As I prepared for a lecture I will give in the Boston area today on John Emerson Roberts I realized that I need to make a case for why Unitarians in Milton, Massachusetts, should be interested in what happened in Kansas City, Missouri, a hundred years ago. It’s not a difficult case to make for those who are historically minded, because the events I describe affected the Unitarian denomination as a whole. The question has reminded me, however, of how different geography appears depending on where you stand.
As a child growing up in California I had in my head a very simple map of the United States. there was a blue line down the middle: the Mississippi River. East of this everything was green and lumpy, west of it, all was flat and yellow, until one reached the border of California, whose topography I knew well from the flour and water maps we made in fourth grade. You don’t have to have seen much of the middle of the country to realize how far off my notions were. At the very least, I had seriously misplaced the big blue line.
When I moved to the Boston area for college, New England expanded hugely in my mind. And when we settled in Philadelphia the Mid-Atlantic states were added to my area of familiarity. The rest of the country shrank in comparison. I had to remind myself that the 600 miles between Philadelphia and Deer Isle, Maine, were a small part of the country, even though we covered six states.
We are fortunate now to live in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and to travel to Maine by car. Now I know something of many more states. We’ve driven past the geographic midpoint of the contiguous forty-eight states in northern Kansas. We’ve taken different routes across Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indian, Ohio and sometimes Kentucky and Tennessee.
The knowledge one gets from being in a place is different from map study and geography tests. I don’t have to stop and ponder to remember that Nebraska (home of Dorothy Lynch dressing) is north of Kansas, and Iowa, where I followed a piece of the Mormon trail, is north of Missouri. I’ve been there. It is a big, beautiful and―especially when you avoid the interstates―diverse country. Yet, what happens in one place can affect all the rest.
You can read about the “Western Controversy” and why it mattered to Unitarians, in my book, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to date” Freethought Preacher, available from me through Amazon or via the contact page.