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Wilbur, Earl Morse (1886-1956)

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Earl Morse WilburBiographical Introduction

Earl Morse Wilbur was born in Jericho, Vermont, on April 26, 1866, and he died in Berkeley, California, on January 8, 1956. His father was a lawyer who came from hardy Vermont pioneering stock and Earl was reared in the austere life of the place and period. His intellectual promise developed early and opened his way to the University of Vermont, from which he graduated in 1886, the youngest member of his class. The summer of that year, while taking further studies with a view to teaching, he met W. W. Fenn, then a student in the Harvard Divinity School who became his life-long friend. It was on Fenn’s advice that, after a year of school teaching, he entered the Divinity School, from which he graduated in 1890 with the degrees of A.M. and S.T.B.

His family connection had been with the orthodox Congregational church in Jericho, and he had intended to enter the orthodox ministry until he discovered that he had reached theological beliefs unacceptable to that fellowship. So after graduation he accepted an invitation to become an assistant to Rev. Thomas L. Eliot of the Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. In 1892 he was ordained, and later succeeded Dr. Eliot as minister of the church. In 1898 he married Dr. Eliot’s daughter Dorothea, and, after a year of study in Europe, moved to Meadville, Pennsylvania, to become minister of the Independent Congregational Church of that city where he also did some teaching in the Meadville Theological School.

In 1904 funds were donated to establish the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry, and Wilbur was asked to become its Dean and to plan its development. He served the School in this capacity (with the title of President after 1911) until 1931. The task proved to be difficult and arduous, but with self-sacrificing devotion he succeeded in creating a small but efficient seminary primarily intended to serve Unitarian churches on the Pacific Coast.

Soon after the School was opened he gave a course of lectures on the rise and evolution of Unitarian doctrines. He soon discovered the lack of any adequate historical research in this field, and thus was led into the studies which have given him his great reputation as the foremost authority in the development of liberal religion. He saw the rise of Unitarianism in England and America as only the later aspects of a much earlier widespread movement in Hungary, Poland and other countries on the Continent of Europe, and he proceeded to equip himself to investigate that largely unexplored field. The long-forgotten and fragmentary records were buried in remote and seldom visited libraries and called for a working knowledge of nine different languages, ancient and modern. Fortunately, after his resignation as President of the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry (now called the Starr King School for the Ministry), he was enabled by a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, followed by another from the Hibbert Trustees in England, to spend three years (1931-1934) in Europe, searching every locality where evidence could be found and gathering a great collection of books and copies of manuscript documents, most of them hitherto quite unknown to, or unobtainable by scholars in the Western world.

At any time this would have been a notable contribution to historical research but its importance was greatly enhanced when, during and after World War II, many of the libraries which he had explored in Poland and Hungary were destroyed or their contents scattered, and the information which he had gathered would, but for him, have been forever lost. These records, many of them unique, are now in the library of the Starr King School, which has the world’s richest collection of Unitariana.

In 1925, Dr. Wilbur published his first book on the subject, Our Unitarian Heritage, a preliminary study, which was followed in 1945 by the first volume of his far more comprehensive History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and its Antecedents; the second volume, History of Unitarianism: in Transylvania, England, and America (down to 1900), appearing in 1952. These massive books tell the story in clear and lucid English with the authority of a great scholar and have lasting value, for no future writer will have access to all the resources of which Dr. Wilbur was able to avail himself before World War II. Their reliability is underwritten by his Bioliography, published in Rome (Italy) in 1950, which runs to more than 60 pages and is a monument of scholarly completeness and accuracy. Few scholars have been able to produce works so likely to be accepted as the final authority on the subjects with which they deal.

Earl Wilbur’s ability was recognized by his alma mater, the University of Vermont, as early as 1910, when it conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity, and the Starr King School gave him an honorary S.T.D. near the end of his career. But though recognition of his outstanding scholarship was widespread, he remained the most modest and unassuming of men, pleasing in manner, gentle and lovable, though firm in his convictions. From his youth he was a lover of the mountains, a mountain-climber and camper until late middle age. He made frequent trips to the Atlantic seaboard and generally contrived to revisit Jericho. His last visit was that of April, 1955, when, on the 89th anniversary of his birth, he read a delightful paper of personal reminiscence at the Visitation Day meeting of the Alumni of the Harvard Divinity School, who turned their dinner into a birthday party in his honor. His death in his 90th year leaves all who knew him with heartfelt gratitude for a character so honorable and a life so rich in fruition.

— By Henry Wilder Foote, from The Unitarian Yearbook, 1957-58.

The Costly Heritage of Religious Freedom
by Henry Wilder Foote

(A review of A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and Its Antecedents by Earl Morse Wilbur. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.)

Earl Morse WilburIn this notable volume, those who have looked forward to the publication of Dr. Wilbur’s historical researches will find their highest expectations more than fulfilled. The ripe fruit of forty years of indefatigable labor, it fills a hitherto empty place in the story of the Reformation. The same author’s book, 0ur Unitarian Heritage (1925) a much briefer preliminary study for the present volume, has been the only book in English on the subject based on original research. The two German studies of Socinianism are a century old and far less adequate in their treatment of the Reformation movement from which modern Unitarianism traces its roots.

This volume deals only with the earlier stages of Unitarianism; first, with the scattered and, for the most part, obscure individuals who began early in the sixteenth century to question the dogma of the Trinity, of whom Servetus was the most notable; then, with the work of the great leader Socinus, under whom arose a group of churches in Poland definitely Unitarian in theology, though the movement was long known by the name of its leader, or was called “Arien.” A second volume, now in preparation, will give account of Unitarianism in Hungary, England, and this country.

It is a piece of rare good fortune that Dr. Wilbur has been able to complete this volume, not only because no other living man is so competent to cover this field, but because he had opportunity between the first and second World Wars to spend three years in Europe carrying on his researches and collecting materials in libraries, especially in Poland, many of which have since been scattered or utterly destroyed. Had his work been postponed but a few years, it could not have been done so thoroughly, if, indeed, at all.

The impressive scholarship of the book is indicated by the fact that his studies involved a working acquaintance with thirteen different languages, by the meticulous accuracy of his footnotes, and by the amazing detail with which he traces the activities of little-known individuals, many of whom were driven from pillar to post to escape persecution and who had excellent reasons for covering up their tracks. Needless to say, the book is fully indexed, complete with cross references, and has a “Pronouncing Table” of proper names, invaluable as a guide to the pronounciation of Polish. But the book is no mere dry-as-dust record of forgotten men and outworn controversies. Here is a vividly written and often moving story of the terrible and long-drawn out struggle for freedom of religion and of utterances, for toleration of diverse beliefs; and for the exercise of reason in the examination of the Bible and the traditional dogmas of the Catholic, the Lutheran, and the Reformed Churches. While the beliefs of the early anti-Trinitarians were very different from those held by any modern Unitarians they exhibit the struggles of devoted souls to free themselves from the bondage to ancient dogmas in which the human mind was entangled in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, together with their principles of freedom, of toleration, of the use of reason, and of Christianity as a way of life rather than a prescribed system of thought that led hy devious ways across four centuries to the liberty in which we rejoice.

Rebecca Parker

Dr. Wilbur’s contemporary successor at the Starr King School for the Ministry, Dr. Rebecca Parker, President.

It is hoped that his monument of scholarship will be read not only by scholar but by many Unitarians, both lay and ministerial. The story is a tragic one, of men hunted for daring to question accepted beliefs—wanderers and exiles, some of them suffering martyrdom. Particularly tragic is the account of the crushing out of the Socinian churches in Poland bv the Catholic reaction. That the Polish Socinians were notable alike for their scholarly books and for their exemplary adherence to high standards of conduct was of no avail in an age in which heresy was the worst of crimes. In some aspects of their theology, and especially in their teachings about wealth, war and the relations of the individual to the state, they anticipated by more than a century the principles of the early English Quakers, and by more than three centuries those of many modern idealists.

It is well for us to realize the great price in suffering paid for religious freedom; to understand that controversies long outdated were once desperate battlegrounds for that freedom; and that we are the spiritual heirs of a priceless treasure. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Wilbur for this invaluable book, written so vividly and with such final authority that no later student will feel it necessary to cover the same ground again. We shall look forward with eager anticipation to his second volume, recounting the later stages of the Unitarian movement.

— From The Christian Register, August 1945.

Torture, Bloodshed, and Suffering
by Duncan Howlett

It was the reviewer’s privilege to visit Dr. Wilbur in his home a few years ago, just as the present volume was being completed, and to sit in his study and talk with him, surrounded by the extraordinary array of volumes which Dr. Wilbur has accumulated in his work and travels. He has assembled by far the best library of European Unitariana anywhere to be found, and the Unitarian churches owe him a vast debt of gratitude for this fact alone.

Wilbur's books

The Wilbur collection of rare books at the Starr King School for the Ministry.

One of the most striking things about Dr. Wilbur’s study is the typewriter which sits in the middle of his desk at the center of the room. Obviously old, mounted in a wooden frame, it looks more nearly like a small organ console than anything else. Those who have read Dr. Wilbur’s typed manuscripts know that it writes Polish as well as English, French as well as German, with all the proper accents, circumflexes, umlauts, cedillas and other markings.

Flowing from the mind of Dr. Wilbur, through his fingers and out onto the sheets in his typewriter, have come thousands of pages, as a result of which Unitarians now know their own history as they never otherwise could have done.

He shows great perceptivity in this choice, for the reader will be amazed to discover how similar are the movements characterized by freedom, reason and tolerance, though they may spring up under widely different circumstances in widely separated places all across the centuries.

This is another reason why the best of Dr. Wilbur’s writing concerns the earlier history of Unitarianism. By the time we reach the 18th century, the area within which freedom, reason and tolerance are already operating has become too wide for a single scholar to treat in a volume or two. This is particularly true of one who has taken the time to master the earlier movements in Transylvania, Poland, Switzerland, Germany, Italy and elsewhere.

From The Christian Register, January 1953.

The American Unitarian Association
The Fifth Annual Unitarian Award
in Recognition of Distinguished Service
to the Cause of Liberal Religion
Earl Morse Wilbur D.D., S.T.D.

Parish minister, teacher, scholar, historian, author, to whose painstaking research the liberal religious movement throughout the Western World is lastingly indebted.

Earl Morse Wilbur’s service to the Unitarian cause spanned the American Continent from New England to Oregon and California, thus giving him initially a thorough knowledge of the liberal religious movement in his own country. As dean of the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry, which his vision and persistence organized, he gathered the most complete library of Unitarian historical material to be found anywhere. His studies led him to master the languages of the countries in which Unitarianism arose in the sixteenth century so that he was able to search out, over a period of three years in Poland and Transylvania, the little known history of the early development of Unitarian thought and organization.

With tireless patience and scrupulous study he has embodied in a monumental History of Unitarianism the results of his life long devotion. These volumes are definitive. By means of them, we and all future adherents of the Liberal Religious Movement will know and understand whence we came, who the scholars and oft-times martyrs were who wrought our free religious tradition for us, and draw inspiration to carry forward this noble heritage.

Earl Morse Wilbur’s labors will also have a far wider significance in an age that struggles to create a free world, since the conclusion of his studies is that he has traced the history of a movement characterized by ‘complete mental freedom in religion—the unrestricted use of reason in religion—and generous tolerance of differing religious views.’

The Unitarians of the United States and Canada, together with their fellow liberals in many lands, unite in recognizing their obligation to one who has devoted his gifts of mind and spirit throughout the long day of his life, that they might be joint heirs with the free souls of the four centuries of the modern world.

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

“The Unitarian Church Matures and Finds its Mission” by Earl Morse Wilbur

“Organization and Development of the Unitarian Movement” by Earl Morse Wilbur

Earl Morse Wilbur’s “The Period of Controversy: 1800-1825”

“Religious Tendencies in Colonial New England,” by Earl Morse Wilbur

Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Wilbur, Earl Morse. How the History Came to be Written. Proceedings of the Unitarian Historical Society, Volume 9, Part 1, 1951.