IN AN ILLIBERAL AGE
The liberal spirit's supreme gift to me was an introduction
to the Unitarian Universalist religious community, where
I found encouragement to unfold: the special joy of breaking
out of the cocoon or of discovering a greater freedom
in the exercise of my intelligence and in the growth of
my experience of love, beauty, and justice.
Childhood is a quilt of many patches: sounds, smells,
tears, playgrounds, back fences, anticipations. Mine was
such a childhood, a compound of chance and purpose, marvel
and misery. I remember with special warmth my maternal
grandfather, Charles M. Torrey, of the Foxboro, Massachusetts,
Torreys. He had been one of the early touring professional
baseball players. It was he who guided my first nervous
attempts at playing sandlot baseball. He gave me his very
own cornet, battered and old, on which I learned the beginnings
of the musical skills that eventually helped finance my
I remember the summer, my twelfth, when I fastened a chinning
bar on the back porch in the conviction that it would
help to stretch my body to the more than six feet of height
I so desperately desired. By the age of seventeen, the
chinning bar long forgotten, I made it to six feet and
three inches and stopped growing.
I remember the boyhood hours I spent poring over Uncle
Lawrence Farwell's picture book of World War I. He had
been an artilleryman in France, a feat I greatly admired.
I nursed a morbid fear that there might never be another
war in which I could perform valorous deeds. Such are
the unpredictabilities of childhood! By the time we found
ourselves in World War II, I was a confirmed pacifist,
an ardent convert to nonviolence.
As I look back over the tender years, there is little
that prophesied my eventual turn toward a Unitarian Universalist
ministry, except that I was an avid reader. My room, to
the dismay of my parents and, later, my grandparents,
was forever strewn with books. At Christmas and birthdays
there were only two kinds of gifts I really wanted: athletic
equipment and books. As for religion, it was anything
but a burden. None of my relatives pried into my religious
thoughts, and I did very little prying of my own. My father,
Jack Mendelsohn, Sr., born Jewish, was an uncomplicated
religiously and, like his father before him, nonobserving.
Theology was about as pressing for him as witchcraft.
Mendelsohn in 1928 with his mother and sister.
worshipped my mother, Anna Melissa Torrey Mendelsohn,
and was never given the opportunity to grow beyond a boy's
craving for approval and affection. She was statuesque,
redheaded, and very beautiful. Or so I remember. She was
youthful. Even as a child, when anyone over twenty seemed
ancient, I was deeply conscious of her youth. She played
the piano professionally. That was how my father, then
a music publisher, met her. She cooked wonderful soups
and often held me in her lap. I needed her terribly and
was painfully aware of it.One day I ran home from school.
I was six and a first grader in the old Morse School in
Cambridge. The teacher left the room, and the children
exploded into a chaos of screaming, jumping, and throwing
erasers. Suddenly she was back, and I stood transfixed
with eraser in hand. Enraged, she pulled me from the room
and ordered me to stand alone in the hall until she was
ready to deal with me. I was the only culprit she apprehended
and humbled. Part of what I felt was fear, but a great
part was outrage. In the face of massive injustice, I
bolted from the corridor and ran home, where I knew there
would be justice even though it would include punishment
for my transgression. I was not disappointed. My mother
deprived me of several privileges for a few days, but
she also took me back to school, hand in hand, where she
charmed and soothed the distraught teacher and returned
me honorably to my peers.
This is the mother I remember. It was difficult for me
to think of God as being other than a woman, like my mother.
Then life taught me something else.
I was eight and shared a room with my sister, Virginia,
who was three years younger than I. One night I awoke
in the darkness and peered into the hall where I caught
a harrowing glimpse of my father helping my mother down
the stairs. Her face was twisted with pain. It was the
last time I saw her.
Years later I learned it was a miscarriage that took her
to the hospital that night. My grandmother, Mary Spinney
Torrey, came the next morning and an air of mystery hung
on the house. The following night I awoke again and heard
my grandmother and father whispering together. Soon they
left, unaware that I was awake. But I knew what was happening.
While my sister slept, I paced in the darkness of our
parents' room, sobbing aloud, "She can't die. Oh,
God, don't let her die!"
She did die, and at dawn my father and grandmother returned
to tell us what I already knew. The cause of death, though
it had no meaning for me at the time, was peritonitis,
an abdominal inflammation. All that mattered to me was
the loss of the most important person in the world. I
was hurt and angry, desolate and resentful. For the first
time in my life I had asked God for something. I had begged
God for something! And God had turned and slapped me in
the face, as I had seen some parents strike my playmates.
Since that moment religious questions have never been
far from my thoughts. It may be a gift or a neurosis,
but I am gripped with the habit of religious searching.
It would be wrong, however, to give the impression of
youthful zealotry or intense concentration.
Soon after my mother's death, my sister became a member
of Aunt Mabel Farwell's household, and I went to live
with my Torrey grandparents in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
We were neighbors, just a few streets apart. My father,
who had shifted from publishing music to selling furniture,
took up residence in a New York City hotel. Though we
saw him regularly, we were never again a united family.
My grandparents were quiet, steady, sober New Englanders.
My grandfather had been a barnstorming baseball player
in that pastime's pioneer years. Later, he had become
a fireman and policeman in his native Foxboro, where my
mother was laid to rest among her Torrey forebears. When
I joined their household, my grandfather had long been
a minor functionary with the Elliott Addressing Machine
Company in Cambridge. My grandmother, who in her younger
days was a solo whistler on the church and lodge circuit
in Washington County, Maine, cooked, mended, busied herself
about the house, and looked after me with untiring solicitude.
The two of them played dominoes almost every night of
the years I lived with them. They encouraged me to study,
to play, and to bring my friends home. Athletic skills
became a passion for me, equaled only by my determination
to be a top student. I gravitated to friends who felt
My grandparents and the Farwells were unenthusiastically
associated with a neighborhood church, Pilgrim Congregational,
a center of conservative, evangelical Christianity. Because
God was a paradox to me, I became the most ardent and
faithful churchgoer of the family. The minister, the Reverend
Stanley Addison, kind and careworn, whose preaching voice
always sounded tearful, had officiated at my mother's
funeral and was keenly concerned about the welfare of
my soul. The Sunday school superintendent, Dr. Arthur
Miles, an austere, elderly dentist, believed in the fire
of hell and was determined to guide me in another direction.
From the beginning, I was both a protege and a problem
child. Our relationship developed steadily but never smoothly.
In the sense that I was determined to ask Why and How
do you know, I suppose my religious future was set the
night my mother died, but it would be years before I recognized
it. If religion was to make sense to me, it had to provide
room for my inquisitiveness and rebellion. Somehow it
had to encompass the anguish and bewilderment I felt at
God's failure to save my mother. It had to be wide enough
to let me ask whether God was a demon, or whether God
existed at all.
I expected to find answers in church, where the talk was
interminably of God, Jesus, prayer, and salvation. I listened
and grew confused and impudent. I tried to pray. I listened
hard for God's voice. I wanted to feel Jesus's arms about
me. I prayed and had the increasingly embarrassed feeling
that no one was listening. If God possessed a voice, it
was strangely silent in my presence. The more I thought
about the Jesus who was being revealed to me in my religious
education, the more unappealing and unreal he became.
at Somerville High School, 1935.
my religious tutors failed to realize was that a spell
of dissent was upon me like a divine discontent. It was
not about meek acceptance and a sense of sin that I wished
to hear. I wanted to be challenged and shaken. I wanted
my spirit to be given something to strive for. I wanted
to know why the world could be at once wondrous and ugly.
I wanted to know why I had both laughter and pain. If
God had created me, I wanted to know who had created God.
Instead, I was backed into a corner and was implored to
surrender my soul to the Lord and Savior.
I stayed with the neighborhood church until I went to
college and lived much of my social life under its care.
I knew from the time I was twelve that I could never be
a Christian as the word was interpreted there, but as
a teen-ager I sang in the adult choir, as a high school
senior I taught a Sunday school class of ten-year-old
boys, and I rarely missed a Sunday evening Christian Endeavor
meeting for youth. These Pilgrim Congregational people
were my friends, my familiars, my community, and though
they trembled for my soul on grounds I considered nonsensical,
I respected their sincerity and was grateful for their
Such religion as I possess was born of conflict and has
been, in its development, a struggle against resentment
of a wound inflicted upon me when I was unable to defend
myself and for a positive, constructive, unfettered spiritual
freedom. In college there were added dimensions of an
awakened social conscience and a desire to commit my life
to the service of others. The open-mindedness of classicism,
the probing of philosophy, the measuring of science, and
the eclecticism of anthropology impressed upon me the
endless diversity of human spiritual searchings. A firm
decision against religious sectarianism was inevitable.
I have sought a spiritual life that offers not surrender
and salvation but, in Albert Camus's words, "love
of life in spite of life." I have striven to accept
flaws and to find things to live for that transcend and
It is generally assumed that churches go looking for people.
I went looking for a churchthe right church for
me. A consciousness of the possibilities in the Unitarian
movement grew on me slowly. The merging of Unitarianism
and Universalism was then only a dream. My Quaker acquaintances,
who were aware of my unresolved dilemma, made gentle suggestions.
As with so many I have met since, the unique qualities
of Unitarian and Universalist churches were unknown to
me. My first tentative visits were interesting but uninspiring.
The intellectual caliber of the preaching was cuts above
what I had known, but I happened to go to where the congregations
were sparse, the ambience somewhat stiff, and the forms
of worship too traditionally Protestant for my taste.
But I took to reading whatever I could lay my hands on
about the legacy of the liberal spirit in religion, which
kept my curiosity alive. Then one Sunday in 1941 I found
myself listening to John Haynes Holmes at New York's Community
Church, an institution with a long Unitarian heritage.
The congregation was then meeting in Town Hall, hardly
an exalted setting; but Holmes created a temple of the
human spirit just with his presence and preaching. The
congregation was vibrant and an eloquent symbol of human
diversity. The service was religious, deeply religious;
yet there were no divisive, mind-splitting doctrinal elements.
at Harvard Divinity School, 1943.
that hour I knew that if the Unitarian ministry was exciting
enough to produce the fervent witness of a John Haynes
Holmes, it might just possibly do the same for me. A door
was open, and I wasted no time going through it. By the
following summer I was enrolled in the Harvard Divinity
School, with the warm encouragement and backing of the
American Unitarian Association and its then-president
Frederick May Eliot.
I had reservations then, just as I have now. I don't think
that a religious liberal should ever be without them.
As my first year of theological education began, I was
asked by Stephen Fritchman, editor of the Christian Register,
the official Unitarian magazine, to write an article on
why I was entering the Unitarian ministry. In it I expressed
my resentment at the bias that so obviously discouraged
women from joining our ministry. My hope that this would
end has, in recent years, been exultantly realized. Also,
then, as now, I was distressed by the overwhelming number
of white and middle-class people in our movement. Our
denominational record of the number of blacks in the pulpit
or the pew continues to be a sorry one indeed. My commitment
to changing that record is strong, in faithfulness to
the opportunities to unfold, which the Unitarian Universalist
ministry has brought me. I am continually amazed and inspired
by the growth of what Emerson called "faith, admiration
and sympathy," which I find afforded by my calling,
and especially by the congregations it has been my privilege
to serve. Each has given memorable lessons of freedom
From Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age.
By Jack Mendelsohn (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1984).
SERVICE AWARD PRESENTATION OF THE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST
always in two worldsone of things as they are, the
other of things as they ought to beand challenging
us to love them both, Jack Mendelsohn has exemplified,
for more than half a century, what it means to live with
commitmentthe life of liberal religion. In pulpit,
in print, and in person he has called us to greater racial
justice and gender equity. His advice and consolation
have been sought by the leaders of nations and denominations.
His books and his pamphlets have enriched our tradition
and helped to create its future. His personal ministry
has guided countless seekers on life's spiritual journey,
while his interfaith community organizing has shown us
the living power of faith in action.
Ordained a Unitarian minister in 1945, Jack Mendelsohn's
service has spanned the merger of our two historic faiths,
their testing in the fire of the black empowerment movement,
and their transformation by feminist principles. His has
been primarily an urban ministryat the Beverly church
in Chicago and in Rockford, Illinois; in Indianapolis,
Indiana; at Boston's historic Arlington Street Church;
and at Chicago's First Unitarian Church. Fostering new
approaches to the life of inner-city churches, Jack has
sought to reach and involve the diverse communities of
the city: people of color, students, the urban poor, single
adults, the elderly, artists, and social activists. As
Chair of the Alliance to End Repression in Chicago, he
played a major role in ending the worst abuses of unchallenged
political power in that city. In his last settled ministry,
at First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts, he encouraged
an urban-suburban connection that remains strong to this
The gift of Jack Mendelsohn's writing has helped us understand
who we are as Unitarian Universalists. Thousands of us
first became acquainted with this tradition through his
introductory books and pamphlets. His classic biography
of William Ellery Channing: Reluctant Radical has
deepened our sense of heritage. The gift of his counsel
has made him one of America's best known and respected
pastors of liberal faith.
As friend and advisor to public figures including Adlai
Stevenson, Robert Kennedy and Jesse Jackson, he has traveled
widely in pursuit of justice and of reconciliation. The
gift of his leadership has inspired us and challenged
us as a movement. As President of the Boston Urban League,
as CEO of the Civil Rights Project, Inc., he has made
a prophetic witness on behalf of what he has helped to
make a collective goal among us: to dismantle racism in
our time. The gift of his service has been shared on behalf
of the UUA Women and Religion Committee, Beacon Press,
Collegium, the UU Minister's Association, the UUSC, and
in a campaign, in 1977, for the presidency of the UUA
He has embodied what he has said the liberal ministry
requires: "the will and courage to look at all aspects
of lifemystical, political, personal, institutional,
workaday, globalthe feeling eyes of religious insight
and conviction." For those feeling eyes, for his
great will and courage, for his grace-filled and persistently
prophetic presence among us, this grateful Unitarian Universalist
Association honors and thanks Jack Mendelsohn for his
truly distinguished service to our cause.
UNITARIANS: A CREATIVE MINORITY
by Jack Mendelsohn
are a mere handful.
In a mere handful, however, is the power to move mountains,
conquer dread diseases, and change the climate of a community.
A few years ago when a Unitarian minister was ordained
in a southern city, a Jewish rabbi remarked to a friend:
"I prefer to serve synagogues located in cities where
there is a Unitarian Church because this institution has
a cleansing effect upon a community." He might well
have been thinking of the fact that from so small an acorn
has grown such an amazing oak. Unitarian occupants of
the White House have included John Adams, John Quincy
Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Millard Fillmore and William
Howard Taft. Calhoun, Webster, Sumner and Marshall were
Unitarian laymen. Seventeen of the seventy-seven Olympians
in the Hall of Fame were Unitarians.
Impressive indeed is the Unitarian roll of past literary
figures: the Longfellows, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William
Cullen Bryant, Edward Everett Hale, Ralph Waldo Emerson,
James Russell Lowell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bret Harte,
Louisa May Alcott. Nor should we forget great historians
such as George Bancroft, John Lothrop Morley, Francis
Parkman, and William Prescott.
of the Unitarian emphasis on service, our movement has
produced an amazing number of pioneers in social, humanitarian,
and educational fields. Championing the cause of women's
rights were Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Stanton,
Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Fuller.
In education some of the familiar Unitarian names are
those of Horace Mann, initiator of universal, nonsectarian,
public education; Elizabeth Peabody, first American to
establish a kindergarten; Cyrus Pierce, pioneer crusader
for teacher training schools; and Peter Cooper, founder
of the famed Cooper Union in New York city.
We would also include among the most honored of Unitarian
humanitarians: Dorothea Dix, whose boundless determination
launched the reform movements in prisons, charity institutions
and mental hospitals; Dr. Samuel G. Howe, who founded
the first school for the blind; and Henry Bergh, creator
of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children
and founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty
to Animals. Other Unitarians who have made outstanding
application of their religious ideals to public welfare
include George William Curtis, pioneer advocate of civil
service, and Henry Bellows, originator of the United States
Sanitary Commission, which later became the Red Cross.
Typical of Unitarians who laid the foundations of modern
science were Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestley, Charles Darwin,
Louis Agassiz, and Charles P. Steinmetz.
These representative leaders of the past are but a few
of the many who justify the pride Unitarians understandably
feel in the influence our religious movement has exerted.
It has been all out of proportion to our numbers in molding
public opinion, initiating social reform, and making history.
Dr. Ellsworth Huntington of Yale, who made a study of
the names in Who's Who in America, wrote: "The
productivity of the Unitarians in supplying leaders of
the first rank has been 150 times as great as that of
the remainder of the population."
I would be less than human if I did not take pride in
this astonishing assessment of Unitarian leadership.
From Why I am a Unitarian by Jack
Mendelsohn (Thomas Nelson & Sons, New Yok, 1960).