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"A Humanist Manifesto" — A Historic Document

Edwin H. Wilson



When thirty-four individualists agree upon anything, it is an unusual event—especially when there is a preponderance of ministers involved. Even though "reasonable minds at work on the same or similar facts" are presumed to arrive at similar conclusions, this is not always the case. Yet in 1933, such an agreement was reached in a declaration of the theses of religious humanism and was published in the May/June issue of The New Humanist (VI:3).

In the same issue in which this declaration, "A Humanist Manifesto," was published, an article entitled "Religious Humanism" by Roy Wood Sellars (author and professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor) announced the following:

In the Humanist Manifesto it will be seen that many of us have reached a common body of beliefs and attitudes, beliefs about man, his place in the universe, the general nature of that universe, and attitudes toward the great questions of life. . . .

"A Humanist Manifesto" brought to public attention for the first time a movement deeply rooted in the cultural life of the United States of America. This movement has been variously called religious humanism, naturalistic humanism, scientific humanism, and ethical humanism according to the varying backgrounds and emphases of its proponents. In this book, I use the term religious humanism, as did the signers of "A Humanist Manifesto." In addition to the varieties of humanism current at that time, historically there have been many humanisms as well. But the humanism announced in the manifesto had "new" horizons; it looked—perhaps too trustingly—to science as the putative savior of humanity. Therefore, "A Humanist Manifesto" should be regarded as but one outcropping of a cultural trend that existed at that time in many places and which since has surfaced in many traditions and nations beyond sectarian barriers.

The 1933 manifesto issued a challenge in the name of naturalism to the supernaturalists whose beliefs were based upon revelation rather than reason and science. It was a bold move to them publicly that their religious views were out of date and that the time had come for a new faith and a new religion. Such a challenge is just as appropriate today in view of the influence of the radical religious right.

The making of this historic document reflected the hope and directions of an era. "A Humanist Manifesto" represented a tide which the fundamentalist Christian revival set out to stem. It may be that Christian fundamentalism will become as obsolete as the particular expressions of the Social Gospel in Protestantism which it engulfed, and that the Christian right will one day discover that time, science, and modern values are not on their side. I believe their own numbers and importance have been inflated by skillful use of the media and by abundant conservative financing. Moreover, the claim that "humanism is dead" (or that "God is dead," for that matter) is a little like the shout: "The king is dead! Long live the king!"

In the mean time, as this century’s decades have elapsed, humanists have held dialogues with Marxists and Roman Catholics. Faith in human potential and the stirring of freedom are still shaking the structure of totalitarian regimes, both political and religious. "A Humanist Manifesto," although perhaps with too easy optimism, foreshadowed the revolution in faith and values astir in society today and is a historic and meaningful document.

The pendulum will swing in religion as in politics from the humanistic to the reactionary and theistic, but religious humanism has confidence that it will repeatedly swing back to a new and more broadly based global faith in humanity. There is no return to the values and mores of an agrarian Golden Age. The need for global cooperation to avoid nuclear destruction demands solutions with a contemporary focus.

Throughout this book it should be borne in mind that the founders of the Humanist Press Association, later reincorporated as the American Humanist Association, never intended to establish a church or denomination. Their organization was an aligning for mutual education of persons who belonged to various organized religions or to no organized religion. At the start, those who termed themselves religious humanists predominated, but the door was always open to unchurched freethinkers and rationalists.

Some writers have dealt with humanism as a religion, but in its inclusive sense it is also a philosophy and an ethical way of life.



The Background of Religious Humanism

The history of religious humanism in the twentieth century, as it appeared in North America, has yet to be adequately written. The modern humanist movement emerged from liberal religious change at the end of the previous century and the beginning of this one . The influence of the Enlightenment, Charles Darwin, and biblical criticism encouraged liberal trends in Unitarianism, Universalism, the Ethical Societies, and Reformed Judaism. A growing literature reflected the influence of evolutionary thought, especially in the rejection of the Bible as the source of "revealed" truth.

In the last years of the nineteenth century, religious radicals and independents gravitated to an organization known as the Free Religious Association, which was an effort to align those humanistic religious liberals, including freethinkers and rationalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson was its first president and it included among its members Felix Adler, the founder of the American Ethical Societies, plus a few others we can identify as forerunners of our evolutionary, naturalistic humanism. Some could properly be called humanistic theists; they kept theistic terms but redefined them. The Free Religious Association never went beyond what it called humanistic theism, and, because of the intense individualism of its members and gathering of dissenters, its exciting meetings—usually front-page newsworthy—soon ended.

In 1951, a Boston humanist named James V. Grasso discovered a reference to the Humanistic Religious Association of London, with a constitution dated September 1, 1853. Eighty years before "A Humanist Manifesto" was published in the United States, local needs had produced religious humanism in organized form in England:

In forming ourselves into a progressive religious body, we have adopted the name "Humanistic Religious Association" to convey the idea that Religion is a principle inherent in man and is a means of developing his being towards greater perfection.
We have emancipated ourselves from the ancient compulsory dogmas, myths and ceremonies borrowed of old from Asia and still pervading the ruling churches of our age.

Grasso noted in his article, "Humanism in the Eighteenth Century," published in 1951 in The Humanist:

The objectives of the Association were to spread the knowledge of the time and to foster the cultivation of the sciences, philosophy and the arts. The group recognized the individuality, independence and equality of members, and established an electoral system for officers, which provided the vote for each member, male or female, at the age of 18.
The group provided for universal education of children, mutual assistance for those in need (provided that they were unable to help themselves), for the appointment of qualified speakers and teachers, and for social and cultural meetings. Their objective seems to have been to better the members as a whole through education of both children and adults, without neglecting the fine arts and worth-while social intercourse. The association would, they hoped, become "a high school for the people" and would help "form the groundwork for a higher period of cultivation."

Unitarian Progression

Critical thinkers sought to maintain the integrity of their inward processes, both intellectual and spiritual. This involved a continual process of bringing religious language and objectives into harmony with advancing knowledge and ethical insights. At all times, the writing and thinking of liberal clergy interacted with the academic world—humanistic philosophers, socially conscious scientists, and historians of religion.

The way for humanism in Unitarianism had been opened when the measures and foundations of truth and morality were placed outside of the Holy Bible and within human reason and moral conscience. Thus, as Unitarianism grew, religious humanism began to appear long before proponents had a name for it. By its rejection of revelation, religious humanism was inherently opposed to biblical literalism, dogmatism, and religious creeds.

The Unitarian establishment, mostly in the East, called itself Unitarian Christian. Dissenters were represented by the Western Unitarian Conference. In the late nineteenth-century, a controversy ensued (known as the "Issue of the West") over whether there would be a Unitarian creed to exclude non-theists and other post-Christian dissenters. (Professor Charles Lyttle has told this story in detail in his 1952 book, Freedom Moves West.) The Western Unitarian Conference stood steadfastly opposed to creeds. For example, William Charming Gannett, a minister at St. Paul, reportedly stated that he wanted the basis of fellowship in his church to be so broad that even the well-meaning atheist would be welcome.1

Year after year at the annual meetings, the "creed" and "no creed" forces fought over a verbal formula. Successive efforts to establish a creed for Unitarians have always brought forth an escape clause to the effect that neither the statement being considered nor any other statement could be used as a creed with which to exclude people from membership. This precaution is directly reflected in both "A Humanist Manifesto" (1933)—also known as "Humanist Manifesto I"—and "Humanist Manifesto II" (1973). Both documents assert that they are not creeds.

As early as 1909, the Reverend Frank Carlton Doan had set forth in Religion and the Modern Mind a humanism centrally concerned with inner experience and self-awareness, but in relation to this-worldly objectives. Doan used the psychology of his day but, unlike the literary humanists and some religious mystics, he did not make his exploration of the subjective an inward retreat from reality or an escape from the social struggle for progress. Pather, the subjective was to him the imaginative and inspired source of ideals pointing to action in the outer world. Doan used the terms humanism and modernism.

In 1918, Roy Wood Sellars published The Next Step in Religion, in which he specifically pointed to religious humanism as "the next step." In Sellars’ view, humanism (this-worldly) was sharply contrasted with supernaturalism (other-worldly). He wrote: "Humanism always flourishes when peace and contentment are abroad, and humanism is the deadliest enemy that superstition has to meet."

Curtis Reese and John Dietrich

In that same year, the Reverend John H. Dietrich of Minneapolis and the Reverend Curtis W. Reese, of Des Moines, Iowa, both Unitarian ministers with an orthodox background, confronted their fellow Unitarians with a challenge that could not be avoided. While Reese was speaking at a meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference in Des Moines on "The Religion of Democracy," Dietrich pointed out: "What you are calling the religion of democracy, I am calling humanism."2 It was a momentous convergence of minds—and at that moment, a movement was launched. Consequently, Reese changed the title of his book to Humanism. As Reese once put it, the idea of God was held to be "philosophically possible, scientifically unproved and religiously unnecessary."

A later address by Reese at a meeting sponsored by the Harvard Summer School of Theology in July 1920 brought the issue to a head. Reese and Dietrich’s adversaries—including William Lawrence Sullivan, a former priest, and George R. Dodson of St. Louis—wanted the humanists ousted from the denomination. The controversy was described as a battle between the "God Men" and the "No-God Men." But it was the evolutionary theists—the theistic liberal ministers—who defended Reese and Dietrich. The "Issue of the West" and subsequent denominational struggles led the Unitarians to reject a dogmatic creed and to extend the commitment to freedom for the pew to freedom for the pulpit. Humanists were henceforth in the Unitarian movement by right, and that right, implicit in the professed creedlessness of the denomination, was gradually upheld. (If that freedom had not been confirmed, there probably would have been a separate humanist church.)

Interestingly, some of the Unitarian clergy who defended the rights of humanists, such as Dietrich and Reese, to fill Unitarian pulpits were evolutionary theists—that is, they declared that evolution was God’s way of creation. The humanists, in contrast, did not suspend their relationship to the cosmos on the language of theism but came out frankly as non-theists.

Curtis Reese and John Dietrich continued to write. Dietrich published his sermons in a series of seven or eight volumes called The Humanist Pulpit. His sermons were also widely distributed as pamphlets which helped to spread his fame. Dietrich was a superb artisan, but his sermons often drew heavily upon the thinking of others. However much he borrowed his thoughts—though sometimes without quotation marks or acknowledgement—he always improved on them with a forceful clarity.

In 1927, Reese collected the views of eighteen other Unitarian ministers in a volume entitled Humanist Sermons. In this book, the movement was not merely more obvious but more aggressive as well. A few of those appearing in Humanist Sermons—John Haynes Holmes and Frederick M. Eliot, in particular—subsequently changed their views and probably regretted their participation. While Dr. Eliot was never a doctrinaire humanist, he was considered somewhat of an ally. In fact, when he later ran for the presidency of the American Unitarian Association, he was attacked by his opponent, the Reverend Charles Joy, for being a humanist. Not wanting another divisive theological battle, the denomination persuaded Joy to withdraw, and Eliot won the election. In 1944, in the midst of his term (1937-1958), Eliot rejected the candidacy of Curtis Reese for the presidency of Meadville Theological School. Those of us who had perceived Eliot as sympathetic to humanism were disappointed. In correspondence with Reese, Eliot explained that his opposition to Reese’s candidacy was not personal but, rather, that Eliot did not want Meadville to be perceived as having fallen into humanist hands.

This disappointment aside, Curtis Reese continued throughout his life to be a leader in the humanist movement. He was one of the primary editors of "A Humanist Manifesto" in 1933 and served on the board of directors of the American Humanist Association for many years. I had always thought him prolific, but it was late in my life before I came to fully appreciate his personal struggle. In 1980, Reese’s surviving son (Curtis, Jr.) and daughter (Rachel Sady) sent me a forty-page transcript of the letters sent to Curtis, Sr., by his family, all devout Southern Baptists. To a person, everyone in his family declared that they would rather see Reese burn in hell, as he surely would, if he left the Baptist Church at Tiffin, Ohio, and became minister of the Unitarian Church at Alton, Illinois, as he did. Though Reese had read and thought his way out of fundamentalism, he refrained from responding to the end of the year, at which time he wrote a letter to an unidentified member of the family with a dignified and reasonably objective refutation that barely concealed the hurt and alienation he must have felt. In the interim, his sister, who had previously named her son for Curtis, legally changed the child’s name to that of a Baptist evangelist. Reading that correspondence, I understood for the first time the painful pressure that had produced the terrific productivity and dynamic leadership of Curtis Reese.

I believe there is a recurrent historical error that creeps into articles written since the 1980s—namely, the references to either Dietrich or Reese as the "father" of humanism. In fact, modem humanism is multifaceted; it is not a one-person, one-book movement but, rather, a globally oriented plateau with new leaders and advocates emerging from various cultures.

With this in mind, credit must be given where it is due. By aligning a whole group of Unitarian ministers, Curtis Reese foreshadowed a humanist organization. He was a creative innovator and organizational guide of early religious humanism. John Dietrich and, after him, T. C. Abell, Charles Francis Potter, and E. Burdett Backus were among the movement’s popularizers.

Additional Efforts at Organizing

Humanism began to spread within (and beyond) the Unitarian denomination as well as to other liberal religious groups. Indeed, early efforts at the institutionalization of humanism came in the form of groups schismatic from Unitarianism. In fact, two ministers who signed the manifesto made early attempts at humanist organizations by withdrawing from Unitarian congregations and starting independent humanist societies. One short-lived effort was attempted in 1933 by Dr. Eldred V. Vanderlaan of Berkeley, California. The other—the First Humanist Society of New York—was begun in 1929 by Dr. Charles Francis Potter, who, for a number of years, financed his venture through his writing and lecturing, as well as from collections and contributions from a group of sponsors he developed—a group which included such distinguished people as Albert Einstein.

The second issue of the printed (not mimeographed) New Humanist in January/February 1931 had an announcement of the First Humanist Society of New York on its back cover. Also that year, Dr. Potter’s book, Humanism: A New Religion, was offered in combination with a subscription to The New Humanist (along with other books, including Robert J. Hutcheon’s Humanism in Religion Examined).

The Reverend A. D. Faupel withdrew a following from the Oakland, California, Unitarian church which, as far as we know, had always had a theistic minister. Faupel’s schismatic movement eventually obtained its own building and, as the Fellowship of Humanity, became the first and oldest affiliate of the American Humanist Association. The fellowship is still in existence.

Another California group, the Hollywood Humanist Society, was organized by the Reverend Theodore Abell around the same time as the New York organization. The editors of The New Humanist had repeatedly sought Abell’s cooperation and financial support; however, he declined all invitations whether they were to write or review a book or even to join the Humanist Press Association. We regretted his disinterest very much as we had heard that he was doing a vigorous and competent job in the Los Angeles area, broadcasting regularly and building up a considerable personal following.

When Raymond Bragg and I were developing a list of potential signers for the manifesto, we said, "Let’s not invite him to say ‘no’ again." This decision was a mistake. I learned years later that Abell would have liked to have been asked to sign the manifesto. Of course, this was when it became obvious that the document was historic. I think it is not improbable that Theodore Abell adopted an attitude that one often encounters among the "prima donnas" of any movement: in this case, L’humanisme c’est moi! (roughly translated, this means, "Humanism is mine" or "I am humanism").

Abell published a local periodical for the Hollywood Humanist Society, which he called The Humanist. I learned many years later that he felt The New Humanist had purloined his publication’s name. Relations with Abell were not improved in 1941 when our publication changed its name from The New Humanist to The Humanist.

In due time (after I had moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1946), Abell and I met and were able to bury our animosities with direct and friendly communication. I always regretted the strained relations between us and attributed them to inadvertent factors of too great distance and not enough communication. I view Theodore Abell as a real humanist pioneer.

In 1933, the Reverend Gordon Kent—another Unitarian schismatic pioneer—started a Humanist society in Moline, Illinois. He had a reputation for certain sensational and erratic tendencies, such as dimming the lights with a rheostat during his meditational services and easing the lights back on when he got to the "Amen." Though he may not have been regarded as sufficiently respectable, Kent’s paperback Humanism for the Millions went through numerous (and large) editions as a conscious effort to reach the hypothetical "man on the street."

It should be noted that, in his meditations, Gordon Kent was capable of soaring flights of poetic prose quite in contrast with his occasional crudities. He was not unlike another humanist, Hugo Robert Orr. While Orr produced some exquisite sonnets with emotional impact, his public speaking and organizational work moved toward harsher, secular, iconoclastic, and almost anti-religious extremes.

In 1946 and for a time after, Orr conducted the San Francisco Humanist Society, generously subsidized by John Danz, a moving-picture theater owner from Seattle, Washington. Danz wanted a sharp break between organized humanism and the Unitarian movement. He probably realized that that church was a chief competitor of local humanist organizations. Ethnically Jewish, Danz wanted "humanist temples" and held a rather oversimplified concept of humanism. In 1946, he tried unsuccessfully to get me to leave the Unitarian movement to organize such temples. Eventually, the John Danz Foundation financed an annual humanist lecture in Seattle. Hugo Orr’s work with the San Francisco Humanist Society ended and was succeeded by a formal chapter of the American Humanist Association.

How I Came to Humanism

Born into a Unitarian household, I had been christened in the First Unitarian Parish of Concord in 1898, where, as my father said, "the people worship God Almighty half the time and Ralph Waldo Emerson the other." I graduated with a business degree, and my undergraduate training was qualitatively deficient in the humanities. But, as a fledgling sales manager, I had observed the passing on of ignorance and superstition from generation to generation in Catholic and fundamentalist churches. As a leader of a college-age Sunday evening youth group of the Second Unitarian Church in Boston, I had been bombarded with questions about the various meanings of God and religion by students from the colleges and universities in the area. Group discussions led me to think of the liberal church as an educational instrument for change.

As I was leaving Boston for the Unitarian Theological School, then still in Meadville, Pennsylvania, Martha Everett St. John, widow of Charles E. St. John, my mother’s cousin, warned me, "Don’t let those humanists at Meadville take away your faith." That defensiveness shocked me. It was the first time I had encountered the term humanism. I had recently heard Unitarian Sanford Bates, the U.S. prison commissioner (as I recall), state that "there is not one belief that I hold that I would not change on five minutes’ notice if I ran into a new fact." Then, in an Erie Railroad smoking room, I was confronted by a Midwestern professor of philosophy who said, "What a shame for a bright young man like you to be throwing his life away on a dying profession." Those were fighting words for me at that time, and it was a long night. I was still a product of the Unitarian Christian establishment, though with growing mental reservations.

Generally, the strategy of the liberal religious traditionalists in dealing with change was to ignore it. Humanism was usually a forbidden word in establishment talk. How a religious organization deals with change is one test of its ultimate integrity and its adaptation to changing needs in a changing world. In 1927, I interviewed Alfred Loisy in Paris. Loisy was the excommunicated leader of the modernist movement in Roman Catholicism. He showed me a thrice-edited manuscript containing a philosophy of religion which the modernists had hoped to use as a replacement for the thought of Thomas Aquinas. "All we wanted," said Loisy wistfully, "was to have the church accept the fact of change." But that’s another story. Unitarians have done well with change. Tolerance and pluralism are built into its creedlessness.

At the Meadville school, as I climbed the stairs to my assigned room in Divinity Hall, I encountered three students who had packed their bags and were already leaving at the beginning of the term. In answer to my question, "Why?" I was told, "We are humanists and the faculty has made it clear that our presence is not appreciated." Three good men were lost to the liberal ministry: one to become a professor of anatomy; one, a professor of English; the third, ultimately, president of a liberal college. Today this would not happen.

But this was January 1924. In the months following, I did all my required class work, but I spent my own time avidly reading everything about humanism that I could lay my hands on. By mid-June, I had said to myself, "That is it! Humanism has time, science, and human need on its side. I’ll stick with it!" It proved to be a lifetime commitment. The school was eventually moved from Pennsylvania to a site adjacent to the University of Chicago. Because of my growing doubts, I hedged by taking some sociology courses in the university as a possible alternative career. But I was turned off by behaviorists who disclaimed any compassionate interest in how their research was used and by graduates in sociology who were planning to go into private industries as advisers to profitmakers. A lecture by L. L. Bernard, entitled "The Transition to an Objective Standard of Social Control," especially turned me off. Humanity got that objective social control under Hitler.

I then sought an interview with Dr. Curtis W. Reese. He helped me reach the conclusion that I could best serve my goals in the liberal ministry.

Preceding the Manifesto

Over the following years, here and there a rabbi or an Ethical Culture leader took on the label of humanist. A sudden spate of books and articles—pro and con, written by some of the era’s finest scholars—began to appear. Echoes of the Scopes trial were still in the air, the Great Depression was ongoing, and the New Deal had not yet been born. And the principal political hope to many persons of humanist and humanitarian outlook (which are, of course, two different things) was found in the leadership of Norman Thomas, who advocated a democratic, non-Marxist form of socialism, or in refrains from labor leader Eugene Debs or journalist and reformer Henry George. (It was also the era of Harry Emerson Fosdick and Christian Modernism.) The time seemed ripe to "break the dead branches from the past." It was to be done largely within the existing liberal churches and not by schism. "A Humanist Manifesto" in 1933 was a principal expression of the movement.


  1. This statement by Dr. Gannett, a forebear of the Gannetts who founded a newspaper chain, was reported by Dr. Charles H. Lyttle to be in a sermon series entitled The Four Seasons. My perusal of this book did not reveal the quote, and some argue that Gannett’s true position was less open. However, his wish to welcome all, including nonbelievers, may have been fact. In his book, A Year of Miracles (Boston, MA: George H. Ellis Company, 1882), Gannett wrote: "It is hard to prove a God; harder to prove him our God; harder still to prove our immortality." And Dr. Arthur Foote, while ministering at St. Paul in 1973, insisted that the statement about welcoming even atheists would be consistent with Gannett’s life work, noting, "It is clear that William Channing Gannett had no desire to make belief in God a requirement for membership."
  2. Reese’s talk was later published as A Democratic View Of Religion by the American Humanist Association as Publication No. 218, Leaflet series.