Note: I missed her birthday yesterday, but Sophia Lyon Fahs rates an entry, even if it is a day late. Adapted from the biographical notes for my worship service/readers’ theater piece 400 Years of Unitarian and Universalist Poets from John Milton to Sylvia Plath.
Sophia Lyon Fahs is now revered among Unitarian Universalists as the dynamic innovator who revolutionized religious education by making it child centered and incorporating modern educational precepts. She started her life on another journey entirely.
She was born in China on August 2, 1876 to Presbyterian missionaries David and Mandana Doolittle Lyon. All through childhood she dreamed of nothing else but becoming a missionary herself and bringing the Christian gospel to the unsaved slaves of false religions. While a student at Wooster College in Wooster, Ohio, she enthusiastically signed the pledge of the Student Volunteer Movement which read, “It is my purpose in Life, if God permit, to become a foreign missionary.”
After graduating from college and spending two years teaching high school Latin, she enlisted in the Student Volunteer organization, visiting college campuses and promoting the Pledge. In 1901 she took a part-time job as a YWCA secretary to pay for her further religious education at the University of Chicago. Warned that William Rainey Harper’s new university was a hot bed of unsound doctrine and radical intellectualism, Lyon wrote to friends that she felt secure in her Christian faith against any temptations.
She was wrong. The heady temptations of Biblical Higher Criticism and modernism would slowly batter her old time religion. At Chicago she was exposed to giants like Harper and especially John Dewey, father of the progressive education movement.
Still, there were things to tie her to tradition. In 1902 Lyon married fellow Student Volunteer Movement activist Charles Harvey Fahs, whose fragile health prevented his being posted on for overseas service. Instead the young couple moved to New York City. Her husband took a job with the national Board of Missions of the Methodist Church and Sophia enrolled in another progressive institution to complete her graduate education, Columbia University Teacher’s College. Two years later John Dewey would follow Fahs to her new school.
She had to crowd her studies in-between raising a family. Five children were born between 1905 and 1914, some of them sickly. The realization that her children possessed independent minds and were capable of rational exploration of the world around her did more to revolutionize her thinking about religious education than all of her college courses. While her husband frequently traveled for the Methodists, Fahs observed the techniques of the teachers at Horace Mann School, the college’s practice school.
She was impressed by the experimentation she found there and yearned for a way to bring the techniques she learned there to tradition bound, Bible based Sunday School. Fahs was convinced small children could get little out Bible study until they were old enough to really grasp the concepts of history in their early teen years. Instead she was convinced that children would respond to vivid and detailed stories about people who mattered. Recalling her own obsession with missionaries, she decided that the lives of contemporary foreign missionaries would make excellent study material. Her first book for children, Uganda’s White Man of Work, about a real life missionary was published in 1907.
It was just the first in a long line of books, articles, curriculum guides and worship materials, including finely crafted poetry that would pour from her in the coming decades. It was not easy. Two of her children died, and her ailing husband was often out of the country. Her personal theology became ever more liberal and she looked for new sources for instruction materials for children drawn on the natural sciences, the religions of primitive peoples, and world religions. She wanted to find ways for children to connect with the experiences of life—birth and death, the sun and stars and evolving life on earth and out of that experience begin to develop and articulate their own faith lives.
She tried to put these theories into practice in a series of jobs as a Sunday School superintendent, but she was frequently at odds with both ministers and parents who demanded a traditional Bible study curriculum, even if they were modernists. In 1933, however, Fahs was invited by the great modernist preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick to head up the Sunday School at his brand new Riverside Church. It was there that she was able, finally, to develop the kind of progressive curriculum for which she became famous.
Unitarian religious education leaders had been following Fahs’s work since in 1928 article How Childish Should a Child’s Religion Be. They were impressed by what they saw. In 1930 she was invited to lead a Unitarian religious education conference at the Isle of Shores. Thus began her blossoming relationship with the denomination that would finally lead her to leave conventional Christianity behind.
In 1937 Fahs was appointed Editor of Children’s Materials for the American Unitarian Association (AUA). She was given a free reign, within the limited budget of the Depression ravaged Association, to completely remake the Beacon religious education curricula. Fahs edited all the resulting New Beacon series and she was frequently the principle co-author.
From the first hand experiences of her Martin and Judy books for primary children to explorations of nature in How Miracles Abound, to broadening understanding of other cultures and past experience in From Long Ago and Many Lands and Child of the Sun, to the practical comparative religion of The Church Across the Street Fahs was innovating and even daring.
Of course, not everyone was ready for change. Many congregations clung to the same Bible based Sunday School materials that were being used in mainline Protestant churches. To provide a Bible based course in which children could grasp that scripture was written by fallible human being over hundreds of years, Fahs wrote her popular The Old Story of Salvation.
In 1952 Fahs presented the underlying philosophy for the New Beacon Series in her book for religious educators, Today’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage: A Philosophy of Creative Religious Development. Other materials to teach the teachers followed. The post war years really proved the popularity and durability of what Fahs was doing.
When she had been hired, Unitarianism was a dwindling denomination. Largely on the strength of its dynamic new religious education program, young families flocked to the congregations. New congregations and fellowships sprang up far from the traditional strong holds of New England, the upper mid-west and California. The Beacon curriculum books were also being used increasingly by other denominations and even by private schools.
Despite advancing age and a crushing workload, nothing seemed to slow Fahs down. In 1959 at the age of 82 she was able to fulfill a life-long dream when one of the new congregations built largely on her sound basis of Religious Education, the Montgomery County Unitarian Church of Bethesda, Maryland, ordained her into the ministry.
Fahs finally took retirement at age 88 in 1964 and died honored and beloved in New York City in 1978 at the age of 101.
Fahs legacy lives on in every Unitarian Universalist church school. The curricula that she introduced may no longer be taught, but the spirit that created it lives on. Much of that spirit comes from the remarkable poems and reading Fahs left behind and which are included in the UUA’s Singing the Living Tradition. Not a Sunday goes by but that somewhere a congregation does not share the loving words of Sophia Lyon Fahs.
By far her most popular poem is often used in child dedications services and Christmas worship:
And So the Children Come
And so the children come
and so they have been coming.
No angels herald their beginnings.
No prophets predict their future courses.
No wise men or women see a star to show where to find
the babe that will save humankind.
yet each night a child arrives is a holy night.
Fathers and mothers—
Sitting beside their sleeping children’s beds
feel glory in the sight of new life beginning. They ask,
Where and how will this new life end?
Or will it ever end?
Each day a child arrives is a holy day.
A time for singing,
a time for wondering,
a time for worshipping.
—Sophia Lyon Fahs