Call, Lon Ray

Lon Ray Call (October 6, 1894-October 7, 1985) was a Unitarian minister and denomination official best known for his evangelism. Instrumental in the development of the fellowship movement, he spent much of his professional life on the move, giving sermons, organizing churches and founding lay-led fellowships.

Born in Advance, North Carolina, Call was the oldest of five children born to Willis Lafayette and Mary Alice Foster Call. “I grew up in a home that lacked bath-room, electric light, refrigeration, telephone, automobile or warmth except from cord wood,” he noted in a letter, “and a town that had no free library, public park, swimming hole, bowling alley, tennis court or supermarket.” On the other hand, he had loving parents and he had his “father’s small general store with its central stove for men of the town to sit around, my bicycle and of course my church to which I was devoted.”

Lon Ray CallRaised in the Southern Baptist church, even as a child he wanted to be a minister. According to his daughter Marjorie; “Lon’s main passion throughout his life was acquiring knowledge, and it was this that put him on the path that led to the liberal ministry. To feed his curiosity, while still a boy he subscribed to various periodicals, which he shared with his school mates.”

In 1914, Call entered the ministerial class at Wake Forest College in Wake Forest, North Carolina, about fifteen miles north of Raleigh. A Baptist institution, it offered four professional tracks; law, ministry, teaching, and medicine. He was class poet his freshman year and secretary—for the ministry students—the following two years. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1915. A religious conservative during his college years, he showed glimmerings of a critical mind about religious issues. For instance, he supported himself in college organizing interdenominational Sunday school programs. Call attended summer school and graduated after three years with a B.A. degree. He shortened his birth name after college, dropping Lonnie for Lon.

Studying the theory of evolution was central to Call’s religious development. The college president, while he was at Wake Forest supported and defended the teaching of evolution. As Call noted, “Through it my old orthodoxy crumbled like a cookie, and the world of reality began to take the place of the illusory world in which I had been fumbling around.”

After a break for military service as a chaplain in 1918-19, Call entered the University of Chicago Divinity School. He continued to profess conservative religious beliefs, while being exposed to more liberal thinking. His ideas were shaped then and later by the significant number of Unitarian humanists in the Chicago area, including Curtis Reese, a fellow Southerner and fellow convert from the Baptist faith.

After graduating in 1920 with a B.D. degree, he took a job as an assistant minister with the Second Baptist church in St. Louis, Missouri. The next year he married Stephenetta (Stevie) Kennington. While the senior Baptist minister was away, Call delivered a sermon in which he defended modernism in religious theology. He gave the sermon in part to fulfill a bet that the Baptists would be tolerant of his ideas. He was fired. He joined the Unitarian ministerial ranks in 1923, starting at the First Unitarian Church, Louisville, Kentucky.

In January 1930, Call was appointed minister of the West Side Unitarian Church in New York City, but depression-era money problems forced the church to close. In 1931, he was appointed associate minister to John Haynes Holmes at the Community Church of New York, a liberal institution that consciously encouraged a diverse membership. From 1933 to 1935, he was interim minister to the All Soul’s Unitarian Church in Braintree, Massachusetts.

In 1933 Call’s first wife Stevie died suddenly of a heart attack while on a family trip to the Chicago World’s Fair. She was survived by one child, a daughter Marjorie (Maggie) who subsequently attended boarding schools while spending summers and vacations with her father.

In the mid-1930s, Call assumed a more evangelical role in Unitarianism. This transition reflected a variety of factors: his personal energy, his intellectual curiosity, his enjoyment of diverse challenges, his enthusiasm for the potential of Unitarianism, and his lack of a spouse who might tie him to one locality. Many of his residences were transitory as he moved around the country, encouraging Unitarian growth and dealing with various crises in churches and fellowships.

Call was executive secretary of the humanist-oriented Western Unitarian Conference (WUC), 1935-41, occupying a role that had been filled by his mentor Curtis Reese, 1919-30. He also served as the American Unitarian Association (AUA) regional director for mid-western states during these years. Eastern Unitarians had surveyed growth prospects in the “west” (what we now call the mid-west) in 1826, 1837, and 1850 but few new congregations resulted. After the Civil War, the AUA adopted a policy of planting outposts at important university towns in the west. Ann Arbor, Michigan was the first. Concerned by the lack of growth, western ministers had met in Chicago in 1849 and organized the WUC, their own outreach organization. WUC published tracts and literature, supported the “western” Meadville seminary, organized state and regional conferences for ministers and lay leaders, and in 1875 appointed Jenkin Lloyd Jones as full-time missionary secretary. By the 1880s, the WUC had a number of women ministers and had fellowshipped its first black minister, John Bird Wilkins. The WUC continued the practice of starting Unitarian churches in college towns and state capitals, a strategy that Call would later adopt.

In 1939, the AUA asked Call to visit and report on the Church of the Unitarian Brotherhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. This seven-year old predominately black congregation was led by William H. G. Carter; a self taught unitarian. Call interviewed the unordained minister and his wife, attended Sunday services, and spoke to the congregation. Pessimistic about the prospects for the struggling group, Call told AUA headquarters, “Rev. Carter is a kindly man, quite intelligent, about sixty years of age,” but he opposed granting Unitarian fellowship to Carter or providing any subsidy to his storefront church.

Call was appointed minister-at-large for the AUA in 1941, a new position that involved building the membership of the denomination and staunching the decline in membership and congregations. In the first part of the 20th Century, little evangelical activity had occurred through the national AUA.

Few resources were available to Call during World War II so he studied the history of denominational extension. He examined denomination records to track the growth and decline of Unitarian congregations and he studied census data to determine which communities had the most potential for supporting new congregations. He discovered that the founding of new Unitarian congregations had decreased in the twentieth century, such that the number of dying congregations exceeded the number being born. Loss of churches was especially evident in rural and small town communities, although many churches had also closed in the largest cities. He described the decline of churches in towns of 10,000 and under as “phenomenal.” He concluded, “No well founded policy of church extension is apparent since 1900,” although he recognized that the AUA had financially subsidized some failing churches.

Call prepared a report “A Research on Church Extension and Maintenance since 1900,” (1946) that recommended using the social characteristics of communities to identify the best locations for new Unitarian groups. It included a list of 40 cities that he felt would be especially worthy sites.

Call thought intellectual inquiry and the ability to deal with abstraction were central to Unitarianism and that these traits were strongest among moderate to well educated people. To him, individuals who accepted concrete, conventional religious ideas would be more comfortable in traditional Biblical faiths. As a Unitarian minister, Call had an unwavering commitment to critical thinking, humanism, and religious naturalism. In a 1942 sermon, he said, “I believe that the poorest moral guide is instinct, the next poorest, custom; the next, law; the next, conscience; the next intelligence born of experience that flowers into wisdom.”

Call brought two strengths to the task of organizing Unitarian congregations. He was an excellent researcher, doing extensive preliminary investigation of the social characteristics of communities, the number of families with potential sympathy to Unitarianism, and the names of possible lay leaders. Call’s research skills reflected his training in sociology at the University of Chicago. In addition, he was an outstanding preacher and motivator. His informed intellectual orientation made him a stimulating speaker. His enthusiasm and ability to build trust with others, even on a short-term basis, led people to respond positively to his plans. His evangelical roots coupled with his scholarly orientation brought success forming new Unitarian congregations.

A charming person, Call was something of a Southern gentleman, he had a strong orientation to egalitarian interpersonal relationships and a low key but noteworthy sense of humor, qualities that endeared him to others. In addition, he demonstrated a social liberalism toward different types of people that resonated with Unitarians. At the same time, he was a forceful personality, openly expressing his beliefs, and willing to work ceaselessly to achieve them.

In his extension work, he formed a close partnership with Lucy Powers. Like Call, she was a widow. They were married in 1945 at the Spokane Unitarian Church which they had helped revive. Until 1972 when Lucy died, they were an inseparable couple, moving around the United States, merging their marital and professional lives. Lucy was devoted to Unitarianism; she worked as hard as he did; she served as his administrative assistant; and like many ministers wives, her contributions were not always fully recognized.

As a team, the Calls started 13 new churches. He listed himself as the founder of churches in Chicago, Illinois; Oak Ridge and Knoxville, Tennessee; Columbus, Ohio; Ft. Worth and San Antonio, Texas; Bellevue and Tacoma, Washington; Palo Alto, California; Charlotte, North Carolina; Phoenix and Tuscon, Arizona; and Freeport, New York. They often spent only a few weeks or months organizing these churches, but there were exceptions. His longest tenure was at South Nassau Unitarian in Freeport, New York, 1951-60. Most of these churches survived and flourished into the twenty-first century. The geographical locations of new churches matched two U.S. population trends; the movement from cities to suburbs in metropolitan areas and the shift to the south and west nationally.

One of the best documented church foundings is East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, Washington. The Calls were in residence from August 1949 until about March 1950. While Call had no standard procedure for organizing a church, the East Shore illustrates some of his usual activities. He came to organize the church at the request of members of the Unitarian fellowship in the nearby community of Mercer Island. Call and the fellowship decided to locate the church in the rapidly growing Seattle suburb of Bellevue due to the availability of land and the shortage of space on Mercer Island, but they had to deal with significant opposition within the group.

Call had a rough rule of thumb that he needed at least 50 committed families to form a church. He believed that this was the minimum necessary to support an organizational structure and a reasonable budget. Initially, in the organizing stage, the East Shore Unitarians met in a funeral home that they shared on Sunday morning with the Lutherans. Call later recalled that he knew his project was “on the road” when the Unitarian cars outnumbered the Lutheran cars on Sunday morning.

Starting churches is not easy. “I’ve never asked people to join. We’re not proselytizers,” Call claimed, “But I’ve made the invitation pretty general, so that if people wanted to join they’ve been encouraged to do so.” In his search for 50 families, Call found that weeks could pass when no additional families would sign on. In Bellevue, Washington, with one week left to go, he was three families short of the 50 needed. Then one of the worst snow storms in Northwest history delayed the opening service for a week; just long enough to pick up three more families.

Lon Ray CallCall is best remembered as the post-World War II “father of the fellowship movement.” His ideas about the fellowship movement were based on his experiences as the Unitarian minister in Louisville in the 1920s. While there, he often visited small lay-led Universalist societies that ran successfully without a minister in a democratic, egalitarian manner. He found that the Universalist societies often lasted for many years and drew significant investment from the members. While impressed with the organization of the Universalist societies in Kentucky, he subsequently felt that the Universalist denomination had become even less oriented to growth than the Unitarians.

According to Call’s fellowship vision, the denomination would provide short-term help to small groups of families that exhibited an interest in Unitarianism. The denomination would bring prospective congregations together (even if the families did not know each other) and provide initial leadership. The “locals,” typically at least ten interested families, would quickly assume direction of the congregation and develop it in a manner consistent with their mix of beliefs. The assumption was that these organized fellowships would be completely lay led. They were not expected to become regular churches with full time ministers, although a number of them eventually did.

Call’s ideas were considered radical in religious circles, emphasizing decentralized religious power and the assumption that Unitarianism could be whatever a congregation wanted. They implied that the nature of a congregation’s worship and organization was determined by the members. The denomination had never tried such an idea, although earlier in the century it had encouraged the organization of Laymen’s Leagues, groups of lay men, to provide financial support and publicity for Unitarian activities.

In 1945, the national AUA board formed a committee of Call and other interested lay and ordained Unitarians to explore the idea of the lay-led fellowship movement. Call circulated a paper espousing the fellowship idea to the denomination leadership. At first he was pessimistic about gaining approval from the board for his ideas, given the limited history of denominational outreach. However, much to his surprise, the board approved the fellowship program with little discussion. One reason why the movement may have gained such rapid official acceptance is that, unlike the establishment of churches, fellowships required little monetary investment or long-term commitment by the denomination.

In 1948, three years after Call’s ideas were proposed, the AUA fellowship office was organized and began work under the vigorous leadership of Monroe Husbands, a lay Unitarian. Several hundred fellowships were eventually established. The movement drew disproportionately from the well-educated, primarily because Call targeted these population groups. The fellowship office was active until 1967 when most of the office functions were decentralized, being assigned to the denomination’s regional districts. Over the years many of the fellowships disappeared or grew into traditional churches, but many continue to exist as lay-led alternatives.

Call retired from the ministry and was named minister emeritus in 1960. He and Lucy took a two-year round-the-world trip. They had their retirement home constructed in Seattle while they were away, an attraction of the Seattle area was the fact that Call’s daughter Majorie and her husband Jim Kimbrough lived there.

In 1967, Call was given the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) annual award for Distinguished Service in the Cause of Liberal Religion. In his presentation, UUA President Eugene Pickett commented that Call “wanted everyone in America to have the chance to be a Unitarian.” Call used this statement frequently as his personal motto.

In retirement, Call served in interim ministries, some of the most noteworthy being Bellevue, Washington; Charlottesville, Virginia; Dallas, Texas; and St. Paul, Minnesota. He was a frequent speaker at Unitarian Universalist congregations in the Pacific Northwest, many of which had been organized with his help. He also started writing a book on the spiritual aspects of old age entitled The Psyche after 70. Lucy died in 1972. Call’s eyesight deteriorated in the last years of his life making it difficult to read but he continued his studies listening to National Public Radio and books on tape. He was always eager to discuss his work but he was unable to continue writing his book. He died in 1985 before the project was finished.

The Lon Ray Call papers are in the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Holding include sermons, letters, papers, detailed diaries, and drafts of his unfinished book. Also available are his ministerial files, records of the AUA Department of Extension and Maintenance (E&M), and transcripts of one hundred sermons on microfilm. Four E&M reports are in the Wiggin Library at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois.

The history of the fellowship movement is recounted in two monographs, Laile E. Bartlett, Bright Galaxy: Ten Years of Unitarian Fellowships (1960), and Holley Ulbrich, The Fellowship Movement: A Growth Strategy and Its Legacy (2008). The Bartlett item includes an article by Call. The Ulbrich publication (on-line at presents a more critical view of the fellowship movement. Another overview of Call’s role in the fellowship movement is Mark W. Harris, “A Faith for a Few?” given as the Minns lecture at the 2008 UUA General Assembly, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida (on-line at

Article by Avery “Pete” Guest
Posted May 31, 2012