Although Henry Burton Sharman is little more than a name for most
current members of the movement, his influence is ubiquitous. Almost all members who
joined prior to 1982 have studied the gospels using material written by Sharman. Newer
members who have come into the movement since the transition to Beyond War, when they know
the name at all, identify him as the legendary teacher of Harry and Emilia Rathbun. Old or
new, most members of the movement know him mostly through anecdote and legend, and there
is an overwhelming sense that his scholarly credentials legitimate the genesis of Creative
Initiative. Sharman, who died in 1953, is the founding father, a
larger-than-life figure lost in the mists of time and the Canadian lake country, slowly
fading from collective memory while his ideas live on, transformed but still recognizable.
But Sharman was much more than the Rathbuns' mentor. He was a man who developed a system
of religious thought that influenced several generations of Canadian students and, through
them, prewar politics and education in Canada. He was an active participant in the
scholarly debate about the nature of Jesus in the era before World War I, and many of the
issues he raised in his writings and seminars sixty years ago continued to be discussed
and debated in Creative Initiative until it launched the Beyond War movement in 1982.
The cardinal tenet in both Sharman's work and in Creative Initiative was
that the individual had to align or "surrender" his or her personal will to the
will of God. Much attention was focused on the process by which one shifted from the self
to God, and then on how one in fact lived a life dedicated to God's will. Sharman's
teachings created a tension between the private act of transformation of the will and the
public acts that resulted from that transformation. Within his own work, Sharman never
resolved that tension. He believed that the right path could be found through studying the
teachings of Jesus, and such study was the core of his method.
His followers, however, differed on the implications of Jesus'
teachings, and their differences tore the movement apart when Sharman retired in 1945. The
basic dispute between the factions was simple, but its implications were immense. The
Rathbuns believed that society could be altered for the better by changing the spiritual
focus of individuals. The rival faction believed that people who had undergone the
transformation had an obligation to act in the political arena to create a more just
world. We call these two modes of thought "homocentric" (for those who wished to
concentrate on the individual) and "sociocentric" (for those who centered their
attention on society). Just how and where to draw the line between focus on the individual
and the final goal of social transformation was a recurrent theme in the history of
Sharman and the "Records"
In 1884, when he was a nineteen-year-old agricultural student, Henry
B. Sharman attended a religious revival with the express intention of challenging the
Methodist evangelist H. T. Crossley. Sharman had grown skeptical about his faith when he
had been unable to reconcile it with the scientific values taught at the Ontario
Agricultural College, where he had studied for two years. But it was the evangelist who
challenged Sharman when he told his audience that "every statement of Jesus could be
proved as surely as the experiments the students were carrying on in their
laboratories." According to his friends, Sharman left the
meeting profoundly moved, and before the night was over had dedicated his life to the will
Born in 1865, Sharman was the oldest child of a prominent pioneer family
in Stratford, Ontario. The family owned a firm that manufactured agricultural machinery
and was also involved in raising Hereford cattle. Sharman had attended the local public
schools before entering college to study animal husbandry. After
a brief interruption during which he ran a family farm in Manitoba, Sharman graduated from
college and accepted an appointment there as an instructor in chemistry.
His interest in reconciling science and religion was further piqued when
he read Henry Drummond's Natural Law in the Spiritual World, but he recoiled at
Drummond's suggestion that Christ was the way to find God and the laws of the universe.
"I could not see how or why it was necessary for Christ to come into the picture of
God and the running of His universe," Sharman said.
Nevertheless, he did become increasingly interested in the person of Jesus, and in his own
way would make the historical figure of Jesus much the same kind of path to God that
Christ the savior was for Drummond.
After several years, Sharman, who had become very active in the Young
Men's Christian Association (YMCA), realized that studying the Bible was more important to
him than teaching science, and in 1893 he accepted the invitation of the renowned
evangelist John R. Mott to become corresponding secretary of the Student Volunteer
Movement of North America (SVM). SVM had been founded in 1886 by evangelist Dwight L.
Moody and had as its goal "the evangelization of the world in this generation." Concurrently Sharman held the unpaid position of Bible study
secretary of the Student Department of the YMCA. He directed the Bible study programs of
the SVM and the YMCA for seven years, during which time he began to develop his special
interest in the synoptic gospels. The YMCA published a list of study questions he wrote, Studies
in the Life of Christ, to facilitate discussion in his classes.
Sharman's youthful rebellion against religion had been ended by the
promise that the words of Jesus could be proven scientifically, and Sharman never wavered
from the resulting commitment to the teachings of Jesus. As the analytic approach of
"higher criticism" began making inroads among religious thinkers, Sharman was
increasingly attracted to the new objective methodology and alientated from the leadership
of the SVM and the YMCA. Impressed by the success of his first
set of questions on the gospels, the YMCA asked Sharman to prepare a similar series of
study questions on "The Truth of the Apostolic Gospel." Sharman responded by
saying that "the truth of the Apostolic gospel was confused, vague, and possibly in
many respects quite outside of the mind of Christ." He suggested substituting a
course on Paulâand Mott suggested that he might be happier in some other line
of work. Sharman agreed, and in 1900 he resigned his position with the two groups and
entered the University of Chicago to pursue a doctorate in New Testament studies. Accompanying him was his wife, Abbie Lyon Sharman, whom he had
married in 1896, and who herself earned a Ph.D. in literature during their time in
Even before he received his degree, Sharman was offered a position at
the Congregational Theological Seminary but turned it down to teach nondivinity students
at the University of Chicago. When the department at Chicago told him it could not afford
another position, he was confident enough of his own popularity to suggest a
"docent" appointment that paid him a percentage of his students' tuition. He received his doctorate in 1906 and his thesis, The Teaching
of Jesus about the Future, was published in 1909. That same
year Chicago offered him a regular faculty appointment in the Department of Theology.
Sharman turned it down.
Once more the problem raised by studying the gospels objectively was
interfering with his career. Sharman was identified with a faction whose approach to
biblical criticism alienated a lot of people. One of his students at the time remembered
that some faculty in the theological school had developed a liberal reputation for
advocating "higher criticism," and that many students were offended by
"turning upon the Bible the same critical analysis taken for granted in the study of
other literature, history or science." When a rumor circulated that Sharman was to be
dismissed as a "radical," the same student organized a dinner for three deans at
which Sharman's students testified to the importance of his work. Despite the strong
student support, Sharman was unwilling to be caught in the cross fire between the warring
factions. He declined the appointment and struck out on his own.
Before Sharman could embark on what would be his lifetime vocation of
leading independent Bible study groups, the forty-four-year-old scholar first had to add
one more square to his already checkered career. If he were going to operate outside of
the established support institutions like the SVM and the university, he would have to
become financially independent. In 1908, Sharman returned to Canada to establish the
Ontario Metal Culvert Company and then spent the following six years developing the firm
into a highly successful business. Although he remained a director until 1931, Sharman was
able to leave the day-today operation of the company in 1915 and return to Chicago to
begin his true calling.
From 1915 to 1945 Henry Burton Sharman spent almost all his time
directing independent Bible study classes. The basis for these classes was Records of
the Life of Jesus, his own arrangement of the synoptic gospels. Published in 1917 by
the YMCA's Association Press, and later by Harper, the book printed the gospels of
Matthew, Mark, and Luke in parallel columns by topic in chronological order. According to Harry Rathbun, Sharman believed that Records of the
Life of Jesus provided the student with "a neutral display of the evidence"
that made it possible to examine the gospels objectively. Rathbun further claimed that
Sharman actually tried to suppress his earlier Studies in the Life of Christ since
it was based on the assumption that the gospels could be "harmonized," a
position he no longer adhered to. One year after Records of
the Life of Jesus, he published Jesus in the Records, a collection of questions
to be used when studying "the Records," as the gospels were always called in
Sharman's work. Sharman had been influential in the formation
of the Student Christian Movement of Canada (SCM) in 1921, and he worked in close
conjunction with it when setting up the studies, conferences, and summer seminars that
constituted his work in the thirty years after 1915. With the
exception of three years that he spent as an honorary lecturer in the Department of
History at Yenching University in Beijing, China (returning each year to Canada to lead
his summer seminars), and three years on the faculty of the Quaker study program at Pendle
Hill, Pennsylvania, Sharman remained unaffiliated, working with college students and
faculty and refining the method that would so influence the Rathbuns and the Creative
Science and the Religion of Jesus
Although Sharman titled his first book Studies in the Life of
Christ, all his subsequent work referred to "Jesus." The distinction was
certainly intentional. Sharman was moving from the Christ of faith, perceived as God and
eternal savior, to the Jesus of history, who was human and a model for this life. Although
the YMCA labeled one of the early seminars he led while a graduate student, "The Life
of Chirst," Sharman's own description of the course emphasized Jesus the man rather
than Christ the savior. He told prospective students that he intended them to gain a
"complete and accurate knowledge of the Life of Jesus, as that life was lived by
Him," and went on to emphasize "the aim of the course is primarily and
constantly historical, in seeking to know all that may be known of the course of
events." Sharman was quite convinced that if there were to
be any future for religion, any basis for authority, it would be found "in one place
and in one place only, namely, back where the religion of the modern world had its
The historical Jesus was in the gospels but could be found only if he
could be separated "from the mass of tradition which has grown up about him." The idea was to examine the gospels with no presuppositions: Shaman
and his students said that they did not assume Jesus was "Christ," they did not
assume "that Jesus was related in some special way to God," they did not even
assume a theistic position. "Jesus is not my authority," Sharman told his
students, "The only reason that Jesus is of use to me is that he says so much that
commands itself to me." "Our approach," said
Sharman, "is to be fresh, open, free from the limitations imposed by theories,
doctrines and dogmas." True to his skeptical beginnings
and the liberal "higher criticism" of his graduate study, Sharman always
insisted that his study technique was "scientific." He told his students,
"THE METHOD OF STUDY we shall use in this work together is that generally known as
the SCIENTIFIC METHOD." It was the method that had led to advances in the physical
and biological sciences and was "the only known method which leads unfailingly to the
discovery of truth," which was why they were going to use it in their "quest for
the truth about Jesus." Students were subjected to a very
strict Socratic pedagogy. Sharman never lectured or instructed. His job was to ask
questions and make sure that the responses were clear. As he explained, "if the
leader makes no comment about your answer, it does not mean he does not like
itâhe may be quite excited about it. All his silence means is that your
answer is intelligible and relevant." The leader's job in this Socratic dialogue was
not to lead the students to the right conclusion but to get them to see all the evidence.
Sharman admitted that he had his own opinions and convictions but did his utmost not to
foist them on the study groups.
According to all reports, Sharman was an imposing and somewhat
intimidating presence. His students, even those who were highly placed academics, always
referred to him as Doctor Sharmanâonly his immediate family called him
Harry. He invariably wore tweed suits, high stiff white collars, and high lace-up shoes,
even in the midsummer in the heart of the Canadian wilderness. He would sit for hours in a
rocking chair but never move an inch, speaking only when necessary to clarify a point in
his ponderous, measured tones. Sharman's aloof exterior was apparently matched by an
equally cool interior. His relationship with close friends, and even with his wife, was
quite formal. Emilia Rathbun always felt somewhat distant from him because he did not, in
her words, "know the devil." By this she meant that Sharman had distanced
himself from the weaknesses and foibles of human life and could deal only with the
intellectual side of human existence. Another of his students
came to a similar conclusion when she charged that Sharman's most serious deficiency was
his "almost total absence of consideration of the emotional life." Ultimately the Rathbuns came to the same conclusion and included
psychology as part of their search for a more fully developed philosophy of life.
Sharman's determination to keep his own conclusions to himself and allow
seminar participants to reach their own understandings of the Records, plus his
self-conscious emphasis on the scientific method, left most observers with the impression
that the Sharman process was value-neutral and that Sharman either had no personal
philosophy or that any personal philosophy he had was irrelevant to the Records seminars.
Mary McDermott Shideler, who attended two Records seminars in the summers of 1937 and
1938, reported that "Dr. Sharman has made no attempt to present his own, personal
philosophy of religion. He has been concerned, not with what we should learn from him,
but with what we learned from Jesus." Despite his best
efforts to veil his own ideas, however, Sharman's personal philosophy inevitably colored
his work and influenced his students. From Shideler's report and from other sources, a
consistent pattern emerges that gives us a good picture of the structure of Sharman's
thought and through it an understanding of those ideas that were germinal to Harry and
Emilia Rathbun and the Creative Initiative movement.
Despite disclaimers based on the principle of scientific objectivity, it
is clear that Sharman and most of his students did share a basic belief in the existence
of God and furthermore believed that God could and would somehow save individual human
beings. Sharman said that the key question he put to any theological position was,
"what must I do to find the Kingdom of God, to inherit eternal life." In his own mind, the answer was clear. The road to salvation was
"really knowing the way of life after the manner of Jesus, not some blind
alley that does not lead to that which is desired." There
is little question that Sharman's singular focus on studying the Records was predicated on
the assumption that such study would lead the student to accepting the ideas of Jesus
(although exactly what ideas, Sharman never specified). The ideas of the historical Jesus
would in turn lead the students to dedicate their lives to God, which in Sharman's eyes
was the essence of being religious. Sharman's Jesus was historical, but what was Sharman's
God? Sharman's God, like Sharman's theology, was a mixture of the evangelism of his youth
and the scientific rationalism of his graduate student years. Sharman believed that there
was a God and that God in some sense saved individuals. And yet his God was not the
orthodox personal God of the evangelists who had first converted and then employed him.
Sharman's God was "Direction, Purpose or Will." Sharman's God was a norm toward
which people strived. Sharman's God was that to which religious people dedicated their
lives, not knowing what such dedication would mean. They then studied the teachings of
Jesus to find out.
Just what such dedication meant is nicely illustrated in a letter that
Abbie Sharman sent to her sister, Sophia Fahs, in 1942. Attempting to patch up a dispute
between her husband and her sister over situational ethics, Abbie explained that
occasionally a seminar member would say, "a choice of the whole good and a commitment
to choosing the good in future situations is psychologically impossible. The choice can
only be made in concrete situations, and only when the time comes in which the situation
arises." In other words, the seminarian asserted that
ethical choices were relative and had to be judged circumstantially. Such a position,
wrote Abbie, "undercuts the central understanding of the teaching of Jesus and
declares the 'religious' person impossible." The Sharmans
agreed that the religious person had to make a moral commitment to the concept of good (a
commitment that Sharman hoped to bring about through the Records seminars) and stick to it
no matter what the external circumstances. To charges that such a commitment was made in
vacuo, Mrs. Sharman responded, "of course it's commitment in vacuo . . .
it is the essence of the unified personality that it does not wait for concrete situations
to arise in order to have a will to choose the good." The
merely ethical person was a creature of circumstance, but the religiously moral person had
a code of values based on eternal truth.
Sharman confronted his students with the most difficult dilemma. On the
one hand he encouraged them to choose the good, but on the other he told them that they
would have to determine for themselves just what that good was. The key to being religious
was recognizing that one had to draw a line between right and wrong. Although Sharman
would not tell his students where to draw that line, he had no doubts that such a line
existed and that it was ordained by the very structure of being. Sharman believed that
there was a "moral order of the universe" that existed outside of human beings
and that people ignored it at their peril because it was "ruthless, utterly ruthless
in its destructiveness when crossed."
There was no room for relativism in Sharman's world. Sharman believed,
and the Rathbuns accepted his view, that religion was not merely like science, it was
science, and people disobeyed its laws at their own peril.
Sharman did not tell other people how to lead their lives. Jesus the man, stripped of myth
and magic, might be a model, but a model that each person had to perceive, if not actually
build, for him or herself.
Commitment and the World
Behind Sharman's concept of morality, behind all Sharman's ideas, lay
his belief in the necessity of total commitment to God's will. This was the core of
Sharman's belief and, as we shall see, continued to be the central idea and driving force
in the work of Harry and Emilia Rathbun. To commit themselves to God's will, individuals
had to first abdicate their own will "not in favor of another person, but to some
force worthy of taking command." The commitment, when it
was made, was to be total, without reservation. The person making the decision had to
pledge "that from this particular, concrete instant, until death or the voluntary
revocation of the decision, I will do what I believe to be the will of God, regardless of
Sharman justified his call for the destruction of the individual will
and the dedication to God's will with the text of Luke 17:33: "He that seeketh to
gain his life shall lose it, and he that loseth his life shall find it." Sharman
interpreted the idea of "loss of life" as meaning "loss of will." The
consequences of surrendering to the will of God were considerable and worth quoting at
Absence of conflict; ease, freedom, spontaneity; richness and variety
of outlook; confidence, fearlessness; sense of unafraidness of challenge; disregard of
anything the universe can do to me, knowing that neither people nor the universe can
really touch me; quickening of ethical sensitivity, but without morbidity; absence of
self-scrutiny and self-examination, because one has gotten away from an evaluation of
specific acts and is moving in an area of peace; passage from intellectual obscurity and
mistiness into clarity, luminosity; a hold upon an Ariadne's thread that leads you thru
all the mazes; possession of outlook or viewpoint that lights every area, economic,
philosophical or sociological; where one can see the wanderings of others and why they
have gotten off the track; observations of intellectual disciplines; change of a sense of
values which makes other things look stupid; hard tasks become easy; death of battle
within, elimination of conflicts of drives, impulses, elemental human things.
Sharman concluded this catalog of treasures by assuring his audience,
"I would not overdraw this picture for anything; it would be blasphemy." Sharman did not claim that the committed person would exhibit
perfect conductâsuch perfection was unattainable. He did, however, believe
that although perfect behavior was impossible, perfect attitude was not, and the religious
person could do no less.
Sharman sometimes used the word transformation to describe the
process of commitment. In doing so he came very close to describing what would usually be
called a conversion experience, although he and his followers carefully avoided that term.
Referring to the process as "purgation" in a statement that probably dates from
the mid-1940s, Sharman said that the term did "not necessarily refer to religious
conversion" (although that possibility apparently remained open). It was, he said,
"merely the effect of opening the windows of one's moral life and allowing the
freshening breezes of an exacting morality to sweep away the cobwebs." Just how the act of commitment differed from conversion remained
somewhat obscure in Sharman's writings, but he passed on to the Rathbuns the understanding
that a specific decision had to be made before a person could be truly religious. People
who made the kind of decision Sharman advocated would be willing to undergo not only
discomfort but even torture and death before they would ever again put their will ahead of
God's. Sharman told his students that one must be willing to "face the worst possible
thing that one can conceive and then ask: would I go thru that for the right? If there is
no hesitation, then one is ready to make the commitment." The committed person would
face crucifixion just as Jesus did. The committed person would place God's will ahead of
the marriage vow, ahead of the family, and ahead of material wealth.
This uncompromising expectation that truly religious people would totally subjugate
themselves to the will of God, even at some great personal sacrifice, would continue as
one of the core values in the movement as it evolved in the Rathbun era.
When it came to applying the idea of commitment to the outside world,
Sharman was even less forthcoming than his usually reticent norm. He appears to have
avoided most political and social issues on the grounds that transformation of the
individual was a necessary precondition to social change. Despite his business background,
Sharman seems to have been sympathetic to social reform (certainly many, if not most of
his students were). One of his students quotes him as saying, "A Christian has got to
be a social radical," and although he warned his students not to confuse society with
the Kingdom of God, a social- gospel position was evident when he said, "religion has
been the genetic force in the most significant social progress."
The only systematic exposition of Sharman's views on the relationship
between religion and politics appeared in a brief memo he wrote in November 1936. The
circumstances that prompted this position paper are obscure, but it is clear that Sharman
did not want his ideas on the subject disseminated. The memo was marked "STRICTLY
PRIVATE âNeither to be printed nor any copy made."
In the paper Sharman sought to define the appropriate role of the "Christian
Left," among whom he obviously counted himself.
According to Sharman, the first function of the Christian left was to
"rediscover and recreate Christianity as a determining force in the contemporary
world." Then, switching from the third to the first person, he said, "we have to
work at a level that is above the political and social through inclusion of it."
Sharman explicitly rejected the idea that his work was political in any way: "If we
identify our task with the political one . . . then we should cut religion out entirely,
and join in the most direct political effort in an effective political fashion."
Having divorced religion from politics, Sharman said that his own and
his followers' task was "the religious criticism of religion," that could
"only be done through our own religious experience." This meant they had to
fight against "nearly all modern religion," because it was based on the belief
in "another world and immortality," and therefore had its central reference
point "outside this world of contemporary existence." It also meant, however,
they had to fight against the denial of all religion. Sharman distinguished between
"European religions" and true Christianity. The latter presumably was the
religion that grew out of the scientific study of the Records, whereas the former was an
accumulation of historical accretions having little to do with Jesus. Thus Sharman was
attempting to extricate himself from what he perceived to be the Marxist error of throwing
out the baby of true Christianity with the bathwater of "European religion." He
admitted that the Marxists were right in rejecting religion based on "another world
and immortality." If that were all religion involved, then he believed that he and
his group would have no reason for existing and that they might as well "accept
atheism and join the communist party." But of course, he believed that the Marxist
criticism was not fully correct, and that his role in the Christian left was to tease out
true Christianity from the obscuring myths that had grown up around
itâ"To rediscover Christ and the revelation of truth in him in our own
contemporary communal experience."
It seems clear that Sharman was not insensitive to the social
implications of his work. He simply did not perceive his role as furthering the efforts of
political reform, although he presumably had no objection to others doing so. Whatever
objections he may have had to Marxism were apparently based less on its political goals
than on its opposition to all religion, and he found the "left wing" label
congenial enough to apply it to himself, even if only in the religious sphere. Emilia
Rathbun remembers that her exposure to Sharman caused her to begin thinking about
political issues and spurred her, at least briefly, to think of herself as a socialist.
Although her flirtation with the political left was fleeting, she said she never
understood how anyone could go through a Sharman seminar and remain a Republican. Although Sharman never defined the relationship between personal
transformation and social action, many of his students took it upon themselves to apply
their new values in the social sphere. Sharman, however, never encouraged such action and
always believed that personal transformation was the first priority. Although they were a
bit more willing than Sharman to address social problems directly, the Rathbuns shared his
reluctance to become politically involved.
Inheriting the Sharman Tradition
In 1933 Sharman left his position at Pendle Hill and
"retired" to Carmel, California. He nevertheless continued to lead Records
seminars for another ten years. The center for much of his work in this last period of his
active career was Camp Minnesing. Sharman first leased this rural retreat in Ontario's
Algonquin Provincial Park from the Canadian National Railroad in 1925 after spending two
summers at nearby Bon Echo. He later purchased it and held seminars there every summer
until 1945. Lack of paved roads in the park meant that seminar
participants had to come by railroad and a ten-mile canoe trip before they reached the
seven cedar-log lodges and seven cabins that made up the compound.
It was a place, explained Sharman, where nothing was "seen or heard of railways,
automobiles, telephones or radios for the period of the Seminar."
Afternoons in this rustic setting were set aside for unstructured recreation, but mornings
were devoted to the intensive study of the Records. It was there that he conducted his
six-week "Jesus as Teacher" summer seminars, and it was there that the plans
were laidâor perhaps waylaidâto continue Sharman's work when he
finally gave up his active participation.
Over the years Sharman had retained his close ties to the Student
Christian Movement of Canada, and the SCM sponsored the summer seminars until 1933. For
both the summer seminars at Minnesing and winter meetings at various college locations,
Sharman did most of the organizing, picked up most of the expenses, and led the Records
study groups by himself. On several occasions he thought about formalizing his efforts and
in 1923 actually drew up a plan for a Records study fraternity to be called Theta Pi
Theta. Although the fraternity never materialized, Sharman did
adopt the Greek letter designation Alpha Psi Zeta to refer to the faculty members in
Canada and the United States who worked with him in conducting Records seminars. Planned
in 1923 and incorporated in 1928, Alpha Psi Zeta was not a fraternity. Sharman called it a
"foundation," but it wasn't that either, at least when he first began using the
term in the 1920s. Besides not being a foundation, Alpha Psi Zeta was "not an
organization, not a society open or secret, not a movement, not a fellowship, not a body
of people with a set of beliefs." It was, said Sharman, "a group of college and
university faculty members who are interested in the unfettered and thorough study, the
adequate understanding, and the sound evaluation of Jesus of Nazareth within the academic
community." Continuing his penchant for Greek, and
confusing nomenclature even more, Sharman used the first and last letters of Jesus' Greek
name, Iota Sigma, to refer to the seminars themselves.
Despite all the appearances of organization, Sharman shied away from
establishing any formal structure that would further his work. He clearly felt great
ambivalence toward the issue of organization. He once told Harry Rathbun, "All you
need to do to kill anything is organize it. Then it will roll on long after it is
dead." Nevertheless, there were several isolated instances
of organized efforts to spread the Sharman method. Seminar participants were always
encouraged to organize their own Records study groups at their home institutions, and for
three years, from 1931 to 1933, the Alpha Psi Zeta Foundation did encourage two women to
start new groups at colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area. These two women, Elizabeth
Boyden and Frances Warneke, were the people who introduced Emilia Rathbun to the Sharman
method. Other Sharman disciples maintained an informal network,
but with the exception of a brief unsuccessful experiment at the very end of his career,
Sharman never tried to extend his mission beyond his own efforts.
Although Sharman never formalized his activity, his students were
eager to preserve the tradition, so in the summer of 1944 a group of veteran
"Minnesingers" drew up tentative plans to create a permanent organization that
would carry on Sharman's work. They concluded that although it was sympathetic to their
purpose, the SCM was not going to sponsor Records seminars and that if they wanted to
further the cause they would have to do so with their own local units.
They adopted the name Alpha Psi Zeta Foundation that Sharman had been using since the
1920s and appointed a "Central Group" to continue developing plans through the
winter. As was his wont, Sharman remained aloof from the
organizational discussions, in his own words, contributing "not even the extreme
minimum of nothing." Nevertheless he was plainly pleased at the direction the group
took, saying to them, "you have not only my approval but my commendation in the
strongest possible terms."
Despite adoption of a name and the creation of an administrative body,
the group was still caught in the same bind that had trapped Sharman a decade before: they
wanted to have the benefits of organization without actually becoming an organization. One
member of the Central Group, Glenn Olds, articulated this ambivalence when he wrote that
the foundation was not an institution. If it were, he said, he would be against it,
presumably because he, like most of the others, did not want to set up a group that would
appear to compete with the YMCA, the Student Christian Movement, or any other preexisting
Christian organization, or that might even become a sect that would compete with mainline
churches. He nevertheless described what, by almost any standard, was in fact a formal
organizational structure involving material, method, leadership, participation, and
membership. Although it would be an open, nonexclusive kind of
group whose only purpose would be to conduct seminars in the Sharman tradition, it would
necessarily be a structured association with all of the bureaucracy attendant on such a
Most of Alpha Psi Zeta Foundation's Central Group met during the 1944
Christmas holiday and composed a draft letter describing the new direction and calling on
seminar alumni to join the newly constituted foundation. The announcement was written by
Sharman disciple Earl Willmott who had agreed to be in charge of the central office. In
the draft, Willmott delightedly explained that Sharman had done nothing to promote the
group, patiently trusting "the living vitality of the Word to work in us and others
until a demand was felt." Yet when the group presented its
idea to Sharman he was so pleased that he gave them Camp Minnesing, saying "If you
will use it for this one purpose; the study of the memorabilia about Jesus, the Camp is
yours." Although it appeared that the work of Henry B.
Sharman had finally found an institutionalized means to perpetuate itself, it was never to
Four days after he mailed the draft to the others in the Central Group,
Willmott received a telegram from Harry Rathbun informing the Central Group that Sharman
would neither lead the 1945 summer seminar nor give the group his mailing list. Instead,
according to Rathbun, Sharman was giving his "wholehearted cooperation" to a
"more courageous and revolutionary program . . . based upon and requiring the total
commitment central in the religion of Jesus." Rathbun asked the Central Group to give
him and Emilia authorization to continue planning with Sharman for a "program of
acting large and imaginative enough to meet the demands of the crisis of our time."
The reaction of the Central Group was one of consternation and
confusion. Willmott feared that Sharman was planning to make commitment a precondition for
membership to the foundation and that, worried Willmott, would make it a sect. Others were
concerned that Sharman had reached a dramatic conclusion on his own, ignoring the group
process that had been so fruitful in the past. Finally, it was pointed out that the
language of the telegram implied that the foundation could change the world. One critic
commented that he had been working on what he could do for himself and he did not consider
himself a great evangelist with a vision of transforming the world. "I don't see
myself a John R. Mott, and I don't think the rest of us are John R. Motts either," he
But the formidable model of evangelist John R. Mott did not scare the
Rathbuns or their supporters. One of them conceded, "I realize none of us are John R.
Motts," but, he continued, "neither was the John R. Mott we know until he
launched forth to do the impossible ." They
too were ready to do the impossible and become John R. Motts in the process. In a letter
to Willmott, Harry reported Emilia's reaction to the draft letter plans for the new
foundation: "That won't do! It won't work. There's nothing in that program to build a
fire under people. If we think we've got the answer to the absolutely critical need of
these times, we've got to get out and sell it to people in such a way as to set them on
The project the Rathbuns had in mind was ambitious beyond anything
previously envisioned by Sharman or his followers, presaging both the style and content of
the Creative Initiative movement. First, Willmott was correct in his assumption that
commitment was to be a precondition of membership. Harry and Emilia suggested that the
group "invite promising people to come to Minnesing the coming summer on the basis of
their unqualified adoption of the way of life taught by Jesus."
Second, the Rathbuns were not interested in merely helping individuals achieve personal
understanding. They also believed that they had an opportunity for a "large-scale
program of 'selling' to the world the religion which can save it."
Here then, for the first time, is a clear expression of the sectarian messianic impulse in
the Rathbuns' work. They perceived the world in crisis and they believed that they knew
what needed to be done to save it.
To the charge that a precondition of commitment would be exclusionary,
Ralph Odom, one of the Rathbun allies, countered that "this is not to 'exclude'
anyoneâit is to invite all to meet the conditions of mature religion."
As though to concede the solipsistic nature of his own argument, however, he then went on
to wonder "if perhaps we ought not be less fearful of being termed 'a sect.' "
Like Emilia and Harry, Odom was unembarrassed by the profound religious implications of
his position. He believed they had "a truth too significant to place in the old wine
skins of customary organizational technique and procedure." Indeed, he believed that
the times were ripe for a "new denomination, a new religion (1900 years old)
with real vitality in a pagan world in which most of organised religion is dead
." Although it would be thirty years before the Rathbuns
would proclaim themselves members of a new religion, the seeds were already germinating in
In language that would become typical of the Rathbuns' uncompromising
demand for complete dedication to the cause, Harry wrote, "Perhaps such a renewed and
revitalized commitment to the will of God may mean for most of us who are members of the
Central Group the giving up of our present jobs for a yearâmaybe
permanentlyâand making this our sole jobâfor the year and
perhaps the rest of our lives." Harry said that he was willing to ask for a leave of
absence for the following year and he challenged the rest of the group to do likewise.
"Are we serious about it?" he asked. "Are we really willing to sell all? Do
we truly believe we have the answer to a desperately sick world's troubles?" The
questions were obviously rhetorical. The answer was, "If we do, must we not face
these implications and lay plans on a vastly greater scale than those we were thinking of
as our first steps?"
Dryden Phelps, another member of the Central Group, came toCalifornia on
personal business in early 1945 and had a chance to talk directly with the Rathbuns and
Sharman. His report to the group makes it clear that Harry and Emilia, not Sharman, were
the originators of the new plan. Emilia foresaw a community "on a communistic basis
of religiously wholly committed people who have literally 'sold all' " and moved to a
place where they could live and train others who in turn would go out into the world to
spread the Sharman message and technique. She even suggested that this new community might
be located near Trabuco in Southern California where Gerald Heard, a religious philosopher
with whom both Rathbuns had studied in the mid-1930s and early 1940s, had his center. Trabuco College, where followers of Heard lived and learned to
practice his religious ideas, became something of a model for the Rathbuns, and they would
refer to it constantly in their planning discussions.
Citing that bible of the social gospel movement, Walter Rauschenbusch's Christianity
and the Social Crisis, Phelps attacked the basic premise of the Rathbuns' plan. He
recalled that for two thousand years the finest minds of Christianity had withdrawn from
the world to form elite communities, thus removing themselves from the very environment
where they were most needed. Rather than try to provide a "solution by example,"
Phelps advocated bringing "the impact of Jesus to others through the seminar method,
AND CONCURRENTLY to cooperate with men and women of good will and intelligence the world
over to discover the generic causes of world chaos, and cooperate with them to eliminate
those causes by the creation of a cooperative, noncompetitive society." Phelps's references to a "cooperative, noncompetitive
society" reflected his distinctly left-wing social gospel perspective. It was his
belief that the reconstruction of society could not wait until large numbers of people had
become committed to the religion of Jesus. Rather those with religious motivation had to
cooperate with others motivated by economics and politics to work for a better world. Only
in a new and decent society, he wrote, was it possible that "the Kingdom of God will
have some chance of growth and survival."
At a philosophical level, therefore, the group was split by the classic
division between those who were homocentric, believing social reality derived from the
ideas of individuals, and those who were sociocentric, believing that socioeconomic
reality gave rise to individual beliefs. People with a homocentric outlook focus on the
individual. For some, the homocentric focus is so narrow that it excludes the world beyond
the single person. For others such an individualized focus is a way of influ- encing the
collective whole. Sociocentrics approach the issue from the other end. They see the
individual as more of a product than a component. For them it is not the collective sum of
individuals who make up the social whole, but rather it is the ecology of the
socioeconomic culture that molds the individual.
Within the context of religion, the homocentric-sociocentric split
produces two very different sets of attitudes and activities. Religious homocentrics tend
to be exclusive, believing that God's will can only be affected by those who have a
special understanding, knowledge, or insight. At its purest, religious homocentrism holds
individual salvation as the sole purpose of belief and regards the social implications of
personal belief as irrelevant. Slightly less extreme are those religious homocentrics who
do want to change society and believe the way to do so is by converting individuals to a
new set of beliefs that lead to a new way of life. For them social change is the
cumulative result of a large number of individual changes. They do not seek to force
people to alter their behavior through the coercion of legal force, but rather to convert
the individual to right thought and belief with the confidence that a good society will
Sociocentric religious reformers, by contrast, see their role as getting
out among and cooperating with others who share their goals, if not necessarily their
values. They tend to place much greater stress on political action and advocate political
solutions to social problems. Sociocentric reformers with a strong religious motivation
adhere to what in America has come to be called the social gospel. Moving out into the
world beyond the church, social gospelers seek to bring about change (reform or
revolutionary) that will implement their idea of a just society. Individual conversion is
still seen as a desirable goal, but not as a necessary precondition for genuine change.
Indeed, a change in social conditions is frequently viewed as an important prerequisite
for any change in the individual. Liberated from the oppression, corruption, and
exploitation of the preexisting society, individual human beings would be free to realize
their creative and spiritual potential.
The concept of religious community had a strong influence on the
Rathbuns' position in the homocentric-sociocentric dichotomy. They always perceived
themselves as part of a community of believers distinct from the rest of society, and they
frequently talked of a physically discrete community as well. Homocentrics are much more
likely than sociocentrics to separate themselves into a community of believers. Be- cause
their core value does not emphasize changing the world at large, they sacrifice little by
withdrawing from it.
Homocentrics who divorce themselves more or less completely from the
outside world when they move into communities, like the Shakers or the Amish, create an
isolated society where they can live in an environment of mutual support with little
regard for what might be going on in the rest of the world. Other communal homocentrics,
like the Mormons and many political communitarians, use their community either as a base
for missionary activity or as an example that they hope others will follow.
The Rathbuns fell into this last category. They hoped to establish a
base in which believers could "live the life" nurtured by others who share their
values. But it would not be a cloistered existence. The Rathbuns' projected community
would be a school where people could learn about their beliefs and the techniques to be
used to spread the word to others. It would be a place where believers could find
practical as well as spiritual support, and from which they could venture into the outside
world to spread the message. Unlike "pure" homocentrics who wish only to be left
alone to lead a religious life, the Rathbuns always felt a compelling obligation to get as
many people as possible to see the future of humankind as they saw it. Their homocentric
approach was based on the ideal of saving the earth by awakening people to the dangers
that faced them and getting them to change their religious values.
There were actually three factions in the Central Group. The most
conservative were the pure homocentrics who had close ties to the mainline churches and
felt that Sharman's work should be aimed solely at the individual, taking no position at
all on broader social issues. The other two factions both believed they should work to
create the Kingdom of God on earth. The sociocentrics, led by Willmott and Phelps, thought
the good society could be created through political action with the help of converted
people. The Rathbuns also wanted to create the good society, but their method was a
synthesis of the first two positions. Like the pure homocentrics they wanted to
concentrate their effort on converting individuals, but, like the sociocentrics, they
hoped their actions would lead to major changes in society.
Thus the stage was set for a confrontation at Camp Minnesing in the
summer of 1945 when, as it turned out, the debate was greatly complicated by the issue of
communism. For Minnesingers, communism was inevitably linked with China because many of
them had close personal ties with that country. Emilia's sister Elena had married Felix
Greene, the sympathetic chronicler of the Chinese Communist revolution.
Sharman's wife, Abbie, had been born in Hangchow where her parents were missionaries. The
Sharmans visited China in 1922 as the Canadian delegates of the SCM to the World Student
Christian Federation Meeting in Beijing, and there the president of Yenching University,
an old SVM colleague, invited Sharman to join the faculty. Sharman was a visiting
professor of history in the Department of Religion from 1926 to 1929.
Finally, both Earl Willmott and Dryden Phelps had been missionaries in China before the
war and would return at the war's end.
Their personal experience in China, and their objection to Marxist
atheism, made both Sharmans unsympathetic to the Chinese Communist revolution, but the
same was not true for Willmott and Phelps. The two younger men had taught together at West
China University, an interdenominational school in Chengdu where Willmott had introduced
Phelps to the Sharman approach. The two of them subsequently held Records seminars using
Sharman's books, which they had translated into Chinese. Harry described Phelps as
"an attractive, dynamic, powerful man" whom Sharman saw as his "St.
Paul" and as the son he never had. Perhaps because he
himself was so assiduously nonpolitical, or perhaps because he did not want to see that
the man to whom he was closest was a political radical, Sharman does not appear to have
realized that his two disciples were sympathetic to the Communist revolution in China
until the issue was brought to a head by others.
The Confrontation at "Minnesing'45"
Rather than launching a new organization to promote Records seminars
as originally planned, "Minnesing'45" turned into a confrontation between two
groups with very different visions of the future of Sharman's work. Although they are
brief, the minutes of these meetings vividly depict the clash between the Rathbuns' goal
of a community of believers with selective entry and the Phelps-Willmott group's desire
for a more open and decentralized structure.
At the very first meeting of the summer, the Rathbuns suggested that
they expand beyond the academy to target people through churches and youth groups. Harry
and Emilia had begun to doubt the receptiveness of students, whom they viewed as being
even more conservative than their parents and infested "with the same germ of
intellectual smugness which is deadly with the faculty."
Furthermore, students and faculty would be less likely to move into the separate community
that they envisioned. Once more those worried about the Rathbun approach raised the
caution that the group not become a cult. They did not want an organization that one had
to become a member of. They believed that the group's only purpose was to promote the
study of Jesus. The issue was joined again on the second day when "long, and at
points heated" discussions took place on the question of who should be allowed into
the foundation. The Phelps-Willmott faction, on the one hand, argued that the group
"should be open to all who affirmed their intention to participate in the work of the
F[oundation] for its specific purpose." The Rathbuns and their allies, on the other
hand, "felt there should be definite restrictionâpreferably to those who
affirmed their commitment to God."
By the second week of argument tempers were frayed, goodwill had
evaporated, and Camp Minnesing was a hotbed of rumors. Much of the actual debate focused
on the peripheral issue of whether or not to have a full-time paid secretary. Earl
Willmott was the existing secretary, so arguing over the position allowed the factions to
use it as a symbolic way to address the deeper issues of inclusive versus exclusive
membership and communism. Unable to reach any agreement, the feuding factions finally
called a conference between Sharman and a select group of senior people. There, the
pseudo-issue of organization was put aside and the real issue of communism finally broke
into the open. Willmott accused the Rathbuns and their supporters of spreading a story
that quoted Phelps as saying, "Earl and I lead Records groups to open students minds
so that they will be ready for communism." Phelps denied
ever having used these words. Sharman, however, rejected the demurer saying that, whatever
his exact words, Phelps had given a lot of people the impression that he agreed with the
gist of the statement. Sharman said that he had received "floods of letters"
from Canada's Maritime Provinces after a trip there by Willmott asking if the foundation
"was interested in Jesus or in communism."
Willmott and Phelps responded with a defense of their belief that
religion could not be isolated from the social situation. They then counterattacked by
charging that Emilia had said she would "wreck the foundation" if she did not
get her way. Emilia, who had been the major source of the accusations against Willmott and
Phelps, did not deny their charge, but explained that she had meant to act only if Phelps
tried to use the group to spread communism. Unpleasantness
reigned and "for some time aspersions and recriminations were flying back and forth.
There were many slurs and slams about fallible memories." Attempts to steer the
course of discussion back to the administrative issue again foundered on the Communist
issue. Harry Rathbun finally admitted that he was as much opposed to Earl Willmott as he
was to the idea of a central secretary, and Willmott admitted that he had "spoken of
the Chinese Communists with approbation" but still denied he had ever advocated
Finally, after six weeks of bickering, Sharman stepped in to put an end
to the debate. He called off the Records seminar that he had been leading during the hours
when people were not engaged in the political battle and roundly chastised everybody for
the unseemly display of wrangling. The angry and dispirited leader was so appalled at
"the willingness to impugn, to charge, to repeat, to go to others and report
suspicions, sheer suspicions, of plots, maneuvering, politics," that he declared
himself sapped of the will to carry on. Instead of holding additional Records meetings
Sharman ordered the members of the group to go off by themselves and think about how they
had contributed to the rancorous confrontation.
Because the group was unable, or unwilling, to resolve the underlying
conflict between the homocentric, community-oriented position of the Rathbuns, and the
sociocentric, Communist-tainted position of Phelps and Willmott, the confrontation finally
played itself out on the incidental question of organization. Although he appears to have
had the support of a majority of the younger people, opposition from the Rathbuns and
other senior people forced Willmott to tender his resignation both as secretary and as a
member of the Central Group. The secretary job then went to Harry Rathbun. With Sharman
already living in Carmel, close to the Rathbuns' Palo Alto home, Harry's new prominence in
the group assured that the line of succession would pass to him (and Emilia) and not to
the social activists.
As secretary, Harry Rathbun did not assume the kind of aggressive role
that either Phelps or Willmott would have. They were, after all, trained and experienced
missionaries who had both the drive and the ability to organize. Indeed, despite their
unhappy experience at Minnesing, Phelps and Willmott continued to be active in promoting
Records study, even meeting with others (not including the Rathbuns) to put together a
"Leaders' Handbook." But, because they returned to
China, Sharman's work remained only loosely organized and, although Sharman himself was
increasingly pleased by the Records study that Harry was leading in Palo Alto, no serious
attempts were made to maintain any regular contact among the many Records study groups in
the United States and Canada. Without centralized leadership
and with no institutional structure, whatever coherence there had been to Sharman's work
The work in China effectively ended a few years after the Communist
victory in 1949. Dryden Phelps remained in the People's Republic of China until 1952 when
he was recalled by the American Baptist Foreign Missions Board for writing a public letter
that called the Chinese Communist revolution "the most profoundly religious Christian
experience I have ever been through." Like Phelps,
Willmott was one of a group of missionaries (all influenced by the Sharman method) who
were invited to stay on in China by the Communist government.
When Willmott finally left with the last of the western missionaries in 1952, he crossed
the border wearing a blue cotton peasant suit and had his picture taken giving the
clenched-fist Communist salute.
Records study groups in at least eight other nations besides the United
States and Canada continued for some time after World War II. Sharman protÃ©gÃ©s were
active in a number of Canadian colleges through the 1960s, and "in the United States
there were centers of Records study in the east associated with the Quaker facility at
Pendle Hill. In California, Elizabeth B. Howes, one of the
women who originally introduced the Rathbuns to Sharman, continued to run Records seminars
through her Guild for Psychological Studies. But it was Harry
and Emilia Rathbun's work that was destined to grow into an entirely new nationwide
Harry and Emilia
Over a period of sixteen years, from 1946 to 1962, the Rathbuns slowly
changed their movement from a Bible study group in the Sharman tradition to a de facto
religious sect. The transition took place because Harry and Emilia Rathbun wished to
create a permanent organization for which Sharman's work was a poor model. Assiduously
nonsectarian, Sharman had rejected any kind of institutionalization for his movement. The
Rathbuns, however, had a different vision. Rather than a stage through which people
passed, they saw their movement as a permanent affiliation. In order to keep people in the
organization they had to find a new source of members other than students, all of whom
moved on after they graduated. Adults, by contrast, had roots in the community and could
be counted on for more than a few years, but only if they could be kept involved. New
courses were developed to provide members with a continuing variety of experiences, and
new support systems emerged to give the participants the psychological and practical
assistance necessary for continued participation.
Partially by design and partially by force of circumstances, the
Rathbuns developed a structured social environment for group members. Their approach, like
Sharman's, was still basically homocentric, but a permanent religious community emerged to
support the individual transformations. The Rathbun group began to develop its own
ideology that varied significantly from mainstream social and religious thought. It sought
the primary loyalty of its members, weakening their ties to the churches; it developed its
own organizational structure with a leadership of people who were perceived as spiritually
advanced; and, most important, it began to provide participants with programs that
compensated for the social and psychological cost incurred when they joined a group that
held nontraditional beliefs.
Despite some significant differences in their leadership styles, there
were a number of remarkable parallels in the lives of Harry Rathbun and Henry B. Sharman.
Both were trained in the sciences. Both had brief careers in business and labor
arbitration, and both ultimately saw themselves as teachers whose calling it was to spread
the understanding of Jesus in the academy. Both also had very strong and independent wives
who gave them a great deal of support in their missions. Emilia Rathbun, however, was much
more an active partner to Harry than Abbie Lyon Sharman had been to Henry Sharman. And in
the long run Emilia's role proved to be even more decisive than Harry's, for it was she
who gave Sequoia Seminar the spiritual leadership that changed it from a group study of
religion into a self-proclaimed new religion.
Harry Rathbun's ancestors had settled in Rhode Island in the colonial
period and over the course of the next five generations moved steadily westward to Ohio,
Iowa, South Dakota (where Harry was born), and California (where his children Juana Beth
and Richard were born). At the time of his birth Harry's parents lived in Mitchell in the
Dakota Territory, where his father owned a grocery. He had
identical twin brothers nine years older than he and a sister four years younger. Harry
remembers being a timid child, somewhat intimidated by his older brothers who were both
rather troublesome, a fact that Harry believes accounts for the nine-year gap between
their birth and his. Indeed, his shyness was acute. He would never recite his elocution
pieces for family guests and, when a Sunday school teacher assigned him a part in the
Christmas play, he refused to go back for six months. Despite the Christmas play trauma,
Sunday school proved to be of great importance to Harry's spiritual development. Although
neither of his parents was a regular churchgoer, they sent him to Methodist Sunday school
and reared him with what Harry called "a strict Protestant ethic." Harry never
questioned the basic validity of the values taught by the Methodist
churchâcontinuing to adhere, for example, to the non-drinking pledge he had
signed as a youth even after he left the church.
When he was thirteen, a favorite Sunday school teacher invited a group
of young men to join the church formally. Although he would have been too shy to make a
public profession of faith on his own, in the security of the group he joined the church
at the Easter service. The collective nature of the act did not diminish its importance to
Harry. He understood his action as a public commitment to the idea that he would do his
best to do what was right. He feared, however, that this might oblige him to be a minister
or a missionary, and he was not at all sure how, given his shyness, he could be either.
But he reasoned that God would not ask him to be anything that God had not equipped him to
Harry understood his new religious commitment to mean that he had to
take his school work more seriously, which he did. But this too raised a serious problem.
In his small-town high school the bright and hard-working young man quickly moved to the
head of his class, and as early as his freshman year he realized that if he continued to
do well he would graduate as the class valedictorian. For four years he lived in constant
dread of the day when he would have to get up before the commencement audience and speak,
all alone, in public.
The feared day finally arrived, and Harry had carefully prepared an
address inspired by the antiwar ideas of Stanford University president David Starr Jordan.
The young scholar was somewhat nonplussed when the principal speaker, who preceded him,
also chose peace as his topic. Nevertheless, he forged ahead with his memorized speech
explaining that war was the result of selfishness and suggesting that international
disputes be settled through arbitration enforced by a body of international police. It was
an unduly optimistic talk, coming just three years before the outbreak of the First World
War, but the ideas of peace, rational settlement of disputes, and the necessity of
worldwide cooperation were already present in the mind of the seventeen-year-old youth.
After Harry's graduation his father decided to retire and move to Los
Angeles, where the family lived for several months. Following the footsteps of an older
brother who had gone to MIT, Harry wanted to become an engineer. He had seen the
introduction of the first telephone and the first electric light into his hometown and
reasoned that engineers would be in high demand as this new technology continued to grow.
His father had to return to South Dakota to finish up some business, and Harry persuaded
him to move the family to San Jose so that he could attend Stanford University and live at
home with his mother and sister while his father was gone. Stanford was only twenty years
old and still tuition-free when Harry presented himself to the director of admissions one
morning in September of 1912. On the strength of his high school record and a flowery
letter of recommendation from his principal, he was admitted to the class of 1916 that
He received his degree in mechanical engineering (electrical engineering
was not yet a separate discipline) and spent the war years working for the Federal
Telegraph Company designing high-power transmitters for the navy. Because the firm
designated him as "essential" he was exempt from the draftâand
subject to a certain amount of social opprobrium as a "slacker." Despite the
antiwar sentiments of his valedictory he supported the conflict and was proud of his
civilian role in the war effort. Even though the movement he founded eventually became
Beyond War, an organization opposing all violent conflict, Harry was never a pacifist. He
supported both World Wars, although there is some indication that he was influenced by
Emilia's antiwar sentiments just before America's entry into World War II.
Although he went back to Stanford after the war to get his engineer's
degree (a postgraduate degree), he had serious doubts about his abilities in this field.
He was not very good with his hands and always did poorly in machine shop and in other
direct applications of theoretical knowledge. He was spared the need to test his skills in
the field when he was offered an administrative position with the Colin B. Kennedy
Company, a new San Francisco firm that was manufacturing radio receivers. He stayed with
the Kennedy Company until it folded in 1926, moving with it to St. Louis and working
variously as treasurer, general manager, and vice-president. When the owners liquidated
the firm in the face of the new RCA patent pool, Harry decided to pursue his interest in
the interaction of business and the law and, putting aside his engineering skills, he took
his profits from the sale of the firm and returned to Stanford to enter law school.
By the time he graduated from law school in 1929, Harry Rathbun was
thirty-three years old and ready to start an entirely new life. But before he could launch
his legal career he was offered a position on the Stanford faculty. A popular business law
professor had quit to go into private practice, and the dean asked Harry if he would take
over the position for a year while they conducted a full search. He did, and on the
strength of his business experience was appointed to the position full time in 1930.
Although he passed the California Bar, Harry never practiced law and spent his entire
professional career until his retirement in 1959 on the faculty of the Stanford Law
The courses that Harry taught were all intended for undergraduates and
graduate business students. He never taught a regular course to law students except during
summer school and during the World War II teacher shortage. He called his courses,
"an approach to law for the layman." Harry's
scholarly accomplishments were modest. He had one contract to do a textbook on business
law but abandoned that project when he and the publisher could not agree on the content.
Then as now, being a good teacher was only part of what was expected from university
professors. Harry was denied raises for focusing on Jesus when the university thought he
should have been doing scholarly research. One year, when both of his deans (law and
business) asked the acting president to give him a long-delayed raise, the president
responded, "No, not while Rathbun is wasting so much time on religion." His lack of scholarly activity meant that he was constantly passed
over for merit pay increases, and he eventually resigned himself to the fact that he would
never make as much as his more widely published colleagues. Like many other popular but
low-paid faculty members he periodically fed his resentment by figuring out how much more
the university was making from the tuition in his large classes than it was paying him.
Yet what Harry lacked in scholarly accomplishments, he more than made up
for in teaching success. By all reports he was a gifted and widely loved teacher both in
the classroom and in his religious work. He had a deep and genuine commitment to the
well-being of his students. He and Emilia constantly had students to their home for coffee
and dinner, and even after Harry's retirement the Rathbuns were among the first faculty
couples to occupy faculty quarters in the Stanford fraternity clusters in 1962. Their children, who both attended Stanford, commented later how
surprised they were to have never once been invited to a faculty home during their
undergraduate years, wrongly assuming that all professors were as generous with their
hospitality as their parents had been.
Reading the Stanford Daily one day toward the end of the spring
term in 1937, Harry came across a column in which the student author complained, "We
who are about to graduate are not individuals living our lives as we should have taught
ourselves to live. We are stereotyped forms cast in the shape of that outworn likeness of
a sacrosanct individual called the American college student." Harry was struck by the
despair of the column, by the hopelessness of a student who after four years of a Stanford
education could write, "I'm not looking forward to June. Personally I'm scared to
death." Mulling over the implications of the column,
Harry decided not to give his planned final lecture in Business Law that day, but instead
to address himself to the column. It was, he admitted, a sermon in which he told the class
that the meaning of life was up to them. Just as nobody else could eat their breakfasts
for them, nobody else could save their souls for them. He told them they had to find the
meaning of life for themselves, and that by finding their destinies they would be saving
their souls. The class gave him a standing ovation that continued for the whole time it
took him to walk out of the classroom, across the inner quad, and to his office in the law
school. That began a tradition that lasted for twenty-five years during which Harry ended
every course with the same talk. The lecture was so popular that students brought their
friends and it had to be moved from the regular classroom to a large auditorium.
In 1950, at the invitation of Life magazine, the student
government named Harry one of two "great teachers" on the Stanford campus. In
his final year of teaching in 1959, the administration moved his class to the
seventeen-hundred-seat Memorial Auditorium, and when he retired they retired his business
law course along with him.
Harry's inspirational teaching was not limited to the academic
classroom. Alumni of his Jesus as Teacher seminars are virtually unanimous in remembering
him as an outstanding teacher and group leader. Unlike the stiff and forbidding Henry B.
Sharman, Harry Rathbun was much more approachable and inspired love as well as respect.
Writing to Sharman, a 1946 seminar participant called Harry "one of the finest
teachers that is or has ever been our privilege to study under."
Harry's religious journey had begun with his Methodist Sunday school
experience. Although he adhered to his childhood precepts of morality thoughout his life,
he had increasing problems with creedal theology. The first seeds of doubt had been sown
in high school when he studied comparative religion and realized that other people
believed as fervently as he that their religions were as true as his, and he wondered how
one could know who was right. As an undergraduate at Stanford he attended the San Jose
Methodist church but found that he was caught in a trap of his own honesty. At age
thirteen, upon joining the church, he had pledged to be truthful. Yet each church service
started out with a recitation of the Apostle's Creed, certain parts of which he did not
believe. Thus by attending church and reciting the creed he was lying. Although it was not
the proximate cause of his leaving the church, Harry remembers going to a lecture by Abdul
Baha, the leader of the Bahai faith. This man's honesty impressed him and made him think
that he, himself, was not being honest in his own religion. Eventually he left the church,
not to repudiate his religious beliefs but to live up to them.
Between the time that he left the church as an undergraduate and the
time he met Emilia, Harry was not active in any social or religious activities. His
energies were completely devoted to his business career, his study of law, and finally to
preparing and teaching classes. But all of that would change when he met Emilia Lindeman.
Emilia would become the major influence in Harry's life. It was she who encouraged Harry
to become involved in religion again, and there, as in his classroom teaching, he found
success and satisfaction. Near the end of his life, Harry wrote, "Thank God for
Emilia who has been my teacher, but whom I have resisted, who has taken the brunt of my
hostility, but has persisted in the job of helping me save my soul!"
Emilia Lindeman was born in the Mexican city of Colima in 1906. Her
father had been born and raised in North Carolina and had gone to Mexico as a young civil
engineer to work on the construction of Mexican ports and railroads. Emilia's maternal
grandfather was a low-level German diplomat whose family connections had enabled him to go
to Mexico rather than to prison when he refused to join the army. He married a Mexican
woman of mixed Indian and Spanish background, purchased large tracts of land, and ran a
series of haciendas where he raised cattle, sugar cane, and coffee.
Emilia and her three younger sisters grew up bilingual and somewhat
bicultural, although Emilia thinks of her early years as being primarily upper-class
Mexican. The family had no single home but moved from hacienda to hacienda as her
grandfather supervised his holdings and her father traveled to the location of his latest
engineering project. She remembers her grandfather as lord of the manor, a benevolent
despot who provided his Indian workers with schools, medical care, and periodic fiestas
where she was exposed to the colorful folk culture that expressed itself in her dress and
surroundings for the rest of her life. Her experience as the pampered granddaughter of a
grandee left her with a strong sense of noblesse oblige. On
the one hand, Emilia was always very sure of her own high social status. Her powerful
self-confidence and finely developed social skills made her extremely popular and socially
successful throughout her life. On the other hand, she was imbued with a sense of concern
and sympathy for those less fortunate and, because she was so sure of her own place in
life, she had no reservations about reaching out and helping others of lower status.
Neither her grandfather, who had converted to Catholicism in order to
marry her grandmother, nor her parents were religious. Although they supported churches
and priests for the workers and attended services on holidays, the family viewed the
Catholic church of Mexico as practically pagan and inappropriate for people of high rank.
Emilia does remember being fascinated by the mysterious ritual and ceremony of the mass,
as well as the powerful religious symbols of the crucified Christ that were so prevalent
in Mexican churches. Although they may not have had any immediate religious significance
for her, these church rituals would later express themselves as she (and her daughter,
Juana) worked out the details of her own religious vision.
Until the time she was sixteen, Emilia was educated by American tutors
who stressed the traditional women's accomplishments of art and music. These skills, and a
love of literature that she inherited from her father, were her major intellectual
accomplishments. Neither background nor education disposed her toward systematic, analytic
thinking. She thought of herself as an intuitively creative person who worked better with
people than with ideas.
Several times during her childhood Emilia had fled to Los Angeles with
her mother and sisters to escape political unrest in the aftermath of the 1910 revolution.
In 1922, when she was sixteen years old, her father decided that she was being
"raised like a savage" and had to be sent to the United States to get an
American high school education. She spent two years attending San Jose High School while
living with relatives of her father. Then in 1924 her mother moved to San Jose and she
trans- ferred to the Convent of the Sacred Heart High School, but even there she managed
to avoid taking any courses in religion. After graduation Emilia enrolled at San Jose
State College with the intention of becoming a teacher.
In the meantime, her family's circumstances had taken a definite turn
for the worse. After her grandparents' deaths, her parents relinquished all claims of the
family estate rather than risk confrontation with and alienation from other relatives. Her
father joined her mother in San Jose, but with the onset of the Depression, he could not
find employment as an engineer and eventually had to go to work on the WPA. After her
father died, Emilia herself dropped out of school for a year to help earn money to support
her mother and sisters.
When she entered college, Emilia was even less involved in organized
religious activities than Harry had been. She was very active socially, however, joining
the YWCA at San Jose State, an important center of women's activities. Emilia remembers
the "Y" of the late 1920s as being concerned less with religion than with social
justice. Their great interest in the plight of the poor, especially blacks and migrant
workers, was especially congenial to Emilia, with her family tradition of concern for the
poor. Equally attractive was the Y's interest in campus social activity. Situated in the
center of rural Santa Clara County, San Jose State attracted large numbers of women from
the fruit farms that were the area's major industry. The more sophisticated Y girls took
on the obligation of introducing their country cousins to the ways of the city,
instructing them in proper dress, etiquette, and other social graces.
Emilia's college experiences teaching other women how to look and act set a pattern that
would continue through her work in Creative Initiative.
The YWCA was so removed from the ordinary religious concerns of
Christian life that when the group's leader, Dorothy Phillips, came back from a Sharman
seminar and began talking about Jesus, the other women were mildly shocked. But Emilia was
intrigued. She had become good friends with Phillips and made it her business to meet
Sharman at the annual YMCA-YWCA conferences that were held each year at the Asilomar
conference center in Pacific Grove, near Sharman's retirement home in Carmel. Emilia
admits that while she was impressed with Sharman as an individual, his rigorous
intellectual approach to the gospels did not excite her. Nevertheless, she was
increasingly attracted to a more serious study of religion, which blossomed into a full
commitment when she finally attended her first Jesus as Teacher summer seminar in 1934.
By that time, Emilia was married to Harry and had had her first child.
Emilia had met Harry at a Stanford faculty party where she had been invited to entertain.
Her work in the YWCA had introduced her to a number of Stanford faculty wives who would
invite her and her sisters to perform at their parties. In fact, the Lindeman sisters had
organized a semiprofessional group, "Las Tapatias," that performed Mexican folk
songs around the Bay Area in the early 1930s. At one
particular party in 1931, she spotted Harry leaning against the mantle and said to
herself, "that is the man I am going to marry." Discovering that he was a law
professor who had a background in engineering, she invited him home to meet her father,
who quickly realized that he was not the true object of the visit and left. Harry admits
to having been a bit overwhelmed by this "aggressive female," who was not at all
awed either by his professional position or by the fact that he was twelve years her
senior. They met in February, were engaged in April, and married in August.
By 1934, although happily married and the proud mother of an
eighteen-month-old daughter, Emilia felt dissatisfied. She had given up any thought of
teaching when she married (in 1934, wives of employed men did not work) and found the
prospect of a life of endless faculty wives' teas a dreary one. She had previously thought
about going to Minnesing, but six weeks and a six-thousand-mile roundtrip made that
impossible for a young wife and mother. Then, two women who had been active disciples of
Sharman started their own summer seminar in California, and the full experience of the
Sharman technique became available to Emilia.
Becoming Sharman Disciples
The two women responsible for starting the Sharman seminar in
California, Frances Warnecke and Elizabeth Boyden, had met while both were undergraduates
at the University of California, Berkeley. Warnecke had been introduced to Sharman at a
YWCA Asilomar conference in 1929 and had attended a seminar at Minnesing the same year.
She introduced Boyden to the Sharman method and the two of them spent several years
promoting Records study in the Bay Area with money that Boyden had inherited after the
death of her Parents in a car accident. Much of their work was focused on Stanford, and
there they inevitably met Emilia Rathbun who had also moved into the Sharman orbit.
Warnecke, Boyden, and the Rathbuns were soon working together on the
Stanford campus recruiting students and faculty for the summer seminars at Minnesing, even
though neither of the Rathbuns had ever attended one. Thus, when Emilia attended the
Warnecke-Boyden seminar in the summer of 1934, she had already been active in Records work
for a number of years. By her own admission, however, she had never really understood the
points they were trying to make, and her involvement lacked genuine commitment.
Perhaps because she had achieved the goals of her early adult life, a
husband, a child, and social position, and found that she needed something more, the
Records seminar proved to be a major turning point in her religious life. Sharman had
always insisted that all people had to discover the truth for themselves, and that is what
Emilia did that summer in the California redwoods. The seminar's focus on the first great
commandment of Jesus, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with
all your soul, and with all you mind," and its demand for complete obedience to God,
provided Emilia with the purpose that was missing in her life. She felt that up to that
moment she had always gotten her own way. She had been able to manipulate her parents, her
teachers, and her friends to get what she wanted. Now she realized that God wanted her to
stop working for herself and to start working for him. She believed that he was a God
"who demanded all or nothing" and "a God that would demand everything, was
the right God" for her.
She took the great Christian paradox, "Whoever seeks to gain his
life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it," to mean that she
must give up her social activities and devote her life one hundred percent to God. Upon
returning home she resigned from the various clubs in which she was active, went down to
the local Baptist church, and asked the pastor if he would let her lead a gospel study
group among the church women. He agreed, and Emilia launched a career of work among the
churches that would last for more than a quarter of a century. Lacking the academic
credentials of Sharman and Harry, Emilia saw other wives and mothers as her natural
constituency, and she appears to have been the first Sharman disciple to move beyond the
academy in her work. Emilia worked at a series of churches in the Palo Alto area,
frequently asking the pastors for the names of women who sent their children to Sunday
school but did not themselves attend church. She would take these "dumpers"
(because they dumped their kids on Sunday) into a study group and, according to Emilia,
turned many of them into the most active people in their churches.
While working in the churches beginning in the late 1930s, Emilia first
encountered the situation in which her instinctively powerful style
("charismatic" would not be too strong a word) intruded on what she perceived to
be the appropriate role of the religious leader. Unlike Sharman, Emilia did not have a
naturally reticent personality. She was a performer who enjoyed the limelight and had
spent most of her life successfully seeking to become the center of attention. She
discovered in the church groups that many of the women were attributing their spiritual
growth not to the study of the gospels but to the leadership of Emilia Rathbun. She did not want her study groups to become personality cults
centered around her, and she arranged to share the limelight by having certain women help
her in the study sessions and then calling in ill to force them to take over the whole
burden of leading a meeting. Emilia's conviction that when she
surrendered herself to the will of God she also surrendered the right to be the center of
attention may not have led to a life of self-conscious effacement, but her belief in
submission and the model of Sharman did restrain what might otherwise have been an
overwhelming temptation to become the charismatic prophet of a personality-centered cult.
While Emilia was spreading the method-according-to-Sharman to women
through the churches, Harry was also becoming increasingly involved in Sharman's work.
Harry had been attracted to Sharman's method because it made sense to him "as a
lawyer and as a scientist." The press of university business prevented him, however,
from attending any of the longer seminars, including the one that Emilia went to in the
summer of 1934. He could only take time to drive her up to the site and stay for the first
day. Warnecke and Boyden were so pleased to have a member of the Stanford faculty there
that they violated one of the basic rules of the seminar and told him he could return any
time. The initial session was an eye-opener for Harry. For the first time since he had
left the Methodist church as an undergraduate, he perceived the possibility of reconciling
his beliefs with the teachings of Jesus. He was able to return for the last nine days of
the four-week seminar and found the experience as important to him as it was to Emilia.
Unlike his wife, Harry did not feel compelled to change his life style, but he did
discover that the supernatural aspects of religious faith that had made him uncomfortable
were subject to rational explanation, and that Jesus regarded as a teacher could point the
way to finding God.
As a result of his experience at the California summer seminar, Harry
felt moved to begin leading Records study groups through the Stanford Methodist student
organization. In the following year, 1935, he and Emilia attended their first summer
seminar with Sharman at Camp Minnesing. For approximately the next ten years the Rathbuns
actively engaged in a religious life that centered on teaching Records study in the Palo
Alto area, recruiting participants for the summer seminars in Canada, and helping in the
work of the California seminar that continued to be run by Elizabeth Boyden after she and
Frances Warnecke parted company. In the immediate postwar period Harry was particularly
successful with students, many of whom were ex-GI's looking for answers to questions
raised by their war experience. During the 1950s however, the
Rathbuns' attention turned increasingly away from students and toward adults in the
community at large.
The Rathbuns' assumption of leadership positions within the Sharman
movement occurred rather quickly after their initial exposure to Records study. The year
after attending their first Records seminar run by Elizabeth Boyden they were listed as
contact people for the 1935 California seminar and by 1936, immediately after their first
seminar with Sharman, Harry's Stanford office had become the mailing address for the
Minnesing seminars as well. Then in 1941 Harry got his first
opportunity to lead a seminar on his own. Fred Howes, a Sharman disciple from Canada who
had been leading a summer seminar in New Mexico was unable to leave the country because of
the war. Harry was recruited to substitute for Howes and repeated his role the next year.
Sequoia Seminar: The Rathbuns on their own
When, for personal reasons that will be discussed in chapter 3,
Elizabeth Boyden was read out of the Sharman movement and went on to found her own Records
study group, California was left without an "authorized" summer seminar. The
highly motivated could still go to Canada to study with Sharman, but when the Minnesing
seminars ended in the acrimony of 1945, the Rathbuns moved to fill the seminar vacuum by
establishing their own summer program. Dubbed "Sequoia Seminar," the new summer
Records program did not really replace Minnesing as a fountainhead of Sharman-style
Records study but did become the largest and most active of the twenty-five or so Records
study groups that existed after the 1945 breakup.
The first Sequoia Seminar was held in July of 1946 in a rented fishing
lodge on the Klamath River on the northern California coast. This isolated site proved
inconvenient, and for the next four years the summer seminar moved to the conference
center at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, closer to the Bay Area and to Henry Sharman, who
occasionally attended sessions. The Rathbuns' dream, however,
was to have a place of their own, their own West Coast Camp Minnesing.
In October of 1945, just after the Minnesing breakup, Harry and Emilia
met with a group of men in their Palo Alto home and outlined a plan to establish a
permanent center for Sharman's work. Harry's notes for the meeting make it clear that he
envisioned a hybrid of Sharman's Camp Minnesing and a teaching-living religious center
like Gerald Heard's Trabuco College. Unlike the restricted academic focus that Sharman
preferred, Harry wanted to recruit widely among other professionals, such as doctors,
psychiatrists, clergy, teachers, and managers. Somewhat incongruously, he also hoped to
recruit members from Alcoholics Anonymous. A fellow Methodist Sunday school teacher and
member of his Records study group was an AA member and had attended the first Sequoia
Seminar. This man had persuaded Harry to speak to AA meetings about the religious meaning
of the Alcoholics Anonymous message. Since Alcoholics Anonymous had its origins in the
religious fellowship of the Oxford Group (in which Emilia was active for several years
before the war), it was easy enough for Harry to speak to the significant parallels
between their work and the ideas of AA.
The purpose of Harry's proposed center would be to teach "the
way" to financially and educationally privileged people. Since the teaching process
would involve meetings, conferences, and summer seminars, Harry wanted a center situated
on a large secluded site with good views and basic improvements. Thus far he was merely
envisioning a Minnesing-like retreat. But he went on to speculate that the center might
grow into a partially self-supporting community growing its own food and running its own
handicraft shops. Workers could go out from this center to serve and teach in the world,
and return to it for support and rejuvenation. It was in fact
the same plan that had caused so much confusion among Sharman's followers the previous
year. The Rathbuns were serious enough about this idea to approach philanthropists for
donations to get the project started.
Funds were not forthcoming, however, and after a few years the
Rathbuns had given up their dream of a permanent home for the Sequoia Seminar. Writing to
Sharman in 1948, Emilia told him,"We are through with the experiment of buying
property. God doesn't want it as all attempts have failed. I see now that it would greatly
handicap our freedom in teaching the pure truth because we might fall into all
sorts of errors stemming from the need for finances to keep property up." In an
afterthought Emilia expressed her wonder at the way God worked. "In time," she
said, "He shows us the error of our ways if we are sensitive to read his signs and
not too proud to admit our mistakes." The comment was
ironic because in the same letter she reported the death of Irving Hellman, one of the
most active students in the Records study. Although Emilia did not know it at the time,
Hellman had made Sequoia Seminar the beneficiary of his ten thousand dollar GI life
insurance policy. Emilia subsequently interpreted the windfall of the Hellman inheritance
as divine beneficence, signaling that land should be acquired, even though at the time she
was writing to Sharman she also confidently stated that God wanted exactly the opposite.
When the Rathbuns, who had always been close to the Quakers, heard that
the American Friends Service Committee had been given 50 acres of land in Ben Lomond in
the Santa Cruz Mountains, Harry proposed that Sequoia Seminar develop the land jointly
with the Friends. In exchange for the money from the Hellman legacy, the Friends gave
Sequoia Seminar the right to use certain portions of the Ben Lomond land. The funds were
used to buy materials for three buildings that were erected with volunteer labor. The
Quakers used the kitchen for their interracial boys' camp, and Sequoia Seminar used it for
their meetings. Each group provided its own sleeping and meeting facilities. Through the purchase of adjoining property and the construction of
additional meeting lodges and sleeping cabins over the next twenty years, the Ben Lomond
camp grew to 233 acres with several meeting lodges and numerous sleeping cabins, a large
central kitchen, and a caretaker's cottage, but it never did become a permanent residence
and refuge for followers of the Sharman method. In this sense, Ben Lomond was always more
a Camp Minnesing than a Trabuco College.
The Rathbuns' vision of an actual camp for their community of believers
was not completely fulfilled by a duplicate of Camp Minnesing, because their sense of
mission differed considerably from that of Henry B. Sharman. Yet it would take the
Rathbuns sixteen years before they reached the logical conclusion of their religious
During this time they experimented with both the form and content of
their group,) emerging finally as a distinct sect whose members were willing, at least
among themselves, to speak of their own "New Religion." The process of
transformation from lay Bible study group to religious sect was both the cause and effect
of tension with the established churches through whom they worked.
Functioning as a Proto-Sect
Sharman's Records study groups had been distinct from, but completely
consonant with, the churches, and so there was very little cost to the people who
participated in them. When Harry and Emilia picked up the program in 1946 they initially
continued the original pattern. Over the next fifteen years, however, Sequoia Seminar
underwent a series of changes that made it demand greater and greater commitment from its
members, and so in turn it had to provide them with increased measures of support. By the
end of the decade the group had moved so far from its original social context (the
mainline churches) that it had become a competitor with them for the limited social,
economic, and psychological resources of participants. It had become what could be called
The story of the first fifteen years of Sequoia Seminar is the story of
the drift away from the norms of the churches and even further away from the norms of
secular society. Accompanying this movement were the changes that the economic model would
predict. First, as Sequoia Seminar became more highly structured, both organizationally
and ideologically, it became increasingly intolerant of those who were less than fully
committed. Second, unlike churches, whose beliefs are relatively flexible in response to
changing social values, the philosophical foundations established by the Rathbuns in the
late 1930s remained essentially intact and became even more fixed, increasing the tension
between members and society. Third, Sequoia Seminar provided increasing services for its
members to compensate them for the growing costs of belonging and, at the same time, made
increasing demands on the members to give to the group. Finally, the group's initial
appeal was to women, a marginal social category that had fewer opportunities in society at
large and therefore experienced less cost in joining the movement.
Following the tradition established by Henry B. Sharman, theRathbuns
preferred not to think of Sequoia Seminar as an organization during its formative years.
They sought to work with the churches and were careful to assure potential participants
that they posed no threat to established religious groups. The very first announcement for
the Sequoia Seminar in 1946 stated, "Those who are sponsoring this seminar are not
connected with any institution or organization in common."
As late as 1959 and 1960 the group's annual report was still insisting that Sequoia
Seminar was making "a conscious effort to avoid institutionalization and development
of a systematic ideology." The very fact that Sequoia Seminar was issuing an annual
report belied the claim that it was not an organization, a paradox admitted by the report
itself when it pointed out that they owned property, held meetings, conducted seminars,
and, they might have added, had a budget of almost twenty thousand dollars a year.
Nevertheless, the report noted that the group had "no officers, no elections, no
voting on decisions; we, as a group, have no denominational preference; we advocate no
creeds or dogmas, nor do we purport to have 'the' answer to man's religious
Despite continued protestations of noncompetition through the 1950s,
Sequoia Seminar people became increasingly concerned with the growth of their own movement
and wanted to be sure that they could carve a role for themselves within the churches with
which they were affiliated. They ruled out "authoritarian" churches, churches
whose doctrines and creeds were incompatible with their beliefs (although they still
claimed to have no established dogma of their own) and churches that already had a heavy
schedule of study groups and prayer meetings (although they did not want to identify
themselves with stagnating churches either).
Sequoia Seminar simultaneously wanted to work within the churches and
transcend them. It wanted to be a distinct entity with its own membership while not
competing with the traditional churches. There were models for such a group. Sharman had
done it, so had the Y's and laymen's movements like Frank Buchman's Oxford Group. The
great potential for conflict between the churches and Sequoia Seminar grew, nevertheless,
as the latter organization slowly evolved a bureaucratic structure. To the extent that
potential members had a finite amount of time and money that they were willing to invest
in their religious life, what they gave to one group they would have to take from the
other. As long as Sequoia Seminar was running its study groups within the churches, and as
long as its own operating budget remained modest, the conflict was minimal. Between 1946,
when it held its first summer seminar, and around 1955, Sequoia Seminar and the churches
appear to have had the kind of symbiotic relationship envisioned by Sharman.
After 1955, however, Sequoia Seminar entered a phase of organizational
development that led to it becoming a proto-sect. Members were expressing more individual
identification with the organization, while the religious life of the group was becoming
more highly structured through the creation of a nascent bureaucracy. Increasingly the
study groups and courses demanded more time and effort from participants, and Sequoia
Seminar had to grapple with the issues of recruiting participants and new leaders. There
appear to be a number of reasons for the change. First, Sharman had died in 1953 at the
age of eighty-eight, removing his restraining influence. Second, Harry was nearing the end
of his career at Stanford and probably envisioned being able to spend more time on the
group. Finally, and most important, Sequoia Seminar had completed the first buildings on
the Ben Lomond property giving it the sense of permanence and institutional identity that
it had previously lacked. The organization had put down roots in its own real estate and
was looking for a direction in which to grow.
Some of these new themes were expressed at a conference of leaders in
1955. They rejected Sharman's willingness to leave the leadership of study groups in the
hands of relatively untrained people and concluded that "the leader must be 'on the
spot' and actually lead." Even more significantly, the leadership seminar took the
unprecedented step of actually downgrading the scholarly approach advocated by Sharman.
"Sharman's approach was somewhat intellectual and aloof," they noted. Then they
went on to stress the strong collective orientation that so clearly differentiated Sequoia
Seminar from Camp Minnesing: "We feel it is necessary to live the life in the
groupâto practice love in the group situation."
This stress on community indicates how far the group had drifted from the principles that
had motivated Sharman. Although Sharman's books and the Jesus as Teacher seminars would
remain the intellectual heart and soul of the movement, the group was now self-consciously
aware that it had evolved to a new stage of development in which it had to forge an
identity of its own. In conformity to the Rathbuns' interest in group solidarity, this new
identity would be much more communal in nature than anything that had taken place during
the Sharman era. The lure of collective commitment was very strong, and although the
movement never withdrew into itself to the point of becoming what is commonly called a
"cult," Harry felt comfortable telling movement members that "the age of
the rugged individualist is past. Some societies are given over to collectives. We prefer
to stress community. Each of us considers himself expendable for others."
Organization and Membership of Sequoia Seminar
On the day before Christmas, 1955, Sequoia Seminar published a formal
statement of its new organization and operating principles. This was part of a general
restructuring of the way the group was administered that had been going on for several
years and included the formation of a new legal entity, the Sequoia Seminar Foundation. The new formal organization consisted of a planning commmittee and
four operating committees. Those whose lack of commitment did not yet qualify them for the
planning committee (which chose its own members) could serve on one of the four operating
committees: administration, public relations, property, and personnel.
Ever cautious of the possibility of conflict between themselves and the churches with whom
they worked, the planning committee members carefully warned that work on the operating
committees should not divert people who were "already productively engaged in
creative activities such as church work." For those, however, who were not so
engaged, the committee meetings themselves were supposed to be one of the ways in which
people "would live the life in the group." Indeed, "live the life," a
phrase of Emilia's that became standard Creative Initiative terminology, meant to behave
in a way dedicated to the will of God and the principles of Jesus as interpreted by the
The organizational plan of 1955 continued to serve Sequoia Seminar
through the transition period that culminated in 1962. This seven-year period was one in
which the leadership of the movement gained experience in running a large organization
with the many complications that came from trying to coordinate the efforts of volunteer
group leaders, study group participants, and the development of permanent facilities at
Ben Lomond. By 1956, when the group initiated a newsletter, there were hundreds of Sequoia
Seminar alumni, mostly in the Bay Area, in addition to the participants in local study
groups run by graduates of leadership training programs offered at Ben Lomond. The new organizational structure was far from perfect and not
without its critics.
Perhaps in response to a new member who charged the leadership with
being an oligarchy and called for more democratic participation, there was a move toward
decentralization in 1959.
It became increasingly clear through this period that the original
Sharman vision of work within the academic community was too constraining for a group that
wished to grow but could attract people only from a geographically limited area. Although
Harry continued to recruit actively on the Stanford campus, the specific reference to
students was dropped from Sequoia Seminar announcements. Roll books indicate that during
the first few years of Sequoia Seminar more than half and as many as three-quarters of
those attending were active students; most of the others were recent graduates. By 1955,
the year of the structural reorganization, less than one-tenth of those attending the
summer seminar were students.
Harry and Emilia did not have Sharman's broad international base from
which to draw participants. Their source of students was Stanford University, and Stanford
did not have a large enough student population to provide the numbers needed to make Ben
Lomond practical. By actively recruiting participants from the larger community, the
Rathbuns were able to attract sufficient numbers of people to run the kind of weekend and
summer seminars for which they had bought Ben Lomond. As long as the university had been
the major source of participants, however, the Rathbuns did not have to worry about the
"quality" of those they attractedâthe university admissions office
and faculty selection committees did that for them. But as they increasingly looked beyond
the academy for members, they had to make a more conscious effort to maintain the highly
educated, upper-middle-class image that marked the group since the Sharman era. Internal
recruiting documents emphasized that they were looking for "people with mature
mindsâleaders, thinkers, doers," and that recruiters hould
"concentrate on professional people."
This switch from students to the general population was to have an
unforeseen effect; the proportion of men to women fell dramatically. During the first
three years of Sequoia Seminar the numbers of men and women attending were roughly equal,
with a slight preponderance of men. After 1953 the ratio was almost always 60 percent or
more women. The actual proportion of women in discussion groups held during the year was
probably even higher since there was a tendency for couples to attend the two-week summer
seminars together. On at least one occasion in 1957, Harry
held a special dinner for the "hus- bands and friends" of the women discussion
group participants with an eye to setting up all-male groups if there were sufficient
interest. There is no indication that there was.
Concomitantly, as larger numbers of more mature women attended meetings, the need for
child care became acute. In 1951 one of the summer seminars made special arrangements for
child care so both husbands and wives could attend sessions and, throughout the 1950s,
many couples participated in ad hoc exchanges of children. The child care program
eventually grew into a summer camp run for the first time in 1961.
Unlike college students whose personal needs were met by their schools, married people
needed specific support like child care if they were to participate, and by providing that
support Sequoia Seminar took further steps toward establishing a sectlike
institutionalized support system.
Financially, Sequoia Seminar was always a rather modest operation. Some
of the disaffected members of the old Camp Minnesing Central Group have hinted darkly that
the Rathbuns' inherited a substantial amount from the Sharman estate. Money was in fact
left to the Alpha Psi Zeta Foundation of which Harry was secretary and one of the
trustees. He was also the executor of the Sharman estate, which may account for the
implication of ill-gotten gains. But Sharman's will
specifically prohibited the money from being spent on the acquisition of property, limited
its use to promoting gospel study among university people, and required that it be spent
within fifteen years of his death. Thus, there was very little Harry could have done to
use it to develop the Sequoia Seminar. By the time of Abbie
Lyon Sharman's death in 1955, no more than $25,000 remained in the estate, and most of it
seems to have been spent in support of the several Jesus as Teacher study groups still
functioning in the United States and Canada at that time.
Like much else connected with the seminar before 1955, accounting
procedures were rather casual. There are no account books among the Rathbun papers, and
only simplified financial statements were issued. Scattered references to money indicate
that the thirty-five dollar fee for the seminars just about covered all expenses. Since
there were no employees, and the Rathbuns never took a penny for their time and services,
overall costs were minimal. The expense of constructing additional buildings at Ben Lomond
with volunteer labor was met through contributions from members and an occasional bank
loan. The first complete balance sheet, put out in 1955,
indicates that the group actually lost a bit more than five hundred dollars on their
seminars. Their general operating costs were a modest seven hundred
dollars and, with an income of about ten thousand dollars made up
mostly of contributions, they were actually able to save money against future expenses.
Hence by no stretch of the imagination was Sequoia Seminar a big budget operation. In 1955
the group's net worth, including the property and buildings at Ben Lomond, was $43,450. This pattern remained relatively stable for the period up through
1962. Seminars paid for themselves, total contributions ranged from seven to eleven
thousand dollars a year, and expensesâprincipally continued expansion of the
Ben Lomond campâkept the cash on hand quite low.
Although donations and expenses remained stable throughout the 1950s,
participation grew appreciably during most of the decade. No records are available for
1946, the year of the first seminar, but 59 people attended the two held in 1947. In 1953,
after the move to Ben Lomond, Sequoia Seminar offered five seminars and the number of
participants jumped to 86. Those figures steadily grew until 1959 when 217 people attended
seminars at Ben Lomond, but after that the numbers dropped by more than a quarter to
The membership problem caught the group in a dilemma. They wanted to
expand, yet at the same time they wanted to admit only those people who were serious in
their desire to explore the gospels and open themselves to the possibility of living a new
life. Seminar leaders also needed to tread cautiously in
asking for funds from new members since they were still working within the churches and
money that went to Sequoia Seminar might well be money taken from the churches. If local
ministers believed they were losing money to Sequoia Seminar, they could have easily cut
the group off from its major source of participants. Besides having to worry about the
sincerity of members and possible conflict with the churches, Sequoia Seminar was not
prepared to move beyond a very narrow geographic focus. The Palo Alto organization gave
encouragement to Records study groups in other areas, including Boise, Los Angeles, and
Chicago, but expected that they would "become completely independent and
self-sufficient, including providing their own leadership."
During the peak year of this period, 1959, about five hundred people in the Bay Area were
actively involved in local study groups and/or in the summer seminars.
By the end of the decade the strain of ambivalence was showing more
clearly. Special meetings were held about ways to attract new people, while at the same
time the annual report admitted that "numerical growth does not necessarily indicate
that anything of real significance is taking place." Much
of the growth, moreover, had taken place in so-called continuation seminars designed for
people who had already attended the basic Jesus as Teacher seminar. Whereas only 20 more
people attended basic seminars in 1959 than in 1955, attendance in continuation seminars
had almost quadrupled from 33 to 121. This was one more sign
that Sequoia Seminar was becoming more sectlike in both its form and function. It was
evolving into a place of continuing spiritual fellowship where people could find a
coherent religious philosophy and support for transforming their lives.