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Backus, E. Burdette (1888-1955)

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E. Burdette Backus, one of the unsung leaders of humanism, was a man of unusual wisdom and courage. An extraordinarily versatile minister, he combined both the prophetic tradition of involvement in social justice as well as pastoral responsibilities. (Tom Owen-Towle, in Religious Humanism, Vol. XVI, No. 2, Spring 1982).

Biographical Introduction
by Ed Doerr

E. Burdette Backus
E. Burdette Backus

Jack Mendelsohn, Backus’ successor as a minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Indianapolis and recipient of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Award for Distinguished Service in 1997, in the foreword to a collection of Backus’s work described his predecessor as a “celebrated representative of humanisitic liberal religion, widely respected for his popular radio ministry and as a spiritual leader of a congregation noted for its active support of civil rights, First and Fourteenth Amendement civil liberties, world peace, mental health, and religious expressions deeply rooted in principles of freedom, reason, tolerance and social responsibility. He became for me a shining example of a broad-gauged liberal minister, rich in compassion, gentleness, courage, personal dignity, scholarly grounding, equally appreciative of scientific method and democratic values‚ a good person, a good parson, a good world citizen.”

Burdette Backus was my introduction to Unitarianism in 1951 when I was a college undergraduate in Indianapolis. He had read something I had written and sent me an appreciative note inviting me to visit All Souls Unitarian Church in Indianapolis.

I found Backus to be a forceful but gentle man, brilliant but not arrogant, learned but never pretentious, extraordinarily well read and intellectually gifted but a clear and plain speaker, at once a thinker and an activist. His writing, his work, and his life are to me among the finest expressions of the best in both Humanism and Unitarian Universalism, and illustrate the very considerable overlap between these two traditions.

In those long ago days I could not have dreamed that one day I would succeed him as president of the American Humanist Association, meet my future wife in his church and be married by his successor (Jack Mendelsohn), devote most of my life to causes he held dear, and eventually publish some of his best writing.

Edwin Burdette Backus was born in Blanchester, Ohio on December 27, 1888. His father, Wilson Marvin Backus, was a leading Universalist minister. His mother, Estelle Campbell Backus, also a Universalist minister, tragically died bringing Burdette into the world. After serving in the Universalist ministry for several years, Wilson Backus moved into the Unitarian fold and served in Minneapolis as the humanist predecessor to John Dietrich.

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1909, Burdette followed in his parents’ footsteps and headed for Meadville Theological Seminary, where he earned his B.D. in 1912. He pursued graduate studies at Oxford, Harvard, the University of California, and universities in Berlin and Jena, Germany. He was awarded a D.D. in 1940 by Meadville.

Burdette’s first parish was in Lawrence, Kansas, where he met his future wife, Irene Garrett, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Kansas. In 1917 his father was called to serve a Unitarian congregation in Erie, Pennsylvania, but ill health forced him to resign and Burdette was called to replace him the same year. Burdette went on to serve Unitarian congregations in Los Angeles, Des Moines, and the Chicago Humanist Society before being called to the Thomas Paine pulpit of All Souls Unitarian Church in Indianapolis.

E. Burdette and Irene Backus
E. Burdette and Irene Backus

Burdette served the Indianapolis congregation from 1938 until his retirement at the end of 1953. During the McCarthy period, which was particularly unpleasant in the Hoosier capital‚ the Ku Klux Klan had been a powerful force in Indiana not too long before Backus’s arrival in the state and the John Birch Society was founded there‚ Burdette had to face a serious challenge from an influential faction in the congregation that did not like his humanism (Backus, like his predecessor Frank C. S. Wicks, was a signer of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto) or his support for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mental Health Association. The majority of the congregation supported Backus; the minority, worried that newcomers and possibly “Communists” and African Americans might “infiltrate” the church, pulled out and formed a new congregation, which did not last very long. Burdette was hurt by the affair but did not allow it to sour him or to dampen his sense of humor or optimism.

Backus was a spellbinding speaker, though without a hint of bombast or flashiness. His pulpit addresses and his weekly fifteen-minute radio broadcasts‚ inspirational, thought provoking and gentle‚ influenced a great many and contributed to the founding of new Unitarian congregations in Indiana.

Burdette was much more than a preacher. He was an activist. He was active in the ACLU and played an important part in the formation of the Indiana Society for Mental Hygiene, which he served for many years as president. He served on the board of the Indianapolis Children’s Bureau and on the Indiana White House Committee on Child Welfare. He led the opposition to “released time” religious instruction in public schools; in September 1945 he preached an important sermon on the Illinois McCollum “released time” lawsuit, which resulted in an important U.S. Supreme Court precedent in 1948 supporting the principle of church-state separation.

E. Burdette BackusBurdette was a lifelong naturalistic humanist. He was one of the 34 signers of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, along with such eminent Unitarian ministers as John H. Dietrich, Curtis Reese, Edwin H. Wilson, Raymond B. Bragg, and Lester Mondale, and such philosophers as John Dewey. He went on to serve as the second president of the American Humanist Association from 1944 to 1946.

Burdette’s writings were unfortunately not available to the size of readership they merited, although two collections of his radio talks were published: If Thought Be Free in 1946 and The Sheep and the Goats in 1948. In addition there were a Lenten Manual for the American Unitarian Association and a 1951 pamphlet, “The Way Called Unitarian.”

Burdette’s two collections of radio addresses and the last twelve sermons he gave before his retirement were republished in 1998.

A fitting tribute to Burdette was that of his fellow minister and American Unitarian Association president Frederick May Eliot:

If you were to take a poll of the Unitarian ministers throughout the country on the question of who stands highest both in the matter of fundamental respect and also of heartfelt affection, I have no doubt that Burdette Backus’s name would lead all of the rest. He has a truly unique position among us, not only for the extraordinary record of his achievement during the years of his ministry, but also because of the personal qualities that have endeared him to his fellow Unitarian ministers of every type. Even those who most sharply disagree with some of his views join with the rest of us in an admiring tribute to his integrity, his frankness, and the combination of inflexible devotion to principle, with gentleness of spirit. I seldom think of him without recalling Emerson’s words to the effect that the great person is “one who, in the midst of the crowd, keeps perfect sweetness, the independence of solitude.

What and Where is God?
by E. Burdette Backus

Editor’s Note: Humanism is a word of many meanings. Not all forms of it are necessarily devoid of theistic affirmation, especially whenever the humanistic faith is naturalistic and not supernaturalistic. Consider below how Burdette Backus interprets a fundamental question of liberal religion.

ebb 4 backus2This is a great and important subject, one that has occupied the human mind from time immemorial. It behooves us to come to it in a humble spirit deeply aware of the limitations of our best thought. Beware of the dogmatic mind, of anyone who can tell you with certainty all about God; be equally wary of the person who asserts positively that there is no God and offers some substitute theory as a full and adequate explanation of all things in heaven and on earth. The beginning of wisdom in this great matter is to acknowledge a reverent agnosticism which will keep us from being too certain about any conclusion at which we may arrive.

The best minds in all ages have wrestled with the great mystery of existence, seeking to give a rational explanation of the world and to interpret human experience in terms that would satisfy the demands of reason and the emotions, but they have not been able to come to agreement. Some men have tried to explain all things in terms of the interplay of physical forces, the ceaseless grinding of omnipotent matter rushing on its relentless way. We call such thinkers “materialists,” and despite the fact that their system has never found popular acceptance, it has a long and honorable history and has commanded the assent of able thinkers all the way from Heraclitus who lived five centuries B.C. down to Bertrand Russell in our own day.

A drawing of All Souls Unitarian Church in Indianapolis
A drawing of All Souls Unitarian Church in Indianapolis

We should be charitable in our attitude towards those who hold opinions different from our own and not damn any person because of the convictions which honest thought has brought. Unfortunately it has been very hard for some people to achieve this charity. Non-believers, in earlier days, were put to death and even now they are looked at askance as dangerous or immoral individuals, and in some instances denied legal rights that others possess, as Rupert Hughes, the novelist, was denied the right to adopt a child because he acknowledged that he was an atheist.

This is absurd because a human being can be a firm believer in God and still be a scoundrel; or he can be a saint. He can be an atheist and be a very superior person; or he can likewise be a scoundrel. The other day I heard of a young man who was unable to join a fraternal organization which made as a condition of membership an avowal of belief in God. He said he didn’t know whether or not he believed in God and his conscience would not permit him to profess a belief which he did not have.

All of this has been by way of introduction to the Unitarian attitude toward belief in God. The name “Unitarian” means a believer in one God and was given to us originally in distinction to the “Trinitarians” who believe that God is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and that the three yet make one. Unitarians believed that Jesus was a man, not God, and felt that the Holy Ghost was simply a speculative idea which no one really understood and might as well be eliminated.

Because the Unitarian church has no creed, because it is a free fellowship whose members recognize that no one knows enough to be entitled to dogmatize on these great questions of belief, because we think that character is even more fundamental than profession of belief, we have room in our church, and do indeed have, many men and women who are not theists. Some of them prefer to say “Nature” instead of God, because they feel that “Nature” more adequately represents their thought about the character of the world. There are others who are known as “Humanists” because for them the center of religion has shifted from God to man. They say, “we cannot fathom the infinite, it is enough for us to love and serve humanity.” All of us, Theists, Naturalists, Humanists and Agnostics, are bound together in the Unitarian church by our common interest in promoting that which is best in human life; this is a foundation that lies deeper than agreement in belief. We cannot all think alike, but we can all work together for the enrichment of human life. Life and ever more life is the end of religion.

Burdette Backus, right, with Dr. Wicks.
Burdette Backus, right, with Dr. Wicks.

Let me give my own answer to our question, “What and Where is God?” It is not binding on anyone else. First negatively: I do not believe in God as a personal being who hears and answers prayer. It seems to me preposterous that the great traffic of the universe should be side-tracked to let my little train rattle through in response to my petition. I can readily understand why our soldiers in the thick of battle find themselves praying; it is a spontaneous response born out of their helplessness and tremendous need in the presence of overwhelming danger. But the prayers do not deflect one bullet nor cause a shell to deviate a hair’s breadth from its course. What they really do is to help inwardly by providing a channel through which natural fear can flow and by fortifying courage. That is a great deal. I know no better way to express our dependence on the vast whole of which we are parts than by the familiar word “God.”

God is everywhere present, in the orbit of the sun, in the green of the forest leaves, in the upward urge in the heart of man. God is a poetic symbol by which we seek to express the inexpressible, by which we endeavor to give voice to our faith in this living universe as our home and ourselves as its children. To worship is to think clear thoughts, to add to the beauty and harmony of our world, to fulfill ourselves in generous living which delights in doing for others, to be co-workers with God in the creative work of the world.

— Abridged from Timely and Timeless: The Wisdom of E. Burdette Backus