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The Early Years of Unity (1889-1910)

Early years (1889 to 1910)

In the previous class, we looked at the religious needs of the Fillmores (physical healing) and why the offerings of incumbent providers (chuches and their ministers) were unable to provide adequate religious benefits to meet those needs (a complex theology that diminished the value of the body).

In this class we will explore Chapters 4-6 of The Household of Faith to learn how the Fillmores came up with a simplified set of beliefs and practices that offered a practical way for disenfranchised people to find healing.

We will see that two things emerged from what the Fillmores developed:

  1. The launch of a new teaching and practice (Unity School) that had enormous influence on American culture (Unity Publishing and Silent Unity).
  2. The beginnings of a new denomination (Unity centers and churches) which, despite rapid growth from 1920 until 1966, never achieved an influence as great as that of Unity School.

We will conclude the class by considering why the influence of the school has eclipsed the influence of the churches.

To help place perspective on what happened, we will look at "Church-Sect" theory and note that Unity School kept to the sectarian and mystical teaching and practice of the Fillmores, while the churches shifted to a broader (and more confusing) set of teachings and practices.

The question to be raised in this discussion is whether the broader set of teachings and practices that Unity churches adopted ever had the potential to deliver sufficient religious benefits to garner sufficient religious commitment that was necessary to compete in the religious marketplace.

To understand the enormous challenge of competing in a religious marketplace, we'll look at a business theory called "disruption." Disruption will show that small, innovative challengers in a marketplace never succeed in directly challenging incumbent providers. They must always offer something simpler, and therefore more accessible, to those who are unserved by existing providers.

The conclusion is that Unity, as a sect (which held to the simple, practical teachings of the Fillmores), was able to establish a firm foundation for establishing a small, but viable, denomination. As we will see in class four, this gave rise to women-led viral ministries that rapidly grew from 1920 until the mid 1960's. Given enough time, it might have been possible for the small sect we know as Unity to grow and flourish.

However the centers and churches shifted their focus from being a sect to being a denomination of churches. The chose to directly challenge the incumbent providers (mainline churches) in the religious marketplace. To do this, they became more centralized in their organization, more clerical in their leadership and broad in their teaching and practice. This diminished the ability of people to benefit from the simplified Unity teachings and practices. It has also diminished the distinctive nature of Unity as a "brand" which has then weakened the ability of Unity churches to offer themselves as a viable alternative to established churches.

Characteristics of the Early years

  1. Leadership: Charles & Myrtle
  2. Infrastructure: downtown KC offices -> McGee -> 913 Tracy -> 917 Tracy
  3. Delivery of religious benefits: publishing (Charles), healing & absent healing (Myrtle & Charles), silent unity (Myrtle)
  4. Ministers: Fillmore employed healers and teachers
  5. Message: eclectic, Christian Science, New Thought -> Metaphysical Christian (simple)
  6. Relationship with church & society: cult (high tension)
  7. Social cost of membership: high

Important events

  1. Myrtle speaks to the life centers of her body, speaking words of truth, asking forgiveness.
  2. People began coming to their home for help.
  3. Charles observes Myrtle's healing
  4. Charles and Myrtle go to Chicago to study under Emma Curtis Hopkins
  5. Charles begins sitting in the Silence
  6. Royal is born in 1889
  7. Charles decides to publish a magazine (1889) Modern Thought then (1890) Christian Science Thought then Thought.
  8. Society of Silent Help founded ((1890)
  9. Unity magazine begun for Society of Silent Unity
  10. Globed Wings selected as an emblem for Unity mag
  11. Small prayer group formed (1891)
  12. The name Unity was selected (June 1891)
  13. Wee Wisdom launched (August 1893)
  14. Lessons in Truth
  15. Unity and Thought consolidated (1895)
  16. Move to McGee Street (1898)
  17. Prayer of Faith published in Wee Wisdom (1898)
  18. Unity Society of Practical Christianity incorporated (1903)
  19. Incorporated (1914) as Unity School of Christianity, consolidating Unity Tract Society and Society of Silent Unity.