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Southworth, Franklin Chester (1863-1944)

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Franklin Chester Southworth

Franklin Chester Southworth

From the beginnings of the liberal movement in America, the preparation and training of ministers has been a matter of grave concern. In the early days Harvard College was itself primarily a theological seminary. Its founders in 1636 had declared it to be their purpose to train ministers, “dreading,” as they said, “to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.” Most of the ministers of the New England churches in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries either were trained at Harvard, or read and worked with some older minister of good repute before taking charge of a parish. By a natural evolution Harvard became more and more associated with the liberal movement in the Massachusetts churches, and that identification was made manifest in 1805 by the election of Henry Ware, an avowed Unitarian, to the Hollis Professorship of Divinity. Thereafter the oldest of American colleges was to be counted on the side of intellectual progress and religious liberty.

The differentiation of the Divinity School from the College was very gradual. The General Catalogue of the School begins the list of its graduates with the Class of 1812, but the Quinquennial Catalogue of the College dates the origin of the School in 1816. The first “Public Exercises” of the School took place on December 17, 1817, and it was not until 1819 that a Faculty of Theology was definitely organized. The School was pledged to “The serious, impartial, and unbiased investigation of Christian truth.” Since that time it has been the pioneer of unsectarian theological education and the fostering mother of sound learning and generous public spirit.

The Meadville Theological School, where were trained many of the ministers commemorated in this book, was established in 1844 at Meadville, Pennsylvania, by the farseeing wisdom and generous gifts of Harm Jan Huidekoper and his son Frederic. The successive presidents have been Rufus P. Stebbins, 1845–1856; Oliver Stearns, 1856–1863; Abiel Abbott Livermore, 1863–1890; George L. Cary, 1890–1902, a scholarly layman. All of these leaders, except Dr. Cary, were graduates of the Harvard Divinity School and Dr. Cary was a graduate of Harvard College. He was succeeded at Meadville by Franklin Chester Southworth, who was born at Fort Collins, New York, October 15, 1863, and died at Little Compton, Rhode Island, May 21, 1944. He graduated at Harvard in 1887 and from the Divinity School in 1892. He was ordained minister of the Unitarian Church in Duluth, Minnesota, on November 29, 1892, with Dr. Crothers, then at St. Paul, and Mr. Fenn, then at Chicago, taking part in the service. He served at Duluth for five years, for two years was minister of the Third Unitarian Church in Chicago, and for three years, 1899–1902, the Secretary and Executive Officer of the Western Unitarian Conference. In 1902 he was chosen to be President of the Meadville School and continued in that important post of service (emeritus after 1928) until his death. Buchtel College made him a Doctor of Divinity in 1915, and in the same year Allegheny College made him a Doctor of Laws.

In 1928–1929 Dr. and Mrs. Southworth visited Japan and India as the official representative of the Free Churches of America to confer with the Japanese Unitarian Association and the Brahmo Samaj of India. Dr. Southworth addressed great gatherings in Tokyo, Kioto, Singapore, and Rangoon, and even larger meetings in Calcutta, Lucknow, Lahore, Madras, Karachi, and Bombay. The assembly at Lucknow was a veritable parliament of religions with representatives of Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, and Christianity.

In the nineteenth century it had been the habit to establish theological seminaries in small towns and quiet neighborhoods where students could work in academic seclusion and far from the distractions of great cities. Gradually it became evident that men training for a ministry that was something more and different from the discharge of purely priestly functions needed contact with the resources of the great universities and with the social and religious agencies that could be found only in large cities. Dr. Southworth was one of the first of seminary presidents to realize this need. Patiently and persuasively he labored to bring about the removal of the Meadville School from a small city in western Pennsylvania to Chicago and with close relations with the fast-growing University of Chicago. The buildings and surroundings at Meadville had endeared themselves to fifty classes of students, and the proposed removal seemed an act of ingratitude to the Huidekoper family, whose nourishing care had continuously fostered the institution. Slowly the trustees were persuaded that the move was wise and practical. A compromise provided that the school should remain a Pennsylvania corporation while carrying on its work at Chicago. The sale of the Meadville properties and the generous gifts of friends in Chicago sufficed to build on three corners of 57th Street and Woodlawn Avenue a fine academic and library building, two residence halls, and a President’s house, while the fourth corner was already occupied by the beautiful building of the First Unitarian Church.

Dr. Southworth was not a systematic theologian but a man who thought independently, spoke his mind fearlessly, and respected the dignity and worth of his fellow men. His preaching had the qualities of directness, sincerity, and immediacy. There was no florid oratory, but everything was clear-cut and forthright. He had something worthwhile to say, and he said it simply and clearly. Though the head of a theological school, there was never anything pedantic about him. As a personal counselor, he was understanding and compassionate. As an administrator, he had both initiative and tenacity.