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Sophia Lyon Fahs, revolutionary educator

Starting in 1937, Fahs helped lead a Unitarian religious education revival.
By Christopher L. Walton
March/April 2003 3.1.03

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Sophia Lyon Fahs

Sophia Lyon Fahs

The daughter of nineteenth-century Presbyterian missionaries to China, Sophia Lyon grew up wanting to be a missionary. She married an aspiring Methodist missionary, Charles Harvey Fahs. But the mission she embraced transformed her own culture, not some far distant land. As a teacher, writer, editor, and advocate, Sophia Lyon Fahs (1876-1978) helped to revolutionize American children's religious education—and played a major role in what is often called the "Unitarian renaissance" of the 1940s.

As a college freshman in 1893, Sophia taught her first Sunday school class. The curriculum for kindergartners in her Presbyterian church was the Ten Commandments. In those days, Sunday schools—even in Unitarian churches—focused exclusively on the Bible; the goal was conveying doctrine to young minds. Frustrated, she began looking for better ways to help children engage the material, but as she learned more about children's development—and about modern biblical scholarship—her theology changed radically, too.

She embraced progressive educational principles while completing a degree at Columbia University's Teachers College in 1904, where she taught in an experimental Sunday school. In 1923, when her children were grown, she enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Already a prominent religious educator and the author of two children's books about missionaries, she was one of the first two women to join Union's faculty in 1927.

In the late 1920s, as the debate about Fundamentalism raged in Protestant circles, Fahs sided with the Liberals. "To build the beginnings of faith in God on a conception of the universe that our generation no longer regards as true," she later wrote, "is to prepare the way for a loss of respect for the Bible; and what is worse, to court a cynical atheism when the child is old enough to learn for himself." A modern faith, she argued, must take science and modern attitudes seriously; faith, she believed, is rooted ultimately in a person's own experiences. Educators in many denominations agreed, but few took her conclusions as far as she did.

The American Unitarian Association had embraced graded curriculum—lessons designed for different age levels, a progressive innovation—in 1909 with its "Beacon Series." But by the 1930s, Unitarianism was in crisis. Membership had dropped to 50,228 in 1935. When the Christian Register (predecessor of this magazine) reported widespread dissatisfaction with Unitarian Sunday school programs in 1930, the editor pointed to Fahs's ideas as a way forward. The 1937 election of the Rev. Frederick May Eliot as AUA president brought a wave of reforms, including a call for new curriculum. Fahs was hired as Children's Editor for the new project, although she did not join a Unitarian church until 1945.

From 1937, when she was 61, until her retirement in 1951, Fahs helped lead a Unitarian religious education revival. "The New Beacon Series," which she edited and for which she wrote or co-authored more than a dozen books, addressed children directly using vivid stories from around the world. Drawing on anthropological and psychological research, the children's books were dedicated to one goal: "We wish children to come to know God directly through original approaches of their own to the universe." The series' child-centered approach appealed to many young "baby boom" parents, and the curriculum's popularity in the fellowships that sprang up across the continent was one leading factor in Unitarianism's post-war resurgence.

Some titles, like The Church Across the Street (1947), have clear contemporary successors, like the UUA's Neighboring Faiths curriculum. From Long Ago and Many Lands, published fifty years ago, is still in print.

She was ordained in 1959—aged 83—by what is now the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, in recognition for a lifetime contribution to the liberal religious movement.


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