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Eliot, Samuel Atkins (1862-1950)

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Samuel Atkins Eliot II (1862-1950) was the first President of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) to be given the power of an executive; he held this office from 1900 to 1927. A member of one of 19th century New England’s most accomplished families, Eliot vigorously expanded the denomination’s identity through application of the then-new “scientific management.” Many of Eliot’s innovations in governance and patterns of authority can still be seen in today’s Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Under his leadership the two major American Unitarian organizations, the AUA and the National Conference of Churches (NCC), were merged in 1925, paving the way for Unitarian consolidation with the Universalist Church of America in 1961.

Samuel Atkins Eliot was the third generation of his family (and the second of his name) to grasp the helm of a major institution with the intention of improving its operation. Sam’s paternal grandfather, the first Samuel Atkins Eliot, pursued public cultural interests ranging from membership in King’s Chapel to co-founding Boston’s premier choral society, the Handel and Hayden Society. A conscientious businessman, grandfather Eliot served as mayor of Boston from 1836 to 1850 (coming immediately after his own brother-in-law, Theodore Lyman). Mayor Eliot disestablished the social network within Boston’s volunteer fire departments, despite serious threats to his family, property and person. The second institution-reforming member of the lineage was Dr. Charles William Eliot, the mayor’s son and Sam’s father, who briefly taught college chemistry before becoming President of Harvard University. From 1869 to 1909 Charles William Eliot revolutionized modern higher education by shifting emphasis away from tradition instruction toward a system for mentored individual learning. This is now known as Ike Harvard Methodic Sam was also distantly related by marriage to the much older Henry Whitney Bellows, minister of what is now the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City and organizer in 1865 of the National Conference of Churches (NCC), which instituted linkages among Unitarian and other liberal Christian churches beyond the Northeast on a state or regional basis. With such dynamic relatives on both sides of his parentage, Sam Eliot was born into the process of shaping institutional vision just as others are born into musicality or a professional affinity.

Enjoying a sail
Eliot enjoying a sail.

The AUA President was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father, widowed when Sam was six years old, did not remarry until 1877. Rather than attending any school, Sam spent his childhood in the company of his father and the tightly knit Harvard faculty. Their guidance allowed Sam and his brother, architect Charles Eliot, to enjoy individual educations. In late adolescence, Sam entered Harvard for more formal study. Despite claims of having been an indifferent student, young Sam Eliot took his A. B. in 1884 cum laude (italics). Ill health led to a postgraduate tour of the southeastern United States and the Caribbean. In 1885 he entered Harvard Divinity School, where his grandfather, Samuel Atkins Eliot, had once studied as well.

In 1888, although he had not yet finished Divinity School, the American Unitarian Association sent Sam Eliot to Seattle, Washington as a missionary. He preached not only in Seattle, but other Washington towns as well. However, he decided to return east to finish his degree. Eliot was graduated from Harvard Divinity School in 1889, and accepted the call to Unity Church in Denver, Colorado. There he found parishioners who craved institutional support for the generally unpopular liberal religious point of view. Eliot responded by evangelizing two new liberal churches, in Colorado Springs and Salt Lake City. He also founded the Rocky Mountain Conference, a local branch of the National Conference of Churches. Even as he entered ministry, Sam also embarked on a boisterous family life. He married Frances Hopkinson, the niece of his father’s second wife and the couple soon prepared to welcome the first of their seven children. Sam scandalized many of his Denver neighbors by joining his wife to wheel baby carriages and play outside with their children. Every summer the Eliots restored their spirits by joining a lively network of cousins and friends in the Northeast Harbor part of Mt. Desert Island, Maine.

In 1892 Eliot returned east to occupy the prestigious pulpit of The Church of the Savior, m Brooklyn, New York. In 1894 he began serving on the Board of Directors of the AUA. His arrival coincided with an important moment for Unitarian institutional development, which at that time was centered in the National Conference of Churches After fifty years of vociferous arguing between the radical individualist humanists and corporate traditionalists who preferred mainline Christian worship, the Western Unitarian Conference, which prided itself on progressivism, was reaching reconciliation with the eastern-based National Conference of Churches, which was dominated by traditionalists. This ended a disagreement which had begun in Theodore Parker’s day (1841) and weakened the liberal voice in every region of the continent. Upon joining the AUA leadership, Eliot advocated measures that would also transform the American Unitarian Association from a publishing house for liberal spiritual resources into to an engine of progress for both congregational and secular organizations. He and his allies saw the new science of Collective efficiency as a way to restore Unitarianism’s pre- Civil War social prominence. In 1898, he was elected to the AUA’s highest executive office, as its Secretary, and left the Brooklyn pulpit for full time denominational work.
Enjoying a sail

Samuel Atkins EliotIn 1900 the AUA conferred executive powers on its hitherto quiescent presidency and elevated Eliot to the expanded position. In his 1902 presidential address, Eliot explained his vision to the AUA: “The officers of your Association, whether wisely or unwisely, assume they are more than administrators . . . They crave the exercise of prophetic gifts, and desire to seize the large opportunities of service which open always before our hesitating fellowship. They desire to be your officers, not by means of the petty mechanism of of ficialism, but by the strong, strenuous, and unwearying proclamation of truth, by endeavoring to lead their fellow-workers to the mount of vision from which man may see God and his righteousness, and become aware of the fact that they are fellow-workers with the Most High. If I may interpret the inner spirit of this organization, it represents your effort to solve the problems of the common good, to lead men out of isolated, self-centered interest into the brave, self-effacing service of the modern world.”

The AUA’s first executive president envisioned his task as the restoration and expansion of a religion which was a great offshoot from Christian Europe’s Reformation. Unlike his father, who taught that all religions would slowly merge into one vague but spiritual whole, Sam Eliot understood religion as a distinct realm of discreet, defined, self-disciplined denominations and faiths. He wrote and preached regularly on Unitarianism’s roots, and initiated the contacts which eventually became the Partner Church program. Eliot also criticized “mainline religions” for drifting away from the theological teachings of their founders in a search for larger membership. He feared that as other faiths became more like Unitarianism and Universalism, the less numerous Unitarians and Universalists would lose their distinctive appeal.

When he became president, the American Unitarian Association included both individuals and congregations, and displayed a full range of wealth and education. Political opinions varied wildly. But the nineteenth century had diminished the importance of historic theological continuity; its new themes were aggregation and reconciliation. Eliot and his allies expanded denominational staff and power in service to a newer but still coherent sense of identity and direction. During his 27 years as President, he created a Department of Ministry, which assisted congregations with selection of candidates for ministry, and a Department of Social Justice, which enacted his vision of liberal religion as a unified political force in secular society. New AUA bylaws, adopted in 1900, called for an 18 member Board of Directors to “have charge of all the business and interests of the Association, the direction of its funds and operations.” With the goal of eventually replacing the federal-style National Conference of Churches by his unitary AUA, Eliot tirelessly advocated business method in congregational organization. His Association allocated and loaned funds according to this standard of congregational behavior. Because his administration insisted that a congregation be able to repay its loans and become selfsupporting after a few years, Eliot believed Unitarianism’s best hope for the future lay with congregations associated with suburban communities and universities. As lack of denominational funds began to destroy the small church Unitarianism which had served poorer urban and rural areas for generations, Eliot’s predictions became a self-furfilling prophecy. Unitarianism became identified with a new class of national and local social leaders.

Portrait and signature, circa 1908
Portrait and signature, circa 1908

As summarized by Unitarian Universalist historian C. Conrad Wright, Eliot indicated his new spirit by upgrading the AUA’ss publishing business, introducing everything from half-tone pictures and larger type face to more timely publications in response to topical issues. iA publication agent was appointed in 1901 from [which] staff position, Beacon Press ultimately developed. Wright also notes Eliot’s tendency to concentrate authority. Semi-autonomous organizations such as the Building Fund Committee and Sunday School Society were moved into AUA structure, with a Board position and Executive department, respectively. But Eliot knew firsthand that while holding liberal beliefs was a social norm in the east, it gave rise to social loneliness in the west, so he worked tirelessly to minimize the distance between central denomination and congregational membership. He proposed to position denominational presence at the local level by creating what are now our district executives and offices. To ensure ministers in the west, he instituted a new seminary, which has become Starr King School for the Ministry.

Eliot conquered distance with energetic personal outreach. Throughout his presidency, he traveled the continent to conduct worship and discuss administration in face to face connections with his constituents. The enduring strength of his reputation rests as much on these famously warm exchanges as any systems he set up or errors he made. Eliot shared his ancestral families) love of traditional music and worship, so his administration put together a denomination-wide book of Unitarian hymns and liturgy. A moderate advocate of humanism, Eliot praised the dignity of each worshiper in relations with God. But Eliot was no secular individualist. Echoing Unitarianism’s Puritan forebears, he doubted whether a person could maintain spiritual health without congregational support. He preached that the dangers of “unbelief” equaled the dangers of “wrong belief.’ This affection for the gathered company of Unitarians continued after his presidency, when he served a single pulpit (Boston’s Arlington Street Church) for the remainder of his career.

An attentive church historian, Eliot was usually an advocate of Unitarian distinctiveness. But he made one major exception. Beginning in 1899, Eliot worked to further ties between the Unitarians and Universalists. He believed that they were each tending liberal faiths whose martyrs had created a great and liberal religion; therefore, modern practitioners of Unitarianism and Universalism were entitled to reap the rewards of their forebears) sacrifices. And the two denominations had already found it more practical to cooperate in local projects than to quarrel over their few real theological differences. Ever efficient, Eliot believed their common vision could best be evangelized through institutional cooperation, if not eventual unity.

Unfortunately, the record of Sam Eliot’s accomplishments in denominational administration has been sullied by his adherence to some then common social prejudices. Along with allies in the National Conference of Churches, Eliot set a high priority on the promotion and protection of an elite professional ministry. This they defined as the style of language and social skills imparted by advanced university degrees; they looked with suspicion on skills gained through apprenticeship and practical experience. The Unitarians’ primary seminary, Harvard Divinity School, was expensive and did not admit women students until 1955, so this policy had long-lasting ramifications for both men and women. Eliot wanted scientific administration to counterbalance personal parish relationships. He also wanted “men” (his word, despite the presence of women among his own generation of colleagues) noted for oratorical prowess. Such rigid credentialing undercut the tradition of less affluent religious men (and some women) preparing for ordination by serving a congregation part time while supporting their families with weekday secular occupations.

Eliot undercut those Unitarian women who had achieved ordination in his generation. Eliot supported the full development of women’s character and skills, including those of his wife and daughters, but he shared the widespread Victorian view that woman’s sphere was domestic life. However, the Civil War had tragically and radically reduced the number of men compared to women. Unitarian parishes (along with Universalists and Congregationalists) therefore began to ordain women who had completed professional training for ministry or who excelled in parish leadership. This was particularly attractive to less secure congregations of the western frontier, who were too poor and isolated to attract candidates from the shrinking pool of professional male ministers. Nor did such ministers show much skill in spiritual interpretation of frontier life. But the female ministers articulated an ecclesiology of family virtues, congregational hospitality, popular empowerment (including women’s suffrage) and practical community service. Their views contrasted sharply with Eliot’s emphasis on authority for the pulpit, so when they visited headquarters in Boston, Eliot snubbed his female colleagues. He offered only limited assistance to their congregations, ostensibly due to management issues. After World War I, popular sentiment shifted toward Eliot’s more conservative views, and against women in such powerful professions. It would take more than half a century to recover this right.

Although the Unitarians of Eliot’s generation were able to reconcile some of their theological differences, they clashed on other fronts. The advent of World War I produced a painful incident, for which apologies were later extended. Several prominent ministers preached pactfism, a view widely held among those who remembered the carnage of the War Between the States and Europe’s more recent Franco-Prussian conflict. William Howard Taft, former US President, was a leader in the National Conference of Churches, which controlled the list of fellowshipped’ ministers; he persuaded the Conference to de-list any minister who did not support the new war. The AUA followed suit by limiting financial assistance to congregations maintaining such ministers. In response, John Haynes Holmes and The Community Church of New York City withdrew from the Association. Although Holmes was able to preserve personal ties with Beacon Street, and Community Church eventually returned to the Unitarian fold, other pactfist clergy lost their livelihoods. This chain of events is often associated with Sam Eliot, even though the National Conference and the AUA were officially two different bodies, with different annual meetings and boards of directors. Yet the memory of this silencing still buttresses Unitarian Universalist support for political freedom of the pulpit.

Eliot’s support for the war was part of a wider vision linking secular citizenship and religious community. His personality and social vision fit the era’s enthusiasm for building a better world through expanded and efficient administration, which in turn harmonized with Protestant New England’s tradition of interfaith nonprofit philanthropic organizations.

— Courtesy of the Dictionary of American Biography

In 1989 a grandson of Dr. Eliot was among the founders of the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists in Virginia. In 1998 he delivered the following words of dedication of their small Samuel Atkins Eliot Library.

“Your Affectionate SAE”
by Michael McGiffert, Grandson of Samuel Atkins Eliot

My brother, my sister, and I called him Grandpa.

I remember . . . when I was eight years old, helping celebrate his 75th birthday by dancing like a little Indian on the big porch of his summer home in Maine. Grandpa was interested in Indians.

I remember . . . rushing with my brother up the circular stairs inside the old tower of the Bunker Hill Battlefield Monument to check (we were told) for cracks in the masonry. Grandpa was one of the monument’s honorary custodians.

Eliot seated second left with staff at
25 Beacon Street
I remember . . . his skill at Chinese Checkers. He played the black marbles; he was the “sinister minister black.”

I remember . . . his strong tenor voice raised in nautical ballads like “A Capital Ship for an Ocean Trip Was the Walloping Window Blind.”

I remember . . . his remarking, as he pushed back his chair after Sunday dinner at home, “I have eaten to my sanctification. Any more would be flippus-flappus.”

My grandfather seemed taller than most men and wiser. I remember his dignity and calm, his kindliness, his twinkling mild good humor. He took grandchildren seriously, if a bit remotely. He appeared pleased to have so many that seemed promising.

These are a child’s glimpses, looking up. But later, as I grew, he seemed no less tall and hardly less wise. After he died, I learned to think of him as “SAE.” That’s how he signed his letters to his seven offspring: “Your Affectionate SAE.”

Eliot seated second left with staff at 25 Beacon Street
Eliot, seated second left, with staff at
25 Beacon Street.

SAE—Samuel Atkins Eliot—was born in 1862 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was born Unitarian, and he became a Unitarian minister. For nearly fifty years, he served churches coast to coast from Seattle and Denver to Brooklyn and Boston. His calling took him far afield, but the heartland Unitarian community of New England was his spiritual center and main base of operations. From Boston, for over a quarter-century, he led the denomination as president of the American Unitarian Association. He died at age 88 in 1950.

One of his sons-in-law, my father, wrote his biography; he titled it Pilot of a Liberal Faith. What I will tell you comes from this book, mostly in SAE’s own words. The Library has a copy of the book.

Religion was a constant, quiet presence in SAE’s childhood home. It was, he recalled, a “very simple, uncomplicated sort of religion, not much talked about but practiced in an unpretentious sort of way. A somewhat reticent but unclouded confidence in the nearness and goodness of God was taken for granted.”

A Unitarian first and always, SAE knew neither the wrench of religious conversion nor the stress of changing churches. “I am what the psychologists call a ‘once-born’ man . . . . I was never convicted of sin, never imagined myself a ‘lost soul,’ . . . never found any special grace of God in the ceremonies of the sacramental churches, never was influenced—except by way of revulsion—by the excesses of revivalism.” Why, he asked, “should I be reconciled to God when I have never been alienated from him?”

Religion, for SAE, meant “honest thinking and helpful doing.” At college he discovered “the splendid fun of using one’s own mind,” and he used his mind for ethical and practical purposes. What he said about one of his teachers describes himself: “he could be serious without being pedantic, playful without being flippant, critically acute without being acrid, candid without being rude.”

He was not, by his own admission, a deep or complex thinker. He told this story on himself: once, in a divinity school class, when he began a practice sermon with the words “I think,” the professor raised his hand. “Hold on,” he said, “do you not exaggerate?”

SAE was a doer, a builder. His word of highest praise for a person, an idea, or an act was “serviceable.” He looked outward, and he looked out for others. He wanted Unitarian churches to be “sources of public-spirited activity, bulwarks of a united civic society.” In his ministry, he sought to unite “creative imagination and astute action.”

He gave his strength to building Unitarianism nation-wide. Churches in all parts of the country owe their being or well-being to his stewardship. He put the AUA on a firm financial footing; his leadership animated the organization, enhanced its role in denominational life, and gave Unitarianism a national presence and mission. Ecumenical in his views, he helped open discussions leading to the union of Unitarians and Universalists.

A social activist, SAE worked for such causes as prison reform and justice for American Indians. As a young pastor in Denver, in the 1880s, he joined with a rabbi and a Catholic priest to initiate the nation’s first Community Chest, forerunner of the United Way. His outreach was international: in his late years, in the 1940s, he founded the organization Children to Palestine to rescue young survivors of the Holocaust.

Eliot at left, as an actor in Harvard's Hasty Pudding Theatricals
Eliot, at left, as an actor in Harvard’s
Hasty Pudding Theatricals.

He characteristically sought “the harmonies of religious thought and life rather than the discords.” His idea of ministry was democratic: he worked to bring people together in common tasks, and he urged his congregations to lead themselves. When on occasion he met with opposition, he explained it as the “necessary friction” that could spark constructive thought and positive action.

SAE’s sermons and other published writings presented liberal religion to a broad audience. “Liberalism,” for him, was “not a definite system but a habit of mind, an attitude of spirit, and a way of life.” He valued a knowledge of Unitarian history as “part of our present energy.”

SAE’s body and mind remained vigorous far into old age. He said: “I’ve never seemed to find time to devote to the process known as growing old.” Ever building, he viewed life itself as an “incomplete experience.” He wrote to an old friend, “You and I must die with our tasks unfinished and our goals unreached. But what of that? . . . Consummation [would be] an utter bore.” Though he could not envision a conventional immortality, he saw “that something called death” as an incident “in the continuous history of a soul.”

He was a future-minded man. “Such thinking as I am capable of,” he said, “is commonly and temperamentally in terms of tomorrow.” He liked “fresh forays of the mind and the recasting of institutions.” His face turned ever forward.

A practical visionary, Samuel Atkins Eliot gave his powers to the work of human betterment. Men and women found inspiration in his hopeful spirit, challenge in his gift for forging opportunities, wisdom in his clear-eyed appraisal of the open-endedness of all results. I like to think that, were he among us, he would bless us and urge us onward with his cheery words,

“Your affectionate SAE.”

“I Am Sad to Have Retired”
by Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Jr., Biographer and Son-in-Law

“I am sad to have retired,” Eliot wrote to a friend shortly after he became minister emeritus of Arlington Street Church, “but I was never busier and have to paddle hard to keep my head above water.” Not having led what he called a single life devoted exclusively to one pursuit, he found himself at no loss for occupation, nor did he feel himself to be no longer needed when at the age of seventy-three he ended his career of ministerial leadership.

“I have been honored by having been chosen at one time or another to be president of the Massachusetts Council of Churches and of the Boston Council of Churches and of the Religious Education Association and of the International Council, and I’ve served on sundry interdenominational commissions like the World Alliance for Friendship Through the Churches.”

50-year celebration, seated l. to r. Mrs Lawrence G. Brooks, Samuel Atkins Eliot, William Roger Greeley. Standing l. to r. Frederick May Eliot, Dana McLean Greeley
50-year celebration, seated (left to right): Mrs Lawrence G. Brooks, Samuel Atkins Eliot, William Roger Greeley. Standing (left to right): Frederick May Eliot, Dana McLean Greeley.

Retirement did not cause him to sever these connections; nor was the list of the religious organizations complete. He became a vice-president of the Massachusetts Bible Society (1947-48) and a member of the Greater Boston Advisory Board of the Salvation Army (1949). He also failed to mention the General Theological Library in Boston, of which he became president and for which he continued to raise money. The Library expressed for him, at second hand, his lifelong and many-sided interest in ministers who were living on very small salaries.

Eliot was occasionally consulted about denominational problems. Ten years after his resignation from the presidency of the AUA, the latter undertook an appraisal of its methods and form of organization. The Commission of Appraisal commended itself to Eliot because its members were not “rainbow chasers or fabricators of dreams. They dealt with things immediately practical.”

He was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and of the Urban league, became a trustee of Tuskegee Institute and put Booker T. Washington on the map as a wise and reliable leader of his race.

In 1943 Eliot accepted an invitation to help start an agency to assist Jewish children who were the victims of German Nazism. What he described as his “happy association with synagogue and temple” ran back to the very beginning of his ministry. While still a Divinity School student, he preached in the Temple Emmanuel in San Francisco. When he was ordained in Denver, a young rabbi stood with him and took part in the service.

“I should like to bear witness,” he wrote in a published address on “Liberal Christianity in the United States,” “to the ethical contribution which Reformed Judaism‚–proportionately, the wealthiest religious communion in America,–has made to the national life. The Reformed Jews have set high standards of education and family devotion, and they have set in motion the wisest and most thorough systems of charity.”

While minister at Arlington Street Church
Eliot while minister at Arlington Street Church.

During his ministry at the Arlington Street Church Eliot regularly exchanged pulpits with Rabbi Harry Levi of Temple Israel. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Eliot’s ordination, the Rabbinical Association of Greater Boston sponsored a Thanksgiving Service in Temple Kehillath Israel, Brookline, to pay tribute to him.

Eliot had always liked to decimalize time. He customarily celebrated anniversaries of the birth of notable people and events as well as family birthdays and holidays. During the last dozen years of his life other people celebrated him at several different public meetings.

“In recognition of distinguished service to the cause of liberal religion,” the American Unitarian Association in May 1950 presented Eliot with the Second Annual Award—just five months before his death. The occasion marked the fiftieth anniversary of his election to the Association’s presidency, the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the Association’s founding, and the fiftieth anniversary of the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom which he had organized.

During his last years Eliot continued his historical writing, in particular picking up a task he had had to let drop a quarter of a century earlier. In anticipation of the one hundredth anniversary of the AUA he had spent some summer vacations collecting and editing materials for a fourth volume of Heralds of a Liberal Faith.

The period he covered—the last decades of the nineteenth and early decades of the twentieth centuries—coincided with his own ministry. In fact he knew personally all but six of the more than two hundred men and women whose careers were narrated. He wrote sixteen of the biographical sketches and secured writers for the others. His invitations to these colleagues contained a set phrase which discloses explicitly his long-held idea of how biography should be written: “We desire a picture of a man himself rather than a description of his multifarious labors and interests.” This fourth volume of Heralds of a Liberal Faith was issued by Beacon Press in 1952, two years after Eliot’s death.

Eliots with grown-up family
Eliots with grown-up family.

Less than a year before his death Eliot restated his thoughts about death in this way: “That something called death is just one of those incidents in the continuous history of a soul. . . One can face the remaining days and whatever comes after with undisturbed serenity.” Yet he was not immune to a “certain instinct of physical recoil against death.” Agnosticism retained occasional standing-room in his mind almost to the end of his days. “Shall we live after what we call death?” he asked himself and others. “We don’t know and we can’t know,” was his answer. He thought it an “interesting speculation,” but “even if there is no continued consciousness, life is still a happy miracle.”

He “slipped away” on October 16, 1950, in his 89th year. A tablet placed by the Arlington Street church in Eliot’s memory reads:

Preacher           Administrator
Civic Servant and Friend

— Abridged from Pilot of a Liberal Faith, courtesy of Beacon Press

Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Eliot, Samuel Atkins. Heralds of a Liberal Faith: Volume Four, The Pilots. Boston: Beacon Press, 1952.