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"A Humanist Manifesto" - The Beginning

Raymond B. Bragg, as the associate editor of The New Humanist, initiated the project that resulted in the 1933 publication of "A Humanist Manifesto." In a letter dated February 17, 1970, reminiscing about the early stages, Bragg wrote: "The fact is that my job as Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference allowed me to move about to see people and to talk with them. It was a convenient post under the circumstances."

As he traveled about on his work for the conference, a number of people urged him to issue a definitive statement about humanism. Bragg writes in the same letter:

I believe the first person to discuss with me the importance of some kind of humanist blast was L. M. Birkhead.1 Charles Francis Potter was also insistent that something be done, though he had in mind a more popular thing, such as appeared in his book.2 I believe it was in 1931 when I appeared at his first and last Annual Humanist Conference [in New York] that he discussed the matter with me. Once discussed, you may recall, some of us felt that something ought to be done about it. . . .

The fact is that in academia there was fear of a merely journalistic or promotional approach. I can remember a crass example of commercialism with a man named Howard Kraus, who appeared in Minneapolis and wanted to promote humanism on a commission basis-much the same as the Ku Klux Klan had been promoted. Harold Buschman responded to Klaus' proposal by remarking, "That stinks!" Raymond Bragg also remembered being visited by Kraus at his Chicago office. "He talked about promoting humanism by endorsing various commodities, including contraceptives," Bragg recalled.

We may judge that fear of a shallow, unethical, or insensitive approach by someone was no small part of the motivation that led Bragg and others to start the project. Within the humanist movement, there was none of the drive or opportunism of the fundamentalist spell-binders described by Alan Bestic in Praise the Lord and Pass the Contribution. The televangelists of the 1980s had their prototypes from some years before.

When Raymond Bragg undertook the organizing of "A Humanist Manifesto," he was only thirty years old. He had been educated at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where there was a Unitarian geology professor who was successfully opening his students' eyes to the primacy of scientific inquiry. Having explored Unitarianism himself, Bragg decided to enter the theological school at Meadville, Pennsylvania. In 1926, he moved with the school to Chicago, where he became exposed to humanism under the tutelage of Dr. A. Eustace Haydon, Curtis Reese, and others. Bragg graduated from Meadville in 1928 and went on to a two-year ministry in Evanston, Illinois. He then moved back to Chicago to take the post as secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference.

Further recollections of the start of the project are found in a letter from Dr. Bragg to Dr. A. E. Haydon, dated March 3, 1971:

When I was Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference, driving from one end of the land to the other, several individuals talked to me about issuing a resounding statement that would put the Humanist position on the line. As an itinerant, it was thought that I could stop off here and there, seeking light and leading. There was also, I suspect, the fact that I had a full-time secretary when such a commodity was rare. There was a negative aspect to the enterprise. Charles Francis Potter was talking rather loudly about such a statement. Some had doubts as to whether the description of the movement should be left to him. Charles, as you recall, had some slap-dash quality regretted by not a few. In fact, I think you cautioned me against drawing too heavily on Potter.

To be fair, it should be stated that I did not fully share these apprehensions about Charles Francis Potter. After years in Unitarian churches, Dr. Potter gave his time and effort for still more years to lecturing at the First Humanist Society of New York without recompense; he earned his living by lecturing and writing-no small achievement. On occasion he protested to me against being considered a popularizer just because he could write so that the layperson could understand him. My respect for him grew with years of association, and before Potter died, he pointed to a shelf of books and documents and told his wife Clara "not to let anyone touch them until Ed Wilson took what he wanted for his library." Moreover, Potter cooperated fully with the project Bragg initiated and gave helpful advice on press releases and other publicity. By indicating that Dr. Potter was a catalyst, building fires under the meticulous academic men and stirring them to action, no disrespect is intended for his memory nor lack of appreciation for his unquestioned and unique contribution to the humanist movement. He put humanism in the headlines before "A Humanist Manifesto" was written.

Twenty years after the publication of the manifesto, Bragg wrote "An Historical Note," which appeared in the March/April 1953 issue of The Humanist as part of a symposium. He said:

For a year or more prior to the publication of the Humanist Manifesto in May, 1933, there was occasional talk of its preparation. In January of that year the talk reached the project stage. The Chicago group, once it had agreed on publication, realized the difficulties of composition by committee. Unanimously it was agreed to ask Roy Wood Sellars to prepare a draft that the undertaking might be launched.

Interestingly, in the March 3, 1971, letter to Dr. Haydon, Bragg remembered it this way:

Three of us who discussed the project had some hesitation about a committee sitting down cold to launch the matter. Better, it was thought, if someone drew up an initial draft to be maturely considered by several. . . . The certainty in me is that we wanted some one person to set down the propositions. . . .

In the autumn of 1932, Roy Wood Sellars lectured at the University of Chicago. Afterward I talked with him at some length about the need of a formulation. I asked him if he would be willing to set things down as a starter. It was agreed that I would write him in some detail as to what several of us had in mind. That I did.

Dr. Sellars was asked and, using the foundation of his work, the collating of views and editing was begun. As time passed and with aging, Dr. Sellars began to believe that he had single-handedly produced "A Humanist Manifesto." In fact, his initial draft was the basis of much input, editing, and revision, ending with a consensus declaration.

The Draft

The authorship of "A Humanist Manifesto" has frequently been debated. As noted, Dr. Sellars is often credited. After all the editing of successive versions, enough remained of its original substance to permit Dr. Sellars to recognize himself in the document. (And most certainly Dr. Sellars was among the earliest religious liberals to use the term humanist, which appears in the last chapter of his book, The Next Step in Religion.) However, Sellars was but a principal of many minds forming the consensus of "A Humanist Manifesto."

In a letter he wrote to me in 1970, Dr. Bragg noted:

I saw recently, I think in the Unitarian Universalist World, that Sellars was the author of "A Humanist Manifesto." That, as I indicated to you during the summer, is not quite the case. He did the first draft and it was worked over, not on one occasion, as I might have indicated, but on several. I do wish we might get hold of that original draft and compare it with what was finally published. This would not in any way depreciate Sellars' contribution. It would, however, keep closer to history.

Unfortunately, the original draft may be irretrievably lost. There were, however, nearly fifty archival drawers of material, including dossiers on everyone prominently connected with that new movement. In one of the drawers, we found, attached to a vitae of Dr. Sellars listing his books through 1933 but otherwise undated, what may be the outline of the talk Sellars gave at the University of Chicago when Bragg first approached him about the project-or it may be the first draft of the manifesto. We sent a copy to Dr. Sellars in 1970 asking if he could recall which it was. Our correspondence reached him at an Ann Arbor nursing home. At the age of ninety-one, his eyes were weakening and he had to use a cane to get about and could no longer care for himself. However, he claimed that his mind was unaffected and wrote:

I did give a talk at Chicago on invitation and it was suggested that I write something systematic and send it back for comments. I adopted the title "Humanist Manifesto" and sent the formulation back to Chicago for comment. There were a few separate comments on various points and then that second statement I took note of. This draft I sent out and it was sent around and signed and published.

The conviction that he had personally written and circulated "A Humanist Manifesto" appeared in correspondence and conversations with Dr. Sellars during his advanced years while we were seeking a copy of the original draft. On July 7, 1970, he replied from Ann Arbor:

The point is that I wrote the Manifesto, even giving it its title. I have never hitherto stressed the point. But it is getting late in my career and it should be known. I think I wrote you that a Catholic professor at Toronto has given the document an author whose name I had never heard of. It should be settled.

On another occasion, Dr. Sellars wrote:

I kept the first draft for a long time, even after I had retired and moved to Port Ryers. I remember that my son Wilfred3 sent it to me and said that I should keep it, but my wife Helen died, I did not think of it naturally, and it disappeared. You know the old saying that a move is like a fire.

Making allowance for age and the difficulties of recollecting a process that took place forty years before, we can state with some assurance that probably Dr. Sellars was not fully aware of the extent to which revision by others took place. When one considers that much younger men proved completely forgetful of the circumstances surrounding the Humanist Fellowship and its fate-not to mention the fact their experience with The New Humanist completely escaped their memories-one can understand Dr. Sellars' foggy memory of the considerable editing that produced the final document.

Twenty years after publication of "A Humanist Manifesto," Dr. Auer of Harvard University, a most meticulous church historian, wrote in a letter dated March 3, 1953:

I think you are under a misapprehension when you say that the Manifesto was originally written by Professor Sellars. I think that the first draft was originally made by Curtis Reese and Raymond Bragg. I recollect this because a copy was sent to me immediately after it had been drawn up and it was not a carefully written statement. Indeed, in many points it did not resemble the present Manifesto. I recollect that Albert Dieffenbach and I worked some four or five hours over it in order to eliminate a number of inaccuracies, both historical and metaphysical. It is possible that, as the result of suggestions made by a number of people, the present Manifesto had been drawn up by Professor Sellars as the final redactor. I wonder whether you have any recollections of this?

As we shall see, both Sellars and Auer had it partly wrong. Sellars wrote the first draft, probably-according to Raymond Bragg-using as background notes from a lecture on the nature of value which he gave about that time at the University of Chicago. In the March 3, 1971, letter, Bragg wrote to Professor Haydon:

We went over Sellars' draft on at least three successive meetings. During these meetings changes were made, and I can still see you with the draft, jotting down the agreements we reached.

When we agreed that we had done with it what we wanted done, it was sent back to Sellars. I recall his response almost as if it were yesterday: "You fellows have done a good job. . . ." There is no question but what we had a draft of a manifesto prepared by Sellars. Nor is there in my mind any question that the Manifesto, as it stands, was a collective achievement. I see something of you in it. I recall that at one meeting in Chicago we argued long about a suggestion of Burtt's. Curtis, too, made contributions.

Beyond all the debate and discussion over the authorship of "A Humanist Manifesto," the point remains that Dr. Sellars contributed heavily to its formation. He was one of the steady workers for religious humanism, and a study of his book, The Next Step in Religion, secures in larger context his contribution to the production of the manifesto. Sellars wrote at least ten books on religion; he worked out a systematic, philosophic system of his own; and he made the ideal of evolutionary naturalism (the title of one of his books) central to his religious views. Moreover, in the same issue of The New Humanist in which "A Humanist Manifesto" appeared, Sellars published an article interpretive of religious humanism. Two issues later, he answered criticism of the manifesto by the Reverend George R. Dodson of St. Louis.

Neither Roy Wood Sellars nor Raymond Bragg recognized the ten points outlined in the recently discovered archival document as the first draft of "A Humanist Manifesto" and so we must consider that the first draft is lost.


  1. Leon M. Birkhead was minister for many years at the Unitarian Church of Kansas City, Missouri, and organizer of Friends of Democracy, an organization which exposed the American fascists, including such Christian fundamentalists as Gerald L. K. Smith. A friend of Sinclair Lewis, Birkhead was Lewis' technical adviser for the classic, Elmer Gantry, and a signer of "A Humanist Manifesto."
  2. Charles Francis Potter, Humanism: A New Religion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1930).
  3. Professor Wilfred Sellars, also a philosopher, taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


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