HISTORIAN OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH
by Forrest Church
Senior Minister, Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York
Recalling the Rev. Henry Whitney Bellowss memorable
depiction of a true liberal, George Huntston Williams was
in every respect a large round-about soul. His
work and life, each greater than the sum of their parts,
were replete with historic moments. As a scholar, he viewed
church history neither dispassionately nor uncritically,
but as a living tradition, placing our own faith endeavors
in context and investing them with historical and transcendent
significance. As a social activist, he engaged in contemporary
issues, conscious of his participation in the traditions
he studied and taught.
Standing alone and to the untutored eye, any list of Professor
Williamss academic publications and civic passions
might peg him as a passionate and indefatigable, yet undisciplined,
amateur. The love George devoted to his work may be consistent
with the labors of an amateur, his passion as well, but
in every other respect he was a multi-faceted, multitalented
expert. Overarching everything he surveyed was an encompassing
vision; undergirding everything, a vast foundation of knowledge.
As a result, over more than six decades of teaching and
writing, he inspired hundreds of students, many today themselves
church historians. By identifying with the aid of typology
a series of themes that recur in differing but familiar
variations throughout every historical epoch over the past
two millennia, he placed his identifiable stamp on the entire
course of church history. For George, church history was
living history, at once sacred and profane, presaging the
church of today and anticipating its future development.
Because of this, itself almost a faith, he brought church
history alive to generations of students. He taught us that
a living history could inspire and help sustain a vital,
yet critical faith.
Church historian Franklin H. Littell summed up Williams's
accomplishments in "The Periodization of History,"
an essay appearing in the Festschrift Dean Timothy
George of Samford Seminary and I coedited in 1979 on the
occasion of George Williams's sixty-fifth birthday: Continuities
and Discontinuities in Church History:
As a church
historian in America, one of the few in his generation
well enough trained and secure enough in his vocation
to avoid the flight into specialization and mere facticity,
George H. Williams has been a master of the scientific
tools of his craft. At the same time he has not hesitated
to be a protagonist as well as observer and interpreter.
He is a credible witness, as both scholar and churchman.
He has taken his stand with a "new Church History"
well beyond most earlier writersto whom Christian
history was either an exercise in filial devotion or an
attempt to present the history of Christianity as a sterile
sector of the history of mankind.
in 1919 at four years of age.
To accomplish this,
Professor Williams established an interplay between the ancient,
medieval, reformation, modern and contemporary church by tracing
certain major themes throughout the ages. Then, having uncovered
the main ingredients of Church history, he used his artistry
as an historian to animate Christian tradition, not simply
to receive it but to earn it. "Once this happens,"
as James Luther Adams writes in the same Festschrift,
"it then has the impact of an emblem on the society or
the community of faith." His method was consistent from
his first book, Rethinking the Unitarian Relationship with
Protestantism: An Examination of the Thought of Frederick
Henry Hedge (1949), through to his last on The History
of the Polish Reformation (1995). By generous employment
of typology, Williams divined from Church history a series
of themes and variations ("Continuities and Discontinuities")
by which his students could both interpret and employ the
history he taught them.
Often the details of a scholar's background are incidental
to an appraisal of his or her work. This is decidedly not
the case with George Huntston Williams. Both with regard to
his choice of subject matter and his manner of interpretation,
his personal history plays a central role in his scholarship.
If he mined church history in search of essential data, it
almost always had existential portent for him. Consider Williams's
major themes: church and state; individual conscience and
the church universal; the Radical Reformation; communion and
atonement; wilderness and paradise (encompassing the idea
of the university and the environment); and the respective
histories of Unitarianism and Universalism. Each emerges directly
from his family history, a nexus of strong personal relationships
that profoundly informed his educational and vocational choices.
George Huntston Williams spent his early years in the rural
village of Huntsburg, Ohio. This accounts for his coinage
of the middle name, "Huntston," and with this, a
lifetime of frustration at the many of us who persisted in
spelling it incorrectly. Highly sensitive as a child (a sensitivity
that continued throughout his life), George could not abide
the teasing his given middle name, Pease, prompted, so he
changed it to reflect the town of his youth. His maternal
grandparents, with whom he lived for a time, each embodied
an aspect of his character and later interests. George W.
Pease was active in all civic aspects of the community, from
the Congregational Church to the local academy. A leading
citizen, revered by all, his personal struggle with perfection
nonetheless forbade him to receive communion to the very end
of his days. In sharp contrast, George's grandmother was of
a mystical nature, in James Luther Adams's words, "prone
to absorption in an ecstasy of peace, particularly during
the celebration of the Lord's Supper." By his own admission,
George's temperament, together with his lifelong fascination
for atonement and the sacraments were rooted in Huntsburg.
parents cast an even brighter light and longer shadow over
his life and career. His mother, Lucy, was a gentle, sensitive
soul, ecumenical by nature, universalist in spirit, her lifelong
dedication to social justice powered by compassion. Many of
these same characteristics, together with loving patience,
effuse the nature of George's wife, Marjorie. His father,
David Rhys Williams, was a powerhouse of a man. A dedicated
pacifist, socialist and champion of women's rights, David
was among the most outspoken Unitarian ministers of his day.
Severe by nature, powered more by anger and a sense of justice
than by compassion, David would not permit his children to
speak above a whisper at home on Saturdays when he was writing
his sermon. During his later youth in Rochester, New York,
where his father served as minister of the First Unitarian
Church, George would sneak downstairs after bedtime and listen
through the balustrade to Eugene V. Debs or W. E. B. Dubois
engage in passionate late night discussion. The night after
Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, George vividly remembered
his fathers shaking his fists at the heavens and shouting,
connections with both Congregationalism and Unitarianism,
further instructed by his mother's and grandmother's ecumenical
faith, led George toward ordination in both communions. His
college years at St. Lawrence, a Universalist school, initiated
an abiding interest in Universalist history as well. During
his seminary year abroad from Meadville, he studied the trinity
at L'Institute Catholique in Paris. He began his teaching
career at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley,
California and then, in 1949, was named a professor and then
Acting Dean of the Unitarian founded Harvard Divinity School.
His greatest legacy was the ecumenical expansion of a tiny,
and relatively small faculty. For most of his teaching career,
he served as Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, the
oldest established Harvard University chair (and the only
professor who was permitted to graze his cow on the Common).
Williamses in 1982
One of George Williams's mentors, John T. McNeill, told him
that he should speak from his own community of faith, ever
aware of its needs. That he did so, and eloquently, is evident
from hundreds of articles and sermons published over the years,
and most notably from several of his major works: The Radical
Reformation (1962); American Universalism (1971);
and The Polish Brethren (1978). Yet, Professor Williams
was anything but sectarian in his faith or predictable in
his beliefs or interests. As a Trinitarian Unitarian and sacramental
protestant, George displayed a capacious mind, investing his
studies of church history with remarkable empathy and critical
balance. Both are on full display in dozens of his works,
most notably in Anselm: Communion and Atonement (1960).
If, from the time of his Meadville Theological Institute B.D.
thesis on Paul Tillich (1940), George Williams subscribed
fully to Tillich's "Protestant Principle" (that
the first word of religion should be spoken against religion),
throughout his life he remained faithful to the Constantinian
church. Even his best-known book, The Radical Reformation
(1962), displays the creative tension between his dedication
to individual conscience, especially with respect to the separation
of church and state, and his devotion to the church universal,
in its responsibility for the character of society as a whole.
This devotion was never more evident than during his participation
as an observer at the Vatican II Council in 1962 (eloquently
expressed in the sermon he delivered in the Cathedral Church
of St. John in Boston following Pope John XXIIIs death in
1963. Williams had the unique distinction of having been the
only person in the United States to predict the election of
Pope John Paul II. He wrote a book on The Mind of John
Paul II and was knighted by the pope in a special celebration
in St. Paul Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
the issues of his own time, George Huntston Williams sounded
the same themes he pondered in his historical studies. His
statement on McCarthyism, "The Reluctance to Inform"
(1957), helped shape the national debate. In 1967, he joined
William Sloane Coffin, to perform the "sacrament"
of burning Vietnam era draft cards at Arlington Street Church
in Boston. And, yet, he was as avid and public in promoting
a "pro-life" position on abortion, promoting his
views throughout the early 70s in several articles and opinion
and existential concern throughout George Williams's life
finds its fullest expression in Wilderness and Paradise
in Christian Thought (1962). Typical of his typological
approach to church history, here he juxtaposes the theology
of nature with the idea of the university. Expressed here
as vividly as anywhere in his writings, George passion for
the environment and his devotion to the academy lead to a
conceptual breakthrough in which each (as with body and mind)
is completed by a devout attention to the other. As in the
case of his typologies of sacrament and prophecy and of conscience
and community, Williams's historical embrace of Mother Nature
and academic nurture encompasses polar opposites, his expansive
sympathies illuminating both.
A like array of antinomies informed George Williams's life.
Sensitive to others yet hypersensitive himself; most fully
at home in the academy and, conversely, in nature; a loner
with an abiding devotion to the idea of community; a Protestant
who looked to Rome; a prophet who found peace in the sacraments:
George Huntston Williams embodied in his own life much of
what fascinated him in history. As difficult as it was rewarding,
life taught him the taste of both triumph and despair. More
than anything else, this depth of experience enabled him to
bring church history and the passions of those who people
it alive to others. His concentrated labor during the final
decade of his life was his writing of a large manuscript being
edited for publication: Divinings, a history of religion
at Harvard University.
On a personal note, without George Huntston Williams's tutelage,
likely I should never have received the gift of my Unitarian
Universalist faith tradition. Certainly I should not have
appreciated its plenitude or known to honor its larger context
as part of the church universal. In this regard, I am but
one of many. For his Unitarian Universalist students, George
Huntston Williams is an honored part of the great tradition
we, in our turn, aspire to carry forth and pass along.
H. WILLIAMS: THE LAST INTERVIEW
December 6, 1999, the president of the Unitarian Universalist
Association of Congregations, John A. Buehrens, did a
private Cambridge Forum interview with George Huntston
Williams, the Hollis Professor of Divinity,
Emeritus, of Harvard University. The theme for discussion
was the contribution of the life and thought of Williams
to the history of Unitarian Universalism.
Professor Williams, our association goes back to my days
as an undergraduate at Harvard when, during my senior year,
I had the privilege of serving as your research assistant
on that great volume of yours, The Radical Reformation.
We'll begin by discussing your life and its contributions
to Unitarian Universalism in the late sixties. Say a bit
about the famous draft card burning service at the Arlington
Street Church, and your role in that occasion.
W: My role was combined with that of my nephew, Alexander
Jack, son of our colleague, Homer Jack.
B: You were the preacher for the service, even though people
like Dr. Benjamin Spock and Michael Ferber received more
media attention for their remarks before or after the service.
The theme of your sermon was the privilege of sanctuary
in the church, and you were basically calling for the Church
to provide support and succor for those who, on grounds
of conscience, found participation in the war machine in
southeast Asia to be objectionable.
W: Right. I had, as a medievalist, been researching and
writing on the medieval right of asylum, which was the recognition
in the Middle Ages that anyone who managed to get to a traditionally
sacred place, was protected by God and gained immunity from
the reprisals of common life, so that even evident criminals
were spared condign punishment. In fact, I tried to show
how an ancient tradition long honored in the West might
well legitimate conscientious resistance to the draft.
B: Talk a little bit about the other issues of the time.
I didn't work with you on your book Wilderness and Paradise
in Christian Thought, but it certainly seemed to me
to be one of the great breakthroughs in recognizing that
there's a religious obligation to the environment.
W: Yes. Therein was sublimated my interest in nature and
concern for the preservation of primordial wildness and
diversity of species. I almost went into biology. That was
my career intention. That's why I started all the languages
that I later acquired, notably German, to become a biologist.
B: That's another thing that you shared with Homer Jack,
then, because he, before going into the Unitarian ministry,
actually earned a doctorate in the field of biology at Cornell.
W: Homer Jack and I hitchhiked together from Rochester to
Cornell; he, knowing that he had every expectation of being
accepted in the department of biology, I, knowing that I
was known by Godnamely my fatheras going to
be in the Unitarian ministry.
B: Your father served as the minister of the First Unitarian
Church of Rochester for many years. He was one of the signers
of the Humanist Manifesto back in the thirties, and a courageous
social activist in many public issues of his time. Was that
example, do you suppose, behind your participation in things
like the Arlington Street service?
is presented Bible in recognition of church and community
service at the First Baptist Church, Back Bay. Photo
from The Boston Herald, October 1, 1952, courtesy of
the Boston Public Library Print Department.
Oh, I'm sure. My life was influenced by my father's prophetic
stand on a number of issues. And that went back in his own
family, not only through the male line, but in that of his
mother and his grandmother during the strikes in Scranton,
Pennsylvania. My father was a spirited feminist, and he
delivered the oration when Susan B. Anthony, a Quaker, once
a member of his Rochester congregation, was received into
the Hall of Fame. I can remember her pew that my father
saw to being appropriately marked.
B: And certainly your mother had a profound influence on
your becoming a scholar.
W: Yes. She encouraged me over my father's insistence that
I not do some of these naturalist things. My interest in
zoology and botany did not, in his mind, move me towards
the ministry, which was his predetermined vocation for me.
And my mother was the one who encouraged me, as a mother
can, in my own special interests.
B: Including languages?
W: Above all, the languages.
B: I remember vividly your advertisement for an undergraduate
research assistant who was expected to be competent in Latin,
Greek, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. And you were
slightly disappointed when I presented no German. It was
because of you that I took intensive German in order to
be able to do the work on The Radical Reformation.
You were in the process then of learning Polish.
W: Yes. That's the last of my languages. I felt no one could
write the history of the Reformation in Europe without having
mastered that intricate language.
B: Certainly your vast volume, The History of the Polish
Reformation, the Lubieniecki volume, is a testimony
to how much devotion you put into that research.
W: Yes. Stanislas Lubieniecki, is a somewhat neglected figure
in Reformation history, European history, and even in Unitarian
history. Dr. Earl Morse Wilbur, of course, was quite indebted
to Lubieniecki, because The History of the Polish Reformation
was a major source for him as well.
B: During so many years of your work in educating people
for the ministry, you were closely associated with James
Luther Adams. Could you tell me a little bit about how you
think you influenced one another?
W: Thats such an interesting way to put it. But of
course, JLA, JimI had diffidence about even addressing
him as "JLA" and "Jim." He was my great
mentor, and I felt worshipful toward him.
B: I suspect that your deep understanding of our roots was
an influence in the rooted quality that his prophetic interpretation
of theology hasthat and his having gone through such
things as being in Germany in the 1930s.
W: Yes. In a way, I followed his lebensbahn. And he surely
from the very beginning saw in me something that he wanted
to bring out, so that for me Jim Adams is personally, but
also paradigmatically, the teacher who calls forth the energy
of a younger person to become creative.
B: Exactly. Certainly a quality that I know you have emulated.
W: I think it's remarkable, the kind of relationship that
those of us who are students of JLA have with his three
daughters. There's a nice relationship, a kind of family
dynamic, that I myself haven't reflected on, but I know
it's quite remarkable that the two older sisters, Eloise
and Elaine, send me letters. Eloise is a part of my life
in a way that most scholars wouldn't think of with respect
to their primary professor's major family.
B: You've certainly been deeply involved in the entire Harvard
Divinity School as a kind of extended family of exploration
of the dimensions of faith. I can recall that you served
as Acting Dean of the Divinity School in the 1950s.
W: That's an important aspect of my career, having been
singled out by beloved Dean Willard Sperry to do what could
be done at a time when it was not certain whether we'd have
a Harvard Divinity School much longer, so precarious was
its grip on institutional life; with the possible prospect
of its being relocated in conjunction with Meadville Theological
School in Chicago.
I think it's rather little known todaysince the school
has gone on to such strengththat you were a critical
figure at a time when the university was really making a
decision about whether the Harvard Divinity School would
continue or not. You're also the historian of Harvard Divinity
W: Yes. I feel privileged. Moreover, I'm sharing something
that's very existential for me right now with you, that
being of the generation that defended Western Civilization
in World War II. I intend to find the names of the St. Lawrence
alumni who gave their lives in World War II, and dedicate
my big book, Divinings: Religion at Harvard, 1636 to
2000, to those in my class.
B: I think you've always recognized the way in which the
deep spiritual, intellectual, theological, reflective, and
pious life has to undergird the life of action. It reminds
me of the work we did together on the history of American
Universalism. What drew you to writing on the Universalists?
W: I wanted to honor my own ancestors. I have Universalists
in my family background, and I think that my piece on the
Universalists is probably the best thing I've written. I
enjoyed writing it the most of all I've done. There was
always a strong civic sense in American Universalism. I
think now of the Universalist homes I've been in. Pictures
of the Presidents of the United States are on the wall and
other mementos of republican religion, you might say. And
the apostolic saints are conspicuous by their absence in
my experience of Universalist homes. It reminds me of one
of our colleagues who's been doing a study for some years
of the Washburn family of Maine, who are all Universalists.
There were five brothers. Two of them were governors of
their respective states, and others served in Congress.
A very great drive toward civic virtue.
B: Civic virtue, exactly. That strand in Unitarian Universalism
today stays quite stronga great desire to see the
civic body made more healthy and whole.
W: This thrust we're going to find comes out in my life,
in my interest in the threefold office of Christ as priest,
prophet, and king. It's my substitute for the doctrine of
the Trinity, you might say, my effort to come to grips with
that aspect of our Christian tradition. I might just add
here, as we're talking informally, that my professor at
the University of Chicago, Wilhelm Pauck, egged me on in
a way without his knowing it, in my effort to grasp the
history of the dogma of the Trinity formulation at the Council
of Nicea in 325. I loved his courses. He said in class,
"As a born Unitarian, Mr. Williams, you can never understand
the doctrine of the Trinity." So that was a factor
by way of determined reaction in my life. I resolved to
show him I can.
B: Right. The kind of thing that plunged you into the study
of patristics and the history of the early church and made
you so determined to be a historian of the entire history
of the Christian church and its evolution, not just the
later and somewhat more sectarian manifestations that result
in our tradition. I recall the immense amount of material
that you had collected for what you had hoped to do as a
multivolume history of the Christian church.
W: I'm glad you remind me of that. I never did it, did I?
B: But I hope you are satisfied with the number of publications
you did produce. The list of your publications is so enormous
it practically requires an index to itself. If I remember
correctly, the first year we worked together, in 1967-68,
you produced 32 or 33 pieces for publication. I wonder if
in some way the chaos in the world at large inspired you
to buckle down even harder and say your piece.
And try to impose some order, yes.
B: You certainly worked with an intensity that I found astonishing.
You were very, very productive. I was not your only research
assistant that year, as I recall. You had several people
working on several projects simultaneously. People like
Ephraim Isaac from Ethiopia.
W: You remember him, do you?
B: I do indeed. He came to this country on a Swedish Lutheran
stipend, son of a rabbi. Ephraim Isaac for a while espoused
both Judaism and Christianity in the venerable way of that
very ancient church and established himself as a scholar,
partly with your support and patronage and goodwill. The
number of your doctoral students scattered around is considerable.
I think of my onetime pastoral colleague, Forrester Church,
the senior minister at All Souls' in New York, and Timothy
George, the Dean of Beesom Divinity School of Samford University
in Birmingham, Alabama, both of whom did their doctorates
under your tutelage and were greatly influenced by you.
W: Yes, Southern Baptist, Timothy George, was the founder
of the theological seminary.
B: Exactly. Your ecumenism has been exemplary and really
amazing in many respectsfrom being a mentor to someone
who has now founded a Southern Baptist seminary, and is
a fine scholar, to receiving a knighthood from the Pope.
What were the circumstances that led to that?
W: The Knighthood of St. Gregory the Great from Pope Paul
II was pressed forward by ecumenically inspired Greater
Boston Catholics who knew and appreciated what I was doing.
I, at that time, had read everything that John Paul had
written, including his plays.
right, with Harvard President Nathan Pusey in 1953,
when Williams was HDS's Acting Dean
You were one of the first people to spot him as somebody
who was likely to become pope and write about that publicly,
as I recall.
W: That's correct.
B: And you saw him in action at the second Vatican Council
W: Yes. St. Peter's Vatican as Observer, at all four sessions;
B: I see. All of this ecumenism reminds me of Frederick
W: Oh, isn't that good, to come to Hedge again. I was pleased
to come upon him, a Unitarian minister, who had, in his
youth, been placed by his professorial father in a German
gymnasium for his high school years where he became immersed
in German culture. Later as a minister he became the center
of the so-called Hedge Club of Greater Boston ministers
fascinated by his mediation of German culture. One of my
earliest publications was on him.
B: I think so. Somebody that you and I can both relate to
one who in the 19th century had such a hope for the Unitarian
church to be the broad, liberal church that would influence
all of American society, and who wanted it to be both deeply
historically grounded, philosophically acute, civically
engaged, and ecumenically minded. I seem to recall you wrote
an important essay on Hedge.
Yes, I did. Rethinking the Unitarian Relationship with
Protestantism: An Examination of the Thought of Henry Hedge,
published by Beacon Press in 1949.
B: Primarily about him as an ecumenist.
W: Yes. I felt I was legitimized here at Harvard in my effort
to be a church historian for all denominations: Protestant,
Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and the rest that came in, as
well as the various kinds of Protestants, by reason of the
pioneer work of Hedge. He was the son of the professor of
philosophy here, and the philosophy professor wanted to
give him the training that would qualify. So Frederick Henry
Hedge had the equivalent of a gymnasium education in Germany.
Hedge was the first in America to use the term "ecumenical"
in it's modern interfaith connotation.
B: Before we close, tell us more about your forthcoming
work, Divinings: Religion at Harvard, 1636-2000,
and its relation to our Unitarian Universalist religious
W: My hope is that it will bring in developments of scholarship
that have significance for Unitarianismand for Christianity
in general as well as for Unitarian Universalism and for
our Divinity School in particular.
B: Harvard College was founded in order to save posterity
from an ignorant ministry, and Harvard continues to work
on both the public and the scholarly ministry. And yet the
Divinity School has had its profound ups and downs over
the course of its history, or the training of ministers
at Harvard has had its ups and downs.
W: Yes, and I've been here through a time when there was
a question whether the University would continue to have
a Divinity School. That possibility was very close to me.
I know about it. Rather than being a Divinity School at
Harvard, it could have gone to the Chicago Theological Seminary
or some other place. Lawyers would have had to take care
of some of these endowments and special funds. That was
the Divinity School to which I came in 1947, called by Willard
Sperry. He's my patron saint. I have two patron saints:
James Luther Adams and Dean Sperry.
B: Was it simply a question of enrollments in the Divinity
School having dropped rather severely in the postwar period?
W: No, I think more gravely there was a loss of a sense
of a valid subject matter for a university. I think that
President Conant, who did appoint me, had the feeling that
even high theology was something like advanced alchemy.
As you know, he was a chemist. Among his colleagues in the
presidential realm, he had what was regarded as a sickly
divinity school, the program of which he could scarcely
B: The Unitarian ministry during the nineteenth century
was almost entirely educated at Harvard, from William Ellery
Channing down to Francis Greenwood Peabody.
W: This was a Unitarian seminary.
B: Yes, and at some point in the nineteenth century an ecumenical
move was made. It continued to be a place where Unitarian
ministers were trained after the turn of the century, but
at some point around the turn of the century, not all of
the professors were by any means Unitarian.
W: By not being Unitarian, at that juncture they regarded
themselves as being in fact ipso facto Unitarian, because
they were not denominational, i.e., sectarian.
B: Yes, so it was, in some sense, keeping faith with the
kind of spirit that Channing himself had represented: "Flee
the spirit of sectarianism as the spirit of Hell."
W: Good to have that quotation. You've got it right on target.
"George Huntston Williams: A Portrait," by James
Luther Adams in Continuity and Discontinuity in Church
History: Essays Presented to George Huntston Williams on
the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, edited by Forrester
Church and Timothy George (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1979).
The Harvard Divinity School (1811-1953). edited by George
H. Williams with an Excursus: "Church, Commonwealth,
and College: The Religious Sources of the Idea of a University"
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1954).
The Radical Reformation by George H. Williams (Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1962).
Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought by George
H. Williams (New York: Harper's 1962).