Carnes, Paul

Paul CarnesPaul Nathaniel Carnes (February 1, 1921-March 17, 1979), a longtime minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, New York and a proponent of desegregation and civil liberties, was the third president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), 1977-79.

Paul was born in Jeffersonville, Indiana to Charles O. and Mary L. Carnes. At his mother’s urging, his father, who had been a carpenter, became a circuit-riding Methodist minister. Paul was educated in public schools and attended the University of Indiana. During his senior year he was licensed as a Methodist minister. Graduating magna cum laude in 1942, he immediately joined the United States Army as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Infantry. Captured by the Germans in Tunisia on Christmas Day 1942, he spent the remainder of the war in a prisoner of war camp, where he served as an unofficial Protestant chaplain. In 1945, after the Russian Army liberated the camp, he entered Harvard Divinity School to prepare for ministry even though he had no idea what denomination he wished to serve.

Before starting his studies Carnes married his college classmate, Freda M. Wolfe. During the war she had been a Lieutenant (jg) in the Women’s Reserve of the Navy (WAVES). After marriage she did graduate work at Western Reserve University in Cleveland. For many years she served as Assistant Professor in Early Childhood at the State University of New York at Buffalo. After her husband’s death she was secretary of the Lend-a-Hand Society in Boston. They had two children.

During his first term at Harvard, Carnes served as assistant to Rev. Wilburn Beach Miller at the First Parish in Cambridge. This experience converted him to Unitarianism. He later wrote that he had become a Unitarian because he “was repelled by the drippy piety of orthodoxy which made hypocrisy a virtue and a split personality inevitable,” where he found “no chance for moral responsibility or moral improvement.”

During his last two years at Harvard Carnes served as minister at the First Parish of Stow, Massachusetts. After graduating with honors, Carnes was ordained at the First Unitarian Church of Youngstown, Ohio, which he served, 1948-54.

When the Youngstown steelworkers went on strike for better pensions, Carnes established a church strike fund, which he financed, from which parishioners could borrow as necessary. He also served as president of the Child Guidance Center, which provided psychiatric help for young people, and was a founder and first president of the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra. Having participated in various interracial programs, he was honored with the Buckeye Review Award for “outstanding effort in the field of human relations.” In 1952 Beacon Press published his pamphlet, For Freedom and Belief: A Manual for Unitarians.

He next served the First Unitarian Church of Memphis, Tennessee, 1954-58. The start of his ministry coincided with the United States Supreme Court’s decision barring segregation in public schools. To assist Memphis to achieve this goal without violence, he helped to form the Memphis Council of Human Relations. In recognition of his work for peaceful desegregation he was given the “Tri-State Defender” Award. During his tenure Blacks started to join the church, pulpit exchanges were arranged with Black ministers, and visits held between his youth group and those of Black churches. Although some of these activities provoked controversy within the congregation, the church flourished and became increasingly engaged in the work of the Southwestern Unitarian Conference.

In 1958 Carnes was called to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, New York. (The local Unitarians and Universalists had joined together in 1953.) He remained there for nineteen years. During his tenure the church membership grew from 370 to over 600, the budget doubled, and the endowment tripled. The church paid off its mortgage, purchased additional property, and raised money for its building fund.

Carnes continued to participate in civic activities. He marched for civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma, Alabama. With other members of the Interracial and Interdenominational Ministers’ Association, a group he had helped to form, he rode school buses in Buffalo to calm racial tension after a student had been stabbed on a bus. He was vice president of the Niagara Frontier Branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In 1964 the ACLU presented him with their fourth annual Civil Liberties Award for “his outspoken defense of the right of dissent—however unpopular—in the community.” In 1972 the National Council of Christians and Jews named him “Man of the Year” for “promoting the cause of good will and understanding among people.” Carnes worked for the Urban League, the Mental Health Association, and was active in abortion counseling.

Carnes enjoyed carpentry, which he had been taught by his father, and acting in local theater productions. He provided space in the Buffalo church for the “Program Players,” a small repertory group, and served as president of the Studio Theatre.

During these years he began to take a more active role in the national life of his denomination. A strong believer that the Unitarians and Universalists should unite, Carnes had applied for and received reciprocal Fellowship with the Universalist Church of America in 1959. For the Adult Programs Department of the Council of Liberal Churches (Universalist-Unitarian) he prepared an Introduction to Unitarianism designed for use with the Beacon Twenty-four Course, 1958. After the consolidation of the two denominations he urged Dana McLean Greeley to seek the presidency of the UUA in 1961.

To help establish the UUA, Carnes served on a number of significant committees. In 1960 he was elected Secretary of the Coordinating Council of the AUA’s Six Study Commissions, which in 1963 published for the UUA The Free Church in a Changing World. He wrote the final chapter, warning Unitarian Universalists that “religious liberalism has little to meet the challenge of today’s need, or win our own personal need, if all it offers is a casual ‘Join us and you can believe anything you want to’—as if religious convictions were to be left to such ephemeral judges as whim and wish!”

Carnes was also Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association, 1961-63; a member of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, 1963-75; the Committee on Goals, 1965-68; and the Commission on Appraisal, 1968-73. In 1973 he represented the UUA at the first Rome Seminar, a two-week gathering in Rome for Protestants and Catholics.

The Meadville/Lombard Theological School awarded Carnes an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree in 1966.

In 1963 Carnes was diagnosed with lymphoma and treated by chemotherapy. Fortunately his illness did not immediately prove to be “a limiting factor” in his life’s work. It nevertheless dissuaded him from running for the UUA presidency in 1968. Instead, he managed Robert West’s successful election campaigns. In 1977, his cancer in remission, he was elected the third president of the UUA. At the beginning of his administration he wished that the liberal church would be able “to give men and women in whatever exigency inspired imagination and hope—to make amid a sea of change the open mind and courageous heart abiding realities.”

In the UUA, Carnes believed, “decisions are made at the Board level.” The role of its president is “to supply the Board with significant information so that it can make decisions.” Yet, he told the board, as president he would have his own positions on all issues. Final authority on all matters, of course, rested with the Association’s churches and fellowships. “In this sense,” he declared, “we are radical congregationalists.” Traveling frequently and widely, he made the president more accessible and visible to church members and ministers. He increased the flow of communication between his office and the churches and their members. To facilitate this he wrote a column, “Strictly Personal,” for each issue of the denominational magazine, the UU World.

Consistent with his deep commitment to social issues, Carnes had the Board of Trustees reestablish the Office of Social Responsibility. To head it he selected William F. Schulz, who later became the fifth UUA president. Carnes also acted quickly to implement the 1977 General Assembly resolution on Women and Religion. He set up the Women and Religion Task Force to help churches and districts examine sexist assumptions and language. He took the initial steps that led to a new denominational hymnbook, Singing the Living Tradition, 1993. He also urged the Board to consider a capital fund campaign.

As a realist—his days as a prisoner and his cancer taught him to have that outlook—he became concerned with the continuing financial problems of the UUA. He focused in particular on the Beacon Press and the debt connected with its annual need for the UUA to underwrite its budget. He felt that the Association did not have the resources to continue to do this. His bold solution was to sell Beacon Press. The Board endorsed his recommendation but at the 1978 General Assembly the delegates voted only to scale back the press’ activities. This financial difficulty, as he had feared, continued to be a problem for the UUA.

In 1978 Carnes’s presidency of the UUA was cut short by the sudden return of his cancer. During his last months he struggled to meet his responsibilities even as the lymphoma progressively limited his strength. Just before the end he traveled to the West Coast to visit churches. He preached “Hope” to the Northwest District. He died at home in Boston. A memorial service, attended by over 500 people, was held at the First Parish in Cambridge. The UUA published as its 1980 Meditation Manual a revision he had just prepared of his 1974 manual Longing of the Heart: Prayers and Invocations.

The Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has Carnes papers, which consist mostly of his sermons and the records of his campaign for the UUA Presidency. See also records of the Friends of the Beacon Press, 1978, also at Harvard. The UUA has the files of the meetings of its Board of Trustees while he was president. Carnes’s writings include “Conversion on Trial: First three years,” Christian Register (September 1948); For Freedom and Belief (1952); and “The Individual in Community,” University Unitarian Church, Seattle Washington (1979). There is no Carnes biography or study of his short presidency. For brief references see Warren R. Ross, The Premise and the Promise: The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Association (2001); Tom Owen-Towle, O. Eugene Pickett: Borne on a Wintry Wind, (1996); David E. Bumbaugh, Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History (2000); Carnes Interview, Kairos (1977-78); and “recollections” in the program for the Paul Carnes Memorial Service, Remembrance and Thanksgiving, The First Parish in Cambridge (1979). See also Katherine Hale Embury, The First Unitarian Church (Unitarian-Universalist) of Memphis, Tennessee The History 1893-1983 (1985). There are obituaries in the UU World (April 1979) and the New York Times (March 19, 1979).

Added 2018: The book, Paul Carnes, Beacon Press, The Sell Off, (2013) by Alan Seaburg, tracing a pivotal point in the history of the Beacon Press is available on-line at Anne Miniver Press on the Internet.

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted March 5, 2006