Leon Milton Birkhead (April 28, 1885-December 1, 1954), a controversial Methodist and Unitarian minister, achieved national prominence in the 1940s as director of the Friends of Democracy in New York. From the late 1930s through the early 1950s, he battled those, on the right and the left, who spread totalitarian propaganda.
The oldest of seven children raised by a Baptist father and a Methodist mother, Leon was born on a farm near Winfield, Missouri, fifty miles northwest of St. Louis. From 1904 until 1910 he majored in theology at McKendree College, a Methodist school in Lebanon, Illinois and served as a student preacher in the area’s smaller Methodist churches. Because of his geology studies he began to doubt the Bible story of creation. He concluded that such doubt was not a sin but “the condition of real thinking and mental progress.” Hoping to be “straightened out intellectually” he attended the conservative Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey. Disappointed by his professors’ “fear of modernism,” he became an agnostic. After a year he transferred to Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University in New York. Although he thought himself too liberal to be a minister in the Methodist Church, his friends convinced him that he could “aid in liberalizing the church from the inside more than from without.”
Birkhead returned to St. Louis in 1912, where he served as the associate minister at Maple Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church. The following year he became Pastor of the Wagoner Memorial M. E. Church in St. Louis. He soon acquired a reputation as the most radical Methodist minister in the area, preaching sermons that dealt largely with current political and social injustices. “Thinking too much of heaven and not enough of earth—that’s the trouble. Churches should be first, champions of such wholesome living conditions that insure perfect health and happiness,” Birkhead preached. “The churches are on the wrong pedestal. They do not understand life as it is, they talk too much on how it should be, yet lack a remedy to change the conditions. Let the churches get close to the quivering pulse of humanity, and we will have a better world.”
In 1913 Birkhead married Agnes Schiereck, a Deputy Collector in the St. Louis Internal Revenue Office. They had met while doing mission work. She shared his views on religion and social issues and played a supporting role in his career. They had a a son, Kenneth.
Concerned with the plight of labor, Birkhead hoped that trade unionism, socialism, and the activity of the International Workers of the World (IWW) would lead to industrial democracy. IWW members who were expelled from other churches were welcome at Wagoner Memorial Church. His 1914 Labor Day sermon inspired the founding of the Open Forum, a weekly free speech debating society. Roger Baldwin, later to found the ACLU, also joined.
Birkhead was harshly criticized by members of his own church when he denounced Billy Sunday, the well-known evangelist, who had been invited by local ministers to conduct a revival in St. Louis. “His theology is a mediaeval belief that Christianity somehow is a fire-escape from a future hell,” he said. “I regard him as more of a freak than an evangelist.”
Early in 1915, Birkhead admitted that he was “out of harmony” with Methodist discipline and resigned from the Methodist Episcopal Church. Agnes fully supported his decision. She told a local reporter that, in order to maintain her own self respect, she had independently withdrawn from the church. “I do not care a snap of the finger about keeping men out of Hell and getting them into Heaven,” Birkhead said, “but I do care tremendously about making this earth more like Heaven and less like Hell.”
Birkhead was immediately admitted into fellowship with the Unitarian Church and, within a few months, called to the pulpit of the First Unitarian Church in Wichita, Kansas. He quickly stirred up the local church community with sermon topics such as: “What the world owes to the Heretic”, “Is Jesus God?”, “Why does not God intervene and stop the war?” and “The crumbling creeds and why the modern world cannot accept them.” His advertising of church services was unprecedented in Wichita.
Birkhead could always be counted on to provide reporters with controversial quotes, whether regarding Christianity and the Bible, a new city charter, Sunday moviegoing, prison reform, or improving the deplorable roads of southeastern Kansas. He was a welcome visitor to the offices of the two Wichita newspapers because no one felt obliged to stop smoking or to suppress a colorful word if it was appropriate. A columnist on the Eagle wrote, ” He called the boys by their first names and they really came to believe that a preacher was something besides an iceberg. He didn’t talk religion unless the boys wanted to hear it; but he always said something that made a man better.”
His Sunday evening forum sessions became popular with the larger community. By late 1917 church membership had grown from thirty members to over one hundred, the building loan had been paid off, and First Unitarian no longer needed financial help from the American Unitarian Association. He conducted Unitarian revivals in Denver, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City. The Daily Oklahoman quoted him saying, “Heretics are the electric starters of civilization’s automobile.”
In 1917 Birkhead was called to All Souls Unitarian Church in Kansas City. He again established himself as the area’s most controversial clergyman. “The function of a Unitarian church,” he said, “is to affirm frequently that it is possible to be decent and honorable without accepting meaningless and outgrown traditions and beliefs. I believe in the religion of humanity, and that true religion is found in intelligent devotion to human welfare and such significant human values as truth, freedom, justice, goodness, and beauty.”
Birkhead claimed that he was not an atheist. “I do not know enough about the nature of ultimate reality to be one. However, I am willing to be the sort of atheist portrayed by Professor [Roy Wood] Sellars when he describes John Dewey and Edward Scribner Ames as ‘piously socially minded atheists, who are constructive in that they stress social values.'”
Throughout his 22-year Kansas City ministry, Birkhead delivered series of well publicized, highly controversial sermons. He urged that ministers take courses in advertising and publicity. “It is a fact that ministers as a group can dive deeper into a subject and come up dryer than any other class of men,” he said. “Most of us are totally devoid of a sense of news values.”
Birkhead, an indefatigable public speaker, worked with good-government groups to install a city-manager system in Kansas City and drive “Boss Tom” Pendergast from power. Although a new city charter was approved in 1925, the Pendergast machine managed to run the city for another fifteen years.
When bills were introduced in several midwestern state legislatures that would ban the teaching of evolution from state-supported schools, Birkhead debated a group of anti-evolution ministers who travelled around the region and called themselves the “Flying Fundamentalists.” In the summer of 1925, he drove to Dayton, Tennessee to assist Clarence Darrow at the famous Scopes trial. H. L. Mencken reported that the two Unitarian ministers, Birkhead and Charles Francis Potter, were “prowling around the town looking for a chance to discharge their ‘hellish heresies.'”
The following year, when Sinclair Lewis came to Kansas City to research a novel about preachers, he found Birkhead to be an eager and companionable guide to the local clergy. Each Wednesday at his hotel, Lewis held wide-ranging bull sessions with a group of ministers. He challenged their theologies and heard, in confidence, their “war stories.” Lewis spent the following summer, at a Minnesota lake, writing Elmer Gantry. He invited the Birkheads to join him. They provided inspiration and technical help. Birkhead later defended the book against widespread criticism. “Lewis dared not make Elmer Gantry as coarse and vulgar as many preachers are,” he said. “The book would have seemed ‘too fictional.'”
In the summer of 1931 the Birkheads toured Europe. In Germany they witnessed the Nazi struggle for power. Birkhead returned to Germany in 1935. He talked his way into the secret offices of Julius Streicher, the infamous “Jew-baiter of Nuremberg.” There, he enticed Streicher’s secretary into bragging about their worldwide network of anti-semitic sympathizers and showing him lists of their “friends” in the United States. As soon as he returned home, Birkhead began collecting information on these individuals and organizations. Out of this work, in 1937, grew the Friends of Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonsectarian, nonprofit, anti-totalitarian educational agency. His first target was Gerald Winrod, an anti-semitic minister in Wichita who was running for the Senate in 1938. Winrod, called by some the “Jayhawk Nazi”, was defeated largely because of Birkhead’s efforts that included a brochure called “What’s Wrong With Winrod.”
Since 1930 Birkhead’s ministry had become increasingly secular. The church was unofficially renamed The Liberal Center and Birkhead, as leader, gave lectures at the Sunday morning meetings. Some members who preferred a more traditional religious program dropped out. These defections added to the church’s difficulties during the Depression.
In 1939 Birkhead resigned his Kansas City ministry and opened a Friends of Democracy office in New York City. He spent the remaining fifteen years of his life directing “pitiless publicity” at purveyors of anti-democratic propaganda. In this category he included the radio priest Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-semitic preacher Gerald L. K. Smith, the American Nazi leader Fritz Kuhn, and Elizabeth Dilling, whose Patriotic Research Bureau published “The Red Network,” a book that smeared hundreds of liberals and moderates. Birkhead’s adversaries also included the isolationist press such as the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, and the Hearst papers.
1947 was the high-water mark of Birkhead’s crusade. In that year E. J. (Ely Jacques) Kahn, Jr. wrote a three-part profile in the New Yorker which chronicled his career and the work of Friends of Democracy. The Friends then had dozens of paid staff in New York, and offices in Kansas City, Chicago, and Boston as well. Agnes ran the office in Kansas City. The Friends had distributed forty million pieces of literature exposing fascist and communist propaganda. Approximately eleven thousand people subscribed to its semi-monthly bulletin called Friends of Democracy’s Battle. Sponsors included Will Durant, Frederick May Eliot, Thomas Mann, Van Wyck Brooks and John Dewey. Rex Stout, the popular mystery writer, served as its national chairman. He called Birkhead a man who “looks like Franklin, talks like Paine and fights like Washington.”
But the tide began to turn against Birkhead in 1947. The Friends of Democracy then lost their tax-exempt status. Emboldened by his earlier success Birkhead made incautious statements that led to libel suits, one of which was successful. More important, America’s fear of fascism, or the “Brown Scare,” was on the decline, while fear of Communism, “the Red Scare,” was rising. In the early 1950s Friends of Democracy had declined to a one-man operation. Birkhead’s health and finances deteriorated. He was estranged from his wife. His last targets, in his regular column for Exposé magazine, were Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. In December 1954 Birkhead died, alone, in a Manhattan hotel room.
The Leon Milton Birkhead Papers are in the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, in Kansas City, Missouri. There are also documents in the Bragg Papers Archive at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, Kansas City, Missouri. E. J. Kahn’s “Democracy’s Friend” articles in the New Yorker were dated July 26, 1947; August 2, 1947; and August 9, 1947. Birkhead wrote The Scopes Trial and the Larger Issues Involved (1925) for All Souls Unitarian Church, in Kansas City, Missouri. In the 1920s and 1930s, he wrote 11 Little Blue Books for E. Haldeman-Julius Press, Girard, Kansas: Is Elmer Gantry True?, The Common Sense of Health, The Sins of Good People, Religious Bunk over the Radio, Can Man Know God?, Can People Be Made Good by Law?, President Hoover and Quakerism, The Religion of a Free Man, The Missouri University Sex Questionnaire and Its Significance, Can We Follow Jesus Today?, and The Essence of Unitarianism. See also Allen Austin, A History of All Souls Unitarian Church (1943); Leo Ribuffo, The Old Christian Right (1983); and Richard Lingeman, Sinclair Lewis: Rebel from Main Street (2002).
Article by Jim Grebe
Posted November 30, 2004