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Vogt, Von Ogden (1879-1964)

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This master liturgist, who excelled at celebrating Life in the liberal tradition, was born in Altamont, Illinois. Following his years of education at Beloit College, Yale Divinity School, and Harvard Divinity School, he served as a Congregational minister from 1911 to 1925 and then became a Unitarian minister. Here Professor John F. Hayward speaks personally of the Rev. Von Ogden Vogt, his mentor in religion and the arts before Hayward began his teaching career at the University of Chicago and the University of Southern Illinois.

Von Ogden Vogt

The Life and Ministry of Von Ogden Vogt
By John F. Hayward,
Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus,
Southern Illinois University

How did I come to know Dr. Vogt? He was minister of Chicago’s First Unitarian Church from 1925 until his retirement in 1944. In 1940, the year I entered Meadville Theological School in Chicago, I discovered that he and his wife were close personal friends with Sidney Snow, President of Meadville, and his wife, Margaret. Mrs. Snow and Dr. Vogt’s wife, Ellen, were both gracious, blunt-speaking, high-principled old time New England women. Sidney Snow was the quintessential Harvard graduate with aristocratic airs and populist values. Mrs. Snow called her husband “Siddo,” and Mrs. Vogt always spoke of “Von.” At the time I knew them, they both had grown children who were not nearby. The Snows and Vogts used to play bridge together and occasionally I was invited in as a fourth—I suspect because I was the only Meadville student with a Harvard pedigree.

I mention the foregoing details because to my great surprise I was invited in my freshman year to preach for Sunday in Dr. Vogt’s pulpit at First Church. My title was “With Liberty and Justice for All”—more or less FDR type of evaluation of the social structure and needs of the USA at the time. In my sophomore year I did a stint at the Shelbyville, IL, church for so-called “field work.” In my senior year (1943) I became Vogt’s assistant in two capacities: I did services for the children in Hull Chapel, 9:30-10:30, and then helped Vogt do the main church service at 11:00. He had a heart weakness and his doctor had ordered him to do nothing in the Sunday service besides the pastoral prayer and the sermon. I handled the rest of the liturgy.

Vogt’s liturgical style left an indelible imprint upon me. He wore a robe, processed behind the vested choir while we all sang the opening hymn, and made all his movements in that large chancel without hurry and with a kind of statuesque dignity. His voice was clearly articulated and carried to the far end of the nave without mechanical amplification, without strain, and with no lack of clarity. He preached largely extemporaneously in a firm, slow, thoughtful pace, fidgeting with his eye-glasses over the edge of the high pulpit. The eye-glass twitch always intrigued and unsettled me: would he ever drop them? He never did. He would as often address the ceiling as the people, a kind of high, lofty presentation which put him in the ranks of an earlier style of oratory. For all of his dignity and ceremonial precision, he had a few humane lapses which may have been secretly deliberate. While giving the announcements he would walk down from the chancel to floor level and, as it were, chat with the people. The announcements were always followed by a hymn which he would announce. Sometimes he would forget the hymn number and peer slowly toward the hymn board, pausing while reading the number. Also, if his wife, Ellen, felt he had left anything out of the announcements, she would call out loud and clear, “Von, don’t forget, – – – etc.” Thus I learned that a liberal church could copy a kind of high church dignity without being stuffy.

Vogt's church

First Unitarian Church on Woodlawn Avenue at Fifty-Seventh Street. Photo by Richard Speck.

His greatest work was the First Unitarian Church building itself. When he first came to their ministry the church was simply that small building which we now call “Hull Chapel.” The new building needing to be built would be an addition to Hull Chapel. As one who had travelled widely in Europe, he had a special love for the majesty of Gothic architecture, a love, also, for reasons other than gothic grandeur and solemnity. He knew that the medieval church was used for all kinds of community meetings, including commerce. It was also designed to be a microcosm of the Christian’s universe, lofty as honoring God, long and narrow as expressive of each life journey, with a bright and attractive altar and reredos representative of the City of God toward which all pilgrims move. He wanted to decorate his church with symbolic cartouches of major natural and cultural activities. On the reredos back of the altar were placed symbols for life and death, stars and planets, and the range of living species. In the string course above the arches of the nave were placed a number of marble cartouches representing various human professions and trades. His idea was to use the microcosm-macrocosm stretch to establish a sacred space which is at once a refuge from the world and a replica of it, corresponding to the inward and outward facets of religious faith and action. The gothic flavor connects the people with their historic past. The symbolism and the liturgies were designed to match the ongoing developments of modern civilization. Over the entrance he had engraved the phrase: “Up from the world of the Many to the Overworld of the One.” And on the exit lintel of the same doors was the answering phrase: “Back to the world of the Many to fulfill the life of the One.”

Dr. Vogt told me one subtly humorous feature of his challenge to Denison Hull, his architect. He said, “I said to him, ‘Denny, I want you to build us a church that will look simply grand that can be filled by very few people.'” And so it is: the church looks “grand” because its nave is only about 25′ wide, while it is 55′ high from the floor to the top of the fan-vaulted arches and over 100’ from entrance to chancel. There are slightly over 200 chairs in the nave. Thus a small crowd looks big.

Von Ogden VogtVogt’s theory of worship, as expressed in his book Modern Worship, begins with praise. No matter what actual or threatened troubles, dangers, problems exist, one cannot pray until one acknowledges with hallelujahs the sacred gift of life itself and all that supports and goes with life. The next element is contrition: the recognition that our human efforts seldom if ever match the bounty of divine benefit. The third element is analysis and resolution of particular ways in which personal and communal life may be improved and strengthened, ending again on a note of praise. He was fond of quoting the famous passage in Isaiah 6 where the prophet’s vision of the glory of God in the temple terrifies him because he regards himself as “a man of unclean lips” dwelling with a “people of unclean lips.” The angel purges Isaiah’s contrition with a coal from the altar and Isaiah is then ready for God’s command to go forth on his prophetic journey. Another feature of the church of which Vogt was proud is the crypt where there is a columbarium of niches in the wall for the placement of the ashes of deceased persons with their names and identities inscribed on the little marble slabs covering each niche. He liked the idea that the church is founded not only upon the grand foundations of Western history but also on the flesh and blood labors of persons whose remains are present in its actual foundation. This is not ancestor worship, but it is ancestor respect. Finally, here is the wording of the plaque in Chicago’s First Unitarian Church. I was invited to supply the words, and Denison Hull, the church’s architect, designed it and had it cut into a marble slab which he mounted on the wall of the north aisle, at the middle point of the nave.


1925 -1944

1944 – 1964

His wisdom and artistry inspired the building
of this house and fashioned its order of worship.

His memory endures with these stones and
lives anew in the voice of praise.

Memorial Tribute to Von Ogden Vogt
First Unitarian Church, Chicago, Illinois
September 26, 1964
Given by the Rev. John F. Hayward

Burial Crypt

Entrance to Burial Crypt.

We are gathered to set the seal of loving memory upon the life and deeds of our Minister Emeritus, Von Ogden Vogt. Long after he left these four corners we have felt his presence among us—in the excellence of the liturgies he helped to devise and in the dignity and piquancy of this building, his most glorious monument. It is hard to contemplate that he is not somewhere on our common earth, that no street in America any longer is channel for his jaunty step or occasion for his merry greetings and probing voice and finger. His passing leaves a gap in the best precincts of our mind long after he left the familiar precincts of our city. Now we know inwardly how precious were his return visits among us. For it seemed that he belonged as naturally and nobly to these four corners as does this beautiful church. It is fitting that we should seek in this place to fix in our personal and corporate histories the deeds and qualities by which he will ever remain our Minister Emeritus.

There are few men, or none, whose style of life was so completely at one with their characters as was Dr. Vogt’s. If we would recall his churchly leadership we have only to think of his round monk’s head and snow-white tonsure and the wispy locks on the crown which he would frequently seek to smooth into an ecclesiastical decorum. If we would remember his human inquisitiveness, we picture his fretted and curiously carved hands with their constant active accompaniment to the probings of his mind. If we would express his sense for the long scope and drama of life, we follow in the mind’s eye the broad sweep of his arm and the vastly wider arc of his gaze.

For home-like gentleness and relishings, we see the blue eyes and the little wreaths of merry wrinkles. His dress was ever appropriate to the manysided concerns of his day: the clerical collar and long black robe to astonish and elevate his Unitarian congregation; the tweed jackets as symbol of his respect for and congruence with this community of scholars on the Quadrangles; the jaunty bow tie and straw hat to celebrate the informalities of his Florida retirement and the delights of friendships renewed in Chicago’s pleasant days of May and June.

Church interior

Interior of church.

All these, however are but the outward signs and tokens of the man. The voice and its speech are the true angels of our souls, conveying from the heart of every man’s mystery the most accurate news of his spirit. As a vessel of glass or clay will ring true or cracked when tapped on the rim, so a man’s voice and its speech will convey to the world the sonorities or dissonances of his spirit. Dr. Vogt’s speech, by the very excellence of its style, revealed the scope and quality of his ministry. His cadences were as ringing as the blows of a hammer, as tough and stubby as its oaken handle. His paragraphs were founded upon strong shafts of oak laminated with the grace of mahogany and the fragrance of cedar.

With such gifts of expression he stood within this pulpit most comfortably and commandingly, and made a joyful noise unto the Lord. While his eyes roamed the arches of the ceiling as if searching for the true shapes of wisdom, his hands danced nervously with his eyeglasses, suspending their frail glitter suspensefully over the stone floor below. Sometimes, as a young man, I wished he would drop them as if to break the tension of expectancy his sermons engendered. Yet my mind starts in horror at the thought, for like his spectacles, so his life and bright spirit hung fraily over the edge of ill health, and the shattering of their music would have brought a most grievous silence. We are prepared for it now, as we were not then.

We are prepared to say “Farewell” and “Well done” and “Thank you” to this good man and minister. Thank you for the priestly gift, for the bright weddings, tender christenings, and strenthening memorials of so many years. Thank you for the poetic gift, for the voice of prayer and encouragement, celebration and challenge, which rang so gloriously among these noble arches. Thank you for the prophetic gift which first called to mind the inequities of our burgeoning society and roused a neighborhood to action. And thank you for the gift of friendship, forged in the days of active ministry and renewed in faithfulness through all the years of a splendid old age. A great company of children and adults, workers and craftsmen, professional men and householders, theological students and ministers, readers and teachers, celebrants and sufferers rise up to offer their appreciation and call him blessed. The plenitude of our thanks extends also to his dear wife and sons. We doubt not that Ellen Vogt’s quiet grace and gentle good humor were true nourishment for her husband’s life and that her boys grown to manhood contributed in their way to their father’s own astonishing growth down to the latest years. We salute them with deep affection and pray for their renewal in joy and peace.

Dr. Vogt’s ending was greater than the beginning. When he returned here periodically in old age to preach, we saw a perennial youth and growth in his spirit. Twice in the period of his retirement he published distinguished works. He is honored in Vero Beach, Florida, for having conceived and brought to completion their new public library, with its classic grace and modern vivacity. Thus in those years when most men are withdrawn from life, he helped to build a temple of learning, a token of his lifelong respect for the works of the mind. But his greatest work was his sponsorhip of this temple in the early years of his ministry here. A true temple of God was, in his mind, the outward symbol of man’s farthest reach and most sublime joy. It was therefore right that his last literary work, which was incomplete at his death, should be called, “The Architecture of Freedom.” He had proposed for this book a pilgrim’s journey among the great temples of the western world and the western spirit, beginning with the Parthenon. His journey in this latest manuscript carried him finally home to Hyde Park, first to the grand sonorities of Rockefeller Chapel, and then down the street to this, his most beloved church. Let me read to you some few of these last words, written in pain and in the light of his dying vision:

“Only two long city blocks from the University Chapel is the building of my own parish, the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. It is an architectural gem. For a variety of good reasons, the architect, Mr. Denison Hull, used the idioms of the Gothic language for his structure, including true masonry vaulting. This latter automatically involves some traits favorable to the atmosphere of sanctity. The austerity of stone surfaces, the weight of the arcade piers and the mystery of the high vault ribs each have their effect. But the major factor is proportion, the nave being more than twice as high as it is wide. The rhythm of the arches carries on to the white marble altar at the far wall, where the eye is lifted, drawn by the brilliance of the glass in the small rose window to see the gold wings of four archangels set in trefoils amidst glass of deep blue.

Vocational Symbols

Vocational Symbols of the First Unitarian Church in Chicago.

“It is not a house of dogmatism, but a place for that association of men in communion with the Most High which is at once our noblest duty and most complete fulfillment.

“This claim is the more validated in that it is not a place of withdrawal without return. Although there are a number of other ideas symbolized in the building, the main iconography consists of sixty cartouches of colored marble set in a narrow band where in a much larger structure would be a triforium gallery. Those in the chancel round the reredos represent the works of nature or of God, fire and water, plants and animals, the sun and moon. Those in the nave are emblems of trades and professions, a bottle for the doctor, hammer and saw for the carpenter, and many others. These together represent the recollective review of the manifold world which is a necessary part of any valid mystic experience At the same time they teach the ethics of productivity and assert the dignity of man in his vocations.

“This building is truly an architecture of mysticism in that it seeks to assist men in their perpetual quest after a knowledge of All Things, and to lift them up to some sense of the all-encompassing life that holds us all. And it is the more valid because of its final admonition carved over the doors which lead to the outer air: ‘Back to the world of the Many to fulfill the life of the One.'” Thus ends the manuscript, and the life. Yet I dare to believe that he whose memory is enshrined in the oneness and integrity of this building will also go forth with us, “Back to the world of the Many to fulfill the life of the One.”

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

Von Ogden Vogt: Prayers

Other Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Vogt, Von Ogden. Art and Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press; Revised Edition, Boston: Beacon Press, 1948.

Vogt, Von Ogden. Cult and Culture: A Study of Religion and American Culture. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1951.