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Curtis Williford Reese was born September 3, 1887, on a farm in Madison County, North Carolina which is in the western part of the state in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Reeses were very devout Southern Baptists and many of them had been ministers. Reese once said: “One of my paternal great-grandfathers was a Baptist preacher, one of my paternal grandfathers and two of my paternal uncles were Baptist preachers, my father is a Baptist deacon, two of my brothers are Baptist preachers, and a sister married a Baptist preacher.”
With so many clergymen in the family, it is understandable that when Reese earned his first dollar he gave it to the Baptist church to help pay the minister’s salary. Also, it is not surprising that Reese “accepted Christ as his personal saviour” at age nine rather than later in life. He had been taught that once a person reached the age of accountability if he refused to become a Christian and if he died in this lost condition, he would spend eternity in hell. Believing that he was capable of making such an important decision, the nine year old boy stood before the congregation and confessed that he was a lost sinner and that he had trusted Christ to save him. Although it was mid-winter, he was baptized in an outdoor creek with some other converts.
Later Reese decided to enter the ministry, which meant that he thought that God had given him the “call.” He entered the Baptist College at Mar’s Hill, North Carolina, and graduated in May 1908. He was ordained to the Baptist ministry.
He met Fay Rowlett Walker, whom he later married on February 7, 1913.
It was during his seminary studies that Reese first began to have any doubts about his religious faith. Since he felt that the Bible was divinely inspired, it came as quite a shock to encounter “higher criticism” even in a conservative Southern Baptist context. Also, Reese had a friend, Ralph E. Bailey, who later made the transition from the Baptist ministry to the Unitarian. Bailey has remarked: “In 1908, he and I were students at the Baptist seminary in Louisville, where I soon shocked him to his knees by my heresy. Much of his time was devoted, I think, to prayer that I be corrected in my outspoken apostasy from Baptist truth.”
Moreover, it was in Louisville that Reese first came into contact with Unitarianism. In fact, he took some Baptist tracts over to the Unitarian church and picked up some of the Unitarian materials. One pamphlet especially appealed to him; it was entitled, “Salvation by Character,” and it was probably this experience that later contributed to Reese’s move into Unitarianism.
Graduating from seminary in 1910, Reese took a job as state evangelist in the Illinois State Baptist Association, which was composed of approximately five hundred churches that had split off from the Illinois Baptist State Convention. In this position, he also had time for further study so that he took courses at Ewing College at Ewing, Illinois, a Baptist school which has since gone out of existence. In 1911 he received a Ph.D degree from Ewing.
Reese said of this period: “During the year as State Evangelist, my heresies, which had begun even during my seminary days due to the impact of Higher Criticism, began to grow apace.” In this same year Reese became the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Tiffin, Ohio, which he thought was a “liberal” Northern Baptist Church; but he still felt cramped. He said: “I preached twice each Sunday, but following the evening service my conscience bothered me. I could and did say what I believed, but I did not feel free to say what I did not believe…” Not finding the Northern Baptists liberal enough, Reese decided he must transfer into a more liberal ministry. Realizing this, he considered the Unitarians, the Universalists, and the Christians; and, finally, he decided to examine more closely the Unitarians because of a work that he had read by Francis G. Peabody, a Unitarian social gospeler.
“(1) a Universal Father, God, (2) a Universal Brotherhood, mankind, (3) a Universal right, freedom, (4) a Universal motive, love, and (5) a Universal aim, progress.”
When Reese inquired if his faith were consistent with Unitarianism, the minister assured him that it was. When Reese returned to Tiffin, he was faced with a decision; after some serious thought, he decided to transfer from the Baptist church to the Unitarian. The next move was to set up a conference between himself and the secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference. After this meeting Reese was recommended for the ministry of the Unitarian Church in Alton, Illinois. The Alton church accepted the recommendation, with Reese beginning his career as a Unitarian minister in 1913.
This move from the Baptist faith to the Unitarian was not taken lightly by Reese, for it caused him great personal turmoil as well as creating a problem with his family. He said:
“My mother said very sincerely that she would rather have seen me dead. This is understandable, for had she heard of my death she would have had the satisfaction of knowing that I was flying around with angels in heaven. But now she was sure that if and when I died, I would burn in hellfire and brimstone forever and ever.”
Reese, who had been close with one of his sisters, was proud when she named her son, Curtis Williford, but when he became a Unitarian, she renamed him “Bruner Truett” for two well-known and solid Southern Baptist ministers. Later, the family did come to accept Reese in spite of the change, and even the sister attended a Unitarian Fellowship for a while and might have become member if it had not been for her husband, who was a Baptist deacon.
Although Reese was in Alton for only two years, he did have a number of significant experiences. First of all, he became a very strong anti-vice crusader. He mobilized the ministers so that an active campaign was launched to rid the city of “gaming houses” and “brothels.” He raised money and hired a private detective to gain substantial evidence about vice, with the result being that the crusaders ran a man for mayor on a clean-up ticket and won. However, Reese was so zealous in his efforts that the underworld had him shot at several times, and one time it was necessary for him to hide in a parishioner’s attic. Once he was attacked at a railroad depot, but was only slightly injured. These episodes received newspaper coverage; therefore, they provided fuel for the election campaign. While Reese and his wife escaped to a parishioner’s home on the night of the election, a mob gathered in front of his home and lit several fires.
Two other experiences merit mention. One summer Reese returned to Gratz, Kentucky, where he had been a pastor while in seminary. He rented an auditorium and conducted a week of lectures on Unitarianism. People came to hear Reese for various reasons, with some coming because they had never heard of a Baptist becoming a Unitarian. Some descendants of the old village doctor came because their father had been a Unitarian, and they wanted to learn about this faith. Unlike his days as a Baptist, Reese took no offering nor asked for anyone to join; his lectures were simply for the enlightenment of the people. The second experience deals with Reese’s commitment to run a summer camp at Lithia Springs, Illinois, with a guarantee that all expenses would be paid. The camp lasted for only three weeks and since it rained for nearly the whole time, the attendance dropped, with the expenses running into the red. To honor his commitment Reese paid the expenses out of his own pocket; and it is believed that it was this sort of integrity that enabled him to be elected secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference four years later.
In spite of an increasing membership in Alton, Reese went on to become the minister of the Unitarian church in Des Moines, Iowa in 1915. Again, he became involved in a number of social problems. It did not take long for Reese to be moved by the poor housing conditions The Iowa Housing Bill was drawn up and, with Reese’s intense lobbying, the bill passed without a negative vote.
Following the passage of the bill, Reese gained much publicity. In effect, he was asked to run for mayor of Des Moines with the promised backing of organized labor, and he was offered a lucrative position as a stock and bond salesman; but he declined both offers to accept the position of Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference in 1919. Reese’s new base of operation was Chicago, and in this new administrative position his main responsibility was to help churches secure the “right,” most capable minister for their pulpits. Although this position was potentially a controversial one, Reese had the ability to retain the respect of both the conservatives and the radicals.
It was during this period that Reese was elected to the Board of Directors of the Meadville Theological School, which at that time was located at Meadville, Pennsylvania. Reese wanted the school to be relocated in Chicago; he therefore contacted Morton D. Hull, a wealthy businessman and an active Unitarian, and secured a pledge from him of $100,000 if the school should come to Chicago. At the next meeting of the Board of Directors in February, 1926, Reese told of the pledge and it was decided that Meadville would relocate in Chicago. Reese also worked out with Shailer Mathews “an associated relationship” between Meadville and the University of Chicago, as well as negotiating the purchase of the President’s House and Channing House.
Along with his position as secretary to the Western Unitarian Conference, Reese was appointed president of Lombard College, a Universalist school located in Galesburg, Illinois. Apparently his appointment was an attempt to bring the Unitarians to the aid of the Universalists in saving the school from financial collapse. Carl Sandburg is perhaps the most distinguished alumnus of the school. However, Reese was president for only a little over a year; and with the depression the financial situation became impossible, so that the school became a part of the Meadville Theological School in 1933.
In January, 1930, Reese gave up his position as Western Conference secretary and accepted the position as dean at the Abraham Lincoln Centre in Chicago. The Centre was founded in 1905 by the Unitarian minister, Jenkin Lloyd Jones. Reese lived in an apartment in the Centre designed by the famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. The programs for the Centre were many and varied; it had a Friday morning forum, where outstanding speakers with all varieties of opinion were provided a platform from which to be heard. Also, the Centre published a journal, Unity, which for many years had John Haynes Holmes as the editor, with Reese as an associate. As Jones and Holmes had been dedicated pacifists, this was the official policy of the journal; but, later, during the Second World War, Reese gave up his pacifism and convinced the directors of the journal to support him; so that a rift came about between Holmes and Reese, with Holmes relinquishing his leadership of the journal and Reese taking over as editor. The Centre had a counseling center and ran a clinic for “optional parenthood.” It sponsored “study classes, social service, a boys’ and girls’ camp, a public library, domestic science classes, instruction in music with glee clubs and an orchestra, various special activities for boys and girls, and dramatics.” Non-Jews, Jews, and Negroes were on the staff, and Reese maintained in the early days a fifty percent balance of whites and blacks in all programs; later as the neighborhood changed they ministered to an even larger percentage of blacks.
Being connected with Unity as contributing editor, managing editor, and editor over a period of nearly forty years, Reese wrote numerous articles ranging from a sophisticated level of scholarship to simple editorials. He also published in several other liberal journals. In 1926 he published his first book, Humanism, followed in 1931 with Humanist Religion and in 1945 with The Meaning of Humanism. He also edited in 1927 Humanist Sermons, and in 1931 he edited a book entitled, Friedrich Nietzsche, which was the lectures of the late George Burman Foster, professor of comparative religion at the University of Chicago. Reese also wrote an autobiography entitled, My Life Among the Unitarians, which was submitted to Beacon Press, but it was never published. Generally, Reese’s books are short, contain insight, but are somewhat thin in the development of problems; however, they do document his interest in the movement of religious humanism and add greatly to an understanding of it.
Retiring as dean of the Abraham Lincoln Centre in 1957, Reese and his wife moved to Kissimmee, Florida. On May 22, 1959, he was presented the Holmes-Weatherly Award for service to liberal religion by the American Unitarian Association. On June 5, 1961, while attending a Board of Directors’ meeting of the Meadville Theological School and the commencement exercises, Reese died of a coronary attack; and with his passing another pioneer of religious humanism faded from the religious scene.
It should be stressed that Reese spent the larger part of his professional career as the dean of the Abraham Lincoln Centre; namely, from the spring of 1923 until February 12, 1957, when he was forced to retire as the result of a severe coronary. This Centre had distinguished members on its Board of Trustees such as Paul Douglas who later became a United States Senator from Illinois. The Centre was so well-known that both the House and the Senate of the State of Illinois, on separate occasions, passed resolutions commending it for its fine service to the state. It was from the context of a kind of settlement house and social and cultural centre that Reese worked and wrote about the world, rather than from a vantage point such as an academic institution or a church pulpit.
Ernest W. Kuebler at the time of Reese’s retirement delivered an address to the Western Unitarian Conference meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan, entitled, “Curtis W. Reese—Liberal Statesman.” Reese’s statesmanship was obvious in his running of the Abraham Lincoln Centre; in his working out an acceptance of “A Humanist Manifesto” by men with independent minds and diverse backgrounds, as well as his contribution to the humanist movement generally; in the Adult Education movement; in his influence in the Western Unitarian Conference; in his sermons and addresses; in influencing the Meadville Theological School to become a part of the Federated Theological Faculty of the University of Chicago; and in helping prepare the way for the merger of the Unitarians with the Universalists. Reese was one of the founders and was president of the American Humanist Association for fourteen years, being acknowledged as a “humanist pioneer” in 1956. We follow Kuebler’s lead and refer to him as “the statesman of religious humanism.”
Was Reese’s religion a religion without God? During the heat of the humanist-theist controversy Reese objected to the theists referring to humanists as atheists. He said: “The radical Unitarian Humanist is inclined to say, ‘Very well, if Humanism be Atheistic, so be it.’ But in point of fact, there is not the slightest ground for calling Humanists Atheistic. The Unitarian discussion might be summed up as ‘Theism or no Theism,’ but not as ‘God or no God,’ since most of the Humanists hold some one of the several non-Theistic theories of God.”
In his book entitled, Humanism, he said:
“The liberal recognizes and zealously proclaims the fact that purposive and powerful cosmic processes are operative, and that increasingly man is able to cooperate with them and in a measure control them. What these processes be styled is of but little importance. Some call them cosmic processes, others call them God.”
— By Mason Olds. Abridged from Religious Humanism in America: Dietrich, Reese, and Potter, edited by Mason Olds (University Press of America, 1978); revised edition, American Religious Humanism (Minneapolis: Fellowship of Religious Humanists, 1996).
Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library
Reese, Curtis W. The Meaning of Humanism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1945.