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What follows is an edited abridgment of a booklet published about 1961 for visitors to the Unitarian Meeting House. Photographs are by Jackson Tiffany; the text, here abridged, is by Elliott Maraniss.
Under the leadership of Max D. Gaebler, the First Unitarian Society of Madison ventures toward and explores the boundless frontiers open to free minds and understanding hearts. Mr. Gaebler stands in our pulpit, with the sunlight glinting on his red hair, and challenges us to come with him to the frontier. The subject might be the works of Albert Camus, or the prospects for disarmament, or the nature of morality, or the meaning of All Souls Day, or simply a description of a hillside or a glen glimpsed for the first time.
Mr. Gaebler is not easy to describe in a word or phrase. Freedom of mind, honesty of thought, and courage in action are some of the key elements of his philosophy. Reason is the touchstone but compassion the wellspring. Max Gaebler expresses a religious humanism that is profoundly democratic in spirit. He probes sharply into the social scene, completely free of doctrinaire fetters but unafraid to commit himself.
Mr. Gaebler is a native of Wisconsin, born in 1921 in Watertown. His higher education was taken at Harvard, where he received his B. A. and S. T. B. degrees, the latter from the Harvard Divinity School. He was serving as pastor in Davenport, Iowa, when he was invited to Madison in 1952. Already his term of service is unmatched in the long history of the Society of Madison. In 1960-61 he served as President of the Unitarian Ministers Association.
Our Meeting House
We all feel a considerable measure of pride in our beautiful building and its worldwide fame. For many of us this feeling stems from the fact that we helped build it ourselves. For all of us it arises from the fact that it so perfectly expresses the essence of our faith: a dynamic and reverent beauty.
The building was erected in the years 1949 and 1950 on a site just off University Bay Drive on a knoll overlooking Lake Mendota. As the building progressed, the men and women of the parish felt they must put some thing of themselves into its construction. “Let us help build this church ourselves,” they said. The builder proposed: “You might haul stone.” In response to this suggestion men, women and children came forth on weekends, nights, days off, and vacations. Working as a labor of love, they not only hauled stones but also plastered the wings, finished the walls and woodwork and joined with the Taliesin Fellowship in the landscaping.
The basic plan of the Meeting House is a triangle; a dramatic, thrusting roof expressing aspiration and worship, a form serving as chapel, spire, and parish hall in one.
Perhaps the person who knows this building best is the man who spends the most time in it—the minister, Max D. Gaebler. This is how he describes it: “Inside the Church as one faces the prow, the powerful focus upon the pulpit and the strong vertical thrust of the prow create a feeling of unity and elevation which surpasses description. Yet when we face the hearth room, there is a warm and intimate feeling which suggests the flux of daily life. The utter simplicity of the assembly room is friendly, not austere. The large clear glass, the warm colors, the closeness of the congregation to the pulpit create an atmosphere of directness and honesty with no barriers of false formalism. It would be difficult to speak or think anything but the truth in such a setting. Mr. Wright has caught the spirit of liberal religion and has given it architectural embodiment. ”
Photographs of the Meeting House have appeared in publications that have reached millions of readers, including those in Poland who saw it in an issue of America Illustrated, a monthly magazine distributed by the U. S. Information Service.
The Meeting House is a magnet that draws visitors from all the world. We share it with our visitors gladly.
What We Believe
In behalf of the interests of liberal religion, there met in Madison a group of spirited people, who in 1879 adopted the following Bond of Union: “We, whose names are hereunto subscribed, desiring a religious organization in the spirit of Jesus of Nazareth, which shall make integrity of life its first aim, and leave thought free, associate ourselves together as the First Unitarian Society of Madison and accept to its membership all of whatever theological opinion, who wish to unite with us in the promotion of truth, righteousness, reverence, and charity among men.”
These words describe the goals to which all of us who are members of this Society commit ourselves. Ours is, as this Bond of Union makes very clear, an open fellowship. Here let the honest atheist declare himself without fear. Here, too, let him who feels his relationship with the universe to be personal speak of God without embarrassment. The only requirement we make, the only thing we do expect of one another is that we shall be as honest as we can with ourselves and with one another .
But we are more than simply an open religious fellowship. We are a fellowship whose first aim is integrity of life. Integrity means wholeness. The person of integrity, therefore, is one whose life is an integrated whole. For people of genuine integrity, all the purposes and issues of life are related, and we will seek to bring all areas of our lives within the range of our highest values, our noblest aims. Such integrity of life among ourselves and for our children, the chief aim of our Society, is not found in a once-and-forever revelation, but emerges continually in human experience.
As a religious society, our central activity is that of providing for regular services of communal worship. In spoken word and music, in poetry and sermon we celebrate and reflect upon our most cherished values. Utilizing the riches of our Judaeo-Christian heritage but never bound by it, we approach the art of worship keenly sensitive to the contributions of all the arts (including, for us especially, the art of the architect) and with an eye to opportunities for fresh and creative expression.
We regularly hold services at 9:30 and at 11:00 each Sunday morning at our Meeting House. On Sundays there is a quarter-hour broadcast of our radio program, “Religion of Today” with Mr. Gaebler and on occasion a guest. In 1960 presidential candidates were interviewed, among them John F. Kennedy. More recently Dr. Earle Reynolds, who sailed his Japanese sailing craft into forbidden H-bomb testing waters in 1958 was interviewed.
Our children loom large in the activities of our church. The formal program of religious education begins with nursery classes for children two years old and continues through the eighth grade. The goal of this program was described by William Ellery Channing more than a century ago: ‘`The chief end of religious instruction, whether in the Sunday School or the home, is not to stamp our minds irresistibly on the young but to stir up their own. ”
The regular Sunday School program is augmented by a Junior Choir, by occasional family parties and parents’ meetings, and by a crib room providing accommodation for the very youngest children.
The Nursery School has provided a valuable educational experience for hundreds of children and their parents. The Meeting House Nursery is completely non sectarian. The diversity of its families, including many from the far corners of the globe who have come here to the University, constitutes a major asset of the school .
A Dance Fellowship provides ballet classes for girls from first grade through Junior High School, on Saturday mornings.
Our members join their creative talents to present Holiday Fair. Fun, fellowship, good food–all are available as well as shimmering Christmas ornaments, fanciful aprons, imaginative toys made by our Society’s members and friends.
A wide variety of affiliate groups provide numerous opportunities for adults interested in pursuing the purposes of the society in the company of like-minded friends: a study program in world religions, informal discussion of Unitarianism, packing clothes for the Unitarian Service Committee, or simply sociability.
Our Women’s Alliance carries on study programs and service projects, as well as serving the church in many helpful ways. Our Evening Alliance, with a monthly supper and program for women who find it impossible to participate during the day. The Laymen’s League holds monthly meetings, usually with dinner and a program, for men of the parish. A recent but vigorous addition to our affiliates is the Couples Group. There is a similar group for single adults.
The parish is divided into more than two dozen neighborhood groups which provide a continuing channel through which every member and friend of the Society can keep in touch with what is going on.
How the Church is Run
As Unitarians we are inheritors of a tradition of congregational polity. Final authority for the conduct of parish business, including the calling of a minister, rests solely with the members of the Society. There are three regular Parish Meetings each year, at which time the Executive Board, the Minister, and the various church committees report on their activities, budgets are proposed and adopted, and policy decisions made.
The members and friends of the Society assume full responsibility for its support. At present more than four-fifths of our income is represented by the pledged contributions of our members and friends and the Sunday morning offertory. The balance comes from a variety of sources, including interest on a modest endowment.
Our Society is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and through it with the International Association for Religious Freedom. We participate in the program of the Unitarian Service Committee. All of these organizations are voluntary associations and exercise no authority over their member groups; but it is through them that we share in the nationwide and worldwide enterprise of liberal religion.
The Society and the University
Our Society has always been intimately involved with the University which provides so significant an element in its context. Today roughly half our membership consists of members of the university community and their families. Others among us come from a wide variety of trades and professions.
Not only does the University provide resources which greatly enrich our fellowship in many ways; it also provides a tremendous opportunity for making many students aware for the first time of the real alternative which liberal religion offers. Our work on the campus is focused in the Channing-Murray Foundation of Wisconsin, which our minister serves as Director. The foundation headquarters are at the Channing Murray House and Unitarian Universalist Student Center. Here a living cooperative unit houses some twenty students.
The Channing Club, an organization of students at the University, is one of our most valued and oldest affiliated groups.
It is my privilege to conclude with an invitation to make yourselves at home among Unitarians and Universalists. We are not a company who believe we have found all the answers to life’s deepest and most persistent questions. We are a community of seekers, of men and women and children who regard the pursuit of truth and justice and beauty as a continuing quest. We find values in our creative search and in the community we share with one another. Here we find solace in our moments of sorrow, radiance in our hours of joy, courage in our times of despair, strength and poise to meet the uncertain issues of our time. To this companionship of free religious felowship we invite your participation.