Harrison, Alice Mildred

Alice Mildred Harrison
Alice Mildred Harrison

Alice Mildred Harrison (July 27, 1906-June 13, 1989), a religious educator, was a pioneering leader and organizer of youth programming and activities for the Universalist Church of America, the Council of Liberal Churches, and the Unitarian Universalist Association. She became an expert on working with young people of Junior High School age.

Alice, and her twin sister Elsie, were born in South Manchester, Connecticut. Her father, Henry W. Harrison, came from Ireland and her mother, Clara Halleher, from Germany. Alice attended public schools and received her religious instruction from the local Congregational church. Wishing to work in the field of religious education, she attended Boston University, where in 1931 she received the degree of Bachelor of Religious Education. Her first professional position was as Director of Religious Education for women and girls at the Eliot Congregational Church in Roxbury, Massachusetts, 1931-35.

Between 1936 and 1945 Harrison was the first woman Religious Education Director at the First Universalist Church of Lynn, Massachusetts. The minister during her tenure was William Wallace Rose, a popular preacher and advocate of Christian Universalism. They became warm friends. She organized the entire Church School program on a departmental basis and rejuvenated the curriculum and teaching of its young people. The church’s historian, Walter R. Henshaw, declared that she “imparted to teachers and pupils her enthusiasm and vibrant spirit.” When she left her position she said: “No other has ever reached my heart and soul as this Church has, and I am proud now to call it my Church not because I have worked here but because I belong here.”

During Harrison’s years at Lynn she was active in many community projects. She served as dean of the Community School of Religious Education (sponsored by the Greater Lynn Council of Churches) and was president of the Massachusetts Universalist Sunday School Association. She taught at Universalist summer institutes in Maine, New Jersey, and Indiana and was on the staff of the United Christian Youth Conference at Lake Winnipesaukee (sponsored by the International Council of Religious Education).

In 1945 Harrison was called to be Director of Religious Education and young people’s work for both the New Hampshire Universalist Convention and Congregational Christian Churches. The month before she officially started she addressed the annual session of the New Hampshire Universalist Convention on “Developing a Vital Religion.” Based in Concord, New Hampshire, she worked with individual churches, church schools, and young people to improve their programming. In 1947, in addition to her New Hampshire duties, she became an associate staff member of the Universalist General Sunday School Association in Boston. Robert Cummins, the General Superintendent of the Universalist Church of America (UCA), after consulting the officers of the Universalist Youth Fellowship and with the approval of the UCA Trustees, appointed her Director of Youth Activities for the UCA. Serving the needs of Universalist, and then also Unitarian, young people throughout the continental United States was her calling for the rest of her professional life.

From 1948 until 1954 Harrison was the Director of Youth Activities, and then of Junior High School Work, for the Universalist Church of America. From 1954 to 1955 she was the Associate Director of High School Programs for Liberal Religious Youth, the newly combined Universalist and Unitarian Youth organization. When the two denominations created the Council of Liberal Churches in 1954 to handle, among other things, their religious education needs, she became the Director of Junior High School work, a position she continued to hold after the formation of the Unitarian Universalist Association. When she retired in 1969, her title was Junior High Consultant.

In their history of the Unitarian Universalist youth movement, We Would Be One, Wayne Arnason and Rebecca Scott wrote that “without doubt, the most important development within the Universalist Youth Fellowship following World War II was the arrival on the scene of Alice Harrison.” Her “unique influence,” they declared, “was felt most keenly in the area of junior high programming, but one of the things that made her presence in the youth program so important was her ability to relate to young people of all ages.” Indeed, so popular was she with the denomination’s young people that to most of them she was known as simply “Alice.”

As the Universalist national youth director, Harrison was in charge of the three age divisions of the church’s youth activities: college, high school, and junior high. She traveled throughout the United States to visit local congregations and regional groups. She offered practical advice to help them either establish appropriate age level programs or to improve the effectiveness of existing groups. She also attended and took part in various youth conferences and summer programs at Ferry Beach, Star Island, and elsewhere. While she related to all young people, more and more her focus was on junior high youth. After the 1961 consolidation of the Unitarians and Universalists, this became her prime responsibility.

Harrison’s work called upon her to deliver many talks to denomination organizations, to write pamphlets, and to write articles for the Christian/Universalist Leader, the Youth Leader, UUA Now, and other magazines. Her usual topics were “The Church and its Young People,” “Youth in the Church,” and “Intensified Field Work in Religious Education.” In 1946 she had edited the Advent Meditation booklet, Within Our Hearts, for the Universalist Publishing House.

“Religious education,” Harrison insisted, “must be a total church program not just something for children and young people. Religious education is concerned with people. It says—we care about you, we cherish every thing you do; every urge that lifts you Godward. We want to direct you in the paths of right living. We want to provide a place for you from your earliest days to your oldest years, where you may grow in wisdom and in truth and in favor with God and with men.”

The Unitarian Universalist Association gave Harrison ministerial fellowship in 1968. She was ordained at her beloved Lynn Universalist Church. After she retired she served as interim minister at the Unitarian Church, Westboro, Massachusetts, 1970-72. She remained in Boston the rest of her life, living first in the West End and then as a resident of the Hale-Barnard House. She helped with the programs of the First and Second Church, Boston, and also was a guest preacher for many years in various Unitarian Universalist churches. She was especially proud to have delivered a sermon at King’s Chapel. In 1981 Meadville/Lombard Theological School awarded Harrison an honorary DD.

A memorial service was held on July 2, 1989 at the First and Second Church, conducted by Rhys Williams, Larry Peers, and David Cole. In recognition of her life-long and devoted work with young people, the UUA Department of Religious Education gave her, posthumously, the Angus H. MacLean Award for Excellence in Religious Education.

The Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts has a small biographical file on Harrison and a collection of her published pamphlets. Harvard also has the archives of the organizations she worked for: the Universalist Church of America, the Council of Liberal Churches, and the Unitarian Universalist Association. Her pamphlets include Working with Junior Highs in the Church; To Help You Work with Junior Highs (1956); Junior High Program Suggestions (1959); Teaching Techniques for the Junior High Teacher (1962); Guide to Religion in Life (1963); and Religious Education for the Junior Higher (1964). See Walter E. Davis, A Story of Eliot Church, published by the Church (1959); Walter R. Henshaw, The Story of the First Universalist Parish of Lynn, Massachusetts, 1833-1958 (1958); Wayne B. Arnason, Follow the Gleam A History of the Liberal Religious Youth Movements (1980); and his update with Rebecca Scott, We Would Be One A History of Unitarian Universalist Youth Movements (2005). See also two stories in the Christian Leader: “Alice M. Harrison Called to New Hampshire Post” (October 6, 1945) and “Alice M. Harrison, New Director of Youth Activities, To begin Work September 1” (May 17, 1947). There is an obituary in the World, Nov.-Dec., 1989, 30, and the 1990 UUA Directory.

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted March 28, 2009