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Pennington, Leslie T. (1899-1974)

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Leslie PenningtonBiographical Introduction

At the celebration in 1866 of the 250th anniversary of the organization of the First Church (Unitarian) in Cambridge, Mass., Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., at that time a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, said: “The founders of this parish. . . and their fellows planted a congregational church, from which grew a democratic state. They planted something mightier than institutions…. Whether they knew it or not, they planted the democratic spirit in the heart of man. It is to them we owe the deepest cause we have to love our country—that instinct, that spark, that makes the American unable to meet his fellowman otherwise than simply as a man, eye to eye, hand to hand, and foot to foot, wrestling on naked sand.”

Leslie Talbot Pennington, born in 1899 in Spiceland, Indiana, was of this heritage, though he sprang also from Quaker loins, bearing the name of a venerable Quaker family. Accordingly, he attended and graduated from Earlham College. He was a worthy scion of the democratic tradition so forcefully described by Mr. Justice Holmes. Both the Puritan spirit and the dissenting spirit of the Friends are to be discerned in the many-faceted life and in many a sermon of Leslie Pennington.

Pennington in high school

Leslie Pennington as a high school student in Spiceland, Indiana.

In the archives at Andover-Harvard Library many of his letters are preserved. In a letter he wrote in the first year of his pastorate at the First Parish in Cambridge from 1935 to 1944, he said, “I am trying to relate some of the affairs in current public life to what seem to me very fundamental principles.” He held with his predecessor there, Dr. Samuel McChord Crothers, that “every personal problem is a social problem, and every social problem is a personal problem.”

A familiar characterization of the Christian minister, reaching back to the Bible, is that of the servant of God. But this word servant scarcely comprehends the intention incarnate in Leslie Pennington. His was the creative spirit that aimed to engender or maintain a religious and democratic community or fellowship in which individuality is protected and fulfilled. Also in the immediate person-to-person relations of pastoral counseling, Leslie tried to protect the individuality and integrity of the other person. One of his favorite mentors was William Wallace Fenn, the late Bussey Professor of Theology and Dean of the Divinity School. Leslie liked to quote Dean Fenn as saying, “I do not presume to make a decision for you. I shall try as best I can to clarify the alternative possibilities and their likely consequences, but the decision remains yours.” In my hearing Leslie frequently appealed to this principle from Dean Fenn (who, like Von Ogden Vogt, was his predecessor in Chicago).

Penningtons' wedding

The Penningtons’ wedding, September 17,1928, at Edwards Church in Saxonville, Massachusetts.

This attitude informed also his aim as a parent. Temperament and habit made it in him a property of easiness. I can recall his speaking of his intention and Danny’s (Elizabeth Entwistle Daniels) with regard to their relation to the two daughters, Mary and Antoinette, “Love ’em, and leave ’em be.” That is, leave ’em be themselves. Indeed, his attitude toward Danny, his wife, and her attitude toward him, bore this respect for the other in the I-Thou relationship. If Danny spoke in conversation, he did not assume he knew in advance what she was likely to say. Rather, he appeared to listen with the expectation of, and the respect and love for, her uniqueness. He expected something fresh to come from her lips, and he was not disappointed. In his relations also to friends, to parishioners; to colleagues in the ministry, this sense of fellowship, of unity in diversity, of freedom in fellowship, was characteristic.

Leslie served Massachusetts parishes in Lincoln and Braintree, and from New England he went to Ithaca, New York, then back to Cambridge and on to Chicago, and finally back to West Newton. His participation in the life of the community and of the denomination is remembered wherever he has lived and worked. From the earliest days of his ministry he was a member of civic associations as well as of ecumenical enterprises. He was a non-sectarian Unitarian. He served as an officer in a multitude of community, denominational, and national organizations, from the Unitarian Sunday School Society to the Religious Arts Guild to the Board of Directors of the American Unitarian Association to the Brothers of the Way to the American Church Peace Union. He was one of the founders in 1927 of the Greenfield Group, which still today aims to maintain a literate clergy amongst us.

He could be relied upon to state his views with gentle (“Friendly”) persuasion but also with honest, open-minded firmness. In a letter regarding a denominational communication on “the Eternal in our common life,” he said, “The Statement is so tangled that I do not wish to be put on record either as wholly opposing or wholly supporting the program. I am afraid we are to have more heat than light at the May Meetings.” He definitely preferred light to heat, the light (he would say “the inner light”) that comes from religious commitment and rational consensus. He liked especially the admonition of the prophet Isaiah, “Come now, and let us reason together.” But for him rationality must be informed by a renewing spirit and by moderation and humor. In a letter to Dana McLean Greeley who was then a young minister in Concord, N. H., he said in speaking warmly of a former parishioner in Lincoln who was now in the Concord parish, “I had the fortune to have this man as a member of the church in Lincoln. Dr. Samuel A. Eliot,” he continues, “asked me the other day why I did not make a Christian of this man, and I returned the question to him. No, Dana, it is your job—more power to you. ”

The democratic combination of protection of the individual with concern for the commonweal appears strikingly in his response to a letter from a layman who had written to him in criticism of a Ware Lecture by Adolf Berle, Jr., who at the time was a member of “the brain trust” in Washington. In his letter Leslie grants that “it is the fidelity of the average businessman which must sustain the fabric of our national life.” “However,” he goes on to say, “beyond that we must have vision and foresight. The church should endeavor to work through both ways. It should sustain the fidelity of the average businessman but it should endeavor also to present the common vision without which. . . there is no liberty and no justice.”

Pennington at West Newton

Pennington during his West Newton, Massachusetts ministry.

These sentiments were not confined to private communications or to sermons. For Leslie Pennington the common vision beckoning one to a society of liberty and justice required common disciplines. This concern for discipline was bound up with his sense of the importance of institutions and of institutional participation. At the First Unitarian Church in Chicago (1944-1962) he established subgroups within the church, one group to promote civil liberties, another to develop better race relations, another concerned with housing policy, and so on. Each subgroup had the assignment to achieve consensus with a minority report. Something like this disciplined activity he had previously inaugurated in the First Church in Cambridge.

We should recall here that his three longest pastorates were in a university milieu. In Chicago he enjoyed the able and devoted assistance of Herbert Vetter among the students and the faculty as well as in the parish and the pulpit. The congregation did not at that time have the ample and elegant space of the Pennington Center which was erected (alongside Fenn House) and named in his honor shortly before he transferred to the First Unitarian Society in West Newton, Massachusetts (1962-1968).

Leslie Pennington’s concern for a living democracy became most conspicuous in the city of Chicago through his leadership in an enterprise that gained national repute, the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference. This conference, like the First Church itself, undertook well over twenty years ago the slow and painful task of bringing about desegregation and of developing a peaceful pluralistic community. Leslie as the outstanding leader gave to this ecumenical enterprise the best energies of his life, and with marked success. The Conference continues to be the creative, integrating power in that community. Indeed, today the section of Chicago called Oak Park (on the West Side), like certain other communities in the nation, has taken this Community Conference as a model. For these and similar manifestations of Christian leadership Leslie received numerous awards, including three honorary doctorates.

Pennington's granddaughters

Leslie and Danny Pennington with granddaughters Molly and Sarah Fisk, circa 1959.

As Leslie was ever aware, the ideal of a democratic congregation promoting the priesthood and prophethood of all believers cannot be pursued without raising a dust. I recall that in the midst of the desegregation effort in the Chicago parish Leslie at one juncture felt obliged to bring about the resignation from the church of two prominent laymen who in principle rejected the goal of integration. When the issues and the differences became crystal clear he said privately to these two laymen, “Either you two leave this church, or I do. Your leaving will indicate goodwill that you are professing for this church. I think that each of you had best depart.” … They did. Leslie and the parish were attempting to break through a “restrictive covenant” of pigment to a church covenant at least as broad as that of the U. S. Constitution. “Have we not all one Father? Hath not one God created us?” Leslie asked. “Why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?”

Dr. Waitstill H. Sharp who in 1949 was executive director of a Chicago race-relations agency has reminded me of a dramatic episode in which Leslie Pennington played a central role. In a series of Chicago race riots seven nights in duration the police had adopted a permissive stance, in effect encouraging the rioters. Inflamed one evening by a Nazi type xenophobia, the rioters seized strangers unsympathetic to the purpose of the rioters, demanded their identifications, beat them, and dragged them out with threats to kill them should they return to the neighborhood. In the midst of this turmoil the representatives of civil rights agencies and religious bodies unanimously selected Leslie Pennington to serve as their spokesman in approaching the Mayor of the City. In a confrontation at the Mayor’s Office in face of the Mayor, the Police Commissioner and his Deputy, Leslie (accompanied by thirty-five indignant representatives of civic and religious organizations) said “Your honor, you and your Police Department are responsible for these seven nights of outrages against the rights of individuals and in gross violation of our public peace.” After recounting the perilous stages of the rioting and of the inaction of the police Leslie presented four major demands for change of policy, squarely placing on the shoulders of the Mayor and his subordinates the responsibility of effecting this policy. He concluded his plea by saying firmly, “We are telling you what your election and your tenure in office mean: To give orders to your Police Department implementing the laws of our City protecting the rights of individuals and the public peace.”

Pennington's grandchildren

Leslie and Danny Pennington with grandchildren Liz, David, Michael Updike, in Vermont, 1959.

According to Dr. Sharp, an observer later said of Leslie’s demeanor: “Leslie Pennington led us in a timeless and universal experience. We who gathered that afternoon in the Mayor’s office were priviliged in our time and place to see and hear again, one of our own prophets speaking of the evil of a great city before the reluctant gate keepers remiss in carrying out the duties of their constituted authority.”

One other aspect of Leslie’s character remains to be mentioned, his artistry combined with his piety, graciously evident in his prayers, evident also in the liturgical services he developed particularly in Chicago. When I first knew Leslie as a theological student in Cambridge, he was known among his fellow students as a poet. He always recognized under Dean Willard Sperry’s tutelage that a sermon should “sing.” He and his listeners were most gratified when this singing quality informed a sermon. Indeed, we must say that Leslie’s genius for friendship possessed a singing quality.

His love for beauty as well as his genius for friendship have been aptly set forth in a paragraph I have solicited for this eulogy from one of his oldest friends and colleagues, the Rev. Miles Hanson, Jr., of Weston, Massachusetts:

“How privileged we have been who have enjoyed the friendship of Leslie Talbot Pennington—during many long and happy years, and shared with him a rich and varied life, from which he drew perpetual delight and an ever increasing wisdom. Leslie was gifted with an interest in every aspect of life. He loved his farm in Moretown, and the green hills of Vermont. His retirement years were spent working in his garden among the flowers he loved, and watching the birds crowd his feeders. Leslie lived in covenant not only with God and men but also with nature.”

Behind and within this life and spirit of Leslie Pennington was that spark, that instinct, of which Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., spoke. His piety was not exclusive, it was ecumenical in the largest sense. In a sermon at King’s Chapel only five years ago, he spoke of the travails of the Jews in our time, expressing the faith and hope “that in the mystery of God’s providence and tutelage the human race, including Christians, will be able to sing with Jews and Muslims the words of the prophet Isaiah, originally intended just for Jews, but surely destined to be meaningful for all the sons of man.”

Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitants of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

As we remember with affection and gratitude the life and faith of Leslie Pennington, we today may take up that chorus again. Shout and sing for joy, for great in your midst is the Holy One whose life is the dayspring from on high and whose power groweth not old. That dayspring was ever new in Leslie Pennington.

The Lord hath given, the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

— By James Luther Adams. Address at the First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, 1975.

A Time for Solidarity
By Leslie T. Pennington

I believe deeply in the federal union of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, and for the following reasons:

First, I believe that man’s deepest need is for a high ethical religious faith.

Second, I believe that responsible freedom is the essential condition of maturity in high ethical religious faith as in every field of life.

Third, I believe that such mature freedom in religion can best be attained through its culture in the family and the living fellowship of parish churches unequivocally devoted to it.

Fourth, I believe that congregational polity, the responsible self-government of each “gathered” parish church, is the essential institutional expression of such free faith.

Fifth, I believe that fellowship and experience in such responsible self-government in religion is one of the chief sources of modern democracy, one of the surest bulwarks against forces which would destroy it, and one of the greatest resources for its creative renewal and extension into every field of life.

Sixth, I believe that our times demand the widest possible cohesion, solidarity and union of all free men and women and human groups devoted to the responsible freedom of high ethical religious faith.

Seventh, I believe that this solidarity and union can be attained only on terms which do not themselves violate this basic faith, and that federal union among self-governing parish churches is the soundest structural principal of organization yet devised for this purpose.

Eighth, both the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, with all their affiliated organizations, in so far as they are true to the faith and principle of our heritage, are such federal unions of self-governing parish churches. The present proposal is to unite these two existing federal unions in one.

— From The Christian Register, Boston, May 1950.

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

Leslie T. Pennington: Prayers

Other Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Pennington, Leslie T. The Disciplines of Freedom: A Lenten ManualBoston: American Unitarian Association, 1944).