Spoerl, Dorothy

Dorothy Tilden Spoerl
Dorothy Tilden Spoerl

Dorothy Tilden Spoerl (March 29, 1906-December 2, 1999) was a leading Universalist and Unitarian Universalist religious educator and parish minister from the time of her ordination in 1929 until well after her official retirement in 1973. In a tribute to her during his Fahs Lecture at the 1987 General Assembly, Henry Hampton said: “Thus far in her long and productive life of service, she has helped educate our children, build a denomination, save more than a few intellectual souls, and, without a doubt, she has changed the course of the world. . . . Dottie Spoerl is the best we have to offer. . . . Her life of service testifies to the tremendous difference one individual can make.”

Born into a Universalist family in Brooklyn, New York, on March 29, 1906, Dorothy Mary Tilden was the daughter of Joseph Mayo Tilden and Gertrude Estelle Bennett Tilden. She had a twin brother, Donald Mayo, and an older brother, Sidney Edward.

The children were brought up in All Souls Universalist church in Brooklyn until 1916, when their father was appointed President of Lombard College in Galesburg, Illinois. “Brought up as I was,” Dorothy wrote later, “I could hardly escape a career either in the church or academia. From the age of ten, I lived in Galesburg, Illinois, on the campus of Lombard College. . . . My father was not only the president of Lombard, but [served] on the state or national Universalist boards or committees. . . . Furthermore, we children went with our folks to many affairs, conventions, and what not, and got a good dose of enthusiasm.” She became active in the Young People’s Christian Union and attended conferences at the Universalist summer encampment at Ferry Beach, Maine, where she settled her hopes on a ministerial career.

Dorothy went on to study at Lombard College, receiving a B.A. degree in 1927. Though her father was “a little conservative on the subject of women in the ministry,” he did encourage her to go to Boston University for a Master’s degree in religious education in 1928. Celebrating with a week at Ferry Beach, she became engaged to a young Vermont minister, Howard Spoerl.

Serving the following year as Director of Religious Education at the Detroit Universalist Church brought Dorothy in contact with her Unitarian counterpart, Frances Wood, who became a lifelong friend. She was also elected president of the National Young People’s Christian Union (YPCU), the Universalists’ young adult organization, the first woman to hold that position.

Dorothy Tilden married Howard Spoerl in Ware, New Hampshire, on July 28, 1929, and began a year as Religious Education Director as well as minister’s wife in Bath, Maine. For the next 27 years, until Howard’s death in 1957, their two lives were closely entwined in ministry and teaching. She was ordained in Bath before the couple moved to Orono, Maine, to continue their ministries. There she discovered James G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough “and read it through with mounting excitement,” she later recalled. Inspired to create a course on mythology for the Orono church school, she wrote an article about it for the Christian Leader, where Sophia Fahs read it and invited Spoerl to work with her on Beginnings of Life and Death for the New Beacon Series of books.

Howard Spoerl decided to leave the ministry for an academic career, beginning by earning a Harvard Ph.D. in psychology and philosophy. After working with the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian Churches in Boston as DRE at the Bullfinch Place Unitarian Church from 1931-33, Dorothy twice served as minister at the Second Universalist Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, 1937-39 and 1943-44.

During these years she published many articles on religious education for the Christian Leader and completed work on Beginnings: Life and Death, which was published by Beacon Press in 1938. A son, Walter, was born in 1942, the same year his mother earned a Ph. D. in psychology at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1946 she joined her husband on the faculty of American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts. At the same time she remained active in denominational affairs as one of four curriculum editors for the Council of Liberal Churches and then, from 1955-1960, as editor for the New Beacon Series in Religious Education.

Resigning her faculty position on Howard’s death, Dorothy built a house for herself and her son at Witches’ Meadow in Langdon, New Hampshire. The name seemed appropriate to her as a descendant of Salem witch Suzanne Mont. Spoerl taught school for two years in Acworth, New Hampshire, meanwhile continuing her editorial work. In 1960 she was appointed to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) headquarters staff as a full-time curriculum editor. Ernest Kuebler, Director of the Department of Education, told her half in jest that she “was the only person he could hire, because the Unitarians all thought I was a Unitarian and the Universalists knew I had been brought up by a Universalist, therefore I wasn’t controversial at that point in history.”

Spoerl joined the faculty of Starr King School for the Ministry for the 1964-65 academic year and also did field work in religious education. She served as UUA Director of Adult Programs from 1965-1969, during which time she worked with the Remonstrants in the Netherlands to introduce Sophia Fahs’s Today’s Children and Yesterday’s Heritage.

Retiring from the UUA in 1969, Spoerl accepted a call to the ministry of Universalist churches in Woodstock and Hartland Four Corners, Vermont, from 1970 to 1972, then moved to Sanford, Maine to be near her son. Over the years she had served on numerous denominationally related panels, boards and committees, and after retirement she remained in demand for many years as a guest speaker and preacher.

Dorothy Spoerl’s Universalism was basically Arminian. In a 1972 address she stated, “[O]ur doctrine of man, as I understand it, states that each of us is born with potential, a potential that will be developed for good or for ill. . . . Our will is free; we can and do make our own choices; what education can do for us is to help us in the making of wiser choices. It is, indeed the triumph of the Arminian Heresy, and to me one of the most exciting aspects of our faith.” Later on, citing the Washington Avowal of Faith, she urged that “[w]e need to regain our vision of the power of all-conquering love and apply it to the social problems of today as well as to the acts of our individual living. . . . Choose this day life, and the salvation of all men through the power of men of goodwill and sacrificial spirit to overcome all evil.”

In response to the question, “What is Religious About Our Religious Education?,” Spoerl answered as follows: “Our religious education is religious if we can help our children see the awe and wonder of the immensity of the universe of which they are a part, and yet sense an equal awe and wonder about the majesty of man. Man who has struggled against odds, and reached his present position, and who can, we have faith, go on to make his planet a better place than ever it has been before. To sense the struggle, and feel one has to meet it, is basic to religious education. We do not need to worry about the education we are giving our children, nor be concerned about the propriety of using the adjective religious to describe it. Not if we have faith, and the strength to implement that faith in action–faith in man, in the world, in the universe, in the everlasting potential of the future. Indeed, our religious education is religious.”

Many honors came to Spoerl over the years, among them honorary doctorates from Starr King School for the Ministry and Meadville/Lombard Theological School, the 1987 Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism, and the 1994 Angus H. MacLean Award for Excellence in Religious Education.

Spoerl fell and broke a hip in January, 1993, followed by rehabilitation in various nursing facilities. She died on December 2, 1999, in Claremont, New Hampshire. A service in celebration of her life was led by the Rev. Helen Zidowecki at the Ferry Beach Park Association, Saco, Maine, on May 20, 2000.


Spoerl archives are in the Universalist Collections at the Andover-Harvard Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts and at Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois. Her religious and educational views are well reflected in her writings. Her Minns Lectures, delivered in 1963, were on the subject of “The Creative Process and Religious Education”; her Berry Street Essay, delivered that same year, was titled “The Church Salient or Peripheral.” More directly concerned with curricula are Earth, Sky, Life, Death, with Sophia Fahs (1958); Tensions Our Children Live With (1959); and Hands, UUA Science Series (c.1965). Psychological studies include “Some Aspects of Prejudice as Affected by Religion and Education,” Journal of Social Psychology (1951); “Values of Post-War College Students,” Journal of Social Psychology (1952); and “The Values of Unitarian-Universalist Youth,” Journal of Psychology (1961). Among her addresses were “. . . And Practice Good Works,” 175th Anniversary, Winchester Profession, Winchester, New Hampshire (1978); and “We Do Not Stand, We Move,” Annual Meeting, New York State Convention of Universalists, Albion, New York (1976). In addition, she wrote for the Christian Leader/Universalist Leader (1946-60) and created several UUA pamphlets, including What is Religious About Our Religious Education? (n.d.). There is an extensive annotated bibliography of Spoerl’s works and a short biography, both by Helen Zidowecki, at www.hzmre.com/dotty. Biographical information can be found in Russell Miller, The Larger Hope, volume 2 (1985) and in David B. Parke, “The Historical and Religious Antecedents of the New Beacon Series in Religious Education (1937),” Ph.D. Dissertation, Boston University (1965). There is an obituary in the UU World (May/June 2000).

Article by Charles A. Howe
Posted December 12, 2003