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Mead, Sidney E. (1904-1999)

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Sidney Mead

Courtesy of the Meadville Lombard Library.

Biographical Introduction

In the decades after the middle of the 20th century, two “Sidneys” or “Sydneys” shaped much of the writing of American religious history. Sydney E. Ahlstrom, a Lutheran-bred Minnesotan taught at Yale and adopted New England as his province. In his A Religious History of the American People, he saw the nation’s religion as being, in many ways, New England Puritanism writ large. Sidney E. Mead, also born (in 1904) in Minnesota, on the other hand—who never taught east of Chicago, Iowa, California, Nevada, and Arizona—chose Unitarianism, a faith stereotypically associated with New England, for identification and affiliation.

If Ahlstrom slighted the American Enlightenment, the Deist founders and proto-Unitarians of the late 18th century, Mead focused on them and their legacy, pursuing these “rationalists” over against the “pietists,” revivalists, awakeners, and evangelicals who came to prominence in the 19th century. For him, American religion posed what we might call a party of Reason over against a party of Revelation (and emotion) and he saw them as struggling for the mind and soul of unsettled citizens ever after.

Mead’s youthful background found him a convert in what may well be described as the Fundamentalism that was taking shape in the 1920s, where Minnesota was an arena for its encounters with Modernism and Liberalism. He had “walked down the sawdust trail” of a revival, become part of a form of Methodism that he saw as subliterate, and become familiar with the world of “bible schools.” As he came to maturity, Mead—who married rather young to Mildred LaDue, an artist and soul-mate through all his years—made his way to California and was accepted at the University of Redlands, which had American Baptist affiliations. The University of Chicago, to which he came for doctoral work and to begin his teaching career in 1941, had been founded by such Baptists who—especially in its Divinity School—were associated with the modernist wing. Mead found this approach congenial and could have been best described as a liberal Baptist in the 1940s.

Meadville Lombard

The Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. Courtesy of the Meadville Lombard Library.

From 1943 to 1960 he taught in the cooperative experiment called the Federated Theological Faculty. It was based in the University’s Divinity School but had close bonds with the Chicago Theological Seminary, Disciples Divinity House, and the Meadville Theological School, a Unitarian seminary of which Mead became president in 1956. The federation broke up in 1960. Mead helped in the new formation of Meadville, which became Meadville/Lombard Theological School. It received the assets of Lombard College, a Universalist venture in Galesburg, Illinois. Mead, who disdained most aspects of presidential life, did enjoy occasional trips to the Galesburg area, where he and associates monitored the growth of grain in fields that were a part of Lombard’s assets.

During his late Chicago years Mead—always restless in denominational circumstances—did devote himself to Unitarian causes. After becoming a member of the Unitarian Church of the Larger Fellowship, he joined the First Unitarian Church of Chicago. He preached on occasion at Midwestern Unitarian gatherings and attended meetings of the Unitarians in the years when they were moving toward mergers that formed the Unitarian Universalist Association. He could never not be a critic, however, and even at an anniversary celebration of Meadville/Lombard, he spoke rather derisively of theological education as practiced there and throughout America. At the same time, his was a witty, ironic, tempered kind of criticism designed to prod denominations to appreciate and strive for a “learned ministry,” something he found them too often failing to do.

The entry “Unitarianism” is not to be found in the indices to Mead’s books. One has to track down Unitarian motifs through his discussions of national founders like Thomas Jefferson, who had prophesied that in due course all the churches would turn Unitarian, and especially of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Mead found so congenial. A careful reading of Mead would find him instinctively aligning himself with what some have called “the Romantic Enlightenment” more than the purely rationalist version. Emerson and the Transcendentalists spoke to Mead’s soul as Jefferson and Franklin spoke to his mind.

University of Chicago

The Phoenix crest of the University of Chicago.

Mead’s masterpiece, The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America published in 1963, is a collection of carefully crafted essays that he first published in journal form and then edited to form a coherent work. Incidentally, “Christianity” in Mead’s book did not include Roman Catholicism, which received slight mention. He wrote just before the breakthroughs on the ecumenical front and before the new accents on “women’s history” or “ethnic” (as in Afro-American, Hispanic, etc.) history came to question the focus on Ahlstrom and Mead’s “mainstream.” (Those who studied with him at the University of Iowa and Claremont Theological School testify that he was extremely open to the worlds of women and “multi-cultural” students even if he did not take these into the center of his own inquiries.)

Mead’s concentration in The Lively Experiment had to do with the grand Jeffersonian and Madisonian moves toward religious freedom and individualism—”from coercion to persuasion.” But he devoted attention as well to Abraham Lincoln, whom he regarded as the most profound theologian of the American experience. The fact that Lincoln was the only American president never to have joined a church was a feature that Mead, uneasy with denominationalism, enjoyed pointing out.

The Nation with the Soul of a Church (1975), was a more polemical collection of essays. In it he began to define what became a trademark Meadian theme, “Religion of the Republic.” Robert N. Bellah, in a famed essay in 1967, spoke of this as “Civil Religion.” For Mead, this religion’s rootage was in what historian Crane Brinton had spoken of as religion that was “simply Enlightenment, with a capital E.” Conrad Wright and other historians of Unitarianism have shown the congruence between this “founding fathers” faith and the Arminian theological stirrings in New England that took shape in the Unitarian denomination in the 19th century.

The Religion of the Republic vied with institutional religion. Mead noted, “I came from outside ‘the church’ as institutionalized, and although I have found very congenial companionship with some professional churchmen, I now realize that I never felt comfortable and seldom felt completely welcome inside their temples.” Perhaps, he thought, he should be seen as a member of the “Alumni Association” of church institutions. That stance would hardly qualify Mead or anyone for candidacy for excommunication from the Unitarian Universalist Association!

Mead continued his discerning development of the religion of the republic in The Old Religion in the Brave New World published by the University of California Press in 1977. Here William Ellery Channing makes a cameo appearance for having “bridged the gap between eighteenth-century ‘Enlightenment’ and nineteenth-century romanticism in its American transcendentalist dress.” In a way, Mead was doing such bridging a century and a half after Channing.

When writing a preface to History and Identity published by the American Academy of Religion in 1979 while in retirement at Tucson, he commented on four essays brought together by students. Now the central theme had become “the relation of historical studies to the achievement of stable identity.” While all around him historians and others were arguing that one found identity in one’s race, ethnic group, or religion, he cast the search against a cosmic backdrop, “in the context of unimaginable time,” as one “senses a mystical unity with all of life on its ‘immense journey’.” This was a motif one can find in any number of writings associated with Unitarianism in that period, though Mead made no point of using church or denomination as the reference point for seeking identity.

Martin Marty

Martin Marty

Finally, in more papers collected by students, Love and Learning, he is most autobiographical and “ecclesiastical,” worrying as he does in some of the essays about the low quality of learning among seminarians and ministers. As so often, one finds here a kind of “lover’s quarrel” with the manifestations of religion by an historian with a kind of Transcendenalist’s soul and, therefore, one expressive of uneasiness about the very institutions—university, theological school, religious body, and nation—that he served.

— By Martin Marty, The Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Professor, Emeritus, at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago.

Sidney Mead was active in the life of Unitarian Universalist congregations where he taught: the University of Chicago, the University of Iowa, and Claremont California’s Associated Colleges and School of Theology.

His work on religion in America was strengthened by his having received unusually strong appreciation by both secular historians and teachers in the field of American Studies. A symbol of this fact is the rare distinction of his having been honored at a joint session of the American Church History Association and the American Historical Association.

The following two selections point to reasons for this fact.

The Lively Experiment Continued
By Jerald Brauer, former Dean of the Divinity School of the University of Chicago

Sidney Mead

The first thing that strikes one about Sidney E. Mead the scholar is that he succeeded in doing what few in his profession ever achieve: he broke fresh ground. Sturdy son of the Midwest, he exemplified that pioneer quality that marked his forbears—he went ahead and others followed. This was evident early in Mead’s career.

In the process of rethinking what he called American church history, or the history of Christianity in America, or even at times religion in America, Sidney E. Mead produced the first new conception of the history of Christianity in America since Robert Baird. The simplest way to document this judgment is to point to the fact that Mead relocated the hinge on which the history of Christianity in America turns. All previous and most present histories of that subject locate that point either in the founding of New England or in the early nineteenth century.

Those who opted for New England selected the Puritans as the foundation for American politics, culture, and society. In this view American history was but the successive transformations of Puritanism in various reincarnations. Others affirmed the first quarter of the nineteenth century, within the “National Period,” as the crux of American history. Voluntarism and the testing of the frontier shaped the character of America and everything in American society, including Christianity. Both interpretations made the coming of religious freedom of fundamental importance but only in a derivative way. Puritanism was understood as the root from which constitutionalism grew, with religious liberty as the outcome of its inner logic. The frontier became the testing ground for the possibility of religious liberty.

Mead broke with such interpretations and located the hinge of American religious history, and hence of the total history, in the revolutionary generation. All of American history moved toward that center and out of that center. Just as the incarnation that revealed the nature and will of God becomes central for a Christian interpretation of universal history, so for Sidney Mead that incarnation of religious liberty in the Constitution becomes the center for the whole of religious history in America. He returned again and again to how that came about, the forces that produced it, and its consequences for national and even international life. This is the source for the lively experiment with which we struggle to this day. Here was born the religion of the Republic. There emerged in that generation a schizophrenia that has cursed American denominations and American citizens from that day forward.

One need only point to the continuing discussion of the religion of the Republic or civil religion to mark Mead’s fundamental contribution to American religious historiography. As early as 1956 he had adumbrated “the religion of the democratic society and nation,” noted its roots in the Enlightenment, and sketched out some of its beliefs. Additional references were made to this religion of the Republic in other of his essays prior to his major article in 1967. Mead has worked with this basic issue throughout his career; it is the center of the hinge on which Christianity in America turns. It was born in the revolutionary generation, nurtured under the Constitution, and has carried the American people through countless trials. It was distorted by the people yet provided a prophetic resource to correct them. The relation between this faith and that professed within the denominations constitutes, in Mead’s judgment, the most critical problem for religious life in America.

At the heart of that religion is the belief in the absolute necessity of religious freedom, forced by American circumstances, but given theoretical underpinning by the religion of the Enlightenment. The denominations have never been able to provide a theological defense of that reality. That failure has created a major problem for them and for American society. To this day the way religion is related to the political order in America remains a complicated and vexing question. One of Mead’s solid contributions is his sophisticated and carefully nuanced analysis of the problem. He rejects the “wall of separation” terminology as misleading and inadequate. A purist with regard to questions of religious liberty and nonestablishment, he has placed the so-called church-state question in a different context. None of the related issues—denominationalism, religion of the Republic, religious liberty, “church-state”—is to be seen in isolation or in simple doctrinaire fashion; all are interrelated in the complex fabric of our past that provides the material out of which our culture is woven. The lively experiment will determine whether that fabric will endure or be shredded in the course of history.

— Abridged from his introduction to The Lively Experiment Continued.

The Theology of the Republic
by J. Ronald Engel, Research Professor in Environmental and Social Ethics
Meadville Lombard Theological School
Not to be downloaded

Sidney E. Mead is both historian and seer of the American democratic faith. For several decades his essays have given to students of American history what Ralph Barton Perry’s Puritanism and Democracy and Ralph Gabriel’s The Course of American Democratic Thought gave to earlier generations. They have provided grounds for belief in the enduring greatness of the Enlightenment ideal of the Republic in spite of the events of the twentieth century. Even when liberal hopes for a new dispensation of liberty and equality gave way late in the 1960s to bitterness and defeat, Mead’s finely crafted retrieval of the “Republic of our agrarian dream,” the “time when wise men hoped,” performed a redemptive function. He is one of a very few who has had the literary capacity to link his contemporaries with the immortals of the revolutionary age and the deathless vision they beheld.

Of equal significance has been his spirited insistence that a democratic society requires democratic religion. In debate with sociologists and historians such as Will Herberg, Martin Marty, and Winthrop Hudson, who sought a transcendent source of judgment of American cultural religion in a renewal of the prophetic biblical heritage, Mead argued that there is an authentic prophetic heritage resident in the American founding and that this heritage holds any and all denominational traditions accountable. It is the responsibility of the churches to articulate, each in its own way, grounds for affirming the Enlightenment heritage of religious and political freedom.

Perhaps the greatest tribute that can be paid to Sidney Mead is to say that he has assumed the theological responsibility appropriate to a historian in the American Republic. In the words of David Noble, “Just as the historian is the citizen who is most responsible for describing our covenant, he is also the one most responsible for defending it—he is our most important secular theologian.” Most notably, Mead has performed this function from within the discipline of religious history.

What Mead’s profound grasp of the contemporary human condition calls for—what his penetrating retrieval of American religious history leads us to seek, yet what his theology fails to provide—is an ecological perspective on human history and destiny in which the variety that is our common humanity takes its place within the variety of all natural creation. Here every individual and every species would be potentially both an end in itself and a synergistic means to the flourishing of a common world. I submit that it is to some such vision of a “Republic of the World” that Mead’s theology of the democratic faith must move if it is to do justice to the full American experience of the tragedy and hope of our shared existence.

–Abridged from chapter 3 of The Living Experiment Continued.

Related Resources in the Harvard Square Library Collection

Sidney E. Mead, “The Nation with the Soul of a Church.”

“An Address to Unitarians” by Sidney E. Mead.

Sidney Mead: For Wisdom.