UU Minute #119

Humanism vs. Theism, part 2

In our last episode, we were in Detroit for the 1921 Unitarian General Conference. Rev. John Dietrich and Rev. William Sullivan spoke back-to-back – Dietrich for humanism and Sullivan for theism.

Sullivan believed that his own faith was traditional Unitarianism, that the church stood for something theistic, and that if one had lost this faith, then, in the name of truth, one should move elsewhere. Sullivan was an eloquent and powerful speaker, but he miscalculated by launching into personal attacks against Dietrich.

The attacks backfired. The theist faction was ready with a resolution that the conference should formulate a Unitarian statement of faith, a kind of creed that would at least assert belief in the existence of God, but seeing that they did not have the delegates to win, they never submitted the resolution.

What happened that fall of 1921 in Detroit was decisive, for the opportunity to pass a statement about belief in God would never be greater. The controversy was not over, for at times over the ensuing years, strong feelings erupted. But as the years passed and humanists and theists worked together, they generally found the small Unitarian denomination large enough to embrace both points of view.

From there, humanist ideas spread within and outside Unitarian circles. In 1928, a group of students at the University of Chicago organized the Humanist Fellowship and began publication of a journal, the New Humanist. It was this group which, in 1933, produced the Humanist Manifesto.

The Manifesto had 34 signatories – prominent thinkers who had involved themselves in the drafting and re-writing of the manifesto. Fifteen were Unitarian ministers, and these included John Dietrich and Curtis Reese. One was a Universalist minister. Several others were lay Unitarian leaders.

For more about this Humanist Manifesto, be sure to catch our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: The 1933 Humanist Manifesto Highlights

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