Holmes, John Haynes

John Haynes Holmes
John Haynes Holmes

John Haynes Holmes (November 29, 1879-April 3, 1964), a Unitarian minister and social activist, was prominent the Unitarian movement throughout much of the first half of the 20th century, even though he withdrew from fellowship with the American Unitarian Association (AUA) in 1918. He is remembered for his pacifism, for his part in founding civic organizations still important today, for his advocacy of the work of Mahatma Gandhi, for exposing Unitarians to voices from other religions, and for his role in the Community church movement. Though highly respected, he was a controversial figure, in part because of the absolutist character of his preaching and writing. An admirer noted that he was “accused of many things during his life, but never of being moderate.”

Born in Philadelphia, John grew up just outside Boston in Malden, Massachusetts. The Holmes and the Haynes families were descendants of early colonial Massachusetts Bay settlers. His father, Marcus M. Holmes, significantly influenced his religious development, taking him to Unitarian churches to hear Boston’s finest preachers. John hero-worshipped his grandfather, John Haynes, who had served as treasurer of Theodore Parker‘s 28th Congregational Society and, later, in his will financed the publication of The Centenary Edition of Parker’s Works. Holmes later said, “The influence of Theodore Parker has in many ways been decisive in my life.”

Preparing to follow Haynes into business, Holmes first enrolled in a commercial curriculum at Malden High School. The principal then persuaded him and his parents that he should take academic courses. Holmes began his prophetic career writing editorials in the school newspaper against various local evils. By his own account, each of his indictments was drawn “in terms of furious denunciation, and in a bitterly censorious spirit.” In debates at the high school literary society, he “was always a member, not infrequently a leader, of the minority.” He recalled that he “was forever ‘agin’ the government,’ and never so happy as when denouncing it. And all this as by a kind of inspiration, or inner prompting of the spirit.”

Grandfather Haynes provided Holmes’s tuition at Harvard College. To save money he completed his course work in 3 years, 1898-1901, though he graduated with his class in 1902. He enrolled in Harvard Divinity School and finished there in 1904. During the week of his class’s graduation, he married Madeleine Baker. They had two children, Roger and Frances.

In 1904 Holmes was called to the church in Dorchester, Massachusetts where he had preached several times as a seminarian. He began in his first pastorate to experience Unitarian churches as something like social clubs for a certain class. Late in life he recalled, “Ours was a class church, a typical middle-class institution. . . . Its people had high standards of respectability and culture, and wanted these maintained as expressions of the intelligence and moral idealism of our time. It was from this standpoint that organized labor seemed an element alien to our society. Already, in the impending struggle between capital and labor, our churches had lined up, more or less unwittingly, on the side of capital.”

Holmes began studying economics to understand how a better social order might be constructed.

Madeleine Holmes had been a child in Samuel A. Eliot‘s Brooklyn church before he was made president of the AUA. Because of this personal tie, Holmes’s and Eliot’s shared interest in hymnody, and the growing perception that Holmes was one of the “likely young men,” Eliot appointed him to an AUA committee on the Improvement of Church Music to select and publish a list of recommended choir anthems. In 1906, after the untimely death of Minot J. Savage, one of the great preachers Holmes had heard in his youth, Eliot advised the officers of the Church of the Messiah in New York City to include Holmes in their short list of pulpit candidates. In 1907 the church called Holmes.

At the time Holmes arrived the Church of the Messiah, founded in 1825 and preveiously served by Orville Dewey and Robert Collyer, was in decline. Those members remaining were not the ones Holmes wanted. “They were distinctly the members of a superior class in the community, who had drawn apart into a church of their own, that they might worship God in their own way and according to their own ideas.”

The young minister delivered sermons on traditional Unitarian topics, interspersed with political sermons on social salvation and class conflict drawn from his involvement with the social and political struggles of the city. The first sermon Holmes published in The Messiah Pulpit was “Christianity and Socialism.” He declared Socialism “the religion of Jesus, and of all the great prophets of God who have lived and died for men.” “Modern Socialism, we may say, in very truth, has preached the gospel to the poor, has healed the brokenhearted, has preached deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, has promised liberty to them that are bruised, and proclaimed the acceptable year of the Lord; and so doing . . . it has come as a religion to those who never knew before the meaning of religion.”

At the May Meetings of the AUA in 1908 Holmes banded with 20 other young radicals to found the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice (UFSJ), and was its president, 1908-11. In 1909 Holmes was among the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was a founder and later chair of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and a leader with Stephen Wise of the City Affairs Council which purged the corrupt NYC mayor, Jimmy Walker. He was also one of the founders of the American branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the War Resistance League.

Holmes was soon a leader among the younger ministers agitating for a socially conscious religion, as exemplified by the UFSJ. The UFSJ declared, “The Church must make the connection between the great words they are repeating—love and brotherhood, humanity, sympathy—and the world of real experience, showing what the words mean in the life of the 20th century, talking not about abstract principles but about our brother in the concrete.”

Holmes and his friends campaigned against Samuel Eliot in the May Meetings of 1911 and 1912. They objected to his centralizing of power in the AUA, his over-emphasis on business methods in church work, and his refusal to spend gifts willed to the Association to meet current needs. They lost, but the contest between Holmes and Eliot was far from over.

The carnage of World War I shook Holmes’s and other liberals’ faith in human nature. “The history of humanity,” Holmes had preached, “furnishes no exception to God’s eternal and universal law of progress. Everywhere and in all ages has mankind been rising—rising slowly step by step, from the tiger and the ape which are behind to the full-born Son of God which is ahead.” But the brutality, among the most civilized nations of the world, mocked 19th century liberal optimism. The progressive world view seemed false and naively self-congratulatory.

In 1915, Holmes announced his opposition to all wars in a sermon, “Is War Ever Justified?” In typical fashion he denied all moral ground, or even thoughtfulness, to any who disagreed with him. He said, “While it is true that war in general is condemned in our time as it has never before been condemned in human history, it is to be noted that war in the case of each particular nation is justified today in exactly the same way that it has always been justified in the past.” He concluded, “War is never justifiable under any circumstances. And this means . . . for me—and for myself only can I speak—that never will I take up arms against a foe. And if, because of cowardice or madness, I do this awful thing, may God in his anger strike me dead, ere I strike dead some brother from another land!”

On April 1, 1917, in “A Statement to My People on the Eve of War,” Holmes pronounced war an “open and utter violation of Christianity.” He reasoned “If war is right, then Christianity is wrong, false, a lie. If Christianity is right, then war is wrong, false, a lie.” The next day President Woodrow Wilson requested from Congress a declaration of war on Germany. That evening the board of the Church of the Messiah met to respond to Holmes’s pacifist avowal. Though only one member agreed with his position, the board determined that the issue at stake was the freedom of their pulpit. They unanimously supported Holmes’s freedom to preach as he felt called. Holmes was fortunate. Among the 15 active Unitarian pacifist ministers, only 6 remained in their pulpits when the War ended.

At a meeting of the General Conference of Unitarians in Montreal in September 1917, Holmes, as Chair of the planning Council of Ministers, a group charged to “present the position of the Unitarian Churches,” outlined various positions discernible among Unitarians and urged the Conference not to commit to a particular one. He cited Unitarians’ traditional support for free expression of minority views. “It would be difficult to name our reason for being if the privilege of non-conformity were denied or even threatened among us,” he reasoned. “By tradition and by practice we are dissenters. The cause of all dissent is our cause.” Holmes proposed a resolution in favor “the ministry of reconciliation, the preparation of peace, the establishment of social justice, the proclamation of God’s law.”

When Holmes ended, William Howard Taft, President of the Conference and former President of the United States, denounced Holmes’s report as an “insidious document” and moved a resolution attesting to the sense of the Conference, that the “war must be carried to a successful issue to stamp out militarism in the world.” Taft’s resolution carried, 236-9.

The editor of the AUA’s magazine, the Christian Register, soon characterized opposition to the war effort like Holmes’s as treason. Eliot wrote that he expected disloyal ministers to be dismissed. Ministers “addicted to pacifist principles,” he wrote, “cannot be permitted to plead a noble tradition of freedom of speech to justify or to mask sedition.” In 1918, the AUA Board moved to deny financial aid to any church whose minister “is not a willing, earnest, and outspoken supporter of the United States in a vigorous and resolute prosecution of the war.”

Later that year Holmes resigned his ministerial fellowship with the Association. He preached anti-war messages around the country and repeatedly from his own pulpit. Secret Service men were in regular attendance at his services. On at least one occasion, Holmes’s words were used as German war propaganda.

Attendance was affected by Holmes’s pacifism. Although a few members resigned from the church, it was not true that Holmes “preached his church empty and then preached it full again.”
Only fifteen members resigned while 83 new members joined during the weeks around Holmes’s declaration of his pacifism, and the church grew by 208 members during that church year (October, 1916 – June, 1917).

Holmes ties to the Unitarian movement were weakening. He learned that few of the newer members joining his church regarded themselves as Unitarian. He wondered how he could impose denominational concerns on such a diverse community. “Now, the community, which is the common life, unites, while the denomination, which is of sectarian interest, divides. Why not, therefore, a community instead of a Unitarian church?”

Just as the War ended, Holmes’s old friend, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, of Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln Center, died. Jones’s congregation invited Holmes by unanimous vote to be his successor. Holmes was torn between the prospect of leading a church already firmly committed to pacifism, nonsectarianism and social justice, and loyalty to New York City and his dream of fashioning his present church into one like the Lincoln Center. Holmes laid before the congregation the changes he felt were needed if he was to remain at the Church of the Messiah. He required a new name for the church; making it a body independent of the AUA; free pews; a non-covenanted membership; and making it a living center for developing work outside in the community. These matters were discussed in a series of intense meetings in late December and early January, 1918-19. To keep him, the church changed its name to the Community Church of New York and committed to his principles, though members insisted the church remain a member congregation of the AUA.

Holmes then announced that he would stay in New York. He said, “we may ever have the task of making our Unitarianism in this place of so new and wonderful a character that this body to which we are bound, may itself become transfigured by the service we perform for God and man.”

On the cover of the first issue of The Community Church, Holmes wrote, “The Community Church is the great spiritual discovery of our age. . . . It is liberal religion ‘making good.’ . . . It moves from the individual to society as the center of religious life. . . . It delivers religion from the body of ecclesiastical death. It emancipates religion from the power of money. . . . the Community Church is the church of the future. the time is ripe for its advent everywhere.”

Holmes’s preaching drew people in, as did a broad program of outreach. Community Church supported education, sponsored political and social forums and provided health clinics. It also courageously supported Margaret Sanger’s controversial birth control initiatives. Over time the Community Church was transformed into a diverse, multicultural congregation. By 1930 it had more than 1800 members of 34 nationalities from six continents. Holmes wrote, “We have rich and poor, high and low, black and white, ignorant and educated, Jew and Gentile, orthodox and agnostic, theist, atheist and humanist, Republican, Democrat, Socialist and Communist. All of which means that we are representative of New York City! . . . It is in this sense that we are a public and not a private institution—a community church, in the true meaning of the phrase.”

The Community Church of New York remains a multicultural church, but, although it did lead to the federation of some rural churches, the community church movement Holmes tried to foster never caught on in the cities. Nor was the type of post-Christian worship Holmes envisioned, without emphasis on any religious tradition, ever able to unite whole communities without regard to creed.

Holmes had discovered Mohandas Gandhi in 1918. In 1921 he declared him in a sermon “The Greatest Man in the World,” a “savior” who provided a vision of what religion could be in the contemporary world. Thereafter, Holmes tirelessly promoted Gandhi’s spirit of active nonviolence.

In the early 1930s the AUA Commission of Appraisal under the leadership of Frederick May Eliot worked to find a new vision for Unitarians. The Commission studied Community Church to use it as “an example and stimulus to others” and in their final report, Unitarians Face a New Age, they suggested allowing a voice to those “more radical and thorough-going elements within our denominational life” and that the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice (UFSJ), which Holmes had founded thirty years before, be made an agency of the AUA. By 1936, Holmes was again contributing articles to the Christian Register.

At the May meetings of the AUA in 1936, the General Assembly repudiated the 1918 denial of aid to congregations whose ministers did not support the War as “contrary to the fundamental Unitarian principles of freedom of thought and conscience.” During World War II the AUA supported conscientious objectors and made no attempt to suppress dissenting pacifists despite the AUA president’s vigorous endorsement of war aims.

Upon Holmes’s retirement from active ministry in 1949, he agreed to accept an AUA membership card (still available then to individuals). The December, 1949, issue of the Christian Register was dedicated to him. In 1960, a year before the merger of the AUA and the Universalist Church of America, Dana McLean Greeley asked Holmes to allow him to invite the Fellowship Committee to list his name in “the last year book of the American Unitarian Association as such.” Holmes agreed. His name was again included on the list of ministers in fellowship with the AUA and the subsequent UUA yearbooks.

Throughout his life Holmes was interested in music and poetry. He wrote over 100 hymns including “The Voice of God,” 1913, which expressed his social conscience:

I hear my people crying
In cot and mine and slum;
No field or mart is silent,
No city street is dumb.
I see my people falling
In darkness and despair.
Whom shall I send to shatter
The fetters which they bear?

We heed, O Lord, thy summons,
And answer: Here are we!
Send us upon thine errand,
Let us thy servants be!
Our strength is dust and ashes,
Our years a passing hour;
But thou canst use our weakness
To magnify thy power.


The papers and letters of John Haynes Holmes are at the Library of Congress. Among his many books are The Revolutionary Function of the Modern Church (1912), New Wars for Old (1916), The Life and Letters of Robert Collyer (1917), New Churches for Old: A Plea for Community Religion (1922), Patriotism Is Not Enough (1925), Rethinking Religion (1938), The Affirmation of Immortality (1950), and My Gandhi (1953). His sermons are preserved in The Messiah Pulpit (1907-1919) and The Community Pulpit (1919-1949).

The principal biography is Holmes’s autobiography, I Speak for Myself (1959). Information on Holmes can also be found in Ray H. Abrams, Preachers Present Arms (1933); Wallace Palmer Rusterholtz, American Heretics & Saints (1938); Robert W. Lawson, “A Survey of Unitarian Pacifism During the Years of the Great War,” dissertation, Meadville Theological School, Chicago (1940); Kenneth Jackson Smith, “John Haynes Holmes: Opponent of War,” dissertation, University of Chicago (1949); Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Jr., Pilot of a Liberal Faith: Samuel Atkins Eliot, 1862-1950 (1976); Spencer Lavan, Unitarians and India (1977); and Carl Hermann Voss, Rabbi and Minister: The Friendship of Stephen S. Wise and John Haynes Holmes (1980). For a record of the Unitarian response to World War I see Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth Meeting of the General Conference of the Unitarian and Other Christian Churches (1916) and Proceedings of the Twenty-Seventh Meeting of the General Conference of the Unitarian and Other Christian Churches (1918).

Article by Paul Sprecher
Posted November 11, 2002