By Patrick Murfin
No mid-twentieth-century Unitarian minister, save perhaps A. Powell Davies, reached more hearts and minds than did Preston Bradley (1888-1983). Yet outside of Chicago, Bradley has been largely forgotten when he is not scorned.
Years ago, when the list was being compiled for eventual inclusion in the Dictionary of Unitarian Universalist Biography, I noted his name was omitted. Some of our leading scholars — concentrating mostly on either New England-centered Unitarianism or on Universalism — only dimly recognized the name.
Some that are aware of him hardly hold him in high regard. They reflect a deep disdain felt by many of his contemporaries, particularly in the East. Bradley was regarded as something of a huckster, charlatan and egotist — sort of a Unitarian Elmer Gantry. And I suppose it’s true as far as it goes. A man of supreme self-confidence with a showman’s flair, Bradley took everything he learned at Moody Bible Institute, threw away the conservative dogma, and applied the techniques to liberal religion. Some regard his Peoples Church as the first true megachurch — drawing from a wide geographic area, centered on a charismatic preacher, rich in programming, and availing itself of every modern tool of mass communication available to it. Nothing could have been more shocking to the learned, rational, and subdued ministers back East who presided over cozy white churches on the village green.
Of course, like Theodore Parker before him, Bradley’s church shriveled with his passing. This is regarded as evidence enough of his failure to build Unitarianism as an institution. Fair enough.
Another complaint about Bradley was much more business oriented. He was accused of “counting anyone who ever sent a nickel to his radio ministry” as a full member of the Peoples Church. It is true that even when he packed the commodious auditorium every Sunday, thousands of “members” never set foot in the building. When attendance dropped off considerably in his later years as the Uptown neighborhood became the North Side’s poorest community and Bradley’s skills deteriorated somewhat, membership figures reported to the AUA and later the UUA never reflected that. As a result, Bradley was able to go to May Meetings, as the Unitarian annual meetings were then called, and later to UUA General Assemblies, with an enormous block of votes that others felt he did not deserve.
But Bradley was not only a popular preacher, sometimes called “the Protestant Pope of Chicago”; he was by far the most influential minister in the Midwest of any denomination. In a heavily Catholic city where neighborhoods were routinely identified by the name of the local parish, Bradley often rivaled even the sitting Cardinal for influence.
He used that popularity to promote a uniformly progressive social agenda even when the opinions he advanced were unpopular. His first great crusade was launched in cooperation with Dr. Ben Reitman, Emma Goldman’s sometime lover and lecture agent. Together they defied obscenity laws that banned basic hygienic education to prevent the spread of venereal disease. You can imagine how popular that was. But after ten years of effort, incidents of syphilis and gonorrhea in the city plummeted by half.
That was just the beginning. He allied himself with labor. He was an outspoken “premature anti-fascist” in the city that Colonel Robert R. McCormick’s Chicago Tribune made the virtual capital of isolationism. He battled anti-Semitism and racism. Some say his strong support of local civil rights efforts, especially open housing, contributed greatly to the fall-off of attendance at Peoples Church. Yet Bradley would not be dissuaded from speaking out on the airwaves, in his regular Chicago Sun-Times newspaper column, and even facing down hostile audiences in ethnic neighborhoods. There was nowhere he was afraid to go. He lived to be an early and strong critic of the Vietnam War. On the whole it was a record that fans of the “speak truth to power” strain of Unitarianism should be proud of. And one that those who believe Unitarian Universalists should be less “political” might lament.
Then there was the positive thinking side of his ministry. This was derided as shallow theology by some. It shared elements made popular by Norman Vincent Peale and Dale Carnegie. But he made it uniquely his own. It was a predecessor to the “self help” revolution that took off in the ’70s and shows no signs of abating. The Chicago insurance millionaire and philanthropist W. Clement Stone — he of the black shoe polish hair and silly pencil moustache — adopted it as his own in seminars offered to business and community leaders. He became a benefactor to Bradley, and Bradley helped steer his generosity in unexpected ways — to the West Side Black street gang the Vice Lords, for instance, whom Stone and Bradley hoped to turn to community service and legitimate business. It is kindest to note that this experiment did not turn out as planned. The Vice Lords took the money and set up a very successful and sophisticated drug operation based on the cash and Stone’s business philosophy.
Bradley was a complex and contradictory figure, at once old fashioned — he may have been the last preacher regularly to don a frock coat — and farsighted; supremely egotistical with yet the most generous and genuine identification with the day to day struggles of ordinary folks. Rogue or hero — think what you may of him, he should no longer be a forgotten figure in Unitarian history.