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Dietrich, John H. (1878-1957)

Biographical Introduction

jhd1 dietrich2John H. Dietrich was born on January 14, 1878, on a farm near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. His family had descended from some German-Swiss who had emigrated to Franklin County, Pennsylvania, in 1710 from the vicinity of Berne, Switzerland. Dietrich’s parents were simple, uneducated farm people, his father being a fairly successful sharecropper. His family professed the Reformed faith, which had originated with Ulrich Zwingli, the Zurich reformer in the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation. It was a rural minister who suggested that young John, who was a good student, become a minister.

In 1893 the Dietrich’s moved to the village of Marks, Pennsylvania, and John entered Mercersburg Academy. He managed to crowd four years work into three, while walking eight miles a day to and from the Academy and doing farm chores; yet, he graduated as valedictorian of his class in 1896. In 1900 he graduated from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and returned to Mercersburg as a teacher; but his tenure there was short-lived because of a misunderstanding involving a faculty drinking incident.

The following fall he obtained a position as private secretary to the multimillionaire, Jonathan Thorne, of New York. During this time Dietrich went occasionally with the Thornes to religious services at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City. When he had saved enough money to return to school, Dietrich entered the Eastern Theological Seminary of the Reformed Church which was affiliated with his alma mater, while continuing to work for Thorne during his summer vacations.

Although he was a good student in both college and seminary, Dietrich was not particularly excited by his school work. At seminary he found his professor of church history, who also taught the history of church dogma, the most interesting; however, Dietrich ultimately became disenchanted with him. As the leader of his class, Dietrich was to read a paper he had written on the history of Christian doctrine at the graduation exercises. Apparently, in this paper Dietrich stated rather clearly that Jesus had died the death of a martyr, that he was not a God dying for the sins of the world, and that the obligation of the Christian was to emulate his spiritual example. The professor acknowledged that it was an excellent paper and said that basically he agreed with the point of view; but he indicated that it would have to be toned down a bit because a number of clergymen would be present at the reading and it would disturb some of them greatly. Although Dietrich went along with a number of revisions, he lost respect for his favorite professor.

Immediately after his graduation from seminary in 1905, Dietrich became the minister of St. Mark’s Memorial Church in Pittsburgh, a church that had been built by a man named Bernard Wolff as a kind of memorial to his brother. When Dietrich became the minister, Wolff’s wife and daughter were still members and they were of the opinion that the church could not possibly survive without their continuous financial support. The first couple of years went smoothly and the church experienced steady growth. However, Dietrich eventually decided to devote more time to sermon preparation and less time to member visitation. He also decided that it was time to update the order of service and to select a new hymnal. The Wolffs were displeased with the changes and first threatened and then carried out the threat to withdraw their financial support. Because new members had come into the church, and because the church generally supported its minister, it was able to survive.

However, in time a number of factors coalesced and the combined effect was that Dietrich left the ministry of the Reformed Church. The first factor was related to the Wolffs’ determination to rid St. Mark’s of this upstart. A new science building was being built at Franklin and Marshall College, and the Wolffs had promised to contribute a large sum of money to help with the endowment of the new laboratory, but let it be known that the money would not be provided unless Dietrich resigned his position at St. Mark’s. Hence, one of his former professors approached him, seeking his resignation, but to no avail. Dietrich had once invited Rabbi J. Leonard Levy, who was a liberal and popular Reform rabbi, to speak at St. Mark’s. At this particular time, such a gesture was unheard of in the Reformed Church, so this convinced some of the more conservative ministers of the radicalness of Dietrich. A certain professional jealousy had developed among the Reformed clergy against Dietrich, for he had been too successful. During his relatively short tenure at St. Mark’s the membership had doubled and attendance at the Sunday services had tripled; even members of other Reformed churches often came to hear the popular young minister. Finally, there was a genuine concern in the Allegheny Classis of the Reformed Church about Dietrich’s unorthodox doctrine. In fact, theologically, he was a theistic Protestant liberal and in his sermons he often set orthodox doctrines off and compared them with liberal thinking, so that his congregation could see the issues involved.

In time all these factors came together and a committee was established by the Allegheny Classis to determine whether Dietrich should be tried for heresy. The conclusions reached by the committee were that Dietrich did not believe in the infallibility of the Bible, nor in the virgin birth and deity of Jesus, nor in the traditional understanding of the atonement. He accepted the theory of evolution and revised the worship service so that the Apostles Creed was delineated and secular readings were incorporated. The recommendation of the committee was that Dietrich be indicted for heresy, hoping that he would resign before the actual trial was held.

The heresy trial was set for July 10, 1911. At first Dietrich thought that he would give a well prepared defense, but in time decided that such a move would not accomplish anything of a positive nature; hence, he refused to defend himself and was “defrocked.” This occurred in spite of the continuous support of his board of trustees and the members, generally, at St. Mark’s. After his last Sunday as minister, St. Mark’s was closed and the next service was not held until a year later.

The minister of the First Unitarian Church in Pittsburgh, Dr. Walter L. Mason, was much impressed with Dietrich; he recommended that Dietrich be invited into ministerial fellowship with the American Unitarian Association, and Dietrich accepted the invitation. Mason even went so far as to invite Dietrich to become his associate with the idea that in time he would take over as senior minister of the church, but Dietrich refused the generous offer because he was not sure that it would be honorable to locate so near his old church.
On September 1, 1911, Dietrich became the minister of the First Unitarian Society of Spokane, Washington. When he arrived he had a congregation of about sixty which met in a run-down frame building. He left Spokane in 1916, and at that time he had a congregation of over fifteen hundred, which met in the newly completed Clemmer Theater. While at Spokane, on August 25, 1912, Dietrich married Louise Erb of Appleton, Wisconsin, whom he had met on a steamer returning from Europe in 1910.

During his Spokane ministry, Dietrich lectured on comparative religions in 1913-1914, and as a result, he began to question even his liberal view of Jesus as the greatest spiritual leader of all history. He came to believe that the world owed a great debt to Buddha, Confucius, the Hebrew prophets, and the Greek philosophers. He also accepted the “scientific method” as the most effective means for arriving at truth. He began to refer to prayer as “aspiration” and used secular readings in his worship service. In a sense, he saw the church as a kind of continuing education center for adults, and his sermons became well prepared hour lectures. Crowds came in 1914 to hear him lecture on the various countries involved in the First World War, and in 1915, he came out strongly for family planning in a sermon entitled, “The Right to Be Well Born.” As a result of his sermon topics and his views about them, he was constantly being attacked by fundamentalists.

It was also during his Spokane ministry that Dietrich began to refer to his faith as being “humanistic.” Carleton Winston describes his discovery of humanism as follows:

Though long familiar with the humanism of the Renaissance, Dietrich came across the word ‘humanism’ in a different connotation through an article by Frederick M. Gould in the London magazine published by the British Ethical Societies. Gould, an ardent advocate of August Comte and his Positivism or what has been loosely termed the religion of humanity, used the word ‘Humanism’ in the sense of the belief and trust in human effort. And it struck a responsive note in Dietrich. The age-honored word, this ‘humanism’ would be a good name for his interpretation of religion in contrast to theism. Then, leaning confidently upon the background of Renaissance humanism, he drew certain elements of meaning from it and fused them with his own more social concept of this term. More and more Dietrich moved to a kind of “naturalistic humanism” and away from liberal theism. In this move, he was going beyond the arms of conventional Unitarianism.

On November 1, 1916, Dietrich became the minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis: a church which Professor Zueblin of the University of Chicago would later describe as “an organization in whose nest had been hatched most of the liberal and reform legislation of the state of Minnesota.” Again Dietrich took a church, which, although it had seen better days, was currently in a depleted condition, and built it into a large, vibrant, and effective institution.

Minneapolis, like many communities, experienced repercussions from the Scopes Trial in 1925. Dr. William R. Riley was a minister in Minneapolis and national president of the Christian Fundamentalist Association. He tried to get legislation passed in the fall of 1925 which would have prevented the teaching of evolution in public educational institutions in the state. Dietrich formed a committee which sought to defeat the legislation, and as a result of bringing a Dr. Staub, a well-liked Lutheran minister, and Dr. Roy Smith, a well-respected Methodist minister, onto the committee, the legislation was defeated. However, both Staub and Smith were more concerned with the issue of academic freedom than with the question of evolution per se, whereas Dietrich was vitally concerned about both issues.

As his congregation progressively swelled, in December, 1925, it was necessary for the First Unitarian Society to move to the Garrick Theater which could accommodate the large crowds. The following year Dietrich began broadcasting his services over the radio, which brought a strong reaction from both Roman Catholic and Protestant clergymen, who were convinced that Dietrich’s opinions were dangerous to the community and that some of their members were staying away from their churches to listen to him.

Through the years, Dietrich’s sermons had been published and mailed to those who requested them. In 1927 a collection of sermons entitled The Fathers of Evolution was published and contained many of Dietrich’s addresses which were used to combat the movement to ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Also, in 1927, “The Humanist Pulpit” was published every month which contained individual addresses of Dietrich. At the end of the church year these twelve to fifteen sermons were then published in book form under the same title, The Humanist Pulpit.

Dietrich also published edited versions of his sermons in several journals, and often his sermons were published in anthologies. Along with this literary activity, he wrote two popular pamphlets for the American Unitarian Association. The first was entitled, The Significance of the Unitarian Movement (1927); it had gone through twenty printings by May, 1943. The second was called, simply, Humanism (1934), and by 1943 it had gone through five printings; it was also published by the American Humanist Association after Dietrich’s death.

Not only was there success but there was also tragedy for Dietrich during his Minneapolis tenure, for his wife, Louise, who had borne him a son while in Spokane and another while in Minneapolis, died of cancer on February 22, 1931. In time Dietrich successfully overcame the loss, and on January 30, 1933, married a young widow, Margaret Winston, who was a writer and poet. Later in the same year, he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity Degree by the Meadville Theological School.

In 1935 Dietrich announced to his congregation that the time had come for him to resign from his pulpit and to retire from the active ministry. Although he was only fifty-seven at the time, he felt that many ministers held onto their churches long after their usefulness, with the result being a decline in the effectiveness of the church.

Hence, he wished to retire while his church was strong. He helped secure a successor, who took over more and more of the responsibilities until Dietrich was able to fade completely from the picture. Dietrich, then, was minister of the Unitarian Society of Minneapolis from 1916-1936, senior minister from 1936-1938, and minister emeritus, 1938-1957.

In 1941 Dietrich moved to Berkeley, California, where he continued to read and think and to deliver an occasional address. A friend who visited Dietrich in a nursing home just before his death, reported that Dietrich, then in his eightieth year, was standing by the side of his bed teaching himself Italian and eagerly discussed with him the existential humanism of Jean Paul Sartre as the initial stages of cancer drained the life from his body. The “father” of American religious humanism died on July 22, 1957.

From this brief biographical sketch, we wish to emphasize three points.

(1) Dietrich’s thought passed through several stages in its evolution. It ranged all the way from a respectable orthodoxy in the Reformed Church to a radical humanism that took the Unitarians years to debate whether they were liberal enough to permit it within their ministerial ranks. Dietrich enumerated the stages in his thought in the following way:

I started out as an orthodox Christian minister, teaching the doctrines which center about the Apostles Creed. I gradually went through that stage known as Modernism, or liberal orthodoxy, during which period I resorted to reading new meanings into the old phrases, trying to make them fit the new knowledge. Then I came out into Unitarianism, but at first a fairly conservative and theistic Unitarian. And finally I reached the point where my mind was satisfied only by a wholehearted acceptance of Naturalism and what has come to be known as Humanism.

(2) For some reason, Dietrich never wrote any books as such. It is possible that he devoted far too much time to sermon preparation to have any remaining for the writing of books. His addresses were an hour long and they were presented from carefully thought out, well written manuscripts. His subjects covered the spectrum of human concern, ranging from abstract economic theory to practical guidance dealing with male-female relationships. Needless to say, Dietrich was not an expert in many of these areas, but as a religious thinker, he saw theological issues rather clearly. For our purposes, we shall be primarily interested in his religious and theological thought. It also should be remembered that he was attempting to rethink a religious position, and, as such, some of his thought was original, but not all of it. Although there were forebears to his position, in many respects the task he set for himself was new, namely to interpret religion from a naturalistic and humanistic perspective. Again it must be stated that most of the sources are numerous, hour-long manuscripts and not books containing extended arguments.

(3) Dietrich’s main concern was to develop a religion which was not dependent upon the existence of God for its basic premise. Traditionally, religion in the West, whether orthodox or liberal, has been so closely identified with belief in the existence of God that, at least one of the criteria is, if one believes in God, he is religious, and if he does not believe in God, he is not religious. Dietrich and the other religious humanists were challenging this view. Dietrich was maintaining that it is possible in the best sense of the word to be religious without belief in God.

— Abridged from Religious Humanism in America: Dietrich, Reese and Potter (Washington: University Press of America, 1978).

A Tribute to John. H Dietrich
by Carl A. Storm

For Dr. Dietrich, whose portrait hangs in our library, was the minister of this Society through nearly one-third of its seventy-five years of history and, upon his retirement, was named minister-emeritus. Thus, he had been closely associated with this Society for more than forty years, and the major aspects of his life’s work will ever be identified with the Minneapolis Unitarian Church.

Still more, the influence of John Dietrich was felt and carried far beyond the confines of his congregation and the limits of the city and state.

John Hassler Dietrich was born on January 14, 1878. His ancestors were of sturdy German-Swiss stock who had emigrated from the vicinity of Berne, Switzerland, in 1710. His father was a farmer in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. John, the youngest of four boys, grew up in an atmosphere of hard work, strict ethical standards, and association with the Reformed Church. He decided early that he would go beyond the commonly accepted rudimentary amount of schooling, and become a minister of the Reformed Church. Four miles away was Mercersburg Academy. He walked the round trip of eight miles, day after day, worked on the farm after school, and hired out to farmers during the summer holidays. During his three years at Mercersburg, he led his class and graduated as valedictorian in 1896.

That summer, through the effort and interest of the headmaster of Mercersburg, young Dietrich succeeded in obtaining a job with the New York Tribune Fresh Air Fund. It was his first experience in a large city, and working with the children of the New York slums plunged him into many difficult situations. He did a commendable job, however, and among other things he came in touch with inspiring pioneers in the field of social work, such as Jacob Riis, and he ripened in his own range of understanding. And beyond that, he was financially able to enter Franklin and Marshall College in the fall.

(Top) The First Unitarian Church in Minneapolis, completed in 1887. Under Dietrich's minstry, the society experienced rapid growth so great that Sunday Services were moved to local theaters. The society moved in 1926 to the new Unitarian Center (bottom), although services continued to be held in downtown theaters.

(Top) The First Unitarian Church in Minneapolis, completed in 1887. Under Dietrich’s minstry, the society experienced rapid growth so great that Sunday Services were moved to local theaters. The society moved in 1926 to the new Unitarian Center (bottom), although services continued to be held in downtown theaters.

Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was a small and relatively unknown school. Yet it could boast of Benjamin Franklin, who had been a member of the first board of directors and a chief benefactor, and it maintained high scholastic standards. Dietrich worked his way through college, largely as the business manager of the college paper, which at that time was a private enterprise. His room was ever a center of lively discussion. And among many lasting friendships he made, was one with Albert C. Dieffenbach, who was a graduate of Johns Hopkins and a student at the Reformed Theological Seminary across the campus from Franklin and Marshall College. Dieffenbach was later to become a prominent editor of the Christian Register (now Unitarian Register), and then religious editor of the now defunct Boston Transcript.

During the past four and five years, however, there has been a spreading story to the effect that Dr. Dietrich in his last years greatly changed his views and even had a conversion back into religious orthodoxy. This story has come as a shock to many of his old friends and particularly to those who have looked upon his previous statements as being pretty much the alpha and omega of what they could rightly believe.

There is nothing particularly radical (or should we here say reactionary) from a humanist standpoint in some of what he has written recently. Thus, for example, The Humanist magazine, some time ago ran an extended discussion on what if any revisions should be made in the Humanist Manifesto which was formulated back in 1933. Numerous of the contributors to this symposium indicated that they had disagreed with various parts of the manifesto, and that revision of one kind and another was in order. There was implied a general agreement that the interpretation of humanism was not something static and frozen, but something fluid and in need of constant growth and exploration. Dr. Dietrich’s contribution to the symposium, which appeared in the May-June 1953 issue of The Humanist, reads in part: “I do not have a copy of the Manifesto at hand, so cannot comment on it in detail, but I think you are wise to let it stand as an historical document. It is definitely a dated instrument…. It in no wise reflects the humility which becomes the real seeker after truth. But that is the kind of fellows we were in those days. In fact I was one of the chief offenders…. I see now that my utter reliance upon science and reason and my contempt for any intuitive insights and intangible values, which are the very essence of art and religion, was a great mistake…. What I am trying to say is that the positive side of Humanism was and is fine its insistence upon the enrichment of life in its every form; but its negative side, cutting itself off from all cosmic relationship, and denying or ignoring every influence outside of humanity, I think, was and is very shortsighted.”

Personally, I have no particular argument with this statement as such.

— Abridged from “An Address: John H. Dietrich—A Tribute” (given at the First Unitarian Society, Minneapolis, Minnesota, September 29, 1957).

An Excerpt from a Correspondence with Dietrich

When Warren Allen Smith corresponded with Dietrich, the father of religious humanism wrote:

I was one of the original, if not the original minister, to preach the interpretation of religion which l called Humanism, and for twenty-five years I proclaimed this doctrine to large audiences in a Unitarian Church, but I no longer call myself a Humanist except in the sense you attribute to the lexicographer, “a term denoting devotion to humanity and human interests.” I sometimes called my Humanism “Religious Humanism” or “Naturalistic Humanism.” In any case it was the Humanism now represented by the American Humanist Association and its various members, and I think is quite accurately defined by your definition of Naturalistic Humanism. But of late years, due to much reading and mature thought, my philosophy and religion have undergone a complete revision. I now think it a philosophy too narrow in its conception of the great cosmic scheme, about which we know so little, and concerning which we should be less dogmatic and arrogant. It in no wise reflects the humility which becomes the real seeker after truth. I see now how my utter reliance upon science and reason and my contempt for any intuitive insights and intangible values which are the very essence of art and religion was a great mistake. I think the Humanism of that period served a good purpose as a protest movement against orthodox dogmatism, but its day has passed.

What I am trying to say is that the positive side of Naturalistic Humanism was and is fine—its insistence upon the enrichment of human life in its every form; but its negative side, cutting itself off from all cosmic relationship and denying or ignoring every influence outside of humanity was and is very short-sighted. In other words, it should not have drawn such a hard and fast line between Humanism and Theism, making them contradictory. That was all right so far as orthodox theology and supernaturalism are concerned, but there is a type of theism—a kind of naturalistic theism—which does not stand in direct opposition to a real Humanism, and I have come to accept that type of theism. Do not ask me to define it, for I still agree with Robert Herrick, when he said

God is above the sphere of our esteem
And is best known, not defining him.

Perhaps I am a theistic humanist, but not in the sense you define it, or a humanistic theist. I like to think of myself as both a theist and a humanist.

— From Who’s Who in Hell compiled by Warren Allen Smith (New York: Rationalists NY, 2000).

Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Lyttle, Charles H. Freedom Moves West. Boston: Beacon Press, 1952.

Winston, Carleton (a pseudonym for Dietrich’s second wife, Margaret). The Circle of Earth: The Story of John H. Dietrich. New York: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1942.


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