Roaming the Religious Road

Many of you know the recent events in my life that brought me here to serve as your minister. Since the age of 10, I lived in Pittsburgh. I worked for 29 years for the same employer, and lived most of those years in the same home. Since entering the seminary, I lived the past four Januaries in Chicago. Early in 2009, I moved to New York City to complete my ministerial internship. Then, a few months ago, I moved again here to Smithton. So, after a relatively stationary existence, in recent years I gradually adopted a somewhat nomadic lifestyle.

The transition presented its challenges. I gave up some luxuries that I took for granted for many years. I downsized my possessions, finding that many of the things I valued for decades held little import now. And, I began to rely more on electronic social media to maintain connections with valued friends and colleagues.

Like many people, when the stress of major life changes confronts me, I find comfort in the stories of others who encountered similar changes in their lives. I can say that I have found comfort in the stories of other wanderers who trod this religious road before me. And, I would like to share three of those stories with you today.

I learned about the first of these people from the various histories of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton written over the years. Most agree that early settlers of the Yough River valley were introduced to our liberal faith of Universalism by an “itinerant minister from New England named the Rev. D. Bacon.” Our histories include no other information about our first minister.

E. Davis Bacon was born in Greenfield, Massachusetts on August 15, 1813. His family moved to New York when Davis was seven. Young Bacon attended the Clinton Liberal Institute, a school founded by the Universalist Church. He taught school briefly in Kentucky, returned to New York and married. He began preaching soon after and in 1843 returned to Kentucky. Over the next ten years, he moved to several towns in Ohio spreading the Universalist message.

In 1853, he settled in Pittsburg, where the Universalist church had been unable to sustain itself. He reinvigorated that church, and in 1860 met with 11 stalwart adherents in nearby Port Royal, where the seeds of our current congregation were sown. It seems that he only served as part-time minister of the fledgling church for one year, however.

In 1870, while (ironically and quite appropriately) traveling to an appointment in West Virginia, he was suddenly struck ill. He moved to Colorado for the climate, but on January 10, 1871, he died at the age of 58. E. Davis Bacon and his first wife are buried here in Pittsburgh. His obituary in the Universalist Register bemoaned his early passing as “much too soon for the completion of his mission and the welfare of the cause of which he was a pure, faithful, energetic and successful advocate.” [i]

I find it intriguing to imagine the life of E. Davis Bacon at that time. In the year he served this congregation, Abraham Lincoln was elected President and six months later the attack on Fort Sumter initiated the Civil War. The contrast between the rural, family-oriented congregation along the river and the apparently cantankerous lot of city Universalists in Pittsburgh must have been stark. Making the 30-mile trip to Port Royal entailed at least a day’s ride each way by horseback.

Such travel, however was the norm for Universalist ministers of the day. As Russell Miller writes in his extensive history of the Universalist Church in America:

There was not a single Universalist preacher in the formative days who did not
“itinerate” sometime during his life, whether to a community next door to his
own town or village, or to locations hundreds of miles distant…all geographical
areas were frontiers to be conquered. [ii]

The second person I wish to introduce today was the second and longest serving minister of this congregation. Andrew Getty was born in 1826 in Saltsburg, on the southern border of Indiana County. A teacher, farmer, and businessman, Getty began working at the age of 15 and apparently prospered at all of his endeavors. He became a canal boatman along the western branch of the Pennsylvania Canal, which ran along the northern border of Westmoreland County: from Johnstown westward through Blairsville and Saltsburg along the Conemaugh River; through Apollo and Leechburg along the Kiskimanetas River; and on to Freeport and down the Allegheny River to Pittsburg. Thus, he had access to the city and the other river communities of Western Pennsylvania.

Despite his successes in life – as a eulogist wrote in the monthly publication, The Pennsylvania Universalist – his orthodox Christian upbringing left him feeling “out of harmony with reverent and reasonable ideas of God’s character, and human nature, duty, and destiny.” [iii] He converted to Universalism and became a preacher at the age of 36. Apparently, Getty possessed a sharp mind, a deeply rooted common sense, and a keen knowledge of the Bible. So, in spite of his being surrounded by those of more conservative religious persuasions, Getty never failed to triumph in public debates, whether held in churches, school houses, halls, or parks.

He served the original Port Royal congregation, then the Smithton Universalist Church in its brick home on the outskirts of town, and later the Thomas Universalist Church in our current home as a part-time minister for most of the years from 1867 to 1905. He likely made the trip to Smithton once or twice each month. We don’t know if he traveled the 40 miles over land via horseback, or took the longer, circuitous route via canal and river from his Saltsburg home. He eventually moved to Florida, where he died on July 23, 1912, at the age of 86.

With his background on the water, I like to imagine him traveling our rivers to preach here. I can envision him a passenger on the canal boat drifting along with the current, contemplating sermon ideas as the shorelines rolled by. Not yet a steel town, Getty would have watched the rapid growth of Pittsburgh’s glass and textile industries and petroleum refineries. He would have passed barges filled with iron and coal, and steamboats headed for the Ohio River and beyond to the West. Each year, he witnessed the growth of river towns, industry, and the increase in smoke from the coal furnaces.

The third of my itinerant ministers was also born in a rural town near a major metropolitan area. Jesus spent his years of ministry wandering through villages, spreading his message. Jesus would likely have felt at home as a Universalist minister in 19th century America, as many of the towns in Galilee lacked a formal temple building. As Crossan and Reed suggest in their book, Excavating Jesus, the synagogue was more descriptive of the actual gathering of Jews for communal and religious purposes than a specific structure.[iv] So, like our gathering at Port Royal, I can easily imagine Jesus meeting with groups of a dozen or so in remote villages, under shady groves, or as a guest in the home of a town leader.

Now, perhaps Jesus did not have to contend with the untamed wilderness of the developing American Midwest. The paths of Judea were well trod with centuries’ of use. Universalist ministers spoke to farmers, millers, and miners; to the children of independent spirits that settled in the frontier and built the roads, the rails, and canals. The audience of Jesus was used to hosting wandering teachers preaching the history of their ancient culture, the widely-known stories of myth and legend, and the well-established laws of the people. My ministerial predecessors generally worked alone, supported only by dedicated spouses, and little denominational support. But, while Jesus worked with a cadre of followers, he never settled into any one place, or relied on the long-term support of any specific congregation.

So whether on foot, by boat, or on horseback, others forged a path toward ministry similar to my own. I join the ranks of E. Davis Bacon, Andrew Getty, and Jesus as itinerants serving a ministry to the people of a rural land. You know, itinerant was always a word I took to be derogatory. Among standard synonyms of the word are wanderer, vagrant, and vagabond. I always found the word synonymous with “unreliable,” sort of “here today, gone tomorrow” attitude.

But, I have come to appreciate the word’s unique meaning in certain lines of work as those who routinely travel in the conduct of their labors. Where after all would the hundreds of millions of us in this country be without the efforts of those who harvest our food, but must travel from one farm to another in the annual cycle of ripening of various crops? Where would our justice system be without the marshals and judges who cycled from town to town in the growing years of our nation? Where would comedians have been for years without “traveling salesman” jokes? And, where would our denomination be without the hundreds of congregations founded through the loving cultivation of the circuit rider preacher?

The Latin root of the word “itinerant” means “to journey.” Unsettled, roaming, roving – Isn’t that the case with us all, to one degree or another? Are we not all itinerants in various aspects of our lives? We wander in search of love, or purpose, of roots to sustain us. We wander in search of the meaning of our lives, the meaning of the underlying structure and sense of our environment, and the meaning of the universe itself.

Today, we celebrate Palm Sunday, the date when legend tells us that Jesus left his rural ministry to enter the metropolitan heart of his region. His reception in the big city started wonderfully, but quickly turned sour and ended abruptly just a few days later. After three years of successful itinerant service to his message, Jesus was viewed by the leaders of the temple and the civic authorities of the city as a dangerous interloper to the status quo.

Now, of course, your personal theology defines whether or not the triumphal entry into Jerusalem was, indeed, the end of the personal ministry of Jesus or just the beginning. His execution just one week later certainly ended his human life as an itinerant minister. But, the story subsequent to his death and burial marks just the beginning of what has become a religion with billions of followers. His labor – the compassion, the healing, and the preaching – lived on far beyond the passing of his mortal body.

Death may claim us as young adults, like Jesus, or in middle age like E. Davis Bacon, or in our twilight years like Andrew Getty. Until we breathe our last, however, we yearn not so much for deathlessness but for wholeness. We seek a sense of union with the essence of life itself. The traditional message of Universalism offered the comfort that while this longing cannot be fully satisfied in our earthly life, a fulfilling afterlife awaits us all.

But, I would suggest that modern day Universalism must move beyond this isolated view of wholeness.

  • We must recognize that death is not the defect but the reality that can motivate us to live more fully, more wholly. Regardless of one’s view on life after death, we can live each day more intentionally, more purposefully;
  • We must accept that sometimes the journey itself may be the goal. Whether on foot, by horse, by boat, or moving van, wholeness may derive from our motion; and
  • We must comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we might not ever know all the reasons things happen, or understand the full consequences of events around us.

We can never let adherence to either dogmatic creed or soulless rationality blind us to the wondrous possibilities that the cosmos provides us.

Our lives may at times seem too transient and our support systems may fail to maintain us in our normal comfort zones. But, in some ways, we are meant to lead itinerant lives – unsettled lives of roaming and roving – pursuing the rigorous journey, which demands the highest degree of dogged persistence. To that end, let this congregation serve as a terminal of bustling journey, of travels to distant lands, and to periodic stopovers at home.

[i] “Obituaries (1870-71) in the 1872 Register, The Universalist Register (Unitarian Universalist Historical Society web page)
[ii] Miller, Russell P. The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770-1870, (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1979), p. 233.
[iii] Vincent, James. “Remembered for What He Did: Fifty Years a Minister,” The Pennsylvania Universalist 7:8 (September 1912), pp. 4-6.
[iv] Crossan, Dominic and Reed, Jonathan. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), p. 26.