Max Adolph Kapp (February 1, 1904-January 1979), was a minister, theological school professor and dean, and a denominational official. He played a significant role in the education of seminarians and the revitalization of the Universalist Church of America during the period leading up to its consolidation with the American Unitarian Association.
Raised in the Universalist Church of Herkimer in upstate New York, Kapp studied at St. Lawrence University and its theological school, ministering to a congregation in Nunda, New York, earning an A.B. in 1926 and a B.D. in 1928. Kapp served the Universalist church in Newtonville, Massachusetts, 1928-31; the First Universalist Church, Fitchburg, Massachusetts, 1931-38; and the First Universalist Church of Rochester, New York, 1938-43. During his ministry in Newtonville he earned an S.T.M. from the Harvard Divinity School.
In 1943 Kapp was named professor of homiletics and philosophy of religion at the Theological School of St. Lawrence University; the university had awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Divinity earlier that year. From 1943 to 1965 he served the school both as a teacher and an administrator. He taught not only homiletics and philosophy of religion, but at times church history, parish administration, religion and art, and served as assistant dean under Angus MacLean from 1951 until 1960, and as dean after MacLean’s retirement until the school was closed in 1965. The last years of his deanship, leading up to a decision to close the school, were especially difficult and painful for Kapp. The possibilities of merger with three other Unitarian Universalist schools, Crane at Tufts, Meadville/Lombard, and Starr King were all explored. In the end, however, the school’s resources were turned over to the St. Lawrence Foundation for Theological Education, newly-created for the purpose of providing scholarship support for Unitarian Universalist seminarians. Kapp then accepted an appointment at the Unitarian Universalist Association as Director of Overseas and Interfaith Relations, a position he held until 1970. He then accepted a call to the small Unitarian Universalist society on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, which he served until his death in 1979.
Kapp served the Universalist and Unitarian Universalist movements in many additional capacities: president, Young People’s Christian Union (the Universalist youth organization),1934; council secretary, Free Church of America, 1931-37; member, commission recommending Washington Avowal of Faith, 1931-35; program chair, Universalist General Assembly, 1947; trustee, Universalist Church of America, 1955-59; member, Joint Merger Commission, 1956-59; member, UUA Commission on Appraisal, 1961-65.
Max Kapp’s greatest contributions were as teacher, preacher, and effective promoter of Unitarian-Universalist merger. He was always willing to serve the liberal religious movement wherever he was needed. As a teacher, he expected much of his students and of himself. Some of his students considered him to be excellent, others felt he was overly exacting and critical. As a preacher, he was in great demand, filling pulpits regularly during his tenure at the theological school, whether in liberal or traditional churches, as well as on special denominational occasions. Sometimes referred to as “the orator of the North Country,” it was said in the region that “he belongs to us all.” Kapp delivered the closing sermon at the joint biennial at Syracuse in 1959, just after the crucial vote favoring merger had taken place.
Kapp also preached at the installation service for Dana McLean Greeley as the first president of the UUA in 1961. Kapp and Greeley had been friends ever since they had served as presidents of their respective denominational youth organizations in the 1930s, at which time they had unsuccessfully urged the merger of their two groups; a quarter of a century later the two youth organizations were at the forefront of the successful effort to consolidate the UCA and the AUA. Kapp had served as co-manager of his friend’s presidential campaign for the UUA presidency, and Greeley had been instrumental in placing Kapp as Director of the Department of Overseas and Interfaith Relations after the seminary at St. Lawrence closed.
Kapp’s theological focus, like that of many other Universalist ministers, experienced a shift away from liberal Christianity and toward an all-inclusive, global Universalism during the quarter of a century leading up to merger. He considered the latter to be inclusive of Christianity rather than constituting a rejection. Thus he was able to preach from traditionally Christian pulpits without sacrificing either their integrity or his own.
Kapp left no significant scholarly writings. Articles appearing over his name in the Christian (later Universalist) Leader were for the most part sermons or short commentaries on denominational affairs. His most significant writings were numerous poems, hymns, and brief meditations; it is in these that his naturalistic, mystical theism comes through best. Scattered among them are Earth’s Common Things, the Universalist Lenten meditation manual for 1941; “Lines for the Cornerstone,” written for the theological school’s new Atwood Hall in 1954; Dear Earth1, a collection of poems, 1977; “The Tale of the Croci of the Wayside Inn,” a poem presented in 1978; and “I Brought My Spirit to the Sea,” a hymn inspired by his involvement with Universalist summer institutes at Ferry Beach, Maine, appearing in Singing the Living Tradition. Kapp was an excellent song leader and often led the singing at the January retreats of the Fraters of the Wayside Inn, a ministers group of which he was a dedicated member from 1933 until his death. Out of concern for the welfare of retired ministers, he was instrumental in instituting Elderberries, a newsletter that would help keep them connected with each other; it is still being published at the start of the twenty first century.
After his five year tenure with the UUA, Kapp, his health and energy declining, served the Martha Vineyard’s congregation faithfully until his death. His last years were saddened by the breakup of his marriage to Dorothy Filene; the couple, parents of two sons, had married in the early years of his ministry. Following his death in January 1979, a memorial service was held at the First and Second Church in Boston. Later, the alumni association of the seminary at St. Lawrence established an annual Max Kapp award of $2,500, to be given to deserving students with demonstrated interest in Universalism.
In contrast to Harvard philosopher Santayana’s view that “poetry is religion which is no longer believed,” Max Kapp maintained that “religion is the poetry which is believed.” In his poem “Gratitude” he wrote:
…Often I have felt that I must praise my world
For what my eyes have seen these many years,
And what my heart has loved.
And often I have tried to start my lines:
“Dear Earth,” I say,
And then I pause
To look once more.
Soon I am bemused
And far away in wonder.
So I never get beyond “Dear Earth.”
Information on Kapp can be found in the Max Kapp Papers in the Universalist Collection at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the records of the Fraters of the Wayside Inn, and in the pages of the Candle of the St. Lawrence Theological School. Aside from works mentioned in the article above, Kapp’s writings include the ballad, “Winter’s Night” (1946); “Far Rolling Voices,” hymn #24 in Singing the Living Tradition; 109 Years: An Account of the Theological School of St. Lawrence University, 1856-1965 (1965); a Fraters retreat paper, “Christianity: A Theological Model” (1971); and numerous articles in denominational publications. Kapp’s hymn No. 4 from Singing the Living Tradition, “I Brought My Spirit to the Sea,” is included as a poem in the 1984 Meditation Manual edited by Gordon B. McKeeman, and inspired the manual’s title, To Meet the Asking Years. Kapp’s life and work is discussed in Russell Miller, The Larger Hope, vol. 2 (1985) and Charles Howe, The Larger Faith (1993).
Article by Charles A. Howe
Posted April 30, 2001