Pull a Thistle, Plant a Flower (text & audio)

How do we learn what it is we must do with our lives? For the figure at the center of our service today it came to him while he was harvesting wheat on his family’s farm one bright autumn day. Only just returned from service in the Civil War as an artilleryman with the Sixth Wisconsin Battery, Jenkin Lloyd Jones didn’t see much future for himself in farming. As he joined his brothers in the field, his head was full of all that he had seen in the war – the folly and the bravery, the terror and the tedium – and he marveled over how, as he was to put it later, the war seemed, “such a wrong way to do the right thing.”

Then, suddenly, it occurred to him what his path was: he was to be a Unitarian minister. It’s not the kind of epiphany that occurs to most people, but then the members of the Jones family were not most people. They had immigrated to Wisconsin only a couple of decades before, when Jenks, as he was known, was just an infant. Their home had been in Cardiganshire, Wales, which at the time hosted a dozen Welsh Unitarian churches. Nine of Jenks’ uncles were Unitarian ministers, including another Jenkin who had preceded Jenks’ family to Wisconsin, and who, barely a year after they arrived, died of smallpox.

So, the family was not especially surprised by Jenkin’s announcement, even if up to that point Jenkin had never actually attended a Unitarian church.

Oh, it’s true, the family read from the old Welsh Bible, and in this literate household Jenkin had read whatever he could get his hands on. He had also experienced his father at times offer up sermons at nearby churches – not often, since their liberal theology always seemed to get them in trouble, earning them the nickname, “the God-Almighty Joneses.” It would be a decade or more before Unitarian congregations formed there. But the family affirmed the gift they saw in Jenkin and sent him off to seminary without so much as a day of formal education.

Arriving at Meadville Theological School, Jones was the proverbial farm boy: lacking social graces and struggling with the demands of school but earnest, bright, and persevering.

It may have been his unusual origins or his family’s proud heretical heritage – Jones always said that for his family “freedom was a word to conjure by” – but from early on he had a different vision of religion than most seminarians. His idea, as he put it later, was the church would be “a free congress of independent souls,” a place of, in his words, “universal brotherhood” that would “lead in the campaign for more truth rather than to indolently stand guard over some petty fragment of acquired truth.”

It was an attitude that ended up putting this Welsh Wisconsin farm boy at the forefront of what was to become an emerging movement for expansion to the west in a denomination that at the time mostly saw its proper role as offering Biblical instruction from the high pulpits of Boston.

So, no sooner had he graduated from seminary than Jenkin Lloyd Jones enlisted in the role for what was described as Wisconsin missionary. Really, it was a role that Jones created for himself: there had never before been such a position in the Unitarian church and never would be again. But it turned out to be a winner for all involved. For Jones, the position got him back to familiar territory near his family, and for the newly emerging Western Conference of Unitarian churches it got an energetic organizer in the field to drum up interest in fast-growing pioneer towns.

Jones and his new wife, Susan, landed in a vacant parsonage attached to a struggling congregation in Janesville, Wisconsin, where between visits to emergent groups in growing towns he worked to give form to an evolving vision of what the church might become.

For Jones, the church was first off a center of community. So, to bring people together, among his first creations was an adult Sunday school held on Sunday evenings. Unlike the old catechism classes, the lessons were set up to explore topics ranging from the Beatitudes to the natural sciences to great religious teachers, ranging from Socrates to Buddha, Zoroaster, Muhammad and Confucius.

The classes gained a strong following in Janesville, reviving that congregation. So, Jones and his wife managed to package the lessons and send them off to others. Within six months he had a subscription list of 700.

After a few years, Jones’ success led to his being named missionary to the entire Western Conference, which at the time was vaguely defined as stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Pacific coast. His activities, though, were mostly focused in the Midwest and Plains states, reaching from Ohio through Iowa and up north to Minnesota.

It was challenging work that he once described as like that of the woman in a Medieval story who appeared in the marketplace with a can of water in one hand and a flaming torch in the other, declaring it was her purpose to put out the fires of hell with the water and set fire to paradise with the torch, so that men and women might serve the right regardless of their own selfish interests, whether it be hope for future reward or dread of future punishment.

The schedule that his expanded duties demanded of him was insane. His first year he logged nearly 10,000 miles by train or ox cart, often sleeping in train stations and boarding coaches without enough money for the trip home, hoping for freewill offerings that would give him return fare. He mostly visited distressed or dormant churches, or isolated groups of religious liberals who sought to start churches. But it paid off with him helping to establish many new congregations.

His encouragement and support went a long way to holding struggling congregations together. And nowhere was that support more crucial than in Iowa, where women were emerging as leaders in some small congregations.

Denomination leaders in Boston had no interest in encouraging women to take on the role of clergy, but Jones had been promoting equal rights for women since he first arrived in Janesville. He was delighted to find women eager to step into the pulpit, especially since few male clergy would travel to serve those prairie towns. After arranging for the Western Conference to ordain one of those women – Mary Safford – Jones trumpeted the achievement to the wider conference, and invited other women to join her. At Jones’ urging, Meadville, his alma mater, began admitting women, and soon about half a dozen women joined Safford to minister to those country towns in what became known as the Iowa Sisterhood.

In his travels, Jones gathered allies in his work, a group who together created a magazine to communicate their views that they dubbed, “Unity.” The text Bob that read earlier by William Channing Gannett, probably Jones’ closest colleague, opened the inaugural issue of that magazine. Its forward-looking vision speaks very much to the ethos of that time, naming what he called three essentials of religion:

Freedom, which they said implies respect for the past, but reverence for the future, for the continuing unfolding of truth,

Fellowship, opposing exclusivity in religion, and seeing unities of human experience across traditions,

and Character, the view that morality, how we are to treat one another, is the focus of the religious life.

As a statement, it was none too popular with these men’s colleagues back East, since it lacked any specific reference to Christian teachings. Jones insisted there was no need, since the principles they endorsed embraced the heart of the Christian message. That argument, unfortunately, got him exactly nowhere with his opponents, and in time he found himself increasingly marginalized.

When headquarters in Boston finally got around to starting new churches, they invested their money in buildings in university towns where they could send preachers who were schooled to address this educated clientele. Jones regarded this as elitist nonsense that ignored his own efforts that in the course of a decade had helped found 40 congregations across the Midwest and Plains states.

The downside of Jones strategy, though, was that many of the congregations he helped get started were desperately poor, and lack of support for Jones from headquarters made their continued existence that much more precarious.

In time, increasing conflicts with conference leaders and Jones’ own weariness with travel led him to refocus his work. Now located in Chicago, he turned his gaze to a struggling congregation in town, Fourth Unitarian Church. He gathered the dozen remaining members and it grew rapidly, changing its name to All Souls Church. Again, he was a dynamo in the community: sponsoring weekday lecture series, helping to found the Chicago Peace Society and starting the first Post Office Mission, similar to our Church of the Larger Fellowship today, that mailed sermons and tracts to people in distant places.

Arguably, Jones’ most spectacular success was as general secretary of the group the planned the 1893 World Parliament of Religions. Other more prominent religious leaders captured the headlines in the event that provided the first exposure that many Americans ever had to Asian religions. But it likely could not have come about without Jones as the sparkplug to make all the logistics work.

The glow of the parliament left Jones less inclined than ever to compromise with what seemed to him a hide-bound bureaucracy in Boston and soon after he withdrew All Souls from the American Unitarian Association. He tried building another alliance of liberal religions, but it crashed.

Instead, he turned his attention to creating the Abraham Lincoln Center, a settlement house modelled after Jane Addams’ Hull House. Designed by his nephew, Frank Lloyd Wright, it included apartments for Jones and several teachers, a 900-seat hall, classrooms, a library, gymnasium, art rooms and space for all sorts of gatherings. It proved to be an important gathering center on Chicago’s South Side, where it continues to operate today, one of Jones’ most enduring legacies.

With war on its way, Jones – the avowed pacifist – found himself marginalized even more. He was among the few clergy in America who publicly and urgently opposed it, reminding his hearers of the horrors he himself had experienced a half century before. Many ministers who shared his views, including Unitarians, lost their pulpits, but Jones remained at All Souls.

In 1918, shortly after the U.S entered the war, Jones died, cared for near Madison, just down the road from a chapel his family had built at a summer camp he had created at the site of an old Civil War tower used to make shot for rifles. It is now a state park. The epitaph on his grave at the family cemetery was from a quote of Abraham Lincoln’s, a favorite of Jones’: “He sought to pull up a thistle and plant a flower wherever a flower could grow.”

I guess you can tell that I have some affection for old Jenkin Lloyd Jones – untiring activist, Welsh farm boy, visionary leader. Back when I was a student intern at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin I impersonated Jones as my closing sermon for that congregation – complete with bushy, white beard and 19th century frock coat.

It seemed a good choice, both because of Jones’ connections to Wisconsin and because the Madison church was another of those building’s was designed by his nephew, Frank. And the connection is not a bad one to raise here too, since our member Bill Moore was deeply influenced by Wright in his design of this building.

As at the Madison church, the natural materials in this structure – wood and stone – give you a sense of place, an organic connection that links us and all things in one world, and the windows from many angles that bring the outside in, that let in the light, uncolored, unaltered that reminds us how widely truth is to be found.

I also I turn to Jenkin Lloyd Jones as I wonder what our future as a congregation might be. News reports are full of speculation about the decline of religion in this country. Churches are closing, denominations are scaling back, polls show fewer and fewer identify with institutionalized religion in any form. Like every religious body, we, too, must make our case – what are we here for: what are we here to be, what are we here to do?

These are questions that your Board of Trustees and I will invite you to be asking and answering this coming year – not because we fear for the future but because we want to be clear, and we want for that clarity to drive our work together. There will be different venues to do this, but when the time comes I hope you will all be part of the conversation.

One of the abiding charms of Jenkin Lloyd Jones was his unstinting hope and optimism, derived simply from a faith in what we humans are capable of achieving, the conviction, in his words that, “salvation lies in the unmarked possibilities of the soul.”

Part of what we exist as a congregation to do is to persuade each other, and sometimes ourselves, of this truth. As Wislawa Szymborska puts it, we are each “coincidence(s) no less unthinkable than any other,” each with our own gifts and our own quirks, and all of them added together have created this incredible confluence of events that is our life. What an astonishing thing, this life, hurtling along on the knife-blade of time. How shall we use it?

Well, here again, Jenkin Lloyd Jones offers some instruction. “Nothing in this world,” he wrote, “stands alone.” Rather, all of us are measured by our expanding sympathies. And so it is by the gesture of opening, of inviting, of embracing that our measure is made, that our hopes are made real, that our destiny is realized, so that at our life’s close we might be left with that one gift that is ours alone, that realizes us better than any other: our amazement.