JOHN HAYNES HOLMES: THE
COMMUNITY CHURCH OF NEW YORK
Donald Szantho Harrington, Minister Emeritus, The Community Church
of New York
Haynes Holmes. Photo courtesy of Editta Sherman.
John Haynes Holmes -- the prophetic founder and minister of
The Community Church of New York, located at the very heart
of the inner city -- and I worked together as colleagues during
the last twenty years of his life. Our apartments were across
the hall from each other in the same building next to the Church,
so I saw him every day. Every Monday morning we sat together
in his study, evaluating the week past and planning the weeks
to come. Every Saturday evening we met with our wives to review
our preparations for Sunday morning. There were no questions
we could not or did not discuss. He was my mentor and model
for ministry; I was his choice for colleague and successor to
carry forward the work he had begun. For seventeen years we
sat together in the pulpit of the Community Church; for the
first five he preached three times a month, I once; for the
next twelve years I preached three Sundays, and he one. We shared
all other churchly duties, I picking them up gradually as he
had to relinquish them because of the ravages of Parkinson's
physical assault upon his body.
Holmes served The Community Church as Jr. Colleague, Senior
Minister and Minister Emeritus for a total of fifty-seven years.
This year, 2001, I too will have served it in those same capacities
for fifty-seven years!
I have said many times that I believe John Haynes Holmes was
the greatest all-around minister of religion of the 20th Century:
pacifist, orator, churchman, social service organizer, racial
and social justice pioneer, pastor, adult educator, political
participant and leader, poet and philosopher, all at once!
Holmes may have been best known for his stalwart
pacifism and early recognition of the greatness of Mahatma Gandhi.
It was in 1921, when Gandhi was almost unknown, that Holmes preached
a sermon entitled The Greatest Man Alive in the World Todaynot
Wilson, Lloyd George, Lenin, Stalin, not Trotzky; not Clemenceau,
Churchill or Tolstoy, but Mohandas K. Gandhi of India, the apostle
with John Haynes Holmes, New Delhi, October 12, 1947 Photo
by John Haynes Holmes's son, Roger W. Holmes.
Holmes had announced his pacifism before America entered World
War I. On April 3, 1917 he preached on A Statement to my
People on the Eve of War, declaring:
"When hostilities begin, it is universally assumed that there
is but a single service which a loyal citizen can render to
the state: that of bearing arms and killing the enemy. Will
you understand me if I say, humbly and regretfully, that this
I cannot, and will not, do. When, therefore, there comes a call
for volunteers, I shall have to refuse to heed. When there is
an enrollment of citizens for military purposes, I shall have
to refuse to register. When, or if, the system of conscription
is adopted, I shall have to decline to serve. If this means
a fine, I will pay my fine. If this means imprisonment, I will
serve my term. If this means persecution, I will carry my cross.
No order of president or governor, no law of nation or state,
no loss of reputation, freedom or life, will persuade me or
force me to this business of killing. On this issue, for me
at least, there is no compromise. Mistaken, foolish, fanatical,
I may be; I will not deny the charge. But false to my own soul
I will not be. Therefore here I stand. God help me! I cannot
"Therefore would I make it plain that, so long as I am your
minister, this Church will answer no military summons. Other
pulpits may preach recruiting sermons; mine will not. Other
parish houses may be turned into drill halls and rifle ranges;
ours will not. Other clergymen may pray to God for victory for
our arms; I will not. In this church, if nowhere else in all
America, the Germans will still be included in the family of
God's children. No word of hatred shall be spoken against them
and no evil fate shall be desired upon them. War may beat upon
our portals, like storm waves on the granite crags; rumors of
war may thrill the atmosphere of this sanctuary as lightning
the still air of a summer night. But so long as I am priest,
this altar shall be consecrated to human brotherhood, and before
it shall be offered worship only to that one God and Father
of us all, 'Who hath made of one blood all nations of men for
to dwell together on the face of the earth.'"
Holmes offered the church people his resignation, which they
promptly refused. But he did stand almost alone. Almost, but
not quite. He later told how Gandhi came into his life: "At
the moment I needed him most, I discovered that there was such
a man. He was living in the faith that I had sought. He was
making it work and proving it right. He was everything that
I believed but hardly dared to hope. In my extremity in 1917,
I turned to Gandhi, and he took me into his arms and never let
me go. Away across the globe he cared for me and taught me and
"Had the Mahatma not come into my life, I must sooner or later
have been lost. As it was, he saved me; he gave me a peace of
mind and serenity of soul which will be with me to the last.
Even when he died, I gave way only for a period of time, and
then the tears flowed with a passion of grief which there was
no controlling. But the Mahatma did not fail me. I called to
him, and I am persuaded that he answered. My real life as a
teacher began with Gandhi, and it ended with his end. I should
have retired when he died, for all through these latter months
I have been but an echo of my true self. If I have been content
to stay on till now, it is because I could the longer bear witness
Years later another poet, Edith Lovejoy Pierce, would write
John Haynes Holmes, Pacifist
The others move. The other stars wheel by.
Inching across the night, they saunter forth.
But this one mental fire stays sternly north,
Unhindered by the drift across the sky.
A compass will be set against this light
In later years, when ships are planned to scar
Pale glimmering waters, formerly too far,
And undiscovered countries loom in sight.
There must be movement as the planets press
Their plea for music, rhythmical design,
But Man's unsteady heart will choose as shrine
A polar point of astral changelessness.
Holmes had an extended visit with Gandhi in India shortly before
Gandhi's assassination. He told me that he had found Gandhi
deeply discouraged by the communal violence and partitioning
of India and Pakistan. Gandhi said, "Holmes, I have failed,
totally failed. They will worship me, but they will not follow
me!" I tried to reassure him, but he would not be comforted.
Leaders Assail City Administration - Dr. John Haynes Holmes,
Chairman of the City Affairs Committee, addressing the
crowd of more than 3,000 people that filled Carnegie Hall,
New York, March 30, to denounce the administration of
the city of New York as corrupt and inefficient. Seated,
are left to right: Rabbi Sidney Goldstein, who appeared
in the place of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who is ill; Heyward
Broun; Paul Blanchard; Darwin Meseole and Norman Thomas,
Socialist Leader. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library
In an age of oratory, Holmes was among the greatest. His peers
were preachers like Harry Emerson Fosdick at Riverside Church,
Norman Vincent Peale at Marble Collegiate, Father George Ford
at Corpus Christi Columbia, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise of The Free
Synagogue at Carnegie Hall, the Unitarians John Howland Lathrop
in Brooklyn and Minot Simons at All Souls Church in New York,
Ralph Sockman at Christ Church Methodist, and Preston Bradley
at The Peoples Church of Chicago. Holmes spoke with a passion
which carried everything before it. His sermons, usually a full
sixty minutes, were clear and logical, step by step, from start
to finish, powerfully illustrated with references from history
and literature. He left his hearers with the feeling that all
that could be said on any particular subject had been said.
Holmes experienced his life and times in personal, hyperbolic
terms, and he left no arguments unanswered, no iniquity unassailed,
no shame unmasked, no goodness unpraised.
Holmes believed every citizen should not only
vote, but should be active in politics. He considered himself
to be a democratic socialist. In the three-way race of 1912 between
William Howard Taft, who was a Unitarian, Woodrow Wilson, and
Theodore Roosevelt, he supported Roosevelt. This led to an embarrassing
episode. On the Sunday before election that November, Holmes had
prepared a sermon supporting Roosevelt. But he received a telephone
call early that Sunday morning saying that President William Howard
Taft, running for a second term, was in the city, and would be
attending church. He asked that several front pews be reserved
for him and his retinue!!! Holmes preached his sermon, supporting
Roosevelt, with President Taft sitting in the front pew! Rabbi
Wise said later that Taft had remarked to him angrily, "The
blatherskite! He did everything but take up the offering for Teddy!"
Wilson won. Taft went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme
Court, and Moderator of the American Unitarian Association.
People's Sunday at the Arlington Street Church, the beginning
of an annual event. Speakers included (left to right),
Henry V. Atherton, president of the National Young People's
Religious Union; the Rev. Dana McLean Greeley, minister
of the church; the Rev. John Haynes Holmes, leader of
the Community Church of New York, and Edward P. Furber,
past president of the NYPRU. Courtesy of the Boston Public
Library Print Department.
Five years later Taft took his revenge. Presiding at a General
Conference of the Unitarian Association in 1917 as the United
States was preparing to enter World War I, Taft was presented
with a resolution, prepared by Holmes and his colleagues, affirming
both a conscientious support and a conscientious objection to
the war and the right of Unitarians to support or to refuse
it. Moderator, former President and Chief Justice Taft declared
the resolution, though properly presented, to be unpatriotic
and treasonable, and therefore "out of order," and called on
the Conference to sustain his ruling; which, of course, it did.
Holmes was outraged, left the Conference, and withdrew his fellowship
as a Unitarian minister. The Churchthen called Church
of the Messiahremained Unitarian, but for the next 25
years was largely non-participative in denominational affairs.
During my ministry, the Church gradually became fully active
in the Unitarian Association, and in his retirement, at the
request of the Rev. Dr. Dana McLean Greeley, Holmes renewed
his Unitarian ministerial fellowship.
Holmes took an important part in the founding in 1920 of the
Community Church Movement, and the congregation changed the
church's name. But the Community Churches were mostly united
Christian congregations in overchurched small towns, many quite
traditional, rather than as interfaith and open as Holmes had
hoped, and the New York congregation found itself more at home
among the Unitarians.
AND SOCIAL JUSTICE
with Paul Blanshard and Norman Thomas, Holmes and Rabbi Wise founded
and co-chaired the New York City Affairs Committee which investigated
the questionable Mayoralty of Jimmie Walker and ultimately helped
replace him with reformist Fiorello La Guardia. Both La Guardia
and Rabbi Wise spoke at my installation service in 1944.
Holmes was among the founders of several of the most important
organizations for social justice: the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People, with W.E.B. Du Bois; The
American Civil Liberties Union, with Roger Baldwin; The League
for Industrial Democracy, with Harry Laidler; The Planned Parenthood
Movement, with Margaret Sanger. A few of the others are The
Fellowship of Reconciliation, The War Resisters League, and
The India League of America. Holmes was a regular speaker on
Town Hall Tonight, radio's great first public forum.
The Congregation sponsored several counseling Services in the
Church itself: the first church-sponsored Marriage Counseling
Center with Drs. Abraham and Hannah Stone, associates of Margaret
Sanger; an individual Psychological Counseling Center with Dr.
Alfred Adler; a Legal Counsel Service with retired Judge Ralph
C. Roper; and a Social Service Advisor with Irene Roggeveen,
open to one and all needing help.
Holmes's Community Forum drew hundreds of New
Yorkers every Sunday evening to hear outstanding personalities
in the news. A Multiple Round Table Discussion Group gave everyone
a voice on Sunday afternoons.
In constant demand as a University Chapel preacher in all parts
of the country, Holmes carried his message of international
and interracial humanhood far and wide, reachingwith his
message, his eloquence and the example of his lifehundreds
of thousands of young people, students and ministers.
Reverend John Haynes Holmes, center, receiving the annual
award of the American Unitarian Association at the anniversary
dinner of the association at the John Hancock Building.
Left to right, William Roger Greeley, moderator of the
association; the Rev. Holmes, and the Rev. Brainard F.
Gibbons, general superintendent of the Universalist Church
of America. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print
Not least was his Ministry of the Mails. He answered
every letter immediately, sometimes dictating fifty or sixty letters
a day. He was able to get his whole passionate soul into a few
sentences. He early advised me to use the mails. "Phone calls
are over and quickly gone," he said, "but a beautiful and true
letter can be returned to again and again."
One Monday morning when I reached my office at the Church,
I found a letter from Holmes already awaiting me. "My dear Don,"
it read, "your sermon yesterday was beyond all praise. It was
the finest sermon I have ever heard. The congregation was awed
and shaken, and left the church convinced it would never hear
its like again. Faithfully, J.H.H." You don't throw away a letter
like that. People kept his letters. I still get them from people,
now old, who can't bear to throw them away!
Sometimes curious colleagues have asked me what it was like
to minister in the shadow of so great a predecessor. I have
replied, "But I was never aware of any shadow." Only with Holmes
was the brightness of the shining sun, a human dawning, with
kindness, encouragement and thus an eternal hope. Truly his
was a model ministry for Unitarians and many others. My life
was blessed to be close to his and to be called to carry forward
his exemplary good works.
One hundred years ago the black poet of the
Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen, whose widow, Ida Cullen, was
for many years a leader of the Community Church, wrote a special
poem to John Haynes Holmes, testifying to his enduring influence:
Once in a thousand years a call may ring
Divested so of every cumbering lie,
A man espousing it may fight and sing,
And count it but a little thing to die.
Once in a thousand years a star may come,
Six pointed, tipped with such an astral flow,
Its singing sisters must bow hushed in dumb,
Half mutinous, yet half-adoring show.
Once in as many years a man may rise
So cosmopolitan of thought or speech,
Humanity reflected in his eyes,
His heart a haven every race can reach,
That doubters shall receive a mortal thrust,
And own, "This man proves flesh exalts its dust."
I Speak for Myself
(New York : Harper & Brothers, 1959).
by John Haynes Holmes (New York: Harper, 1953).