William D. Kerr

Address of Wm. D. Kerr, Western Chairman of the National Laymen’s Committee, at the Universalist General Convention, Syracuse, N. Y., Thursday, October 22, 1925.

I am to speak to you to-night on the Challenge of the Five Year Program. I am deeply sensible of the honor you have conferred upon me by tendering me this opportunity. I cherish the highest respect for the Universalist General Convention, for its past, for its present and for its potential future. I have developed an abiding affection for many of its officers and members. This is the first biennial session which I have been fortunate enough to attend. For some years my father was a member of the Board of Trustees. My father, until his death, and my mother have for many years been active participants in the biennial session meetings, and my brother is absent from the Syracuse session only because of an unfortunate illness.

I feel at home, then, as a member of this session. And yet I am overwhelmed by the responsibility of presenting to you the salient aspects of the Five Year Program. The future of the Universalist Church is too intimately associated with the Five Year Program to permit the advantages of this evening to be lost. Dr. Adams in the preface of his occasional sermon struck a responsive chord in me; I envied him, however, the opportunity he enjoyed of two years of preparation.

The challenge of the Five Year Program is a spiritual challenge. I believe nothing quite so well explains the motives and sentiments of the National Laymen’s Committee as this simple statement. The challenge of the Five Year Program is a spiritual challenge. And how can it be described in words? The great weakness of the church lies in the ineffectiveness of written or spoken words to describe spiritual or religious experiences.

I was minded as I faced this evening from a distance to build my exposition of this subject assigned me on a discussion of golf in the life of a modern church. From the church to the golf links may seem a far cry in the illumination of religious experiences, but the application is not too remote. Golf means health and fellowship. The church should be a healthy and strength-giving fellowship. Part of the lure of the Five Year Program was the opportunity of fellowship, and it seemed to me that this fundamentally important aspect of the Five Year Program might be developed to your more complete understanding by a dissertation on golf and the church. I am persuaded, however, that events of this week afford a readier approach to the moral of the Five Year Program than does golf. I serve notice, however, that golf has been relegated to a temporary background only, and that in time it will come forward to command your attention.

On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week there gathered in this house under the banner of the Five Year Program unfurled by the National Laymen’s Committee one hundred laymen from points as remote as Minnesota, Tennessee and Maine. For one brief session they discussed ways and means of selling the Five Year Program. For three sessions they discussed such diverse and abstract subjects as Modern Religious Tendencies, Church Organization and Administration, Church Publicity, Church Finance.

In the meetings of this week can be read by the discerning the challenge of the Five Year Program. Money raising? Yes — and no, decidedly no!! Co-operation in church building? Yes! Devotion to liberal Christian ideals and standards? Yes — decidedly yes!!

The Five Year Program is both an end and a means. As an end, in my humble opinion, it would have died in infancy in the hands of the laymen. As a means to an end it has grown to be a thriving youngster and gives promise of attaining an early maturity. And what, you ask, may be the end! Merely a church organization that is an efficient and effective exponent of liberal religious thought and ideals — a church that preaches its gospel of life in its conduct and its deed.

The Five Year Program was particularly adapted to serve this purpose for three reasons:

  1. It was a comprehensive program of progressive, forward action.

  2. It was systematically organized and presented in a business-like way.

  3. It was a large task challenging the ability and the imagination of responsible men and women.

It has appeared to me on many occasions in my limited experience in church work that the interest and energies of the most capable members of our constituency failed to be aroused because of the meagerness of our programs, the lowliness of our aims. I have remarked the enthusiasm of our spiritual leaders in acclaiming the present-day opportunities of the liberal church and contrasted with their enthusiasm the paucity of substantial evidences of the achievement of their ambitions. I was ready for a program — a program of any sort that meant action and progress. That my attitude was not entirely unique is evidenced by the response to the Five Year Programs already manifested by the laymen of the denomination. And I make no secret of my conviction that the Five Year Program, although but 60 per cent subscribed to date, may already be proclaimed a substantial success.

In the organization of the Five Year Program and its presentation to the denomination the best lessons of the recent war days were applied. Never before in the history of the world were such huge co-operative enterprises achieved as in the distribution of liberty loans and the financing of Y. M. C. A., Red Cross and kindred activities. The spiritual resources of a nation were harnessed and converted into material forces almost over night. The Five Year Program was laid out on the same quota basis that won success in the war drives.

But of most compelling force was the statesmanship, vision and courage of the Board of Trustees in combining four substantial projects in a comprehensive program of progressive, forward action. The objective of the casual critic was silenced in an instant. The champions of individual projects were indissolubly allied both for offensive and for defensive purposes. If these four projects furnished a cross section view of the denominational aspirations of the church the entire constituency must be enthusiastic for the entire program. The four projects must reflect the views of the denomination because they had their origin in the great democratic legislative body of the denomination, the biennial session.

The program, however, apart from its source and its origin, was meritorious. The financing of administration and extension projects was an undebatable responsibility of the denomination, which nobody will deny. The Washington Memorial Church was the symbolic element without which no program of religious action is complete. The Ministerial Pension Fund was merely a sop to our denominational self-respect and self-esteem. The Japan Mission project was a testimonial to our faith in the virtue of Christian brotherliness.

I shall not take your time to-night to describe the four planks of the Five Year Program in detail. Your very attendance on this session is proof that you know the facts. Generally the program has been accepted as essentially sound. The Washington Memorial Church and the Japan Mission project have come in for some criticism, which has impeded the progress of the campaign. My answer to the critics of the Washington Memorial Church project is, first, that the project is merely a bit of home extension work in the most important community in the land and intended to be adequate to the needs of that community, and, second, that a Memorial Church in Washington will be and become an asset to every alert and progressive parish in the denomination.

To the Japan Mission project critics my answer is a narrative of my own reactions. In my early years I was antagonistic to all foreign missions. I learned that my antagonism was born of ignorance. I developed a state of indifierence. The conclusion was home in on me that my indifference was due to laziness. When ignorance and indifference were overcome I found there were substantial justifications galore both for foreign missions in general and for our Japan Mission in particular.

Such was the program that challenged the action of the laymen. This action manifested itself in two ways:

First — a campaign of education.

Second — an intensive study of the business problems of the church;

The National Laymen’s Committee committed itself at the outset to the proposition that a Universalist constituency fully informed on the subject of the Five Year Program will endorse it and subscribe its share.

You are familiar with the educational policies adopted by the committee. We have sent laymen and ministers into scores of parishes to expound the program. We have held meetings by the dozen. We have circulated a vast quantity of literature.

But the committee realized that in many cases the wish to co-operate might be defeated by the inadequacy of the organization or the inefficiency of the methods of local parishes, and an endeavor was made to solve this problem. Three separate committees of laymen were organized to investigate three distinct fields of local parish activities, and the results of their efforts are embodied in three separate pamphlets distributed, or about to be distributed, to the parishes in the denomination. This work we believe to be a unique one and an extremely valuable one from the standpoint of future organization efficiency. The subjects of these pamphlets are: “Church Finance,” “Church Publicity,” “Church Organization and Administration.” This is a distinct contribution to the denomination which will live long after the immediate purposes of the Five Year Program are matters of history. In their conception of their task the National Laymen’s Committee has endeavored to build a firm foundation for enlarged denominational activity in the future.

The challenge of the Five Year Program is a spiritual one. Its true description as interpreted by the National Laymen’s Committee must be read in the deeds of the committee, not in the professions of its members.

The Five Year Program is a challenge to the organization efficiency of the denomination. We believe heartily in the fundamental idea of self-responsibility and in the application of this idea to the economic, political and sociological activities of mankind. We believe that organization is required to further efiectively any meritorious idea. We propose that in the Universalist Church the essential tenets of liberal Christianity shall have an efficient and resilient exponent. The Five Year Program is but the instrument with which we are building an enterprise capable of assimilating and discharging the major responsibilities of to-morrow.

Finally, the Five Year Program is a challenge to the individual good judgment of every Universalist, and to the collective good judgment of every Universalist parish. No external force can compel the approval of the Five Year Program by any individual or by any parish, nor compel the discharge of a quota without approval. The democracy of our spiritual heritage is at once our strength and our weakness. We acclaim our consciences the sole judges of our conduct. It is our responsibility to exercise our consciences and not permit them to atrophy. The National Laymen’s Committee invites you all to join its members in a tremendously interesting spiritual adventure.