Theologian's Almanac for Week of September 1, 2019


Welcome to SALT’s “Theologian’s Almanac,” a weekly selection of important birthdays, holidays, and other upcoming milestones worth marking - specially created for a) writing sermons and prayers, b) creating content for social media channels, and c) enriching your devotional life.

For the week of Sunday, September 1:

September 1 is the day in 1773 that 20-year-old Phillis Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first book of poetry published by an African-American.  Kidnapped in West Africa at the age of eight and put on the Phillis, a slave ship, she was sold to a prominent tailor in Boston, John Wheatley, and was manumitted in 1778 - two years after George Washington invited her to his headquarters to meet her, so impressed was he with her poetry.  She rarely wrote about herself or her life as an enslaved person - with the notable exception of “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” a poem in which Wheatley pointedly admonishes “Christians” that “Negroes,” too, may “join th’ angelic train.”

September 2 is Labor Day this year, an occasion often celebrated around the world on May 1, International Workers’ Day.  In 1884, President Grover Cleveland and the U.S. Congress established the American holiday in early September instead of early May for at least two reasons: first, to distance it from May Day protests and their radical demands (such as the eight-hour work day), and second, to assuage an angry labor movement in the wake of the government’s brutal suppression of the Pullman railway strike.  Many religious groups supported the workers: in 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum, “Of New Things,” an encyclical addressing labor practices, now considered a foundational document of Catholic social teaching.  Leo wrote of a moral obligation to pay a fair and living wage, addressing employers directly: “be mindful of this - that to exercise pressure upon the indigent and the destitute for the sake of gain, and to gather one’s profit out of the need of another, is condemned by all laws, human and divine.  To defraud any one of wages that are his due is a great crime which cries to the avenging anger of Heaven.”

September 2 is also the birthday of the Austrian writer Joseph Roth, born in 1894, who wrote The Wandering Jews, a book of essays about the plight of European Jews struggling to survive.  Of the shtetl, the small Jewish towns of Eastern Europe, Roth wrote: “The shtetl Jews are not rare visitors of God, they live with him. In their prayers they inveigh against him, they complain at his severity, they go to God to accuse God. There is no other people that lives on such a footing with their god. They are an old people and they have known him a long time!”

September 3 is the birthday of anthropologist, naturalist, and author Loren Eiseley, born in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1907.  In poetic, evocative prose, he wrote a series of books that inspired a generation of nature writers, including The Immense Journey (1957), The Unexpected Universe (1969), The Night Country (1971), and The Star Thrower (1979).  His essay, “How Flowers Changed the World,” is a little masterpiece, and a classic example of Eiseley’s knack for evoking wonder: "The fantastic seeds skipping and hopping and flying about the woods and valleys brought with them an amazing adaptability.  If our whole lives had not been spent in the midst of it, it would astound us. The old, stiff, sky-reaching wooden world changed into something that glowed here and there with strange colors, put out queer, unheard of fruits and little intricately carved seed cases, and, most important of all, produced concentrated foods in a way that the land had never seen before, or dreamed of back in the fish-eating, leaf-crunching days of the dinosaurs…"

September 3 is also the date in 1838 that Frederick Douglass, disguised as a sailor, boarded a train to escape from slavery.  He went on to become a tireless advocate for the abolition of slavery.  He also supported women’s suffrage, and in 1848, was one of the original signatories of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments.” “I love that religion,” he wrote, “which sends its votaries to bind up the wounds of those who have fallen among thieves.” And again: “No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened around his own neck.”

September 4 is the day in 1957 that Arkansas governor Orval Faubus summoned the National Guard to bar nine black students from entering Central High School in Little Rock.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower then sent in the 101st Airborne Division to ensure the students could enroll.  In an address to the nation, Eisenhower put it this way: "Mob rule cannot be allowed to override the decisions of our courts."  Today is a day to remember the courage and dignity of the “Little Rock Nine” - and at the same time, to recall and reflect on the “Little Rock Thousand,” the mob of approximately one thousand white citizens who surrounded Central High School, shouting ugly epithets as the soldiers ushered the nine teenagers into the building.

September 6 is the birthday of American social reformer Jane Addams, born in 1860. When she was 29 years old, she co-founded Chicago’s first settlement house, Hull-House, in a part of the city populated mostly by immigrants from Poland, Mexico, Greece, Russia, and Bohemia. Hull-House grew to serve more than 2,000 people a week, offering a night school for adults, a public kitchen, girls club, bathhouse, gym, and music school; accordingly, today Addams is considered the “Mother of Social Services” in the United States. Underneath her work was a deep commitment to faith and scripture: she was an avid reader, and became convinced by the writings of Thomas Carlyle and Leo Tolstoy to explore the Bible as a source of conviction. Addams drew inspiration the New Testament Gospels, and in particular from the Sermon on the Mount’s “Beatitudes.” At every turn, she interpreted scripture through the lens of action, insisting that “action is the only medium” humankind has “for receiving and appropriating truth.” In 1931, she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.