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Frederick May Eliot As I Knew Him
by Judge Lawrence G. Brooks,
Chairman of the Board of Directors of the
American Unitarian Association
I was in close contact with Frederick Eliot during the last sixteen years of his life. I saw him as a man, a writer, a preacher, and as President of the American Unitarian Association.
Frederick May Eliot was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts, where his father was minister of the Unitarian church. Frederick was the oldest of three children of Christopher Rhodes Eliot and Mary May Eliot, the other two being Dr. Martha May Eliot and Abigail Adams Eliot, both of them persons of distinction. I remember Frederick’s father well. Like many of his generation, he wore a beard, which by the time I knew him was completely white. In his later years he lived near my parents on Francis Avenue, Cambridge, where he built a house on part of the estate known as Shady Hill, which was formerly owned by Charles Eliot Norton.
Frederick’s great uncle was Samuel May and the May name meant much to him: he always signed himself Frederick May Eliot. Samuel May was a Unitarian minister, one of several of the May name who were Unitarian ministers. On the Eliot side, not only his father, but also his father’s brother, Thomas Lamb Eliot, were Unitarian ministers. Thomas Eliot, born in St. Louis, in his early youth sailed around Cape Horn. Later, he became minister of the Unitarian church in Portland, Oregon. He was one of fourteen children. He lived to be ninety-five years old, becoming one of Oregon’s most distinguished and beloved citizens.
Frederick’s grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, went from New Bedford to St. Louis, Missouri in 1834, where he became minister of the Unitarian church and, among his many other civic activities, founded Washington University.
General Sherman is said to have declared that he did more than any other ten men to save Missouri for the Union. His father, William Greenleaf Eliot, a Boston merchant, born during the Revolution, and a cousin of John Greenleaf Whittier, had married Margaret Dawes, the daughter of William Dawes and a cousin of the unsung rider and companion of Paul Revere. Incidentally, Frederick was a first cousin of the poet, T. S. Eliot, and a third cousin, twice removed, of Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard College. The point of indulging in this genealogy is to emphasize the stock from which Frederick Eliot sprang, and his Unitarian background, which later influenced at least two important decisions he had to make.
Frederick attended the Prince Grammar School in Boston, and the Roxbury Latin School, from which he entered Harvard College. He graduated with honors in 1911. His academic interest, at that time, was government. He received a traveling fellowship and went abroad to study the governments of European cities.
Had it not been for the Reverend Samuel McChord Crothers, it is quite likely Frederick would not have entered the ministry. This is where his Unitarian ancestry undoubtedly came into play. It was a good background for the persuasive Dr. Crothers to argue for the ministry. At any rate, instead of continuing in government, Frederick entered the Harvard Divinity School, from which he graduated in 1915.
Following his ordination as a Unitarian minister, he became assistant, for two years, to Dr. Crothers at the First Parish in Cambridge. In 1917 he was called to Dr. Crothers’ old church in St. Paul, Minnesota. There he remained, with the exception of a few months when he was chaplain in the armed services, until called to the presidency of the American Unitarian Association twenty years later.
While Frederick was still in St. Paul, Unitarians became concerned over the obvious lack of progress of Unitarianism in the United States. The denomination appeared to be existing on a glorious past, certain prelude to decline.
At the Unitarian convocation at John Hancock Hall, left to right, Dr. Frederick M. Eliot, president of the American Unitarian Association; Ernest B. MacNaughton, president of Reed College, Oregon, chairman; John Holmes, professor of English literature at Tufts College; Everett Moore Baker, dean at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Joseph C. Harsch, chief of the Washington bureau of the Christian Science Monitor (Photo by Calvin Campbell, May 24, 1950).
To forestall this, the American Unitarian Association in 1934 created a Commission of Appraisal, and appointed Frederick May Eliot its chairman. He took the assignment very seriously. When, largely as the result of his fine work as chairman, he was called to the presidency of the A.U.A., Eliot felt it his duty to accept the call. It was as if all his Unitarian preacher ancestors spoke to him and bade him carry the Unitarian banner. It was a challenge in a time of crisis, which a man of courage could not refuse.
History records the results of his presidency. During the twenty years of Frederick’s incumbency (1937-1958), adult membership in the denomination increased 75% Church School membership almost trebled. In the last ten years, forty new churches have been established, over two hundred fellowships have been organized, of which a dozen have become churches (included in the forty). Indeed, to use a current expression, the Unitarian population has “exploded” and the machinery, more especially the American Unitarian Association, has been hard pressed to meet the challenge with ministers, buildings and other services.
Those twenty years brought an increasingly heavy burden upon Frederick. He it was who had to trim a thin budget to match income to expenses. This meant spreading Unitarian resources which, though doubled in the above period, were inadequate to cover the field. It meant letting valuable men and women go to other activities more generous in their scale of compensation.
My intimate contact with Frederick began when, at the invitation of William Emerson, I became a member of the Executive Committee of the Unitarian Service Committee. This was at a time when the was literally rescuing Spanish liberals from death at the hands of Franco. Soon after, I was elected to the Board of Directors of the American Unitarian Association and shortly became the Chairman.
The Service Committee had been in active and exciting operation prior to this. It was the outgrowth of Unitarian relief activities in Czechoslovakia in 1938 in which Mr. and Mrs. Robert Dexter, Reverend John H. Lathrop and others had had an important part, with the full backing of Frederick Eliot and the Board of Directors of the A.U.A. The relief program was further expanded by William Emerson and Seth Gano, and became the Unitarian Service Committee. Frederick was a member of the Executive Committee until the U. S. C. became independent of the A.U.A. by vote of the latter’s Board of Directors.
Frederick voted against the change. He was never reconciled to this independent status. He thought it was a poor administrative set-up. He felt that the Committee should have remained under the aegis of the Association. The subsequent, remarkably successful financial appeals of the Committee, achieved while the A.U.A. was struggling desperately to meet its own budget, did not help to reconcile Frederick to a situation which was so desirable for the Service Committee because its independence of the denomination enabled it to secure non-sectarian and government funds otherwise beyond its reach.
The 150th anniversary of the birth of Horace Mann, father of the American public school system, is marked at the State House as Dr. Frederick May Eliot (right), president of the American Unitarian Association, lays a wreath on the Mann statue on the State House lawn. Looking on are Gov. Tobin (center) and James R. Killian, Jr., executive vice-president of M.I.T. (May 4, 1946, courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Print Department)
While the Service Committee was still part of the American Unitarian Association, it came under strong attack from some Unitarians, as well as from other sources, for its alleged “pink” aspect. There was no doubt, for example, that the Committee was giving aid, among others to individual Communists in France. On the other hand, Communists had played an important part in the Resistance movement after the fall of France and both needed and deserved succor. This disturbed even intelligent liberals like Donald Harrington and A. Powell Davies, both of whom, I think, were unnecessarily exercised over the Service Committee’s operations.
This period of Frederick’s life as President of the American Unitarian Association was rugged. Stephen H. Fritchman was editor of the Christian Register, I was Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Register.
Fritchman was a brilliant and forceful editorial writer. He was thought by some people, particularly by the more conservative Unitarians, to be too partial to Soviet Russia in the columns of the Register. Charges were even made that he was a Communist. Frederick Eliot thought that, for everyone’s sake, the critics should be given an opportunity to state their case and the editor a chance to reply. Consequently, the Board of Directors of the A.U.A. requested its Executive Committee to inquire into the charges.
The Committee held a hearing in May of 1946 with the editor and his critics present. By a vote of 7 to 2 the Committee exonerated Fritchman and by a vote of 5 to 4 retained him as editor. In October the Board confirmed the action of the Committee but attached certain conditions to Fritchman’s continuing as editor, including a requirement that he submit material in advance of publication to the president and certain others.
This was, of course, potential if not actual censorship and Fritchman, not unnaturally, protested, but he went along with the arrangement for several months. Then President Truman, to prevent Greece and Turkey from being gathered in by the Soviet Union, proclaimed the historic policy of containment. Fritchman, thereupon, wrote a blistering editorial attack on President Truman and Senator Vandenberg for publication in the forthcoming number of the Register. It came to the attention of Frederick Eliot, Melvin Arnold, then director of publications, and me. So vitriolic was the tone of the editorial that Fritchman was asked by wire to consent to tone down some of the language. This he refused to do and he was subsequently suspended as editor.
Fritchman took the matter to the Annual Meeting. Feeling ran high. At one point during the debate it looked as if the administration at 25 Beacon Street would be repudiated. However, the votes told a different story, and this particular controversy subsided.
Leading Unitarians at the festival and fellowship dinner of the annual meeting of the American Unitarian Association at the Chamber of Commerce. Left to right: Mrs. Robert C. Dexter, speaker; Dr. Frederick May Eliot, association president; Mrs. Eliot; William Roger Greeley, chairman; and Dr. Aurelia H. Reinhardt, president of Mills College, newly elected moderator of the association (May 24, 1940, courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Print Department).
There were other controversies. Frederick’s connection with the Service Committee and his initial support of Fritchman brought another attack upon him by a local group of conservative Unitarians known as the Committee of Fourteen. They were, for the most part, sincere persons, but not always too close to the facts. If the supporters of Fritchman represented the left wing of Unitarianism, the Committee of Fourteen belonged to the right wing. Just as Fritchman and his supporters went too far, so the Committee of Fourteen injured its case by unfair attack on Frederick Eliot and on 25 Beacon Street.
There was another element in this controversy. Not only was Frederick too liberal sociologically and politically for the right wingers; also, he was not conservative enough theologically. “Why,” asked a well-to-do Unitarian, “should I contribute money to the American Unitarian Association, when, under the President’s leadership, Humanist societies are being encouraged in those areas of the United States where Unitarian growth is most marked?” On that score, Frederick made it plain, or tried to, that as President he had no authority to tell Humanists or anyone else what to think or preach, nor any power to expel them from the denomination, even if he wished to, and that, at any rate, he did not think it wise to discriminate against Humanists financially if they were otherwise good Unitarians. Frederick, being a Humanist of sorts, was fairly persuasive along this line, except with those whose minds were closed on the subject.
Frederick had still another problem—himself. In the administration of Unitarian affairs, he knew what he wanted to accomplish, and hewas certain that what hewanted to accomplish was for the best interests of the denomination. Unitarians being Unitarians, Frederick’s projects did not always have smooth sailing either in the Board of Directors or at the Annual Meeting. He tended to think opposition to his plans was personal to himself. Often I have known him to decline to speak for a proposal, saying that for him to do so would hurt the cause.
This was seldom the case, but it was easy for him to imagine. Opposition and criticism vexed him and he, not infrequently, showed his vexation. He was a bit too quick to interpret disagreement as deliberate unfriendliness. This super-sensitiveness on his part occasionally resulted in actual unfriendliness.
Strong leaders produce strong reactions. Frederick was a strong man. On more than one occasion, toward the end of two of his presidential terms, there were mutterings of protest, demands for a change.
Under the By Laws of the Association, it was the duty of the Board of Directors to nominate a candidate for President. A committee of the Board, appointed by the Chairman or elected by the Board, would canvass the situation. Customarily, the committee, through the Register, would invite suggestions for candidates for the Presidency. On the two occasions mentioned above, the committee reported to the board that they had received no suggestions of value and were unable themselves to suggest any candidate of the stature or capability of Frederick May Eliot. I can vouch for the fact that in neither case was the committee made up of persons particularly friendly to Dr. Eliot. The fact is that nobody cared to challenge Frederick’s supremacy. When it came to a showdown, he had no serious competitors.
Now what were the capabilities which contributed to Frederick Eliot’s stature? To start with, he had a splendid inheritance, spiritually and morally. He possessed a superior intellect, which he constantly cultivated. He was executive by nature and enjoyed administrative work. His early life in Boston, followed by the twenty years in St. Paul, were an admirable combination which gave stimulus to an alert and inquiring mind. His retentive memory enabled him to store up what he read and heard. He had an unusual gift for public speaking. I never saw him read a speech or even use notes.
Though liberal in his own religious views, he admired those in the orthodox camp, provided he thought them sincere. On the other hand, he resented all forms of orthodox coercion. There was a memorable meeting of the Board of Directors of the A.U.A., where the issue was discussed whether the Beacon Press should publish Paul Blanshard’s book, American Freedom and Catholic Power, which was much too hot a potato for any other well-known publishing house to handle. While the pros and cons of the issue were being argued in the Board, someone pointed out that in a city as strongly Catholic as Boston, feelings might well be aroused by Unitarian publication of a book so critical of the Catholic hierarchy—feelings which could easily be translated into hostile action, such as the sudden discovery by a city official that the fire escapes at 25 Beacon Street did not comply with the building laws. James R. Killian, then a member of the Board of Directors, who up to that moment had not entered the discussion, spoke up and said: “If there really is danger of that sort of thing, the sooner we know it, the better. I shall vote that the Beacon Press publish the book.” Frederick Eliot, of course, stood with Killian.
I have referred to Frederick as a “Humanist of sorts.” I say “of sorts” advisedly. From a sermon delivered in 1927, entitled “Humanism and the Inner Life,” I quote: “Does Humanism feed the souls of men? Does it foster that inner life that keeps them calm in the face of danger, resolute in the face of temptation, courageous in the face of defeat? . . . It is precisely because I believe Humanism can serve these human needs far better than any other sort of faith that I hold it myself and preach it from this pulpit.”
On the other hand, unlike some Humanists, he did not exclude God from the pulpit or from his writings. He believed in prayer as a means of cleansing and refreshing the spirit, but not as an instrument for influencing the Almighty.
Consistent and correlative with all this was his faith in Man. In one of his radio talks, he said: “Our faith in man is wholly positive‚ so deep and vast in its sweep that it goes far beyond most of the philosophies and theologies of the past.”
Frederick was tremendously interested in what he called liberal religion. One reason was his apprehension of what he thought to be the growing influence of orthodoxy in the United States and Europe. Partly because of that he was greatly interested in the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom. The other reason was his awareness of the growing dissidence in orthodox denominations—a curious paradox. He knew that the actual number of Unitarians was not found in the church roster but in the hearts and minds of thousands of individuals who, though tied to orthodoxy by inheritance or for social reasons, yearned for a faith free from creed and dogma.
Because Frederick so earnestly advocated liberal religion for those capable of understanding it and benefiting from it, and because he wanted to marshall the liberal forces into a united group, he favored close union between all liberal faiths, especially between Unitarians and Universalists, but not excluding non-Christians. He would welcome liberal Jews, Hindus, Moslems, for example, into such a church. This breadth of vision dismayed some Unitarians who feared for the survival of our denomination in any such religious cosmopolis.
He did not quarrel with the proposal to change the name of the Christian Register to Unitarian Register; indeed, he approved of it, but he deplored the unhappy remark by one of the proponents during the debate to the effect that “The less there is of Christianity, the better.”
Frederick May Eliot’s life was full and varied. He had time, in addition to other duties, to serve as chairman of the Board of Trustees of Mount Holyoke College and on the Boards of Proctor Academy and Hackley School and for a period, like his father before him, as Chaplain to the Massachusetts Senate. For forty years he was dedicated to the advancement of Unitarianism. He literally was a soldier in this cause and he did not spare himself. This involved his battling sometimes with the right wing, sometimes with the left, and occasionally with both at once. His more difficult battles were with the conservative elements in the denomination. These encounters were harassing to his spirit. They made his constant struggle with financial problems more difficult because, as is frequently the case, the financial resources were with the conservatives. Their financial help was vital for the effective operation of the American Unitarian Association, but sometimes given not too generously.
All this and other labors took their toll of Frederick Eliot. I watched his jet-black hair grow white, and the furrows crease his brow. At times, so weary was he at meetings of the Executive Committee that he could only with difficulty keep his eyes open. It was a great shock, but not a great surprise to me, when word came of his sudden death. To conclude the metaphor of the soldier, Frederick truly died on the field of battle. He was just entering the courtyard of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York to attend a meeting when he died.
I cannot fail to mention Elizabeth, his devoted wife, who provided an ideal domestic background for the accomplishment of his life’s work.
Finally I want to say that he reminds me of Mount Washington, near the foot of which I have a place which I visit twice a year. and from which, each time, I return to work refreshed in spirit. As I drive down through the Ossipees I like to look back and see that splendid mountain apparently grow higher as I leave it behind. Frederick May Eliot’s place in Unitarian history as time passes, will, I am confident, assume increasing importance. Like the granite of the New Hampshire mountains, some of whose quality he shared, he is for the ages.
—Abridged from 1960 issue of The Proceedings of the Unitarian Historical Society (13, Part 1).
Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection
Other Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library
The Commission of Appraisal to the American Unitarian Association. Unitarians Face a New Age. Boston: 1936.
Wright, Conrad, ed. A Stream of Light: A Sesquicentennial History of American Unitarianism. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1975.