Who's In Charge Here? WW1: Taft and Holmes

In its historical context section, the COA recounts the story of World War 1.  William Howard Taft, the ex-President and Moderator of the Unitarian General Conference, declared that "it was the duty of the church to preach the righteousness of the war and the necessity of our winning it in the interest of the peace of the world."

The AUA also voted to deny financial aid to any church that did not support the war.

The Rev. John Haynes Holmes of the Church of the Messiah (now Community Church of New York City) took a public pacifist position against the war for which he got into trouble with the AUA, even to the point of risking his fellowship.  In the end, Holmes, the Community Church and the AUA were reconciled.

My question is why is this story relevant to the question of ministerial authority? No reference is given about any conflict between Holmes and the congregation he served.  The conflict was between a local minister and the national denomination.  The question was whether the AUA could enforce a political position on a national issue on a local minister who opposed it.

I think that we know that they cannot.  That seems fairly well-established at this point.

So why is this story important?

It is now a beloved story among us.  It helps to establish an alternative ancestry for us today.  We now consider ourselves descended from Parker with his gun, and Holmes the pacifist, and the martyr James Reeb, and the revolutionaries of 1969.   And against them we oppose Channing's congregation, and William Howard Taft and the integrationists in 1969.

We continue to be in the grip of an anti-authoritarian fervor. Even our most serious inquiry into the "complex relationship between ministry and authority" cannot resist telling the beloved stories of ministers resisting authority.  But those stories undercut any thought that there is a legitimate structure of authority through which we all engage in a ministry together.


  1. Even more than any of those examples, I think we consider ourselves descended from Emerson and the sharp stick he poked into the eyes of Andrews Norton & company, despite the cautionary precedent that the Free Religious Association (which was the denominational expression of Emersonian Transcendentalism) ultimately collapsed under the combined weight of its self-importance and disorganized, libertarian individualism.

  2. Are there any Universalists in their version of the history?

  3. Are there Universalists in their version of the history?

  4. Scott, I don't think Universalists figure very prominently in the thorny challenges of congregational polity that vexed the AUA and continue to vex the UUA. The UUA inherits it polity and the problems associated with it almost entirely from the Unitarian side of the merger.


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