Dieffenbach, Albert Charles

Albert Charles Dieffenbach
Albert Dieffenbach

Albert Charles Dieffenbach (July 4, 1876-October 6, 1963), a Unitarian minister and religious journalist, was the editor of The Christian Register, religion editor of The Boston Evening Transcript, and the first minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.

Albert was born in Manchester, Maryland, a small town with a strong German community. His grandfather Ferdinand Dieffenbach, who had emigrated from Germany, was one of the founders of Manchester’s Irving College. Albert’s parents, Ferdinand A. Dieffenbach and Jeannette Rix, a public school teacher, reared him for the ministry in the Reformed Church. The family had a long line of churchmen.

Having received his elementary education in the local public school, Albert attended the Baltimore City College High School for four years but did not graduate. From there he went to John Hopkins University, earning an A.B. in 1898. He co-founded and edited the university’s first undergraduate weekly. He was also a college correspondent on religious issues for The Baltimore News. After college he served for twenty years on the national executive board of the Phi Kappa Sigma Fraternity and was its president, 1924-26. In 1953 the fraternity awarded him its Distinguished Service Order.

Dieffenbach studied at the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Church at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1898-1901. In 1901 he was ordained by the Allegheny Classis at Grace Reformed Church in Pittsburgh. As a “field missionary” he founded the Reformed Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh and served as its pastor until 1911. During this ministry he worked to promote interfaith worship and in 1908 invited a local Rabbi, J. Leonard Levy, to preach from his pulpit. He wrote a regular column on religion for The Pittsburgh Gazette Times.

In 1903 Dieffenbach married Helen Albright Bertolette, who came from his home town in Maryland. A member of the Reformed Church, she was a graduate of Wilson College. In 1907 their only child, Ruth Bertolette, was born.

During his student days at Lancaster Dieffenbach had met John H. Dietrich. While serving liberal Reformed churches in Pittsburgh they were drawn to the theology of Unitarianism. In 1911 both left their congregations for Unitarian parishes. Dieffenbach later reflected upon the change that he and Dietrich had undergone. “In religion the liberal has a history. He is always a seeker of knowledge. His ruling passion is to know the truth in love for the good life. He sees a great difference, for example, when he looks back upon his own childhood, between the religion that he lisped in his bedside prayer and the religion he believes today with his larger outlook and his deeper insight. The same reverence is with him still, but he needs a larger expression.”

For Dieffenbach and Dietrich the larger expression first became Unitarianism, then religious humanism. Dieffenbach always insisted that “Humanism is the logical outcome of Christian thought” and that “Religion is still religion though God in any conception of the word may be disregarded.” He preferred “not to abandon the word God, for the reality in which I have my being, while it does not correspond to the traditional theistic conception, is nevertheless the support of my life without which I could not live in body, mind, or spirit.”

In 1911, having been granted Unitarian fellowship, Dieffenbach was called to the Hartford, Connecticut Unitarian Church. There he worked on behalf of local and state religious and social movements. He served as chair of the Confidential Exchange, the clearinghouse for the city’s charitable organizations. In 1917, when the United States entered the First World War, Dieffenbach resigned his pastorate to serve as a chaplain (with the rank of captain) in the Connecticut State Guard. He served until the end of the year when he became editor of the leading Unitarian journal, The Christian Register. At this time the Meadville Theological School awarded him an honorary D.D.

Dieffenbach edited the Register for fifteen years, 1918-33. Under his supervision the magazine achieved its highest circulation. John Haynes Holmes observed that “the Register was the most widely quoted religious journal in the country.” Dr. Howard A. Bridgman, the editor of the Congregationalist, declared that “No editor in American can excel Dr. Dieffenbach in his capacity to put words together pungently and effectively.” He added that no one had done as much as Dieffenbach “to inspire the recent movements, which have put fresh life into the Unitarian body.”

As editor Dieffenbach’s guiding purpose was to “rouse the sleepers to the tremendous need of a religion that has virility and speaks with authority.” During the 1920s he opened the pages of the magazine to articles dealing with the emerging humanist-theist discussion within Unitarianism. One of these was the controversial “humanist” address given by Curtis W. Reese, Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference, at the Harvard Summer School of Theology in 1920. In an editorial Dieffenbach welcomed the address, praising it as a sign of willingness to place “less responsibility on God and more on our own self-dependent minds and wills.” Later, in 1933, he helped draft, and signed, the Humanist Manifesto.

During his years with the Register Dieffenbach traveled extensively, promoting denominational causes such as the Unitarian Campaign and the Unitarian Foundation. He helped to found the Unitarian Laymen’s League and served as a Billings Lecturer in the South.

In 1927, in addition to his editorship, he had assumed the role of “preaching minister” to the small Newton Centre, Massachusetts Unitarian Church. After he left the Register, he became their full time minister, 1933-40. He was afterwards made Minister Emeritus. In the resolution accepting his decision to leave the congregation acknowledged “his wise and understanding tolerance among the thoughtful people of all sects and creeds.”

In his only book, Religious Liberty, The Great American Illusion, 1927, Dieffenbach warned against religious fundamentalism and maintained that true religious liberty “is a sacred fire which must be forever tended, if it is to continue to glow in the history of the people.” In a preface to his friend Joseph P. MacCarthy’s book, The Philosophy of Religion, 1927, he stipulated that religious liberty must also be based on the reality of science if religion is to “bring new light and new life” to people.

Conflict over Dieffenbach’s views and positions had long been developing within the denomination. The editor of the Congregationalist noted that Dieffenbach “did not beat about the bush. He hit hard and he usually had a target. Naturally he gave offence to many.” In 1930 more than one hundred ministers signed a petition asking the trustees of the Register to dismiss him. If he were not fired they would start a new Unitarian publication. They complained not about his humanistic views directly, but of the “inadequacy of the editorials relating to the nature and being of God and other theological and metaphysical ideas.” His editorials were “unworthy of the problems themselves and of the high standards of thinking which is characteristic” of Unitarian thought.

The trustees of the Register did not immediately fire their editor. However, a year later, when in an editorial Dieffenbach criticized the operation of the Universalist journal, the Christian Leader, they forced him to publish an official apology—an apology they composed. Many religious journals issued editorials in Dieffenbach’s defense. The one in the Protestant Episcopal The Churchman hoped that Dieffenbach would be able to “show his trustees either the light or the door.” Dieffenbach was not able to do either. The trustees dismissed him, explaining that they had to dispense with his “long, loyal and courageous service” because they needed to radically reduce expenses as a result of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Dieffenbach was hired by the Boston Evening Transcript as Religious Editor, a position he held from 1933 until the newspaper suspended publication in 1941. He wrote a weekly “Emersonian essay sermon” which, in newspaper language, tried to make clear “the function of religion.” In 1937 he attended, as a Unitarian representative, the World Conference of Christian Churches held at Oxford, England and also the Conference of Faith and Order in Edinburgh. He wrote about both in the Transcript and lectured widely about them.

In 1939 the Transcript published a word-portrait of Dieffenbach. Dieffy, as he was known there, was “a medium-sized man with thinning light hair, pince-nez, inexhaustible enthusiasm, and small feet twinkling rapidly beneath the cuffless bottoms of blue-serge pants. With the speed of an autumn barnswallow he oscillates on Friday between his fourth-floor cubicle and the composing room. En route through the city room with the rim of his green eyeshade he ploughs a smooth furrow through clouds of tobacco smoke.”

Dieffenbach served as the New England Director of the American Committee for Christian Refugees, 1941-42. This was the largest and oldest non-Jewish agency helping European refugees to settle in the United States. When war conditions caused immigration to cease, the agency’s activity ceased. He served as the director of war information in the Federal Office of Civilian Defense for the First Region (New England). In the 1940s he sponsored and worked for the Massachusetts Council of American Soviet Friendship. He resigned in 1949 because he concluded that it was no longer effective. He also served as trustee and recording secretary with the Massachusetts Bible Society.

Dieffenbach was interim minister of the Unitarian Church, Lynn, Massachusetts, 1942-45, while its minister served as a chaplain. In 1944, when the AUA established the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF) as a part of its Extension Department, Dieffenbach became its first minister. The purpose of the CLF was to serve the religious needs of those living in areas without nearby congregations. “The minister,” he declared, “will perform most of the services that belong to a pastor in a local parish.” He sent its members monthly letters, AUA pamphlets, and religious educational material for their children. Two years after its founding the CLF had 775 members. Dieffenbach served until 1947, and then became minister emeritus. During these years he was also editorial director of Beacon Press, 1944-47, and editor of the Wayside Pulpit, 1944-49.

Helen Dieffenbach was president of the Unitarian Ministers’ Wives Association, 1945-46, and active in the Women’s Branch Alliance of the First Parish in Cambridge.

Dieffenbach and his wife retired to their home in Cambridge. Dieffenbach remained there after her death in 1951 until illness caused him to move closer to his daughter in New London, Connecticut. In 1961 the CLF and the newly created Unitarian Universalist Association honored Dieffenbach’s fifty years as a Unitarian minister and the sixtieth anniversary of his ordination. In 1963 George N. Marshall presided at the dedication of the Dieffenbach family organ at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New London. Dieffenbach died later that year. A memorial service, conducted by its minister, the Rev. Ralph N. Helverson, was held at the First Parish in Cambridge.

The Andover-Harvard Theological Library houses Dieffenbach’s Unitarian ministerial file. It also has a scrapbook (1910, 1919-33) which contains newspaper and magazine clippings by Dieffenbach in its Newton Centre Unitarian Church Collection. The portrait of Dieffenbach above is from the Andover-Harvard collection and is used with the Harvard Divinity School’s kind permission. Among Dieffenbach’s publications are Sermons (1912-1914) and “Soviets draw the lines of their new Moscow,” in Boston Evening Transcript Magazine (September 14, 1935). See also E. B. Garside, “The Transcript from Within,” Boston Evening Transcript (January 12, 1939); Making the Manifesto The Birth of Religious Humanism (2002); and Charles H. Lyttle, Freedom Moves West (1952). There are obituaries in the Unitarian Universalist Register-Leader (December, 1963), The Boston Herald (October 8, 1963), The Boston Globe (October 8, 1963), and The New York Times (October 8, 1963).

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted June 24, 2006