Earlier this winter we were gathered for a class about early Unitarianism and Universalism, reading excerpts from the sermons of our earliest fore-parents who were explicitly Christian and believed in the authority of scripture and the saving power of Jesus, someone asked “so how did we get from there to where we are today?” This is the story of one huge turning point in our movement, the bend around which we turn to find a clear view of the Unitarian Universalism of today. This is the story of the dawn of modern humanism.
It begins with a minister born right here in Pennsylvania, in Chambersberg to be exact. A John Dietrich who grew up and started his career as a minister of the Reformed church, but was tried by his church for heresy and defrocked. And so he did what so many good heretics have done, he converted to Unitarianism and moved to the west coast where he began his career as a Unitarian Minister in Spokane Washington in 1911.
It begins with a Baptist preacher called Curtis Reese who, while he was in seminary found that the new theories of biblical criticism undermined his fundamentalist upbringing, his belief that the bible was the literal unerring truth. He too converted to Unitarianism in 1913 and worked for a more “democratic” religion as opposed to what he thought of as the “autocratic” Christianity.
It begins with Charles Potter, another Baptist preacher, whose colleagues questioned the theology in his preaching. He preached a sermon for the AUA national secretary Lewis Wilson about Jesus, and after hearing the sermon Wislon “Declared him a Unitarian.” Potter also converted to Unitarianism in 1914 and was called to us first Unitarian church in Edmonton Canada, where he was introduced to the ideas of Dietrich, and realized that he was not alone in his crazy ideas. Potter was called on as a witness for the defense in the famous “Scopes” trials.
One of the things you will notice about all these folks, aside from the fact that they were “come-outers” that is to say, folks that left another religion to become Unitarians, is that they all served Unitarianism in the west. Whereas on the East Coast many Unitarians had grown up in the faith which embraced the older UU theologies and practices, Western Unitarianism (which included the mid-west) was a hotbed of new thought populated mostly by other “come-outers.”
This is the first gift of Humanism. “Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.” In this time of great scientific advance, people wanted a faith that harmonized with the teachings of science, and demanded a higher burden of proof for their belifs. In the words of Reese, folks “who are afraid to face the facts about their own beliefs lest they lose their faith altogether…such people are building their faith upon the sand” (Reese in Robinson p. 150) At a time when the shape of modern life was crumbling some old beliefs, humanism emerged as a strong place to stand, a faith based on the hard physical laws of reality, rather than the metaphysical beliefs which required a leap of faith. we see in the First tenant FIRST: Religious humanists regard the universe as self-existing and not created. And SECOND: Humanism believes that man is a part of nature and that he has emerged as a result of a continuous process. These humanists refused to profess anything that they couldn’t’ stand firmly on. As AUA President Frederick May Eliot (president from 1937-1958) remarked of the humanist “He may not believe very much as measured by orthodox standards, but what he does believe he believes with his whole mind” (Frederick May Eliot in Robinson p. 148).
The existence of God is not denied by these earliest humanists- this is a common misunderstanding by folks who use the words “humanist” and “atheist” interchangeably. Instead these humanist tenants show us a faith where religion had a “natural character” as
As Curtis Reese wrote in his “The Content of Present Day Religious Liberalism” “This is not the denial of the existence of significant and objective worths, but only the removal of the sat of authority from an indefinite something somewhere, to a definite self known to be native ot human existence.” (in Parke p. 135)
The debate that arose between the (mostly) west coast humanists and the (mostly) east coast opposition. The Humanist theist debate raged throughout the 1920s and 1930s and nearly split the denomination apart. One of the leading proponents of Unitarian Christian Theism was William L. Sullivan who was raised Roman Catholic and was ordained as a catholic priest in 1899 Roman Catholic Priest). It was a 1907 encyclical of Pope Puis X condemning modernism that caused Sullivan to leave the church, feeling like he couldn’t stay and feel honest. Despite his love for his church, he entered the Unitarian Ministry in 1912. He preached here on the east coast, in New York City and in Germantown Pennsylvania, and was an influential defenders of theism in 1920s. When Reese spoke of theism as “a monarchic view of religion that placed God in the role of master and humans in the role of slaves” Sullivan responded with a character of Reese’s God as “The Big Democrat whom we are to clap upon the back with an equalitarian ‘Howdy do, Camarado!”
When these early pioneers of humanism were going to seminary and starting out in their careers, Raymond Bragg was just a small boy, growing up in a Congregationalist family- Congregationalism is one of our closest religions neighbors- in fact we have often teamed up with them on things like women’s suffrage and abolition. While he was at college he was exposed to Unitarianism, and after graduating applied to Meadville theological school for seminary- one of the 2 Unitarian Universalist seminaries still training our ministers today.
It was Bragg whose name is headed up the effort to create the first Humanist Manifesto. He commissioned Roy Wood Sellars (another Unitarian who was a professor and prolific writer of philosophy) to make the original draft. Bragg and committee of other Humanists, revised and expanded the document. 34 humanists co-signed it, all men (it is assumed that no women were invited to sign) and of those 15 were Unitarian. The document had only 1 universalist signer- Clinton Lee Scott (who wrote our opening words and our closing words for worship today) . The Manifesto was published in the New Humanist, of which Bragg was then an editor.
The manifesto laid out clearly the substance of what I offer you today as the second gift of Humanism- the idea that human life, far from being sinful and something to be denied in favor of a glorious afterlife, human life is of deep value. The Seventh tenet of the manifesto reads “Religion consists of those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant. Nothing human is alien to the religious. It includes labor, art, science, philosophy, love, friendship, recreation--all that is in its degree expressive of intelligently satisfying human living. The distinction between the sacred and the secular can no longer be maintained.” This idea that the sacred and the secular were not distinct was not a new idea. We remember this idea from the transcendentalists who believed that God could be found in nature. In fact many of the transcendentalist ideas opened the way for humanism in the following generations. The eight tenant holds that “Religious Humanism considers the complete realization of human personality to be the end of man's life and seeks its development and fulfillment in the here and now.” As Curtis Reese wrote in an address he gave at Harvard divinity in 1920 “He is not willing to accept the promise of a distant estate of doubtful character and location in lieu of concrete worths and measurable values here and now. He believes that whatever the future may hold for him it must be the outcome of his own spiritual achievements.” (in Parke p. 134) No longer is our goal to earn an eternal reward, but to fulfill our human personality- and it is not just the fulfillment of a few intellectuals or historic figures the humanists are pointing to – but each and every human on the planet. "Believing that religion must work increasingly for joy in living, religious humanists aim to foster the creative in man and to encourage achievements that add to the satisfactions of life."
This is part of what makes humanism an essentially optimistic way of looking at the world. They put their faith in a belief that at the core human nature is good and worthy of being “of supreme worth” (Reese in Robinson p. 146), a belief in progress both of the individual spirit and of society. But this was also the source of the primary critique of humanism as well. Folks who looked at the atrocities humans have committed in our world, or folks who had experienced great tragedy in their own lives felt that this faith in humankind was not enough to, as it were, get them through the dark night.
Well, you can see why if the development of every human personality is the sole purpose of the human enterprise, you can see why a commitment to social justice would be so important. How could we stand by and see our brothers and sisters degraded, starving, or sitting behind a machine in a factory making $9 for 56 hour weeks as was the custom in industry at the time. (more on that when I speak on worker’s rights next month) How could one develop the human personality in such circumstances? Says the manifesto: “Humanism will… endeavor to establish the conditions of a satisfactory life for all, not merely for the few” If we believe in progress of the self and of society we must role up our sleeves.
So the third gift of humanism is its commitment to social action and the betterment of all. In this first manifesto we see a shining vision of what life should be for us all: “ The humanists are firmly convinced that existing acquisitive and profit-motivated society has shown itself to be inadequate [does this sound familiar? Still resonates with our political landscape today, doesn’t it] and that a radical change in methods, controls, and motives must be instituted. A socialized and cooperative economic order must be established to the end that the equitable distribution of the means of life be possible. The goal of humanism is a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good. Humanists demand a shared life in a shared world.” Wow. I want to live in that world. I want to work for that world. Moreover, this work we do for the betterment of society helps us to develop ourselves, the great end of human life. This work for social justice is the spiritual practice of the humanist. The NINTH tenant of the manifesto reads: “In the place of the old attitudes involved in worship and prayer the humanist finds his religious emotions expressed in a heightened sense of personal life and in a cooperative effort to promote social well-being.”
The name of this document is “A Humanist Manifesto” not “The Humanist Manifesto” and indeed two more manifestos followed, one in 1973 and one in 2003. The 1973 manifesto explicitly acknowledges that: “Events since then make that earlier statement seem far too optimistic. Nazism has shown the depths of brutality of which humanity is capable. Other totalitarian regimes have suppressed human rights without ending poverty. Science has sometimes brought evil as well as good. Recent decades have shown that inhuman wars can be made in the name of peace.” But if you take a look even at the 2003 manifesto you see that the core tenants are still the same – a religion based in science and in the physical, natural world, an elevation of the role of humanity to provide their own meaning and fulfill their own lives, and a knowing that we are all in this together, and that it is up to us to improve society for everyone.
It was just about 100 years ago that the first Humanist sermons were given in our Unitarian pulpits. Humanism changed our Unitarian and Universalist traditions forever, describing a bend in the road of modern thought. Today in this room we are humanist and Christian, Jewish and Pagan, but these humanist gifts are a legacy for all of us.
David B. Parke, ed. The Epic of Unitarianism: Original Writings from the History of Liberal Religion. Skinner House Books, 1985.
David Robinson. The Unitarians and the Universalists . Greenwood Press, 1985.