Raymond Bennett Bragg (October 10, 1902-February 15, 1979), a Unitarian minister and civic leader, played a key role in the making of the Humanist Manifesto and served as Director of the Unitarian Service Committee during the years following World War II.
Raymond was born in Worcester, Massachusetts to John and Emma Bragg who both worked in the local textile mills. He was raised in the Congregational church and attended public schools where he excelled in sports, particularly track. He attended Bates College, 1921-24, and Brown University, 1924-25. At each of these schools he encountered a professor who had a great influence upon him. At Bates a Universalist geology professor introduced him to evolutionary theory and the scientific method. After transferring to Brown he became a Unitarian, and studied under a Unitarian professor of philosophy.
His growing interest in philosophy led Bragg to enroll at Meadville Theological School, which relocated from Pennsylvania to Chicago after his first year of studies. He graduated in 1928. Among the instructors there and at the University of Chicago who helped shape his developing Humanism were A. Eustace Haydon, Curtis W. Reese, and Shirley Jackson Case. Bragg was devoted to Meadville throughout his life and served several terms as a trustee.
Bragg first served as pastor of the Church of All Souls in Evanston, Illinois, 1927-30. He next was Executive Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference (WUC), the youngest ever to have served in this post. The WUC, headquartered in Chicago, covered an area from Ohio west to Colorado and from Oklahoma north to the Canadian border. Bragg drove 40 to 50,000 miles per year helping to keep Unitarian churches open during the depression years. He later called the WUC “the seminal organization of liberal religion.”
Strongly influenced by the philosophies of John Dewey, A. Eustace Haydon, John Dietrich and others, Bragg became a leading Humanist. “Humanism is the pursuit of the good life for man, within the perspective of a frankly this-worldly approach to the problems of human life,” he told the Boston Herald in 1930. “The insistence of humanism would be that human life had meaning and religious significance regardless of its metaphysical setting. It would look upon all theologies, regardless of their claims of divine origins, as being man’s guesses as to the nature of the universe in which he lives. . . . Weary of trying to correlate the conflicting claims of the philosophers and theologians, [the Humanist] sets forth in one supreme effort to order his life that man will capture from nature the paradise he so long has sought in a compensatory world beyond.”
Bragg coordinated the drafting of the Humanist Manifesto. He commissioned Roy Wood Sellars to make the original draft and, together with a committee of other Humanists, Bragg revised and expanded the document. It garnered 34 signatures and was published in the New Humanist, of which Bragg was then an editor. The Manifesto proclaimed the signers’ faith in a non-theistic, non-supernatural, monistic, naturalistic, evolving universe. They affirmed the value of life in general and of humanity in particular and declared that what cannot be discovered by “intelligent inquiry,” such as science, ought not to be entertained as knowledge or belief.
Bragg was associate editor of the New Humanist, 1932-35, and editor, 1935-36. The New Humanist published articles by Edwin Wilson, Roy Wood Sellars, Curtis Reese, E. Burdette Backus, himself, and other prominent Humanists.
During the turbulent 1930s Bragg travelled widely in Europe and saw the rise of Hitler firsthand. He studied in Germany where he met and married Ilse Meyn. In 1935 he took his new bride to Minneapolis and there served as associate pastor at First Unitarian Society under John Dietrich. When Dietrich retired three years later, Bragg succeeded him as senior minister. Bragg’s outspoken views on the dangers of international fascism were controversial within his congregation. “In the last half of the 1930s, it seemed to many, including myself, that the Western world was moving step by step to the cataclysm of a second world war,” he later recounted. “I argued with all the ardor within me that values were threatened-that involvement in totalitarianism would spin us into a dark age. I became known as a war monger.”
During World War II Bragg took several periods of extended leave from the Minneapolis church, usually during its summer recess, to work in Boston for the Unitarian Service Committee (USC). “They were always changing my title,” he recalled. “Sometimes I was Acting Director and sometimes I was the Coordinator. I couldn’t keep up with the titles but I could keep up with the sorrows that were implicit in the papers that crossed my desk.”
In the spring of 1945 a medical mission that Bragg had organized-including Maurice Visscher and other eminent scientists-was sent to Italy. Because he had German in-laws Bragg was denied a visa to the European theatre and was thus unable to accompany the group.
During the war Bragg was on the Board of Directors of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) and was chairman of the Committee on Foreign Churches. In Minneapolis he was chair of the Children’s Protective Society and campaigned to improve mental hospitals in Minnesota. He was a friend of Mayor Hubert Humphrey and worked with him on a number of committees. He received the Distinguished Service Award for his participation on the Mayor’s Council on Human Relations.
In 1947 Bragg moved to Boston to serve as both Executive Director of the USC and Executive Vice-President of the AUA. In a a difficult period for the USC-finances were shrinking and the organization faced accusations of having worked too closely with Communist front organizations during the war-he nevertheless directed an effective program that brought professional relief services to Europe. When he left the USC in 1952 A. Powell Davies wrote to him, “You pulled the USC out of a potentially bad situation and carried its affairs to outstanding success-and not even friendship must dilute the credit which belongs to you for so great an achievement.”
Kate, the younger of the two Bragg daughters (the other was Susan), was born deaf. In consequence Bragg developed a lifelong interest in the education of deaf children. He served on the Board of the Volta Society for deaf education, 1950-52, and wrote for its journal.
Although Bragg was a natural traveler the USC job was hard on his family. He wrote, “I never knew upon arrival in my office in the morning whether I would end the day in Boston, Washington, or San Francisco. I never knew whether the following weekend would find me at home or in Europe.”
In 1952, approaching fifty years of age, Bragg decided to return to his first love, pastoral work. He was called by All Souls Unitarian Church in Kansas City, Missouri, a church with a strong humanist tradition-its two previous ministers, Leon Birkhead and Lester Mondale, had signed the Humanist Manifesto. “We enjoy a very pleasant house, the first one we have ever had,” Bragg wrote a former parishioner in Minneapolis. “Prior to coming here, we always lived in an apartment.”
Finding the hot, humid Kansas City summers intolerable, Bragg and his family spent the church recesses in Maine and New Hampshire. This was an opportunity for him to renew friendships with Vincent Silliman, A. Powell Davies, and other vacationing Unitarian ministers. They mixed lobstering and clam digging with discussions about philosophy, religion, and military history. “I realize increasingly how isolated Kansas City is in a Unitarian sense,” Bragg wrote in 1953. “I see the brethren only as I travel. With my previous background, Chicago, the Twin Cities and Boston, I had only a remote notion of the expressed loneliness of men who work away from a Unitarian population.”
Although Kansas City, on the edge of the Bible belt, had supported only one Unitarian church, Bragg recognized the potential for growth. A new church building with an education wing was contructed, 1958-60, and church membership increased. In 1967, with his encouragement, a group of “pioneers” organized the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Society on the fast-growing Kansas side of the metropolitan area.
“We do not believe what we want to believe,” Bragg preached in 1958. “We believe what we must. Belief is a guide to action, not the answer to a riddle. We are called upon not to believe nor disbelieve but to understand. Understanding requires discipline. With such effort, life can be richer, our minds will be clearer, and our sympathies broadened.”
Bragg was one of the founders of the Kansas City Civil Liberties Union. He maintained an influential, liberal religious presence in the community, having letters, reviews and articles regularly printed in the local press. For over twenty years he taught a philosophy course at the Kansas City Art Institute. He was President of the Kansas City Mental Hygiene Society, 1953-55; Chair of Mental Health Resources Committee of the Six County Area, 1962; and a board member of the Council of Social Agencies. He grew to love Kansas City, despite its summers, and said in a sermon, “I was born and nurtured in Massachusetts but my heart belongs to the broad valleys of the Missouri and the Mississippi.”
In 1973 Bragg retired from the ministry. He died in Kansas City six years later. Those who knew his ministry recall best his love of language and the eloquence of his Sunday morning sermons. “He was among the last of a breed,” said colleague Khoren Arisian at the memorial service, “that took great pleasure in stringing words together, not only articulately but with vivid evocation of historical resonance.”
The Raymond Bragg Papers Archive, including many letters, sermons, clippings, publications, and audio recordings, is at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, in Kansas City, Missouri. The Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts has some of his pastoral and administrative correspondence. Some of Bragg’s writings are in the New Humanist, including “The Basis for Man’s Uniqueness,” in the March-April 1933 issue. There is an unpublished memoir by Kate Bragg Benz (2004). Some other information can be found in George Marshall, A. Powell Davies and His Times (1990) and Who’s Who in America (1961). For a short biography of Bragg and for his work on the Humanist Manifesto consult William Schultz, Making the Manifesto (2002). For his career with Unitarian Service Committee see Ghanda Di Figlia, Roots and Visions: The First Fifty Years of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (1990) and Flora Lewis, Red Pawn (1965).
Article by Jim Grebe
Posted May 12, 2004