Backus, Burdette E.

Edwin Burdette Backus
Edwin Burdette Backus

Edwin Burdette Backus (December 27, 1888-July 7, 1955), a Unitarian minister and proponent of humanism, had a popular radio ministry. He was a notable supporter of civil rights, civil liberties, world peace, and mental health. His successor, Jack Mendelsohn, called him “a shining example of a broad-gauged liberal minister, rich in compassion, gentleness, courage, personal dignity, scholarly grounding, equally appreciative of scientific method and democratic values—a good person, a good parson, a good world citizen.”

Edwin Burdette was born in Blanchester, Ohio to Estelle Campbell and Wilson Marvin Backus, both Universalist ministers. Estelle died shortly after bringing her son into the world. Wilson later moved into the Unitarian fold and served in Minneapolis, 1910-16, as the humanist predecessor to John Dietrich. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1909, Burdette followed in his parents’ footsteps and headed for Meadville Theological Seminary, where he earned his B.D. in 1912. He pursued graduate studies at Oxford, Harvard, the University of California, and universities in Berlin and Jena, Germany. In 1940 he was awarded a D.D. by Meadville.

Backus’s first settlement was in Lawrence, Kansas, 1913-17. There he met and married Irene Garrett, a graduate of the University of Kansas. In 1917 his father was called to serve a Unitarian congregation in Erie, Pennsylvania, but ill health forced him to resign. Burdette was called to replace him the same year. He then served the Unitarian congregation in Los Angeles, California, 1920-32; lectured for the Chicago Humanist Society, 1933-35; and served the Unitarian church in Des Moines, Iowa, 1935-38.

A lifelong naturalistic humanist, Backus was one of the 34 signers of the 1933 Humanist Manifesto, along with such eminent Unitarian ministers as John H. Dietrich, Curtis Reese, Edwin H. Wilson, Raymond B. Bragg, and Lester Mondale, and philosopher John Dewey. Backus was president of the American Humanist Association, 1944-46. He defined humanism as a philosophy based upon the understandings of science and believing in the worth, dignity, and potential of humankind. The purpose of humanism, according to Backus, is “to make human life on our earth-home as rich and satisfying as possible.” He thought that the methods people actually use to ameliorate life were based upon a naturalistic and not a supernatural understanding of the world. He preached that “man must do for himself the things that in the past he has asked the gods to do for him.”

In 1938 Backus was called to the Thomas Paine pulpit of All Souls Unitarian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. He was a spellbinding speaker, without a hint of bombast or flashiness. His pulpit addresses and his weekly fifteen-minute radio broadcasts—inspirational, thought provoking and gentle—influenced a great many and contributed to the founding of new Unitarian congregations in Indiana. Some of his radio talks were published as If Thought Be Free, 1946, and The Sheep and the Goats, 1948.

Backus was much more than a preacher. He was an activist. He was involved with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and helped to found the Indiana Society for Mental Hygiene, which he served for many years as president. He served on the board of the Indianapolis Children’s Bureau and on the Indiana White House Committee on Child Welfare. He also led opposition to religious instruction in public schools. In September, 1945 he preached an important sermon on the lawsuit filed by Vashti McCollum against the Board of Education of Champaign, Illinois. McCollum had objected to the board allowing various religious groups to instruct children during school hours. The lawsuit eventually led to an important 1948 United States Supreme Court decision maintaining the principle of church-state separation.

Addressing the danger to humanity posed by nuclear war, in a radio talk Backus called for the elimination of war. He thought that this could only be achieved by world federation and “the establishment of those basic conditions of economic and social equality among the peoples of earth which alone provide a secure foundation for enduring peace.”

During the McCarthy period Backus faced a serious challenge from an influential faction within the congregation that did not like his humanism or his support for the ACLU and the Mental Health Association. While the majority of the congregation supported him, a minority, worried that newcomers—possibly “Communists” and African Americans—might “infiltrate” the church, pulled out and formed a new congregation. According to Jack Mendelsohn, “the ordeal devastated Burdette emotionally.” He did not, however, allow these events to sour his optimism or to dampen his sense of humor.

Backus retired from All Souls at the end of 1953. He knew he was mortally ill and did not want the congregation he loved to be put through the trauma of watching him die. Before he left the church honored him as minister emeritus. In retirement he served as interim minister to the Unitarian congregation in Tacoma, Washington, 1954, and to the church in Phoenix, Arizona, 1954-55.

“If you were to take a poll of the Unitarian ministers throughout the country on the question of who stands highest both in the matter of fundamental respect and also of heartfelt affection, I have no doubt that Burdette Backus’s name would lead all the rest,” said American Unitarian Association president Frederick May Eliot. “Even those who most sharply disagree with some of his views join with the rest of us in an admiring tribute to his integrity, his frankness, and the combination of inflexible devotion to principle, with gentleness of spirit. I seldom think of him without recalling Emerson’s words to the effect that the great person is ‘one who, in the midst of the crowd, keeps perfect sweetness, the independence of solitude.'”


Backus’s two collections of radio addresses and the last twelve sermons he gave before his retirement were republished in 1998 in Timely and Timeless: The Wisdom of E. Burdette Backus, edited by Edd Doerr and with a foreword by Jack Mendelsohn. Backus also wrote The Pattern on the Mountain, 1939, a Lenten manual for the American Unitarian Association, and a pamphlet, The Way Called Unitarian, 1951.

Article by Edd Doerr
Posted March 23, 2003