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Unitarian Humanists Who Feared a Creed

Some of the men who declined to sign "A Humanist" Manifesto" were active writers in the humanist movement before and after the publication of the document. Four of them were Unitarian in background and affiliation, and, of them, two were published in the same issue of The New Humanist in which the manifesto appeared.

While the manifesto framers were careful to disclaim the document as a creed, it has nonetheless been interpreted as such. Among Unitarians, there is a historical tendency to be skeptical of creeds. Max C. Otto, Harold Buschman, James H. Hart, and E. Stanton Hodgin, in keeping with this tradition of skepticism, abstained from signing the manifesto.

Max C. Otto

Prior to 1933, Max Otto (professor of philosophy), Horace M. Kallen, and V. T. Thayer (a signer of the manifesto) were all young men on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. V. T. Thayer was an educator and editor who wrote extensively on church-state separation. At one time, Max Otto and Horace Kallen roomed with the Thayers. According to Dr. Thayer, there was an occasion when the three young men were the lone dissenters on an issue before the campus. This position would not be unusual for anyone whose thinking was generally categorized as radical, as was the case with this group.

(Unfortunately, the manifesto editors did not contact Dr. Kallen in 1933 to seek his signature and advice. However, because he was continuously important to humanism, I have included him in this history. When asked in 1973 why he had not been invited to sign "A Humanist Manifesto" in 1933, Kallen wrote to me that John Dewey had once asked him to sign the document. He explained that he had responded to Dewey by saying that he had had stronger objections (left unspecified) to signing the 1933 document than "Humanist Manifesto II" in 1973.)

Max Carl Otto, although he declined to sign "A Humanist Manifesto," never wavered in his humanism and was the author of a series of important books and reference material on church-state and educational issues. In response to the request for his signature on the manifesto, Dr. Otto replied on April 4, 1933:

I cannot believe that publishing the "Humanist Manifesto" will in the slightest degree "clarify the public mind" or "constitute a constructive work" in any significant sense. It will, on the contrary, I fear, be one of those theoretical gestures which leave with some persons a feeling that something has really been done when all that has been done is that something has been said. I am of the opinion that Humanism, as I understand the philosophy of it, cannot be "sold" to men and women; it must be attained by them, and that means slow, painstaking work. Much as I regret to say, No, to your request that I join you in a general announcement of ideas and aims, I do so with real conviction. Why must we, too, advertise?

We published his subsequently amplified comments in the same issue of The New Humanist in which the manifesto appeared:

Publication of the "Humanist Manifesto" will, in my opinion, serve no sufficient purpose. I cannot believe with you that it will clarify the public mind, or do constructive work for the cause. A set of fifteen principles, detached from the living experience which precipitated them and lacking the life and warmth of the interests they represent, can do little to inform the mind and nothing to stir the heart. Humanism-if I understand the philosophy of it-cannot be "sold" to people. If the "Manifesto" were a rallying cry issuing with glowing conviction from a group on the march together, or if it gave promise of gripping men and women of humanistic leanings, drawing them into closer, more understanding and more active unity, it would be a desirable signal. Unfortunately, I see no such service in it. And experience has taught me to beware of deceiving myself into thinking something has really been done when all that has been done is that something has been said. It would be easier for me to write, "Sure, go ahead, put me down." If I take the harder course and do not sign the document which I know will carry the names of men I greatly admire and respect, it is because of a deep conviction that the "Manifesto" will prove to be an ineffectual gesture, and a tactical error.

It is not surprising that Otto refused to sign, given his view on humanism. In his 1949 book, Science and the Moral Law, he said: "All Humanisms have one thing in common. It is the ideal of realizing man's completist development. From here on they diverge."

Harold Buschman

Harold Buschman, who played an important role in the development of humanism as the editor of The New Humanist, also abstained from signing the manifesto because of his fear of creeds. By 1933, Buschman had moved to New York City, where he was associated with the Ethical Culture movement with a view toward becoming an ethical leader (the equivalent of a minister).

Certainly Buschman did not impede the publishing of the manifesto, but he was highly dubious of it. Much of his apprehension was based upon his fear that the document would become a creed. Buschman, Bragg, and I were all graduates of the Meadville Theological School. However, Buschman was never ordained a minister, nor did he become an ethical leader. He was a scholar but not an orator.

The New Humanist reprinted most of Buschman's letter of April 17, 1933:

Any creed excludes and this is no exception. I find myself so essentially akin to individual humanists with regard to much that is regarded as important by "Humanism" that I deplore the effect of the manifestos. It serves to accentuate differences. I personally do not mind that. I can only say then, "If this is Humanism, I am not a humanist," because this creed does not approximate my individual construction of my experience. I simply do not recognize myself in this manifesto. What I deplore is the differences, the exclusions so occasioned will surely be no more profitable than previous ones. There will be "heresies" and misunderstandings instead of a free checking of experiences, one with another, without this business of sectarianism getting into our way. It may be that liberalism is doomed on every front including this one. Very well-if this is so, then I shall set out to find a sect, political rather than religious, where I shall be able to adhere to a program and a doctrine which is really pointed and not amorphous, and which is more dynamic and more related to the affairs of the day than the present document. I am not yet convinced that the doom of liberalism is sealed. Until I am, let me refrain from signing the manifesto.

James H. Hart

The third Unitarian abstainer, and one whose correspondence is missing from the archives, is the Reverend James H. Hart. Before moving to New York, Hart was minister of the Unitarian Church at Madison, Wisconsin. He and I attended Dr. Haydon's classes at the University of Chicago.

Hart contributed to Humanist Sermons (edited by Curtis Reese) and was, by this time, as was Harold Buschman, associated with the American Ethical Union. In the humanist archives, there is a box of his Unitarian sermons from Madison (and elsewhere). A careful worker and close friend of Otto, most of Hart's sermons were so prophetic that even now they seem almost contemporary. He wrote so well so consistently that he rarely needed editing.

In two superb articles in The New Humanist, Hart showed an awareness of "the curse of bigness anticipating The Lonely Crowd by many years. In the March/April 1932 issue of The New Humanist, in an article entitled "The Lost Individual," he wrote:

. . . one of the characteristics of our civilization is the number of us who feel homeless and lost. . . . There is little left, indeed, that we can measure or steer by. There are no stars by which we might plot a course. . . .

His sense of the tragic can be felt here. However, as a socially conscious humanist, he looks to the repatterning of the world:

The pathfinders shall arise from among the artists and thinkers, the managers and workers, the really germinal minds and professions. And not from among any one group of them. But from a wide cooperation, a pooling of knowledge, insight and power, towards which all groups contribute and in which they all share. . . . When we have established a society built after this fairer pattern, the Lost Individual may find himself at home again.

Added to Hart's awareness of the tragic in life and his vision of a shared world with the intelligence, good will, and skill needed to achieve it, he reveals existentialist sensitivity long before the existential movement made its impact on modern thought. In the January/February 1933 issue of The New Humanist, he wrote an article called "A Religious Mood," in which he said:

The sufferer walks alone in a harsh, bitter land; and there is no help for him in the thought of science, or the almost miraculous powers that have come into man's hand. They cannot enter this region, much less bring it under control. He remembers the chants sung in their praises as one remembers trivial things, and far-away days that are scarcely a memory for him. No doubt man has won many victories of which he may well sing with pride, but such pride seems vain and empty when love meets death and yet cannot die.

The sense of mortality is the most sombre of the elements that mingle in a religious mood. But it is only one of them and must not be magnified out of proportion. And now that I have set it among the others, I need mention no more. For the mood is more than its elements, even though one were to mention them all. It refuses to be translated into anything other than itself. When that attempt ceases, it remains what it was before such translation began-a unique, living experience, a deep, gathered response of the spirit to the destiny within which it moves.

In response to our request for his signature to the manifesto, Hart wrote to Bragg in early April:

Your "theses" arrived too late for me to append my signature by the 10th. So far I have had no time to think over the statement of belief. But I find myself a bit perturbed lest we should drift into another dogmatism.

Some of the statements (a mere cursory reading) challenge one. Why must humanists go on record about "continuous processes" or stand by a certain doctrine of "Mind"? Must humanists swear by Haydon & Sellars? And science-well, the nature of science needs to be clearly set out before I'm ready to move.

Once again, religion appears to be so broad a thing from the statement as to be nothing. I'm inclined to believe that Religion & Ethics need disentangling.

As for any social program-concrete and provoking-I don't find anything but mere words. The other churches have at least gone on record concerning some things.

It appears to me that some of the "academic" humanists are still verbalizing mainly & don't seem to realize that much water has gone under the bridges of our common existence since the war. But I'll try to study the statement, as I have leisure.

Apparently the leisure never came, for we did not hear from him again. But as with Buschman and many other Unitarian-trained men, I suspect that the fear of a creed or dogma remained the dominant, though not the only factor, in his abstention.

Bragg replied to Hart on April 15, 1933:

I am glad to have your letter about the proposed statement. I agree in many ways with you. But it is a devilish job to give form to a statement that will represent a number of individuals. The replies thus far have been interesting. Otto wrote as you and I would expect him to. John Dewey without comment appended his signature even without the elimination of a comma or the insertion of a period. Robert Morss Lovett wrote a rather enthusiastic note. Arthur Morgan was pleasant but doubtful. John Haynes Holmes has written two letters, the second more perplexing than the first. At one point he said that he supposes the paraphernalia of theism is queer. But none the less he is rather fond of it. Burtt wrote a corking good letter in critical vein. Now I feel a little less sure about the present form. But with the signatures we have it will be a little difficult to retrace our steps.

Hart's most telling criticisms of humanism were forthcoming after publication of the manifesto and were based on the elements he expressed in his earlier articles-the sense of the tragic, human pride, the worth and uniqueness and even the helplessness of human beings confronted with "forces beyond either their understanding or control, and struggling with enemies they can neither conquer nor leave alone." Hart showed that a need for spirituality within a nonsupernatural framework can be incorporated with naturalistic humanism and broadens and deepens its dimensions on the experiential side. Asked about Hart's experience with the American Ethical Union, V. T. Thayer wrote:

Hart's first experiences in the [New York Ethical] Society were deeply disappointing and I think he suffered deeply. Felix Adler failed to appreciate his fine qualities and Hart, in turn, was badly hurt by Adler's treatment of him and could find little in Adler's philosophy with which he could agree. For a brief period, as a salvage operation, Hart taught a history class at Fieldston, but only for a short time, less than a year, I recall. He abandoned plans he had when he came to New York to occupy the Sunday platform of the Society. He assisted George O'Dell, editor of the Standard [a publication of the American Ethical Union], for a period and served as a research assistant to Dr. Elliott after Adler's death. Dr. Elliott fully appreciated Hart's abilities and was very fond of him. Hart's finest hours in New York were when he assumed charge of the many programs and activities of the Society designed to help the refugees from Germany and Austria find a place in and adjust to American life. In this connection, he performed a truly remarkable job.

E. Stanton Hodgin

The fourth Unitarian minister who declined to sign the manifesto was E. Stanton Hodgin, then at First Congregational Society Unitarian Church at New Bedford, Massachusetts. Hodgin was a worthy successor to religious radical William J. Potter, who had been minister of the society for more than thirty years and was a true humanist forerunner before the word humanist was in use in Unitarianism.

On April 18, 1933, he replied to Bragg's request for his signature to the manifesto:

I received your communication some time ago and read the "manifesto" with much interest. I think it is quite as well for all concerned that my name be not attached to it. I am not much of a crusader and I have found that I could preach my views, whether humanist or socialist, more effectively if I use no classifications and wear no labels. We need crusaders on the fireing [sic] line and we also need workers within the ranks, and it is for each to find where he can do his work most effectively.

Later on, in 1948, while in a Unitarian retirement home in Los Angeles, Hodgin wrote his views in Confessions of an Agnostic Clergyman. He avoided labeling himself a humanist but indicated that, over the course of a forty-year ministry, he had been on the naturalistic and humanistic side of theological issues. On page 201 of his book, Hodgin writes:

During the latter half of the nineteenth century there were in every community a number of aggressively anti-church people who accepted Robert G. Ingersoll as their leader. They were rough and ready, hard-boiled and argumentative, with keener minds and more modern knowledge than the church groups. They were usually active in reform and humanitarian movements in the communities in which they lived. It is difficult to understand now how widespread Ingersoll's influence was in those days. The Unitarians, so far as this group and the revivalistic Christians were concerned, were between the devil and the deep sea. They were not Christian enough to go with the orthodox, and they were not anti-Christian enough for the agnostics. Some of the Ingersollians toned down and made good Unitarian church members, but for the most part they were too intensely individual to fit into any organization.

This paragraph, I believe, aptly characterizes Hodgin and demonstrates his "label-phobia"; agnostic seems to have been sufficient for Hodgin.


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