Changes for Women, All Souls and the World: 1920 – 1945

1920 – With the passing of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, the women members of All Souls could now vote. They could also become full voting members of the church and be elected to the Board of Trustees.

1921 – John Dietrich (1878-1957), minister of the Unitarian congregation in Minneapolis, MN, became the leading spokesman for religious humanism within the denomination. All Souls minister Rev. William Sullivan, who was a theist, strongly disagreed with Dietrich. They passionately debated their points of view at the Unitarian General Conference that year. John Dietrich was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto of 1933. Adherents of humanism began entering the Unitarian denomination in larger numbers.

1922 – The Board of Trustees selected a Bond of Union (“In the freedom truth and the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and the service of man”) and amended the by-laws to require that all new members subscribe to the Bond. Although it seemed to violate the cherished Unitarian principle of freedom of conscience and its “deeds not creeds” mantra, other Unitarian churches had adopted similar bonds. The Bond was also said by the congregation in every service—but it would prove controversial in the years ahead.

1923 – For the first time, two women were elected to the All Souls Board of Trustees. They were Mrs. John McGinley and Georgina Schuyler, art patron and philanthropist.  Georgina Schuyler was the sister of Louisa Lee Schuyler, who had organized the New York Division of the US Sanitary Commission and founded the State Charities Aid Association. The Schuyler sisters, who lived together until Georgina’s death in 1923, were great-grand-daughters of Alexander Hamilton.  Both were very active in the All Souls congregation and in working for civic reform.

1923 – Dr. Minot Osgood Simons (1868–1941, ministry 1923–1941) became the sixth minister. A descendant of early New Englanders, and a Harvard Divinity School graduate, he had served for 19 years as minister at a Unitarian church in Cleveland. He had been working for four years as head of the Department of Church Extension for the American Unitarian Association in Boston, and he felt he was helping the denomination grow in this post. Dr. Simons responded positively to All Souls’ call only when the church agreed to hire a secretary and a parish assistant. He was instrumental in moving the church to its current location and securing funding for it through the Wall Street crash and the Great Depression. All Souls retained its strongly Christian flavor (and followed society’s custom in using masculine terminology to indicate humankind), but the liberality of Dr. Simons’ theology was reflected in the message of greeting he gave its new neighbors when the church moved to the Upper East Side a decade later. “This church is dedicated to religion but not to a creed,” he wrote. “Neither upon itself nor upon its members does it impose a test or doctrinal formula. Love to God and man and the perfecting of our spiritual nature it regards as the unchanging substance of religion and the essential gospel of Jesus.” Dr. Simons fell ill and died in 1941.

1929 – The Wall Street Crash of 1929 hit All Souls hard. Many donors were unable to fulfill their pledges for the new, fourth, building being planned on Lexington Avenue at E. 80th St., and the purchaser of the old building on Park Avenue was in financial ruin. This left the church with two unaffordable mortgages. The original plan for All Souls’ fourth building called for a parish house adjacent to the sanctuary’s eastern end and a small chapel adjacent to the western end, but there was not enough money to complete this design. Help came from the estate of George F. Baker, a longtime church trustee and co-founder of First National City Bank. He had founded the bank, which is now Citibank, in 1863, when he was 23 years old, by investing his $3,000 savings to help get the bank started. He became president in 1877, and chairman of the board in 1909, and it became known as “his” bank. When he died in 1931, his son, also named George F. Baker, or “Young Mr. George,” gave a large sum of money to cover the mortgage on the old church building. With no shortage of Depression-era labor, the new church was built quickly and dedicated in 1932.

1932 – The cornerstone of the fourth church building, at Lexington Avenue and East 80th Street, was laid. The cornerstone contained historical photos and sermons, among other things. The building was designed by Hobart Upjohn, grandson of Richard Upjohn (1802-1878), probably America’s most influential ecclesiastical architect. Ironically, Richard Upjohn was a devout Episcopalian who refused to design churches for Unitarians, a denomination he considered anti-Christian. His strongly held belief was that the Gothic style was the expression of Christian architecture. However, his grandson Hobart Upjohn designed the new building for All Souls in the neo-Georgian style, with a Federal period entry hall and a spire tall enough to hold its own amid the surrounding buildings. The plan for the room under the sanctuary had to be downsized when it was discovered that there was a large ledge of rock under the site, and the sanctuary seats 600, far fewer than the 1,250 persons who could be seated in the previous building; however, general approval of the new building was expressed.

1932 – The son of All Souls members Sarah Delano Roosevelt and James Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was elected President. Rev. Bellows performed the wedding ceremony when Sara Delano married James Roosevelt in 1880, at the Delanos’ country home in Newburgh, NY. The Delano family were Unitarians and attended All Souls when they were at their Manhattan home.

1932 – The decision was made to phase out the rental of pews, a policy which had been in place at All Souls since 1821. The Trustees decided to move towards a policy of a “free church.” Money was to be raised by means of an “Every Member Canvass” instead.  For a time, families who wanted to continue to rent a pew could do so, but it could only be reserved until 10 minutes into the service.

1933 – A group of philosophers, Unitarian ministers, and other religious liberals issued “A Humanist Manifesto.” The document was a statement of humanist principles that sought to define values and convictions many Unitarians shared. As the century progressed, All Souls and other Unitarian churches became less specifically Christian and more generally humanist in their perspective; by 1998 a survey showed that only 9.5 percent of Unitarian-Universalists were professed Christians while 46 percent called themselves theologically humanist.

1940 – Rev. Minot Simons had the cross from the third church building installed in the chancel. The cross that originally stood behind the altar at the third church, at Fourth Ave. and 20th street, was held in storage until 1940, when Dr. Minot Simons had it restored after a poll found that 51% of the congregation favored returning it.  It became controversial in the 1950s and remained so until it was removed in 1978. Dr. Simons chose to erect the cross, not to inspire an exclusive Christian symbolism, but to “interpret the meaning of the cross by regarding it as a symbol of the sacrificial character of all human lives sooner or later… [thus] The Cross has the inspiration of the Universal instead of an individual meaning.”

1939 – Germany’s invasion of Poland September 1 sparked a declaration of war from Great Britain and France. By most accounts, that moment marked the start of World War II, although armed conflict between China and Japan, other adversaries in the war, began in 1937.

1941-1945 – After the US was drawn into World War II, some 140 All Souls members served in the military.  Four gave their lives: Jacques Rodney Eisner, who perished on the bridge of the U.S.S. San Francisco during the Pacific battle of the Solomon Islands on November 13, 1942; Frazier Curtis, a pilot whose parachute failed to open when he bailed out on December 23, 1942; Adolf Paul Constantin Schramm Jr., who died May 8, 1943, of disease contracted in the line of duty; and James Freeman Curtis, who lost his life May 29, 1945, like his brother Frazier the victim of an airplane accident. As they had done in World War I and the Civil War, women volunteers from All Souls rolled bandages and made warm clothing for the troops overseas.

1941 – The “Flaming Chalice”, designed by Hans Deutsch, an Austrian exile in Portugal, was adopted as the seal of the Unitarian Service Committee. Later, combined with the Universalist “off-center cross,” it became the symbol of the Unitarian Universalist Association in the 1980’s.

1942 – Laurance Irving Neale (1885-1956, ministry 1942-1955) became the seventh minister, after the death of Minot Simons. Laurance Neale had been president of the congregation, and had filled in for Minot Simons during his illness. He was appointed acting minister by the congregation after Rev. Simons’ death. Rev. Neale took courses at Union Theological Seminary, receiving temporary accreditation from the AUA, and was ordained by the All Souls congregation. Before his death in 1956, Neale completed a doctorate in Theology (DD) from Tufts, thus meeting the requirements of the bylaws.

1942 – William Henry Brewster was hired as organist and choirmaster. Brewster’s original annual salary was $2,500. In 1967 he was presented with a plaque honoring his 25 years of service in these positions.

1944 – All Souls observed its 125th anniversary. In a muted “Service of Commemoration and Consecration” befitting the wartime mood, church members paid tribute to Americans lost in the conflict and pledged to “consecrate ourselves to spare no effort to create a world worthy of their sacrifices.”

1945 - The funeral of Béla Bartók (1881-1945), the great Hungarian Unitarian composer, was performed at All Souls by Rev. Laurence Neale. Bartók had been raised Catholic, but realized he was an atheist during a trip to study the ethnic music of the Unitarian Székely people in Transylvania in his early 20s. His son, Béla Bartók Jr., who became the president of the Hungarian Unitarian Church, later wrote that his father joined the Unitarian faith "primarily because he held it to be the freest, most humanistic faith." He called the trinity a "clumsy fable that enslaves thought," and said that if he ever crossed himself, it would signify, not the the Christian trinity, but “In the name of Nature, Art, and Science.” Bartók was strongly opposed to the Nazis and Hungary's siding with Germany. He left Hungary for New York in 1940, where he was supported by a research fellowship from Columbia University, working with a large collection of Serbian and Croatian folk songs in Columbia's libraries. To ease Bartók's financial burdens, the conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned an orchestral piece from Bartók. The result was Concerto for Orchestra (1943), Bartók's most popular piece. He lived in New York for the last five years of his life, and died of leukemia at the age of 64.  His body was initially interred in Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, but during the final year of the communist regime, the Hungarian government had his remains transferred back to Budapest for a state funeral in 1988.

© All Souls Historical Society 2020

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