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Fahs, Sophia Lyon (1876-1978)

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Sophia Lyon Fahs

The life of Sophia Lyon Fahs was a remarkable journey from the heart of evangelical Christian orthodoxy to a leadership role in a revitalized religious liberalism, a revitalization due in large part to her role as an innovative religious educator.

Born in China on August 2, 1876, the child of Presbyterian missionaries, Sophia Lyon graduated from Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio, dedicated to a career in the Student Volunteer Movement for which she had signed a pledge card reading: “It is my purpose in life, if God permit, to become a foreign missionary.” The goal of this movement was the “evangelization of the world in this generation,” a period roughly between 1880 to 1905. The goal was not realized.

Graduation, 1897, Presbyterian University of Wooster (now the College of Wooster)
Graduation, 1897, Presbyterian University of Wooster (now the College of Wooster)

Following graduation and two years teaching high school Latin, she spent the next two years as a Student Volunteer visiting colleges seeking to convince students to sign the pledge that she herself had signed. Then, in 1901, Sophia took a part-time job as a YWCA secretary at the University of Chicago. She planned to take courses while there, feeling the need for further education to prepare herself adequately for the mission field. Her older sister andher future husband were already enrolled at the University. Sophia had been warned of its radical intellectual atmosphere, but she confidently wrote her sister: “Many skeptics are sent out from there who were formerly professing Christians. They, however, had not found, I believe, the real fundamental Christian life.” Sure of her own faith, but also armed with a curious and able mind, Sophia began her studies in Chicago.

The President of the University at the time was William Rainey Harper, champion of the Higher Criticism of the Bible, a study that takes into consideration the historic context within which the books of the Bible were written. This “scientific” study had a profound effect on the churches at the beginning of the 20th century, and resulted in the Modernist movement that would come head to head with Christian Fundamentalism in 1925 at the Scopes Trial. Also teaching at the University was John Dewey, one of the father’s of the progressive education movement. Harper and Dewey symbolize the influences that would lead Sophia Lyon, over a period of years, to rethink the theology that underlay “the real fundamental Christian Life” of which she had been so sure.

In June 1902 she married fellow Student Volunteer, Charles Harvey Fahs. Because of his health problems, the young couple could not go immediately into the mission field, but moved instead to New York City where Mr. Fahs accepted a position with the national board of missions of the Methodist Church. Sophia continued her studies, now at Columbia University’s Teachers College, another intellectually exciting place where John Dewey would join the faculty in 1904.

In addition to the influence of the Higher Criticism of the Bible and the humanistic concepts of progressive education on the thinking of Sophia Fahs was the influence of her own children. Between 1905 and 1914 five children were born to Sophia and her husband, and as she herself later wrote: “The children who joined our family circle were not merely the object of my educational efforts, they were the most potent source of my own education. In a vital sense, the children were unwittingly my major teachers.” Since her husband’s health continued to be a problem, all thought of going out as foreign missionaries was abandoned.

Harvey Fahs (the Charles was never used) had found his niche in writing and working with world missionary leaders, work that frequently took him out of the country. Sophia Fahs joined the Methodist Church so that she and her husband would be members of the same denomination. They lived in New York City for the rest of their married lives.

Receiving the degree of Honorary Doctor of Divinity from Meadville/Lombard Theological School, Chicago, January 16, 1962. Left to right: the Rev. Edwin Theophil Buehrer, James K. Killian, Jr., Sophia Lyon Fahs, Dr. Malcolm R. Sutherland, President.
Receiving the degree of Honorary Doctor of Divinity from Meadville/Lombard Theological School, Chicago, January 16, 1962. Left to right: the Rev. Edwin Theophil Buehrer, James K. Killian, Jr., Sophia Lyon Fahs, Dr. Malcolm R. Sutherland, President.

Along with her studies under men at the forefront of the progressive education movement at Teachers College, Sophia had the opportunity to observe teachers at the Horace Mann School, the practice school of the College. She was deeply impressed. But how translate what she was learning and observing into her chosen field of religious education? One of her teachers, Frank McMurry, showed her how to take the first steps in that direction. Heemphasized the primacy of experience in the education of children, and the importance of vivid, accurate detail in materials written for them. He believed that Bible stories did not meet these criteria, but material about the lives and work of present-day missionaries who were motivated by the Bible did. Sophia’s Master’s thesis was entitled “Missionary Biography as Supplementary to Biblical Material” and marked her first step away from a Bible-centered religious education.

Excited by this whole concept, she wrote her first book, Uganda’s White Man of Work, which was published by the Missionary Education Movement in 1907. Written for young people, the book described an industrial missionary in Uganda and brought in Biblical material as it played a role in the missionary’s life and work. The book was very successful, sold more than 50,000 copies, was kept in print until 1947, and was even reissued in an “independently Revised Edition” in 1970 by Rod and Staff Publishers in Kentucky. The author would herself have long since chosen a very different path in her thinking and writing for the religious education of children.

In between bearing children, coping with their frequent illnesses and the death of two of them, Sophia Fahs was busy in her field: she took courses in writing, lectured at religious education conferences, taught Sunday School classes in the experimental Sunday School run by Teachers College, taught church school leaders, and wrote numerous articles. As she hammered out her increasingly liberal theology and its implications for religious education, she found herself drawing less exclusively on the Judeo-Christian tradition and more on the natural sciences, on the religion of primitive people, and on other world religions. She had discovered that primitive people developed their religious ideas as they reacted to the natural world around them. What if today’s children were allowed to express freely their reactions to the same primary phenomena — birth and death, sun and moon and stars, dreams, shadows, wind and rain? Should not children’s inescapable confrontations with and reflection on these realities be the beginning of their religious education rather than Bible stories about people of long ago and far away?

Not only did she suggest delaying children’s exposure to the Bible until they were ready for history generally, but she was even suggesting that children not be introduced to other people’s idea of God until they had an opportunity to begin to develop their own.

Sophia Fahs was experimenting with experience-centered religious education in any church that would have her, either in a teaching role or as Sunday School Superintendent. Thwarted by the unreadiness of most ministers to embrace her ideas, and feeling the need for a systematic study of theology herself, in 1923 she enrolled as a Bachelor of Divinity student at nearby Union Theological Seminary where the Bible was being taught from the Modernist point of view that she had now so heartily embraced.

Preaching in the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, Ohio, on Sophia Lyon Fahs Day, March 8, 1959.
Preaching in the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati, Ohio, on Sophia Lyon Fahs Day, March 8, 1959.

The Union School of Religion had taken over the experimental Sunday School at Teachers College, and Sophia Fahs was soon a teacher there.

She also became a Lecturer in Religious Education on the Seminary faculty. However, word of her innovative ideas and practices in the school at Union soon brought her into direct conflict with the Union Seminary authorities who, although they were Modernist, were still basically orthodox. Moreover, by this time the theological atmosphere at Union Seminary was beginning to change, and a new orthodoxy was preparing to move in.

The Union School of Religion shut its doors in 1930, so that avenue of experimentation was closed to Sophia Fahs. She continued to teach adults at the Seminary, but with curtailed hours. Fortunately, it was at just this time that Riverside Church was built right across the street from Union, built specifically to provide a pulpit for Harry Emerson Fosdick, the champion of Modernism. Its Sunday School was to be forward looking and experimental, and by 1933 Sophia Fahs had been invited to try out some of her ideas there. The courses developed at Riverside by Sophia Fahs and her coworkers would prove to be the core of the curriculum she would develop for the Unitarian denomination between 1937 and 1965.

Mrs. Fahs’ work had come to the attention of the Unitarians through several channels. In 1928 she had written an article, “How Childish Should a Child’s Religion Be?” for the magazine Religious Education. It had been read and commented on favorably by the Rev. Albert C. Dieffenbach, editor of the Unitarian Christian Register. There were two major theses in her article:”We cannot give our children a growing and creative religious life. A fine religion is a personal achievement.” Secondly, the building blocks of such a religion are a sense of wonder and a questioning mind.

In 1930 Edwin Fairley, a Unitarian minister who was taking one of her courses at Union, had asked her to be a leader at a religious education conference at the Isles of Shoals. This invitation she accepted and thus began a relationship that culminated in her acceptance in 1937 of the position of Editor of Children’s Materials for the American Unitarian Association. For more than thirty years she had been wrestling with the question of what to teach in religious education and how to teach it. By 1937, her shift from a Bible-centered curriculum to a child-centered approach that embraced “the latest scientific findings” in all fields of human endeavor was complete.

The Unitarian churches had long been wrestling with many of the problems that perplexed Sophia Fahs. In 1837, 100 years before she took up her work with the denomination, the prophetic Unitarian preacher, William Ellery Channing, speaking before the Boston Sunday School Society, urged his listeners to have faith in the child and to see as the challenge”not to stamp our minds irresistibly on the young, but to stir up their own, not to tell them that God is good, but to help them to see and feel his love.”

In spite of this message, for the rest of the century, most of the Unitarians would follow the Sunday School practices of the mainline Protestant Churches firmly rooted in the Judeo-Christian Bible, albeit from a liberal and Modernist point of view.

Sophia Fahs retirement
At her retirement ceremony, June 22, 1964, with the Rev. Henry H. Cheetham, Director, Department of Education, and the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, President, UUA.

But there were exceptions. One prophetic voice was that of the Rev. Allen Walton Gould, active in the last quarter of the 19th century, whose book Beginnings was an early sociology of religion. He wrote: “All life is religious, all nature is religious, our own pond lilies are just as religious as the lilies of the field of which Jesus spoke.” Another prophetic voice belonged to Dr. Edward A. Horton, a Unitarian minister who hoped the denomination would lead the way as progressive educators in the field of religious education. In 1909 Dr. Horton helped develop a curriculum known as “The Beacon Series” which emphasized nature and world religions. And only two years later work was begun on yet another new curriculum, “The Beacon Course,” which would draw on denominational materials developed between 1891 and 1926. Years later the nineteen titles in this course were described as books that embodied “nature theism, idealistic naturalism, and liberal interpretation of Judeo-Christian history within an evolving universe and a progressive social order.” While studying at Union Seminary in 1926, Sophia Fahs discovered this curriculum and was favorably impressed, but thought that it did not go far enough.

In the early 1930s, the denomination — feeling the effects of the depression and lacking funds to invest in new materials — did exploratory work through study committees in Boston and New York. Although not a member of the New York committee, Sophia Fahs, as an emerging leader in religious education, met with the committee at times, and by 1935 the Beacon Press had brought out three new “Beacon Units: records of experiences in progressive church schools.” Because of her growing reputation, Sophia Fahs was able to draw on the innovative projects of her former students, or of religious educators attracted to her new ways.

In 1935, Ernest Kuebler was appointed secretary of the Unitarian Department of Religious Education, and he was instrumental in hiring Sophia Fahs in 1937. Almost immediately titles in yet another curriculum, “The New Beacon Series,” began to appear. Not only was Sophia Fahs the Editor of these materials, she was in the majority of cases the author or co-author as well.

Sophia Fahs
With 12-week-old granddaughter, Brenda Beck (1940).

Mrs. Fahs’ dream of a religious education that began with children’s first -hand experiences would become a reality with the publication of the three Martin and Judy books, The Family Finds OutThe TuckersGrowing Bigger, A Brand New Baby, and Animal Babies.

Experiences with nature were of crucial importance to encourage children’s natural sense of wonder, and the course How Miracles Abound met that need. Her dream — that as children become aware that people of all times and places had the same wonderings about elemental things they should be exposed to these wonderings — was realized in the publication of: From Long Ago and Many Lands, Beginnings of Earth and Sky, Beginnings of Life and Death, and Child of the Sun. As children’s ability to grasp history grew, the New Beacon Series offered such titles as: Joseph, Moses, Jesus: The Carpenter’s Son, The Drama of Ancient Israel, and Men of Prophetic Fire. To help the children of Unitarian families understand something of the churches their friends might attend, The Church Across the Street was made available.

Still some parents and even some of the children pressured the denomination to provide materials about the Bible. And although Sophia Fahs wanted to delay Bible study until children could really grasp that it was actually a library of books written by fallible human beings over hundreds of years, she was made acutely aware that this was not the Bible that permeated the culture of the past and much of our culture today. For this reason she made available, in a book she herself wrote based on Saint Augustine’s understanding of the Bible, The Old Story of Salvation.

With every book, a teacher or parent guide was provided with ideas for artistic and dramatic activities, and with bibliographies of resource materials. Sophia Fahs always maintained that it took more research and preparation to teach children than to teach adults. She co-authored a book to explain the philosophy behind “the here and now” stories for the youngest children, Consider the Children How They Grow. She also fostered the production of new song books to accompany the curriculum.

In 1952, Sophia Fahs took the time from her editorial duties to write the book that presented the underlying philosophy of The New Beacon Series, Today’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage, A Philosophy of Creative Religious Development. In 1965, Worshipping Together with Questioning Minds was published, summarizing her experience in “leading children in worship” (which had been the title of a booklet published in 1943, an early offering of the New Beacon Series).

A quote from Worshipping Together with Questioning Minds expresses well the liberal religious realism of Fahs:

“Life in this age of emphasis upon the sciences encourages and even requires a broadening of the realm of human religious and ethical responsibility until it includes our relations to all forms of Reality. This changed philosophy that I believe is slowly developing in our time, and that may help us to become more integrated persons again, is not only a realistic humanism. It is also a realistic naturalism, of each person’s being part of a Universal Living Unity.”

Individual congregations at first greeted the new curriculum with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Many old line Unitarian churches ignored it and used the materials of other liberal, less radical denominations. But following World War II, many young parents were seeking a progressive religious education for their children and, discovering the new materials, embraced them wholeheartedly. Membership in the Unitarian churches, which had been shrinking for years, began to grow by leaps and bounds and new congregations and fellowships sprang up all around the country. Beacon curriculum books came into use not only for Unitarian religious education but also by other denominations, and by some private schools as well as by parents who were not Unitarian. It was therefore most appropriate that in February 1959, at the age of 82, Sophia Fahs accepted the invitation of one of these new churches, the Montgomery County Unitarian Church of Bethesda, Maryland, to be ordained into the Unitarian ministry. It was a booming church with the largest church school in the country.

Of her ordination, the Reverend Dr. Sophia Lyon Fahs said:

I have accepted the incongruity of my personal ordination in the later years of my life, when my own ministry is nearing an end, in order that I may join my voice with yours in pleading that we put the children in the very midst of us.

Sophia Fahs used the occasion to press for more reforms. She was by no means satisfied with what she had so far accomplished. In the ordination sermon, which she delivered herself, she shared her dreams with the congregation. She had always dreamed of church schools with at least three hour sessions: time for dance, for art, for dramatics, and for meaningful spiritual growth. She dreamed of ministers who had been educated not only in liberal theology, but also trained as progressive educators in laboratory schools sponsored by the seminaries. She dreamed of seminaries that would graduate men and women who had been exposed “to the latest findings” in psychology, and all the natural sciences.

When Sophia Lyon Fahs completed her remarkable life journey on April 14, 1978, at the age of 101, these reforms had not taken place. Neither have they taken place in the quarter century since her death. A variety of curriculum materials are continually being developed for liberal church schools. With the exception of From Long Ago and Many Lands and Old Tales for a New Day, all of the other titles in The New Beacon Series are out of print. That is to be expected of materials that embrace the philosophy that “New occasions teach new duties/ Time makes ancient good uncouth/ They must upward still and onward/ Who would keep abreast of truth.”

— Abridged from Edith Fisher Hunter