Patton, Kenneth Leo

Kenneth Leo Patton
Kenneth Leo Patton

Kenneth Leo Patton (August 25, 1911-December 25, 1994), identifed as one of the major poets and a prophet of contemporary liberal religion, was a voice for a poetic, naturalistic humanism at a time when most humanists were defining a religion of reason. Minister and scholar David Bumbaugh has summed up Patton’s work: “It was he who taught a monotone rationalism how to sing; it was he who taught a stumble-footed humanism how to dance; it was he who cried ‘Look!’ and taught our eyes to see the glory in the ordinary.”

Born in Three Oaks, a small town in western Michigan, Patton lived his early years there with his mother, brother and maternal grandparents. He never knew his father. His family belonged to a strict Methodist church. He attended two church services on Sundays, morning and evening, and in between the adults allowed no secular amusements. He recalled hearing cheers and shouts from the neighboring baseball field on Sunday afternoons, wanting to join in but not allowed to go.

When he was eight or nine Patton moved with his mother and brother to a working-class suburb of Chicago. There he graduated from high school, the first in the family to do so. He went on to junior college, working at night to finance art lessons on Saturdays. Thus began his lifelong passion for the visual arts. At the age of 20 he began writing poetry. He completed his college work at Eureka College, from which he received a B.A. in 1937.

Though he would have liked a career in art, Patton chose ministry as a way to support his family and make use of his talent in writing and speaking. While serving several Disciples of Christ churches in small mid-Illinois towns, he developed a talent for beautiful extemporaneous prayer. At the same time he commuted to the University of Chicago to work on a degree in theology. There he studied with such outstanding teachers and humanists as Edward Scribner Ames, Henry Nelson Wieman and A. Eustace Haydon. Haydon, who spoke in poetic language with a beautifully-modulated voice, influenced Patton greatly. He showed the younger man that religion could be much more than a set of dogmas, that it could include all the arts as well. Patton received an M.A. in 1939 and a B.D. in 1940.

In 1942 Haydon suggested that Patton, now a confirmed humanist, apply for the open pulpit of the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin. Patton did so, was called, and served until January, 1949. He helped the Society obtain the services of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright for the design of its new building. While in Madison, he published his first three books: Strange Seed, 1946, a slim volume of lyric poetry; Beyond Doubt, 1946, a collection of radio talks; and Hello, Man, 1945, poetry and poetic prose which celebrated humanism and naturalism in religion. The latter established him as a major spokesperson for this still new approach to religion.

In a radio talk Patton casually said that he would like to “resign from the white race and become a colored man.” To his surprise this catapulted him into notoriety. A national magazine asked him to explore the extent of racial prejudice in Chicago by attempting to integrate restaurants, hotels, country clubs and real estate. After being repeatedly turned away when he averred himself a negro or when accompanied by people of color, Patton visited an interracial housing project. “Here we found swarms of Negro and ‘white’ children playing together, families of all colors living side by side,” he reported in “A Personal Experience of Brotherhood,” in the Unitarian Christian Register for December 1947. “In those two days I became colored in a more profound sense than mere verbal profession can ever consummate. I have ‘crossed the line’ through a deeply emotional experience and I have no desire to cross back. Where I now am is where every honest man will one day have to be.”

Charles Street Meeting House
Charles Street Meeting House

In 1949 Patton was invited to become minister of the Charles Street Meeting House, an experimental church in Boston created by Clinton Lee Scott and the Massachusetts Universalist Convention to revitalize Universalism and to reinstate a Universalist presence in Boston. Since Universalists’ traditional message, that a loving God would not condemn anyone to hell, had been accepted by other denominations, Universalists needed a new focus and a wider scope. Patton’s fifteen-year ministry redefined the meaning of the word “Universalism” by bringing the arts of all religions and cultures into “a religion for one world.”

Patton threw himself into this venture with both mind and body. Colleague Charles Reinhardt recalls coming into the Meeting House one morning and finding him on his knees painting a mural of the Andromeda Galaxy for the proscenium. Says Reinhardt, “He looked like a happy kid building a terrific model airplane.” His enthusiasm was contagious. Although the Meeting House congregation was never large, a dedicated core group supported this new realization of religious art, coming regularly to Friday evening work nights. Among others, two talented artists, brother and sister Ralph and Charlotte Edlund, designed and constructed a series of large bronze symbols illustrating a broad variety of human endeavors. Today the symbols are on display at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California. Together, Patton and his congregation built an outstanding art collection.

While at the Meeting House Patton wrote a prodigious amount of worship material. He also arranged as hymns and readings material from great poets like Walt Whitman, and selections from the world’s scriptures. Using a mimeograph machine and a printing press in the church basement, Patton published pamphlets, books and sermons as well as weekly supplements for the looseleaf hymnals. Two volumes of Hymns of Humanity came from the mimeograph machine, while Man’s Hidden Search, 1954, a classic statement of naturalistic mysticism, and Clarence Skinner‘s Worship and the Well-ordered Life rolled off the printing press. Patton’s most ambitious project, A Religion for One World, 1964, published in conjunction with Beacon Press, gave an in-depth account of this experiment in universal religion, lavishly illustrated with photographs. When the newly-merged Unitarian Universalist Association needed a new hymnal, Patton was an obvious choice for a place on the Hymnbook Commission. Many of the hymns and readings used in the Meeting House became part of Hymns for the Celebration of Life, 1964. Old hymn tunes came to new life with his words, as in “We are the earth upright and proud,” set to “Eine Feste Burg,” and “Brief our days but long for singing,” set to the melody of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

Patton’s outspoken and provocative preaching offended many, including his more conservative colleagues in the Massachusetts Universalist Convention. He jousted verbally with other ministers and religious leaders. His inability to be a pastoral minister drove parishioners away. His single-mindedness led him to ignore others’ concerns and to respond with irritation to their needs. Often tendentious, he refused to compromise or even listen to other points of view. In practice, as a minister, he charged ahead with his own projects and relied on lay leadership to take care of church finances and membership growth.

Patton was twice married. In junior college he had met and married Elizabeth Pfeifer, with whom he had five children. After being divorced, he married Mitzi Anderson around 1960. They had two children.

In 1964 the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, New Jersey invited Patton to become its minister. At this time he felt the need of a larger and more secure income and a home for his family outside the center city. For a while he served both congregations, coming to Boston once a month; then reluctantly left the Meeting House.

In Ridgewood Patton reconstituted Meeting House Press in order to publish more of his works. The Sense of Life, 1974, was a sensitive look at the natural world and the integral role of humanity in it. A Religion of Realities, 1977, summed up of Patton’s religion and philosophy of life.The meditation manual, Songs of Simple Thanksgiving, 1978, celebrated simplicity in a range of items, from the ordinary elegance of handmade tools to those seemingly complicated and mysterious phenomena, human beings and stars. All in all, Patton wrote nearly thirty books, as well as anthologizing an immense amount of humanistic-oriented poetry from around the world.

As a minister, Patton was an iconoclast. He disdained any special treatment as a clergyman. He would not call himself “Reverend,” saying that he was no more to be revered than anyone else. He never used the honorific, “Doctor,” though entitled to do so by an honorary degree. He refused to wear a pulpit robe, even at his own installation service. He did not preach sermons, he gave addresses, and not in a church sanctuary but in a meeting house.

Patton did not join organizations for the liberation of any group or to promote any social issue, yet he preached powerful sermons on such subjects. Controversial organizations, including the Communist Party, found space for their gatherings at the Meeting House. In his early works he used “man” as a synonym for the human race, as was usual in those times. Later, he used inclusive language; he also revised some of his earlier writings in that way. He praised unstintingly writers, such as Carl Sagan, Richard Leakey, Jane Goodall, Lewis Thomas, and Loren Eiseley, whose work he admired for insight into nature and contemporary science. He wrote of his own sense of identification with the natural process-“We love the world, loving ourselves as part of the world”-and of his feelings of wonder: “That day I see a leaf is a marvel of a day. Many days I see millions of leaves without seeing one leaf.”

Patton received many honors. They included the Religious Arts Guild award in 1964, an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Meadville/Lombard Theological School in 1967, the Bragg Award for Distinguished Service to Humanism in 1980, and the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Distinguished Service Award in 1986.


He retired in 1986 and died of congestive heart failure in his Ridgewood home on Christmas Day, 1994. He will be particularly remembered for the hymns and readings used so often in liberal religious services. Perhaps most often used, and most familiar, is the reading, “Let Us Worship.” Here are a few lines:

Let us worship with eyes, ears, and fingertips.
Let us love the world through heart and mind and body.
Let us worship, and let us learn to love.


Patton papers can be found in the Vincent Silliman Collection at the Meadville/Lombard Theological School Library in Chicago, Illinois; at the Starr King School for the Ministry Library in Berkeley, California; and the Charles Street Metting House Collection and letters to Alan Seaburg, both at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In addition to the books mentioned in the article above, Patton wrote Man Is the Meaning (1956), a minister’s manual; The Ground of Being (1962), meditations and readings; This World, My Home (1966), poetic readings; Services and Songs for the Celebration of Life (1967); The Way for This Journey (1976), based upon the Tao te ching; Kaggen (1976), based upon South African Bushman folklore; The Happy Atheist (1984), essays; and The Chinese Poets (1984), based upon Chinese poetry. His books of poetry include Recognition (1960), All Blessedness (1975), Strange Harvest (1976), and The Intimate Enemy (1984). The Visitor and Hello, Man (1947) contains poetry and autobiographical material as well as a reprint of Hello, Man. The Wonder of Life (1997), edited by Maryell Cleary, is an anthology of Patton’s work. Biographical information on Patton can be obtained in Wayne Armstrong’s obituary, “Kenneth Leo Patton,” in the UUA Directory, 1995-96, and in Doris Armstrong, Unitarians in Ridgewood (1997). On the Charles Street Meeting House see A Bold Experiment (2000), edited by Maryell Cleary. In Peter Tufts Richardson, The Boston Religion: Unitarianism in Its Capital City (2003) there is an extensive discussion of Patton and the Charles Street Meeting House.

Article by Maryell Cleary
Posted April 30, 2001