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Edwin Wilson Manifesto Ch16


Six Years Later: A Call to Revise the Manifesto

As we’ve seen, soon after "A Humanist Manifesto" was published in 1933, there were those who, for various reasons, wanted a revision of the document, and the call continued in the ensuing years. Dr. Charles Francis Potter, who had reprinted the manifesto in his 1933 book, Humanizing Religion, brought the issue to an unavoidable point in 1939, when he mailed a letter to most of the original signers stating that there was a great need for reprinting the manifesto but that his focus was on a new or revised edition. On March 22, 1939, Dr. Potter wrote to Dr. Bernard Fantus of the College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago:

You will remember that at the time the Manifesto was drawn up a number of those who signed it were not in full agreement with all its theses or with its phraseology. It was announced that it was a tentative form and would probably be changed.

Nearly six years have elapsed and no changes have been made. Meanwhile the world has been rolling along and we have had more light on the thought of Humanism. I think that the time has come for a revision of the Manifesto, and I believe that the number of signatures could be greatly increased.

I am writing this letter to ask you, as a signer of the Manifesto, if you think it should be revised, and, if so, in what way. If a considerable number agree that it should be changed, a committee can get to work on it.

These paragraphs were apparently in the letter sent to the other signers. On that same day, Potter wrote to me in greater length:

We have had such a call for copies of the Humanist Manifesto that I have had it printed with an introduction taken from my book, "Humanizing Religion." It was available only in that book and in a back number of the New Humanist. I am enclosing a copy herewith as a sample. Nearly six years have elapsed and no changes have been made. Meanwhile the world has been rolling along and we have had more light on the thought of Humanism.

I think that the time has come for a revision of the Manifesto, and I believe that the number of signatures could be greatly increased. For instance, I think that the eighth thesis might well be rephrased to include the point that man is an end in himself and not a means to the glory of God or the glory of the totalitarian state. What do you think about it?

Recently I have come into contact with a number of Humanists outside the Unitarian fold, many of them prominent in executive positions in social reform work. I have sat in conference with them, one time with over a hundred, and there are some significant developments impending. They are working on a statement of principles much resembling the Manifesto, but arrived at independently of it.

A month ago I was in Washington and conferred with several leading men there. There seems to be a feeling on the part of many of the real leaders of America that the current proposition to unite Catholics, Jews and Protestants in a three-faith movement for the strengthening of democracy will not adequately solve the problem facing our country, largely because of the difficulty of reconciling supernaturalistic theism with the modem scientific point-of-view. Humanism seems to be looked upon with increasing favor as a possible basic philosophy, at least for those Americans who have no connection with any existing religious organization.

I am sending this letter to several who signed the Manifesto and would appreciate hearing from you at your convenience. If there is a general agreement that the Manifesto should be revised, we can then plan to go ahead and do it.

Dr. Potter’s letters brought a quick reaction from the signatories, including the four of us who comprised the editorial committee of "A Humanist Manifesto." On March 28, 1939, Bragg wrote to me from Minneapolis, where he was minister of the First Unitarian Society (succeeding John H. Dietrich):

Did you have a letter from Potter about revising the Humanist Manifesto? I rather suspect that the same letters went to all signers of the original document. We will have to answer the letter in the not too distant future and ought to be pointing in the same direction. . . . Write me promptly about your inclination in this matter.

Bragg reflected the general opinion of the Chicago group that, if a revision were to be attempted, it should be by the Humanist Press Association, which held the copyright. The feeling was that, because of his flare for publicity, humanism might become too exclusively identified with Potter. Moreover, at least one HPA officer felt that Potter’s actions to initiate revision were presumptuous. I, too, was somewhat of a promoter and admired Dr. Potter’s publicity skills. We had worked together in the past to try to keep The New Humanist afloat.1 Caught in the middle, I tried to mediate.

Letters about the revision idea kept coming to Dr. Fantus, who at the time was bedfast. Dr. Fantus wrote to me on March 29, 1939, referring to Potter’s "circular letter" of March 28:

For the last few days I have amused myself by writing enclosed modification of "The Manifesto" which I did without any other idea than attempting to express suggestions that, in my opinion, "The Manifesto" as we have it at present is somewhat too scholastic to serve the purpose of a document that might set the world aflame. Believe you will agree with me that nothing but a religious flame can save the world from a holocaust that may mean the sacrifice of most of our human civilization as we know it today.

Dr. Fantus penciled a first draft on the back of Dr. Potter’s March 22 letter. This deathbed revision, entitled "A Humanist’s Affirmation," was printed and widely circulated. Dr. Fantus felt that the ideas he included were needed in the world; he sought to affirm that which could guide men and women of widely differing circumstances. As I later described Fantus at his funeral, I said: "In his quiet, efficient way, he combined a command of scientific method, creative imagination, practical skill, and humanitarian idealism as have few men in our time." Three days after his memorial service, the new clinics of the Cook County Hospital in Illinois were formally dedicated as the Bernard Fantus Clinics.

Raymond Bragg wrote to me again in April 1939, stating that he could not get to Chicago for a meeting of the HPA executive committee which I had proposed. He said:

I am writing to Potter saying that some of the Chicago men are meeting next week, that nothing can be done until we hear from the Chicago group. Certainly we can take the position that things center in the H.P.A. and that independent action is inadequate.

The Reverend John Hershey, a personal friend and correspondent of mine (who held special concern for Latin and South American humanists), aggravated the situation by circulating extracts from a personal letter he had received from me. One recipient was Joseph Walker, the prominent Boston attorney who had signed the manifesto. Hershey’s letter contained quotes from me, without my knowledge or consent. This letter was also sent to Professor J. A. C. F. Auer and Albert Dieffenbach, then editor of the Christian Register. The letter read:

I send you herewith extracts from a letter that has come to me from Ed Wilson. You will note that he suggests (1) non-cooperation with Mr. Potter and (2) a method for revision of the Manifesto through committees.

Ed writes me that he would very much like to have the opinion of the Boston signers of the Manifesto regarding these two matters. Will you kindly advise him what you think should be done? . . .

I then wrote to my friend Hershey:

I doubt that it was wise of you to copy my personal letter to you and send extracts on to Walker or anyone else, John. I was quite frank with you and I am hopeful that you know that Mr. Walker is not a close friend and admirer of Potter’s. It would jamb things up. Please don’t quote from my letters to you in writing to anyone as I’m accustomed to being franker with you than I might be on certain diplomatic matters in print.

John Hershey’s intentions were good, but I urged him to tell Walker that the letter had been personal, from me to Hershey. I also said that I would have Hershey’s status as representative of HPA in Boston confirmed by the executive committee.

My letter to Hershey had expressed concern about procedure and was not meant to derogate Dr. Potter. Behind the attitudes apprehensive of unilateral action by Potter was the suspicion (perhaps tinged with envy) of both the liberal ministers and academic colleagues of anyone who could draw a crowd or make the headlines as did Charles Francis Potter.

The files contain an unsigned and undated carbon of a letter written by either Bragg or me-probably a draft of one mailed to the signers of the 1933 document. It reads:

Charles Potter of N.Y. has taken unto himself the task of revising the Humanist Manifesto. I gave him permission to reprint the Manifesto in his book, but he did not ask or receive permission to reprint it, as he has, under the name of his Society. He has written all signers of the Humanist Manifesto.

I am writing men in various parts of the country asking them to get in touch with nearby manifesto signers asking them to send any opinions or suggested revisions of the Manifesto to the H.P.A. and not to cooperate with Potter. He has not asked permission or cooperation from our organization although he did write me as if he were proposing the revision but apparently at the same time he wrote these other men.

I suggest a committee, perhaps including Potter, to go on with the revision. Perhaps studies of the Manifesto in three or four cities culminating in a central committee correlating the material. What do you think?

Albert C. Dieffenbach expressed his opinion in a letter he wrote on April 10, 1939, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in which he stated-a judgment that ultimately prevailed-that "A Humanist Manifesto" was a dated document to be interpreted in terms of the situation at the time of its publication. As a journalist as well as a liberal minister, he appreciated (as did I) Dr. Potter’s publicity skills; however, he disagreed with him on a revision. His letter read:

I have already written Charles Potter I’m against revision. This was a manifesto, and is, a thing not to be changed any more than the Declaration of Independence, the 39 Articles, or such, may be changed. There may be addenda or the equivalent of amendments, but the Manifesto is there, once and for all. I have so told Auer, with whom I labored on the original at the insistence of Ray Bragg with great pains. Auer’s contribution was very great. I believe he and I agree on this, but by all means keep peace and fellowship with Potter who is a potent ally and propagator of Humanism.

On April 10, 1939, I wrote to Charles Potter:

I have been discussing your suggestion of the Humanist Manifesto. It is not a new idea as it has come up now and again. The feeling was that we needed a more explicit statement, or program.

Curtis Reese, Eustace Haydon and Ray Bragg all agree that the matter should be handled through the Humanist Press Association. A meeting of the Executive Committee will be held this week to confirm the appointment of a committee on revision which will include the original committee plus several others.

The committee which drafted the Manifesto was composed of Roy Wood Sellars, A. E. Haydon, R. B. Bragg, Curtis Reese, and myself. We would like to have you serve on the new committee. Probably J. A. C. F. Auer and E. A. Burtt will also be asked to serve.

There is one point which needs to be thrashed out and that is whether we should let the old Manifesto stand for what it was-the statement of a developing position at a particular time and proceed to a new statement striking at the present world crisis and command the cooperation of men like Benes, Thomas Mann, Einstein, et cetera. What do you think?

I feel, personally, that this is the best way to handle revision. There are various viewpoints which need to be represented by a committee representative of all and not too closely to any one of them.

By this time, Dr. Potter, who regularly addressed meetings of the First Humanist Society of New York at Steinway Hall, had gathered a notable list of sponsors. As members of his advisory board, his letterhead lists over thirty well-known people, including John Dewey, Will Durant, Helen Keller, James H. Leuba, Herbert Bayard Swope, and Oswald Garrison Villard. Later the name of Albert Einstein would be added. Dr. Potter realized the worldwide potential of humanism and the value of prestigious names. His letter to me, dated April 12, 1939, shows his global vision of humanism as well as his willingness to cooperate with others:

I have your letter of the 10th and agree that the matter of the proposed revision of the 1933 Manifesto or the issuing of a new one should be handled through the H.P.A. And I accept your invitation to serve on the committee. Auer and Burtt would make good members.

As for the choice between revising the 1933 Manifesto or issuing a new one, I incline toward the latter course. Several of the 16 men who have answered my letter urge letting the old statement stand as a dated document, although they do not now agree with all its theses as they are phrased. Most of them, however, indicated some revision they would make if revision were decided upon.

Not only Benes, Mann, and Einstein, but also many other leaders would sign a new manifesto. I am in touch with many non-Unitarian humanists, especially among the social scientists. There is a surprising interest in religious humanism in Washington, D.C. I had a talk about humanism with Sec’y Hull in February, an appointment arranged by F D. R. himself after he read my sermon in the N.Y. Times.

Dr. Borchard of Yale, expert on International law often consulted by Hull and Roosevelt, who went to Lima and back with Hull, is a member of our society here, and has been talking humanism to them. Several other administration men are humanists.

I think we have a splendid chance to get some topnotch scientists to sign a manifesto, for I have talked with a number of them and they are distinctly on our side. I have recently been invited to address the next annual convention of the [American Academy for the Advancement of Science] on Humanism and Science. That grew out of a three-day conference with 100 social scientists in Washington a year ago. This group has just adopted the term "Scientific Humanism" to describe their belief.

Dr. Har Dayal of India and London, a splendid scholar who could lecture fluently in eight languages, spoke for me here on "Why I Am a Humanist," and joined our society, but, alas, he just died of a heart attack.

Auer was down last week and we had a long session, discussing the manifesto.

Burtt is speaking for me next Sunday and I will talk with him about it. Aronson speaks for me the 30th, and I’m sure he would sign. We ought to get at least a hundred good names.

As the representative of the HPA executive committee, I then sent a questionnaire to a select number of humanists:

The Executive Committee of the Humanist Press Association feels that the question of revision or of making a new declaration should be handled by a representative committee of the HPA. They are inclined to let the first Manifesto stand as a dated document and issue a new statement along new lines. Will you please fill in and return the enclosed blank as a preliminary step.

A Project for a Humanist Declaration of Faith in Man

Committee: C. W. Reese, Chairman; E. H. Wilson, Secretary; J. A. C. F. Auer; E. A. Burtt; R. B. Bragg; A. E. Haydon; R. W. Sellars; M. C. Otto; C. F. Potter

  1. Do you personally prefer (1) a revision of the original Manifesto (1933) or (2) a new declaration?
  2. Make any suggestions or comments on this sheet or in accompanying letter as to methods, objectives of developing the new affirmation.
  3. Please list here topics that you believe need to be covered or try your hand at a first draft of such a statement.
  4. What title would you suggest for the new declaration? (As for instance "Humanist Declaration of Faith and Action".)
  5. List here or on additional sheet names and addresses of leaders, in addition to signers of the original Manifesto, who should be asked to sign the new one.

In going through the files, I found records of only three responses to my letter (although it’s possible there might have been more in subsequent correspondence). These three commentators-R. W. Sellars, M. C. Otto, and E. A. Burtt (coincidentally all philosophers and members of the revision committee)-all preferred a new statement rather than a revision of the 1933 manifesto. Each of them responded to all the questions, but the following quotes are their answers to the second point. Professor Burtt wrote:

You have probably considered the question of how much this Manifesto is to take in-how much of the world. That constitutes a problem. If you take in too much territory, the statement will tend to be vague; if too little territory, it will not be a representative statement. And I hope any Manifesto sent out will be characteristic of the humility which its situation calls for.

Professor Sellars wrote that the declaration "must not be too journalistic but stress principles and indicate their implications." Professor Otto replied: "Let us try to rally with us all who have faith in the possibility of a finer life for men and women through intelligent cooperation

Ultimately, a committee meeting proved impossible, as members were just too widespread and there was no funding for travel expenses. Clearly this was frustrating to Dr. Potter, who wrote me a number of times alternately expressing his eagerness to see a new document and his frustration with the HPA committee that just "fizzled out."


1. By this time, The New Humanist had ceased publication due to lack of funding. Additionally, in 1936 a fire destroyed the building of the Third Unitarian Church, and it was my responsibility to raise the funds to rebuild the church, a task that took up a great deal of my time and energy. However, in 1938, by popular demand. and under the auspices of the Humanist Press Association, I started a newsletter called The Humanist Bulletin, which filled the gap between the cessation ofThe New Humanist and the commencement in 1941 of The Humanist.


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