John van Schaick, Jr. (November 18, 1873-May 16, 1949), Universalist parish and Social Gospel minister, was active in war relief in Europe during World War I and was influential as editor of the leading denominational periodical, the Universalist Leader (later renamed the Christian Leader) for nearly a quarter of a century. He was a strong defender of Universalist Christianity and an opponent of non-theistic humanism.
Van Schaick (pronounced van Scoit) was born in Cobleskill, in the old Dutch region of Schoharie County, New York. His family belonged to the Dutch Reformed church. As a young man he taught for two terms as “dominie” in the local district school before entering Union College in Schenectady in 1891. While at college van Schaick developed an interest in liberal religion, his thinking also influenced by the Post Office Mission of the Unitarian Church. At this time he became acquainted with Charles H. Eaton, Universalist minister at the Church of the Divine Paternity in New York City, who encouraged him to consider the ministry as a career.
Upon graduation in 1894 van Schaick went to Kansas, serving for two years as principal of Sharon Springs Academy, then for a year as a history teacher at Emporia College. While in Emporia he became a friend of William Allen White, the dynamic editor of the Emporia Gazette. During this time van Schaick also remained in contact with Eaton. When Eaton offered to direct his studies for the ministry, van Schaick accepted the invitation and returned to New York.
From 1898 until 1900 van Schaick trained as Eaton’s assistant, dividing his time between parish duties and work with the city’s tenement dwellers. By the time his training was completed, he had accepted a call to the ministry of the Church of Our Father, Universalist, in Washington, D.C., where he was ordained in 1901.
Van Schaick’s ministry was a success from the start. In addition to carrying a heavy parish workload, he quickly became involved in community affairs. As a leader of the emerging Social Gospel movement he was active in the National Tuberculosis Association, worked with the Associated Charities and the American Red Cross, and helped provide summer outings for city children. St. Lawrence University recognized his contributions by awarding him a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1910.
In 1903, the Universalist General Convention asked van Schaick, Quillen Shinn, and Isaac Morgan Atwood to review the Universalist Negro missions in Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia. Joseph Jordan, mission minister had died in 1901 and it was felt that Thomas Wise who had assumed the leadership of the missions was overextended ministering to three congregations. Shinn was a strong supporter of the missions while van Schaick favored closing them. In the final report the committee recommended closing two missions and reorienting the curriculum of the Suffolk school toward manual or craft labor and away from academic classes. The committee hoped that a new black Universalist minister, Joseph Fletcher Jordan would be able to take over and lead the missions back to health.
Just prior to the United States’ entry in World War I, van Schaick’s church granted him a leave of absence to work with refugees under the Rockefeller War Relief Commission. After war was declared, van Schaick returned to Europe as Commissioner for Belgium under the American Red Cross. He received several honors for his service, including Belgium’s highest award, the Order of Leopold, and doctorates from his alma mater, Union College, and the University of Liege. He was strongly supported in his work by his wife, Julia Asenath Romaine, whom he had married in 1909. Their example helped inspire the formation of the Universalist Service Committee and its relief work at the close of World War II.
In 1916, as president of the District of Columbia school board, Van Schaick gave Herman Marie Bernelot Moens permission to conduct ethnographic studies in district schools. Moens, who claimed to be a Dutch scientist had charmed the black elites of New York City and Washington, D.C. with his racial equality theories. In conversation he made sure to mention his friends, Joel Spingard of the NAACP and W. E. B. DuBois, editor of The Crisis. While van Schaick was in Belgium, Moens came under the watchful eyes of the Bureau of Investigation who thought he might be a German spy or an agent provocateur. When the Military Intelligence Service did a “black-bag job” on his apartment they uncovered photographs of black school students purporting to illustrate racial typologies. Returning to the United States at the end of the war, van Schaick found himself embroiled in a controversy about nude pictures. Black parents blamed the Assistant Superintendent, Roscoe Conkling Bruce even though he had been the person who had revealed the abuses. Bruce blamed van Schaick who had examined Moens’ credentials and written the letter of authorization. The Moens case dragged on for years until it was quietly put to rest by J. Edgar Hoover in 1928.
An investigation of the public school system of Washington, D.C. by a Select Committee of the United States Senate led to the dismissal of Assistant Superintendent Bruce and one teacher. Van Schaick stayed on as president of the school board but when President Wilson nominated him for Commissioner of the District of Columbia, his appointment was blocked by opponents in the Senate. Thereafter van Schaick, who had resigned his pastorate several years earlier, returned to direct denominational service. He accepted the editorship of the Universalist Leader, a position he held from 1922 until his retirement in 1945.
His work as editor was soon to make the Leader one of the most highly regarded religious periodicals in the country. In this, as in his earlier efforts, he was guided by his understanding of “the very essence of Universalism—to find the universal things that unite us, and to make everybody recognize them.” “From the beginning of religion,” he affirmed, “righteousness has been a main objective; from the beginnings of Christianity, the same; from the beginnings of Universalism, the same.” The faith that underlay his commitment was in “a supreme intelligence and love that rules and overrules, but which depends on us to carry out its will.” While he thought it impossible to “reconcile what we call perfect love with the hell we sometimes find,” he believed that “back of this universe stands the reconciling One.”
Van Schaick’s theology was both theistic and liberal Christian, and he was quick to react to the rise of religious humanism during the 1920s, especially among Unitarians. The change of the adjective “Universalist” to “Christian” in the Leader‘s title, made in 1926, reflected this, as did his editorials favoring cooperation with the Unitarians rather than merger. In the meantime, he tried to downplay and discourage the emergence of humanism within the denomination. “There is,” he wrote, “not the slightest danger of humanism getting any hold in the Universalist church. . . . Always there will be faith in God or there will be no Universalist Church.” His considerable influence undoubtedly helped foster anti-Unitarian sentiment within the denomination and delay any serious consideration of merger.
Under editor van Schaick, the Universalist Leader’s coverage of the Suffolk mission was reduced to short reports relegated to the back of the paper. In 1939 he wrote and published a series of editorials on racial matters. In one he supported the District of Columbia Board of Education’s decision to prohibit Marian Anderson from use of the stage at Central High School. In another editorial he condemned mixed marriages making special reference to the sole black Universalist minister at the Canton Theological School of St. Lawrence University. John Murray Atwood, dean of the Canton Theological School and Jeffery Campbell, the accused black minister responded. Atwood labeled van Schaick’s ideology “thoroughly un-Christian” while Campbell chided Universalists for not living up to their name. Van Schaick retired as editor of the Christian Leader in 1945.
A witty, gifted writer, van Schaick was the author of The Little Corner Never Conquered, 1921, an account of his Red Cross work in Belgium, and numerous essays which appeared in the Leader during his editorship under the general title of “Cruisings,” many of which were republished as a series of collections in book form. Perhaps his most important literary contribution was Characters in Tales of a Wayside Inn, 1939, a thoroughly researched and well written study of the characters in Longfellow’s famous work. Its writing was inspired by his long membership in the Fraters of the Wayside Inn, a ministers’ group that met at the inn each winter.
Van Schaick’s retirement years were spent largely at his life-long retreat near Cobleskill. He died on May 16, 1949 in Washington, the city that had been his home for much of his professional life.
The John van Schaick papers are in the Universalist Special Collection at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Andover-Harvard also has copies of the Universalist (and Christian) Leader. Van Schaick papers concerning the Red Cross are housed in the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University. For more information on van Schaick’s racial prejudice see John Hurley’s article on “Jeffery W. Campbell & Marguerite Campbell Davis” in Mark D. Morrison-Reed, ed., Darkening the Doorways: Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism (2011). The Moens case is covered in Hearings before the Select committee of the United States Senate: Sixty-Sixth Congress, second session (1920) and Theodore Kornweibel, Investigate Everything: Federal Efforts to Compel Black Loyalty during World War I (2002).
The Cruisings series mentioned above include Cruising Around a Changing World (1923), Cruising Cross Country (1926), Nature Cruisings to the Old Home Town and the Little Hill Farm (1928), and The Little Hill Farm: Cruisings in Old Schoharie (1930). His Love That Never Failed (1933) is a memoir of the First World War. Emerson Hugh Lalone wrote a short memoir of van Schaick, Strong Son of God (1949), which also appeared in the Christian Leader (July 1949). Two other works contain discussion of van Schaick’s life and work: Lalone’s And Thy Neighbor as Thyself: A Story of Universalist Social Action (1959) and Russell E. Miller’s The Larger Hope: The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1870-1970 (1985).
Article by Charles A. Howe
Posted December 6, 2000, information added by DUUB editors November 14, 2011 included in this article.