Johannes Abraham Christoffel Fagginger Auer (August 6, 1882-March 3, 1964) was a Unitarian minister, author, professor of Church History and of the Philosophy of Religion at the Tufts College School of Religion, and Parkman Professor of Theology at the Harvard Divinity School. He was probably the first and only Humanist professor of theology in the United States.
Johannes was born in Middleburg the Netherlands to Willem Fagginger and Charlotte A. C. (Nonhebel) Auer. His public education was at the local Gymnasium at Kampen from which he graduated in 1901; his early religious training was as a liberal in the Dutch Reformed Church. Growing up he had had but one goal and that was to be an officer in the Dutch Navy. Unfortunately he was rejected because of poor eyesight. Nevertheless throughout his lifetime he subscribed to its official publication, Marine Blad.
Instead of embarking on a career at sea Auer went to college. When he told his father that he preferred to go outside Holland to gain a different educational perspective his father replied: “Very well go to the University of Geneva. They will teach you exactly the same thing they would have taught you at Leyden, but in French, and you will think it is different.” After a family council, however, he was permitted to go to the United States. One of his aunts, who considered the U.S. a dangerous place, asked “Why send the boy to America? He has done no wrong.”
In 1902 Auer enrolled at the Meadville Theological School in Meadville, Pennsylvania. He chose the Unitarian school—founded in 1844 by the Dutchman Harm Jan Huidekoper—for its liberal outlook and the emphasis it placed on both parish ministry and the study of religion. The Unitarian conception of the dignity of “man” was compatible with his developing humanistic ideas.
A young man who had been brought up with Dutch Calvinistic “scruples,”Auer at first found his new life filled with social and cultural “incomprehensibilities.” But he soon adopted the characteristic American pragmatism which said that “if a thing is good and hurts no one, it should be pushed along.” Years later he wrote a charming essay about this transitional period in his life, “America Seen through the Eyes of a Young Dutchman in 1902.”
An excellent student, Auer earned his B.D from Meadville in 1906 and received one of their Cruft Traveling Fellowships. This enabled him—after ordination to the Unitarian ministry at Boston’s King’s Chapel—to study at the Universities of Berlin and Heidelberg. During 1909 he was minister of the Unitarian Church in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. He then returned to Holland where he earned a second degree in theology at the University of Amsterdam, 1910, and served two Dutch churches: Protestantenbond, Harderwijk, 1909-11, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Unitarian) at Harlingen,1911-12. Here he met his future wife Johanna Cornelia Snijder, a nurse and member of his congregation.
Once more crossing the Atlantic, Auer served the Evangelical Protestant Church of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1913-15. Later in 1913 Johanna Snijder joined him and they married. They had three children.
Alongside his church duties Auer began doctoral studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He also served as instructor both at the University of Pittsburgh, 1913-14, and at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, 1914-15. His next parishes were Wheeling, West Virginia, 1915-17; very briefly in Canton, Ohio; and Ithaca, New York, 1917-24. While in Ithaca he enrolled at Cornell University and in 1924 received his Ph.D. His doctoral dissertation was “St. Anselm and the History of the Ontological Argument.” The next year he was interim minister at Portland, Maine. In 1926 he went to First Parish in Concord, Massachusetts, his last full-time ministerial assignment.
Auer’s years at Concord were fruitful and pleasant. Church attendance increased and he revived the choir. Dana McLean Greeley, who two generations later was minister at Concord, wrote in the church’s 1985 history that Auer was both “a pioneer religious humanist in Unitarian circles” and “a legitimate spiritual descendant of the great Dutch humanist Erasmus.” In addition “he was as erudite as he was people-oriented.”
Auer had joined the Tufts School of Religion faculty as a part-time Professor of Church History and Philosophy of Religion in 1923-24. He continued teaching at Tufts for the next thirty years. His scholarly ability contributed greatly to the reputation of the school’s faculty. He brought the same strengths to the Harvard Divinity School when in 1929 he was named its Professor of Church History. A year later Harvard appointed him its Parkman Professor of Theology. With this new responsibility he resigned his pastorate at Concord. He taught at Harvard until his retirement in 1954.
In the 1954 history of the Harvard Divinity School, Levering Reynolds, Jr. wrote that “Auer taught for twenty-five years at the School, and during the last twelve he was its only professor of theology. He held the Humanist position—probably the only Humanist professor of theology in the United States. His urbane temperament and good humor sustained him against all criticism of his theological views, and he never failed in his respect for other men’s opinions, however much he might disagree with them. He was a lucid and interesting lecturer.”
One of his Tufts students, Carl Seaburg, remembered that Auer was “a nonstop lecturer from the time he entered the classroom until the time he left, rubbing his bald head and pouring out a great bouillabaise of facts and opinions and interpretations.”
Another student, Ernest Cassara, remembered his wit. Auer told his class that he was going to ask them to explain the Trinity. Of course, he added, he would excuse the Unitarian and Universalist students and call on the Congregationalists and Episcopalians. Four or five of them stood up and attempted a definition, but failed miserably. Finally Auer said: “I will explain it to you. It’s rather like three-in-one oil.”
Auer could also poke fun at himself. He was fond of claiming that the only physical exercise he ever did was to fill his fountain pen with ink and to clean his glasses.
While not a prolific author Auer did produce some helpful essays and books. Probably the most significant volume, Humanism States Its Case, 1933, recorded the lectures he delivered at King’s Chapel in 1932 for the Lowell Institute. A popular book, it has been regarded as a landmark publication due to its thorough and understandable presentation of religious humanism. In it he wrote, “Humanism, in its religious, metaphysical, and ethical sense, is not a fixed system whose value is found in the results already obtained; its merit lies in the fact that it is a useful and dependable method for finding truth.”
Also in 1933 Auer, John Dewey, Raymond Bragg, Albert C. Dieffenbach, Eustace Haydon, Curtis Reese, and especially Roy Wood Sellars, along with other leading humanists, put together and published the first “Humanist Manifesto.” William F. Schulz in his detailed study of the “manifesto” declared that “it represented a heartfelt attempt to amalgamate intellectual integrity with religious expression.”
Another book resulted from the 1948 debate at Antioch College with Professor Robert L. Calhoun of Yale Divinity School on the topic “Is Humanism the Religion of the Future?” Humanism versus Theism, 1951, included an expanded version of Auer’s address and a defense of Theism written by Calhoun’s colleague at Yale, Julian Hartt.
From time to time Auer wrote journal articles, book reviews, and delivered special lectures. In 1932 he gave the Berry Street Lecture entitled “The Function of the Liberal Church in the United States.” In 1943 he contributed a thoughtful essay on “The development of theological thought in the Netherlands during the nineteenth century” for a Dutch symposium on The Contribution of Holland to the Sciences. Fundamentally, however, he was a teacher and that was a legacy that satisfied him. As he put it in one of his last sermons, “We are but a small cog in the machinery of history but for the time being a necessary one; when we are gone another person will replace us. . . . We must learn to be satisfied in the midst of this changing world, satisfied to play our part and then be forgotten. We must serve our time.” and wrote articles and book reviews.
During his lifetime Auer received several honors. Meadville gave him a D.D. in 1932; Clark University awarded him a Litt.D in 1941; and in 1942 he received an A.M. from Harvard. In 1935 Queen Wilhelmina recognized his contributions to Holland by making him an officer of Orange-Nassau. Although Auer lived most of his adult life in the United States, and admired and respected its democracy and ways, he never became a citizen, preferring instead to retain his birth heritage.
After his retirement the Auers lived briefly in The Hague. Missing the United States, they returned to live near one of their children at Chapel Hill, North Carolina. On a visit to Concord in 1963 Johanna died. He died the following year.
Auer’s papers have not survived. His American Unitarian Association ministerial file is at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There is a small faculty file on him at the Harvard University Archives, in the Pusey Library. Among his writings not mentioned above are “What Faith Means to Me” in Clarence Russell Skinner and others, Tufts Papers on Religion, a Symposium (1939); Amerika Zoals Het Leeft en Denkt (1958), a study of U.S. social conditions; and The Dutch Contribution to World History with a Personal Memoir (1963). For a partial bibliography of his writings see Harvard Divinity School Bulletin (1953-1954). There is no full-length biography, but the following contain helpful information: General Catalogue of Meadville Theological School, 1844-1944 (1945); George Huntston Williams, ed., The Harvard Divinity School (1954); John W. Teele, ed., The Meeting House on the Green, A History of The First Parish in Concord and Its Church (1985); and William F. Schulz, Making the Manifesto: The Birth of Religious Humanism (2002).
Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted March 12, 2004