THE GALLOPING GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ANGUS HECTOR MACLEAN
JOHN MURRAY LECTURE - UUA GA - Spokane, WA - 6/17/95
Richard S. Gilbert

Some years ago my family made a pilgrimage to Nova Scotia, to see for ourselves the bleakly beautiful land that gave birth to what I call "the galloping gospel according to Angus Hector MacLean." We sought out his roots because Angus played such a pivotal role in my life - as teacher, colleague and friend. We finally found the old family homestead, and in it Colin MacLean, one of Angus' brothers. Colin had read some of Angus' recollection of their early days, although he didn't remember them quite the way Angus did. These tales of transition from Scotch Presbyterian roots to Unitarian Universalist flowering suggest not only the making of one man, but how our experiences shape us. As Angus asked, "is the stuff of your life in your thought?"

Angus was born in 1892 of sturdy Scotch lineage in Cape Breton, Canada, the eighth of nine children. It was an unfriendly environment, not "a land of milk and honey, but ... of stones and thistles..." His father just eked out a living. Angus remembered with fear and trembling his "morning father" who was abrupt and short-tempered, and with love and affection his "evening father" who was full of fun and good yarns.

His mother's family, the MacRae's, were "independent and unsubduable" and had produced some prominent clergy in the old land though, as Angus wrote, "they seemed to me to be delightfully free from holiness."

God and the Devil were very real. "I soon learned that I owed my being to this god ... and life ... was an extremely chancy thing." The Presbyterian God was the law of life; He engineered the universe and provided a design for human life. He had two religions, "each with a God: the religion of the soft hearted Jesus and that of the stern Jehovah."

It would be several decades before Jehovah would become like Jesus. Angus didn't like this God. "Who could?" Angus asked. "He disapproved of the very hungers He implanted in us." Nothing of a loving God came through to him.

The Devil was much more intriguing. At times God's enemy, he was also God's tool to keep young people like Angus in order, and while no one purported to have seen God, several sightings of the Devil were reported on Seal Cove.

It was this Spartan but loving upbringing, however, that would convince him later of the centrality of the home in religious education. He wrote, "One of the regrettable things about childhood is that children are never fully aware of how they love people, and so never get to tell them how they feel. One of my major feelings of guilt has come from people I greatly loved, dying before I was old enough to tell them how I love them."

The MacLean clan had an ambivalent relationship with the church. They were a church-going family but did not always adhere to the strict behavioral code they heard there. My family greatly enjoyed dancing," he wrote, "although it was not much approved of by the church leaders." Angus grew up in a morally strict society in which "(a) lock was so rare that I was half grown before I ever saw one."

On the larger issues there was no doubt: "There was an ethical core there that became my core. Time was to change my ideas about God, the Devil, the Bible, and the Sabbath, but integrity, honesty, truth-telling and the overwhelming sense of the sovereignty of whatever made and governed life, no matter how named, were in my guts as well as in my mind, and not to be ousted."

Angus recalled some amusing early experiences of church-going. On one occasion an energetic preacher became even more energetic when a couple of flies were buzzing about his head. He knew the congregation noticed and wondered what he would do. As his emotional fervor built to preserve their attention, he began banging the pulpit. "Then," as Angus recounts, "he put both his clenched fists together and gave the Bible a fearful blow. Colin whispered, not too quietly, I am afraid, 'He got one!' I snickered much too loudly. There was a terrible silence for a moment when everyone, including the minister, stared at us, and among all the eyes were those of Father and Mother. Another lesson was impressed upon our minds."

Nonetheless, the steady exposure to parents who would brook no moral deviation and the church which was integral to his life, early prompted Angus and his cousin Duncan to think about the ministry. Named after an itinerant minister who, hurrying a wedding, agreed to do a group christening only if all the children were named after him, Angus from the beginning felt "fingered by God to some great and undisclosed destiny."
Angus took his own religious education seriously. "One thing is sure, the Celt never takes life superficially. He may glory in it or fight its limitations like a Dylan Thomas, but he never ignores it or repudiates it, and is not likely to lose a sense of contact with the source of life or the controller of destiny." When Angus later took "an honest backward look," that was what he saw.

Angus' book The Galloping Gospel tells the warm and amusing tale of his Presbyterian missionary experience as a teen-age preacher in the plains of Western Canada. Accompanied by cousin Duncan, at age 18 Angus left the security of his Nova Scotia home for the uncertain adventures of preaching the Gospel. Angus was part of what he described as "the most uncertain flock of fledgling preachers any church ever sponsored." His brother Neil, who mined and farmed on the great Western plains, upon observing them all "togged up and ready to go", said, "Well, I'll be damned! the farmers will laugh at you." Angus was embarrassed by his mother's tears: "...I got a last glimpse of Mother, crouched on the floor of the piazza, her hands shading her eyes which I knew to be too blind with tears to see us wave." That was his last picture of his mother, for she died while he was out West.

Good-bye everything, Hello what?" He had said farewell to all he knew and was setting out in a totally new spiritual universe with precious little experience. On the eve of his first sermon "(a)ll the romance had gone from preaching the gospel .... Here I am just an ignorant kid with one sermon, and they call me a minister. Why did they tell me that this country needed me?"

Over his few years on the prairie he began to doubt the deep faith that led him there. He had long given up hope of a dramatic religious experience, but now came to wonder if "there was something rotten at my very core."

At each time of disillusionment, however, he heard some word of encouragement, like "The boy has stuff in him. Give him time." Despite his doubts, the experience solidified his determination to be a minister. He addressed God thusly, "Maybe I'm just butting in on your business, God, and doing more harm than good; but if I am, you're going to have to stop me."

His doubts of deity came with his inability to explain the ways of God to humanity. When a woman claimed divine healing for her chronic illness, Angus wrote, "'If God wanted to make her well,' I wondered, 'did He put her to all that suffering just to make her beg for health?' ...This God business isn't so simple, or I'm a nitwit."

A parishioner named Terborg challenged his theology. In a Bible class, his discussion of evolution seemed like heresy. "I went away from this Bible class with my universe shaken, but with confidence that I could right it again .... It was not the things that Terborg said that bothered, but the fact that I had accepted some of them as true ....The burden of Torberg's gospel - the awakening and nurturing of the slumbering possibilities of man - began to look much more near and more pressing. ...My system of thought with its beginnings and end and its plan of salvation was gone. The world was more beautiful and meaningful than it ever had been, but it at the same time had become lost in chaos. God was still God, but his ways were past finding out.... I had no intention of being adrift long in the universe. My work and my universe both would have to be meaningful."

Both he and Duncan had changed. "We agreed that the Bible hadn't dropped from Heaven, that Jacob was a crafty old skinflint, and that even Paul wasn't so hot at times. Amos, on the other hand, was a man; Hosea a lovable saint - once the old Biblical record was straightened out to make sense, and Isaiah was magnificent. What did it matter if there were two or three Isaiahs?" Nature became as important as the Bible as a source of religious inspiration. "A sense of kinship with all creation grew on me, and there was a fading of the notion that man is God's special concern."

After futilely trying in a sermon to explain the meaning of a devastating prairie storm, an older parishioner said, "You have lived such a little time!" Angus reflected, "I learned from her that the first distinguishing characteristic of a Christian was to be able to take it on the chin." He discovered that he could accept "tragedy without questioning the goodness of life."

In 1916, after six years on the prairie, Angus entered the Presbyterian College at Montreal's McGill University. However, his theological schooling was interrupted by the First World War. Angus served as an orderly in the Canadian Army, spending much of that time close to the front lines in France. He had once referred to the 1917 disastrous explosion in Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia, but had never detailed his role in it even to his wife Ruth. At a party I will never forget, he described his own role in the tragedy. Angus was in Halifax, waiting to sail to Europe. He was on drill in front of the magnificent citadel there, when a freighter and an ammunition ship collided and the harbor became a blazing inferno. As Angus' unit started to march down the hill, the holocaust was spread before their eyes. Their lieutenant, witnessing this calamity, apparently felt there was simply nothing to do without risking all his men, and he ordered an about face. Angus and a friend, caught on the horns of a dilemma between military regimen and human compassion, refused to obey the order, and for the next several days, without sleep, they ministered to the injured and attended the dead.

Angus returned to McGill after he was mustered out of the army in 1919. Completing his studies, he was interviewed by the Presbyterian version of the Ministerial fellowship Committee, which found his theology wanting, and turned him down. His fellow students, hearing of the rejection, banded together in protest, saying, effectively, "if this good man is not good enough to be a Presbyterian minister, neither are we." The protest worked and Angus was fellowshipped.

Angus and Ruth MacLean were married in the spring of 1922 during his final year at McGill. He had won a substantial scholarship, and encouraged by one of his professors, decided to go to New York's Teachers College at Columbia University for a doctorate in religious education. It was there that he developed an intellectual framework for his life experiences and put the "stuff of his life in his thought."

His doctoral dissertation was The Idea of God in Protestant Religious Education, and a devastating critique it was. Writing in the context of the fundamentalist-modernist conflict, he contended that the idea of God should correspond with known facts and the highest ethical standards. In both cases the God of Sunday School curricula was found woefully wanting. There was no defensible theological underpinning for the portrayal of God in materials used with children. Despite the intellectual ferment of the time, God was simply assumed, there was no opportunity to express disbelief, nor was there interest in paying attention to children's actual ideas of God. Their ideas about God, Angus wrote, "are strikingly similar to ideas found in Sunday School literature. Little more than this need be said."

Save for Unitarian publications, which depicted God in poetic or symbolic guise, these curricula showed God to be omniscient, omnipresent and perfectly good, a Heavenly Father. There was little or no distinction among biblical materials, distinguishing fact from myth and legend. Still, the Beacon Press materials "spiritualized" the miracles and were theologically barren.

The biblical God was often violent, vindictive and vengeful. The harsher side of nature was never developed. As he cryptically put it, this was "nature faking of an extreme sort." Sexism was rampant. "....the human male is created without any apparent thought of the propagation of his kind, woman being an afterthought...." Current views of evolution were absent. All disagreeable facts of nature were ignored. "....nature is altogether too sweet and lovely to be true to fact." There was no theological rationale for evil, "no explanation of how tragedy and suffering fits into the schemes of an all-good and all-powerful God."

Ethically, the main emphasis was generalized appeals to be good without spelling out moral dilemmas or how to resolve them. There was scant ethical reflection on contemporary problems. "The preponderance of vague generalities cannot be accidental." This kind of thinking led directly to Angus' next book, a manual for church school teachers requested by the Sunday School Association of the New York State Convention of Universalists. The New Era in Religious Education, written in 1934, sounds remarkably current.

He begins with a theological credo, "Life, at last, has promise which does not lie in the lap of a god who can only at times be cajoled into giving it up; life offers opportunity to be seized through human effort."

He defined the function of religion as teaching humanity how to contend with its difficulties. "Past experience," he wrote, "has value only in terms of present purpose." Subject matter is important to the extent that it is important to the learner. And so religious education is child-centered, life-centered, and experience-centered rather than Bible-centered. The experiences children have inevitably need to be guided and interpreted if there is to be religious growth.

In more graphic language he explores his ideas of education, "Education is not a matter of leading a horse to water. Drinking waits upon thirst and upon the horse's judgment of the quality of the water."

While the school must address social problems, it is too easy to rely on education as the solution to all problems. Parents and teachers tend to "rationalize themselves out of responsibility for saving the world." Religious education has a political role. "Isn't it the business of a Christian community to discuss politics, politicians, and social issues with a definite view to voting as Christians rather than as Republicans, or Democrats, or Socialists."

The experiential content in the idea of God was infinitely more important than the mere word. Curricula should reflect not so much a logical arrangement of subject matter as the vital experience of children. When they conflict, "choose the vital experience." Learning comes through the purposeful participation of the student in the process. The teacher must resist the temptation to allow learners to jump to conclusions; they need to keep the conversation going.

He criticized those who harmed nature, a vital source of learning. "Nature to them is something to be exploited, to be trodden upon, shot, and trapped .... Half the life of the woods has been killed off and many species have become extinct. Trees are rapidly disappearing." For Angus, Nature was a source of joy.

Angus made a clear distinction between freedom and indoctrination. "The Teacher should fearlessly share his own faith .... The faith of others should be shared in the same spirit.... Begin with nature and the child will raise the questions that will necessitate the sharing of faith or faiths. Trust nature and the child to make up for your failings, when you have done your best."

Armed with these applications of progressive education to religion, Angus sought a job upon his graduation with a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1928, when any kind of job was hard to come by. Just as he was about to give up, the Theological School at St. Lawrence University offered a position, and the MacLeans decided to accept it. They remained in Canton, New York, for over thirty years, Angus as professor of religious education and later Dean.

Angus was popular among his students. He didn't keep office hours. Ruth reported that "One night about one thirty our door bell rang loudly. We grabbed our robes and rushed downstairs thinking it might be an emergency. We opened the door and there stood two students hand in hand. They looked at us starry-eyed. 'We have decided to get married and we wanted you to be the first to know."'

Angus was elevated to Dean when the beloved John Murray Atwood died in 1950. A few weeks later Fisher Hall, the school's only building, burned to the ground, leaving students and faculty confused and in shock. Angus simply said "We shall rebuild."

Angus was a teacher without peer. He involved his students in the rich variety of activities which he believed characterize any good classroom. I still treasure a small red jar which began life as a piece of clay which I "threw" on the potter's wheel and later fired in the kiln which Angus acquired.

I recall one bright spring day, marking the end of a six-months winter. Spring fever had overwhelmed every seminary student, and formal religious education classes held absolutely no fascination. Angus was smitten, too, so it wasn't hard to talk him into a long afternoon bird walk along the St. Lawrence River.

In 1960, the year before my graduation, Angus retired from the Theological School to accept a position as Minister of Education at the First Unitarian Church of Cleveland, where Robert Killam, then chairman of the school's board of trustees, was senior minister. I followed a year later as assistant minister whose main responsibility was religious education.

Angus, freed from the burdens of administration, created parent study groups to build on his belief that religious education occurs most significantly in the home. I still have a few of the notes Angus painstakingly typed to summarize those discussions.

"Values and attitudes," he wrote, "are communicated most easily (and possibly exclusively) where they are the living realities of human relations .... In time, the master values of the family become apparent. "The child becomes the values - good or bad, healthy or otherwise with which and by which he lives .... Most families are not wholly aware of the formative forces operating in their personal, and other relations."

Angus often turned colloquial: "Pa says the first to spill gravy on the cloth goes to his room and then he does it himself. Does he go to his room or quit making silly rules?"

Angus was a man of many parts - in many ways a Renaissance Man. His enthusiasm for the arts in education came from his own creativity. He was a painter and a good one. And he tried to encourage others to paint as well. He once said, "You know, you aren't a free man as a painter unless you can paint what you want to paint when the greatest artist in the world is looking over your shoulder."

Angus had a great sense of humor that he used to articulate his theology. He often told a story about Sandy and Donald who were shipwrecked at sea and left adrift on some of the ship's flotsam. As night came on they became concerned and at last in their desperation were drive to try prayer. Sandy could not produce anything that did not sound like profanity, so Donald tried. He did very well and became so enamored of his own eloquence that he began a long list of promises as to what he would do if the Lord spared them, and he was about to swear off the use of strong drink, when Sandy seized him by the shoulder and shook him fiercely. "Tonald! Tonald! Dinna commit yersel; I see a light!"

He had a great capacity for anger as well. He would turn red in the face, quiver violently and we wondered if he were about to explode. A former student, recalling his fervor at St. Lawrence University hockey games, recalled, "I have seen his wife, Ruth, hold onto his coattails to restrain him from climbing into the rink to do physical battle with the opposition."

Because I knew Angus through six years of academic study and there years of shared ministry, I find it hard to tell where his ideas end and mine begin. Yet, it is important that we try to reclaim, not only the memory of a blessed man who lived among us, but also the contributions of a scholar whose teachings inform much of what we are and do. He left a few key ideas for us, a living legacy which is more than memory, but which helps us shape the moral and spiritual vision we so desperately need.

1. Religious education is indoctrination for freedom. Angus coined a fetching phrase that has been both widely and wisely used and also badly misunderstood. "The method is the message" suggests that the methods by which we teach values must embody those values. That is, one cannot teach democracy by authoritarian means; one cannot learn freedom unless one lives in an atmosphere of freedom. However, some have come to believe Unitarian Universalism is simply a religious method without message; that since we are all engaged in an endless methodological freedom in searching out the truth, we have no content in our faith.

Angus once inquired, "Need a free faith be speechless in its own defense?" He critiqued the easy freedom of many Unitarian Universalists in graphic language: "It has been said that liberal religion is a 'do it yourself kit.' But there is a danger that we would make it a kit not only without blueprint but without tools and materials." It was this understanding that freedom was not only freedom from creedal religion but also freedom for creating a credo that inspired my development of an adult religious education curriculum, Building Your Own Theology.

2. Theologically, he gave us the concept of a "God's eye view of the world." Angus would probably be called a theist, but never did he accept the God idea easily. In speaking with fellow professor and later Dean Max A. Kapp about the humanist-theist controversy, Angus said, "Well, you've got to have some figure of speech for the whole reality. You don't have many choices if you're going to have some symbolic figure of speech. You can either make it a machine or you can make it human, and if I have to choose between the universe as a machine and the universe as possessing qualities of the person, I'd choose the latter." He wrote that "We are without any significant cosmic symbol." Yet, he would not force his own theism upon anyone; it was too hard won and too open to further experience. As he said, "I speak as a man at worship, not as a prophet." And later, "When all else fails, man can maintain his soul by picking a quarrel with what he regards as a senseless universe, which means that he still has himself. ....As a youth I often shook my fist at the sky, which was supposed to be the residence of my Presbyterian God, and I protested and accused. I was sure that I had blasphemed at such times, but now, looking back, I feel these were among my most religious moments."

Angus understood God as "the great ordaining, sustaining power of the universe, a power without sense or order available to man ... But ...I have often thought of him as the conscience of the universe. ...the universe is contradictory, but that its movements and direction are not senseless ....So there is for me a 'God' with whom I feel identified, and there is also the God to whom I respond ambivalently, and with whom I keep up certain quarrels."

3. Angus was a liberated man, but he called us to appreciate that from which we had come, admonishing us not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. He took what he called "an honest backward look," recounting his change of theological heart from Calvinism to liberal religion, but not forgetting the rich roots from which he grew. "...cutting oneself off from the wisdom of other generations because it is couched in oldtime forms will not be without its unhappy consequences. We can, for example, properly repudiate a doctrine such as natural depravity, but we cannot wisely ignore the experience from which it sprang."

The strong emotional commitment of his upbringing did not yield to a more rational approach to religion, but complemented it. "I find," wrote Angus, "that when I am most moved, my mind is most active, and even most trustworthy." Angus would have students of all ages learn and grow in a wholistic faith.

4. Angus stressed the importance of the teacher in religious education, not only the teacher in the classroom, but the parent in the home, and the total context in which we live and grow our faith. "To live without anyone who thinks of us as important is to make existence a heartbreaking endurance trial." I can remember him saying that "I've never seen a curriculum so good that a teacher couldn't ruin it; I've never seen a curriculum so bad that a teacher couldn't redeem it."

Angus had a way of relating this truth in anecdotal ways. Once he sat with his young son in a country house during a severe electrical storm. There came a mighty thunder clap that shook the house. Baby Colin, quick as a flash, looked in his father's face. Angus was significantly resigned to fate to accept and not transfer whatever fear he had. Without reaction his son returned to play.

Angus told of a question asked by a father confronted by his five-year-old son, "'If God made everything, who made God?' So he asks me what answer to give him. My answer was for the father. I told him that the verbal answer he might give would probably have little significance, but that taking advantage of the relationship the question offered for facing life's mysteries together was the only difficult answer. The boy has not only a physical universe he wants to understand but a need of a psychic cosmos in which to feel at home. Live with him on the edges of the immensities and mysteries and if you have any wisdom, he'll get it."

The way Angus embodied his own "galloping gospel" has affected me and students and colleagues over the years. His teachings, his life help make us feel whole again. His life so richly embodied his struggle for faith and hope and love. His method - the way he lived his life - was his most eloquent message.

He was preacher and teacher, prophet and poet. Angus wrote, "Our days have been described as like the grass of the fields in their brevity, but they also represent the flowering of some great cosmic urge that brings forth intelligence, love and duty and a sense of creative beauty and song. Though days be brief they represent and reflect all time. Creation's wonders are in us, creation's miracle and secrets. Our comings and goings are the pulsations of eternity."

Angus MacLean has come and gone; he galloped through our lives with his unique combination of personality, character and competence. It might have been hard to envision this lively lad from rural Nova Scotia becoming a pioneer in religious education. But Angus would be the first to acknowledge the wisdom of the words, "Saints are simply sinners revised and edited." Unitarian Universalists are not much inclined toward canonization. But if we were, I would enthusiastically nominate Angus Hector MacLean.

UNIVERSALISM  TIME LINE  PEOPLE  EVENTS  WRITINGS  LITURGY  EDUCATION  RESOURCES  SEARCH

This page was last modified Monday 13 November 2006.  Copyright 19992006 Rev. Alicia McNary Forsey, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.  For comments or requests [ Webweaver at PacificUU dot org ].