Charles and Myrtle Fillmore

Formerly Missouri Valley Special Collections

In the depths of chronic illness and with her family’s finances in ruin, Myrtle Fillmore discovered an affirmation upon which she based the rest of her life: “I am a child of God, and therefore I do not inherit sickness.” Initially skeptical of his wife’s epiphany, but convinced by her dramatically improved health, Charles Fillmore applied his business savvy and Midwestern sensibility to articulate the couple’s spiritual lessons, and the pair established Unity, a global movement of communal prayer.

Charles Sherlock Fillmore was born on August 22, 1854, in the wilderness of pre-statehood Minnesota, where his father was a trader to the Chippewa Indians. His frontier childhood left him with a damaged body: when he dislocated his hip in an ice skating accident, a variety of primitive remedies were applied to combat an ensuing bone infection, and he struggled with pain and difficulty walking throughout his life. Charles left the log cabin for town as soon as he had a chance, moving to St. Cloud in his early teens to work as a printer’s apprentice, then as a clerk in a grocery store and bank.

Although the circumstances of his early youth afforded him almost no schooling, in St. Cloud a friend of his mother saw in Charles a spark that she fed with great books, supplying him with works by Shakespeare, Tennyson, and the Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Lowell, by whom he was influenced most deeply. At age 20, Fillmore left Minnesota for a position as clerk on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad in Denison, Texas. There, although it was then a town known more for its rowdy reputation than its intellectual attractions, he met his future wife at a literary study group.

Myrtle Fillmore was born Mary Lee Page, on August 6, 1845, in Pagetown, Ohio. Given a nickname by her father that stuck, young “Myrtiles” struggled with health issues from an early age, including symptoms diagnosed as an inherited tubercular condition. In contrast to her husband, Myrtle grew up among letters, and at Oberlin College attained a level of education uncommon for women of her day. She then joined a brother in Clinton, Missouri, and taught school for a time.

Myrtle was 29 when she met Charles Fillmore, nine years her junior, in Denison, Texas, where she had moved to pursue another teaching position in 1874. Although Charles later recalled foreknowledge that she would be his wife, their marriage did not occur until 1881, after years of separation. Moving on from Denison, Charles spent much of his 20s in Colorado, speculating in real estate and trying his hand as an assayer of metals during the mining boom there. He maintained a correspondence with Myrtle, who returned to Clinton, Missouri, then settled with him in Colorado after they were wed. Two sons were born to them during this period.

In 1884 the young family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where their third son was born. Charles amassed a small fortune in real estate, platting the Gladstone Heights subdivision. Although they left Northeast Kansas City with two familiar street names (Myrtle and Norton Avenues were named for his wife and brother), the Fillmores lost nearly $150,000 in a subsequent market collapse. The resulting state of despair, worsened by their chronic health problems, drew the pair to a lecture by a visiting speaker, Dr. E.B. Weeks. Weeks was a student of Emma C. Hopkins, who had broken from her mentor Mary Baker Eddy, to pioneer a religious movement known as New Thought. Myrtle Fillmore was inspired by the New Thought message of the power of prayer to heal the body.

Convinced by her subsequent health transformation, Myrtle helped friends realize the same benefits. Charles, whose scientific mind demanded a thorough investigation, read everything available on the subject of metaphysics. He could not deny the changes in his wife, and eventually experienced a series of spiritual revelations in the form of dreams. In April 1889, the Fillmores published Modern Thought, the first of many writings. The magazine’s subtitle set the tone for the early years of their movement: “Devoted to the spiritualization of humanity from an independent standpoint.”

Unity—the name came to Charles suddenly during a meditative state in 1891—was neither a church nor sect, but carried a message that physical health and material wealth were the natural states intended for humanity by God. The Fillmores encouraged unity of all denominations, of science and religion, of God and man, and of people with one another. Silent Unity, a system of group prayer in which members of the movement joined in prayer together at a regular, appointed time, resulted in a flow of prayer requests and monetary offerings. The Fillmores incorporated their Unity Society of Practical Christianity in 1903 and, fortified by continued donations from an ever greater following, created a headquarters for the movement, which included a school facility and vegetarian cafeteria, at 9th and Tracy.

During the 1920s, the Fillmores extended the reach of their message via the new medium of radio, eventually purchasing station WOQ. Unity also began acquiring land southeast of Kansas City, near Lee’s Summit, Missouri; the tract came to encompass some 1400 acres, later incorporated as a village. Kansas Citians unaffiliated with the movement knew Unity Farm as a source for local honey and cider, produced from hives and orchards by Unity staff. Myrtle and Charles Fillmore lived out the rest of their days there, in a home known as “The Arches,” designed by their son Waldo Rickert Fillmore, whose hand is also seen in the architecture of many other structures on the property.

By the time of Myrtle’s death on October 6, 1931, Unity was estimated to have over 2 million followers worldwide, and the organization employed nearly 500. “Papa Charley” Fillmore, as he was known to the worshipers he addressed for nearly 40 years, stepped down from the Unity pulpit on December 31, 1933, and later that day married his wife’s former secretary, Cora G. Dedrick. When he died on July 5, 1948, one of Unity’s most well-known buildings, the Unity Temple at 47th and Jefferson on the County Club Plaza, had just been consecrated. The Fillmores were survived by two sons, Lowell and Waldo Rickert; a third, John Royal died in 1923. Unity, which presaged the ecumenical and pluralistic religious movements so popular today, celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1989, and has carried the Fillmores’ message into the 21st century.

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A previous version of this article appears on kchistory.org: http://kchistory.org/content/biography-charles-filmore-1854-1948-and-myr...

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