"A Hundred Unitarian Sunday Circles" (1895)

Moving back another generation from the Lay Centers I wrote about last week.


What is the next aggressive missionary movement for the Unitarians of this country to give their attention to? I believe it is the establishment of religious Sunday circles, or what I may call simple parlor churches, in a hundred–yes, in five hundred–communities where there are now no liberal religious churches or services.

Unitarian thought is making its appearance everywhere. Our books, tracts, and printed sermons are being widely circulated by means of our Post-Office Missions and other agencies. Science is our ally. The periodical press of the country is also our ally, powerful and everywhere present. So is the natural reason or common sense of men. Thus in nearly every community, whether of city or country, there are minds in essential sympathy with our religious views, some of them consciously so, some of them unconsciously, but none the less really. Cannot something be done to help these minds to discover themselves and one another, and to come into some sort of mutual relations? At present they are for the most part isolated. In a community where there are a dozen or twenty persons who, in their real thought, are liberal the probability is that hardly any two of the number know each other’s views. Such isolation is dreary and barren. Is there not some way of at least partially overcoming it, of bringing these vast numbers of scattered liberals into helpful touch with each other and with the organized liberal religious forces of the country?

When this question is proposed, of course we naturally, first of all begin to think about organizing churches. And in places where church organization is practicable, this is doubtless the true remedy for the evil of which we complain. But, unfortunately, in a very large proportion of the places a church is out of the question. The population of the place is too small, or the number of persons interested is not sufficient. Mistakes have often been made in starting churches without sufficient promise of subsequent support. Hence our large number of church organizations that have fallen into decay, some of them even after houses of worship have been erected. A wise missionary policy will push vigorously the organization of churches in large towns, and in places where there is good prospect of maintenance and strength, but not in other places or under other circumstances.

But are our small places and our communities where Unitarians are few to be left, then, with no associated religious life? It is here that the Sunday religious circle, or parlor church, finds its place. By these names I mean a very simple organization of the persons of liberal faith in any community, for the purpose of acquaintance, mutual sympathy, and encouragement, and to carry on together a regular religious service, of a simple and informal but helpful character, in some fitting place generally in the parlors of some of the persons interested.

Such organizations are not mere untried speculations. Already quite a large number are in existence in various parts of the country. And they are proving themselves practicable and valuable. It has been my own privilege to assist in setting in operation two or three during the past year. And within a month several other new ones in this State have come to my knowledge. The opportunities for this kind of work are practically limitless. There is hardly a town of a thousand population in the United States where there are not enough liberals to establish and carry on successfully such a movement. In great numbers of country neighborhoods, too, and in sections of cities remote from liberal churches, such movements are practicable.

Here is a work appealing to our ministers; for there are few ministers but have acquaintance with liberal persons in outlying neighborhoods who could be set to the task of rallying and organizing in this simple manner the liberal elements around them. Here is a most important field of activity for our Women’s Alliance and for all our Post-office Mission workers. The very wide spread distribution of our literature during the past dozen years through the agency of these missions has prepared the way in scores and scores of places for such organization as I am urging. Here is a work to which our American Unitarian Association superintendents may well give special encouragement in all parts of the country; for all sections–East, West, North, and South–are ripe for it. Especially may our Unitarian papers help greatly in this matter by clearly and repeatedly calling the attention of their readers in places where there are no liberal churches to the value of such Sunday religious circles, or parlor churches, and to the practicability of organizing them in hundreds of places where no step in this direction has yet taken.

How are such Sunday circles conducted?

In the simplest way. At a regular hour on Sunday, it may be the ordinary hour of morning service or it may be an afternoon hour, those interested come together at the home of one of their number (or other place appointed), have their cordial greetings as a company of friends, then in their simple service of singing or other music, brief Scripture or other devotional readings, the recitation together of Lord’s Prayer, and the reading of a sermon by one of the number. Then a closing hymn or other piece of music, a few minutes devoted to talk about the movement that all are interested in and how make it more successful and useful, then go home. This is the general plan.

There is no difficulty in getting of the very best quality to read, so volumes of sermons are published, and many sermons of our very ablest men constantly appearing in pamphlet form in the columns of our religious and papers.

Small singing and service books adapted for use in such Sunday circles also be obtained from the American Unitarian Association, 25 Beacon Street, Boston, or from the Western Unitarian School Society, 175 Dearborn Street, Chicago. The last-named society has a most admirable book prepared on purpose such meetings. It is called “Hymns and Services for Sunday Circles.” It contains eight “Responsive Services” (something which the people always like in such meetings), eight “Choral Responses” and a hundred choice hymns, set to the most familiar tunes. The cost of these books is only 15 cents apiece, or $1.50 per dozen, so that any circle can supply itself easily, as all circles should do (with this book or some other) at once on starting. There are also several other excellent books of services and hymns, a little larger and more expensive, sample copies of which can be obtained by writing to the addresses already given.

It is often perhaps generally found practicable to combine with the Sunday circle for adults a children’s circle, or children’s class, or parlor Sunday-school for the children. This feature is important, and should be added wherever it can be. No part of the education of a child is more important than its religious education. It becomes a very serious question therefore to Unitarian parents, living in places where there is no liberal church or Sunday-school, how to bring their children under such religious influences as they ought to be brought under, and to impart to them such religious instruction as they ought to receive. In this children’s side of the Sunday circle may be found the solution of this problem for thousands of parents.

A good plan is to have the children come for an hour either before or after the adult meeting. A study class or two for young people or for older adults may be carried on at the same hour with the children’s circle if this seems desirable. But let the children have a bright, happy, loving, earnest hour, which is distinctly their hour. We have most excellent singing and service books, and lesson helps and manuals of various kinds, well adapted for such children’s circles, which may be obtained from either Boston or Chicago. Even in cases where not more than half a dozen children can be brought together, such a little Sunday circle or class, in the charge of one or two loving and earnest women, may be made very valuable and successful. No community ought to be without such an opportunity for children of liberal parents to obtain rational and morally healthful religious instruction.

It will be found easy and useful in many cases to connect with the Sunday religious circle one or more of several auxiliaries besides the circle for children.

  1. One of these possible auxiliaries is a fortnightly or monthly ladies’ meeting on a week afternoon for literary study and charity work.
  2. Another is a literary class, or club, for the young people or for old and young, to meet regularly, more or less often on a week evening. The ladies meeting and the evening literary club may both be made so simple and elastic as to meet a large variety of needs.
  3. With the Sunday circle may easily be connected also a small library of liberal books to be loaned to all who desire. Each family connected with the circle could probably without difficulty contribute a book or two to start the library. Then if a new book a month could be added, the library would be in condition to be very useful in the community.
  4. One of the first outside things the Sunday circle should interest itself in is the very important matter of getting a liberal religious paper into as many of its homes as possible. I do not think I exaggerate when I say that if it can get a Unitarian periodical taken in each of its homes, it will by this one means alone double its coherency and practical working strength.
  5. Let the Sunday circle make itself from the first a positive missionary force in the community through the steady and systematic circulation of liberal tracts and pamphlet literature. Such tracts can be obtained without cost from the American Unitarian Association. A quiet circulation of the same in the community year after year will produce wide spread and lasting results.
  6. Finally, let the circle from the very first adopt the practice of each member giving to the cause, weekly or monthly according to his ability. This is important. The sums need not be large; but they should be regular and contributed as a matter of principle. Thus the circle will all the while be in possession of a small fund, which will add greatly to its stability, self-respect, usefulness and success. This fund may be used to buy singing and service books, new books for the library, sermons for reading on Sunday, meeting incidental expenses of any kind, and occasionally to pay the expense of getting the nearest liberal preacher to come and give a sermon or lecture.

As has been already said there are hundreds and hundreds of communities in this country where the conditions are ripe for the establishment and successful maintenance of such simple Unitarian movements as have been described above. Is not this the direction in which we may well undertake to make our next general missionary advance? Is it too much to believe that a united and earnest effort on the part of the readers of this article would give us a hundred new Sunday circles during the coming year? How a hundred such new centres of organic life and influence would strengthen the cause of liberal Christianity in this country! What new hope and courage would they kindle in our churches! And it should be borne in mind in estimating the value of these Sunday circles, that some of them will eventually develop into fully organized and equipped and self-supporting churches. And even those that never become churches will do a work as valuable in its place as that of organizations having the full church form and name.

Ann Arbor, Mich.




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