Vickery, Charles Nelson

Charles Nelson Vickery
Charles Nelson Vickery

Charles Nelson Vickery (February 10, 1920-March 26, 1972) was a Universalist and Unitarian Universalist minister, a social worker in the United States and post-World War II Europe. As Program Director of Volunteer Services for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee he thought “We can be the fulcrum, the dreamers, the economic resources to help remake a shattered world where [people] can find meaning to existence as well as merely survival.”

Charles, or Charley as he was known to friends, was born to middle-class Universalist parents—Nellie Hillman and Earle Nelson Vickery, an insurance agent—in the rural community of Pittsfield, Maine. In 1938 Charles graduated from the Maine Central Institute, a private academy which also served as Pittsfield’s High School. After studying for a year at Chaffey Junior College in Ontario, California, he transferred to the University of Maine in Orono where in 1942 he earned an A.B. Shortly after the United States entered the Second World War he registered with the local Selective Service board as a conscientious objector.

By the time he was a teenager Charles knew that he was gay. His biographer, Carl Seaburg, thought that he would have wished to have his homosexuality made known if he could have done so safely. Seaburg believed that it shaped his “whole orientation to life” and “affected and directed [him] in so many essential ways.”

Vickery had been interested in becoming a Universalist minister since his high school days. In discussion with the Universalist minister in Orono, Ray Baughan, Vickery decided to attend the School of Religion at Tufts College in Medford, Massachusetts. Baughan later remembered Vickery’s “persistent curiosity to find out what human beings could do for one another in this mixed-up world.”

From 1942 until 1945 Vickery studied at Tufts under Roland Wolfe, Alfred Cole, and Dean Clarence Skinner. Recommending him for ministry, Skinner wrote that although “rather quiet and shy” Vickery was nevertheless “solid and thoroughly dependable.” He was called and ordained that autumn by his student parish, the First Universalist Church of Swampscott, Massachusetts. Fifteen months later he resigned to return to Pittsfield to help care for his terminally-ill mother. She died in 1947.

During this period Vickery questioned his suitability for parish ministry and looked for another way in which his talents could be put to work. He sent applications to the Universalist Service Committee and the Unitarian Service Committee (USC) but they had no open positions. Waiting for an opportunity with the service committees, in 1947 Vickery served as youth director for the Universalist Church in Bangor, Maine and worked at the city’s interracial educational center, the Columbia Street Community Center.

In 1949 Vickery accepted an invitation by the two service committees to work in their joint project assisting youngsters in displaced children’s homes in the British Zone of Germany. He served as Director of the Displaced Persons Adolescent Home at Verden (later moved to Bad Rothenfelde) until the program closed in 1950. The goal of the program was to help these young people regain a sense of security, stability, self-confidence, and hope within a familial environment. After a short visit home, in 1951 he worked for six months at the Children’s Home of the Blanksee Transit Camp, near Lubeck, Germany. His Boston supervisor Helen Fogg wrote that she considered him “as one of the dependable, impractical ones who carry along in the midst of hell and high water with no fuss and bother.”

Uncertain what to do next, Vickery spent a year as interim pastor of the Universalist Church in Derby Line, Vermont and afterwards worked as a regional sales representative in the southern United States for a book firm. He then studied social work at Columbia University, 1953-55, at the same time serving as assistant minister at the Fourth Universalist Society of New York City. He wrote his MSW dissertation on the early service projects of the Universalist Service Committee. After graduation he worked for the Maine State Social Department, 1955-58, and also served part-time at three nearby rural Universalist churches: Livermore, North Jay, and Livermore Falls.

Unsatisfied, he resigned both jobs in 1959 to direct a Universalist Service Committee summer work camp project for disturbed teenage boys in Germany. When that was completed he became minister of the Universalist Church of Columbus, Ohio, 1959-61. Then, in 1961, he accepted the position of Field Supervisor for the Universalist Service Committee, recently renamed the Department of World Service, at the newly established Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) headquarters in Boston. In 1963 the UUA merged the World Service department with the USC to form the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC). Vickery then became the Program Director of Volunteer Services for the UUSC.

The organizational philosophy of the Universalist Service Committee—and its director Dana Klotzle—had been different from that of the Unitarian Service Committee. The Universalist committee mobilized volunteers while the Unitarian committee had programs run by professionals. Vickery was an advocate of the Universalist approach. “I believe in the power of the human being to create change,” he wrote. “It follows from this belief that if you work with people instead of for them, you enlarge both yourself and the person with whom you are working.”

During his time at the World Service Department and the UUSC Vickery supervised volunteer programs in Jordan, Kenya, Uganda, Germany, Japan, India, Honduras, Rhodesia, as well as those at the Jordan Neighborhood House in Suffolk, Virginia, the Clarence Darrow Center in Chicago, and various interracial projects in New York City, North Carolina, and Maine. He advertised programs, raised money, recruited and selected volunteers, and corresponded with and nurtured the program workers. He also oversaw a program—run at the Universalist church in Lynn, Massachusetts—to gather and ship donated clothes to Europe.

While living in Boston, Vickery attended and was a dedicated member of the Charles Street Meeting House.

In 1967 the UUSC, questioning the value of the summer volunteer projects and under financial pressure, began to cut Vickery’s budget and to reduce the number of his programs. Vickery defended the volunteer effort as an essential part of the merger, which had continued because of the “deep feelings” of the Universalists. He also argued that direct exposure to UUSC work by volunteers developed enthusiasm and financial support for other more long-term programs. Despite his protest, his programs were all discontinued and his position was eliminated at the end of 1968.

Before leaving the service committee he saved its archives from destruction. As there was no longer space for them at UUSC headquarters and the Historical Library of the UUA had decided not to take them, they were to be thrown away. Vickery then called Alan Seaburg, the librarian of the theological school at Tufts and also the librarian of the Universalist Historical Library then at Tufts, who immediately accepted the collection for the latter library. Vickery and Carl Seaburg moved them to Tufts; today they form part of the UUA archives housed at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library at Harvard University.

In January 1969 Vickery moved to Mexico City, a place where he had contacts resulting from one of his UUSC projects, to become the first settled minister of its Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Associacion Unitaria Mexicana, A.C. This had been lay-led since its establishment in 1953. He came to Mexico with a vision of liberal religious outreach to the people of Latin America. A humanist himself, he encouraged his congregation to engage with Mexican religious rituals and symbols. He encouraged social work projects in the community. During his years there he had helped the fellowship develop from a discussion group of older Americans into an American-Mexican group aged 15 to 80 which the UUA District Executive Russell Lockwood felt was now “alive and looking forward.”

Vickery served in Mexico City until he died in an automobile accident on March 26, 1972. Although his death dealt a severe blow to the fellowship and to the dream of Unitarian Universalist outreach in Latin America, Beverly Scarpita, the Fellowship’s president, spoke for many when she declared that “none of us will ever lose what Mr. Vickery shared with each of us, his hope and faith in man and his powers.”


The Charles N. Vickery Papers, Vickery’s UUA Ministerial file, and oral history interviews by Ghanda Di Figlia with Charles Vickery—in the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, Sound Recording Collection 1979-1986—are at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Vickery’s own writings include his unpublished 1945 Tufts STB thesis, “A Century of Attempted Rapprochement Between the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association.” his life story is told in Carl Seaburg, Inventing a Ministry: Four Reflections on the Life of a Colleague Charles Vickery 1920-1972 (1992). See also Ghanda Di Figlia, Roots and Visions: The First Fifty Years of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (1990).

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted January 1, 2004