Who is this famous turn-of-the-last-century California Unitarian?

If you guessed the "Plant Wizard," Luther Burbank, you were right! In his lifetime, he developed more than 220 new varieties of trees, vegetables, fruits, flowers and grasses. Inspired by the writings of Charles Darwin, Burbank believed superior plants could be produced by "natural selection" and "cross-breeding" and "hybridization." At age 21, he purchased 17 acres of land and began his experiments, succeeding in producing a superior potato (forerunner of the Idaho potato). Selling the rights to the new potato (which was planted widely throughout Ireland), he bought his fare to California, settling in Santa Rosa.

In California, he first supported himself working at odd jobs, and later at a nursery. Eventually, he established a nursery garden, greenhouse and experimental farms that were to become famous. During the 55 years he labor there, he produced literally hundreds of different plants, including numerous species of plums, berries and lilies. At any one time, he seldom had less that 3,000 experiments going, involving hundreds of thousands of plants. He developed more than 40 varieties of plums and prunes, 50 varieties of lilies, 10 different types of berries, including a white blackberry! Also, he grew new forms of roses, and created the giant Shasta and Alaska daisies. His Santa Rosa farm is maintained as a National Monument, and California observes his birthday – March 7th – as "Arbor Day" in his honor.

Religiously, with his friends and colleagues, Burbank had always been frank about his freethinking views, but had never publicized them to the world – until the end of his life. One event that may have caused him to break his silence was the famous 1925 Scopes trial, the so-called "monkey trial," which brought the evolution controversy to national attention. According to one biographer, "the fact that a high school teacher had been put on trial for teaching the ‘heresy' of Darwinism (which Burbank has been teaching, and practicing, for many years) aroused him to a conviction that he ought to speak out, without mincing words, and declare for the truth." (Freethought Today, August 1993)

Another reason for his public proclamation was the recent embracing of "reincarnation" by his old friend, Henry Ford. In a newspaper article reprinted around the world, Burbank expressed his doubts about the afterlife, saying: "A theory of personal resurrection or reincarnation of the individual is untenable when we but pause to consider the magnitude of the idea. On the contrary, I must believe that rather than the survival of all, we must look for survival only in the spirit of the good we have done in passing through. This is as feasible and credible as Henry Ford's own practice of discarding the old models of his automobile.

"Once obsolete, an automobile is thrown to the scrap heap. Once here and gone, the human life has likewise served its purpose. If it has been a good life, it has been sufficient. There is no need for another." (Freethought Today, August 1993)

Needless to say, his published remarks caused a nation-wide furor amongst many Christians. A gentle, reasonable man, Burbank sought to respond to the flood of mail that poured in – but to no avail. As one biographer said: "... he was misled into believing that logic, kindliness and reason could convince and help the bigoted." Three months later, in April 1926, he died of natural causes and, as requested, was buried in an unmarked grave beneath a giant Cedar of Lebanon tree on his farm.

[Sources: Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography , Notable American Unitarians and Freethought Today, August 1995. 

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