Fahs, Sophia (Blanche) Lyon

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FAHS, Sophia (Blanche) Lyon

Born 2 August 1876, Hangchow, China; died 14 April 1978, Hamilton, Ohio

Also wrote under: Gertrude Helen Marshall

Daughter of David and Mandana Lyon; married Charles H.Fahs, 1901; children: five, two of whom died young

The fourth child of missionary parents, Sophie Lyon Fahs returned to the U. S. with her family in 1880. Her mother remained in America when her husband returned to China, so that Fahs grew up in Wooster, Ohio, and graduated from Wooster College in 1897. Fully intending to go out as a Christian missionary soon after college, Fahs first taught high school and then worked in the Student Volunteer Movement recruiting other students for the missionary cause.

In 1898 she became engaged to Charles Harvey Fahs, who also expected to follow a missionary career, but for reasons of health these plans did not materialize. Before the marriage, Fahs did graduate work at the University of Chicago studying the higher criticism of the Bible; thus began a broadening of her orthodox religious beliefs which continued for the rest of her long life. When she died in 1978 at the age of 101, she had become a symbol of the most progressive, liberal position in the field of religious education.

In 1904, following her marriage and a move to New York City, Fahs received her M.A. from Columbia University, where she studied in an atmosphere charged with excitement from the ideas of the great progressive educator, John Dewey. Fahs began at once to apply the methods of the progressives to the message of Christian orthodoxy, and during the next 20 years the method completely transformed the message. The articles and books she wrote between 1906 and 1976 reflected the progression of her beliefs, which moved like the colors of the rainbow from the pallid, somber purples of orthodoxy through to the brilliant reds of radical unorthodoxy.

Fahs was the mother of five children, three of whom grew to adulthood. The process of educating these children was another major liberalizing force in her thinking. During the childrearing years she was torn between her role as wife and mother and the dream that possessed her of transforming the Sunday schools of America into educationally significant institutions. She once wrote: "I tremble before the task I am trying to make for myself."

During these years Fahs worked as a teacher and director of religious education in various churches. In 1927, she graduated with a B.D. from Union Theological Seminary and was the director of the experimental Union School of Religion until it closed in 1929.

In 1937 Fahs began her long association with the Unitarian denomination (which became the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1961). She served as editor of curriculum, assuming less responsibility in 1954, and finally retiring fully in 1964, when she was eighty-eight years old. During those years she wrote and edited the religious education materials known as the New Beacon Series in Religious Education. These materials, books for children and adults, and guide books for teachers and parents, revolutionized religious education in the liberal churches, including branches of the Quakers, the Ethical Culture Society, several Jewish groups, and some of the more liberal mainline Protestant denominations, as well as the Unitarian-Universalists for whom they were produced. During all these years Fahs was a frequent and effective speaker at churches and conferences. In 1959, at the age of eighty-two, she was ordained into the liberal ministry.

Fahs' book, Today's Children and Yesterday's Heritage: A Philosophy of Creative Religious Development (1952), is a summary of her matured philosophy and examines the ideas behind the many children's books she produced. The books she wrote and edited all display her hard-won conviction that "we cannot give our children a growing and creative religious life. A fine religion is a personal achievement." A person's religion is built on experience, primarily, and this experience can be enriched and interpreted through books, Fahs believed.

Her style of writing was deeply influenced by a course she took in 1904 with Dr. Walter Pitkin at Columbia University, which emphasized that when writing for children every sentence should be composed of concrete words rather than of descriptions and summaries, and the younger the child for whom one was writing the more specific the concrete detail should be. For this reason, Fahs demanded of herself and all who worked under her painstaking research and fidelity to the facts.

Other Works:

Uganda's White Man of Work (1907; revised edition, 1970). Red, Yellow, and Black (1918). Racial Relations and the Christian Ideal (1923). Exploring Religion with Eight Year Olds (with H. F. Sweet, 1930). Beginnings of Earth and Sky (1937). Beginnings of Life and Death (with D. T. Spoerl, 1938; revised edition, with Beginnings of Earth and Sky, 1958). Martin and Judy in Sunshine and Rain (with V. Hills, 1940). Consider the Children: How They Grow (with E. Manwell, 1940). Growing Bigger (with E. Manwell, 1942). Leading Children in Worship (1943). Jesus: The Carpenter's Son (1945). The Church Across the Street (with R. D. Manwell, 1947; revised edition 1962). From Long Ago and Many Lands (1948). The Old Story of Salvation (1955). Worshipping Together with Questioning Minds (1965). George Fox: The Man Who Wouldn't (1971).


Hunter, E. F., Sophia Lyon Fahs: A Biography (1966).

Other references:

Religious Education (Sept.-Oct. 1956, July-Aug. 1966, Jan-Feb. 1968, Nov.-Dec. 1976).