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Williams, George Huntston (1914-2000)

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George Huntston Williams

By Forrest Church, Senior Minister
Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City

Recalling the Rev. Henry Whitney Bellows’s memorable depiction of a true liberal, George Huntston Williams was in every respect a “large round-about soul.” His work and life, each greater than the sum of their parts, were replete with historic moments. As a scholar, he viewed church history neither dispassionately nor uncritically, but as a living tradition, placing our own faith endeavors in context and investing them with historical and transcendent significance. As a social activist, he engaged in contemporary issues, conscious of his participation in the traditions he studied and taught.

Standing alone and to the untutored eye, any list of Professor Williams’s academic publications and civic passions might peg him as a passionate and indefatigable, yet undisciplined, amateur. The love George devoted to his work may be consistent with the labors of an amateur, his passion as well, but in every other respect he was a multi-faceted, multitalented expert. Overarching everything he surveyed was an encompassing vision; undergirding everything, a vast foundation of knowledge. As a result, over more than six decades of teaching and writing, he inspired hundreds of students, many today themselves church historians. By identifying with the aid of typology a series of themes that recur in differing but familiar variations throughout every historical epoch over the past two millennia, he placed his identifiable stamp on the entire course of church history. For George, church history was living history, at once sacred and profane, presaging the church of today and anticipating its future development. Because of this, itself almost a faith, he brought church history alive to generations of students. He taught us that a living history could inspire and help sustain a vital, yet critical faith.

Church historian Franklin H. Littell summed up Williams’s accomplishments in “The Periodization of History,” an essay appearing in the Festschrift Dean Timothy George of Samford Seminary and I coedited in 1979 on the occasion of George Williams’s sixty-fifth birthday: Continuities and Discontinuities in Church History:

As a church historian in America, one of the few in his generation well enough trained and secure enough in his vocation to avoid the flight into specialization and mere facticity, George H. Williams has been a master of the scientific tools of his craft. At the same time he has not hesitated to be a protagonist as well as observer and interpreter. He is a credible witness, as both scholar and churchman. He has taken his stand with a “new Church History” well beyond most earlier writers—to whom Christian history was either an exercise in filial devotion or an attempt to present the history of Christianity as a sterile sector of the history of mankind.

Williams at 4
Williams in 1919 at four years of age.

To accomplish this, Professor Williams established an interplay between the ancient, medieval, reformation, modern and contemporary church by tracing certain major themes throughout the ages. Then, having uncovered the main ingredients of Church history, he used his artistry as an historian to animate Christian tradition, not simply to receive it but to earn it. “Once this happens,” as James Luther Adams writes in the same Festschrift, “it then has the impact of an emblem on the society or the community of faith.” His method was consistent from his first book, Rethinking the Unitarian Relationship with Protestantism: An Examination of the Thought of Frederick Henry Hedge (1949), through to his last on The History of the Polish Reformation (1995). By generous employment of typology, Williams divined from Church history a series of themes and variations (“Continuities and Discontinuities”) by which his students could both interpret and employ the history he taught them.

Often the details of a scholar’s background are incidental to an appraisal of his or her work. This is decidedly not the case with George Huntston Williams. Both with regard to his choice of subject matter and his manner of interpretation, his personal history plays a central role in his scholarship. If he mined church history in search of essential data, it almost always had existential portent for him. Consider Williams’s major themes: church and state; individual conscience and the church universal; the Radical Reformation; communion and atonement; wilderness and paradise (encompassing the idea of the university and the environment); and the respective histories of Unitarianism and Universalism. Each emerges directly from his family history, a nexus of strong personal relationships that profoundly informed his educational and vocational choices.

George Huntston Williams spent his early years in the rural village of Huntsburg, Ohio. This accounts for his coinage of the middle name, “Huntston,” and with this, a lifetime of frustration at the many of us who persisted in spelling it incorrectly. Highly sensitive as a child (a sensitivity that continued throughout his life), George could not abide the teasing his given middle name, Pease, prompted, so he changed it to reflect the town of his youth. His maternal grandparents, with whom he lived for a time, each embodied an aspect of his character and later interests. George W. Pease was active in all civic aspects of the community, from the Congregational Church to the local academy. A leading citizen, revered by all, his personal struggle with perfection nonetheless forbade him to receive communion to the very end of his days. In sharp contrast, George’s grandmother was of a mystical nature, in James Luther Adams’s words, “prone to absorption in an ecstasy of peace, particularly during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.” By his own admission, George’s temperament, together with his lifelong fascination for atonement and the sacraments were rooted in Huntsburg.

George’s parents cast an even brighter light and longer shadow over his life and career. His mother, Lucy, was a gentle, sensitive soul, ecumenical by nature, universalist in spirit, her lifelong dedication to social justice powered by compassion. Many of these same characteristics, together with loving patience, effuse the nature of George’s wife, Marjorie. His father, David Rhys Williams, was a powerhouse of a man. A dedicated pacifist, socialist and champion of women’s rights, David was among the most outspoken Unitarian ministers of his day. Severe by nature, powered more by anger and a sense of justice than by compassion, David would not permit his children to speak above a whisper at home on Saturdays when he was writing his sermon. During his later youth in Rochester, New York, where his father served as minister of the First Unitarian Church, George would sneak downstairs after bedtime and listen through the balustrade to Eugene V. Debs or W. E. B. Dubois engage in passionate late night discussion. The night after Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, George vividly remembered his father’s shaking his fists at the heavens and shouting, “God damn!”

His family connections with both Congregationalism and Unitarianism, further instructed by his mother’s and grandmother’s ecumenical faith, led George toward ordination in both communions. His college years at St. Lawrence, a Universalist school, initiated an abiding interest in Universalist history as well. During his seminary year abroad from Meadville, he studied the trinity at L’Institute Catholique in Paris. He began his teaching career at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California and then, in 1949, was named a professor and then Acting Dean of the Unitarian founded Harvard Divinity School. His greatest legacy was the ecumenical expansion of a tiny, and relatively small faculty. For most of his teaching career, he served as Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, the oldest established Harvard University chair (and the only professor who was permitted to graze his cow on the Common).

The Williamses
The Williamses in 1982.

One of George Williams’s mentors, John T. McNeill, told him that he should speak from his own community of faith, ever aware of its needs. That he did so, and eloquently, is evident from hundreds of articles and sermons published over the years, and most notably from several of his major works: The Radical Reformation (1962); American Universalism (1971); and The Polish Brethren (1978). Yet, Professor Williams was anything but sectarian in his faith or predictable in his beliefs or interests. As a Trinitarian Unitarian and sacramental protestant, George displayed a capacious mind, investing his studies of church history with remarkable empathy and critical balance. Both are on full display in dozens of his works, most notably in Anselm: Communion and Atonement (1960).

If, from the time of his Meadville Theological Institute B.D. thesis on Paul Tillich (1940), George Williams subscribed fully to Tillich’s “Protestant Principle” (that the first word of religion should be spoken against religion), throughout his life he remained faithful to the Constantinian church. Even his best-known book, The Radical Reformation (1962), displays the creative tension between his dedication to individual conscience, especially with respect to the separation of church and state, and his devotion to the church universal, in its responsibility for the character of society as a whole. This devotion was never more evident than during his participation as an observer at the Vatican II Council in 1962 (eloquently expressed in the sermon he delivered in the Cathedral Church of St. John in Boston following Pope John XXIIIs death in 1963. Williams had the unique distinction of having been the only person in the United States to predict the election of Pope John Paul II. He wrote a book on The Mind of John Paul II and was knighted by the pope in a special celebration in St. Paul Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Engaging the issues of his own time, George Huntston Williams sounded the same themes he pondered in his historical studies. His statement on McCarthyism, “The Reluctance to Inform” (1957), helped shape the national debate. In 1967, he joined William Sloane Coffin, to perform the “sacrament” of burning Vietnam era draft cards at Arlington Street Church in Boston. And, yet, he was as avid and public in promoting a “pro-life” position on abortion, promoting his views throughout the early 70s in several articles and opinion pieces.

The WilliamsesAnother academic and existential concern throughout George Williams’s life finds its fullest expression in Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought (1962). Typical of his typological approach to church history, here he juxtaposes the theology of nature with the idea of the university. Expressed here as vividly as anywhere in his writings, George passion for the environment and his devotion to the academy lead to a conceptual breakthrough in which each (as with body and mind) is completed by a devout attention to the other. As in the case of his typologies of sacrament and prophecy and of conscience and community, Williams’s historical embrace of Mother Nature and academic nurture encompasses polar opposites, his expansive sympathies illuminating both.

A like array of antinomies informed George Williams’s life. Sensitive to others yet hypersensitive himself; most fully at home in the academy and, conversely, in nature; a loner with an abiding devotion to the idea of community; a Protestant who looked to Rome; a prophet who found peace in the sacraments: George Huntston Williams embodied in his own life much of what fascinated him in history. As difficult as it was rewarding, life taught him the taste of both triumph and despair. More than anything else, this depth of experience enabled him to bring church history and the passions of those who people it alive to others. His concentrated labor during the final decade of his life was his writing of a large manuscript being edited for publication: Divinings, a history of religion at Harvard University.

On a personal note, without George Huntston Williams’s tutelage, likely I should never have received the gift of my Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. Certainly I should not have appreciated its plenitude or known to honor its larger context as part of the church universal. In this regard, I am but one of many. For his Unitarian Universalist students, George Huntston Williams is an honored part of the great tradition we, in our turn, aspire to carry forth and pass along.

George H. Williams: The Last Interview

On December 6, 1999, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, John A. Buehrens, did a private Cambridge Forum interview with George Huntston Williams, the Hollis Professor of Divinity, Emeritus, of Harvard University. The theme for discussion was the contribution of the life and thought of Williams to the history of Unitarian Universalism.

WilliamsB: Professor Williams, our association goes back to my days as an undergraduate at Harvard when, during my senior year, I had the privilege of serving as your research assistant on that great volume of yours, The Radical Reformation. We’ll begin by discussing your life and its contributions to Unitarian Universalism in the late sixties. Say a bit about the famous draft card burning service at the Arlington Street Church, and your role in that occasion.

W: My role was combined with that of my nephew, Alexander Jack, son of our colleague, Homer Jack.

B: You were the preacher for the service, even though people like Dr. Benjamin Spock and Michael Ferber received more media attention for their remarks before or after the service. The theme of your sermon was the privilege of sanctuary in the church, and you were basically calling for the Church to provide support and succor for those who, on grounds of conscience, found participation in the war machine in southeast Asia to be objectionable.

W: Right. I had, as a medievalist, been researching and writing on the medieval right of asylum, which was the recognition in the Middle Ages that anyone who managed to get to a traditionally sacred place, was protected by God and gained immunity from the reprisals of common life, so that even evident criminals were spared condign punishment. In fact, I tried to show how an ancient tradition long honored in the West might well legitimate conscientious resistance to the draft.

B: Talk a little bit about the other issues of the time. I didn’t work with you on your book Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought, but it certainly seemed to me to be one of the great breakthroughs in recognizing that there’s a religious obligation to the environment.

W: Yes. Therein was sublimated my interest in nature and concern for the preservation of primordial wildness and diversity of species. I almost went into biology. That was my career intention. That’s why I started all the languages that I later acquired, notably German, to become a biologist.

B: That’s another thing that you shared with Homer Jack, then, because he, before going into the Unitarian ministry, actually earned a doctorate in the field of biology at Cornell.

W: Homer Jack and I hitchhiked together from Rochester to Cornell; he, knowing that he had every expectation of being accepted in the department of biology, I, knowing that I was known by God—namely my father—as going to be in the Unitarian ministry.

B: Your father served as the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester for many years. He was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto back in the thirties, and a courageous social activist in many public issues of his time. Was that example, do you suppose, behind your participation in things like the Arlington Street service?

Williams recognition
Williams is presented Bible in recognition of church and community service at the First Baptist Church, Back Bay. Photo from The Boston Herald, October 1, 1952, courtesy of the Boston Public Library Print Department.

W: Oh, I’m sure. My life was influenced by my father’s prophetic stand on a number of issues. And that went back in his own family, not only through the male line, but in that of his mother and his grandmother during the strikes in Scranton, Pennsylvania. My father was a spirited feminist, and he delivered the oration when Susan B. Anthony, a Quaker, once a member of his Rochester congregation, was received into the Hall of Fame. I can remember her pew that my father saw to being appropriately marked.

B: And certainly your mother had a profound influence on your becoming a scholar.

W: Yes. She encouraged me over my father’s insistence that I not do some of these naturalist things. My interest in zoology and botany did not, in his mind, move me towards the ministry, which was his predetermined vocation for me. And my mother was the one who encouraged me, as a mother can, in my own special interests.

B: Including languages?

W: Above all, the languages.

B: I remember vividly your advertisement for an undergraduate research assistant who was expected to be competent in Latin, Greek, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. And you were slightly disappointed when I presented no German. It was because of you that I took intensive German in order to be able to do the work on The Radical Reformation. You were in the process then of learning Polish.

W: Yes. That’s the last of my languages. I felt no one could write the history of the Reformation in Europe without having mastered that intricate language.

B: Certainly your vast volume, The History of the Polish Reformation, the Lubieniecki volume, is a testimony to how much devotion you put into that research.

W: Yes. Stanislas Lubieniecki, is a somewhat neglected figure in Reformation history, European history, and even in Unitarian history. Dr. Earl Morse Wilbur, of course, was quite indebted to Lubieniecki, because The History of the Polish Reformation was a major source for him as well.

B: During so many years of your work in educating people for the ministry, you were closely associated with James Luther Adams. Could you tell me a little bit about how you think you influenced one another?

W: That’s such an interesting way to put it. But of course, JLA, Jim—I had diffidence about even addressing him as “JLA” and “Jim.” He was my great mentor, and I felt worshipful toward him.

B: I suspect that your deep understanding of our roots was an influence in the rooted quality that his prophetic interpretation of theology has—that and his having gone through such things as being in Germany in the 1930s.

W: Yes. In a way, I followed his lebensbahn. And he surely from the very beginning saw in me something that he wanted to bring out, so that for me Jim Adams is personally, but also paradigmatically, the teacher who calls forth the energy of a younger person to become creative.

B: Exactly. Certainly a quality that I know you have emulated.

W: I think it’s remarkable, the kind of relationship that those of us who are students of JLA have with his three daughters. There’s a nice relationship, a kind of family dynamic, that I myself haven’t reflected on, but I know it’s quite remarkable that the two older sisters, Eloise and Elaine, send me letters. Eloise is a part of my life in a way that most scholars wouldn’t think of with respect to their primary professor’s major family.

B: You’ve certainly been deeply involved in the entire Harvard Divinity School as a kind of extended family of exploration of the dimensions of faith. I can recall that you served as Acting Dean of the Divinity School in the 1950s.

W: That’s an important aspect of my career, having been singled out by beloved Dean Willard Sperry to do what could be done at a time when it was not certain whether we’d have a Harvard Divinity School much longer, so precarious was its grip on institutional life; with the possible prospect of its being relocated in conjunction with Meadville Theological School in Chicago.

WilliamsesB: I think it’s rather little known today—since the school has gone on to such strength—that you were a critical figure at a time when the university was really making a decision about whether the Harvard Divinity School would continue or not. You’re also the historian of Harvard Divinity School.

W: Yes. I feel privileged. Moreover, I’m sharing something that’s very existential for me right now with you, that being of the generation that defended Western Civilization in World War II. I intend to find the names of the St. Lawrence alumni who gave their lives in World War II, and dedicate my big book, Divinings: Religion at Harvard, 1636 to 2000, to those in my class.

B: I think you’ve always recognized the way in which the deep spiritual, intellectual, theological, reflective, and pious life has to undergird the life of action. It reminds me of the work we did together on the history of American Universalism. What drew you to writing on the Universalists?

W: I wanted to honor my own ancestors. I have Universalists in my family background, and I think that my piece on the Universalists is probably the best thing I’ve written. I enjoyed writing it the most of all I’ve done. There was always a strong civic sense in American Universalism. I think now of the Universalist homes I’ve been in. Pictures of the Presidents of the United States are on the wall and other mementos of republican religion, you might say. And the apostolic saints are conspicuous by their absence in my experience of Universalist homes. It reminds me of one of our colleagues who’s been doing a study for some years of the Washburn family of Maine, who are all Universalists. There were five brothers. Two of them were governors of their respective states, and others served in Congress. A very great drive toward civic virtue.

B: Civic virtue, exactly. That strand in Unitarian Universalism today stays quite strong—a great desire to see the civic body made more healthy and whole.

W: This thrust we’re going to find comes out in my life, in my interest in the threefold office of Christ as priest, prophet, and king. It’s my substitute for the doctrine of the Trinity, you might say, my effort to come to grips with that aspect of our Christian tradition. I might just add here, as we’re talking informally, that my professor at the University of Chicago, Wilhelm Pauck, egged me on in a way without his knowing it, in my effort to grasp the history of the dogma of the Trinity formulation at the Council of Nicea in 325. I loved his courses. He said in class, “As a born Unitarian, Mr. Williams, you can never understand the doctrine of the Trinity.” So that was a factor by way of determined reaction in my life. I resolved to show him I can.

B: Right. The kind of thing that plunged you into the study of patristics and the history of the early church and made you so determined to be a historian of the entire history of the Christian church and its evolution, not just the later and somewhat more sectarian manifestations that result in our tradition. I recall the immense amount of material that you had collected for what you had hoped to do as a multivolume history of the Christian church.

W: I’m glad you remind me of that. I never did it, did I?

B: But I hope you are satisfied with the number of publications you did produce. The list of your publications is so enormous it practically requires an index to itself. If I remember correctly, the first year we worked together, in 1967-68, you produced 32 or 33 pieces for publication. I wonder if in some way the chaos in the world at large inspired you to buckle down even harder and say your piece.

W: And try to impose some order, yes.

B: You certainly worked with an intensity that I found astonishing. You were very, very productive. I was not your only research assistant that year, as I recall. You had several people working on several projects simultaneously. People like Ephraim Isaac from Ethiopia.

W: You remember him, do you?

B: I do indeed. He came to this country on a Swedish Lutheran stipend, son of a rabbi. Ephraim Isaac for a while espoused both Judaism and Christianity in the venerable way of that very ancient church and established himself as a scholar, partly with your support and patronage and goodwill. The number of your doctoral students scattered around is considerable. I think of my onetime pastoral colleague, Forrester Church, the senior minister at All Souls’ in New York, and Timothy George, the Dean of Beesom Divinity School of Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, both of whom did their doctorates under your tutelage and were greatly influenced by you.

W: Yes, Southern Baptist, Timothy George, was the founder of the theological seminary.

B: Exactly. Your ecumenism has been exemplary and really amazing in many respects—from being a mentor to someone who has now founded a Southern Baptist seminary, and is a fine scholar, to receiving a knighthood from the Pope. What were the circumstances that led to that?

W: The Knighthood of St. Gregory the Great from Pope Paul II was pressed forward by ecumenically inspired Greater Boston Catholics who knew and appreciated what I was doing. I, at that time, had read everything that John Paul had written, including his plays.

Williams and Pusey
Williams, right, with Harvard President Nathan Pusey in 1953, when Williams was HDS’s Acting Dean.

B: You were one of the first people to spot him as somebody who was likely to become pope and write about that publicly, as I recall.

W: That’s correct.

B: And you saw him in action at the second Vatican Council in Rome?

W: Yes. St. Peter’s Vatican as Observer, at all four sessions;

B: I see. All of this ecumenism reminds me of Frederick Henry Hedge.

W: Oh, isn’t that good, to come to Hedge again. I was pleased to come upon him, a Unitarian minister, who had, in his youth, been placed by his professorial father in a German gymnasium for his high school years where he became immersed in German culture. Later as a minister he became the center of the so-called Hedge Club of Greater Boston ministers fascinated by his mediation of German culture. One of my earliest publications was on him.

B: I think so. Somebody that you and I can both relate to one who in the 19th century had such a hope for the Unitarian church to be the broad, liberal church that would influence all of American society, and who wanted it to be both deeply historically grounded, philosophically acute, civically engaged, and ecumenically minded. I seem to recall you wrote an important essay on Hedge.

W: Yes, I did. Rethinking the Unitarian Relationship with Protestantism: An Examination of the Thought of Henry Hedge, published by Beacon Press in 1949.

B: Primarily about him as an ecumenist.

W: Yes. I felt I was legitimized here at Harvard in my effort to be a church historian for all denominations: Protestant, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and the rest that came in, as well as the various kinds of Protestants, by reason of the pioneer work of Hedge. He was the son of the professor of philosophy here, and the philosophy professor wanted to give him the training that would qualify. So Frederick Henry Hedge had the equivalent of a gymnasium education in Germany. Hedge was the first in America to use the term “ecumenical” in it’s modern interfaith connotation.

B: Before we close, tell us more about your forthcoming work, Divinings: Religion at Harvard, 1636-2000, and its relation to our Unitarian Universalist religious heritage.

W: My hope is that it will bring in developments of scholarship that have significance for Unitarianism—and for Christianity in general as well as for Unitarian Universalism and for our Divinity School in particular.

B: Harvard College was founded in order to save posterity from an ignorant ministry, and Harvard continues to work on both the public and the scholarly ministry. And yet the Divinity School has had its profound ups and downs over the course of its history, or the training of ministers at Harvard has had its ups and downs.

W: Yes, and I’ve been here through a time when there was a question whether the University would continue to have a Divinity School. That possibility was very close to me. I know about it. Rather than being a Divinity School at Harvard, it could have gone to the Chicago Theological Seminary or some other place. Lawyers would have had to take care of some of these endowments and special funds. That was the Divinity School to which I came in 1947, called by Willard Sperry. He’s my patron saint. I have two patron saints: James Luther Adams and Dean Sperry.

B: Was it simply a question of enrollments in the Divinity School having dropped rather severely in the postwar period?

W: No, I think more gravely there was a loss of a sense of a valid subject matter for a university. I think that President Conant, who did appoint me, had the feeling that even high theology was something like advanced alchemy. As you know, he was a chemist. Among his colleagues in the presidential realm, he had what was regarded as a sickly divinity school, the program of which he could scarcely himself defend.

B: The Unitarian ministry during the nineteenth century was almost entirely educated at Harvard, from William Ellery Channing down to Francis Greenwood Peabody.

W: This was a Unitarian seminary.

B: Yes, and at some point in the nineteenth century an ecumenical move was made. It continued to be a place where Unitarian ministers were trained after the turn of the century, but at some point around the turn of the century, not all of the professors were by any means Unitarian.

W: By not being Unitarian, at that juncture they regarded themselves as being in fact ipso facto Unitarian, because they were not denominational, i.e., sectarian.

B: Yes, so it was, in some sense, keeping faith with the kind of spirit that Channing himself had represented: “Flee the spirit of sectarianism as the spirit of Hell.”

W: Good to have that quotation. You’ve got it right on target.

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

Great American Events and Universalists- George Huntston Williams

“The Stabilizer and the Shatterer:” The Charge to the Minister at the Ordination of George Huntston Williams

The Biography of David Rhys Williams

Other Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Williams, George H., ed. The Harvard Divinity School (1811-1953). Boston: Beacon Press, 1954.