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Mendelsohn, Jack (1918-2012)

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Below are two autobiographical excerpts by Jack Mendelsohn, the first from his book Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age, and the second from his book Why I am a Unitarian.

Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age

Jack MendelsohnThe liberal spirit’s supreme gift to me was an introduction to the Unitarian Universalist religious community, where I found encouragement to unfold: the special joy of breaking out of the cocoon or of discovering a greater freedom in the exercise of my intelligence and in the growth of my experience of love, beauty, and justice.

Childhood is a quilt of many patches: sounds, smells, tears, playgrounds, back fences, anticipations. Mine was such a childhood, a compound of chance and purpose, marvel and misery. I remember with special warmth my maternal grandfather, Charles M. Torrey, of the Foxboro, Massachusetts, Torreys. He had been one of the early touring professional baseball players. It was he who guided my first nervous attempts at playing sandlot baseball. He gave me his very own cornet, battered and old, on which I learned the beginnings of the musical skills that eventually helped finance my college education.

I remember the summer, my twelfth, when I fastened a chinning bar on the back porch in the conviction that it would help to stretch my body to the more than six feet of height I so desperately desired. By the age of seventeen, the chinning bar long forgotten, I made it to six feet and three inches and stopped growing.

I remember the boyhood hours I spent poring over Uncle Lawrence Farwell’s picture book of World War I. He had been an artilleryman in France, a feat I greatly admired. I nursed a morbid fear that there might never be another war in which I could perform valorous deeds. Such are the unpredictabilities of childhood! By the time we found ourselves in World War II, I was a confirmed pacifist, an ardent convert to nonviolence.

As I look back over the tender years, there is little that prophesied my eventual turn toward a Unitarian Universalist ministry, except that I was an avid reader. My room, to the dismay of my parents and, later, my grandparents, was forever strewn with books. At Christmas and birthdays there were only two kinds of gifts I really wanted: athletic equipment and books. As for religion, it was anything but a burden. None of my relatives pried into my religious thoughts, and I did very little prying of my own. My father, Jack Mendelsohn, Sr., born Jewish, was an uncomplicated person religiously and, like his father before him, nonobserving. Theology was about as pressing for him as witchcraft.

Mendelsohn and family

Jack Mendelsohn in 1928 with his mother and sister.

I worshipped my mother, Anna Melissa Torrey Mendelsohn, and was never given the opportunity to grow beyond a boy’s craving for approval and affection. She was statuesque, redheaded, and very beautiful. Or so I remember. She was youthful. Even as a child, when anyone over twenty seemed ancient, I was deeply conscious of her youth. She played the piano professionally. That was how my father, then a music publisher, met her. She cooked wonderful soups and often held me in her lap. I needed her terribly and was painfully aware of it. One day I ran home from school. I was six and a first grader in the old Morse School in Cambridge. The teacher left the room, and the children exploded into a chaos of screaming, jumping, and throwing erasers. Suddenly she was back, and I stood transfixed with eraser in hand. Enraged, she pulled me from the room and ordered me to stand alone in the hall until she was ready to deal with me. I was the only culprit she apprehended and humbled. Part of what I felt was fear, but a great part was outrage. In the face of massive injustice, I bolted from the corridor and ran home, where I knew there would be justice even though it would include punishment for my transgression. I was not disappointed. My mother deprived me of several privileges for a few days, but she also took me back to school, hand in hand, where she charmed and soothed the distraught teacher and returned me honorably to my peers.

This is the mother I remember. It was difficult for me to think of God as being other than a woman, like my mother.

Then life taught me something else.

I was eight and shared a room with my sister, Virginia, who was three years younger than I. One night I awoke in the darkness and peered into the hall where I caught a harrowing glimpse of my father helping my mother down the stairs. Her face was twisted with pain. It was the last time I saw her.

Years later I learned it was a miscarriage that took her to the hospital that night. My grandmother, Mary Spinney Torrey, came the next morning and an air of mystery hung on the house. The following night I awoke again and heard my grandmother and father whispering together. Soon they left, unaware that I was awake. But I knew what was happening. While my sister slept, I paced in the darkness of our parents’ room, sobbing aloud, “She can’t die. Oh, God, don’t let her die!”

She did die, and at dawn my father and grandmother returned to tell us what I already knew. The cause of death, though it had no meaning for me at the time, was peritonitis, an abdominal inflammation. All that mattered to me was the loss of the most important person in the world. I was hurt and angry, desolate and resentful. For the first time in my life I had asked God for something. I had begged God for something! And God had turned and slapped me in the face, as I had seen some parents strike my playmates.

Since that moment religious questions have never been far from my thoughts. It may be a gift or a neurosis, but I am gripped with the habit of religious searching. It would be wrong, however, to give the impression of youthful zealotry or intense concentration.

Soon after my mother’s death, my sister became a member of Aunt Mabel Farwell’s household, and I went to live with my Torrey grandparents in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We were neighbors, just a few streets apart. My father, who had shifted from publishing music to selling furniture, took up residence in a New York City hotel. Though we saw him regularly, we were never again a united family.

My grandparents were quiet, steady, sober New Englanders. My grandfather had been a barnstorming baseball player in that pastime’s pioneer years. Later, he had become a fireman and policeman in his native Foxboro, where my mother was laid to rest among her Torrey forebears. When I joined their household, my grandfather had long been a minor functionary with the Elliott Addressing Machine Company in Cambridge. My grandmother, who in her younger days was a solo whistler on the church and lodge circuit in Washington County, Maine, cooked, mended, busied herself about the house, and looked after me with untiring solicitude. The two of them played dominoes almost every night of the years I lived with them. They encouraged me to study, to play, and to bring my friends home. Athletic skills became a passion for me, equaled only by my determination to be a top student. I gravitated to friends who felt the same.

My grandparents and the Farwells were unenthusiastically associated with a neighborhood church, Pilgrim Congregational, a center of conservative, evangelical Christianity. Because God was a paradox to me, I became the most ardent and faithful churchgoer of the family. The minister, the Reverend Stanley Addison, kind and careworn, whose preaching voice always sounded tearful, had officiated at my mother’s funeral and was keenly concerned about the welfare of my soul. The Sunday school superintendent, Dr. Arthur Miles, an austere, elderly dentist, believed in the fire of hell and was determined to guide me in another direction. From the beginning, I was both a protege and a problem child. Our relationship developed steadily but never smoothly.

In the sense that I was determined to ask Why and How do you know, I suppose my religious future was set the night my mother died, but it would be years before I recognized it. If religion was to make sense to me, it had to provide room for my inquisitiveness and rebellion. Somehow it had to encompass the anguish and bewilderment I felt at God’s failure to save my mother. It had to be wide enough to let me ask whether God was a demon, or whether God existed at all.

I expected to find answers in church, where the talk was interminably of God, Jesus, prayer, and salvation. I listened and grew confused and impudent. I tried to pray. I listened hard for God’s voice. I wanted to feel Jesus’s arms about me. I prayed and had the increasingly embarrassed feeling that no one was listening. If God possessed a voice, it was strangely silent in my presence. The more I thought about the Jesus who was being revealed to me in my religious education, the more unappealing and unreal he became.

Mendelsohn in high school

Mendelsohn at Somerville High School, 1935.

What my religious tutors failed to realize was that a spell of dissent was upon me like a divine discontent. It was not about meek acceptance and a sense of sin that I wished to hear. I wanted to be challenged and shaken. I wanted my spirit to be given something to strive for. I wanted to know why the world could be at once wondrous and ugly. I wanted to know why I had both laughter and pain. If God had created me, I wanted to know who had created God. Instead, I was backed into a corner and was implored to surrender my soul to the Lord and Savior.

I stayed with the neighborhood church until I went to college and lived much of my social life under its care. I knew from the time I was twelve that I could never be a Christian as the word was interpreted there, but as a teen-ager I sang in the adult choir, as a high school senior I taught a Sunday school class of ten-year-old boys, and I rarely missed a Sunday evening Christian Endeavor meeting for youth. These Pilgrim Congregational people were my friends, my familiars, my community, and though they trembled for my soul on grounds I considered nonsensical, I respected their sincerity and was grateful for their affection.

Such religion as I possess was born of conflict and has been, in its development, a struggle against resentment of a wound inflicted upon me when I was unable to defend myself and for a positive, constructive, unfettered spiritual freedom. In college there were added dimensions of an awakened social conscience and a desire to commit my life to the service of others. The open-mindedness of classicism, the probing of philosophy, the measuring of science, and the eclecticism of anthropology impressed upon me the endless diversity of human spiritual searchings. A firm decision against religious sectarianism was inevitable. I have sought a spiritual life that offers not surrender and salvation but, in Albert Camus’s words, “love of life in spite of life.” I have striven to accept flaws and to find things to live for that transcend and conquer them.

It is generally assumed that churches go looking for people. I went looking for a church—the right church for me. A consciousness of the possibilities in the Unitarian movement grew on me slowly. The merging of Unitarianism and Universalism was then only a dream. My Quaker acquaintances, who were aware of my unresolved dilemma, made gentle suggestions. As with so many I have met since, the unique qualities of Unitarian and Universalist churches were unknown to me. My first tentative visits were interesting but uninspiring. The intellectual caliber of the preaching was cuts above what I had known, but I happened to go to where the congregations were sparse, the ambience somewhat stiff, and the forms of worship too traditionally Protestant for my taste. But I took to reading whatever I could lay my hands on about the legacy of the liberal spirit in religion, which kept my curiosity alive. Then one Sunday in 1941 I found myself listening to John Haynes Holmes at New York’s Community Church, an institution with a long Unitarian heritage. The congregation was then meeting in Town Hall, hardly an exalted setting; but Holmes created a temple of the human spirit just with his presence and preaching. The congregation was vibrant and an eloquent symbol of human diversity. The service was religious, deeply religious; yet there were no divisive, mind-splitting doctrinal elements.

Mendelsohn at HDS

Mendelsohn at Harvard Divinity School, 1943.

During that hour I knew that if the Unitarian ministry was exciting enough to produce the fervent witness of a John Haynes Holmes, it might just possibly do the same for me. A door was open, and I wasted no time going through it. By the following summer I was enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School, with the warm encouragement and backing of the American Unitarian Association and its then-president Frederick May Eliot.

I had reservations then, just as I have now. I don’t think that a religious liberal should ever be without them. As my first year of theological education began, I was asked by Stephen Fritchman, editor of the Christian Register, the official Unitarian magazine, to write an article on why I was entering the Unitarian ministry. In it I expressed my resentment at the bias that so obviously discouraged women from joining our ministry. My hope that this would end has, in recent years, been exultantly realized. Also, then, as now, I was distressed by the overwhelming number of white and middle-class people in our movement. Our denominational record of the number of blacks in the pulpit or the pew continues to be a sorry one indeed. My commitment to changing that record is strong, in faithfulness to the opportunities to unfold, which the Unitarian Universalist ministry has brought me. I am continually amazed and inspired by the growth of what Emerson called “faith, admiration and sympathy,” which I find afforded by my calling, and especially by the congregations it has been my privilege to serve. Each has given memorable lessons of freedom in community.

— From Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age, by Jack Mendelsohn (Boston: Skinner House Books, 1984).

Unitarians: A Creative Minority

Unitarians are a mere handful.

In a mere handful, however, is the power to move mountains, conquer dread diseases, and change the climate of a community. A few years ago when a Unitarian minister was ordained in a southern city, a Jewish rabbi remarked to a friend: “I prefer to serve synagogues located in cities where there is a Unitarian Church because this institution has a cleansing effect upon a community.” He might well have been thinking of the fact that from so small an acorn has grown such an amazing oak. Unitarian occupants of the White House have included John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Millard Fillmore and William Howard Taft. Calhoun, Webster, Sumner and Marshall were Unitarian laymen. Seventeen of the seventy-seven Olympians in the Hall of Fame were Unitarians.

Impressive indeed is the Unitarian roll of past literary figures: the Longfellows, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Cullen Bryant, Edward Everett Hale, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bret Harte, Louisa May Alcott. Nor should we forget great historians such as George Bancroft, John Lothrop Morley, Francis Parkman, and William Prescott.

Mendelsohn at Bedford

Jack Mendelsohn, 1989

Because of the Unitarian emphasis on service, our movement has produced an amazing number of pioneers in social, humanitarian, and educational fields. Championing the cause of women’s rights were Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Margaret Fuller.

In education some of the familiar Unitarian names are those of Horace Mann, initiator of universal, nonsectarian, public education; Elizabeth Peabody, first American to establish a kindergarten; Cyrus Pierce, pioneer crusader for teacher training schools; and Peter Cooper, founder of the famed Cooper Union in New York city.

We would also include among the most honored of Unitarian humanitarians: Dorothea Dix, whose boundless determination launched the reform movements in prisons, charity institutions and mental hospitals; Dr. Samuel G. Howe, who founded the first school for the blind; and Henry Bergh, creator of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Other Unitarians who have made outstanding application of their religious ideals to public welfare include George William Curtis, pioneer advocate of civil service, and Henry Bellows, originator of the United States Sanitary Commission, which later became the Red Cross.

Typical of Unitarians who laid the foundations of modern science were Isaac Newton, Joseph Priestley, Charles Darwin, Louis Agassiz, and Charles P. Steinmetz.

These representative leaders of the past are but a few of the many who justify the pride Unitarians understandably feel in the influence our religious movement has exerted. It has been all out of proportion to our numbers in molding public opinion, initiating social reform, and making history.

Dr. Ellsworth Huntington of Yale, who made a study of the names in Who’s Who in America, wrote: “The productivity of the Unitarians in supplying leaders of the first rank has been 150 times as great as that of the remainder of the population.”

I would be less than human if I did not take pride in this astonishing assessment of Unitarian leadership.

— From Why I am a Unitarian by Jack Mendelsohn (Thomas Nelson & Sons, New York, 1960).

Distinguished Service Award Presentation of
the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1997

Walking always in two worlds—one of things as they are, the other of things as they ought to be—and challenging us to love them both, Jack Mendelsohn has exemplified, for more than half a century, what it means to live with commitment—the life of liberal religion. In pulpit, in print, and in person he has called us to greater racial justice and gender equity. His advice and consolation have been sought by the leaders of nations and denominations. His books and his pamphlets have enriched our tradition and helped to create its future. His personal ministry has guided countless seekers on life’s spiritual journey, while his interfaith community organizing has shown us the living power of faith in action.

Ordained a Unitarian minister in 1945, Jack Mendelsohn’s service has spanned the merger of our two historic faiths, their testing in the fire of the black empowerment movement, and their transformation by feminist principles. His has been primarily an urban ministry—at the Beverly church in Chicago and in Rockford, Illinois; in Indianapolis, Indiana; at Boston’s historic Arlington Street Church; and at Chicago’s First Unitarian Church. Fostering new approaches to the life of inner-city churches, Jack has sought to reach and involve the diverse communities of the city: people of color, students, the urban poor, single adults, the elderly, artists, and social activists. As Chair of the Alliance to End Repression in Chicago, he played a major role in ending the worst abuses of unchallenged political power in that city. In his last settled ministry, at First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts, he encouraged an urban-suburban connection that remains strong to this day.

The gift of Jack Mendelsohn’s writing has helped us understand who we are as Unitarian Universalists. Thousands of us first became acquainted with this tradition through his introductory books and pamphlets. His classic biography of William Ellery Channing: Reluctant Radical has deepened our sense of heritage. The gift of his counsel has made him one of America’s best known and respected pastors of liberal faith.

As friend and advisor to public figures including Adlai Stevenson, Robert Kennedy and Jesse Jackson, he has traveled widely in pursuit of justice and of reconciliation. The gift of his leadership has inspired us and challenged us as a movement. As President of the Boston Urban League, as CEO of the Civil Rights Project, Inc., he has made a prophetic witness on behalf of what he has helped to make a collective goal among us: to dismantle racism in our time. The gift of his service has been shared on behalf of the UUA Women and Religion Committee, Beacon Press, Collegium, the UU Minister’s Association, the UUSC, and in a campaign, in 1977, for the presidency of the UUA itself.

He has embodied what he has said the liberal ministry requires: “the will and courage to look at all aspects of life—mystical, political, personal, institutional, workaday, global—the feeling eyes of religious insight and conviction.” For those feeling eyes, for his great will and courage, for his grace-filled and persistently prophetic presence among us, this grateful Unitarian Universalist Association honors and thanks Jack Mendelsohn for his truly distinguished service to our cause.