Greeley, Dana McLean

Dana McLean Greeley
Dana McLean Greeley

Dana McLean Greeley (July 5, 1908-June 13, 1986), a Unitarian minister, peace activist, and civil rights leader, was the last president of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) and the founding president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

Dana was born in Lexington, Massachusetts into a longtime Unitarian family. Throughout his life he was proud that for five generations his family had been active lay leaders in the Unitarian cause. After he decided to become a minister his mother, Marjory Ellen Houghton, enjoyed teasing him that he was born at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning. His father, William Roger Greeley, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was a city planner and a successful architect in Boston.

The Greeley family attended the First Parish Unitarian Church of Lexington. Dana was president of the church’s Young People’s Religious Union (YPRU), represented the YPRU on the Parish committee, and led youth summer conferences at Star Island. Later, 1931-33, he served as president of the continental YPRU. In 1926, as a seventeen-year-old lay delegate, he attended his first annual meeting of the AUA. Throughout his youth he pondered becoming a minister. He often discussed the matter with his younger sister Rosamond. Her death due to a ruptured appendix during his senior year of high school precipitated his final decision.

As a result of his extra-curricular activities—athletics and church—Dana’s grades suffered. Therefore, after graduation from his public high school and before he could enter Harvard College he studied for a year at the Stearns School, a preparatory school in Mont Vernon, New Hampshire. He received his undergraduate degree in 1931 and an S.T.B. from the Harvard Divinity School in 1933. At Harvard his most influential teachers were Richard Clarke Cabot, William Wallace Fenn, and Alfred North Whitehead. As part of his practical learning experience at the Divinity School he was put in charge of the religious education program at Boston’s Church of the Disciples.

Before he entered Divinity School Dana married his schoolmate and neighbor Deborah Allen Webster, to whom he had been secretly engaged for three years. They had four daughters.

Greeley was ordained at his home parish in 1932. His first two settlements were at the Unitarian church in Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1932-34, and at the Concord, New Hampshire Unitarian Church, 1934-35. Then, when he was just 27, he was called to the historic Arlington Street Church in Boston—William Ellery Channing‘s old parish. Here he succeeded former AUA president Samuel Atkins Eliot, whom Greeley admired and who served as an inspiration for Greeley’s ministry and leadership. At his installation John Haynes Holmes, of New York City’s Community Church, delivered the sermon.

From 1935 to 1958 Greeley served the Arlington Street Church, whose people he came to love deeply. His optimism, charisma, leadership ability, genuine love of people, handsome appearance—he had a famous smile and engagingly booming laughter—did much to insure that his ministry was successful. He was able to strengthen the church’s membership and constituency, improve its organization and financial structure, and help the congregation play a leading role in Unitarian as well as civic activities. He was president of the North End Union, 1936-45; president of the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian Churches, 1945-50; secretary of the American Unitarian Association, 1945-53; and president of the Unitarian Service Committee, 1953-58.

As President of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, 1949-51, Greeley promoted its various interdenominational programs. He belonged to the Unitarian Temperance Society and the New England Watch and Ward, a “vigilante” citizen’s organization that censored books and theater productions and combated prostitution and gambling.

Greeley’s religious philosophy was rooted in both historic Unitarian theology and liberal Christianity. In 1944 he was a founding member of the Unitarian Christian Committee (now the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship). The two sermon collections he published while at Arlington Street, Toward a Larger Living: Sermons on Personal Religion, 1944, and A Message to Atheists, 1948, show him to be a theist, a follower of Jesus the man, and an optimist. “God is on our side,” he affirmed, “in the struggle for a better life and for the vindication of truth and justice.”

As Greeley grew older he came to question some of his earlier beliefs. “I can no longer honestly argue in behalf of the idea of personal immortality,” he wrote in 1970. “For me it is now difficult to think of man’s destiny as different from the destiny of all the rest of life lower down on the ladder of evolution.”

In 1958 the AUA Board of Directors nominated Ernest W. Kuebler, director of its Division of Education, to replace recently deceased president Frederick May Eliot. Greeley, who had been nominated by petition, won a close election contest and served as the last president of the AUA, 1958-61. Although there were some who felt that there needed to be a better balance in the Association between the president, the directors, and the churches and fellowships, Greeley as president followed in the footsteps of his powerful predecessors, Samuel Atkins Eliot and Frederick May Eliot.

Greeley pursued the task Frederick May Eliot had undertaken—uniting the AUA with the Universalist Church of America (UCA). “In some ways the most difficult administrative task was the advocacy and effecting of merger,” he later wrote. “It was challenging, sometimes perplexing, and overall very satisfying.” In doing this, however, limits were put on the number of other programs that he could initiate. Nevertheless in 1959 he did launch the Unitarian Development Fund, a campaign to raise expendable income to help the Association grow, which was later inherited by the UUA. He appointed six “Study Commissions”: on theology, the church, education, the arts, world religions, and social action. Their work was the basis for the UUA report, The Free Church in a Changing World, 1963.

In 1961 the consolidation of the UCA and the AUA created the UUA. There were two candidates for its first president: William B. Rice, the chairperson of the Merger Commission, and Greeley. After a spirited campaign Greeley was narrowly elected. Four years later he was easily re-elected to a second term. As leader of the new association Greeley faced two immediate problems: welding the two previous organizations into one and defining the role and power of the office of president. The first proved relatively easy, as the overwhelming sentiment among both the Universalists and the Unitarians favored union. While some complained about actions of the new Association, there was never any real threat that the “marriage” would not survive. Throughout his tenure Greeley was careful to see that those in his administration respected both traditions. The definition of UUA presidency was less easily resolved.

Greeley was determined to pursue the style of leadership he had used as AUA president. The constitution of the UUA, however, while defining the president as its “chief executive Officer” reserved to the Board of Trustees, and its moderator—then Marshall E. Dimock—the creation and establishment of policy. The president’s job was simply to carry out that policy. A struggle ensued between the two executive officers, ending, after three years, with the resignation of the moderator. This result set a pattern that has been followed by Greeley’s successors.

Consolidation mandated two service committees: one outside the UUA organizational structure, and one within. The former Unitarian Service Committee became the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, while the Universalist Service Committee was continued as a department within the Association. This was soon deemed an unworkable solution—and also financially unviable. Despite resistance from former Universalists and those favoring service projects run by volunteers, the in house committee was eliminated.

In 1961 there had been two Unitarian-founded and two Universalist-founded theological schools. In addition, Harvard Divinity School trained many for the Unitarian Universalist ministry. A religious organization with a small base of churches and fellowships and with limited financial resources could not justify so many seminaries. After much study and debate, the Association voted to support only two plus, in a limited way, Harvard. The schools that eventually ceased to exist were those established by Universalists. Much of the criticism of this result, rather unfairly, was directed at Greeley.

At merger church leaders had expressed great hopes for steady growth in church membership. Greeley felt that the new Association had an “unprecedented” opportunity. The movement added about 25,000 new members between 1960 and 1968. Soon afterwards, unfortunately, membership began to decline. The money spent on the UUA’s unsuccessful push for growth in the 1960s was a factor in the Association’s financial crisis at the end of the decade.

Meanwhile the six study commissions on “The Free Church in a Changing World,” created by Greeley in 1959, and the Committee on Goals, commissioned in 1965 by the UUA Trustees, made their reports. As thoughtful and suggestive as both were, they had little influence on the future course of the UUA. The only major innovations that resulted were the creation of two new departments: Social Responsibility and Overseas and Interfaith Relations. Greeley appointed, as director of the former, Homer A. Jack, a Unitarian Universalist minister and a peace, disarmament, and social rights advocate. It was the most important appointment he made as president.

With more than a hundred other Unitarian Universalists, in spring of 1965 Greeley marched for civil rights at Selma, Alabama. Seeking to help the peace process during the Vietnam War, he twice visited Saigon. He was, according to Jack, “far ahead of both the UUA Board and the membership of the churches in his opposition to the U.S. role in Vietnam.”

Greeley had been a conscientious objector during the Second World War. In 1962 he helped initiate the process which led to the founding in 1970 of the World Conference of Religion and Peace. An active participant in the Conference the rest of his life, he was, as Jack pointed out, its “chief American officer, and inspiration.” He traveled around the world in its behalf. In the process he became personally acquainted with Martin Luther King, Jr., Cardinal John J. Wright, Nikkyo Niwano, John C. Bennett, Benjamin Spock, Rabbi Maurice N. Eisendrath, and Shinichiro Imaoka.

In 1967 the UUA was shaken to its core by its own Black Empowerment confrontation, which replicated the controversy taking place throughout the country. It was a difficult and confusing time for both black and white Unitarian Universalists. Greeley attempted to respond to the concerns and feelings of the various groups but, as an administrator, found it a nearly impossible task to reconcile all of the parties. His term of office ended before the matter was finally resolved.

Mark-Morrison-Reed in his study on Selma enriched the understanding of these events, and of Greeley, who he felt deserved “commendation, both for what he had done and for what he would do,” but who also felt that he had failed to assert denominational leadership “when it came to transforming the UUA by aligning its espoused values on racial issues with its practices.” [MAY 2018: paragraph added by Alan Seaburg]

The Greeley administration spent more for programs and services than the UUA possessed in either current or expected future funds. Giving to the Association was decreasing, partly as a result of its—and Greeley’s—stand on Vietnam and peace. And the General Assembly’s commitment to fund the Black Affairs Council added pressure to the annual budget. The solution of this problem became the first task of his successor.

Greeley’s greatest asset as a religious leader was his ability to permit his thinking to grow beyond its original limits. He was able to listen and learn, not only from those around him—including many who disagreed with his views—but from the new understandings about humanity that science made possible. “I have often reflected,” one of his colleagues, Peter H. Samson, told him, “that men of presidential caliber, with a lifetime of notable service to the movement and a recognized status of dignity capable of representing us to the world, are not easily come by. You have been and are such a man, and you will be very much missed.”

With the end of his presidency in July 1969, Greeley became Visiting Professor of the Church and World Peace at the Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago and President of the International Association for Religious Freedom, 1969-72. He also found time to write 25 Beacon Street and Other Recollections, 1971, a lively rendition and defense of his presidency of the AUA and the UUA. In 1970 Greeley returned to local church work, accepting a call from the First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts. He did not, however, reduce his participation in national and international peace activities and ecumenical dialogue and cooperation.

During his lifetime Greeley received many awards including honorary degrees from Meadville Theological School, 1951; Emerson College, 1959; St. Lawrence University, 1959; Tufts University, 1960; Portia Law School, 1960; and Calvin Coolidge College, 1960. In 1967 the Unitarian Universalist Association, recognizing his lifetime commitment to social justice, presented him with its Holmes-Weatherly Award. Then, in 1969, the Association honored him with its Distinguished Service to the Cause of Liberal Religion award. The honor that he would most have appreciated was the establishment in 1986, by the Concord congregation and his friends and colleagues, of the Dana Greeley Foundation. The Foundation supports grassroots nonprofit community groups which develop programs that contribute to making the world more peaceful. In his honor the parish published in 1986, Forward Through the Ages: Writings of Dana McLean Greeley, 1970 through 1986.

On June13, 1986, during his sixteenth year at Concord, Greeley died of cancer. A memorial service, that he planned, was held at the First Parish. After cremation his ashes were placed in both the Greeley family plot at Monroe Cemetery, Lexington and at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord.


The Dana McLean Greeley Papers and Greeley’s ministerial file are at Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His published writings include Towards Larger Living: Sermons on Personal Religion (1944) and A Message to Atheists (1948). The best accounts to date of his life and work are his own 25 Beacon Street and Other Recollections (1971); Alan Seaburg, “Dana McLean Greeley,” in American National Biography (1999); and Alan Seaburg, “The American Unitarian Universalist Association—Its First Eight Years,” Faith and Freedom (Autumn/Winter 2003). For a succinct alternative view on Greeley as UUA president see Robert Nelson West, Crisis and Change: My Years as President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1969-1977 (2007). Also helpful are Warren R. Ross, The Premise and the Promise: The Story of Unitarian Universalist Association (2001); David E. Bumbaugh, Unitarian Universalism: a Narrative History (2000); Homer A. Jack, WCRP: a History of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (1993) and Homer’s Odyssey My Quest for Peace and Justice (1996); and Alan Seaburg, “Silence Is the Miracle,” Churchman (Nov. 1987). For background on the closing of theological schools, see Sol Gittleman, An Entrepreneurial University: The Transformation of Tufts, 1976-2002 (2004). Obituaries include Charles C. Forman, “Dana McLean Greeley 1908-1986,” Unitarian Universalist Christian (Spring, 1987); Who Was Who, 1985-1989, vol. 9; and the New York Times (June 14, 1986).

2019 ADDITION: Also see the section on Dana McLean Greeley in Mark Morrison Reed, The Selma Awakening How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalism, (2014).

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted May 29, 2004