On New Year’s Eve 1914 a large crowd gathered to dedicate a new Unity administration building in Kansas City, Missouri. Bundled in heavy winter coats, the people stood in the dark street before two giant limestone columns. Myrtle and Charles Fillmore, founders of Unity School of Christianity, watched as handwritten blessings from around the world were added to the cornerstone. At midnight the crowd saw electric lights illumine the dark structure as the ring of chimes ended the silence.
Charles Fillmore addressed how a foundation must begin with a great idea. The analogy of a structure was appropriate as his speech described how Unity’s Christianity was built on the “right concept of God as Spirit.”
Today the international Unity movement is sometimes described as a positive, practical, progressive approach to Christianity. Its spiritual communities and publications utilize the Bible, Jesus’ teachings and prayer. Unity honors the universal principles in all religions, encouraging the practice of meditation and spiritual growth.
Given their early biographies, the unorthodox religious leadership of the Fillmores seems an unlikely prospect. From birth Myrtle Fillmore (1845–1931) learned the religious values of the Methodist Episcopal Church her family attended near the small settlement of Pagetown, Ohio. Charles Fillmore (1854–1948) was born on the Chippewa Indian Reservation near St. Cloud, Minnesota, where his father worked as a government official with the tribe. Charles was largely self-educated and learned Christianity through self-interest rather than regular attendance.
When Charles and Myrtle married in 1881, they began exploring their personal theologies together, particularly a new religious lay movement known as New Thought. These groups explored progressive Christian perspectives, based on Jesus’ teachings.
Eastern spiritual ideas were also especially popular with New Thought folks, leading the Fillmores to explore the ideas of syncretism, mysticism and spiritual evolution. Syncretism combines different forms of belief and may attempt to synthesize disparate ideas or practices. Mysticism is the experience of direct communion with ultimate reality. Mystics report direct knowledge of God and spiritual truths through subjective means like intuition. Spiritual evolution involves the consciousness unfolding, developing and changing.
Three key sources indicate the influential books the Fillmores read. The first source is the Fillmore’s inventory of books they sold through the first issue of Modern Thought, published in April 1889. It advertised 109 books and 94 pamphlets, which they sold from their one-room office in a downtown Kansas City office building. The strongest emphasis among the works was on Christian Science and Theosophy. The inventory also included Eastern-themed texts such as The Bhagavad Gita, The Yoga Philosophy, Legends and Theories of Buddhists and The Light of Asia.
The second source is the Fillmore Family Book Collection, today housed in the Unity Library and Archives at Unity Village, Missouri. Its 87 books represent the family’s interest in history, religion and literature, including the Transcendentalists. The full contents of the original library are unknown.
The third source is a list of seven pamphlets, based on his American lectures, for sale by Swami Vivekenanda in the July 1, 1897 issue of Unity magazine.
Many people influenced the Fillmores, particularly New Thought teachers Emma Curtis Hopkins, Annie Rix Militz and R. C. Douglass. The Fillmore’s teachers were all Americans who shared their fascination with Eastern philosophy.
There was no great Asian pilgrimage in the Fillmore’s lives, and in fact, during the first 40 years of their organization, they rarely left Kansas City. They managed a family life and administered an ever-growing religious structure. In September 1893, they did attend the Parliament of World Religions held at the Columbian Exposition (a World’s Fair) in Chicago.
Unity’s Uncommon Christianity
It was at the Parliament of World Religions that Swami Vivekananda, considered a key figure in the introduction of Hindu philosophies and interfaith awareness to America, spoke of religious tolerance and universal acceptance. From there, Unity founders joined other groups in challenging the widespread Western understanding of the Divine. While today the idea of one God expressed in different religions is especially popular, the notion was relatively new when the Fillmore’s began their quest.
Unity is still benefiting from positive practical concepts from Eastern religions. Today we live in a religiously diverse nation. Through its embrace of syncretism, mysticism and spiritual evolution, Unity continues to demonstrate how listening to and honoring a variety of spiritual practices benefits our world.