DANA McLEAN GREELEY: THE
FIRST UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST PRESIDENT 1908-1986
Jon M. Luopa, Minister,
University Unitarian Church, Seattle, Washington
figures in our denominational history embody our unique tensions
as a religious movement as well as Dana McLean Greeley. Groomed
by the New England Unitarianism of Channing, Emerson and Parker,
he became an internationally respected advocate for world peace
and interfaith understanding. Being in the crossfire of many
denominational struggles of the mid-20th century, he remained
optimistic about the future of Unitarian Universalism, and of
the world, and lived without guile or bitterness among those
who could not follow him. In the last years of his life when
he struggled against a debilitating cancer, he remained hopeful
and courageous. He devoted his life to an institution even as
his primary religious inspiration was the unique worth and dignity
of every person.
A fifth-generation Unitarian, Dana was born on July 5, 1908
at 11 o'clock on a Sunday morning, the time of the week he liked
best. The Greeleys hailed from Portland, Maine where their family
pew was one behind the Longfellow pew at the historic First
Parish Church. Dana grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts. In
high school he served as president of the Theodore Parker Guild
of the Young People's Religious Union at the Lexington First
Parish, and later during his college years he served as president
of the continental YPRU. When he was a senior in high school,
his younger sister, Rosamond, died of a ruptured appendix. This
family tragedy was instrumental in his decision to enter the
ministry. At Star Island he proposed to Deborah Webster, whom
he had known since childhood, and they were married on December
27, 1931. He graduated from Harvard College in 1931 and from
the Harvard Divinity School in 1933.
Dana McLean Greeley and Mrs. Greeley Photo by James K.
O'Callaghan, Courtesy of the Boston Public Library
Dana served briefly two congregationsin Lincoln,
Massachusetts and in Concord, New Hampshirebefore being
called to the Arlington Street Church in Boston in 1935. Dr. Samuel
A. Eliot had served as minister there for eight years following
his service as president of the American Unitarian Association
for twenty-five years.
Dana arrived in the autumn of 1935 in youthful vigor to rejuvenate
the venerable institution. During his twenty-three year ministry
at Arlington Street Church, he served on the Board of Directors
of the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian Churches, a social
service agency; as president of the North End Union, a settlement
house; and on the American Unitarian Association Board of Trustees
for twelve years where he chaired the World Churches Committee;
served as secretary to the Board, and as a member of the executive
committee. When his AUA board service ended, he became president
of the Unitarian Service Committee in 1953.
There had been only three presidents of the AUA since 1900:
Samuel A. Eliot, Louis C. Cornish, and Frederick May Eliot.
Dana announced his candidacy for the presidency in 1958. It
was a contested election, the first in the 133 year history
of the association. (The final tally was 823 votes for Dana
and 720 for Dr. Ernest Kuebler, the candidate of the board of
directors.) Dana noted, "I was a grass-roots candidate and a
by-petition candidate, but I seemed nevertheless to be too Bostonian
(which I was) and to represent the establishment." Nearly fifty
years old when elected in 1958, he would be the last president
of the American Unitarian Association. Part of his platform
had been merger with the Universalist Church of America.
Dr. Dana McLean Greeley (second left), a fellow Unitarian
minister of James Reeb, links arms with other church leaders
in the march through Selma. With him, from left, are Msgr.
Daniel Cantwell of Chicago, Rev. C.T. Vivian, of Boston,
Rev. J.C. Killingsworth of Mississippi, Rabbi Eugene Weiner
and Sister Rose Walker of New York City. The 4,000 marchers
protested Rev. Reeb's murder. Courtesy of the Boston Public
Library Print Department.
As early as 1900 there had been informal discussions between
Unitarians and Universalists about cooperation on matters of
mutual interest and concern. In some places cooperation had
evolved into consolidation. In 1959 the Western Unitarian Conference
and several midwestern Universalist state conventions merged.
When he became president of the AUA Dana was committed to complete
merger between the Unitarians and the Universalists on the grounds
of spiritual unity and collegiality. The two denominations were
consolidated in 1961.
Who would become the president of the newly consolidated Unitarian
Universalist Association? Once again there would be a contest.
The other candidate, Dr. William Brooks Rice was the chairman
of the joint merger commission. (Dana won 1,087 votes, Bill
One of the most difficult Board meetings over which Dana presided
was that last one of the American Unitarian Association. Mindful
that he had worked to create a new expression of liberal religion
in America, Unitarian Universalism, he was also deeply aware
that he was the man who helped close the history book on American
Unitarianism. This feeling was to revisit him when he retired
in 1969 as the president of the UUA. He stopped his desk clock
the minute he moved out of his presidential office at 25 Beacon
Street and placed this frozen time piece in his minister's study
in Concord, Massachusetts.
of the Boston Public Library Print Department
Issues that recurred throughout recent history plagued
his administration. When he became president of the AUA in 1958,
he faced opposition from those people who wanted to split the
office of the presidency into two positions, that of spiritual
spokesperson for the denomination and that of administrative head.
He struggled to achieve adequate coordination between field
services and his administration. A plan to create seven regional
service centers was never implemented. Crises around the viability
of the Beacon Press and the lack of regular denominational news
vehicles recurred. When the Service Committees of the two denominations
merged, the Unitarians preferred independence from the UUA and
the Universalists wanted to remain a denominational office as
they had been.For many interfaith and international efforts
were often of lower priority, yet Dana advocated their inclusion
even when they were inadequately funded and staffed.
Befriending Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and involvement in
the civil rights movement were of paramount importance to Dana.His
efforts in trying to help the association accept its own institutional
racism were less successful. This short sketch cannot do justice
to that important ongoing challenge. Dana was an outspoken critic
of American involvement in Southeast Asia and denounced nuclear
proliferation. He was instrumental in the founding of the World
Conference on Religion and Peace in 1962. He practiced a broad
ecumenism long before his participation in the Second Vatican
Council as a delegated observer.
He was a birthright Unitarian with a universalist persona.
He was as comfortable being with President Gerald Ford standing
on the bridge over the Concord River at our nation's bicentennial
in 1976 as he was conversing with Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Lambarene.
The Universalists of the Phillipines, the Unitarians in the
Khasi Hills of India, and the Rissho Kosei Kai of Japan, were
as much his congregation as the cherished folk of Lexington,
Concord, and Boston.
After retiring as president of the UUA in 1969, he served as
a visiting professor for one year at the Meadville/Lombard Theological
School in Chicago. From there he went to serve the First Parish
in Concord, Massachusetts, where he died June 13, 1986.
by Timothy Matlack Warren, Chairman,
The Warren Group, Boston
It is six and one half miles from the house close by the Battle
Green in Lexington to the house on Main Street in Concord.
Rev. Dr. Dana McLean Greeley, minister of the Arlington
Street Church, with his wife, Deborah, and two of their
four daughters, Penelope, 17, left, and Faith, 24. Photo
by Calvin Campbell, Courtesy of the Boston Public Library
For Dana Greeley the odyssey from one to the other lasted forty-six
years. The maelstroms, the challenges, the triumphs of that
odyssey revealed a man with sufficient energy, optimism and
moral courage to stay the course. Who was this man? Did he himself
know who he really was? Why did he choose the ministry? Would
he secretly have rather been a professional baseball player?
On July 5, 1908 Dana was born in his grandparents' house in
Lexington, Massachusetts. In 1912 he moved into a large brick
house which his father had built. When Dana was 16, the family
bought a large white frame house on Massachusetts Avenue in
the shadow of the Battle Green and the First Parish Church,
Dana's mother, Marjory Ellen Houghton, was born in Lexington
and graduated from Radcliffe. Her husband, William Roger Greeley,
was born in Lexington in 1881 and died there in 1966. He was
a Boston architect, a city planner, and a graduate of M. I.
T. As a boy Dana was secure in a loving family and somewhat
king of the roost at home although exercising that position
with great affection. In addition to his younger brother, Roland,
he had twin sisters, Ellen and Anne. If we are to observe him
as he enters Lexington High School, we will begin to see his
development. He is basking in the secure love of his family
and he is about to embark on parallel interests that will absorb
him. The first was athletics. He established a lifelong enthusiasm
for sports of every stripe. He loved baseball. He was an indifferent
student partly through disposition and partly through the distraction
of sports. His parents began to despair about his being prepared
for Harvard and so they proposed to send him to a preparatory
school. As a consequence he went to Stearns School in New Hampshire
after high school. Perhaps this was intended to remove him from
the playing fields for a while but Dana states that, "At preparatory
school I spent no less time in athletics, and I used to walk
several miles on a Sunday evening, instead of studying, to attend
Young People's Religious Union meetings in the Unitarian Church
in Milford, New Hampshire". At any rate the move succeeded to
the extent that Dana was admitted to Harvard the next year.
His father held many distinguished offices in the Unitarian
denomination, in fact all of the major ones that were open to
a layman, including being Moderator of the American Unitarian
Association. His mother was almost equally active in church
and town affairs, and at one time was a director of the Continental
Women's organization known as the General Alliance.
President of the American Unitarian Association at Arlington
Street Church was the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, D.D. (center).
Others are the Rev. Harry B. Scholefield (left) and Lawrence
G. Brooks. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print
Dana was eighteen years old when tragedy overtook the family.
Rosamond, the oldest sister died suddenly of peritonitis at
the age of 14. This left a pall over the family for some years.
It was particularly poignant to Dana because he had indicated
to her that he planned to enter the ministry. How serious was
that intention we don't know but it was probably viewed by Dana
as a pledge that he ought to keep.
Dana entered the Harvard College Class of 1931
and immediately joined the freshman wrestling team. He became
a football running back in the Harvard backfield, the varsity
GR backfield, as it was called, made up of Grant, Graves, Greeley
Dana's writings about
these times indicate his assessment of his scholarship. He felt
close to Alfred North Whitehead from whom he took several courses,
although he admitted in passing that he was not sure if he quite
understood him. Dana's boundless energy does not abate at Harvard.
He became president of his fraternity and a member of the Board
of Directors of the YPRU, and in his senior year while chairman
of the Young People's Conference at Star Island, he was elected
president of the continental YPRU. We see developing here a
record, never to be blemished, of winning election to every
denominational office he ever sought.
Dr. Dana McLean Greeley of the Unitarian Universalist Association,
25 Beacon St., Boston, greets His Excellency Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro,
Grand Mufti of the Syrian Arab Republic, Damascus, S.A.R. during
his Boston visit. Courtesy of the Boston Public
Library Print Department.
Dana did something
far more important his freshman year than wrestle with theology
and teammates. He and Debby became secretly engaged. Debby was
that young women who as a girl had also lived on Somerset Road
and who had moved with her family to the house on Massachusetts
Avenue, the former parsonage of the First Parish Church. It was
right smack dab next to the Greeley house. Debby was Deborah Allen
Webster born also in Lexington, the daughter of Hollis Webster
of Boston and Helen Fordham Noyes of Newton.
Dana and Debby had
a passing acquaintance at school and church young peoples' activities.
But they were not paying close attention to one another. Debby,
as a matter of fact, had two dates with Roland, Dana's brother.
All that was to change when a classmate of Dana's at Stearns came
back from a Lexington visit and started to quiz him rather meaningfully
about this Debby Webster whom he had met. Obviously fresh viewpoints
opened up. Dana took Debby to the Harvard-Yale game, a ploy used
by generations of Harvard men to make a serious romantic statement.
It evidently worked
and they remained secretly engaged for three years. They married
This marriage began with Dana enrolled as a student at Harvard
Divinity School. Probably because it was in some ways a continuum
of his Harvard studies, Dana, in reflecting on the Divinity
School, comments, "It was the appointment of a Unitarian
minister, Henry Ware, Sr., to the Hollis Professorship of Divinity
there in 1805 that chiefly precipitated the historic Unitarian
controversy and the ultimate split between the liberal and orthodox
or Unitarian and Trinitarian wings of Congregationalism. All
nine presidents of Harvard, from that year until 1933, when
I graduated from the Divinity School, were Unitarians.
While at Divinity School Dana was engaged as
director of education at the Church of Disciples in the Fenway,
the church of James Freeman Clarke, Elizabeth Peabody and Samuel
and Julia Ward Howe. The education budget was $1500, including
what seemed to Dana a munificent salary. It was during this tenure
that Dana was to receive a phone call which was to launch him
on his professional career. It came from the First Parish in Lincoln,
Massachusetts asking him to candidate. He accepted and after an
interim period of preaching at the church became its minister
in January 1932. He was ordained on December 13, 1933.
He had two happy years at Lincoln living on a salary of $1200.
Dana with his lifelong lack of concern for money thought this
sum generous. Debby perhaps thought otherwise. she was running
the household and carrying their first child. While at Lincoln,
one day he received a delegation from the church at Concord,
New Hampshire. Dana succumbed to their pleadings and was soon
installed at the Concord church with the additional endowed
title of minister-at-large for the state of New Hampshire.
The Concord ministry was soon to end because
Dana was asked to exchange pulpits with Arlington Street Church,
a process which subtly made him a candidate.
Dana Greeley, back from Vietnam. Photo by Dan Murphy,
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.
And sure enough he was offered that great pulpit. Should he
accept? It was a difficult and agonizing decision to leave Concord
in the lurch, so to speak, and to have the audacity to accept
such a plum at such an early age. But accept it he did at the
urging of Dr. Samuel Atkins Eliot, the former president of the
American Unitarian Association and the minister at Arlington
Street whom he was going to succeed. It would be hard to exaggerate
the enormity of this undertaking and its emotional impact on
Dana. Arlington Street was the mother church of Unitarianism
under whose roof the AUA was founded. It was the great Channing's
pulpit and Dana must have felt his constant presence. Dana was
installed on November 4, 1935 at the age of twenty -seven.
He had an important and conspicuous pulpit to speak from and
the challenging administrative problems of an aging and shrinking
congregation. He became increasingly active in larger church
affairs and his passion for the denomination led to his election
to the Board of the Benevolent Fraternity, the secretaryship
of the AUA, the presidency of the Unitarian Service Committee
and finally the presidency of the AUA. Significantly, it was
during these years that he attended, as chair of the American
delegation, his first congress of the International Association
for Religious Freedom in Oxford, England. A new course was being
Dana's election as president of the AUA in 1958 meant leaving
Arlington Street. The move was only across the Public Garden
to 25 Beacon Street but the job was vastly different. Dana now
had to administer, to lead, and to deal with a Board that, save
for one member, had opposed his election. In the next eleven
years, Dana's energy, optimism, and charisma served him in good
stead in leading the AUA into a union with the Universalists,
in dealing with the black empowerment issue within the denomination,
and in assuming a respected national role in race relations.
He was uncompromisingly candid in his objection to the war in
Vietnam. His stances brought national press attention. He was
quoted widely and even photographed confronting the police chief
of Selma, Alabama. Life magazine ran a photo interview of Dana
exploring this obscure Boston-based denomination and its leader.
Dana used the leverage of his office to advance
those causes about which he cared so much: social justice, religious
freedom, and above all, peace.
McLean Greeley of Boston uses forefinger to emphasize his
point while discussing rights of his followers with Selma's
Public SafetyDirector, Wilson Baker. Photo by Ollie Noonan
Jr., Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.
to right) John H. Bishop of Weston, Judy Bishop, and Penelope
Greeley and her father, the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley of Boston.
Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.
(He registered as a conscientious objector in the Second World
War as a matter of principle, though he need not have done so
since he was a clergyman.) He traveled around the world attending
conferences and councils. The names of some of the organizations
he supported and worked with indicate the breadth of his interests:
the Massachusetts Council of Churches of which he was president;
the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship for Social Justice; the
Second Pacem in Terris Conference; the National Inter-Religious
Conference on Peace; the World Conference on Religion for Peace,
and the International Association for Religious Freedom, of
which he was also president.
During those years at Arlington Street and 25 Beacon Street,
Dana and Debby were living at Charles River Square and Brimmer
Street and raising four daughters: Faith, Rosamond, Cynthia,
and Penelope. Dana was either talking with religious leaders
in India, Japan, Transylvania, or in contrast presenting a daughter
at a debutante cotillion. Debby has stated that he participated
in this debutante ceremony with some hesitation and embarrassment,
but when he stood there in his evening tails with his daughter
on his arm, the joy of the occasion overtook him and his face
was wreathed in that Dana smile.
In 1969 Dana's term as president of the UUA came to an end.
In his 50th Reunion report, Dana told his Harvard classmates
that the constitution required him to step down. He must have
had mixed emotions about leaving. He had had his share of confrontations
with his Board over money and policies, but he had the great
satisfaction of having led his denomination onto center national
stage in matters of peace, reconciliation, and ecumenicity.
Now at 61 he could stand back and contemplate what to do next.
While lecturing in Germany, he received a letter from the Concord
church. This was followed by a luncheon in Boston after which
committee members succeeded in getting Dana and Debby out to
Concord for a look-see. A candidating week followed and a subsequent
call to the pulpit by acclamation. Abigail Eliot stepped in
serendipitously at this moment to offer her house at 276 Main
Street to Dana and Debby. The house could not have been better
suited to them. It was in town, on the river, and graciously
Victorian. And it was endowed with a Unitarian past as the home
of Grindall Reynolds, former minister of the First Parish.
Street Church: Charles Frances Adams, right, and Rev.
Dana McLean Greeley. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library
Dana settled into his ministry with his openness
and conciliatory charm softening the divisions that had arisen
from the prophetic but contentious earlier ministry.
An admiring parish gave him the freedom and administrative
support to allow him to continue to roam the globe for the International
Association for Religious Freedom. In Concord he joined Rotary,
played tennis, and spent some time in their beloved summer home
in Georgetown, Maine. His genius for communication and his passion
for ecumenical dialogue resulted in his playing a large part
in bringing all the Concord ministers together for frequent
Concord must have been an easy choice for Dana, the chance
to get back to preaching and to minister to a smaller community
than a denomination or indeed the world. The social and political
ambiance of Concord would be completely familiar to him. He
was soon president of the Thoreau Society of America.
Dana seemed to have an Emersonian tug prodding him towards
Concord. They both had an open mien that endeared them both
to the townspeople: Emerson was recognized affectionately whether
afoot or in carriage, and Dana was seen waving and grinning
to all from his auto with the UNI-UNI license plate. When he
died of cancer in 1986, his family and a caring community of
friends from across the years filled the Concord Meetinghouse
to celebrate his life.