Wilbur, Earl Morse

Earl Morse Wilbur
Earl Morse Wilbur

Earl Morse Wilbur (April 26, 1866-January 8, 1956), a Unitarian minister and scholar, was an organizer, dean, and president of the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry (now Starr King School for the Ministry). His magisterial two-volume study, A History of Unitarianism, was the first comprehensive account of Unitarianism in both Europe and America. His characterization of religious liberalism as “freedom, reason, and tolerance” has become commonly accepted within Unitarian Universalism.

Earl was born in Jericho, a country town in northern Vermont, to LaFayette and Mercy Jane Morse Wilbur, whose forebears had come from England with the first wave of Puritan immigrants in the 1630s. His father was a lawyer and judge; his mother was active in temperance work and in their local Congregational church. Earl joined this church when he was ten. He was educated in the town school, at academies at Essex Center and Jericho, and at the University of Vermont, 1882-86, where he was chosen class valedictorian.

Planning to teach languages, Wilbur took special training in German, Greek, Latin, and French at the College of Languages in Burlington, Vermont in the summer of 1886. While there he met the Unitarian ministerial student, William Wallace Fenn (later the dean of the Harvard Divinity School), who got him interested in theology and eventually helped him to abandon Trinitarianism. The following year, 1886-87, Wilbur taught languages at Mt. Beacon Academy, Fishkill-on-the-Hudson, New York. As he did not find this satisfying, he trained for the Congregational ministry at Harvard Divinity School, 1887-90. While a student, to supplement his scholarship, he played the organ for chapel services, did private tutoring, worked as a library custodian, and did supply preaching. He graduated with a double degree: an S.T.B from the Divinity School and an A.M. in philosophy from Harvard College.

Before graduation Wilbur applied for a license to preach in Congregational churches in Nebraska. The Nebraska regional association, however, denied him a license as they were dissatisfied with his views on the divinity of the Christ. A friend, William Eliot, told him that his father, Thomas Lamb Eliot, the minister of the Portland, Oregon Unitarian Church, was looking for an assistant. Although not yet a convinced Unitarian, Wilbur was accepted and began his duties as Associate Minister that fall. He was ordained in 1892 by the Pacific Unitarian Conference. When Eliot retired in 1893, Wilbur was elected to succeed him.

Wilbur’s ministry began auspiciously: the Sunday School attracted over 300 students, his sermons on evolution and biblical criticism were well received, and he wrote A History of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, 1893. Then, in the wake of the Panic of 1893, congregational financial problems led to his resignation in 1898. That year he married Eliot’s daughter, Dorothea (Dode) Dix Eliot. They had two children, a boy and girl. During their first year together they traveled to England and Europe. While there Wilbur took post-graduate courses at Oxford and the University of Berlin. Upon their return in 1899, he accepted the pulpit of the Unitarian Church in Meadville, Pennsylvania.

One of Wilbur’s first tasks in Meadville was to prepare a historical discourse celebrating the church’s seventy-fifth anniversary in 1900. After exhaustive research, he produced a book, A Historical Sketch of the Independent Congregational Church Meadville, Pennsylvania, 1902. In addition to fulfilling his church duties he served as a Tutor at the Meadville Theological School, teaching Homiletics and German.

Unitarians on the Pacific Coast funded their own theological school in 1904. Wilbur accepted the invitation of Samuel A. Eliot, president of the American Unitarian Association (AUA), to help organize the school. With AUA financing guaranteed for five years, the Pacific Unitarian School for Ministry opened that year in Oakland with four students. (It soon relocated to Berkeley, near the University of California.) Wilbur served the school as its first dean; then as president, 1911-1931; and, until 1934, as professor of homiletics and practical theology. During this period he also served as the Pacific Coast Field Secretary of the AUA and was a Director of the AUA, 1915-22. He was made Professor Emeritus in 1934.

Wilbur’s most valuable work, his lifelong investigation into the development of Unitarian beliefs within Christianity, had its genesis in 1904 when he first had to prepare a course on Unitarian history. In order to further this task, he studied Polish at the University of California, 1911-12. “I assure you that this was no child’s play for a man approaching 50,” he later wrote, “for this language cost me more labor than all the others I had studied put together.” In 1917, having earned a sabbatical but unable to travel to Europe because of the war, he spent eight months in Cambridge, Massachusetts, absorbing the relevant contents of the Harvard library and beginning to learn Hungarian. During the next eight years, while teaching at the Pacific Unitarian School, he prepared a work, commissioned by the AUA Department of Religious Education, Our Unitarian Heritage, 1925. Unitarian Universalist Reformation scholar, George Huntston Williams, called it a “volume of marked clarity in exposition of complex material.”

During his 1924-25 sabbatical, Wilbur was at last enabled to spend a year in Europe, visiting Unitarian sites and exploring continental libraries. He spent two months in Poland. “I soon discovered that much more time than this was needed,” he recounted in his memoir of the project. “I devoted myself chiefly to learning what the libraries at Kraków contained that I might use when I should be able to come again.” In the former Unitarian community, Raków, he was questioned by the police who “were suspicious as to my purpose in taking pictures of the shabby little town.” He toured places associated with Michael Servetus in France and Spain and inspected the manuscript of Christianismi Restitutio (The Restoration of Christianity) in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. He also looked for “traces” of Faustus Socinus in Italy and visited Transylvania, where he improved his Hungarian, toured historical sites, and read Latin works in the library at Kolozsvár. He concluded his trip in England and Ireland, getting “a broad background for understanding the history and spirit of our movement in the British Isles.”

To deepen his understanding, Wilbur translated some early documents, including Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, 1932. This work was made up of English versions of On the Errors of the Trinity, 1531; Dialogues on the Trinity, 1532; and On the Righteousness of Christ’s Kingdom, 1532. He decided to translate these early works of Servetus in preference to Servetus’s Christianismi Restitutio, 1553, because, at that time, he thought the latter was “so nearly destroyed that its historical influence may be considered negligible.” His manuscript translation of Stanislaw Lubieniecki’s History of the Polish Reformation, 1685, formed the basis of George Huntston Williams’s translation, published in 1993.

Wilbur’s planned 1931 European studies were delayed when financial disaster for his school led to the termination of his sabbatical funding. Unable to resume his teaching job, he studied in the Harvard libraries and did supply preaching in New England until the following year, when he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship. During 1932 he spent a half-year reading in Kraków libraries. There he made a photostat copy of the earliest preserved edition of the Racovian Catechism. He was studying in Berlin when Hitler came to power in Germany. While he was in Transylvania, he secured permission to borrow one of three manuscript copies of István Fosztó-Uzoni’s Unitario-Ecclesiastica Historia Transylvania, 1775, which he took back with him to study at leisure at home in Berkeley. He also traveled to Geneva to read the records of the trial of Servetus. His Guggenheim funding expired before he could revisit England. Nevertheless, with a stipend for lecturing at the Unitarian College in Manchester and a Hibbert fellowship from Manchester College, Oxford, Wilbur was able to read for a year in London and to visit numerous British churches.

As a Christian Wilbur was confounded by the Unitarian Humanists of his generation and their “outright denial of Theism, God, Prayer, Immortality, Christianity, and what not.” But in the end his life-time study of Unitarianism led him, as his dedication of the first volume of his History to his late son declared, to affirm its basic “principles of Freedom in thought Reason in conduct and Tolerance in judgement” which was “crowned by uprightness of character.” Therefore, he understood its story as “not so much a history of a particular sect or form of Christian doctrine,” but rather as “the development of a movement fundamentally characterized by its steadfast and increasing devotion to these three leading principles: first complete mental freedom in religion rather than bondage to creeds or confessions; second, the unrestricted use of reason in religion, rather than reliance upon external authority or past tradition; third, generous tolerance of differing religious views and usages rather than insistence upon uniformity in doctrine, worship or polity.”

It took Wilbur another 15 years to compose the history based upon the fruits of his research. The history was eventually published in two large volumes: A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and Its Antecedents, 1945, and A History of Unitarianism In Transylvania, England, and America to 1900, 1952. Charles Lyttle, reviewing volume two in Church History, affirmed the book’s “authority and distinguished scholarship.” Roland Bainton, in Review of Religion, said, “The completion of the first volume of this magnificent history of Unitarianism evokes a tribute to a lifetime of persistent scholarship pursued amid the vicissitudes and distractions of educational administration.”

Wilbur made his most enduring contribution to the history of European Unitarianism. Together with George Huntston Williams’s The Radical Reformation, his History tells the definitive story of Antitrinitarianism in Europe. The biography of Servetus, contained in chapters 5-12, was the best available in English until Bainton’s Hunted Heretic, 1953. Reprinted several times, A History of Unitarianism is the major source for Charles A. Howe’s For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe, 1997. Wilbur’s account of American Unitarianism has been partly superceded by Conrad Wright’s fresh interpretation of the Unitarian development in North America. The scope of Wilbur’s History, moreover, led some to erroneously infer that Wilbur had discovered a continuity between Polish-Dutch Socinianism and American Unitarianism. Many readers interpret Wilbur’s History as saying Amercan Unitarianism is part of “a continuous movement from the 16th century down through the centuries to the present.” According to Conrad Wright, Wilbur never said that.

During his labors Wilbur collected a library of 16,500 volumes, 13,000 pamphlets, numerous manuscripts, and transcriptions of documents, including some whose originals perished during World War II. Roland Bainton called it “one of the finest, if not the finest library on the history of Unitarianism to be found anywhere in the world.” Wilbur prepared A Bibliography of the Pioneers of the Socinian-Unitarian Movement in Modern Christianity in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, 1950. Following his death, an envelope was found among his papers, saying, “This package contains materials for a Bibliography of Socinianism, an unfinished work which ill health prevents me from carrying through. It is consigned to any scholar who undertakes to finish the work.”

The University of Vermont granted Wilbur an honorary D.D. in 1910. In 1949 the General Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches, held at his old church in Portland, gave him a Citation of Appreciation for his accomplishments. The next year the Starr King School awarded him in a S.T.D. At the May Meetings in Boston in 1953, the AUA presented him with its highest honor, The Annual Unitarian Award in Recognition of Distinguished Service to the Cause of Liberal Religion. In his acceptance speech, he said that his vision had been “to help my brethren to appreciate our true significance, by realizing that, instead of being merely one of the minor sects of a divided Christendom, we are ennobled as a living part of a great and broadening stream of spiritual freedom.”

Wilbur continued to do research and writing into his eighties. In 1955, on his last trip to the east, he spoke at Harvard. He died a few months later in Berkeley. Towards the end of his life he wrote, “The longer I have been occupied with the history of Unitarianism the more I have realized how rich it is in its implications, how inspiring it is to our devotion, and how full it is of suggestions for our present and our future. In so far as my work has awakened livelier interest, deeper appreciation and more sincere devotion to our cause, it has done what I have hoped it might do.”


Wilbur’s papers (1851-1960) are at the Hewlett Library of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. The Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has his American Unitarian Association Ministerial File, papers relating to his student years, and a biographical/bibliographical file collected by George Huntston Williams. The Starr King School for the Ministry has his library of rare Unitariana. His autobiographical writings are “Journey into History: How 40 years, 8 languages and 10 Countries Helped Discover Unitarianism’s Past,” Christian Register (January 1951); “How the History Came to be Written,” Proceedings of the Unitarian Historical Society (1951), which includes a list of his “Contributions To Unitarian History”; “Reminiscences of a Divinity School Graduate of the Class of 1890,” Harvard Divinity School Bulletin (1954-55); and A Few Extracts from A Long Ministry (1956). In addition to the books mentioned above, Wilbur wrote Thomas Lamb Eliot, 1841-1936 (1937); Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry: The History of its First Twenty-Five Years 1904-1929 (1930); and a number of articles for the Christian Register, Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, Inquirer, and Proceedings of the Unitarian Historical Society. The Hungarian edition of Our Unitarian Heritage, translated by Sándor Szent-Iványi, was published in 1937.

For a thoughtful view of Wilbur’s work, see Conrad Wright’s “The Ambiguous Legacy of Earl Morse Wilbur”, in Harley’s Toy Chest and Other New England Retirement Stories, ed. Alan Seaburg (Anne Miniver Press 2011). For Wilbur’s work at the Pacific Unitarian School see Arliss L. Ungar, With Vision and Courage: Starr King School for the Ministry The History of its First Hundred Years 1904-2004 (2006). For his ministry at the Portland Church see Wilbur and Evadne Hilands, A Time to Build (1966). See also George H. Williams, “Wilbur’s Vision: Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance Reglimpsed,” Unitarian Universalist Christian (1987); Duncan Howlett, “To ‘know the cost of religious liberty in torture, bloodshed and suffering’,” Christian Register (January 1953); Henry Wilder Foote, “The Costly Heritage of Religious Freedom,” Christian Register (August 1945); Herbert McLachlan, “Earl Morse Wilbur: Scholar and Traveller,” Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society (1956); and H. I. Brock, “Religious Rebels,” New York Times (August 5, 1945). Extremely helpful is Alicia Forsey, Earl K. Holt, and Warren R. Ross, eds., Regaining Historical Consciousness: Proceedings of The Earl Morse Wilbur History Colloquium (1994), especially Cynthia Grant Tucker, “When History Speaks in a Woman’s Voice: A Different View of Earl Morse Wilbur.” There are short articles about Wilbur in David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (1984); in Mark W. Harris, Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism (2004); by Henry Wilder Foote, in The Christian Register, (March 1956), reprinted in the Unitarian Yearbook 1957-58; and by George Huntston Williams, in American National Biography (1999).

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted on Dec 19, 2006.