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Biography of John Haynes Holmes,
by Donald Szantho Harrington, Minister Emeritus,
The Community Church of New York
John Haynes Holmes—the prophetic founder and minister of The Community Church of New York, located at the very heart of the inner city—and I worked together as colleagues during the last twenty years of his life. Our apartments were across the hall from each other in the same building next to the Church, so I saw him every day. Every Monday morning we sat together in his study, evaluating the week past and planning the weeks to come. Every Saturday evening we met with our wives to review our preparations for Sunday morning. There were no questions we could not or did not discuss. He was y mentor and model for ministry; I was his choice for colleague and successor to carry forward the work he had begun. For seventeen years we sat together in the pulpit of the Community Church; for the first five he preached three times a month, I once; for the next twelve years I preached three Sundays, and he one. We shared all other churchly duties, I picking them up gradually as he had to relinquish them because of the ravages of Parkinson’s physical assault upon his body.
Holmes served The Community Church as Jr. Colleague, Senior Minister and Minister Emeritus for a total of fifty-seven years. This year, 2001, I too will have served it in those same capacities for fifty-seven years!
I have said many times that I believe John Haynes Holmes was the greatest all-around minister of religion of the 20th Century: pacifist, orator, churchman, social service organizer, racial and social justice pioneer, pastor, adult educator, political participant and leader, poet and philosopher, all at once!
Holmes may have been best known for his stalwart pacifism and early recognition of the greatness of Mahatma Gandhi. It was in 1921, when Gandhi was almost unknown, that Holmes preached a sermon entitled The Greatest Man Alive in the World Today—not Wilson, Lloyd George, Lenin, Stalin, not Trotzky; not Clemenceau, Churchill or Tolstoy, but Mohandas K. Gandhi of India, the apostle of non-violence!
Holmes had announced his pacifism before America entered World War I. On April 3, 1917 he preached on A Statement to my People on the Eve of War, declaring:
“When hostilities begin, it is universally assumed that there is but a single service which a loyal citizen can render to the state: that of bearing arms and killing the enemy. Will you understand me if I say, humbly and regretfully, that this I cannot, and will not, do. When, therefore, there comes a call for volunteers, I shall have to refuse to heed. When there is an enrollment of citizens for military purposes, I shall have to refuse to register. When, or if, the system of conscription is adopted, I shall have to decline to serve. If this means a fine, I will pay my fine. If this means imprisonment, I will serve my term. If this means persecution, I will carry my cross. No order of president or governor, no law of nation or state, no loss of reputation, freedom or life, will persuade me or force me to this business of killing. On this issue, for me at least, there is no compromise. Mistaken, foolish, fanatical, I may be; I will not deny the charge. But false to my own soul I will not be. Therefore here I stand. God help me! I cannot do other!
“Therefore would I make it plain that, so long as I am your minister, this Church will answer no military summons. Other pulpits may preach recruiting sermons; mine will not. Other parish houses may be turned into drill halls and rifle ranges; ours will not. Other clergymen may pray to God for victory for our arms; I will not. In this church, if nowhere else in all America, the Germans will still be included in the family of God’s children. No word of hatred shall be spoken against them and no evil fate shall be desired upon them. War may beat upon our portals, like storm waves on the granite crags; rumors of war may thrill the atmosphere of this sanctuary as lightning the still air of a summer night. But so long as I am priest, this altar shall be consecrated to human brotherhood, and before it shall be offered worship only to that one God and Father of us all, ‘Who hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell together on the face of the earth.'”
Holmes offered the church people his resignation, which they promptly refused. But he did stand almost alone. Almost, but not quite. He later told how Gandhi came into his life: “At the moment I needed him most, I discovered that there was such a man. He was living in the faith that I had sought. He was making it work and proving it right. He was everything that I believed but hardly dared to hope. In my extremity in 1917, I turned to Gandhi, and he took me into his arms and never let me go. Away across the globe he cared for me and taught me and reassured me.
“Had the Mahatma not come into my life, I must sooner or later have been lost. As it was, he saved me; he gave me a peace of mind and serenity of soul which will be with me to the last. Even when he died, I gave way only for a period of time, and then the tears flowed with a passion of grief which there was no controlling. But the Mahatma did not fail me. I called to him, and I am persuaded that he answered. My real life as a teacher began with Gandhi, and it ended with his end. I should have retired when he died, for all through these latter months I have been but an echo of my true self. If I have been content to stay on till now, it is because I could the longer bear witness to Gandhi.”
Years later another poet, Edith Lovejoy Pierce, would write,
John Haynes Holmes, Pacifist
The others move. The other stars wheel by.
Inching across the night, they saunter forth.
But this one mental fire stays sternly north,
Unhindered by the drift across the sky.
A compass will be set against this light
In later years, when ships are planned to scar
Pale glimmering waters, formerly too far,
And undiscovered countries loom in sight.
There must be movement as the planets press
Their plea for music, rhythmical design,
But Man’s unsteady heart will choose as shrine
A polar point of astral changelessness.
Holmes had an extended visit with Gandhi in India shortly before Gandhi’s assassination. He told me that he had found Gandhi deeply discouraged by the communal violence and partitioning of India and Pakistan. Gandhi said, “Holmes, I have failed, totally failed. They will worship me, but they will not follow me!” I tried to reassure him, but he would not be comforted.
In an age of oratory, Holmes was among the greatest. His peers were preachers like Harry Emerson Fosdick at Riverside Church, Norman Vincent Peale at Marble Collegiate, Father George Ford at Corpus Christi Columbia, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise of The Free Synagogue at Carnegie Hall, the Unitarians John Howland Lathrop in Brooklyn and Minot Simons at All Souls Church in New York, Ralph Sockman at Christ Church Methodist, and Preston Bradley at The Peoples Church of Chicago. Holmes spoke with a passion which carried everything before it. His sermons, usually a full sixty minutes, were clear and logical, step by step, from start to finish, powerfully illustrated with references from history and literature. He left his hearers with the feeling that all that could be said on any particular subject had been said. Holmes experienced his life and times in personal, hyperbolic terms, and he left no arguments unanswered, no iniquity unassailed, no shame unmasked, no goodness unpraised.
Holmes believed every citizen should not only vote, but should be active in politics. He considered himself to be a democratic socialist. In the three-way race of 1912 between William Howard Taft, who was a Unitarian, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt, he supported Roosevelt. This led to an embarrassing episode. On the Sunday before election that November, Holmes had prepared a sermon supporting Roosevelt. But he received a telephone call early that Sunday morning saying that President William Howard Taft, running for a second term, was in the city, and would be attending church. He asked that several front pews be reserved for him and his retinue!!! Holmes preached his sermon, supporting Roosevelt, with President Taft sitting in the front pew! Rabbi Wise said later that Taft had remarked to him angrily, “The blatherskite! He did everything but take up the offering for Teddy!” Wilson won. Taft went on to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Moderator of the American Unitarian Association.
Five years later Taft took his revenge. Presiding at a General Conference of the Unitarian Association in 1917 as the United States was preparing to enter World War I, Taft was presented with a resolution, prepared by Holmes and his colleagues, affirming both a conscientious support and a conscientious objection to the war and the right of Unitarians to support or to refuse it. Moderator, former President and Chief Justice Taft declared the resolution, though properly presented, to be unpatriotic and treasonable, and therefore “out of order,” and called on the Conference to sustain his ruling; which, of course, it did. Holmes was outraged, left the Conference, and withdrew his fellowship as a Unitarian minister. The Church—then called Church of the Messiah—remained Unitarian, but for the next 25 years was largely non-participative in denominational affairs.
During my ministry, the Church gradually became fully active in the Unitarian Association, and in his retirement, at the request of the Rev. Dr. Dana McLean Greeley, Holmes renewed his Unitarian ministerial fellowship.
Holmes took an important part in the founding in 1920 of the Community Church Movement, and the congregation changed the church’s name. But the Community Churches were mostly united Christian congregations in overchurched small towns, many quite traditional, rather than as interfaith and open as Holmes had hoped, and the New York congregation found itself more at home among the Unitarians.
Politics and Social Justice
Working with Paul Blanshard and Norman Thomas, Holmes and Rabbi Wise founded and co-chaired the New York City Affairs Committee which investigated the questionable Mayoralty of Jimmie Walker and ultimately helped replace him with reformist Fiorello La Guardia. Both La Guardia and Rabbi Wise spoke at my installation service in 1944.
Holmes was among the founders of several of the most important organizations for social justice: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, with W.E.B. Du Bois; The American Civil Liberties Union, with Roger Baldwin; The League for Industrial Democracy, with Harry Laidler; The Planned Parenthood Movement, with Margaret Sanger. A few of the others are The Fellowship of Reconciliation, The War Resisters League, and The India League of America. Holmes was a regular speaker on Town Hall Tonight, radio’s great first public forum.
The Congregation sponsored several counseling Services in the Church itself: the first church-sponsored Marriage Counseling Center with Drs. Abraham and Hannah Stone, associates of Margaret Sanger; an individual Psychological Counseling Center with Dr. Alfred Adler; a Legal Counsel Service with retired Judge Ralph C. Roper; and a Social Service Advisor with Irene Roggeveen, open to one and all needing help.
Holmes’s Community Forum drew hundreds of New Yorkers every Sunday evening to hear outstanding personalities in the news. A Multiple Round Table Discussion Group gave everyone a voice on Sunday afternoons.
In constant demand as a University Chapel preacher in all parts of the country, Holmes carried his message of international and interracial humanhood far and wide, reaching—with his message, his eloquence and the example of his life—hundreds of thousands of young people, students and ministers.
Ministry of the Mails
Not least was his Ministry of the Mails. He answered every letter immediately, sometimes dictating fifty or sixty letters a day. He was able to get his whole passionate soul into a few sentences. He early advised me to use the mails. “Phone calls are over and quickly gone,” he said, “but a beautiful and true letter can be returned to again and again.”
One Monday morning when I reached my office at the Church, I found a letter from Holmes already awaiting me. “My dear Don,” it read, “your sermon yesterday was beyond all praise. It was the finest sermon I have ever heard. The congregation was awed and shaken, and left the church convinced it would never hear its like again. Faithfully, J.H.H.” You don’t throw away a letter like that. People kept his letters. I still get them from people, now old, who can’t bear to throw them away!
Sometimes curious colleagues have asked me what it was like to minister in the shadow of so great a predecessor. I have replied, “But I was never aware of any shadow.” Only with Holmes was the brightness of the shining sun, a human dawning, with kindness, encouragement and thus an eternal hope. Truly his was a model ministry for Unitarians and many others. My life was blessed to be close to his and to be called to carry forward his exemplary good works.
One hundred years ago the black poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Countee Cullen, whose widow, Ida Cullen, was for many years a leader of the Community Church, wrote a special poem to John Haynes Holmes, testifying to his enduring influence:
Once in a thousand years a call may ring
Divested so of every cumbering lie,
A man espousing it may fight and sing,
And count it but a little thing to die.
Once in a thousand years a star may come,
Six pointed, tipped with such an astral flow,
Its singing sisters must bow hushed in dumb,
Half mutinous, yet half-adoring show.
Once in as many years a man may rise
So cosmopolitan of thought or speech,
Humanity reflected in his eyes,
His heart a haven every race can reach,
That doubters shall receive a mortal thrust,
And own, “This man proves flesh exalts its dust.”
Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection
Official Report of the Proceedings of the General Conference, including a report by John Haynes Holmes
The Community Church, by John Haynes Holmes
The Enduring Significance of Emerson’s Divinity School Address, by John Haynes Holmes
Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library
Holmes, John Haynes. The Double Root. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1950.
Holmes, John Haynes. The Fortune Teller: Poems. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1961.
Holmes, John Haynes. My Gandhi. New York: Harper, 1953.
Holmes, John Haynes. I Speak for Myself: The Autobiography of John Haynes Holmes. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1959.