A Heretic of Clarity: The Unitarianism of Stephen Fritchman

The International Workers Day and Rev. Stephen Fritchman

It is appropriate for today's International Workers Day service that the topic concerns the Unitarianism of Reverend Stephen Hole Fritchman. He is an individual who is often referenced at this Church for his social activism, his committment to socialist and democratic values, and I think particularly for his bravery in confronting the issues of his day in a manner that was morally right, although not politically correct: I am using the term 'politically correct' here to refer to the tendency of people to say what is perceived to be socially appropriate. In contrast, as Rosa Luxemburg famously remarked: Freiheit ist immer Freiheit der Andersdenkenden, or "Freedom is always the freedom for those who think differently".

The title of today's presentation "A Heretic of Clarity" is a portmanteu phrase, combining his two most famous books, "Heretic: A Partisan Autobiography" and "For The Sake of Clarity", a selection of sermons and addresses kept by Harvard University that spanned his career. He was also the author of several other books including "Men of Liberty", a collection of historical and biographical sketches of famous Unitarians aimed at adolescents, "Beyond Dogma: A Unitarian Story of Man's Faith in Man", "Unitarianism in Transition" and "Unitarianism Today". His also extensively referred to in the testimonies of the House Committee on Unamerican Activities for his alleged involvement in what was perceived as communist-front organisations.

Early Years

Stephen Fritchman was born in Salem, on May 12, 1902 in an average-income family who were members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. His geneology includes one Anne Askew who was tortured and burned at the stake in 1546 for rejecting the doctrine of transubstantiation, the idea that the bread and wine literally became the body and blood of Jesus. In an account her trial she mocks her questioner, the Lord Mayor of London, who asserted that a mouse was damned if it ate consecrated bread. His first and most genuine experience of the intersection of politics and society came as a teenager (as it often does) when his father found himself morally unable to sell "Liberty Bonds" on the grounds that they were as much a part of the Imperialist War as shooting a man in a trench.

In 1920 he moved to Philadelphia and enrolled at the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania and it was through visiting nearby Quaker homes he met then fourteen year-old Frances Putnam of a Unitarian family who, some five years later, would become his wife for almost fifty years. Like the comments he makes concerning his sister, Stephen Fritchman was profoundly sensitive to the limited social opportunities available to women prior to the advent of Women's Liberation Movement of "second wave feminism".

After a year at the University of Pennsylvania, Stephen decided he was better suited as Methodist minister and in 1924 graduated from the Ohio Wesleyan University. Whilst a number of liberal and radical speakers were invited at the campus, Fritchman noted an ever-present tension and, in 1930, switched demoniations to the Unitarianism; "a major weight was lifted from my shoulders", he remarked, despite the Church being in the doldrums at the time. Initially taking up a ministry at rural Petersham, two years later, he moved to Bangor, Maine, where he remained minister for another six years.

From A Spiritual Transformation to "The Fritchman Crisis"

It was during Fritchman's period in Bangor that he also had the opportunity to read the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson in detail. It was through this study he claims that he was able to feel comfortable in being a spiritual being, whilst at the same time a "naturalist, a humanist to some an agnostic, an atheist". But like many others it was the reports of the Spanish Civil War that most profoundly affected him: "The Spanish Civil War did more to destroy my Christian supposition than any other single event in my life. It was 1936; the three Christian irrationalities - belief in a personal immortality, belief in a personal God, and belief in a transcending cosmic purpose infusing the world - burned to ashes for me."

In 1938 he ended his service at Bangor to take up an advisory role for the Unitarian-affiliate Young People's Religious Union, a position he remained in for eight years, as it transformed into the American Unitarian Youth in 1942. That year he also took up the role of "acting editor" of The Christian Register, a position which he hold until 1947, editing some fifty-eight issues of the journal. The journal was undoubtably transformed under his leadership, a point which even his critics acknowledged. Part of the reason was that he chose the best and respected competing opinions on matters of social relevance. For example, in the very first issue he edited, although by now totally dedicated to the military defeat of fascism in Europe, he ran lengthy stories on the Unitarian Pacifist Fellowship on the grounds that were genuine and respected Unitarians.

In 1946, with the defeat of Nazism in Europe, and a new cold war had began. Fritchman found himself accussed of following "the Communist line", and of collaborating with Communists. Later that year he was subpeoned by Un-American Activities Committee. In early 1947 a Fritchman editorial criticised President Truman's interventions in Greece and Turkey, resulting in widespread and particularly well-funded criticism from conservative sections of the Unitarians and other churches. In what became known as "The Fritchman Crisis" he was first suspended from his editorial duties by the Unitarian Executive Committee and weeks later at the Annual Meeting a motion to reinstate him failed.

The Los Angeles Years and Beyond

This too proved to be a turning point in his life as he took up the role of Minister for the First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles, California the following year, a position he would hold until retirement in 1969. The itinerary of addresses gives a clear indication of his activities: In the midst of the Cold War and the witchhunt against communists and alleged communists, he stood strongly in favour of free speech (except, he specifically noted, when it it used to incite violence) and very much against the various State investigative committees of the time of which he had to appear on a number of occasions. He argued against all violence, from war - and in particular the wars in Korea, in Panama, the Middle East, and in Viet Nam and the Indo-China region - the nuclear threat, to capital punishment. He gave biographical sketches of a range of social activists throughout history, including Michael Servetus, Rosseau and Voltaire, Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Parker, Henry George, Eugene Debs, Albert Schweitzer, George Bernard Shaw, and Albert Einstein.

He displayed particular sensitivity to the rise of the long-suppressed social groups of his day. He spoke with great understanding on the necessity of women's rights and equality; he was active in promoting equality and supporting the assertiveness of the "Black" movement, and often spoke and acted on their pertinent issues, especially after three "white" Unitarian ministers were assaulted and one killed by racist thugs after attending protests in 1965. In 1967 he helped establish the first Black Caucus at the First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles which eventually led to the establishment of a $300,000 per annum Fund for Racial Justice, and in 1968 at the Cleveland General Assembly a one million dollar commitment over four years to the Black Affairs Council. The following year at the Boston General Assembly a proposal to reduce the funding by $50,000 per annum was met with a seizure of plenary microphones by the BAC, and a walkout by their supporters, including Fritchman.

It must be mentioned that despite this apparent concentration on social issues, Fritchman did discuss matters of religious import. Indeed, one finds almost all of his sermons and addresses are peppered with Biblical references. At least half of his sermons and addresses were specifically framed about religious matters; the relationship of Unitarians and Christianity, the ethical and moral challenges of a liberal religion, the development and transformation of Catholicism (this was the period of the Second Vactican Council), the relation between existentialism, humanism and liberal religions and so forth. Even more to the point he appealed to people to take an active interest in the conditions of life itself and he railed against apathy, cynicism and the preoccupation with the trivial; two sermons were dedicated to the topic of Adolph Eichmann, the high-ranking Nazi SS Officer who was in charge the logistics of moving great numbers of Jews to ghettos and concentration camps in Eastern Europe. As Hannah Arendt brilliantly exposed in her study of Eichmann's trial, Eichmann bore no particular hatred against Jews, HE SIMPLY DID NOT CARE.

It is very important to understand that Fritchman's religious activities were not an extension of his political attitudes, but rather his politics coincided with his religious attitudes. His opposition to the investigative committees of the U.S. government in the late 1940s and 1950s and to censorship was not because he had leftist politics, but because it was a basic principle of Unitarianism - as embodied in the U.S. Bill of Rights and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights - that all human beings are entitled to right of freedom of opinion and expression with interference and through any media. Certainly his socialism was of a relatively undeveloped variety, the sort which comes from moral outrage at the state of the poor, rather than any grounding in economics. They were more about the inherent dignity and worth of human beings, the right to a living wage, social welfare, and so forth, rather than the relative efficiency (or lack thereof) of publically-owned enterprises. His attention to the rights of women, of blacks, and the rise of youth and the cultural revolution was not based on any perceived political expediency - but because he saw those social groups as attempting to gain equal rights and a voice.

The Los Angeles Church headed by Fritchman in this time, grew enormously. Much of this undoubtably had to do with the fact that other churches simply ducked for cover due to the political climate, whereas Fritchman's church did not waver in the assertion of basic rights for all people. In addition he took the pastoral role quite seriously as well, also as evidently on his services concerning marriage and divorce, childhood education and so forth, and conducting over 2400 marriages and, as revealed in the autobiography, numerous hours in counselling, hospital visits and the like. Although sometimes written between the lines, there was a libertine streak in Fritchman's thinking which supported any sexual relations that were built on consent and respect for the rights of others. Just before his retirement, he married a couple with the bride dressed in naught but a bra and very brief mini-skirt which had been made by the groom, a fashion designer; the couple were overjoyed, for every other member of the clergy had refused them. At the age of 71, he remarked that one of the joys of being old was reading forbidden books or occasionally watching an X-rated movie - and I quote - "not that I ever learned anything from an X-rated movie that I didn't know before seeing it!"

Needless to say, he was harassed, by the House Un-American Activities Committee throughout the 'fifties and by an ultimately failed attempt in the Levering Act to force Churches (and other organisations) to commit to a loyalty oath and state they were not a subversive organisation or lose their tax-exempt status. Rather than make the declaration, the Church decided to lose the status and challenge the Act in the courts, eventually winning. The Melbourne Unitarian Church has its own modest role to play in this period. In 1952 the Reverend Victor James invited Fritchman to address the 100th anniversary service of the Church which was also going to involve (paid for by the Melbourne Church) addresses across the nation but the approval for a passport never eventuated from the US government. Ultimately he did receive the opportunity to travel overseas, visiting Mexico on three occasions, attending and speaking at the 10th World Congress for Peace at Stockholm in 1959, the 1960 Tokyo Conference Against Hydrogen and Atomic Bombs, London for the British Peace Congress in 1963, and Warsaw and East Berlin in the same year. In 1967 he was invited to attend the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of the October Revolution in the Soviet Union and in 1973, the People's Republic of China. Even after retirement, Fritchman continued his activism, giving a number of speeches and writing articles each year, receiving the 1976 Annual Award of the UUA for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Liberal Religion. He died in 1981.

An Assesment

Fritchman's life of activism is a profound and important testimony. However, it is not without its problems. In dedicating almost all his energy to social and religious-philosophical issues, no time was left to give proper, balanced consideration to those other facets of human existence, such as the arts and sciences. With the increasing specialisation of life in complex society, human beings run the serious risk of fragmented consciousness, where we are unable to connect with other vocational interests effectively. To put simply, too much individual specialisation leads to social fragmentation. More importantly however, is that he seemed almost blind when it came to criticising the various state-socialist regimes. Whilst it is one thing to concentrate one's political energies on affairs that are closest to home, he left himself right open to criticism for not condemning worse abuses in those countries that those that were occurring in the United States. With the single exception of a few apologist remarks in his biography and an excellent single paragraph on his sermon on Eugene Debs, Fritchman's silence on these issues was a deafening roar that left him wide open to criticism from conservatives. The suppression of free speech, freedom of religion, and free association in those regimes cannot be denied. The State-sponsored deaths of millions of individuals and the imprisonment of tens of millions is well-documented and, at least in the case of the former Eastern bloc, now on the public record. The invasion of countries by the Soviet Union and the People's Repblic of China of other nationalities made a mockery of the principle of self-determination.

It is possible to learn from these mistakes and at the same time recall the successes of Fritchman - and indeed they are one and the same. Unitarian-Universalism is a religion dedicated to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. It is requisite that there is a separation of Church and State to allow religious freedom. It is requisite that there is free speech, and especially speech that one finds objectionable. It is requisite that there is genuine freedom of association as part of an inherent equality which allows democratic institutions. It is requisite that all individuals are provided legal equality and minimum economic capacity to participate in society. When he stood up for these principles, Fritchman was both a Heretic and a person of Clarity. He was a Heretic because it was politically expedient not to state these issues. It was an act of Clarity because they are derived directly from the core principles on which Unitarianism recognised; ultimately the inherent dignity and worth of every human being. For those reasons he will be remembered, and remembered fondly.

An address at the Melbourne Church on May 4, 2008