Davies, A. Powell

A. Powell Davies
A. Powell Davies

A. Powell Davies (June 5, 1902-September 26, 1957), a Unitarian minister, was a renowned orator and a prominent social activist for civil liberties, government accountability, civilian control of atomic energy, family planning, and desegregation. As a denominational leader, he helped push for the formulation of a more visionary and explicit statement of Unitarian faith that contributed to congregational extension.

Arthur Powell Davies was born of Welsh parents in Birkenhead, England (a suburb of Liverpool). Raised a Methodist, he was also exposed to the contrasting religious views of his fundamentalist Presbyterian paternal grandfather and those of his more liberal grandmother. After finishing his secondary education in Liverpool in 1918, he worked briefly as a clerk for a shipping company in Liverpool. When the dock workers went on strike for better wages, Davies, ever inclined to social activism, supported them. The leader of the strike was subsequently elected as a Labour Party Member of Parliament. In 1920 Davies went to London as the new MP’s private secretary, and there met George Bernard Shaw, who advised him to enter politics. Unswayed, Davies decided to enter the Methodist ministry. In 1922 he began his studies at Richmond Theological College, a Methodist school affiliated with the University of London.

While in seminary Davies began courting Muriel Hannah, the daughter of his family’s Methodist minister. Their courtship began during a weekend outing in London, during which Hannah’s father asked Davies to show her the sights. They were soon informally engaged and married in 1927.

After graduating from Richmond in 1925, the recipient of his seminary’s prestigious Theological Prize, Davies confessed to a “beloved professor” his many doubts about the doctrines he had been taught and asked him if he ought therefore to discontinue his career in the ministry. The professor, although disappointed by the direction Davies’s disbelief had taken him, told him to trust his own mind and to hold to his own truth. In spite of his unorthodoxy Davies should become a minister. “You are in love with [religion],” the professor told him, “Perhaps it will bring you heartbreak, but it will never let you go.”

Davies served as minister at the Becontree Methodist Central Hall in Illford, a London suburb, 1925-28. In three years he built this small church into a congregation of more than a thousand. Although his ministry in Illford was considered highly successful and he enjoyed being a minister, he found English Methodism confining. Impressed by the American commitment to freedom and hoping to find a “freer” form of Methodism in the United States, Davies and his wife emigrated in May 1928.

In America, Davies first served two rural Methodist churches in Maine, Goodwin’s Mills and Clark’s Mills. He commuted to Boston in order to take classes at Boston University. In 1929 he was assigned to the Pine Street Methodist Church in Portland, Maine. While there he stirred up controversy by publicly challenging prevailing business ethics. As an experiment, he worked as a used car salesman for a week, posing the question of whether or not it was possible to be a businessman and adhere to “Christian” honesty and integrity. Upon his return to church he wrote a scathing critique of prevailing business practices. The experience deepened his self-identification as a social activist and a public minister.

Davies, who had come to the United States seeking a more liberal form of Methodism, continued to question his denominational commitment. By the time he was in Portland, he had ceased to use the Apostle’s Creed in his services. “Creeds have no place in the world today because they transgress the free domain of the mind,” he explained. Vincent Silliman, minister at the First Parish Unitarian Church in Portland, gently guided Davies towards Unitarianism. In 1933 Davies received fellowship with the American Unitarian Association (AUA), and settled at the Community Church of Summit, New Jersey.

The Community Church of Summit was a suburban New York City Unitarian congregation that had renounced denominational ties in favor of the Community Church movement. Davies eventually succeeded in bringing the Summit congregation back within the Unitarian fold.

With danger of war in Europe rising, in September 1938 Davies sided with optimistic religious liberals in calling for the appeasement of Germany. “The world will not be a worse place because of Czechoslovakia’s sacrifice,” he reasoned. “It may be that a Germany more satisfied will change from Hitlerism to a better national life and take a place in making a better future.” Davies preferred a non-violent solution to the situation in Europe, but rapidly began to realize that peace was no longer possible. In June 1939, already a firm supporter of the Allied war effort, he wrote, “What rules the earth? Moral force or physical force? The answer . . . is obvious. The earth is ruled by physical force. The force of law and popular opinion compromise violence and modify it; but they do not forsake violence.”

While in Summit, Davies concentrated on denominational affairs. He took seriously the AUA’s Commission on Appraisal report of 1936, Unitarians Face a New Age, which called for organizational restructuring, de-emphasis of sectarianism, and development of a broader vision of how Unitarians could engage in the world. Success on these latter points, Davies felt, depended upon having a religion that embodied the American ideal of freedom. In his first book, American Destiny, 1942, he propounded the view that American “faith in [individual] freedom is the only faith which can unite the world.” Making this lofty and optimistic vision a reality required, he believed, a clear enunciation of what Unitarianism stands for.

Davies was a leader of the reform movement, Unitarian Advance. As such he chaired the Program Committee in charge of developing the agenda for the 1943 AUA Annual Meetings. This committee proposed the creation of a wartime statement to be called “The Faith Behind Freedom.” This document, composed and adopted at the meetings, proclaimed, “Our [Unitarian] purpose is to build a World Community of free and equal men, dedicated to equality of human rights and obligations, and governed by the laws that free men make . . . We seek complete and universal freedom.”

Three committees were created by the AUA to prepare for Unitarian Advance after the war. Davies chaired “Committee A,” which sought to explicate the foundations of Unitarian faith. During the course of preparing the committee recommendations, he reported to the AUA Board that if Unitarians were to move forward they must abandon mere sectarianism. “If we are ‘just another Protestant denomination,'” he wrote, “then we have no distinction and no justification for larger scale advance. If we are what Channing called ‘the universal church’ . . . then we must begin to be that church.”

In 1944, Committee A proposed “A Statement of Unitarian Working Principles,” which was adopted by the AUA Board. This statement identified Unitarians as having faith in “individual freedom of belief, discipleship to advancing truth, the democratic process in human relations, universal brotherhood undivided by nation, race or creed, and allegiance to the cause of a united world community.”

Davies engagement in social and political issues was also facilitated by his participation in the Metro New York Council of Churches. Through this association he became a friend of Unitarian activist minister John Haynes Holmes, and an acquaintance of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. Family planning became one of Davies’s major social concerns while at Summit. Davies was a member of Sanger’s New Jersey Birth Control League and participated in coordinated media campaigns and congregational education on this topic. In 1943, Davies signed one of the first statements of support by religious leaders for Planned Parenthood.

After the death in 1943 of Ulysses Pierce, minister at All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington, D.C., Davies’s denominational and social activism made him a logical successor. AUA President Frederick May Eliot recommended Davies, a leadership rival, for the position, hoping to keep him busy at a distance from Boston. Davies accepted the call to serve All Souls and was installed in October 1944.

Davies recognized the importance of the Washington pulpit, envisioning, as Laurence Staples relates, “a National Unitarian Church, the pride of the denomination and fully representative of its history.” Joining All Souls as the victory in Europe unfolded, in April 1945 Davies was asked by Eliot to testify before Congress on the Dumbarton Oaks and Bretton Woods agreements on international economic cooperation after the war. Davies testified before the Senate Banking and Currency Committee relating Unitarian support for these important, post-WWII international endeavors. Through such advocacy, he established himself as a public voice in Washington for the Unitarian movement.

After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the summer of 1945, Davies deepened his engagement in public affairs. Realizing the danger of atomic weapons and the inevitability of nuclear proliferation, he became a major proponent of civilian control of nuclear technology. Davies served with a coalition of scientists and civic leaders on the Executive Committee of the National Committee on Atomic Information, and was subsequently elected to be Chair of its Emergency Committee for Civilian Control of Atomic Energy. He was an important advocate for the adoption of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which created the Atomic Energy Commission as an independent, civilian agency with ultimate authority over nuclear technology.

Davies rallied public support against what he believed to be governmental abuses during the McCarthy era. Because of his many writings in support of American values and ideals, such as American Destiny, he had solid anti-Communist credentials. He claimed that Communism would fail if it were allowed to compete within the American marketplace of ideas. It was unnecessary, he thought, to suspend or curtail basic American freedoms in order to counter Communism. In 1953, at the AUA annual meeting in Boston, he reflected on his criticism of McCarthy Era tactics, noting that “I have been against Communism my whole life,” he said, “[but] I have [also] criticized the untruths and injustices of the investigating committees . . . I am what is called a controversial person: that is . . . one who does not keep quiet in the presence of evil.”

In 1950 a member of the Board of Trustees of All Souls was unjustly accused of sexual indecency, and, in the process of arrest, denied his basic rights. Davies spoke out against the abuse of police power and judicial authority. He witnessed in the case and helped exonerate an innocent man. About all such cases Davies said, “If I believed an injustice was being done I would make whatever protest I believed I should and all the courts in America would not stop me.”

In 1952, Ross Weston, the Unitarian minister in Arlington, Virginia was judged to be in contempt for criticizing a controversial court decision from his pulpit. This contempt citation threatened to gag ministers from speaking out against court abuses. Davies contributed to the successful defense of both his colleague and vocational freedom. “The right to criticize is necessary in the case of public servants of every sort,” he claimed. “Only so can we insure that evil is not entrenched, and prevent intimidation and tyranny.”

Residing in Washington Davies experienced first-hand the realities of life in a southern, segregated city. While African-Americans had attended All Souls over the years, the first African-Americans were welcomed as full members in 1950. In 1953 Davies launched a successful city-wide campaign to patronize only those restaurants that would serve all people regardless of race. (He maintained, however, his membership in Washington’s elite Cosmos Club, at that time an all-white gentleman’s club, because he hoped to change its policies from within.) He pressured the Washington D.C. Police Boys’ Club No. 10, housed at All Souls, to integrate. The club refused and broke off its relationship with the church in 1954. Undeterred, and with support from the Unitarian Service Committee, Davies helped create the racially integrated Columbia Heights Youth Club later that year.

His social activism made Davies immensely popular and influential. The local injustices he railed against were emblematic of larger societal problems and he inspired thousands to take action on the local and national levels. His influence and access extended to the highest levels of power in Washington, and included Congressional representatives, Supreme Court Justices, and even the President.

Davies was a dynamic and prophetic preacher, claimed by many to be one of the finest orators of his day. He used his pulpit to remind people of the primary human calling: the cultivation and development of character and action. As Davies eloquently captured it, “life is just the chance to grow a soul.” With the skill of a poet, Davies probed and illuminated the human desire for connection and meaning. “There is no mystery greater than our own mystery,” he preached. “We are, to ourselves, unknown. And yet we do know. The thought we cannot quite think is nevertheless somehow a thought, and it lives in us without our being able to think it. We are a mystery, but we are a living mystery.”

According to Davies, spiritual life is the core of religion. “In the mind’s dimness a light will shine; in the spirit’s stillness it will be as though a voice had spoken; the heart that was lonely will know who it was it yearned for, and the life of the soul will be one with the life that is God.” God is a living spiritual reality encompassing the totality of the spirits of all beings. “God is what the soul ‘breathes’ as the body breathes air.” He sought God in the pursuit of religion, not its establishment. “For there is a God who never dies, the one and only living God whose face is ever set towards tomorrow.”

As Davies’s popularity grew in the 1940s and 50s, All Souls found itself filled to maximum capacity on Sunday mornings. Taking this as proof of his heralded Unitarian Advance, Davies decided that instead of trying to accommodate more people at All Souls, the solution lay in starting new suburban congregations. Such extension work had already begun in Arlington, Virginia late in the tenure of Ulysses Pierce. Under Davies’s leadership five new suburban congregations—Arlington, Cedar Lane, Paint Branch, Mount Vernon, and what is presently known as the Davies Memorial Church—were established. These “daughter” churches later founded three additional congregations—Fairfax, Rockville, and River Road. (Muriel Davies, it is worth noting, was instrumental in the creation of the River Road congregation.) To facilitate communication and cooperation among these new churches, in 1950 Davies organized what is presently known as the Greater Washington Association of Unitarian Universalist Churches (GWA) and served as Chair, 1950-57.

In recognition of his achievements, Davies received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from the Meadville Theological School in 1947 and an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Howard University in 1955.

Dedicated to his work, Davies ignored his physicians’ advice to restrict his movements after he was operated on in 1953 for thrombophlebitis in his leg. He continued his routine schedule as much as discomfort and pain would permit. On September 26, 1957 a blood clot traveled to his lung where it caused fatal hemorrhaging. A memorial service was held for Davies two days later at All Souls. Three sitting Supreme Court Justices—Hugo Black, Harold Burton, and William O. Douglas—honored him by attending the service.

There are archival materials on Davies at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts; at the Meadville/Lombard Theological School Library in Chicago, Illinois; and at the Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church in Camp Springs, Maryland. The Davies Memorial Committee at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. can be contacted for information on the archives there. Davies’s works include The Man from Nazareth (1937); The Faith of an Unrepentant Liberal (1946); “Christmas Always Begins at Midnight,” Freedom and Union (December 1946); America’s Real Religion (1949); Man’s Vast Future (1951); Religion in the Bible (1952); The Temptation to Be Good (1952); The Urge to Persecute (1953); The Language of the Heart (1956); The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1956); The Ten Commandments (1956); and The First Christian (1957). The Mind and Faith of A. Powell Davies, edited by William O. Douglas (1959); Without Apology: Collected Meditations on Liberal Religion (1998), edited by Forrest Church; and Five Favorites: A Collection of Popular Timely Sermons (1999) are three Davies anthologies.

The biography of Davies is George N. Marshall, A. Powell Davies and His Times (1990). Other studies are the A. Powell Davies Memorial Committee Pamphlet, “A. Powell Davies: 1902-1957” (1958); the introduction to Douglas’s Mind and Faith; Laurence Staples, Washington Unitarianism (1970); William Schulz, “The Minister and McCarthyism: A. Powell Davies and Post-War Hysteria,” Alone Together (1979), edited by Peter Kauffman and Spencer Lavan; R. Stutzman, “A. Powell Davies: Some Remembrances” (1991), Greater Washington Area Minister’s Study Group Paper; and George N. Marshall, “A. Powell Davies: Theological Radical,” Religious Humanism (1992). There is an obituary in the Washington Post (September 29, 1957): “Dignitaries Pay Tribute to the Late Dr. Davies.”

Article by Manish Mishra-Marzetti
Posted May 9, 2003