Pioneers in Unitarian Humanism


Pioneers in Unitarian Humanism

A Sermon by the Rev. Peter Connolly

Presented at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, Kentucky, on June 12, 2011

When we met here four weeks ago to talk about the philosophy called humanism, we touched briefly on a number of variations on the term, including Greek humanism as embodied in the philosophies of Anaxagoras and Protagoras; and the movement that flourished in Italy beginning in the late 14th century that revived interest in classical antiquity — that was called Renaissance humanism. We talked about the humanism of Friedrich Nietzsche which evolved from his contention that the idea of a God as embodied in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles was no longer sustainable. And we spoke a bit about the humanism of Henry Nelson Wieman, called “naturalistic humanism,” which emerged in the 1930’s in the United States.

We used Robert Waggoner’s argument to put forth the proposals of the naturalists. He put it this way:

Naturalism requires that certain divine characteristics be attributed to nature. First, if nature is all there is and power operates within nature, (such as in weather conditions, in the force of a mighty river, in the growth of living plants and animals, etc.), then nature, rather than a supernatural being, must be considered all-powerful. Second, if intelligence is all there is, and intelligence is operative within nature, (through design, order, wisdom, beauty, etc.) then nature, rather than a supernatural being, must be considered all wise. Third, if nature is all there is, then nature, because it exists, must be considered self-existing. This implies that nature is eternal, another aspect of divinity.

When we talk of “religious humanists,” we are talking about those who accept the framework established by the naturalistic humanists and then “use the religious institution for preaching, teaching, and promoting their understanding of religion from the naturalistic humanist perspective” (Mason Olds 1996, 11). “They view life strictly within the context of nature” (Ibid.).

Today we are going to talk about three pioneers of the humanist perspective in religion from within the Unitarian tradition. Any one of them is worthy of not one but several sermon topics of their own, so we will only be scratching the surface here today. Still, I think it is important that we hear the names and talk about the radical reinterpretations of a religious understanding of life as presented by John H. Dietrich, Curtis Reese, and Charles Francis Potter.

Because all three were churchmen, they were influenced not only by the insights gained through a naturalistic humanism as formulated by Henry Nelson Wieman and others, but also through the liberalizing elements within the Christian traditions in which they grew up and as taught in the seminaries they attended. Foremost among the “evangelical liberals,” as they were called, of the day, was Harry Emerson Fosdick, very influential in the 1920s and 1930s, who placed religious belief within a cultural and sociological framework, believing that different religions originate in a similar emotional reaction to the mystery of the world.”

Naturalistic humanism which held that the scientific method is the determining factor in establishing what can be held as true; evangelical liberalism held that the truths of the Bible are influenced by the culture of believers as that culture has evolved. Both were important in establishing the foundation for what became known as “religious humanism.”

John H. Dietrich

John H. Dietrich is sometimes known as the “Father of Humanism,” at least in its development within the Unitarian tradition. He was born in 1878 “on a farm near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania,” (Ibid.) descended from German-Swiss emigrants from near Berne in Switzerland. His parents were “simple, uneducated farm people” (Ibid.). He grew up in the Reformed faith which had originated with Ulrich Zwingli, who was a Swiss theologian important in the Protestant Reformation.

Dietrich attended the Eastern Theological Seminary of the Reformed Church, but his aptitude for critical thinking led him to challenge the conventional teachings he was presented with. He was the valedictorian of his class and, as such, he was charged with reading a paper on the history of Christian doctrine to his graduation class. “In this paper Dietrich apparently stated that Jesus had died the death of a martyr, that he was not a God dying for the sins of the world, and that the obligation of the Christian was to emulate his spiritual example” (Ibid., 54).

His adviser asked him to “tone it down” a little in respect for the clergymen who would be present at the ceremony; Dietrich did, but lost respect for the adviser whom he had admired for his originality of thought. This was not to be the first time that Dietrich’s desire to pursue the truth as he saw the truth was to bring him in opposition with established authorities. This tendency was to influence his career and formation considerably.

Immediately after graduation, he accepted the ministry of a church in Pittsburgh, which grew well under the influence of his ministry, but two church members who were related to its founder found the changes he brought to the institution objectionable. He was able to survive the withdrawal of their financial support of the church, but he became branded as a radical, which, in time, led to the decision by the Allegheny Classis to try Dietrich for heresy, as they were convinced that he did not believe in the infallibility of the Bible, or in the virgin birth and deity of Jesus, or in the traditional understanding of the atonement” (Ibid., 55).

He accepted the theory of evolution and introduced secular readings into the worship service. In other words, he led a pretty interesting and stimulating worship service, but “interesting and stimulating” is not the same, in the eyes of more conventional believers, as “orthodox and salvific.”

Dietrich refused to defend himself and was defrocked, believing that a “well-prepared defense” would not accomplish anything. Though he was supported by the board of trustees and the general membership of the church, the church officials’ verdict carried the day. “After his final Sunday as minister, St. Mark’s (the church he had served) was closed. The next service was not held there until a year later” (Ibid., 55).

Dietrich was accepted into fellowship as a Unitarian minister based on the recommendation of a friend who was serving a Reformed congregation in Pittsburgh. He moved to Spokane, Washington, in 1911, where his ministry was greatly successful. It was while in Spokane that Dietrich found the term “humanism” in an article published by the British Ethical Societies.

Frederick M. Gould, the author of the article, used humanism to mean “belief and trust in human effort.” A simple enough definition, but a revelation to one who was looking for a way to proceed that was in line with his own emerging beliefs. Dietrich left the Spokane church to become minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis in November, 1916, and held that position until his retirement in 1938, when his congregation named him Minister Emeritus.

His theology was always a work in progress because he had the kind of intelligence that is relentless. He was not satisfied with the conventional if it seemed to confine his spirit, if it did not resonate with truth as he came to know truth, if it did not lead to the growth of the human person. In the end, “Dietrich maintained that it is possible to be religious in the best sense of the word without belief in God” (Ibid., 59).

As a believer in evolution, Dietrich was a believer in change: what we think of as true is not static, it will always be subject to change as we learn more about natural laws and how they operate — the nature of the world and of the universe. Truths that were held in a pre-scientific stage of human development will often not stand up to scientific inquiry. He maintained “that little universe which is told about in the early chapters of Genesis is forever gone” (Ibid., 62).

For Dietrich, naturalism meant the death of dualism — the distinction between the natural and the supernatural; he was persuaded that there is but one true reality, that which is called “monism.” He said “I believe that what we call matter and spirit are two aspects of the same substance, and that spirit is the functional aspect of different combinations and organizations of matter. In other words, I am a Monist, not a dualist, in my philosophy.”

Among the most appealing and exciting aspects of Dietrich’s philosophy, I think, is this insistence on thinking for himself, finding out what seemed true to him, holding to it as long as it held up to the investigations of reason and the courage to discard a belief when it could no longer do so. This kind of challenge to orthodoxy is not reckless or flippant, as such challenges sometimes are, but mature, considered and responsible, the kind of thinking we all aspire to as we forge our beliefs and our spiritual identities.

And, though Dietrich had “great faith in the scientific method,” he did not turn it into an idol. He understood that it, too, was fallible. “Human observations may be inaccurate; humans do not always move with faultless reasoning from observation to inferences and deductions.” His worldview included sanctioning other sources of knowledge as valuable: “instinct, tradition, and intuition” (Ibid., 65) which he held to be of value to the extent that the information they provided was consistent with a scientific understanding.

The Bible, Dietrich saw as “a purely human construction” and as a great body of religious and ethical literature…similar to the literature of other ancient peoples. It contains the mythology, the history, the biography, the poetry, the drama of the Hebrew peoples during a period of several centuries. It should be read as a culturally informed document to which one should be able to “apply … the methods of literary criticism” (Ibid., 67).

Dietrich’s understanding of the term “God” evolved throughout his ministry as he believed humanity’s understanding of the term also has evolved and must evolve. He considered and rejected the argument of the “cosmic theists” who interpreted God “as the indwelling power in the universe rather than an individual power controlling it” (Ibid., 71). Yet, Dietrich was no atheist. He said, “I believe that even to name him — the name circumscribed as it is with our petty conceptions — is suggestive of irreverence” (Ibid., 71).

His philosophy comes down to this, as stated by Mason Olds: “To discover the way of life and to discover and preserve those things which are of value to the enrichment of life in this indifferent universe — this should be our controlling purpose” (Ibid., 73). Olds adds this as a characterization of that outlook: “The individual is more than a simple beginning and an end…for each is a link in the chain of life. Because we have learned from past generations, we have a debt to the future” (Ibid.).

Curtis Reese

Curtis Reese was born in 1887 on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Madison County, North Carolina. The family was devoutly Southern Baptist. “Reese once said, ‘One of my paternal great-grandfathers was a Baptist preacher, one of my paternal grandfathers and two of my paternal uncles were Baptist preachers, my father is a Baptist deacon, two of my brothers are Baptist preachers, and a sister married a Baptist preacher’ ” (Ibid., 99).

At the age of nine, he confessed he was “a lost sinner and trusted Christ to save him. Although it was mid-winter, he and other converts were baptized in an outdoor creek” (Ibid.). Reese later graduated from the Baptist College at Mar’s Hill, North Carolina” and “in May 1908” was “ordained to the Baptist ministry” (Ibid.). He briefly served a small rural church in Alabama before entering the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. “He supported himself by pastoring two half-time churches;” (Ibid.); at one of them he met the woman who was to become his wife.

Reese began to have doubts about his Baptist faith while at seminary where he ran into the so-called “higher criticism” for the first time. It was in Louisville that Reese first came into contact with Unitarianism. He dropped off some Baptist tracts at the Unitarian church and while there picked up some Unitarian pamphlets; one entitled “Salvation by Character” particularly caught his eye.

Reese continued as a Baptist minister, preaching twice each Sunday, once in the morning, once in the evening. He says that after the evening service, his conscience bothered him: “I could and did say what I believed, but I did not feel free to say what I did not believe” (Ibid.).

Feeling confined by creedal strictures, Reese explored other religious traditions and felt himself most drawn to the kind of Unitarianism being preached by Francis Peabody, “a strong advocate of the social gospel.” He met with the minister of the Unitarian church in Toledo, Ohio, presenting him with his own creedal statement of faith. He was assured by that minister that his beliefs were consistent with Unitarianism. After giving the matter serious consideration, Reese decided to transfer from the Baptist to the Unitarian church.

His interest in social issues led to his leadership in an anti-vice crusade in Alton, Illinois, aiming to rid the city of brothels and “gaming houses.” “He raised money to hire a private investigator” to gain information about these kinds of operations. He was successful enough at these efforts that he was shot at several times by underworld figures and it “was necessary” one time “for him to hide in a parishioner’s attic” (Ibid., 99).

In 1915, Reese became minister of the Unitarian church in Des Moines, Iowa, where he found himself “moved by the poor housing conditions” he found there. He brought the conditions to the attention of the mayor, who suggested that he speak to the governor about it. He was successful in stirring up the governor’s interest. The result was the “Iowa Housing Bill,” “alleged to be the first state housing bill to be passed in the United States” (Ibid., 102).

Reese gained a lot of publicity as a result of the passing of this bill. He declined an offer to run for mayor and declined “a lucrative position as a stock and bond salesman.” He “declined both offers to become secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference in 1919,” which was based in Chicago. During this time, he was also elected to the board of directors of the Meadville Theological School in Meadville, Pennsylvania. Later he was appointed president of Lombard College, a Universalist school in Galesburg, Illinois.

Mason Olds says that Reese “worked and wrote about the world from the context of a kind of settlement house and social and cultural centre, rather than from an academic or ecclesiastical viewpoint” (Ibid., 106).

Reese’s introduction to the higher criticism in theological school apparently altered his world view in a fundamental way. He thought of humanity’s place in the universe rather than in the mind of God or in the context of the planet Earth created by God. In so doing, he was led to three assumptions that were central for him:

  1. the universe exists; but it is not important to speculate about its beginning and its end;
  2. discoveries about the vastness of the universe did not allow humanity to continue to think of our existence as on a cozy made-for-us planet and
  3. life has been evolving on the planet for, as he understood it, at least a thousand million years.

This was a radically different scenario than that put forth in Genesis and demanded a radically different understanding of the role and place of humanity in the universe.

The terms “moral ” and “intelligent will” make sense within a human context, but lose their meaning when applied to the universe as a whole entity. Morality seemed now to him to have only human, not cosmic significance. It seemed improbable to him, given the vastness of the universe, that there be a “divine concern for human affairs.”

He found theism unsupportable, but he did not find himself drawn to materialism, either, as it seemed too mechanistic. Instead, he developed an “organic conception of morality.” “Organisms function for some purpose.” “The organic model, suggests, he says “evolutionary processes,” capacities which are purposeful, “creative levels, plastic categories, diversity, uniqueness, mutual support, and the like” (Ibid., 110).

Human beings, he considered, were “continuous with nature.” He says “Human purposes are grounded in experimental experience, conditioned by the knowledge of relations, aim to attain goals that are judged valuable, and are directed by intelligence” (Ibid.).

Morality is relative rather than absolute. We measure what is good or bad, “not as a quest for absolute standards of right and wrong but as a search for values ‘for the promotion of the common welfare'” (Ibid., 116). And “humanistic ethics is experimental, for it lays no claim to finality” (Ibid.). “Human values have no cosmic significance; a value is what humans esteem. Without a human being, the evaluator, value does not exist” (Ibid., 117).

Charles Francis Potter

Charles Francis Potter was born in 1885 in Marlboro, Massachusetts, to a hard-working family; his father worked in a shoe factory. He, too, was born into a Baptist household which was active in the First Baptist Church. Even as a child he was interested in religion, asking all the big questions, which did not always receive satisfactory answers.

He became a Sunday school teacher at the age of fourteen. When he found that the children in his classes asked the same good questions as he had — and he found he did not have satisfactory answers, he determined that he would go to college and then theological school.

He was a good enough student that he was accepted into Bucknell University in 1903 with only two and a half years of high school study. He put himself through school, in part by doing odd jobs, in part by speaking at small rural churches on Sundays. He transferred to Brown University in his sophomore year so that he could be nearer to home and although his academic work there is described as “excellent,” he found that he could not afford the tuition, so, reluctantly, he returned to Bucknell.

The time at Brown was crucial, though, because that was where he met Dr. William Herbert Perry Faunce, who was the president of the school and who “took him under his wing.” Through Faunce, Potter became aware of the works of a German theologian named Adolf Harnack, who had written a probing critique called What Is Christianity?

After graduation from Bucknell summa cum laude, Potter entered the Newton Theological Institute (which would one day merge with the Andover Theological School to become Andover-Newton Theological School). He was ordained into Baptist ministry at the age of 22, first serving a church in Dover, NH for two years, then serving in the Mattapan Baptist Church in Boston to be closer to the theological school for his last two years of study.

In what is now becoming a familiar story, Potter found that his intellectual training made it impossible to believe in the tenets of the faith that he had embraced as a child, and in 1914, he resigned his ministry. “He could no longer believe in the church’s teachings about messianic prophecy and the second coming of Christ; nor could he believe in saving grace and salvation through the blood of Jesus.” (Ibid., 126) His concerns were drawn to ethics; he became a Unitarian.

His first position as a Unitarian minister was at a mission church in Edmonton, Alberta; under his ministry, the first Unitarian church in that city was built. During this period (1914-1916), Potter first heard of two other ministers who were preaching something like humanism. Their names were John H. Dietrich and Curtis W. Reese.

Potter left Edmonton in 1916 to return to Massachusetts. He held short ministries in two churches before heading to New York City in 1919 to become the minister of the West Side Unitarian Church. This was an interesting time.

The fundamentalist movement had been rattled by the inroads of intellectualism made by such developments as the “higher criticism” and its entrance into the curricula at theological schools. Smarting from the setback, they decided to “fight back,” as it were, against what were called the “modernists.” The theory of evolution seemed to repudiate the account in Genesis of how the Earth was populated and especially called into question the accepted view of the special role of human beings in the grand scheme of things.

The pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church was John Roach Straton. Mason Olds calls him the “unchallenged leader of the fundamentalist cause in New York City” (Ibid., 127). In early December, 1923, he brought together a group of well-known fundamentalists, including William Jennings Bryan, to “launch a campaign against the modernists.

Potter read the newspaper accounts of the meetings and reports of personal attacks against liberal ministers who were his personal acquaintances.” He decided to get involved. What followed became well-known as the “Straton-Potter debates.”

Five debates were to be held between Straton and Potter. The first one was held on December 20, 1923, at the Cavalry Baptist Church. It drew a crowd of 2,500 — more than could fit in the building. The subject was “Resolved, That the Bible Is the Infallible Word of God.” Potter took the negative position, of course, and was declared the winner.

The next three debates were held at Carnegie Hall before a full house. The second debate was about five weeks later. It was called “Resolved, That the Earth and Man Came from Evolution.” The judges awarded the debate to Straton, but a radio poll found Potter the winner by a 57 to 43% margin.

The third debate was on March 22, 1924: “Resolved, That the Miraculous Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ Is a Fact and that It Is Essential Christian Doctrine.” Potter won the debate on a split decision — kind of like a boxing match, isn’t it?

Straton won the fourth debate in late April, arguing for the negative, of course, in a contest called “Resolved, that Jesus Christ was Entirely Man instead of Incarnate Deity.”

The fifth debate could not be scheduled because Potter could not get Straton to agree to follow through. The topic was to have been “Resolved, that Jesus Christ Will Return in Bodily Presence to this Earth and Establish the Reign of Universal Peace and Righteousness.”

Mason Olds speculates that “Straton obviously saw the difficulty of winning a debate on such a subject” (Ibid., 128). Some of his advisers, it appeared, had been warning him to cancel the debate because it appeared that with each debate, the uncommitted were being converted to Unitarianism. Straton, apparently, entered the debates with the hope of reconverting Potter to the Baptist faith. That, obviously, was failing, and may have been another reason that Straton saw no reason to go on with the debates.

In 1925, the Scopes Trial was held in Dayton, Tennessee. Potter attended as a “librarian and Bible expert for the defense.” The trial followed the debate series in that the questions debated were much the same. Potter was convinced, it appears, “that the people in Dayton who instigated the Scopes Trial got the idea from reading newspaper accounts of the Potter-Straton debates” (Ibid., 129).

There is much more to be said about Charles Francis Potter: his organization of the First Humanist Society of New York; his books, some of which were very successful, including one called The Lost Years of Jesus, speculating that Jesus was a member of the Essene community; his thoughts about “intuition,” and what he called “creative personality,” by which he understood salvation.

Humanism in Unitarianism

But as I warned you at the start, we won’t have time in this introduction to Unitarian humanism to cover it all. Let’s just end with this observation: when surveys are taken of Unitarian Universalists concerning their belief systems, the usual wide range of beliefs are represented, but fully half call themselves “humanists” of one stripe or another.

This is a historical and an institutional development and must be traced back to the work of Baptist and other mainline Protestant ministers who became Unitarian ministers who took a stand on the side of curiosity, intellect and courage, who stood up for what they believed despite the controversy it caused, in order to advance the cause of reason and logic and the legitimacy of the idea of a religion without God.

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