Sunday August 30, 2020: The Great Showman

P.T. Barnum Circus poster

The noblest art is that of making others happy — P.T. Barnum

Welcome before prelude

Good morning and welcome to West Fork Unitarian Universalists. I’m Robert and I am blessed to serve this congregation as a lay leader. I’m glad to see all of you here today.

Thank you for joining us.

Let us use the prelude for centering. We are about to enter sacred time. We are about to make this time and this place sacred by our presence and intention.

Please silence your phones… and as you do so, I invite us also to turn down the volume on our fears; to remove our masks; and to loosen the armor around our hearts.


Let go of the expectations placed on you by others—and those they taught you to place on yourself.

Drop the guilt and the shame, not to shirk accountability, but in honest expectation of the possibility of forgiveness.

Let go of the thing you said the other day. Let go of the thing you dread next week. Be here, in this moment. Breathe, here

Prelude: Entry of the Gladiators, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Band

Welcome: To learn more about being human – Erika A. Hewitt

Welcome to this morning, this day, and this opportunity to be together in community — which is a time of joy, comfort, and sometimes challenges. This Unitarian Universalist congregation is a place where we come to learn more about being human. We’re not here because we’ve figured out life’s questions, or because we think we’ve got it right, or even because we think we know what the questions are.

We come here to learn more about being in relationship together: how to listen, how to forgive, how to be vulnerable, and how to create trust and compassion in one another.

Let us move into worship, willing to be authentic with each other, honest within ourselves, and opening to connection in all its forms.

Come, let us worship together.

Chalice lighting: Embrace The Night – Jennifer Leota Gray

Universal mystery,
Guide us away from the desire to
Shine light in all the corners.
Teach us to embrace the night,
For without the darkness,
We never see the stars.

Song: Gathered Here (3 times)

Gathered here in the mystery of this hour.

Gathered here in one strong body.

Gathered here in the struggle and the power.

Spirit draw near.

Principles of Unitarian Universalism

Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles, which we hold as strong values and moral guides:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Song: Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite – from the movie Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Story: “The Lioness, the Tigress, and the Egress”, retold by Robert Helfer

I’m sure you’ve all heard this story before, but I won’t let that prevent me from telling it again, perhaps in a slightly different form than you’ve heard it in the past.

In 1841, the then 30-year-old budding entertainment entrepreneur Phineas Taylor Barnum purchased Scudder’s American Museum in New York and renamed it for himself. Barnum was a showman, not a naturalist, and thrived on public attention but not necessarily on fact. Here he perpetrated his first major hoax, the “Feejee Mermaid”, a fantastic creature consisting of the head and torso of a monkey and the tail of a fish. He also filled the five-story museum with exotic oddities, both real and fake, as well as with truly educational wonders of natural history, in the process creating an important piece in the development of American popular culture. Barnum filled his American Museum with dioramas, panoramas, “cosmoramas,” scientific instruments, modern appliances, a flea circus, a loom run by a dog, the trunk of a tree under which Jesus’ disciples sat, an oyster bar, a rifle range, waxworks, glass blowers, taxidermists, phrenologists, pretty-baby contests, Ned the learned seal, midgets, Chang and Eng the Siamese twins, a menagerie of exotic animals that included beluga whales in an aquarium, giants, Native Americans who performed traditional songs and dances, Grizzly Adams’s trained bears, and performances ranging from magicians, ventriloquists and blackface minstrels to adaptations of biblical tales and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Eventually the Museum, and later his traveling shows, included such wonders as the bearded lady Josephine Boisdechene and the famous 25-inch tall dwarf General Tom Thumb.

The museum became fantastically popular. In fact, it might have been a bit too popular, since in 1864 it became the target of a planned arson attack by the Confederate Army of Manhattan, and did, in fact, burn to the ground in 1865.

But before all that happened, people came to the museum in great numbers, and they were so fascinated by what they found there that they were reluctant to leave. Around every corner, it seemed, there would be some new exhibit, something strange and wonderful.

Barnum was always quite straightforward about his goal – to enrich himself – and he noticed that he was losing money on admissions to the museum because people were staying too long, and since people stayed there was no room for new people to come in. He needed more turnaround.

Signs in the museum already directed people to the various exhibits, guiding them through the museum by offering hints about what lay ahead. “This way to the whale”, or “This way to the bears”. Now Barnum added signs saying “This way to the Egress”. Well, people knew that a lioness was a female lion, and a tigress was a female tiger, but they’d never heard of an egress. And so the museum’s visitors happily followed these signs to see this new and clearly exotic creature. The signs lead to a door, encouragingly labeled “Egress”, but once the visitors passed through the door they found themselves standing outside, as the door locked behind them.

Some visitors, I suppose, then walked back around to the front, paid the price of admission a second time, and searched out the exhibits they hadn’t seen the first time. But I doubt that any of them forgot that “egress” means “exit”.

This way to the GREAT EGRESS!
This way to the GREAT EGRESS!


Épitaphe of Seikilos – Petros Tabouris Ensemble

Since we cannot take up a collection, let us use the time during the offertory to contemplate how we can use out time and talents during the next week for this community and our larger society.

While you live, shine,
Have no grief at all;
Life exists only for a short while,
And Time demands its toll.

Reading: from: “Why I Am a Universalist”, Phineas T. Barnum

I recently met an old friend, Rev. C. A. Stoddard, editor of the New York Observer. I asked him if his journal had not, like the “orthodox” generally, become more liberal in its faith concerning the final destiny of man. He smilingly replied, “Friend Barnum, our orthodox families cheerfully meet and support you in your efforts to amuse and instruct our children, but we must draw the line there. We cannot endorse your theology.”

“Is it possible,” I asked, “that the Observer still sticks to the old doctrine of endless suffering?”

“The Observer don’t budge an inch from its lifelong creed and doctrines,” he replied.

“Surely,” said I, “you must lose numerous subscribers who at this day of the ‘new orthodoxy’ cannot believe that there are childless mothers in the Paradise of God?”

The reverend gentleman responded, “The places of such subscribers are readily filled by those who, like myself, loathe the thought of spending an eternity in the company of Judas.”

“But cannot Infinite Power, Wisdom, and Goodness conquer, purify, and win even the betrayer of our Saviour, who on the cross prayed for the forgiveness of his murderers?”

The religious editor replied, with a good-natured smile, “Judas would require considerable fixing up before he would be fit to come in close contact with the holy angels and saints in heaven.”

“True,” I replied, “but will not you and I need some ‘fixing up’ for that state of perfect holiness without which no man can see God?”

He admitted that such is the fact, but evidently he cannot as yet see a chance for Judas.

Lesson: The Great Showman

Robert Helfer, Lay Leader

Our forays into Unitarian and Universalist history normally focus on our heroes, the shining stars of social justice and liberal religion. But is it actually true that our congregations have never included one or two … well … shady characters? As the chalice lighting said, “Teach us to embrace the night, For without the darkness, We never see the stars.” Perhaps to see our stars truly we need to be equally aware of our slightly less reputable past.

Now, I’ve done some searching, but so far I haven’t found a handy list of “UUs gone bad”, or “UUs not quite up to our moral standard”. I thought about looking for a list of “excommunicated UUs”, but we all know we don’t do that – at least not often. To be sure, there are lots of lists of UU heroes, but perhaps we don’t want to make lists of the others? One must sort of come upon them in other ways.

But as it happens, one is easily identified. We have in our history the master of hoax, of fakery, of fraud, of flimflam – in fact, he’s nearly the absolute definition of flimflam, some have called him the creator of flimflam.

Phineas Taylor Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut, on July 5, 1810. We all know his name, if only because we have seen it for most of our lives on signs advertising his circus, which was still in operation in the first two decades of the 21st century, over 100 years after his death.

But here I should pause to note that although I’m aware that a major motion picture was recently made of his life, I have not seen it, so I am not going to comment on how it has characterized Barnum or his achievements. I suspect that like nearly all “biopics” the flow and facts of his life have been modified, adjusted, “improved”, to make a more entertaining story – although I can’t really see how Barnum’s life story could be made more entertaining by modern “improvement”. But that’s probably just me.

Anyway, Barnum was clearly both ambitious and capable – in his youth he bounced around among Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New York engaging in various businesses. Before he was 24 he had managed a grocery store and a boarding house, sold lottery tickets, and published his own newspaper. In 1835 he moved to New York City to pursue his fortune more energetically, and soon involved himself in show business – exhibitions of curiosities and the circus. Clearly he was very successful, because by 1841 he could afford to buy Scudder’s American Museum and convert it into a major attraction.

Curiosities & Freak Shows

Barnum’s career in show business started with exhibitions of “curiosities”. He wasn’t totally truthful about them, nor necessarily totally legal. In 1835 he bought a slave named Joice Heth. Now, it wasn’t legal to own a slave in New York at that time, but somehow Barnum got around that little detail by leasing her for a year for $1,000. At the time another huckster was exhibiting her around the city as the 161 year old nurse of George Washington, and Barnum continued the exhibitions with the same claims. It is said that he worked her between 10 to 12 hours per day. Not surprisingly, she died in February 1836, aged about 80. Barnum then hosted a live autopsy in a New York saloon, charging spectators 50cents each.

In the following years, he took a small circus, “Barnum’s Grand Scientific and Musical Theater,” on tour around the South, returning to New York prepared to create Barnum’s American Museum in 1841.

His first major success, his first major hoax, was the “Feejee mermaid” already mentioned. It should be noted that he didn’t invent the mermaid. It seems that these constructions had been made for years by Japanese and other fishermen in the South Pacific. Barnum’s mermaid was originally purchased by an American sea captain in 1822. It eventually came into the possession of Moses Kimball, a friend of Barnum’s, who ran the Boston Museum in Massachusetts. Kimball brought the mermaid to New York to show to Barnum, who then leased it to display in his museum. But Barnum didn’t simply put it into his museum and announce that it was there. Barnum, after all, was a consummate showman and a master of publicity. He produced a huge amount of excitement by a campaign of pseudonymous letters to newspapers along the East Coast talking about the mermaid and its imminent arrival in New York from South America. The stories involved false names, false attributions, and, of course, false history. Then, with considerable theater, Barnum persuaded the supposed owner, a “Dr. J. Griffin”, to allow him to exhibit it in his museum. “Advertising is like learning,” he said, “a little is a dangerous thing”. And Barnum didn’t believe in “a little” advertising. The resulting crowds at Barnum’s museum were immense.

Little frauds, objects like the “mermaid”, were common in little “museums” and “cabinets of curiosities” of the time. Well, and now, too. Have you ever been to a Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not museum? But Barnum is perhaps most famous for his extravagant eagerness to exploit the public’s credulity. “There’s a sucker born every minute,” he is supposed to have said. As far as I can see, there’s no record of his actually saying those words, and his biographer points out that he never would have shown such disrespect for his clientele (and “sucker” didn’t have that meaning in the 19th century). Barnum always asserted that he provided entertainment and gave good value: “As a general thing, I have not ‘duped the world’ nor attempted to do so … I have generally given people the worth of their money twice told,” he said. And he placed a high value especially on children’s laughter.

Besides the circus itself I think that Barnum is best known for exhibiting living people. Barnum was far from the first to exhibit for entertainment people who were different, but in Barnum’s day freak shows were generally considered dishonorable, part of the world of shabby carnivals. Barnum, on the other hand, was very successful at legitimatizing the genre, making it socially acceptable.

Now-a-days, most of us will think that it’s dishonorable to display human curiosities as entertainment, even though many of us visited one or two in our childhoods – or perhaps I’m the only one. But the important question for us, I think, is whether Barnum took advantage of his people by featuring them in his shows, or if he offered them opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t have had. Was there mutual advantage, or was it simply exploitation.

Joice Heth, I think, has to be seen as a case of pure exploitation. A crippled woman, a slave, she can’t have derived any advantage from being displayed as she was. Some of Barnum’s other stars, however, seem to have benefited from touring with him. The Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng, had settled on their own plantation in North Carolina by 1860, and only came out of retirement later to earn enough money to send their children to college. Charles Stratton, best known by the stage name “General Tom Thumb”, became so wealthy while touring with Barnum that when Barnum later ran into financial difficulties Stratton was able to help bail him out. That Stratton was willing to do so also suggests that the relationship between the two men was at least not unfriendly.

Barnum’s impact on the world of entertainment was huge. He had a knack for turning something that the good people perceived as sleezy, disreputable into clean family entertainment. He did this with the freak show. He’s also credited by some with elevating the status of the theater, removing, apparently, the lingering stigma of moral whatevers. And among the various contests he produced – judging dogs, flowers, and babies – he attempted to produce a beauty contest. This last contest failed, however, meeting with wide spread protests

But so far I have spoken only of Barnum’s career in entertainment. There was much more to the man than that, and I think that given that I’m ostensibly talking about Unitarian Universalist history, I’ll turn now to his Universalism, and briefly to his politics.


In his childhood, Barnum attended a rather strict Calvinist church, but early in life he came to reject much of what that church taught. “When I was from ten to fourteen years of age, I attended prayer meetings where I could almost feel the burning waves and smell the sulphurous fumes. I remember the shrieks and groans of suffering children and parents and even aged grandparents.” as he described it in his essay “Why I am a Universalist”. His Universalist beliefs developed from that rejection of Calvinism.

In 1864 in an interview with a New York Sun reporter Barnum said this of his religious faith: “I believe there is a great Creator, infinite in his attributes of wisdom, power, and mercy: that His name is Love. I believe He is a God of all justice, and that He will chasten every person whom He ever created sufficiently to reform him, in this world, or some other.”

“Why I am a Universalist”, which Barnum wrote near the end of his life, supports the same faith.

As a teenager in the 1820s he joined the Universalist Church of Danbury, Connecticut, where he served as the church’s clerk and occasionally filled the pulpit. During the 1840s, when he was living in New York City, he attended the Fourth Universalist Society, and gave much time and money to this church and its causes, including its Chapin Home for the Aged and Infirm. And after he moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1848 he quickly became associated with the Bridgeport society. Once again, he gave time and money to maintaining the congregation, and the city itself.

During this time he became friends with each of the ministers who served the Bridgeport congregation. As A.H. Saxon, compiler of Barnum’s correspondence, has it, he was “on intimate terms with the several ministers who served the society during this period, ‘talking Universalism’ with them at every opportunity; entertaining them, and occasionally the entire congregation, at the clambakes he loved to throw at the beach on Long Island Sound; running into the parsonage whenever he happened to be passing to speak a few words of greeting.” And friends as well with other Universalist luminaries, such as Quillen Shinn and Horace Greeley.

His relationship with Olympia Brown (the first woman to achieve full ministerial standing recognized by a denomination in the United States – someone we should learn more about in a later service) during her ministry at Bridgeport seems to have been quite close. Her biographer reports that, “it was said of her that when the church was in need of additional money, she was not above asking that the rich be more generous in their contributions, and she would say, ‘Mr. Barnum, I mean you.’ According to the report, Mr. Barnum never failed to oblige her.”

But he rejected the label “philanthropy” for what he did. “I have no desire to be considered much of a philanthropist … if by improving and beautifying our city Bridgeport, Connecticut, and adding to the pleasure and prosperity of my neighbors, I can do so at a profit, the incentive to ‘good works’ will be twice as strong as if it were otherwise.”


In the early 1830s, when Barnum was living in Danbury, he founded and edited his own newspaper, the Herald of Freedom. He started the paper to combat what he perceived to be sectarian attempts to bring about a union of church and state. He was charged with libel three times for statements he made about opponents, was convicted once and incarcerated for 60 days. He spent his time in jail comfortably. “I had my room papered and carpeted previously to taking possession,” he wrote. He had a constant stream of visitors including a pastoral visit from a local Universalist minister. His release was a public relations event – he was, after all, Barnum.

While he claimed that he found politics distasteful, he was politically active on questions of race, slavery, and sectionalism during the period leading up to the Civil War. He had been a Democrat, but he opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which was supported by the Democratic Party, which supported slavery, and so left to join the newly formed anti-slavery Republican Party. Acknowledging that he had owned slaves in the past, he asserted: “I whipped my slaves. I ought to have been whipped a thousand times for this myself. But then I was a Democrat — one of those nondescript Democrats, who are Northern men with Southern principles”.

The Universalist seeks redemption.


Well, this has been a bit of a rushed summary, an attempt to jam a complex man and a complex life into something like 15 minutes of words.

I said at the beginning of this lesson that I am interested in the “shady characters” of our religious history. Last year I talked about George Pullman, and today P.T. Barnum. I do not intend to condemn either of them for their shadiness, but rather to draw out a more whole picture, both shadiness and possible bright lights of virtue. I find their lives, their relationships with the “heroes” and the more common souls, their actions, and especially their justifications for those actions to be interesting in what they reveal about their times and, perhaps more so, what they reveal about us.

And so, at the end of all this, when I should be making some sort of judgment about Barnum, I find that I can’t quite do that. Unlike Pullman, his Universalism was quite real and important to him. And I think that it was a driving force for changes in his life – his rejection of slavery, for example, and the reflection on his own life it entailed. And perhaps the complexity of his life is enough of a lesson for me.

Music: Lean on Me – Bill Withers

Joys and Sorrows

If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it;

or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.


For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.


These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation

Let us join our hearts and minds in silent meditation

Song: Go Now In Peace (3 times)

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Closing: Because of those who came before – Barbara J. Pescan

Because of those who came before, we are;
in spite of their failings, we believe;
because of, and in spite of, the horizons of their vision,
we, too, dream.

Let us go remembering to praise,
to live in the moment,
to love mightily,
to bow to the mystery.

The chalice is now extinguished.

Go now in peace.