sunday circles” and new congregations were organized where the Post Office Mission was able to bring together a critical mass of kindred spirits in one place. One of these places was Winnipeg, where Jennie McCaine had recruited a missionary to evangelize the Icelandic immigrants in my home city, helping to establish the first Unitarian congregation in all of western Canada—but not before marrying the missionary she’d discovered, Björn Pétursson!
In the early years of the twentieth century, William Channing Gannett launched a similar initiative out of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York, but with a twist—he came to conceive of the recipients of his monthly mailings and pastoral letters as a congregation in and of themselves, the “Church of All Souls.” Although this “church” did not include a mechanism for becoming a member, the idea that those who received mailings could be something more than passive recipients of printed tracts marked an important change of thinking.
During his second term as American Unitarian Association president, Frederick May Eliot expressed his desire to establish an unconventional congregation to serve both military personnel and individuals living in communities without existing Unitarian churches—a “church in the fullest sense of the word, a church which will serve isolated religious liberals wherever they live.” At the AUA’s May Meetings in 1944, the Church of the Larger Fellowship was organized with 34 members and the pastoral support of Dr. Albert Dieffenbach. (The Universalists established their own CLF three years later under the leadership of Clinton Lee Scott.)
In the postwar years, the CLF was an instrumental part of the emerging fellowship movement and it can be fairly said that the CLF has “spun off” more new congregations than any other—perhaps more than every other! When Unitarians and Universalists merged their two congregations in 1961 they established a single CLF. Today we claim this proud history while imagining new and innovative ways to serve our unique mission. From modest beginnings, CLF has grown into a vibrant, worldwide congregation which continues to influence the growth and vitality of Unitarian Universalism, confident that our best years lie ahead of us.
In the 130 years since Sallie Ellis mailed out her first tract, the phenomenon that became CLF has seen both remarkable continuity of purpose and almost unimaginable changes in method and structure. We may not be inclined to think of the postal service as a “technology” but, if we do, it will be readily apparent that the women who established the Post Office Mission were exploiting the best technologies available to them to serve religious liberals and promote our shared faith. As times changed, the mission and methods have changed to meet new challenges and exploit new technologies and techniques. Can we be equally imaginative today? How different might the CLF appear to us 130 years from now? Or, in this rapidly changing digital age in which we live, how different must we be just 130 days from now, if we are to fulfill our evolving mission? We’re very excited that in the coming months the CLF will be unfolding our new “virtual sanctuary,” a completely revised website designed to welcome religious seekers as well as to provide resources and community for our members. As we work to embrace new technologies, Jennie McCaine’s spirit of reaching out to all who might welcome the good news of a liberal religion continues to guide our steps.
Each month we dive deeply into a spiritual theme.