Home » Library » Modern Library » Edwin Wilson Manifesto Ch6

Edwin Wilson Manifesto Ch6


Early Responses from Signers

Dr. E. A. Burtt

Dr. E. A. Burtt of Cornell University’s Sage School of Philosophy, was one of the most prompt and thorough critics of the proposed manifesto. Six years later, in the first edition of his excellent book, Types of Religious Philosophy, Dr. Burtt placed religious humanism in a broad setting, comparing Bertrand Russell’s humanism with that of Roy Wood Sellars’ in The Next Step in Religion. The writings of Dr. Sellars, according to Dr. Burtt, prominently represent a more mature form of realistic humanism. Dr. Burtt contrasts Sellars’ realistic humanism with pragmatic humanism.

As editing of "A Humanist Manifesto" continued, it seems that thinkers of various philosophic schools met ethically and religiously at humanism. On April 10, 1933, Dr. Burtt wrote to Raymond Bragg:

I have just received the copy you kindly sent me of the projected Humanist Manifesto. I beg of you with all the earnestness at my command not to publish this statement without further consideration of its implications. It is not that my own agreement and signature are of any consequence, but I am sure that a manifesto in this form will distress and alienate from the humanist movement a large number of people whom it is not at all necessary to alienate. It is quite possible that this public pronouncement, signed by the persons whose support you contemplate securing, will mark a historic landmark in the development of religious humanism, and will be accepted by the public for what it claims to be, namely a creedal definition of the essentials of religious humanism whose major implications ought to be accepted by anyone who proposes henceforth to call himself a humanist and wishes to cooperate fraternally in his religious life with other humanists. For this reason it seems to me that it would be a tragic calamity not to make sure with the utmost care and caution that the pronouncement opposes only those positions and ideas which are irreconcilable with the essential matters on which those in profound sympathy with the humanist movement take their stand. Just at the moment I am absorbed in other duties that cannot be put off, but in a day or two I shall venture to write again, making specific suggestions which in my judgment are necessary if the unfortunate consequences above mentioned are to be avoided. Briefly, it seems to me that a natural reading of this statement would assume that it commits itself to a particular theory of naturalism, excluding all other naturalisms such as the Aristotelian, which would allow a certain metaphysical reality to teleological relations, irreducible to casual connections of the material and genetic types. It would assume that the humanism denies the reality and religious value of all entities transcending human experience, whereas, if I have read my humanist friends correctly, all that they mean to insist upon as essential is that if such entities are accepted their meaning and value for us may be constructed in terms derived solely from human experience. It would assume that humanism denies the legitimacy of carrying over terms (such as God) from the older religious framework, whereas all that is needful to insist upon is that if these terms are carried over they must be fully and honestly reinterpreted in terms’ consistent with scientific truth and shareable human values.

Please do not make the irreparable mistake of letting this go quite yet.

Raymond Bragg replied to Burtt on April 13, 1933:

Your letter of April 10th regarding the Humanist Manifesto is a splendid thing. Needless to say, everyone nearest the formulation of the statement is willing to hold up publication until your suggestions are in a specific form. Indeed several exceedingly helpful and constructive suggestions have reached us since we circulated the draft. About twenty-five have signed the statement as it stands and they represent a surprising group of individuals.

I dislike to hurry you when a matter at hand is so important. However, it seems important that we get this thing in something like presentable form in the near future. When your next letter comes several of us will get together and act upon your suggestions. You are aware how difficult it is to do a thing of this sort without full conference. I undertook the general supervision of the thing and I have spent endless time on it. With limited means and a busy life it has been no easy task. I feel that it has all been profitable in view of responses both favorable and critical. I will be looking forward to hearing from you.

Dr. Burtt, however, had not waited for a reply from Bragg, because on April 12, 1933, he sent the promised additional letter. Accompanying it was the original document with the changes specified in his own handwriting. His response read:

Following my letter of yesterday I am offering herewith a few suggestions which I hope you and your friends who have been preparing the manifesto will be disposed to feel can be introduced into it without prejudice to any conviction which you and they regard as vital. If you do decide to include the substance of them I should be glad to have my name appear as one of the signers in case you wish to add it. In any event their inclusion, I believe, will aid in preventing the alienation from the humanist movement of a group of people whom there is no need to repel.

First, a few quite minor suggestions which are mainly matters of choice of words. Line 6 of second paragraph, for "exercise control over" substitute "win adjustment to." Line 3 of third paragraph, for "any such" substitute "such a." Line 8 of third paragraph, substitute "shaped" for "created " In the second thesis, for "child" substitute "part." In the fifth thesis, for "procedure" substitute "forecasts and methods." In the seventh thesis substitute the first word of the last sentence by "Any sharp." In the fifteenth thesis, end (c) with "satisfactory life for all, not merely for a few."

More important matters are, in my judgment, the following. The first sentence of the third thesis, as it stands, might seem to claim conclusiveness on a matter which science has not conclusively decided, and to commit humanism to the old-fashioned sort of materialism. Would it not be enough to say: "Mind and body are closely interconnected?" Between the fifth and sixth theses, as they stand, it would seem to me very important to insert another, reading in the substance as follows: "In denying the supernatural humanism does not deny the existence of realities transcending human experience. But it insists that the only dependable way of determining the meaning and value for us of such realities, as of any others, is by the honest study and intelligent assessment of human experiences of value realized in relation to such realities." In the same way it seems to me important to add to the sixth thesis a second sentence reading in substance: "If terms such as God, salvation, soul, and the like, are to be retained in humanist thought, they must be reinterpreted without reservation in terms of verifiable scientific knowledge and empirically discoverable human values."

The above three changes, if made, would, it seems to me, overcome the main difficulties of the manifesto in its present form. Two other additions, however, seem to me highly desirable. Since it is absurd to expect the organization of the church, the ministry, etc., to remain the same when the accompanying theology has been exploded, I should insert between the thirteenth and fourteenth theses another reading: "Humanism expects that religious associations will pass through a progressive remolding, as experience teaches the best methods by which humanists may cooperatively further their common aims." I also feel some sort of gap between the fourteenth and fifteenth theses which would be remedied by the insertion of a thesis like this: "The ultimate goal of humanism is the universal cooperation of mankind in intelligent pursuit of the common good."

I hope I have not seemed presumptuous in sending these suggestions. The reason for my great concern is expressed in yesterday’s letter, so I shall not repeat it. We may be at an important turning point in religious history, and it seems to me imperative for such a pronouncement as this to be clear and uncompromising on the fundamentals while carefully avoiding implications which are not essential to fundamentals.

John Herman Randall

On April 13, 1933, I received a letter from John Herman Randall, Jr., of the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University. Randall wrote that he had received our letter of April 10 addressed to him at Columbia but had not seen "A Humanist Manifesto" mentioned therein. In fact, he said, "I have received no copies or other communications from The New Humanist during the current year" and asked that his address be checked, at the same time requesting a copy of the manifesto. I replied to Professor Randall on April 7, 1933:

I don’t know by what slip a copy of the Manifesto failed to reach you. Our checklists show that a copy was sent to you in the very first batch. The Manifesto, as it stands, has received the signature of some very prominent men, including Robert Morss Lovett, John Dewey, Harry Elmer Barnes, A. J. Carlson of the Department of Physiology of Chicago University, J. A. C. F. Auer of the Harvard Divinity School, A. E. Haydon, R. W. Sellars, and over twenty others.

As the Manifesto stands it is subject to some slight revisions as many constructive criticisms have come to us. Perhaps the most searching criticism received is that from Prof. E. A. Burtt of the Sage School of Philosophy at Cornell who is concerned that the manifesto shall not imply old fashioned materialism, and also not rule out certain humanists of the Aristotelian type. He suggests the following additional thesis, to be inserted between the fifth and sixth theses: "In denying the supernatural, humanism does not deny the possibility of existence of realities transcending human experience. But it insists that the only dependable way of determining the meaning and value to us of such realities, as of any others, is by the honest study and intelligent assessment of human experiences (of value realized in relation to such realities)."

He (Dr. Burtt) would add the following to the sixth thesis: "If terms such as God, salvation, soul, and the like are to be retained in humanist thought at all, they must be reinterpreted without reservation in terms of verifiable scientific knowledge and empirically discoverable human values."

I then summarized in my letter the suggestions made in Dr. Burtt’s letter for several changes and additions in these theses.

I am giving you these suggested changes because the interested group in Chicago will have one more session to consider all suggested changes before the final release to the press, and any comment you may be able to send us by return air mail will be helpful when Bragg, Reese, Haydon, Rabbi Goldman, and myself get together this week, probably Thursday. We’d like your signature to the existing document and if any substantial changes are made we’ll resubmit the Manifesto with changes to all signers. We’d like your comments on Prof. Burtt’s suggestions, too. They meet the needs of men such as John Haynes Holmes and others who have been sympathetic but critical this far. We’ll look forward to your answer. I am my own typist so you’ll kindly excuse the form of this letter.

Although that letter mentions Rabbi Goldman, there is no record of Solomon Goldman ever having taken part in the discussion and, obviously, he never signed the manifesto.

Dr. Burtt’s searching criticisms raised much concern. Dr. Randall sent us his signature on April 18, saying: "I object to Burtt’s change in the third thesis, other changes acceptable. I very much dislike the crass optimism of the last two sentences of the Manifesto." And Burtt’s comments prompted Dr. Bragg to write to John Dewey on April 13:

Some very constructive criticism of the form and content of the Humanist Manifesto have come to us in the last few days and have brought us to the decision that revision is advisable. Among those whose criticisms will be taken into consideration in this revision are: President Arthur E. Morgan of Antioch College, Professor E. A. Burtt of Cornell; Professor A. E. Haydon of Chicago; Dr. John Haynes Holmes.

Whether you feel able or disposed to sign the Manifesto in any form or not, we would appreciate greatly your suggestions and criticisms of the form sent to you. In case that has become lost we are sending you another copy by separate mail.

If in the next day or two you could send us your suggestions for any alterations, additions or deletions we would appreciate your advice greatly. If you wish us to withhold your name as having any connection with the Manifesto until you have had an opportunity to consider the final draft, we shall of course do so. This matter of revision changes of course the situation outlined in my letter sent to you earlier in the week.

Dr. Dewey returned the draft sent to him without change or comment-simply signing his name.

The Boston Connection

Under the leadership of Dr. Albert Dieffenbach, some of the Boston humanists consulted each other about "A Humanist Manifesto." Dr. Dieffenbach was a former editor of the Unitarian periodical, Christian Register1; a minister of the Unitarian church in Newton Center, Massachusetts; and the newly appointed religion editor of the Boston Evening Transcript. He wrote to Bragg on April 18, 1933, that he had had long talks with both Maynard Shipley, president and founder of the Science League of America, and Joseph Walker, a prominent Boston attorney.

Maynard Shipley’s fascination with science led him to publish two books: The War on Modern Science (1927) and The Key to Evolution (1929). He was a popular public and radio lecturer on astronomy and evolution. Unfortunately, Shipley died in June 1934, just thirteen months after signing the manifesto.

Joseph Walker was a good deal different from most of the manifesto’s signers by virtue of his profession, his political activism, and his arrival at a humanist perspective independent of any formal movement. He had been a Republican candidate for governor of Massachusetts and, for two years, Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. In 1932, with the encouragement of John Dietrich, Walker published Humanism As a Way of Life. Dieffenbach wrote:

Joseph Walker signs. He is absolutely in sympathy with our central idea, and has no use for your Millikans and Eddingtons. He will study the Manifesto and write you. He wondered if it was the right time. I told him it was, for example Auer’s lectures, publications of them by the AUA [American Unitarian Association], the lining up of Dewey, Haydon, Reese, and yourself about whom he wanted "info." I told him if there was anything in the Manifesto which he might care to modify, it would be most carefully considered. On the whole, the prospect for him is good, and I hope he does not unduly delay.

Walker sent no comments, and his name was used on Dr. Dieffenbach’s authority.


1. The Christian Register bore a name long retained by the Unitarians for the ostensible reason that it was then the oldest religious periodical in the United States to be published continuously under the same name. With the Universalist merger in 1961, the need for change prevailed, and the Unitarian Universalist World became the ultimate successor to that denominational organ.


Copyright © 1995 by Humanist Press, a division of the American Humanist Association, 7 Harwood Drive, P.O. Box 1188, Amherst, NY 14226-7188. (Phone 1-800-743-6646 or 1-716-839-5080.) All rights reserved. This book may be downloaded for personal use only. Otherwise, no part of it may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means – electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise – without the written permission of Humanist Press. The hard copy edition is available from the above address.