Unitarian Universalists are justifiably proud to include notables like Olympia Brown and Ralph Waldo Emerson in their religious legacy. But “just listing luminaries is a little bit like looking up at the night sky and seeing there only the brightest stars,” said former UUA president Rev. John Buehrens in a sermon on July 9th at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, Ohio.
“In order to see the most interesting patterns, we must also discern the lives of the second and third order of magnitude,” he said. In his new book Universalists and Unitarians in America, Rev. Buehrens has written about significant Unitarians and Universalists who have fallen into obscurity, as well as those who are still well-known.
“In the fateful year of 1929, when the Great Depression was beginning, Time magazine chose as its Man of the Year a Universalist—a layman named Owen D. Young,” Rev. Buehrens said. “You probably don’t even know his name. But Will Rogers, the humorist, said he wanted Owen D. Young to be the Democratic candidate for President in 1932, as the most likely to get us out of the Depression.
“Back then Owen Young was known as perhaps the most progressive and effective business leader, peacemaker, and advocate for ordinary working people that America had.”
Owen Young grew up on a farm in upstate New York, where he attended a Universalist church, becoming superintendent of the Sunday school at age 15. “That summer, a seminary student came to preach, and was impressed with young Owen. He wrote to the president of St. Lawrence University, the Universalist college and seminary, that it was a pity that Owen would never get to go to college, bring an only child, needed on the family farm,” Rev. Buehrens said.
“The president came down in person to meet Owen, give him a scholarship, and persuade his parents to let him go.”
Young excelled in school, married a fellow Universalist, and became an attorney who specialized in public utilities, just as electricity was coming into widespread use. By the 1920s he became chairman of the board of General Electric, the founder of RCA, and a founder and the first chairman of NBC.
“Time magazine honored him as a peacemaker, because he’d gone twice to Europe and asked the European victors in the Great War to ease off on their reparation demands of Germany, seeing that those were likely to lead to a second war, and were already provoking the rise of Hitler and Nazism,” Rev. Buehrens said.
“At GE, Owen Young provided pensions and disability and health insurance for all workers,” Buehrens said. “He advocated for not just a living wage, but for what he called a ‘cultural wage’ that would be large enough for ordinary working people to improve their lives and that of their families, through education and culture.”
Young made generous pledges to cultural and religious institutions, including the Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington DC, and to the first professional school for the study of foreign relations at Johns Hopkins.
“And then the bottom fell out of the economy,” Rev. Buehrens said. “Soon Owen Young owed more in charitable pledges than he was probably worth. He sat his family down and said that they would never lack for education or basic security, but they shouldn’t expect riches.
“His plan was to keep as many people employed as he could, to support Roosevelt for President, and to keep his charitable pledges. He paid every penny, though it took him decades.
“Toward the end of his long life, in the 1950s, Owen B. Young, Universalist, could be seen some Sunday afternoons along Route 1 on Florida’s east coast, selling grapefruit from his orchard at a roadside stand, in front of his modest retirement home.
“I call him an unsung hero, and a person of hope and integrity.”