Charles Francis Potter (October 28, 1885-October 4, 1962) was a Unitarian minister, theologian and author who changed, over half a century, from an evangelical Baptist to a radical Humanist. Such a transformation reflects remarkable openness to new ideas, flexibility of personality, and capacity for intellectual and theological growth. As an innovative and energetic Unitarian and Humanist, he significantly impacted both traditions.
Potter was born in Marlboro, Massachusetts, the son of Charles Henry Potter, a shoe factory worker, and Flora Ellen Lincoln. Raised in a pious evangelical Baptist family, Potter was a precocious boy who by the age of three was able to recite entire Bible passages from memory. Ordained at the age of 17, Potter began preaching in rural Baptist churches while attending Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 1907. Potter accepted a Baptist pastorate in Dover, New Hampshire, in 1908 and another in Mattapan, Massachusetts, in 1910. He earned a B.D. in 1913 and an S.T.M. in 1917 from Newton Theological Seminary as well as an M.A. from Bucknell in 1916.
In 1908 he married Clara Cook, a religiously active young woman from Dorchester, Massachusetts. Three sons, Richard, Myron, and Frank were born to the marriage.
During Potter’s years as a Baptist preacher he began to question many of the orthodox Christian tenets with which he had been raised. He was increasingly influenced by liberal theological ideas, especially the “higher criticism” of the Bible. In 1914 frustration with Baptist church leaders who questioned his theological views led to his resignation from the Baptist ministry and conversion to Unitarianism.
After his conversion Potter moved with his family to Edmonton, Alberta, to found a Unitarian church and served there as minister from 1914-16. While in Canada his interest in a radical personal theology that he called “Personalism” continued to grow along with a new interest in the humanist ideas of Unitarians John H. Dietrich and Curtis W. Reese. From 1916-19 Potter was the minister of Unitarian churches in Marlboro and Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts.
In 1919 he was called to be minister of the West Side Unitarian Church in New York City, where he served from 1920-25. Under Potter’s stimulating leadership the West Side Unitarian Church became a focal point of liberal thought, activity and interpretation of the scriptures. A new church building was constructed at Broadway and 110th Street. There the church established a liberal theology book sales service and offered a popular modern Bible class taught by Potter.
Potter came to national attention in 1923-24 when he participated in a series of radio debates with the formidable fundamentalist Baptist pastor, Rev. John Roach Straton of the Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan. The debates at Carnegie Hall stirred public interest in the fundamentalist-modernist doctrinal questions that were circulating at the time. They were soon published in four volumes entitled The Battle Over the Bible, Evolution versus Creation, The Virgin Birth—Fact or Fiction? and Was Christ Both Man and God?
In 1925 Potter resigned as minister of the West Side Unitarian Church and took a two-year sabbatical to study the varieties of religious thought in American culture. During this period he was a fundraiser and professor of comparative religion at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and traveled widely throughout the United States. In another encounter with national fame, Potter acted as the librarian and Bible expert for Clarence Darrow and the defense during the Scopes evolution trial in Dayton, Tennessee. He later wrote a series of articles on the subject of evolution versus creationism. Also at this time Potter became a member and eventually president of the Clarkstown Country Club in Nyack, New York, an unorthodox organization founded by Pierre Bernard, a mercurial teacher who introduced America to the practice of yoga and tantric philosophy for spiritual growth and physical well-being. Greatly influenced by Bernard and his ideas, Potter wrote a biography of him which was never published.
In 1927, after serving for a short period as head of the Bureau of Lectures for the National Association of Book Publishers, Potter returned to the ministry as pastor of the Universalist Church of the Divine Paternity in New York City. He resigned two years later, having failed to change a church he found to be more conservative and resistant to his liberal theology than he had expected.
Reflecting the continual development of his personal religious thought away from orthodoxy toward more liberalism, Potter founded the First Humanist Society of New York in 1929. The organization stated as its philosophy a “faith in the supreme value and self-perfectibility of human personality, conceived socially as well as individually.” The First Humanist Society, whose advisory board included such notables as Julian Huxley, John Dewey, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, served as a model and catalyst for other humanist organizations and for the humanist movement in general.
In founding the Humanist Society, Potter left the Unitarian ministry behind and declared that the Society would have no creed, clergy, baptisms or prayers. “I had given up my fast dwindling belief in the deity of Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity,” he wrote. “Now, fifteen years later, I was leaving not only Christianity—if Unitarianism is Christianity—but Theism as well.”
During the same year Potter published the first of his books, The Story of Religion, a collection of biographical sketches of major religious leaders of the world. He subsequently wrote two books on humanism. Humanism: A New Religion, written in collaboration with his wife, Clara Cook Potter, was published in 1930. Humanizing Religion followed in 1933.
With his Humanist philosophy serving as a platform, Potter now became a vocal advocate for social reform, campaigning vigorously against capital punishment, promoting “civil divorce laws,” and supporting birth control and women’s rights. In 1938 Potter formed the Euthanasia Society of America, which eventually boasted a membership of 40,000 and raised the issue of euthanasia before the American public.
In 1958, soon after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Potter published perhaps his most popular book, The Lost Years of Jesus Revealed, an interpretation of the scrolls’ contents and their contribution to the understanding of Jesus as a historical figure. Potter also developed an interest in extrasensory perception and telepathy, subjects that were an anathema to other humanists but which Potter believed were of prime concern to Humanism.
“The ideal humanist” Potter once observed, “is a well-rounded person, intellectually informed, keenly intelligent, intuitively developed, and emotionally sensitive. He is well-balanced, appreciative of beauty in poetry, music and art; that is, responsive to sound and harmony, form and color, and to the infinite inspirations of nature—sunsets and stars, mountain-tops and flowers—but, most of all, appreciative of the marvelous depths and heights and infinite possibilities of human personality.”
In his later years Potter lectured, wrote and was active in the liberal theological movement. He was almost 77 when he died of stomach cancer in New York City.
Although some of Potter’s letters can be found in the archival collections of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, his personal papers have not been collected in any one repository. Much Potter material is still in private hands. Among Potter’s works, in addition to those discussed above, are The New Unitarian Statement of Faith (1920), printed for general distribution by the Unitarian Laymen’s League; The Addresses of Charles Francis Potter (1930), published by the First Humanist Society of New York; The Story of Religion (1930); A Humanist Encyclical (1931); Is That in the Bible? (1933); Technique of Happiness (1935); Beyond the Senses (1939); Creative Personality: the Next Step in Evolution (1950); The Faiths Men Live By (1954); The Great Religious Leaders (1958); and More Tongue Tanglers and a Rigmarole (1962). Potter also wrote an autobiography, The Preacher and I (1951). Religious Humanism in America: Dietrich, Reese, and Potter (1978) by Mason Olds is an important secondary work. See also J. Gordon Melton, Religious Leaders of America (1991) and Warren Allen Smith, “Charles Francis Potter,” in The American Rationalist (1995). There is an entry in American National Biography (1999) by David Robinson. An obituary is in the New York Times (October 5, 1962).
Article by Richard Stringer-Hye
Posted May 17, 2001