Arthur Knapp’s Journey from Watertown to Japan “- Mark W. Harris

 October 14, 2018 –  First Parish of Watertown, MA

 Opening Words – “Only Breath” by Rumi

 Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, sufi, or zen. Not any religion

or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up

from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,

am not an entity in this world or in the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any

origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.


Responsive Reading – by Alfred W. Martin

We believe in a fellowship that shall unite men and women and children not in the bonds of Confucian, or Muslim, or Christian love, but in the holier bonds of human love;

Going down, beneath all that separates and divides to the principles of freedom and understanding;

Below religions to religion; beneath all sacraments to the universal impulse that bends the soul in reverence and awe;

Beneath all forms to the faith that strives to express itself in and through them;

Thus touching common foundations and securing a common fellowship, each helping the other by whatsoever his or her deepest insights may reveal;

A union not of religious systems, but of free souls, united to build on the basis of truth, justice and love, the commonwealth of humankind.


Reading  – Letter from Ernest Fenellosa to Mr. Batchelor (at the AUA) -June 5, 1889,

(Mr. Fenellosa,was an art specialist and Buddhist convert who was teaching in Japan,  to George Batchelor, Secretary of the American Unitarian Association (AUA).)  This document is in the Deceased Minister’s File for Arthur Knapp at the Andover Harvard Theological Library

However, I may differ from Mr. Knapp as to the conception of the spiritual life, or as to the value of teaching Christianity as such in the East, I am most keenly alive to the unique opportunity which this Unitarian mission affords to permeate the future civilization of the East with New England thought and influence.  Heretofore the Japanese have coquetted in turn with every leading western nation, playing off one against another; but at this decisive era of liberal constitutions and new treaties, they show an unmistakable tendency to look again to America as after all, their truest friend and best teacher . . .


Until recently, the leaders of Japanese thought have been quite indifferent to the whole question of religion. To them Christianity, equally with Buddhism, was puerile superstition, and quite naturally, since, on the one hand, while ignorant of the deeper philosophy of Buddhism, they know only its priests; on the other, while ignorant of the higher possibilities of Christianity, they heard only its missionaries. But the attempt which, turning away in disgust, they made to

found the life of a new nation in pure rationalism they are just now coming to recognize as futile.  The necessity of some religion as the source of principles and sanctions they have learned by experience to acknowledge. 

But on the one hand, they cannot at once go back to Buddhism, since that for the moment, rightly or wrongly, is associated with ultra-Conservatism; while, on the other, they refuse with wry faces to swallow the missionary pill. In the dilemma, Mr. Knapp came along with the offer of a new kind of a religion, sweet and easy to take, something real and practical because [it is] workable in our best communities, based on science and advanced philosophic thought instead of tradition, and liberal enough to accommodate itself to all classes of views and predisposition. He came, talked, and conquered. The marvel of his success is stated when I say that in less than two years he alone has accomplished far more with the upper classes than a large corps of evangelical missionaries have been able to do in thirty.  That his tact, geniality, and good management have been of great weight in this work, it is but justice to him to state.  That Unitarianism has great positive merits of its own I should be the last to deny.

But, after all, the key to the situation is the fullness of time.  Mr. Knapp has had the good fortune to be able to offer the Japanese exactly what they think they want. I write in this way because I wish to justify to you my belief in the importance of the mission on the present grounds.  Whether what the Japanese think they want is what they really want is another question . . . It may perhaps turn out that a great permanent Unitarian church as such never will be established in Japan.  Nevertheless, this mission ought to be carried out, and (page 3) Mr. Knapp ought to be given the greatest number of the most able colleagues that you can spare: – because it is through this religious movement that the best in our American life can most thoroughly be brought to bear upon the whole length and breadth of this new Eastern civilization. In other words, here we have the momentary plasticity, the momentary friendliness to America, and the momentary absorption in a great religious hope which you Unitarians have the sole possibility of satisfying.  To you then is given the unique opportunity spoken of in my first paragraph; and I say confidently that the future of civilization in Eastern Asia, and the dominance of American ideas therein depends as much upon the character of the young men whom you are now selecting to send back with Mr. Knapp as upon all the diplomatic and commercial relations of the next twenty years.



The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes “The person you have known a long time is embedded in you like a jewel. The person you have just met casts out a few glistening beams & you are fascinated to see more of them. How many more are there? With someone you’ve barely met the curiosity is intoxicating.”  Unitarian Universalists today are being called to explore long undiscovered aspects of our history.  We are being asked to meet new people who embody hidden stories in our past, and when we meet these people it may help us dismantle the colonialism, imperialism, and racism that exists in our history.   Today I am going to introduce you to Arthur May Knapp, a relatively unknown figure in our First Parish history, who was not only the parish minister here in the 1880,’s but also was chosen by the American Unitarian Association to lead a new Unitarian mission to Japan near the end of that decade. Mission and Unitarianism are not words we UUs usually yoke together. And this was not a mission in the conventional sense of converting the heathen to the one true Christian faith. Yet despite the Unitarian belief that their faith embodied a universal sympathy for all religions, they naively promoted Western and Christian values embodied in their liberal faith seeking as Mr. Fenellosa said in the reading, the “dominance of American ideas.”

Knapp seems to have carried an explorer’s gene in his blood.  Born on May 29, 1841 in Charlestown, he was the fourth child of seven born to William Henry Knapp and Emily Thompson Knapp. On the Knapp side he was descended from Nicholas Knapp, who came to Watertown in 1630 with his brother William.  His mother’s father was born on the night of the battle of Bunker Hill. In his biography of Knapp, Samuel Atkins Eliot says that the young man was born into the heritage of a liberal Christianity and had every advantage of education and social relations.  His father was a Universalist minister who served in Danvers and Chelsea, and began a ministry in Nantucket, when Arthur was three. Later he served in West Newton, and Arthur ended up being educated at the West Newton English and Classical School, after which he entered Harvard as a sophomore in the class of 1860.  But before he finished he was off on a travelling adventure in 1858 when he sailed around Cape Horn aboard the “Crusader” and visited many islands during the trip, including the Juan Fernandez Islands, of Robinson Crusoe fame. He was called the “greatest traveler of the 60 class,” and before his life ended he crossed the Atlantic 19 times, and the Pacific over 20 times, totaling more than 300,000 miles of sea travel.

The coming of the Civil War interrupted his career in a different way, and he served in Company F as a private in the 44th  Massachusetts volunteers, seeing combat action mostly in North Carolina. After the war he entered Harvard Divinity School, graduating in 1867. That same year he was married in Cambridge on December 16 to Frances or “Fanny” Lincoln Mitchell Folger from Nantucket.  They had a son Arthur Taylor Knapp who was born September 1870, and died in April 1906. They also had an adopted daughter Ayame Marion Knapp, born in 1895.  Sam Eliot says that Knapp’s good looks, family background, and genial personality resulted in several churches clamoring for his service. He chose the First Congregational Church (now UU) in Providence, Rhode Island. He only served three years there, 1867-1870, during which the chief accomplishment was the redecoration of the Meeting House interior in a high Victorian style that became generally unpopular by the end of the century. After that he was called to theIndependent Congregational Church in Bangor, Maine, where he served from 1871-1879.  He was reportedly abundantly happy and popular there. He was “eminently companionable,” Eliot said, “progressive in thought, gay of heart, [and] buoyant in spirit.” In 1879 he was called to the First Parish of Watertown where he served for seven “fruitful and contented years.” Before he began his ministry, he made a trip to Europe, especially seeing Italy and Germany.

Not long after he started his ministry here, Knapp and his family settled in comfortably into a house that is today 50 Garfield Street. It was built by Charles Brigham in Queen Anne style in 1881. They purchased the house and other plots from Brigham, and then lived in it unti they permanently left for Japan. It was sold in 1889 to William Potter, a wholesale grocer. Knapp’s ministry started in the middle of the Gilded Age a time of economic growth and development. Watertown was growing by leaps and bounds, too, from the former rural town to an urban enclave of streetcars, factories and new homes.  Along the river there was a company that produced bobbins and needles for sewing machines, and a gas light company that installed a generator for the new luxury called electric light. There were factories for soap and bicycles. It was also a time of international expansion.  The Panama Canal was being built.  I expect the church was experiencing growth during Knapp’s ministry, as our current building, the Unitarian Building, was constructed for Sunday School classes and social occasions not long after he left. A committee consisting of the “Parish Committee and two ladies” was appointed in May 1886 to plan for “a chapel or Hall building,” as the money for it had already been contributed. The church had a Unity Club for social events and a Lend a Hand Club for charitable outreach.  In the late fall of 1880 the church celebrated its 250 anniversary with a grand celebration featuring the famous abolitionist Wendell Phillips and Leverett Saltonstall. Then after six years of ministry, Knapp heard a call to what he considered the highlight of his career.  Was it the intrigue of world travel, or something about Japanese culture which was deeply influencing Europe and America at that time, or did the Japan Tea Store at the corner of Main and Galen Streets here in Watertown get into his head?

During the Meiji Dynasty in Japan, an intellectual, party leader and bureaucrat named Yano Fumio discovered Unitarianism in London in the 1880’s. He owned an influential newspaper in Japan and in the fall of 1886 he published a series of articles advocating the adoption of Unitarianism as the state religion. He had come to believe that our faith had tremendous potential for uplifting Japan.  In those articles he said it was a moral religion exceptionally well suited to modernizing the country because of its rationality. This was a time when the Japanese felt they needed to turn to the West, and adopt Christianity because it was believed Europe and America held that non-Christian nations were backwards and unenlightened. What is interesting is that the proposal was made purely from the perspective of the national interest, and not that of individual faith, except to adopt Western civilized manners. Unitarianism seemed a perfect fit for them because it eschewed the supernatural and embraced science. So, Yano made a formal request of the British Unitarians to send a representative to Japan. But the British turned to the United States due to the financial burden, and asked the American Unitarian Association (AUA) to send someone, and they agreed to do so.  Arthur Knapp was chosen to explore the Japanese field and its potential in 1887.  But before he left, this traveling soul took another major trip. After resigning from First Parish in 1886, he went to Scotland, Holland, Belgium, France, Italy and Switzerland.

During the next year, Knapp conducted an exploratory investigation of Japan. He was given a crash course in Japanese culture, and then held a news conference before he sailed. His address was translated and immediately published in the Jiji shinpo, an influential paper owned by Fukuzawa Yukichi, the president of Keio College.  Fukuzawa announced that Knapp had come to “confer and not convert.” So right from the start the Unitarian mission was unlike any typical Christian mission because it was not to bring the message of faith in Jesus to the hearts and minds of the Japanese, but rather it was to give a moral tone to the culture, and a gospel of human brotherhood. Rather than inserting themselves in imperial fashion, they were invited to come in. Perhaps their elevated status made the other Christian missionaries suspect. In a letter from January 7, 1887, Knapp wrote, “My reception thus far has been everything which I could desire. Not one of the innumerable clergymen have as yet called upon me, indeed, but the courtesy of the Japanese has more than compensated for their neglect.“ Yet one of these missionaries reported “that the educated classes can be reached only by Unitarian Christianity.”  Knapp spent two months in Yokohama, and then moved to Tokyo.  By May he wrote: “It will be a better beginning than any Christian church has yet made. The tide is setting with tremendous force toward the adoption of Christianity and I verily believe that had it not been for the superstitious elements incorporated in it, Japan would long ago have become a Christian nation.”

Knapp found a “willingness to accept Christianity – if only the supernatural element can be eliminated from it. I regret to say that there is nothing among the statements – of Unitarian principles which I brought with me that exactly answers the purpose here. They (the Japanese) care nothing about our controversies with the orthodox. Something much simpler, more direct, and more concise is needed here and I am now wrestling with the problem.” (March 21) In response, this exploratory period saw translations of statements about Unitarianism, and the establishment of a Post Office Mission to Kyoto and Osaka. The Buddhist Priest in Kyoto, Knapp reported, “was surprised and delighted to find that there was a form of Christianity so free from intolerance and assumption and so full of sympathy for the highest in his own faith.” (June 19).

Knapp was growing a little impatient with the Japanese though. He said “everything moves very slowly here,” and then related a story about Horace Mann, who once said of divine patience, “God may have plenty of time, but I haven’t” Knapp said Mann would be in “bitter despair all the time“ in Japan.  In September he reported that the Japanese have the greatest respect for official authority. Thus, Knapp wanted the AUA to give “conspicuous place” to his titles, office and letterhead.  Despite some of these cultural divides, Knapp was pleased with the progress of the mission, saying on July 2: “I do not have to make converts.  They come to me daily, and are eager to know how they can become Unitarians.”  By the end of the first year, he was worried about his own health.  This came up when his sister was visiting, and he reported how most of the family members, including him, had Bright’s Disease. Yet this mission seemed to be flourishing. Despite his concern that they had not established a Unitarian church yet, this was not part of the initial plan, and Knapp was critical of other missionaries who were entirely focused on founding churches. He had devoted himself he said to “ diffuse[ing] our views as widely as possible . . . [in]correspondence, publications, newspapers and class work.” Emphasizing lectures and education, Knapp took every opportunity to speak in public. (January 16), and tellingly wrote in December 1888 that “the work in Japan will soon be greater than any one man can possibly do.”

So, Knapp returned to the United States, and with the submission of his report, secured the AUA Board approval of the mission. He went back in September 1889, but he brought with him five men: Clay MacCauley, who would become the central figure in the mission; Kanda Saichiro, who had been a Japanese student at the Meadville Unitarian seminary, and would become the general secretary of the mission, and three professors for Keio College (Droppers, Wigmore and Liscomb). Knapp remained the superintendent of the mission, and in March 1890 laid out the varied tasks.  He gave himself the job of giving a course of lectures on Unitarianism at the college. Fukuzawa reported that the authorities were eager to make the college “Unitarian in fact if not in name.”  This was also the time when the mission launched its own periodical the Yuniterian (Unitarian). Yet things began to unravel. McCauley even though he had only been in Japan less than six months began to resent his subordinate position. He complained to the AUA that he wrote more than half the articles for the paper, but his name never appeared on the periodical.  But then he got his wish to be more prominent, when Knapp announced in September 1890 that he was going to quit the mission due to health problems. MacCauley soon announced that he was going to change the focus of the mission. He wrote of Knapp, “he hesitated too long about making Unitarianism stand for itself as an organized, propagandizing body. I hold that we are not here for reciprocity as much as to teach the Japanese our Christianity’s theism and our practical humanitarianism.” (p. 25, Mohr) 

Thus, ended Knapp’s official relationship to the mission, but tensions with MacCauley continued to surface over the years. In 1897 Knapp renewed a close relationship with Fukuzawa when he returned to visit Japan. It was further complicated because he did so when MacCauley was resting backing in the United States. Knapp complained about this friction when he wrote that MacCauley “assumed an entire lack of interest on my part in an enterprise which I have regarded as the most important achievement of my life.”  He said he tried to keep aloof from the work, but clearly had wished that MacCauley had consulted with him. In 1891 Knapp was upset when MacCauley fired a Japanese preacher Knapp had hired, and he often voiced his concerns about issues to the AUA. The two men differed in their means of promoting the Japanese mission.  Knapp was interested in promoting Unitarianism through the press and public debates, while MacCauley wanted a less visible approach of working through organizations.  The first Unitarian church was established in 1890. Knapp accused MacCauley of not being very diplomatic in his relations, and especially felt that rather than making the mission a Japanese movement, he only saw it as a foreign enterprise. One crucial difference between them was that MacCauley and Knapp represented conflicting visions of Unitarianism – Knapp’s an inclusive one, and MacCauley’s a Christian centered faith, plus Knapp was an extrovert, and MacCauley an introverted scholar.

Knapp’s approach to the mission points to one of the central problems that liberal religion must continually face. The mission lasted until 1922, mostly under MacCauley’s direction, although he eventually tried to support Japanese leadership. By 1920 it had become clear that Japan itself had changed, and the idea of a mission led by foreigners was rejected in a time of increasing nationalism.   The mission existed when Japan was trying to find its place on the international stage, but the efforts to adopt the universal values that science and reason brought developed into a national morality.  One of the reasons the movement may have failed is that it did not require people to leave their previous religious affiliation and become formal members, and yet what the Japanese wanted was dialogue, and not conversion.  The focus was on cooperation and respect for other faiths, because the Unitarians did not want to be propagandists, like the other competing missions. They believed they brought a new gospel of universal truth, but rather than becoming the basis for personal faith, it became a centralized truth called nationalism, and so the Japanese turned their attention from religion to national morality in line with government principles that underscored loyalty to the emperor, love of nation, and respect for ancestors. The Unitarian missionaries emphasized the Unity of Man rather than the Unity of God, and so we can see that the oneness of people could become, in this context, a virulent nationalism.  There is that tension in liberalism between trying to find a universal understanding of faith beyond your individual beliefs, and the owning of your particular perspective. There is also an ambivalent relationship with Christianity that we have always struggled with.  Although Knapp tried to promote a more inclusive faith than Christian, he still brought the cultural imperialism of America, trying to inculcate their Western Christian values in the Japanese context, while proclaiming they were better than other Christians. They still wanted to uplift Japan to their enlightened ways. How often do liberals believe they know what is best for someone else?

After his return to America, Knapp served the Unitarian Church in Fall River, MA from 1891-1897. While he was in Fall River, he made a couple of trips to Japan. In 1893, the ship caught fire 100 miles out to sea, but managed to return safely. A love for Japan and its people and culture had gotten into his soul.  He returned to Japan in 1896 to make plans for a permanent residence. From 1897-1899 he made several trips including visits to Korea, China, and Manilla  Back in Japan he became proprietor and editor of the Japan Advertiser,in Yokohama from 1900 to 1910, when he returned to the United States permanently, but not before he made a round the world trip, which included stops in Hong Kong, India and Sri Lanka.  One reason for his return seems to be accumulated personal losses. His son died in 1906, and then his wife. He was a recognized authority on international issues. In 1915 he read a paper before the International Conference of Liberal Religion in Paris. He was the author of Feudal and Modern Japan.  He organized the Harvard Club of Japan, and became its first president.  He died on January 29, 1921 in Newtonville, MA with a funeral at Mt. Auburn Cemetery.  His was a varied career of parish ministry, mission work in Japan, journalism in Japan, and extensive travel. His vision of our faith was that it contains a new gospel that rejects theological propaganda and preaches a universal humanism. Our times has rejected the notion that all faiths teach a common message, and that we are united by one spirit. such as we heard in our opening words and the responsive reading, And yet we still teach that we are a multifaith faith finding truths in many places.  Today we don’t teach that all religions are the same, but in our faith development we try to find a spiritual home that is our own, and Unitarian Universalism gives us a unique place in which to grow, and we can revel in this place which gives us this freedom to find our own unique faith.

Closing Words – from Wendell Berry, A Place on Earth

“Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.”