Notes on 200 Years (and More) May 2022

by Douglas H. Parkhurst

Of enduring interest to Unitarian Universalists (UUs), and of some curiosity too, is the symbol of the “off-center cross,” a circle enclosing open space with a small Latin cross in the lower left quadrant. It was and still is used today by some UU churches as a symbol of Universalist faith. UUs also may see a resemblance between the offcenter cross and the still widely used Unitarian Universalist symbol of an off-center (to the right) flaming chalice within an intertwined double circle. Some today consider the off-center cross as a continuing connection to the Christian roots of [Unitarian] Universalism, though this was not its original meaning or intent. The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury (UUCD) possesses a fine example of an off-center cross, fashioned of metal, and dating from the 1950s.

The off-center cross was associated with a group of young clergy calling themselves the “Humiliati.” This was in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These ministers were mostly Universalists and mostly students and recent graduates of the School of Religion (also called Crane Theological School) at Tufts College. The Humiliati developed a theology they called “emergent Universalism;” it was to be “functional, naturalistic, theistic, and humanistic.” During the first part of the twentieth century the Universalist denomination suffered from declining membership and the perception that the church’s distinctive and traditional messages of “no hell” and the universal restoration of all souls were narrow and perhaps outdated. Universalists were long interested and had worked in social service and social reform movements. In addition, religious humanism was making itself felt in the denomination. Humanism was strongly influencing Unitarians as well. While many Universalists took issue,influential leaders in the church encouraged changes in thinking, even radical changes, and a move from Universalism’s historic grounding in liberal, universalizing Christianity to acceptance of an evolving concept of a “new” Universalism as a world religion, a universal faith.

Members of the Humiliati created the off-center cross around 1946 with the assistance of Julia Scamman, a layperson in the Wakefield, Massachusetts, Universalist Church. What was it meant to symbolize? Here is a description from a Humiliati pamphlet of the time:

“What ideas does it portray? The religion of the unities and the universals…that universalism is the important emphasis of religion for today… that Christianity has been an important step for us in reaching universalism… that universalism is a higher development than traditional Christianity. What does the circle represent? This is the all-inclusive circle made by a line without beginning and without ending — that is, infinite in its conceptions. It is the ever-expanding circle that takes in all men [sic], binding them in a universal brotherhood.Why not put the cross in the center? Because Christianity is not central or even necessary to Universalism…The important feature of the symbol is the circle and not the cross….Here is a new symbol which is distinctly Universalist in its impact….”

How is UUCD connected to the Humiliati and their emblem?

First through Rev. Dr. Raymond Hopkins (1919-2013), a charter member of the group and Danbury native who grew up in the church at 347 Main Street. He was active on a local and statewide basis in the Young People’s Christian Union (YPCU), the Universalist youth and young adult group of his era. Rev. Hopkins graduated from Tufts (ordained in 1949) and went on to a distinguished career as a parish minister in Massachusetts and Maine; as an advocate and long-time worker for the consolidation of the Universalist and Unitarian denominations, serving on many committees; as the first executive vice-president from 1961 to 1974 of the newly formed Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA); and as administrator of the Ferry Beach Park Association. 

The second connection is Rev. Frederick Harrison (1912-1962), a Tufts graduate (ordained in 1949) and charter member of the Humiliati who served Universalist churches in Massachusetts before coming to Danbury as parish minister in 1956-57. He moved on to become superintendent of Universalist churches in Connecticut and Massachusetts. This writer remembers Rev. Harrison and his family well and being fascinated by the clerical collar he wore, as did other members of the Humiliati. At this time and later the Danbury Church displayed the off-center cross and printed it on orders of service, stationery, and the like. Rev. Harrison’s daughter is a UU minister, the Rev. Jeanne Harrison Nieuwejaar. 

The third is through Rev. Dr. Gordon McKeeman (1920-2013) who is indirectly connected to the UUCD. He did not grow up in Danbury or personally serve the Congregation as parish minister; his influence came later. A Tufts graduate (ordained in 1945) and charter member of the Humiliati, Rev. McKeeman was for many years minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron, Ohio. Later he served as president of Starr King School for the Ministry; as president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee; and on the UUA Board of Trustees. Barbara Pescan, UUCD minister from 1988 to 1995 and now retired, and her family were laypersons in the Akron UU Church during Rev. McKeeman’s pastorate there. Rev. Pescan, whose eloquent sermons and caring ways are fondly remembered, recently shared with this writer how Gordon McKeeman influenced her with his style of ministry, with his ability to be present with and listen to others, and with her own decision to enter the ministry. Continuing, Rev. Dr. Kathleen Rudoff served a year-long ministerial internship under the guidance of Barbara Pescan at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois. In 2007 Kathleen Rudoff was ordained by the Evanston Church with Rev. Pescan delivering the ordination charge. In the summer of 2021 Rev. Rudoff came to Danbury to serve the UUCD as consulting minister. The influence of the Humiliati touches another generation!