Wieman, Henry Nelson

Henry Nelson Wieman
Henry Nelson Wieman

Henry Nelson Wieman (August 19, 1884-June 19, 1975) was a leading American religious philosopher. In early life Wieman was a Presbyterian. In his middle years, as a professor, he shared his naturalistic approach to Christianity with people of many denominations. In retirement he was a Unitarian Universalist.

Born in Rich Hill, Missouri, Henry was the first of eight children of Alma Morgan and William Henry Wieman. Both parents were graduates of the Presbyterian school, Park College, in Parksville, Missouri. Before they were married Alma taught at Park College while William studied for the ministry at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. While Henry was young his father was minister in Rich Hill and then in Irving, Corning, and Vermillion, Kansas. In 1892 the family moved to Miramonte, California where Henry’s maternal grandparents and three uncles were already established as farmers. The Wiemans later moved on to Orosi, California in the Sierra Nevada mountains. William worked for the Presbyterian mission board there and served as a circuit preacher in four small towns.

As a youth, Henry was an avid reader of Longfellow, Tennyson, and Byron. Reading John Fiske’s Destiny of Man convinced him that Darwin’s theory of evolution and Christianity were compatible. He had long free-ranging talks with his mother. “I was never taught religion,” he recalled. “But I caught something from my parents by contagion. In time it formulated itself into religion.”

Henry finished two years of high school in Dinuba, California followed by two years of preparatory study at an academy attached to Occidental College, a Presbyterian school in Los Angeles. Because his freshman year studies at Occidental College were less successful than his captaining of the football team and work with student government, his parents encouraged him to transfer to Park College, hoping he would benefit from its rural location and emphasis on manual labor. In addition to attending classes and church, Park students grew food, cooked, cleaned, cleared land, planted orchards, and constructed buildings.

On his application to Park College, Wieman stated his educational objective in a single word: “Power!” He planned a career in journalism. His ambition was redirected by Ernest McAfee’s history of religion course and Silas Evan’s philosophy classes. In 1907, just before graduation, he had an experience that sealed his new vocation: “I came to my room after the evening meal and sat alone looking at the sunset over the Missouri River. Suddenly it came over me that I should devote my life to the problems of religious inquiry. I never had a more ecstatic experience. I could not sleep all night and walked in that ecstasy for days.”

Although he had little interest in becoming a minister, Wieman enrolled at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California, a traditional Presbyterian school. He learned church history and biblical criticism from the school’s traditional Calvinist perspective. His thesis, “Biblical Doctrine of Reconciliation,” explored the suffering that resulted from the coexistence of God’s love and man’s sin. He was awarded a traveling prize at graduation. In 1910 he started his travels by working his way across America, recruiting students for the seminary. The next year, in Germany, he studied with philosophers Rudolph Eucken at Jena and Wilhelm Windelband and Ernst Troeltsch at Heidelberg. On the trip home he visited France and England.

In 1911 Wieman was appointed pastor and ordained at Brookdale Presbyterian Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. In 1912 he married Anna M. Orr, whom he had met at Park College. The next year he moved to the Presbyterian church in Davis, California. Daughter Florence Margaret and son Orr Nelson were born in Davis. The love of study, especially of the books of Henri Bergson, often trumped pastoral duties during these early years. Wieman later recalled, “I read all of the time rather than doing what a minister ought to.”

Wieman resigned his pastorate in 1915, left his family with relatives in Missouri, and enrolled at Harvard, where he studied with William Ernest Hocking and Ralph Barton Perry. He earned the Doctor of Philosophy degree in 1917. In his dissertation, “The Organization of Interests,” he proposed that the greatest good for all people could be achieved if the many individual interests could be creatively organized so as to function as a single interest. This creative interest is not to fulfill any end or desire that we already possess, but to expand our consciousness and understanding.

Wieman taught philosophy at Occidental College in Los Angeles, 1917-27. The workload was heavy, the salary low. The birth of three more children—Marion, Robert and Eleanor—led him to moonlight for extra income. In the little time available for scholarship he was able to digest Alfred North Whitehead’s first philosophical works and publish two scholarly articles on them. His first book, Religious Experience and Scientific Method, 1926, led to an invitation from the University of Chicago to teach a summer course on the philosophy of religion. A second book, The Wrestle of Religion with Truth, came out the following year. He wrote that experience teaches humanity that “this is not a nice world and God is not a nice God. God is too awful and terrible, too destructive to our foolish little plans, to be nice.”

In 1927 Wieman became Professor of Christian Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. During his first five years there, his philosophy moved away from Whitehead’s “cosmic consciousness” and toward John Dewey’s empiricism and pragmatism. His next two books, Methods of Private Religious Living, 1929, and The Issues of Life, 1930, investigated the solitary experience of religion.

In 1931, Wieman’s wife Anna died of cancer. The following year he switched his personal religious affiliation from Presbyterian to Congregational and married Regina Hanson Westcott, a California native who had a doctorate in Education from Berkley. She brought two sons, Linneaus Hanson Westcott and Wilfred Henry Westcott, to the family. An accomplished scholar, she was interested in education, psychology, and religion. Henry contributed a chapter, “Supreme Value,” to her book, The Normative Psychology of Religion, 1935.

Besides teaching at the University of Chicago, Wieman appeared on numerous campuses for visiting lecture series and workshops. As a speaker, he was remembered as much for his passion as for his scholarship. One who heard a 1932 Dudleian Lecture recalled him as “rough but passionate and thoughtful . . . He stammered and wrestled and sweat and burst out into spurts of poetry; but most of all, he testified to the imperious grip of God upon his mind and heart.” Theologian Huston Smith, who married Wieman’s daughter Eleanor, said of Wieman’s classes in the 1940s, “It is difficult to put into words the way he moved across the campus, into the classrooms, and into our lives. When he spoke, people listened—even those who disagreed with him. For here was a passionately religious spirit that seemed to be marching with the truth.”

During his career Wieman’s thought passed through several phases. He first studied the meaning of religion for the individual. Then his emphasis shifted to a community or cultural outlook. Finally, he articulated his belief in the value of creative interchange between individuals and groups. The question he always pursued was: “What operates in human life with such character and power that it will transform man as he cannot transform himself, saving him from evil and leading him to the best that human life can ever reach?”

One of Wieman’s best known works, The Source of Human Good, came out in 1946. In it he describes the “creative event” as that process of reorganization that increases human good. He further divided the “creative event” into four subevents: 1) “emerging awareness of qualitative meaning derived from other persons through communication”; 2) “integrating these new meanings with others previously acquired”; 3) “expanding the richness of quality in the appreciable world by enlarging its meaning”; and 4) “deepening the community among those who participate in this total creative event of intercommunication.”

He interpreted the formative events of Christianity in light of this creative process. The “thought and feeling of the least and lowliest,” acting upon the group of early Christians, was, he claimed, as important as the thought and feeling of Jesus himself. Christianity was not something Jesus invented and then gave to others. It was, rather, “something rising out of their midst in creative power.” Jesus was merely the catalyst. The death of Jesus released the Christians’ creative power, allowing it to spread beyond their small community and local tradition. In the Resurrection, the disciples realized that “the life-transforming creativity previously only known in fellowship with Jesus began again to work.” Because the creativity Jesus had initiated continued, it seemed to his followers that he was “actually present, walking and talking with them.” It was not a man named Jesus who had arisen from the dead, said Wieman, it was “creative power.” This had long been identified by the church as Christ, the second person of the Trinity.

After World War II, as he neared retirement age, Wieman faced a number of personal and professional challenges; his personal life was in turmoil, his liberal-pacifist beliefs and writings came under scrutiny, and his understanding of racial problems was challenged.

His personal problems reached a crisis when his wife Regina charged him with promiscuous behavior. Rumors quickly spread across the campus and among colleagues. In 1947 he submitted his resignation, effective at the end of the academic year. When counseling failed, he and Regina divorced. In 1948 he married Laura Wolcott Matlack of Grinnell, Iowa, a recently retired school teacher and sister of his daughter-in-law.

Over the next two years Wieman studied at the New School in New York City, and taught at the University of Oregon and the University of West Virginia. In 1949 he joined the Unitarian church in Eugene, Oregon and in 1950 he was granted ministerial fellowship with the American Unitarian Association.

In 1951 Wieman was offered a faculty position in philosophy at the University of Houston. Once there, he was caught up in a controversy between the Houston and Wichita Unitarian Churches. The Houston Church, host of the Southwest Unitarian Conference’s (SWUC) 1952 annual meeting, had excluded Wichita’s conference delegates because of color. Wieman’s letter, attempting to reconcile the two churches, ended up alienating both. Inflammatory passages, published nationally in The Humanist magazine, gave readers the impression that Wieman supported segregation. Ironically, a few months later Wieman received a letter from Boston University graduate student, Martin Luther King, Jr. informing him of his chosen dissertation topic: “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.”

During this same period, Wieman’s son, Robert was discharged from the Oklahoma A&M College staff for refusing to sign a newly imposed loyalty oath. (This law was ruled unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 1952.) Wieman faced his own cold war loyalty problems when Houston newspapers, egged on by local conservatives, started questioning him. “What I said about social problems was anathema to the extreme conservatism of the dominating people in Houston,” he reflected. The SWUC imbroglio and Wieman’s signature to an open letter in the Daily Worker opposing the rearming of Germany forced him to resign from the University of Houston and to leave Texas in 1953. Wieman moved on to teach at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri and Grinnell College.

In 1956, at the age of 72, Wieman was invited to be a distinguished visiting professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. There Henry and Laura were active in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and in civic affairs. In addition to his teaching duties, Henry often delivered sermons, moderated worship services, and taught seminars at the Meadville-Lombard (Chicago, Illinois) and Starr-King (Berkeley, California) seminaries. Undeterred by his critics, Wieman embraced the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.

Wieman wrote several important books during these years: Man’s Ultimate Commitment, 1958, Intellectual Foundation of Faith, 1961, and Religious Inquiry: Some Explorations, 1968. He signed the 1965 Declaration of Conscience against the Vietnam War and the 1975 Humanist Manifesto II. He said that his time in Carbondale was the “ten best years of his career.”

While living at Carbondale, Wieman continued to move away from traditional Christianity. In 1963 he wrote, “It is impossible to gain knowledge of the total cosmos or to have any understanding of the infinity transcending the cosmos. Consequently, beliefs about these matters are illusions, cherished for their utility in producing desired states of mind. . . . Nothing can transform man unless it operates in human life. Therefore, in human life, in the actual processes of human existence, must be found the saving and transforming power which religious inquiry seeks and which faith must apprehend.”

When another theologian accused him of ultimate skepticism, saying, “If all our beliefs are tentative, then even this belief (that all our beliefs are tentative) is itself tentative. The result is the annihilation of truth,” Wieman replied that his critic had spoken of the annihilation of knowledge, but not of truth: “To say that all beliefs are tentative is a way of saying that truth stands unshaken and untouched, no matter how mistaken may be my beliefs about it.”

Asked if he considered himself just a Christian theologian, or whether he was engaged in a “free and unfettered quest for religious truth,” Wieman replied that, though he was shaped by Christian tradition, he resented the “practice of appealing to the Christian and Jewish tradition as being the guide of life and identifying this tradition with God rather than seeking what operates in all human life to create, save, and transform.”

In 1966 Wieman retired for the third time. He moved to his wife’s hometown, Grinnell, Iowa. Here Laura taught weaving in the College Art Department, retiring in 1985. Wieman continued his work on creative interchange, stressing the psychological rather than the religious context. Henry and Laura were members of the Grinnell Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. In a 1967 sermon to Unitarians he said, “I don’t think I’ve found any other association of people who gather regularly to consider the important problems of human existence which I’ve found is more congenial or as congenial as this.”

By 1970 his memory and vitality were declining. In a talk, “My Failures,” given at a retirement home in Grinell, one of his last presentations, Wieman wondered if his apparent achievement, the philosophy of creative interchange, might end up a colossal failure. The answer to this question might perhaps be drawn from his earlier writing, when he wrote, “The culmination of man’s quest through the ages, if ever there is a culmination, will not be to build the house of his dreams. It will be to climb above the fog of his dreams and see that the greatest values are shining summits very different from his dreams.”


Six days after his death, Wieman was awarded the Unitarian Universalist Association Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Liberal Religion.


Documents in the Henry Nelson Wieman Papers at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale provided much of the information for this biography. The Morris Library also houses a collection of addresses, some by Wieman, given at the Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship between 1958 and 1972. Additional items are available at Grinnell College, the University of Chicago, and the San Francisco Theological Seminary. Besides the works mentioned above he wrote Now We Must Choose (1941) and The Directive in History (1949). He co-wrote Is There a God? (with Douglas Clyde MacIntosh and Max Otto, 1932), American Philosophies of Religion (with Bertrand Eugene Meland, 1936), and The Growth of Religion (with Walter Marshall Horton, 1938). He co-edited Ventures in Belief: Christian Convictions for a Day of Uncertainty (1930). His last book, Science Serving Faith (1987), edited by Creighton Peden and Charles Willig, was published posthumously. He also wrote approximately two hundred articles, the majority appearing in the Journal of Philosophy, the Journal of Religion, the Christian Century and the New Republic.

Wieman wrote two autobiographical pieces, “Theocentric religion,” in Vergilius Ferm, ed., Contemporary American Theology (1932) and “Intellectual Autobiography,” in Robert W. Bretall, ed., The Empirical Theology of Henry Nelson Wieman (1963). Two books that were very helpful are; John A. Broyer and William S. Minor, eds., Creative Interchange (A Festschrift in honor of Henry Nelson Wieman) (1982), and Joseph Ernest McAfee, A Mid-West Adventure in Education: Problems and Phases of Life at Park College During Its Early Days (1937). Additional information, though not always accurate, can be found in “Profile of a Professor” in Challenge for Unitarian Universalist Leaders (February 22, 1965). There are entries on Wieman in American National Biography (1999), David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985), and Mark Harris, Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism (2004). See also an interview with Laura Wieman and The Confessions of a Religious Seeker: Henry Nelson Wieman.

Article by Jim Nugent
Posted January 27, 2006