Reverend Ben F. Wyland
-by Lowell Berg
In 1926, Rev. Ben Wyland, who had received his Divinity Degree from Yale, was called to Lincoln from Worchester, MA to facilitate the recent merger of Plymouth Congregational with its parent church, First Congregational, and to help plan a new building for the combined congregations on property at 20th & D Streets.
Wyland immediately began contacting leading national architectural firms to request examples of their work, and statements of their design philosophy. His focus at this time was either Gothic or Colonial style architecture, and it appears he was struggling for direction between the two. He first talked to two leading firms practicing Gothic Revival design: Ralph Adams Cram and Goodhue & Associates, the architects of the Nebraska State Capitol. Then he seemed to gravitate to Colonial, researching a new Colonial church in Utica, NY.
While wandering in this architectural wilderness, Wyland had a friend and contemporary, Reverend Robert McLaughlin Sr., guest preach at First-Plymouth, the name chosen for the combined congregations. McLaughlin mentioned that his son Robert Jr., was working in the office of architect H. Van Buren Magonigle, and encouraged Wyland to contact Magonigle. Wyland did, and it did not take long for Wyland and Magonigle to begin to open up to each other about their shared desire for church architecture that was representative of the American experience. Architecture still driven by historic precedent, but also embracing, as Magonigle wrote to Wyland, "the richer, fuller life of our own moment in history." At this same time, Wyland also shared his thoughts about the importance of the context of Lincoln with "great long hills of color," and the "bright, friendly and free character of the people."
Wyland & Magonigle were on the same architectural design page. There was only one problem: Magonigle had never designed and built a church. He was, however, accomplished and well regarded. Included in his résumé' was a submittal for the Nebraska State Capitol design competition, ultimately awarded to Goodhue, and he had won the competition for the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, now part of The World War I Museum.
Wyland persuaded Magonigle and McLaughlin to do some preliminary design work as a way to convince the First-Plymouth building committee that they understood church design. They did, presented their ideas to the committee, and were eventually selected over two other interviewing firms: Goodhue & Associates, and Collens & Allen from Boston.
Wyland proved to be an active participant in the design process. The correspondence that he had with the two architects reinforced their shared design goals, and documented the heavy involvement that he had in design decision making. He took the lead on procuring three historic stones. One from Plymouth, England, from the doorstep of the house in which the Pilgrims stayed before the Mayflower sailed; one from Martin Luther's home; and one from Bethlehem. All three are incorporated into the construction of the church. The first two are at the base of the carillon tower, and the Bethlehem stone is in the floor of the chancel.
He coordinated the procurement of the carillon tower bells from the Taylor & Sons Foundry in Longhborough, England. He shared with the architects information about religious symbolism that was incorporated into the building as sculpture, tiles, stencils, and most prominently, the inserts in the sanctuary side windows. With the help of a professor from the University of Nebraska, he also coordinated the sky map for the placement of the stars on the sanctuary ceiling.
Wyland was unafraid to stand his ground. During construction there was occasional conflict with the architects about costs, schedule, and materials. In an exchange about the process of brick selection, Wyland's answer to a complaint from Magonigle includes, "New samples being sent. Your threat just plain suicide and was resulting no good to all. Get your facts straight." There were also disagreements about aesthetic decision making, and parochialism factored in. Magonigle, in one letter complained to Wyland that, "the architect's function is not even dimly comprehended in the Middle West."
Wyland was succinct with the church Finance Committee when fund raising appeared to lose momentum, telling them, "...you have come about as near killing our building program as you can without deliberately taking an ax to do it."
Conflict or not, the building when finished was spectacular. Wyland wrote that the architecture was derived from, "the Basilica motive. This was the earliest form of Christian architecture. New in time it fitted a new country." It appears also to respond to Wyland's thoughts about the context of Lincoln. "Great long hills of color" can be transposed into the multiple natural colors of brick and terra cotta used. "The bright, friendly and free character of the people" perhaps influenced window design. Instead of dark faceted or stained glass, the sanctuary side windows of white and clear art glass help to bathe it in natural diffused light.
The building was an immediate success. Following its dedication on Easter Sunday, 1931, Wyland wrote to the architects, "It is a marvelous thing of simple and compelling beauty. You have received a unanimous verdict."
In 1936, Wyland accepted a church appointment in Brooklyn, NY. A proclamation from First-Plymouth honoring him when he left included, "...to his skill and good taste in planning, and above all to the indomitable urge that he placed behind the construction and financing of the project, is due the completeness, beauty and utility of the church as it is today."
Ben F. Wyland's distinguished career continued after he left First-Plymouth. He worked with Herbert Hoover on world food relief, and remained friends with him until Hoover died in 1964. During WWII, he was Liaison Chaplain, Department of Christian Ministry for the Council of Churches of Maryland and Delaware. According to the Certificate of Commendation he received from the U.S Army, his efforts touched the lives of over one million service men and women. During this initiative, he was featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
As the Executive Secretary of The United Churches of St Petersburg, Florida in the late 1940's and 1950's, he was a leader in the early fight for civil rights, working and corresponding with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt. Because of Wyland, President Eisenhower facilitated a donation of 1500 cots to help provide lodging for black educators who were barred from local hotels. He successfully helped commute the death sentence of accused rapist Walter Lee Irvin, for which he received thanks from NAACP Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall, later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. A black American, Irvin was ultimately pardoned because of the suspicious nature of his conviction. During this period Rev. Wyland received constant death threats, and a Lake County, Florida Grand Jury, spurred on by their racist sheriff, tried to indict Wyland and send him to prison "as a communist stirring up black and ethnic groups." They failed. One of Wyland's strongest allies and supporters at the time was the St. Petersburg Times newspaper.
Sponsored by the National Council of Churches, Wyland was an exchange minister at least four times in England. On at least one of these trips, he acted as a foreign correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times which published his accounts of adventures in Great Britain. One adventure that he wrote about was on Thursday, July 19, 1956, when he was invited to an afternoon tea party with the Queen of England and royal family on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. Another of those adventures was playing golf at the old course at St. Andrews, Scotland, often referred to as "the home of golf." In his dispatch, Wyland said that he shot a 48 on the front, and birdied holes 16 & 17 on the back. Jim Keck is not the first of our ministers to combine excellent preaching with a decent golf game!
In 1966, Wyland returned to Lincoln to be the keynote speaker at First-Plymouth's 100th Anniversary Celebration. In his remarks, he referred to 1926-1936 as the "heroic" period of the church, and thanked several lay leaders who had been instrumental in building our church: George Abel, L.C. Chapin, J.C. Seacrest, Charles Stuart, and Frank Woods, who said of Wyland at the same ceremony, "The members of the church owe a debt of gratitude to our beloved pastor, Mr. Wyland which can never be repaid."
Rev. Wyland was 84 in 1966. He lived to be 104. He is buried in Harlan, Iowa, the town of his birth, two hours to our east.
Architects H. Van Buren Magonigle and Robert McLaughlin Jr. deservedly receive credit for the design of our magnificent church. It is clear, however, that they never would have had the chance, nor would the result have been as good, if it wasn't for the leadership, perseverance, and advocacy of Ben F. Wyland. He was our pastor at exactly the right time. Echoing what Frank Woods said fifty years ago, we owe him more than we can imagine.