H. WILSON: UNITARIAN HUMANIST LEADER 1899-1993
the Unitarian Universalist Minister Files, Andover-Harvard
Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge
by Teresa Maciocha, editor and social activist
Henry Wilson was born on August 23, 1898, in Woodhaven,
New York. He was raised in Concord, Massachusetts,
where he attended the First Parish Church, a Unitarian
fellowship. Wilson's father had no use for the church;
it was his mother who introduced him to Unitarianism,
albeit of the conservative variety.
During World War I, Wilson served in the Army Signal
Corps. In 1922, he received a bachelor's degree in
business administration from Boston University. After
a brief period as a sales manager, he returned to
school in 1924 to attend the Meadville Theological
School, at that time located in Meadville, Pennsylvania,
and exclusively Unitarian. (The school moved to Chicago
in 1928. Meadville had a long-standing relationship
with Universalist Lombard Collegea relationship
which was formalized in 1964 when the name was altered
to the current Meadville Theological School of Lombard
College.) Wilson graduated from Meadville in 1926
with degrees as a graduate of divinity and doctor
of divinity, after which he spent a year abroad as
a Cruft Fellow, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Following his ordination in 1928, Wilson became a
practicing Unitarian minister in Dayton, Ohio. Over
the next sixty-five years, he had pulpits in Schenectady,
New York; Chicago, Illinois; Yellow Springs, Ohio;
Salt Lake City, Utah; and Cocoa Beach, Florida.
his life, Wilson maintained a dedication to learning,
but it was during the period when he was a matriculated
student that he became exposed to and convinced of the
validity of the humanist outlook. His conviction that
"humanism has time, science, and human need on
its side" proved to be life-long.
Ed Wilson's humanist career began in 1929 when he became
a regular contributor to The New Humanist, then
a mimeographed newsletter published by the Humanist
Fellowship in Chicago. Primarily composed of students
from a number of universities and colleges in the Chicago
areain particular, the University of Chicagothe
fellowship was a forerunner of such humanist organizations
as the American Humanist Association. By 1930, Ed Wilson
was the managing editor of the publication (no longer
mimeographed but printed) as well as one of the co-owners.
thirty-three was a milestone year for Wilson. It marked
both the publication of "A Humanist Manifesto"
in The New Humanist and the beginning of his
fifty-two year marriage to Janet Wilson. The Wilsons
had two sons, John and Dana.
When The New Humanist ceased publication in 1936
due to lack of funds, Wilson continued to spread the
humanist message with his own modestly produced Humanist
Bulletin. In 1941, that was succeeded by The Humanist,
still in publication today. Wilson served as editor
of The Humanist for sixteen years (consecutively
from 1941 to 1956 and then as interim editor for a period
between 1963 and 1964). In addition to editing and contributing
to The Humanist, he was also one of the founders
of the American Humanist Association, incorporated in
1941, and served as its executive director from 1949
to 1970. Subsequently, he was a member of its board
of directors and was named the association's official
In 1952, Wilson participated in the founding and naming
of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (based
in the Netherlands), uniting the humanist movement worldwide.
He remained an active member for forty years.
Wilson's dedication to humanism earned him much respect
and many honors. In 1955, he was awarded the American
Humanist Association's Humanist Merit Award. In 1978,
he received the Distinguished Service Award, the Unitarian
Universalist Association's most prestigious honor to
the cause of liberal religion. And in 1979, he was named
the AHA's Humanist of the Year.
Early in his career, Dr. Wilson contributed to the body
of humanist liturgy by collecting hymns and services,
even writing a hymn called "Where Is Our Holy Church?"
During a 1987 interview with Beverley M. Earles (currently
an officer of the American Humanist Association, but
at that time a doctoral student of religious studies),
Earles asked Wilson how he thought he'd be remembered.
Wilson laughingly replied that most likely it would
be as the composer of that hymn.
Dr. Wilson was a primary author of both Humanist
Manifesto I (originally published in 1933 as "A
Humanist Manifesto") and Humanist Manifesto
II (1973). He knew that both the consensus process
of creating the first manifesto and its publication
were significant events worthy of recording in this
book, which he wrote over the course of many years during
the 1970s and 1980s.
Wilson remained a fierce advocate of religious humanism
his whole life. In the interview with Earles, she reported
to Wilson that she had heard said of humanists: "They're
atheists who can't quit the habit of going to church."
To this somewhat lighthearted challenge, Wilson responded
that he thought churchgoing "was a good habit.
It organizes one's life. It's where your friends are.
I find a great deal of stimulation in the institution
of continuing education." In fact, Wilson always
equated the humanists' quest for greater knowledge while
striving toward the ideal of a "good life"
as a form of continuing education.
A productive and vigorous man all his life, Ed Wilson
died in Salt Lake City, Utah, on March 26, 1993, at
the age of ninety-four.
The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto is Edwin
H. Wilson's story of how the humanist manifesto of 1933
was shaped, how it came to have thirty-four prominent
endorsements, how it was published, and, ultimately,
its historical impact. Wilson writes from his position
as one of the originators of the projecta man
who chose to live and work his entire life by his commitment
to the manifesto's principles.
Wilson recorded the events surrounding the 1933 manifesto
some forty to fifty years after they occurred, and he
died before a publisher had been secured. This decades-long
lag time can be partially explained by Wilson's prodigious
career as a professional humanist: for most of his life
he was simply far too busy to write his memoirs. I think,
too, that the passing decades eclipsed Wilson's recollection
of the significant socioeconomic and political conditions
of the 1920s and 1930s which contributed to the growth
of humanism and precipitated publication of "A
Humanist Manifesto." The reader will find few references,
and then only in passing, to these conditions. Wilson
seems far more preoccupied with honoring his colleagues
who played a role in the development of humanism. He
seems also to have a secondary agenda of acknowledging
the legitimacy of humanism throughout this century and
thereby repudiating those who would or did dismiss it.
In 1933, the
United States continued to be in the depths of the Great
Depression. Franklin Roosevelt had just taken office
(March 1933), so the New Deal had not yet arrived. The
effects of economic disparity were evident everywhere,
and fascism was rising rapidly in Europe. There were
several generations who remembered clearly the pain
and horror of World War 1. Socialism, in its theory
and as it was being practiced in the Soviet Union, still
held for many great promise as a potential (and legitimate)
way to address economic disparity. Science, the scientific
method, and their offspringtechnologywere
changing forever the agrarian foundation of the United
States. What's more, this triumvirate had provoked a
kind of hopefulness for bettering the world out of all
proportion to its fallibility as a human system. For
humanists at that time, science seems to have been sacrosanct.
By the 1930s, religious (or naturalistic) humanism had
developed within and without liberal religionsin
particular, Unitarianismso that the time seemed
right for a number of its advocates to write and publish
a manifesto that would capture the essentials of this
religion or philosophy. Their desire to promote and
advance humanism should not be ignored. While publicity
may not have been the preoccupation in 1933 as it would
no doubt be today, the idea of promotion was still there.
In 1933, the natural vehicle for such promotion was
The New Humanist, a bimonthly magazine published
in Chicago, a hotbed for humanism in the early part
of this century.
The project was initiated by Raymond Bragg, one of the
leading young Chicago-based Unitarian advocates of humanism,
who enlisted an author for the first draft as well as
a small editorial committee, which included Edwin H.
Wilson, another of those young Unitarian movers and
shakers of religious humanism.
While Unitarianism was not the only source for the growth
of humanism, it was central. Given that Ed Wilson was
an ordained and practicing Unitarian minister, it is
from this perspective that he wrote The Genesis of
a Manifesto. That fifteen of the thirty-four men
who signed the manifesto in 1933 were Unitarians poses
a difficulty for any who might dispute the importance
of Unitarianism in the development of the humanist movement.