"On Growing UU: The Example of Norbert Capek"
"It is my ideal that unitarian religion in our country should mean a higher culture. . . new attitudes toward life and practically a new race. . . .The church's task must be to place truth above any tradition, spirit above any scripture, freedom above authority, and progress above all reaction."
-- Norbert Fabian Capek
Anybody who knows me (any Unitarian Universalist) also knows that I'm a "UU cheerleader" of sorts, and am always interested in learning and sharing new ways to better grow our liberal faith. One of my "pet theories" on how we might be able to do this--at least here in the United States--is something I'll call (for the lack of a better term) "the patriotic free church" premise.
The "patriotic free church premise" suggests that what is now emerging--within modern-day Unitarian Universalism--- is a legitimate and still highly relevant---expression of the "liberal, rational, and naturalistic faith" which was common among the primary founders of the United States in the late 1700's and early 1800s--and upon which some of them devoutly believed that this brand-new, democracy-friendly republic should be anchored. Jefferson was particularly explicit in that regard, repeatedly predicting (in private letters) that Unitarianism would one day become the general "religion of the land from north to south," and that there was not a young man then alive who would not die a Unitarian. He was speaking, not so much in a sectarian spirit, but of the general prospects of a liberal, naturalistic, "Enlightenment mode of faith" (however it might become manifested)---the kind of church that could encourage utmost personal freedom and uniqueness, honesty and integrity in matters of religion; which could respect individual differences and diversity as natural qualities of being human; and could affirm the ultimate religious goal to be a growing of unity—rather than uniformity. In other words, Jefferson (as well as Adams, Paine and others) believed that a radically liberal, rational church—a sort of "Faith of the Free"--would naturally rise to nurture and keep the democratic experiment alive and well for generations to come. Jefferson had come to believe that Unitarianism was such a liberal, Enlightenment faith.
"The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people--a change in their religious sentiments...This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people was the real American Revolution."
-- John Adams
"I trust however that the same free exercise of private judgment which gave us our political reformation will extend its effects to that of religion."
-- Thomas Jefferson
"I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion."
-- Thomas Paine
Among other ministers who, over the past two centuries, have caught glimpses of this "patriotic free church premise" was A. Powell Davies. In the middle of the 20th century, Dr. Davies wrote several books describing "America's real religion"--the faith behind freedom--and, together with his successful DC-area ministry--he attracted thousands to Unitarianism. (See the related story in the Winter edition of UU World
It seems entirely possible to me that such a faith may finally be coming of age: Not just a "liberal Christian" faith; not just a nature-based deism; not just a faith for the intellect...but one which could actually reclaim and be an organized religious embodiment of those "Enlightenment premises"---of that unity within diversity, that "e pluribus unum"---upon which this "Land of the Free" was founded. There's nothing in religion quite like it: The real question is how to grow it.
Now, you may be asking, what does all of this have to do with the title of this post…with Norbert Fabian Capek (1870-1942), founder of Unitarianism in what is now the Czech Republic? Well, I believe that Rev. Capek may have some important lessons to teach us about how to actually grow such a "Faith of the Free." His successful efforts which resulted in what was to become the largest Unitarian church in the world--in the period between World Wars I and II-- could genuinely inspire us in our own such efforts.
According to several narratives I've read about him, including the wonderful book "NorbertNorbert Capek : A Spiritual Journey" (Skinner House, 1999), he was born in the province of Bohemia. Even as a teenager, his "stubbornly free-thinking tendencies" had already become evident when his Catholic relatives discovered (to their horror) that Norbert was rejecting his Catholicism and secretly meeting with some local Baptists. His studies later led him to an ever-greater appreciation for 15th century religious reformer John Hus, for his Bohemian Brethren followers, and for their emphasis upon "ethics over dogma" in matters of religion. He wrote that he "considered the practice of the principlies taught by Jesus, not the doctrinal views of him promoted by the Roman Catholic—or later the Evangelical—Church, to be the heart of religion." Describing his own liberal group of Baptists, he wrote that…
"We do not favor dogmas, they are but lifeless formulas. We love reality, whatever moves the mind, the heart and the muscles. Let us do away with all numbness, all dying ideals. We seek new ideas and new kinds of mental effort. Freedom: that's something we get enthusiastic about! Let's free ourselves from superstition and prejudice and then truth, in its full beauty, will appear…Let us inscribe on our banner: `Freedom of Conscience' and let us win battles with it everywhere....Keep your mediators, your crutches and shepherds crooks! We want our freedom."
Now, if that sounds familiar to my fellow Unitarian Universalists, it really should! In 1909, at the age of 39, he wrote in his diary that "The fire of new desires, new worlds, is burning inside me and it must be fed somehow." As early as 1911 a trusted friend, a university professor, told Capek that his views were "really not Baptist at all, but more Unitarian." Therefore, over the next ten years or so, he tried to interest American Unitarians in helping him start a Unitarian congregation in Czechoslovakia. Then, finally, upon moving to America (after joining a Unitarian church in New Jersey in 1921), he was successful in enlisting the help of the American Unitarian Association to begin sowing the seeds for his "new kind of church"--a church of abundant freedom and radical inclusion—back in his homeland in the increasingly fertile soil of post-war Czechoslovakia. In planting his new "free church," Rev. Capek made it clear that his goal was to reclaim, for this newly-independent nation, its liberal-religious birthright. (Again, does that sound familiar?) He wanted a new church to rise that would honor the spirit of their greatest hero, Jan Hus.
Obviously, Capek was the right person at the right time, because (again, with some assistance from the American Unitarian Association), his Free Religious Fellowship in Prague quickly grew to become the largest Unitarian congregation in the world, with between 3,000 and 5,000 members, and spawned satellite congregations in at least six other towns. This came to an abrupt halt, however, with the arrival of, first the Nazis, and then a long Communist regime of control, suppression and persecution.
I believe that modern Unitarian Universalists everywhere should all know at least a little something about the life and works, eventual imprisonment at Dachau and tragic death (in a Dresden gas chamber), of Norbert Capek. I believe that all of us who truly want this liberal movement to grow should consider his example of building a "new kind of church" in a "patriotic context"—a reclamation project of sorts aimed at embracing what he, too, perceived as his country's spiritual heritage of personal freedom, diversity and integrity--and of unity more than uniformity--extended even to matters of religion. I believe that Rev. Capek's enormously successful example of what can happen when people set out to grow such a "Faith of the Free"--upon an unapologetically patriotic premise and heritage—is well worth our consideration, even here and now, in our own "Land of the Free."
Here, by the way, is the Dictionary of UU Biographies listing on Norbert Capek;