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Sellars, Roy Wood (1883-1973)

Biographical Introduction

Roy Wood SellarsOriginator of critical realism, emergent evolutionist anteceding Lloyd Morgan and Samuel Alexander, proponent of a double knowledge and identity theory of the brain-mind relationship, and original American writer on religious humanism and drafter of the Humanist Manifesto, Roy Wood Sellars was born in Seaforth, Ontario, in 1880. The second son of Ford Wylis and Mary Stalker Sellars, he had a notable, predominantly Scottish ancestry. The Sellars came originally from the Glasgow region of Scotland, migrating first to Nova Scotia and then to Upper Canada (Ontario). They married into the distinguished Wood family.

Roy grew up quite happily in very rural Pinnebog with much outdoor life: skating, swimming, playing baseball and tending the garden. There were Norwegian, Anglo-Canadian and French Canadian boys. ”It was a rather egalitarian situation… religious differences were taken for granted and ignored.” A two-culture background disposed him to be international in outlook.

Although he had friends in the village and countryside, he had no intellectual competitors. He went to the village school; and on completion of the eight grades at Pinnebog, he was sent to the Ferris Institute at Big Rapids to prepare him for the university. “There, he said, “I began to stand out and gained the friendship of both Mr. and Mrs. Ferris.” W. D. Henderson, his teacher in physics and chemistry, once visited Sellars’s home and saw his father’s library. “Now I know,” he said, “why Sellars has stood out.”

The Ferrises in turn gave Roy the run of their private library. Here he found and read Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, following this later with Morris’s News from Nowhere and John Ball’s Dream. The result was a critical attitude toward nation-states and wars. “The Spanish-American War was on,” he said, “and I became skeptical of it…. I remember that some of the students drilled, but I did not.”

A year at the Ferris Institute prepared him for the university, but he taught in a rural one-room school for a year—all eight grades—and had more pupils than usual pass the county examinations. He himself passed an examination for a first-class lifetime teaching certificate. Earning twenty-eight dollars a month, he saved most of it.

Roy entered the University of Michigan in 1899. He washed dishes for his board during his first year, and then, with his brother, cooked his own meals. He states that he was not well prepared for the university, yet his selection of courses threw him in with the class ahead of him. Still, he says, he “made a go of it,” so much so indeed that on graduation his class voted him one of the two most scholarly of its members. This opinion was evidently shared by Professor Wenley of the philosophy department, who recommended him for a fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, and then invited him back to teach at Michigan while he himself was on sabbatical leave.

In 1904 he was offered a teaching fellowship in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin.

The academic year of 1909-1910 Sellars spent in Europe. Sellars discussed with Bergson the possibility of a naturalistic emergent type of evolution. But Bergson referred him to the scientifically trained vitalist, Hans Driesch, with whom he then studied in Heidelberg. Sellars’ recollections of Driesch are not indicated in his records; but he did have personal discussions with him and there seems little doubt that Driesch pointed him to relevant specifics in physiology.

Sellars returned to teaching with a notable course in the philosophy of science.” We sometimes used Ward’s Naturalism and Agnosticism but also used Huxley, Mach, Poincare, and Pearson,” Sellars recalled. Many of his students were graduate students in physics, chemistry, and biology.

Three important developments had meanwhile occurred. In 1911 he married his cousin, Helen Maud Stalker, an intelligent and beautiful woman who was a great helpmate until her death in 1962. In the early years of their marriage, Helen translated Bougle’s Evolution of Values for which Roy wrote a preface. In 1912 and 1913 their two children were born: Wilfrid, who was to become a most eminent philosopher, and Cecily who became a minister’s wife and a psychologist.

His social concern gained force from the progressivism of LaFollette during Roy’s year in Wisconsin, and social philosophy became indeed the crowning or completion of his thinking.

In 1918 Sellars published The Next Step in Religion. The next step in religion was an outright humanism. According to Sellars, religious thought historically has been prescientic and hence mythopoetic. The time had arrived for a religion which comes to terms with the world disclosed through science. The universe of science shows no evidence of being deiform, but it does hold human values which should be cherished by both the individual and society; and it does present the option of living from the viewpoint of the whole and the long run, and this is what constitutes religion. Let men therefore live as citizens of a world to be made the most of.

In 1922, Sellars published his Evolutionary Naturalism. The major content of this book went back to his doctoral thesis. It was an epochal publication. Both Lloyd Morgan’s Emergent Evolution and Samuel Alexander’s first statement of emergent evolution were published a year later. Morgan added an appendix to his volume distinguishing his position from that of Sellars. “Mine,” said the latter, “was more systematically empirical and naturalistic.” There was no introduction or a mysterious nisus or or extra-natural control. Material organization was the key concept. Morgan told Sellars that to his knowlege, he (Sellers) was the first to publish on emergent evolution.

Sellars retired in 1950 from his teaching activities.

In 1954 a tragedy occurred in Sellars’s life. His daughter, Cecily, a state psychologist in North Dakota, was killed in an auto accident. The repercussion from this tragedy affected Sellars’s publications, though he remained an incessant scholarly writer. In his nineties, he was catching up with papers he had been working on at the time of the tragedy.

Notre Dame University has the distinction of providing a capstone to Sellars’s career. In September, 1970, the Notre Dame Philosophy Department honored Sellars’ ninetieth year with a symposium on his philosophy. The symposiasts included: Andrew J. Reck of Tulane, Wilfrid Sellars of Pittsburgh, and C. F. Delaney of Notre Dame. Having a son who is a philosopher with his own extension of his father’s philosophy is the greatest of capstones. Professor Sellars died on September 5, 1973, leaving behind a distinguished body of writing and a distinguished son to keep the name of Sellars bright in the world of philosophy.

What, if anything, has reformed materialism to offer in religion? Professor Sellars has written extensively on religion, not always on the basis of reformed materialism, yet always on the basis of a cultural naturalism. Religion he found to be a function of the precariousness of the human situation, with its diverse forms as expressions of diverse types of culture. Historical religions are prescientific and mythological in their explanations. But religion itself is concerned with man’s life, in view of the far-flung nature of things. It is therefore a natural and exceedingly important ingredient of human existence‚ despite its unnaturalistic forms. It is man’s sense of cosmic citizenship in the light of his informed or uninformed thinking about the order of things.

From the humanistic standpoint, Sellars has been a leader. His Next Step in Religion (1918) was a pioneer American work in this field and was rated by the New York critic, James G. Hunecker, as one of the two most notable books of that year. (Conrad’s Arrow of Gold was the other.) And the reviewer in the Old Orchard News wrote: “Perhaps no bigger book in point of view of usefulness to the human race has appeared in many moons than The Next Step in Religion.

In 1928 Sellars published Religion Coming of Age and was soon afterwards selected to draft the Humanist Manifesto. Published in the New Humanist (1933), the Manifesto was signed by some thirty humanists. Sellars both preceded and followed the publication of the Manifesto with a number of brief articles in clarification of humanism as a religion. Then, in the 1940’s, he was invited to contribute chapters to Religious Liberals Reply and Religion in the Twentieth Century. The outcome was two papers: “Accept the Universe as a Going Concern” (1947) and “Naturalistic Humanism” (1948). A significant addition to these writings came in the late 1960’s in a chapter on “Religious Existentialism” in Reflections on American Philosophy from Within. Other unpublished papers have been compiled by Professor Sellars himself for a final rounding out of his thought.

Sellers’ philosophy taken overall is a philosophy of the human scene in its cosmic context. He writes: “I see this little planet spinning in space and marvel at its history. This is not a story-book tale but one of struggle and tragedy and accomplishment. Stubbornness mixed with kindliness will achieve much but intelligence must be added. Out of these ingredients should come wisdom. Thus I triangulate and extrapolate. It is obvious that I am concerned with participative democracy in the masses, and with the growth of international institutions. Patriotism is not enough. There must be resolutions of conflicts. And this is made possible by some openness of mind and by some recognition that it is tactically wise to agree to disagree, and wait on time.”

— By W. Preston Warren, from Roy Wood Sellers, Twayne Publishers, 1975.


A Humanist Manifesto

Raymond B. Bragg, as the associate editor of The New Humanist, initiated the project that resulted in the 1933 publication of “A Humanist Manifesto.” In a letter dated February 17, 1970, reminiscing about the early stages, Bragg wrote: “The fact is that my job as Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference allowed me to move about to see people and to talk with them. It was a convenient post under the circumstances.”

As he traveled about on his work for the conference, a number of people urged him to issue a definitive statement about humanism. Bragg writes in the same letter: “I believe the first person to discuss with me the importance of some kind of humanist blast was L. M. Birkhead. Charles Francis Potter was also insistent that something be done, though he had in mind a more popular thing, such as appeared in his book. I believe it was in 1931 when I appeared at his first and last Annual Humanist Conference [in New York] that he discussed the matter with me. Once discussed, you may recall, some of us felt that something ought to be done about it.”

The fact is that in academia there was fear of a merely journalistic or promotional approach. I can remember a crass example of commercialism with a man named Howard Kraus, who appeared in Minneapolis and wanted to promote humanism on a commission basis—much the same as the Ku Klux Klan had been promoted. Harold Buschman responded to Klaus’s proposal by remarking, “That stinks!” Raymond Bragg also remembered being visited by Kraus at his Chicago office. “He talked about promoting humanism by endorsing various commodities, including contraceptives,” Bragg recalled.

We may judge that fear of a shallow, unethical, or insensitive approach by someone was no small part of the motivation that led Bragg and others to start the project. Within the humanist movement, there was none of the drive or opportunism of the fundamentalist spell-binders described by Alan Bestic in Praise the Lord and Pass the Contribution. The televangelists of the 1980s had their prototypes from some years before.

When Raymond Bragg undertook the organizing of “A Humanist Manifesto,” he was only thirty years old. He had been educated at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where there was a Unitarian geology professor who was successfully opening his students’ eyes to the primacy of scientific inquiry. Having explored Unitarianism himself, Bragg decided to enter the theological school at Meadville, Pennsylvania. In 1926, he moved with the school to Chicago, where he became exposed to humanism under the tutelage of Dr. A. Eustace Haydon, Curtis Reese, and others. Bragg graduated from Meadville in 1928 and went on to a two-year ministry in Evanston, Illinois. He then moved back to Chicago to take the post as secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference.

Further recollections of the start of the project are found in a letter from Dr. Bragg to Dr. A. E. Haydon, dated March 3, 1971: “When I was Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference, driving from one end of the land to the other, several individuals talked to me about issuing a resounding statement that would put the Humanist position on the line. As an itinerant, it was thought that I could stop off here and there, seeking light and leading. There was also, I suspect, the fact that I had a full-time secretary when such a commodity was rare. There was a negative aspect to the enterprise. Charles Francis Potter was talking rather loudly about such a statement. Some had doubts as to whether the description of the movement should be left to him. Charles, as you recall, had some slap-dash quality regretted by not a few. In fact, I think you cautioned me against drawing too heavily on Potter.”

To be fair, it should be stated that I did not fully share these apprehensions about Charles Francis Potter. After years in Unitarian churches, Dr. Potter gave his time and effort for still more years to lecturing at the First Humanist Society of New York without recompense; he earned his living by lecturing and writing—no small achievement. On occasion he protested to me against being considered a popularizer just because he could write so that the layperson could understand him. My respect for him grew with years of association, and before Potter died, he pointed to a shelf of books and documents and told his wife Clara “not to let anyone touch them until Ed Wilson took what he wanted for his library.” Moreover, Potter cooperated fully with the project Bragg initiated and gave helpful advice on press releases and other publicity. By indicating that Dr. Potter was a catalyst, building fires under the meticulous academic men and stirring them to action, no disrespect is intended for his memory nor lack of appreciation for his unquestioned and unique contribution to the humanist movement. He put humanism in the headlines before “A Humanist Manifesto” was written.

Twenty years after the publication of the manifesto, Bragg wrote “An Historical Note,” which appeared in the March/April 1953 issue of The Humanist as part of a symposium. He said: “For a year or more prior to the publication of the Humanist Manifesto in May, 1933, there was occasional talk of its preparation. In January of that year the talk reached the project stage. The Chicago group, once it had agreed on publication, realized the difficulties of composition by committee. Unanimously it was agreed to ask Roy Wood Sellars to prepare a draft that the undertaking might be launched.”

Interestingly, in the March 3, 1971 letter to Dr. Haydon, Bragg remembered it this way: “Three of us who discussed the project had some hesitation about a committee sitting down cold to launch the matter. Better, it was thought, if someone drew up an initial draft to be maturely considered by several. . . . The certainty in me is that we wanted some one person to set down the propositions. In the autumn of 1932, Roy Wood Sellars lectured at the University of Chicago. Afterward I talked with him at some length about the need of a formulation. I asked him if he would be willing to set things down as a starter. It was agreed that I would write him in some detail as to what several of us had in mind. That I did.”

Dr. Sellars was asked and, using the foundation of his work, the collating of views and editing was begun. As time passed and with aging, Dr. Sellars began to believe that he had single-handedly produced “A Humanist Manifesto.” In fact, his initial draft was the basis of much input, editing, and revision, ending with a consensus declaration.

— By Edwin H. Wilson, from Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto.


Naturalistic Humanism
by Roy Wood Sellars

It goes without saying in detail that I have read and thought much about religion in the abstract and in the concrete since those already far-off days when I first sought to make explicit to myself and others the perspective called religious Humanism.

Much has happened since the formulation and the publication of the Humanist Manifesto. Under able and vigorous leadership in this and other countries, Humanism has become an international stream of thought and commitment aiming at a basic revision of the human outlook and a revaluation of values. I still think the adjective, naturalistic, best symbolizes the perspective of religious Humanism since it calls attention to its rejection of supernaturalism. Modern naturalism is, inevitably, evolutionary in its premises. And I can quite understand why the distinguished English biologist, Julian Huxley, selects this latter term and speaks of evolutionary Humanism. As I see it, it is all a matter of accent. The essential thing is to have a common framework.

Is Humanism a religion, perhaps, the next great religion? Yes, it must be so characterized, for the word, religion, has become a symbol for answers to that basic interrogation of human life, the human situation, and the nature of things—which every human being, in some degree and in some fashion, makes. What can I expect from life? What kind of universe is it? Is there, as some say, a friendly Providence in control of it? And, if not, what then? The universe of discourse of religion consists of such questions, and the answers relevant to them. Christian theism and Vedantic mysticism are but historic frameworks in relation to which answers have in the past been given to these poignant and persistent queries. But there is nothing sacrosanct and self-certifying about these frameworks. What Humanism represents is the awareness of another framework, more consonant with wider and deeper knowledge about man and his world. The Humanist movement is engaged in formulating answers, with what wisdom it can achieve, to these basic questions.

— From Humanists of Utah.


A Historical Note

For a year or more prior to the publication of the Humanist Manifesto in May, 1933, there was occasional talk of its preparation. In January of that year the talk reached the project stage. The Chicago group, once it had agreed on publication, realized the difficulties of composition by committee. Unanimously it was agreed to ask Roy Wood Sellars (Professor of Philosophy, University of Michigan) to prepare a draft that the undertaking might by launched.

The frame of the Manifesto as finally published is essentially what it was when received in the first draft. The correspondence, however, makes clear the extent of revision in terminology and order of the theses.

The committee—Reese, Wilson, Haydon, Bragg—spent unnumbered hours in successive sessions culling, refining, reordering the statement. Then it was returned to Sellars whose rejoinder was in effect: “You fellows have done a good job.”

— By Raymond B. Bragg, from Humanists of Utah.


A Note on Unitarian Connections

The liberal religious confluence of two philosophies is suggested by the conclusion of the essay by Sellars, a Unitarian, in his chapter of The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.

“No other writer of recent times has so forced me to ask second questions as has Professor Whitehead.”

Sellars was a member of the First Unitarian Church in Ann Arbor, Michigan, having joined in 1934.


Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

Sellars Appendix – 15 Theses of Naturalistic Humanism



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