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Foote, Henry Wilder (1875-1964)

Henry Wilder Foote

Henry Wilder Foote. Courtesy of Frances Eliot Foote Stehman.

Henry Wilder Foote’s 50th Anniversary Report
to the Harvard University Class of 1897

Foote, the son of Henry Wilder Foote, ’58, and Frances Anne Eliot, was born February 2, 1875, at Boston. He prepared at the Roxbury Latin School and at a private school. After receiving his Bachelor’s degree with our Class, he spent a year at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and was awarded an A.M. in 1900. Two years later he was granted an S.T.B. at the Harvard Divinity School. In 1929 a D.D. was conferred upon him by the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, and in 1941 the Meadville Theological School bestowed on him the same honor.

Foote’s marriage to Eleanor Tyson Cope took place June 22 1903, at Germantown, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their children are Henry Wilder, Jr., born August 30 1905; Agnes Cope, born March 11, 1907; Arthur, born January 18, 1911; Caleb, born March 26, 1917; and Elizabeth Stewardson, born Februrary 5, 1920. H. Wilder, Jr., is a member of Harvard ’27; Arthur was graduated in 1933; and Caleb in 1939. There are seven grandchildren. Foote served for six months with the American Red Cross in Washington in World War I.

After graduation from the Harvard Divinity School in 1902, I was ordained to the Christian ministry in Kings Chapel, Boston, where I had been brought up. That fall I went to New Orleans, where I served as minister of the First Unitarian Church from 1902 to 1906. From 1906 to 1910 I served in the Unitarian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I returned to Cambridge in 1911 to become secretary of the Department of Education of the American Unitarian Association.

In 1914 I was appointed assistant professor of preaching and parish administration and secretary of the faculty at the Harvard Divinity School, a position I held until 1924. In the latter year I was in Europe with my family for seven months. On my return I became minister of the First Church in Belmont, Massachusetts, which I served until 1940.

I then felt that the time had come for me to resign, that my church might select a younger man. I soon discovered that I had “retired” from a professional career to enter active life, for I was immediately drafted into war-time service, mostly for brief periods with churches for which no other minister was available.

HWF, seated, age 6 with his twin sister, Frances Eliot Foote.

HWF, seated, age 6 with his twin sister, Frances Eliot Foote. Courtesy of Frances Eliot Foote Stehman.

In 1940 I spent two months in Berkeley, California, making a survey of the Unitarian School for the Ministry. The following year I spent some months as “interim minister” of the May Memorial Church in Syracuse, New York, and a similar period in 1942 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

During the winters of 1944 and 1945, I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, organizing the newly established Unitarian Church in that city and conducting evening services in Lynchburg. After that I really retired and moved from Belmont back to the house in Cambridge which my wife and I built in 1912.

All these varied activities have brought me a rich, full, and busy life, for which I am deeply grateful. I still retain a reasonable degree of health and strength and a wide variety of interests. Aside from professional concerns, my chief hobby has been historical research in the field of colonial portraiture, and I have on hand plans for writing sufficient to fill all the years that may remain to me. In religion, politics, and the field of social reform, I am still an “unrepentant liberal,” profoundly concerned that we may leave to our children and grandchildren a better world than the tom and distracted one that we have known.

Family photo, 1938 Back: Friend, Marcia, E.T.C.F., HWFIII, Arthur, Rebecca F: Agnes, Caleb, Baby FEF, HWFII, Grandson HWFIV, Elizabeth

Family photo, 1938. Back: Friend, Marcia, E.T.C.F., HWFIII, Arthur, Rebecca. Front: Agnes, Caleb, Baby FEF, HWFII, Grandson HWFIV, Elizabeth. Courtesy of Frances Eliot Foote Stehman.

After graduation from college, I spent a year travelling in Great Britain, Holland, Belgium, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Then I studied for one year in the Harvard Graduate School before entering the Divinity School. Under the eligibility rules then in effect I was a member of the first combined Harvard-Yale Track Team to compete against Oxford and Cambridge in London in July, 1899, where I ran in the three-mile race. Thirty-two years later my second son ran in the same event against Oxford and Cambridge in London, and in 1933 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In addition to many printed articles, sermons, and pamplets I have written three books, The Minister and His Parish, 1924; Robert Feke, Colonial Portrait Painter, 1930; and Three Centuries of American Hymnody, 1940. I collaborated with H. F. Clarke in his life of Jeremiah Dummer. I also collaborated in editing two hymn books, The New Hymn and Tune Book, 1914 (as secretary of the Editorial Committee); and Hymns of the Spirit, 1937 (as chairman of the Editorial Committee); and with A. T. Davison in editing the Concord Anthem Book and the Second Concord Anthem Book.

— Courtesy of Harvard University Archives


Henry Wilder Foote, Hymnologist
by Arthur Foote II

In 1927, the Directors of the American Unitarian Association appointed a Commission on Hymns and Services. My father was named chairman. Asked to serve with him were Dr. Curtis W. Reese, a leading representative of the humanist wing of the movement; Dr. Von Ogden Vogt, author of Art and Religion, 1921, and Modern Worship, 1927; and Rev. Edward P. Daniels, an accomplished musician. After the work was well under way, the Universalist General Convention also appointed a hymnbook commission. In 1931 it was decided “that the two Commissions should cooperate in editing jointly a book to be recommended to the two groups of Churches.” Hymns of the Spirit, the result of their labors, thus became an important early milestone on the long road to merger of these two denominations in 1961.

HWF at age 12

HWF at age 12. Courtesy of Frances Eliot Foote Stehman.

For father, editing Hymns of the Spirit became much more than an avocation; it grew into what might be called “a second career” that added heavily to his duties as a parish minister at the First Church, Belmont, Massachusetts. Night after night, the light burned late in his third floor study; and the mornings of his summer vacations invariably found him working in his small study on the shore at Southwest Harbor, Maine. He was a scholar by nature, willing to work long hours and to take infinite pains to get things right.

If my father’s interest in hymnology and the art of worship grew naturally from his childhood exposure in the family pew and in the parsonage of King’s Chapel, so also came his life-long interest in Colonial and early American history. His forebears on both sides traced their ancestry back to the first days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Father’s Father was a competent historian, having completed his two-volume Annals of King’s Chapel not long before his death. A large percentage of my father’s writings were historical in character. As soon as he returned to Massachusetts to live, he became actively involved in the Massachusetts Historical Society and in Salem’s Essex Institute.

HWF in 1902.

HWF in 1902. Courtesy of Frances Eliot Foote Stehman.

Naturally, my father derived considerable satisfaction that Hymns of the Spirit was so well received, both within and without the denominations for which it was prepared. But he also treasured one bitterly critical review in a Unitarian church bulletin, in which the minister called it “an atrocious collection, set to miserable, unsingable music,” and ended with a plea to his congregation to “throw it out and secure a really good hymnal, like the Methodists'” (quoted from memory).

My father was invited to give a series of lectures on American hymnody at the Harvard Summer School of Theology, held in July, 1936, in connection with the Tercentenary of Harvard University.

The finished book commemorated the three-hundredth anniversary of the publication of The Bay Psalm Book in 1640, “the first book printed in English-speaking North America.”

The year 1940, which saw the publication of Three Centuries of American Hymnody, also marked his formal retirement from the parish ministry, after sixteen years in the Belmont pulpit. He had reached the age of sixty-five, a most fitting age, he thought, for men to step aside to make way for their successors. Vigorous in body and at the height of his intellectual powers, he had no real intention of retiring in the usual sense. He was a man of many intellectual interests, and he had in mind a number of books he now hoped to find time to write. America’s entrance into the war, however, postponed his plans for leisurely research and writing. With younger men going off as chaplains into the armed services, many churches were calling for ministerial assistance. So for the next five years, my father continued in the parish ministry after all, serving as interim minister in Vancouver, British Columbia, Syracuse, New York, and Lynchburg, Virginia—the last of these in conjunction with helping to establish a new Unitarian society in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church.

HW and Arthur, Harvard cross country 3-milers, 1899 model and 1931 model.

HW and Arthur, Harvard cross country 3-milers, 1899 model and 1931 model. Courtesy of Frances Eliot Foote Stehman.

It was during the two years, 1943-45, that my father served as the first minister of the newly formed Jefferson Unitarian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, almost in sight of Monticello, that his interest in the life, and particularly in the religious views, of the third President was stimulated to the point of involving him in scholarly research about him. He noted in his reading of biographies of Jefferson how scanty and inadequate were their treatments of his religious philosophy. My father knew that Jefferson in his correspondence had more than once declared himself a Unitarian; but this whole aspect of the Virginian statesman’s life seemed to him to have been passed over much too lightly. So, using the opportunity of being in Jefferson’s home territory, he began the study that led to the only thorough survey of Jefferson’s religion. This was published shortly after the end of World War II, after his return to his Cambridge home, under the title Thomas Jefferson: Champion of Religious Freedom; Advocate of Christian Morals. An accompanying work, Thomas Jefferson, Social Reformer, was also published the same year, and several years later he edited The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, extracted from The Gospels by Thomas Jefferson. This remarkable pioneering venture in New Testament criticism had long been unavailable. These three publications of my father’s represent a significant contribution to America’s understanding of one of its most brilliant founding Fathers.

About this time Father was goaded by his children into writing an essay for them, giving his mature religious views, a final statement of his faith. The work was begun, as so many of his scholarly labors had been, in his summer study, overlooking Norwood’s Cove at Southwest Harbor. In the evenings he often brought a new chapter to read to the family aloud before the fire. It was soon apparent that the emerging book should find a wider audience. The result was The Religion of an Inquiring Mind, published in his eightieth year, a book described on its fly-leaf as

not addressed to professional theologians or philosophers, but to that steadily enlarging group of educated people who are aware of the widening gulf between the conception of the universe held by science, and the traditional forms of religious belief and dogma set forth by most churches. . . The author is a keen inquirer who has just turned eighty-and has never stopped asking questions. . . . In this book he recounts the story of his own spiritual pilgrimage. . . . It is written out of a mellow maturity; and it reflects a mind that would be free: a youthful and vigorous mind.

Engagement picture, HWF with Eleanor T. Cope, 1902.

Engagement picture, HWF with Eleanor T. Cope, 1902. Courtesy of Frances Eliot Foote Stehman.

A son lacks the objectivity needed to appraise his own father’s career, even the son who has elected to follow the same calling, and who has more than a casual interest in the field of hymnology. It is perhaps appropriate to voice, as a Unitarian minister, my gratitude that this small denomination, having produced so many fine hymn writers, also produced a man sufficiently interested in this extraordinary phenomenon to devote much time and patient effort to tell the story of it, with conscientious thoroughness. From the time of my father’s early paper on “The Harvard School of Hymnody,” his imagination played upon the fact that a small religious movement, commonly considered highbrow, should have created such a succession of beautiful religious lyrics, ranging from statements of a warm personal faith and gratitude to stirring calls to social justice and the service of mankind, over a period of approximately one hundred and fifty years.When the first edition of the Pilgrim Hymnal was published in 1910, he noted, it listed both the nationality and the church membership of the authors included, which led to the disclosure that nearly half of the American authors were Unitarians who had contributed considerably more than half the hymns of American authorship. In answer to critics Dr. Washington Gladden replied that this was due to the simple fact that the Unitarians had written a larger number of the best hymns than had the American writers in other denominations.

This “unique phenomenon in the history of hymnody” has had, in my father, a patient and accurate chronicler. Without him, this important facet in the history of Unitarianism might never have been adequately told.

Henry Wilder in 1915.

Henry Wilder in 1915. Courtesy of Frances Eliot Foote Stehman.

If, in closing, I may be forgiven a more personal word: the truly remarkable thing about this man, to his son at least, is how significant a scholarly contribution an active parish minister can make, provided he be a man of wholehearted scholarly commitment. Father’s mind was not marked by great originality. His mental habits were deliberate. He was not particularly facile in extemporaneous speech. But he compensated for these limitations by unfailing self-discipline and hard work. Not a musician himself, such were his musical sensibilities that fine musicians were glad to work with him. He was not a poet, a friend comments, nor did he ever think of himself as one, yet he loved felicity in writing and himself wrote interestingly and well. In a day when serious scholarship is not often found in men engaged in the parish ministry, his life is a testimony to how much such a man can accomplish. His devotion to his chosen profession was full and unwavering. He was widely loved and respected by his parishioners, and by his colleagues. Over the years he worked steadily for many such denominational causes as adequate pensions for retired ministers, and care of their widows. Another long time concern was Negro education, and for more than half a century he served on the Board of Trustees of both Hampton Institute, and Penn School of Frogmore, South Carolina. Yet he managed to achieve as an historian and a hymnologist the high level of competence I have sought to recount in this paper.

Such people as he do maintain the fabric of the world, and in the handiwork of their craft is their prayer.

— Abridged from “Henry Wilder Foote, Hymnologist,” in The Papers of the Hymn Society, The Hymn Society of America, New York, NY.


Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

“The Significance and Influence of the Cambridge Platform of 1848” by Henry Wilder Foote

The Biography of Arthur Foote II



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