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Lathrop, John Howland (1880-1967)

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This celebration of the lives of John and Lita Lathrop written by Olive Hoogenboom is abridged from her history, The Unitarian Church of Brooklyn: One Hundred Fifty Years, published by the First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn in 1987.

A Post-World War II Ministry

John LathropFrom 1946 to 1949, annual visits to Czechoslovakia by Lathrop, accompanied by his wife, strengthened the bonds between the First Church and that war-devastated country. While World War II raged, Czechoslovakia was used by the Germans as a dumping ground for orphans from nearby countries. By the war’s end, it had nearly a million destitute children, many of them mere babies. In some areas nearly all of the children suffered from tuberculosis. The Unitarian Service Committee grew out of the denomination’s relief efforts in Czechoslovakia and became an official agency of the World Health Organization.

From June to December 1946, John and Lita Lathrop directed a five-pronged program launched by the Service Committee to help these children and assist Czechoslovakia. The Lathrops were ideally suited to their mission. They were linked with Thomas Masaryk, revered as the father of Czechoslovakia, through his wife’s connection with the Brooklyn church. Also, because of the Service Committee’s work, the word Unitarian brought instant recognition. The denomination was known not only in Czechoslovakia but throughout Europe and “identified with all that is most truly human—sympathy, understanding, sharing, eagerness to serve.”

The most important part of the Unitarian Service Committee’s efforts for Czechoslovakia was a medical mission chaired by Dr. Paul Dudley White of Harvard Medical School and directed by Dr. Erwin Kohn, who later worked in the World Health Organization. In this medical mission were fourteen doctors who worked for two months with Czech doctors, to update them on medical progress in the United States during the six years that Czechoslovakia was under German occupation.

Traveling throughout the country with a medical school on wheels, these American doctors performed demonstration operations, held conferences and lectures, and bolstered medical care by inspecting and improving hospitals. One of their medical conferences, held in the Tatra Mountains, was attended by 250 Czech doctors. “Nothing done by any agency anywhere could have achieved a more signal success,” Lathrop declared of this medical mission.

First Church

The First Church in the 1930s.

Another part of the Service Committee’s program was turning a villa in Olesovice, twenty-five kilometers from Prague, into a model orphanage for sixty children. The resulting fifty-thousand-dollar renovation was Lita Lathrop’s special project. The orphanage, named the Hannah Bene sova Unitarian Children’s Home, for the wife of the Czech president, was not fully completed until early 1947, after the Lathrops had departed, but it was used by children and shaped by the Lathrops during their stay.

Lita Lathrop used money sent by the Brooklyn church’s Pierrepont Tuesday Club to make the orphanage “one of the first houses in that part of the world” to have screens. She arranged for them after walking into a room where two-year olds were sleeping, and finding “their faces covered with flies.” Besides money, Brooklyn women, who had started sewing for Czechoslovakia when they heard of Lita Lathrop’s assignment, sent with her scores of little dresses (made from men’s shirts) and great quantities of diapers, for they had heard from the Service Committee that “all through Europe mothers are having to use newspapers” as diapers.

Thinking ahead for winter, Lita Lathrop sent an appeal from Czechoslovakia to Brooklyn’s Samaritan Alliance knitters to make ten size-three sweaters “for these babies” and urged church members to raise funds for the Unitarian Service Committee, since the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and Red Cross units would be leaving Czechoslovakia before 1946 was over, and “there will still be much suffering here, especially among children.”

Even when their later visits to Czechoslovakia were short, the Lathrops always went to Olesovice. After the Communist takeover in 1948, they were pleased that the name had not been changed and that it had become the leading home among Czech orphanages. All social workers underwent a special six-month training at Olesovice before working in other orphanages.

The third part of the Lathrops’ work was to administer a program to augment the boiled-potato diet of twenty thousand Czech university students with meats and fats, collected primarily by Harvard students. The fourth program was to distribute Service Committee food and clothing in war-ravaged Silesia and Moravia, where 70 percent of the children suffered from tuberculosis. The last of the Lathrops’ special programs, funded by the Canadian branch of the Service Committee, contributed fifteen dollars monthly for each child in approximately twenty-five orphanages throughout the country. For the help they had given Czechoslovakia by administering these Unitarian Service Committee programs, John and Lita Lathrop were each presented the Order of the White Lion by Czech President Eduard Benes at a special luncheon attended by Alice Masaryk, the daughter of Thomas and Charlotte Masaryk.

While administering relief, Lathrop also participated in the religious life of Czechoslovakia. In a thronged Prague church, where both the country’s president and vice-president spoke and every inch of standing space was occupied, Lathrop helped inaugurate the Patriarch of the Czechoslovak church and the Bishop of Prague. “To hear such an assembly sing, as only Czechs can sing, is a glorious experience,” he reported. The Czechoslovak church, which had a close affinity with the Unitarian church, was founded when nearly a million people broke away from the Catholic church after World War I. Lathrop also took part in Unitarian gatherings, and after one evening service answered questions from seven to half-past nine. “These are certainly hardy people!” he marveled, having responded to queries ranging from “Has the Unitarian church any right to call itself Christian?” to “How do you explain the American treatment of the Negro?”

When the Lathrops returned to Brooklyn in time for their church’s 1946 Christmas season, their Service Committee work in Czechoslovakia was continued by one of their own parishioners Kathryn Fenn, who had been connected with the World Health Organization. William H. Cary, a grandnephew and namesake of a First Church founder, headed the Service committee’s Paris office. Another descendant of an early church family, John W. Frothingham, his Belgian wife, Helen Losanitch, and their daughter Anna used their large estate in the Basque town of Guethary to house Spanish Civil War orphans. Along with other Unitarian Service Committee workers, they helped to unite lost children with their scattered families. Other First Church parishioners who would work with the Service Committee in Czechoslovakia included Assistant Minister Richard Henry and his wife Helen and young Clitheroe Hatheway (who in Brooklyn had worked with her mother, whose first name she shared, and Margaret E. McDonald to prepare children in the old settlement neighborhood for Fresh Air Fund summer vacations).

In 1946, Lathrop became the president of the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom (IARF). This organization was founded in Boston in 1900 and later was used to gather up the churches excluded from the World Council of Churches in 1938 (the year after Lathrop and other liberal churchmen had participated in its founding). Besides the United States, England, and the Brahmo Samaj of India, fourteen or fifteen European countries were usually represented in the IARF, whose delegates frequently held summer conferences and committee meetings in Europe.

John LathropThese summer meetings enabled Lathrop to visit Czechoslovakia in 1947, 1948, and 1949. During the first of these summers, he was the guest of Frantisek Kovar, the patriarch of the Czechoslovak church. Earlier in 1947, Kovar had visited Lathrop and spoken from his Brooklyn pulpit. As part of that church service, the First Church choir had rendered Czech folk songs absolutely perfect in diction and rhythm, according to the Consul General for Czechoslovakia, who was in attendance that morning. During his 1947 visit, Lathrop traveled widely in Czechoslovakia and received no inkling that the Communists would take over the country the following February.

Charlotte and Thomas Masaryk’s son Jan Garrigue Masaryk, who had been the vice-premier of Czechoslovakia’s World War II government in exile, was his country’s foreign minister after the war. His personality and makeup, Lathrop found, was “primarily… Garrigue after his mother’s family,” and he wanted Czechoslovakia to remain part of the western bloc. His efforts to keep his country on this course were hampered when Secretary of State James Byrnes refused Czechoslovakia a fifty-million-dollar loan, partly because, Lathrop believed, two Communist members of the Czech coalition government had applauded an anti-American remark during a speech in Geneva.

When the Communists gained control of the Czech coalition government, Jan Masaryk remained part of it. His sister Alice stated that he had stayed in the government because he hoped to keep it “from going entirely the Russian way.” He jumped or, more likely, was pushed through a window to his death during a tense period in Prague when the Soviet Union prevented the Czechs (who were suffering from a severe drought) from joining the American financed Marshall Plan for the economic recovery of Europe. On 21 March 1948, the First Church held a memorial service for Jan Masaryk and wept with Czechoslovakia over the death of its popular leader, who had spoken from the First Church pulpit just fifteen months before. Jan Masaryk’s death furthered the Soviet Union’s domination of the Czech government, and his foreign minister’s job went to a Communist.

Alice Masaryk, who later lived in the United States, had written Lathrop in 1945 in reference to the gift she planned to give the First Church in her mother’s memory. “I hope, if I’ll live through the world hurricane, to think of the stained glass and Hus,” she wrote. A decade later, women of the First Church joined together to do what she was unable to do.

Brooklyn Parishioners

Proud of his parishioners, Lathrop called his church a “veritable treasury of creation’s finest product.” Among them were AUA Ware Lecturers James G. McDonald, president of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, whom the League of Nations appointed in 1934 high commissioner for refugees coming from Germany, and Harry Gideonse, president of Brooklyn College; John F. Thompson, president of the International Nickel Company; M.D. Griffiths, manager, New York Board of Trade; Marjorie Reeves Mudge, AUA director and social welfare leader; Marshall E. Dimock, resident representative, United Nations, and later Unitarian Universalist Association moderator; Gladys G. Dimock, assistant in the United States Labor Department and in the League of Nations Association, Geneva; Mary Childs Draper, who besides pioneering organized birth control work in Brooklyn, gave to the Brooklyn Museum Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting of the Brooklyn Bridge; and Eva Zeisel, a ceramic designer for industry, whose fascinating life became one of the New Yorker magazine’s “Profiles” in 1987.

Among other First Church movers and shakers were Robert L. Sanders, member of the Unitarian Universalist commission that produced Hymns for the Celebration of Life (1964). Catherine Christy, president, Brooklyn YWCA; Francis T. Christy, lawyer who helped create Rockefeller Center and in 1960 would be president of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Rembrandt Club; Habib I. Katibah and Elias J. Audi, leaders of the Syrian and Lebanese community; and Audi’s wife, Dr. Rosa Lee Nemir, professor and prominent pediatrics researcher, New York University School of Medicine, who in 1964 became president of the American Medical Women’s Association; and Henry W. Eliot, writer and brother of T.S. Eliot.

The End of Lathrop’s Ministry

Lathrop Order of Service

The cover of the Order of Service marking John Lathrop’s twenty-fifth year with the church.

Lathrop actively participated in many worthy causes. Although sharing so much of his time with other organizations was sometimes hard on his church, through him the First Church helped shape important organizations and policies. Lathrop served in the national government’s Department of Research and Education; he worked in the early birth-control movement and advertised its first worldwide campaign in his church’s Calendar, and he was closely associated with Florence Kelley in the National Consumers’ League, of which he became president. When Kelley died in 1932, he conducted a memorial service for her at the Friends Meeting House on Stuyvesant Square, where Frances Perkins, who would become Secretary of Labor in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet, was among the speakers.

Lathrop was a member of the state Tenement House Commission (which grew out of Alfred T. White’s pioneering work in housing reform). He was also one of the two clergymen appointed by Governor Thomas E. Dewey to help draw up the Fair Employment Practices Commission law, which when enacted in 1945 made New York the pioneer state in this legislation.

Lathrop pointed out to New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia that the slums along Myrtle Avenue were some of the worst in the city and helped interest him in erecting Fort Greene housing. Lathrop later campaigned for a city hospital for Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant and East New York sections. For many years, he was president of the Brooklyn Urban League, which grew out of a 1916 meeting in his study. He was also president of the Brooklyn Council for Social Planning and the Brooklyn Health Council. As president of the latter organization, he succeeded, with the help of the Edison Company, in getting better lighting for Brooklyn public school children by changing the color of classroom walls and relocating desks as well as lighting fixtures.

Lathrop came to personify the Unitarian denomination and frequently represented it at international meetings. He worked strenuously on Samuel Eliot’s committee for a new service book and helped produce a volume that was widely used. For decades, he decided what denominational events were important and wrote them up for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year. He was president of the International Association for Religious Freedom, the American Committee on Religious Rights and Minorities (which he helped organize), and the short-lived Free Church Fellowship, which had one of its annual meetings in the First Church.

In 1951, Lathrop was the first Unitarian to be elected to the board of the Protestant Council of Churches, an event which caused that organization to be dropped from the National Council of Churches. Although the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ would not accept Unitarians as members, Lathrop served as an affiliated member and worked with his cousin John Foster Dulles on the council’s Committee for a Just and Durable Peace.

When forty-five national peace organizations formed the National Peace Conference, Lathrop was its Unitarian representative, and he upheld pacifism at a Union Theological Seminary debate with Reinhold Niebuhr. In 1951, Lathrop received the John Haynes Holmes-Arthur Weatherly Award for “distinguished service in the cause of social justice” from the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice. The award had been presented to Holmes the year before, when it was first established. In 1956, Lathrop was given the Annual Unitarian Award in a program featuring a hymn by Second Church minister John White Chadwick. Among those who had earlier received the award, which was started in 1949, were Sophia Lyon Fahs, church historian Earl Morse Wilbur, and John Haynes Holmes.

When Lathrop died on 20 August 1967, plans were immediately made to celebrate his life in the church he loved. On 17 September, Dana McLean Greeley, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, came from Boston.

“Respectability and rebellion were combined in him in perfect balance,” said Greeley, “and his appreciation of the past was always matched by his resolution for the future.” Greeley spoke of the denomination’s debt to Lathrop’s far-seeing leadership and recalled how an AUA meeting thirty five years earlier had broken into laughter when a presiding professional parliamentarian had asked Lathrop to give his name and church. “It was often said that all of Brooklyn was his parish. But in a larger sense, people in every city in America—as well as men, women, and children in Europe and in Asia—were his parishioners.” Speaking for the denomination and its Service Committee, Greeley continued, “All the work that we do beyond the Atlantic and the Pacific we must do partly from his example.” Lathrop, Greeley remembered, “believed in peace both as a moral and a survival necessity. He… labored for peace as the… realization of the Kingdom of God on earth.”

Greeley quoted from one of Lathrop’s sermons to illustrate his enthusiasm, commitment, and self-confidence:

What I once held as a probable theory, I… now hold as a deep conviction: Namely, that I am no exotic stranger in this universe, but bone of its bone and soul of its soul! My life has been a succession of failures, for it has been forever identified with minority causes in the name of justice, and these have not yet won out. But such a life fills me with enthusiasm and with joy because of the faith that no failure is lost in the spiritual economy of life, since what is excellent is permanent and will someday come into its own.

Calling Lathrop’s life an immeasurable success, Greeley said:

May his dignity and his daring, his conviction and his courage, his laughter and his love, his thoughtfulness and his thankfulness be in us even more than before… And may his dreams forever quicken and command our energies. May he persuade us still for truth and justice and freedom and peace. Long live his influence and the influence of this, his beloved church.

Readings, following the Common Prayer, regularly repeated by the congregation for nearly fifty years, included a eulogy by Lathrop’s old and dear friend Palfrey Perkins of King’s Chapel, Boston:

For half a century John Lathrop’s name has been as widely known and deeply respected as that of any Unitarian minister. His acute mind, his warm heart, his spiritual outreach involved him in far-flung interests of world-wide scope; world peace, religious freedom, civil rights, and social welfare. For years these great causes claimed his constant and devoted labors, and yet he was first and foremost minister of his beloved church in Brooklyn.

The American Unitarian Association

presents the Eighth Annual Unitarian Award
in recognition of Distinguished Service
to the Cause of Liberal Religion

John Howland Lathrop

John Howland Lathrop, ordained Minister in the Unitarian denomination for fifty years, member for six years of the Board of Directors of the American Unitarian Association, world figure in the field of Liberal Religion, past president of the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom, delegate from the American Unitarian Association to the Brahmo-Samaj Centenary, India.

John Lathrop has lived a rich and busy life devoted to the welfare of his fellowmen at home and abroad. In his youth a student of social problems, he has throughout his life applied his knowledge and wisdom in many fields.

Whether as ardent defender of civil liberties or in other fields, he has never hesitated to express his convictions regardless of their popularity. This he has done in the pulpit and out with an incisiveness and clarity peculiarly his own, and hence remarkably persuasive.

Possessing, together with his other attributes, a deeply religious outlook on life and an intellectualism that has freed him to search out and share the truth, John Howland Lathrop represents the best in Unitarianism.

Frederick May Eliot                      President
Lawrence G. Brooks                     Chairman of the Board of Directors
Josiah Bartlett                               Member of the Award Committee