UU MInute #115

Origins of Unitarian Humanism

Humanism. The word was used for a Renaissance revival of interest in ancient Greek and Roman works. The humanist movement in the early 20th century also emphasized authorities other than scripture or priests. The latter movement, however, put its faith not in antiquity, but in science, and progress, and human reason to work out all problems, technological and social.

At the 1908 American Philosophical Association meeting at Cornell University one of the talks was by Rev. Frank Doan – a Unitarian minister on the faculty of Meadville Theological School. Rev. Doan introduced his philosophy, which he called “cosmic humanism.”

It was essentially a liberal Christianity, but Doan insisted upon starting with the human in his search for the divine. That 1908 talk was the first time – as far as anybody's been able to tell – that a Unitarian minister used the term "humanism."

John Hassler Dietrich, 30 years old in 1908 was a minister in the Reformed Church and not present for Doan’s talk, but Dietrich on his own was beginning to inch in the same direction. By 1911, the Reformed Church accused Dietrich of heresies including denying the infallibility of the Bible, denying the virgin birth of Jesus, denying the deity of Jesus, and denying the efficacy of the atonement.

Compelled to resign his ministry, Dietrich became Unitarian, and accepted a call to serve the First Unitarian Society of Spokane Washington. From the Spokane pulpit, Dietrich continued to evolve and develop his theology, leaving traditional theism farther and farther behind. In his fifth year at Spokane, he announced he was adopting the term “humanism” as a good name for his interpretation of religion, in contrast to theism.

Meanwhile, at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, an earnest young man named Curtis Williford Reese, was preparing for Baptist ministry.

NEXT: How John Dietrich and Curtis Reese Met

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