Eliot II, Samuel Atkins

Samuel Atkins Eliot IISamuel Atkins Eliot II (August 24, 1862-October 15, 1950) was the first president of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) to be given executive power; he held this office from 1900 to 1927. In 1925 the two major American Unitarian organizations, the AUA and the National Conference of Churches (NCC), were merged under his leadership. Eliot did not so much rise to prominence as capitalize on family ties. Yet he defined his unprecedented ecclesiastical office with vision and engaged it with vigor. Eliot believed passionately in the then new theories of “scientific” corporate management, parts of which are now rejected as naive. Even so, many patterns of authority instituted by Eliot are still in place in today’s Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

The Eliot family history in America begins with John Eliot (1604-1690), first minister of the congregation in Roxbury, Massachusetts and famous in history books as the “Apostle to the Indians.” Eliot’s paternal grandfather, Samuel Atkins Eliot (1798-1862), a member of King’s Chapel, was a reformist mayor of Boston and a co-founder of the Handel and Haydn Society. Dr. Charles William Eliot (1834-1926), the mayor’s son and minister’s father, was a chemist who revolutionized higher education as president of Harvard University, 1867-1909. Sam’s maternal grandfather was Ephraim Peabody, a distinguished minister of King’s Chapel. Sam was also related by marriage to Henry Whitney Bellows, minister of what is now the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City and organizer in 1865 of the NCC, the first organization of Unitarian and other liberal Christian congregations.

Samuel A. Eliot was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father, widowed when Sam was six years old, did not remarry until 1877. Rather than attending any school, Sam spent his formative years in the company of his father and the tightly knit Harvard faculty. Under their guidance Sam and his brother, architect Charles Eliot, were educated individually. In late adolescence Sam entered Harvard for more formal studies. Despite claims of having been an indifferent student, young Sam Eliot received his A.B. in 1884 cum laude. To recover from a serious illness, he took a postgraduate tour of the southeastern United States and the Caribbean. He entered Harvard Divinity School in 1885.

In 1888, before he finished Divinity School, the AUA sent Eliot to Seattle, Washington as a missionary. Declining to settle there, despite considerable success, he returned East to complete his course work. In 1889, after graduation, Eliot married his stepsister, Frances Hopkinson. The couple had seven children. Joining a lively network of cousins and friends, the Eliot family spent many happy summers in Mt. Desert Island, Maine.

In 1889 just before his marriage Eliot accepted a call to Unity Church in Denver, Colorado. Eliot found that liberals in the West craved institutional support for their less than popular religious views more urgently than liberals in the East. He responded by gathering two new churches, in Colorado Springs and Salt Lake City. He also founded the Rocky Mountain Conference, a branch organization of the National Conference of Churches.

In 1892 Eliot was called to a prominent Eastern pulpit, the Church of the Saviour, in Brooklyn, New York. In 1894 he began serving on the board of directors of the AUA. The AUA, organized in 1825 as a non-profit missionary enterprise with only individuals as members, had in fact often been little more than a poorly supported publisher of Unitarian pamphlets and books. It had always given help to a few traveling ministers and newly gathered churches, but the organization had been able to do more after the National Conference of Churches began raising substantial sums, which were turned over to the AUA. (Thus had the AUA sent Eliot to Seattle.) The National Conference, which was organized in 1865 and consisted of congregations, not individuals, was the strongest and most influential Unitarian organization in the country, though still based largely in the East and nagged by the reality of its slowly declining churches. Another smaller, but active and largely midwestern organization was the Western Unitarian Conference, whose leaders prided themselves on their progressivism. Relations between the NCC and the Western Conference had long been strained, but differences were resolved and these two organizations merged in 1894. The times seemed newly propitious for Unitarian renewal and growth.

Upon joining the AUA board, Eliot urged measures that would transform the AUA into an engine of progress for both congregational and secular organizations, through application of the new “science” of corporate management. He and his allies hoped to restore the Unitarians’ once prominent civil as well as religious leadership. In 1898 Eliot was elected AUA Secretary (then the administrative head). He resigned his pulpit and moved to Boston. In 1900 at his urging the board agreed to expand the executive powers of the Secretary and to call the holder of the office President, a title commanding greater respect. Eliot was then elevated to the expanded office. (Hitherto, the AUA president has been the board chair, without administrative power or responsibilities.)

In his 1902 presidential address, Eliot explained the meaning of the changes. “The officers of your Association, whether wisely or unwisely, assume they are more than administrators. They refuse to permit their activities to be limited to the mere running of a machine. They crave the exercise of prophetic gifts, and desire to seize the large opportunities of service which open always before our hesitating fellowship. They desire to be your officers, not by means of the petty mechanism of officialism, but by the strong, strenuous, and unwearying proclamation of truth, by endeavoring to lead their fellow-workers to the mount of vision from which man may see God and his righteousness, and become aware of the fact that they area fellow-workers with the Most High. If I may interpret the inner spirit of this organization, it represents your effort to solve the problems of the common good, to lead men out of isolated, self-centered interest into the brave, self-effacing service of the modern world.”

The AUA’s first executive president envisioned his task as the expansion of a great offshoot from Christian Europe’s Reformation. Unlike his father, who taught that all religions would slowly merge into one spiritual whole, Sam Eliot understood religion as the province of discreet, defined, self-disciplined denominations. The modernist movement of the time encouraged religious people to seek and emphasize basic non-controversial elements. Eliot wrote and preached regularly on Unitarian roots, and criticized “mainline religions” for drifting away from the teachings of their founders. He feared that as other faiths became more liberal, the less numerous Unitarians (and Universalists) would lose their distinctive appeal.

Beginning in 1899, Eliot worked to further ties between the Unitarians and Universalists. He believed both groups were tending liberal faiths whose martyrs had laid the foundations for a great and liberal religion; modern members should reap the rewards of their ancestors’ labors. Growth and strength could best be accomplished through institutional cooperation, if not unity.

New AUA bylaws, adopted in 1900, called for an 18-member Board of Directors to “have charge of all the business and interests of the Association, [and] the direction of its funds and operations.” Eliot and his allies on the board used financial resources in their control to expand the staff and the role of the staff in congregational life. During his 27 years as President, Eliot created a Department of Ministry to assist congregations in their selection of candidates for vacant settlements, and a Department of Social Justice to act on his vision of liberal religion as a unified force in secular society. He upgraded the AUA’s publishing interests, introducing half-tone pictures, larger type face and more timely publications in response to topical issues. The 1901 appointment of a publication agent was the first step toward the establishment of the Beacon Press. Under Eliot’s leadership the Association also incorporated previously independent Unitarian organizations, such as the Sunday School Society, which had long produced lesson materials, and the Building Fund Committee.

Eliot tirelessly advocated application, in all church related matters, of the methods of successful business practice. The AUA allocated funds to be used for new buildings or new ministries, but only to congregations who could be expected to repay them. Eliot believed Unitarian churches in future would best thrive in the suburbs or in areas near a college or university. Economically weak Unitarian churches, which had served poorer urban and many rural neighborhoods for generations, were allowed to wither and die. As a result of such policies, over the years the class composition of Unitarian church membership narrowed dramatically, until it virtually excluded the lower economic classes.

Both Eliot and leaders of the NCC also took steps to encourage and promote a strong professional ministry, defined as requiring advanced university degrees. (These steps included the founding of a new seminary in California, which became today’s Starr King School for Religious Leadership.) After the enormous losses of men on the battlefields and in the hospitals of the Civil War, less affluent Unitarian congregations had begun to ordain women whose leadership skills had developed in parish work. The women ministers’ education, though often extensive, had typically been pieced together however they could manage it. The AUA’s 1896 yearbook listed 26 women ministers.

But women ministers and their congregations, especially in the often raw and rapidly developing West, tended to emphasize family virtues, hospitality and practical, hands-on service to the community. Eliot saw these “domestic” themes as too small for an age of scientific progress and efficiency. He thought women unsuited for professional life. He wanted for Unitarian churches vigorous and “manly” ministers, qualified to take up the large issues of the times and to speak from their pulpits with authority. He did not value the remarkable accomplishments of women ministers, especially in starting and nurturing their thriving churches in the midwestern towns, far from Harvard. (Harvard Divinity School did not admit women students until 1955.) The NCC’s new Ministerial Fellowship Committee adopted credentialing requirements which undercut women who could not attend a university. At AUA headquarters Eliot snubbed women ministers who requested his assistance or visited Boston, citing “management issues” to justify his refusals to help them or their churches. Eliot’s and the NCC leadership’s gender discrimination effectively weeded out Unitarian women ministers for the next 50 years.

Throughout Eliot’s time in office records were kept of the Board’s meetings and decisions, but these were neither published nor distributed. The churches had no role in setting AUA policy; nor were AUA directors or staff responsible to the churches. Church delegates participated in meetings of the National Conference, a federation of independent churches, which Eliot hoped to replace with the more efficient (and hierarchically structured) AUA. The two organizations were merged in 1925 to become the new AUA, with the “new” organization having nearly the same the board/staff structure as before. It also retained the NCC’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee.

Eliot’s drive boldly to consolidate power and proceed with authority reflected his temperament, but also his times. Unitarians had been frustrated and weakened by a wearisome theological struggle of six decades which began with the Transcendentalist controversy of the 1830s and 1840s. The workings of the National Conference and the AUA, with their very different histories and governance structures, were at best awkward and confusing. As the country suffered the consequences of warfare and economic dislocation associated with World War I, Eliot recommended for Unitarian churches and the country the double cure of faith and unity.

As World War I approached, so greatly did Eliot and leaders of the NCC emphasize the need for national unity that the NCC excluded, from its list of ministers in fellowship, several ministers, including John Haynes Holmes and David Rhys Williams, who protested the United States’ entry into the War or urged support for individual decisions of conscience. Subsequently, the AUA Board denied financial assistance to any church whose minister did not support the War.

Yet for all his innovation, Eliot inherited New England customs of nonprofit philanthropic organizations developed in the 19th century, all of which depended on the financial contributions of many, but were run by a small board of distinguished directors. Together these overlapping boards formed a powerful and elite meritocracy. Eliot did not so much invent new and effective Unitarian institutions as manage, in a time of weakness, to bring Unitarian ecclesiastic practices into conformity with the social customs of his own self-nominating class of New England leaders.

However, Eliot shared the genuine concern for others of New England’s meritocracy. Throughout his career he served on the boards of numerous national charitable organizations. His work for prison and educational reform was begun during his years in Colorado. He called for practical inmate education and health care. He teamed with his father, the most esteemed educator of his century, to support proportionate sentencing and liberal probation and parole, as well as adequate practical public education. He supported selected Southern schools for the sons and daughters of slavery as well as institutions offering education and hygiene to northern immigrants. He also gradually reshaped the AUA into a force for politicized social justice.

Neither time nor work dimmed Eliot’s passion for liturgy and hymnody. He favored recognizable rather than revolutionary forms of worship. Eliot praised the dignity of each worshipper in relationship with God, but like his Puritan forebears, he doubted whether a person could maintain spiritual health without congregational support. Against the rising culture of secularism, Eliot preached that the dangers of “unbelief” equaled the dangers of “wrong belief.”

On the world religious stage Eliot tried to advance tolerance. He affirmed individuals of every faith who shared his ethics and his commitment to education, while downplaying differences of worship or ethnic heritage. When faced with faiths whose teachings rejected his form of modern progress, Eliot preferred to praise whatever good elements he could see, and leave the rest to the indigenous reformers he believed would emerge as their communities received education. His dedication to Unitarian roots led him to support Transylvanian Unitarians, especially in their sufferings after World War I. Eliot strongly advocated that every faith remain grounded in the sweeping facts of its own religious history.

All Eliot’s institutional efforts commended change externally administered by an educated elite, not the empowerment of people in attaining their own goals. In his defense, it should be noted that Eliot and his associates were motivated by genuine outrage at social conditions of their era. Eliot’s United States did not yet have a high level of general education. Immigrants in unprecedented numbers were crowded into filthy urban slums. Most African Americans, Native Americans and immigrants struggled to find their way in a society for whose ways they had little or no preparation. Eliot’s answer to all these problems was modern education and removal from squalid living conditions. Yet even here, his elitism came through: he endorsed policies which contrasted with those of other leaders, often clergy and social workers, who tried to shape programs around their clients’ experience and common sense.

Throughout his 27 years as AUA president, Eliot preached frequently and widely. He gained and held the affection of Unitarians all over the country by attending weddings, funerals, baptismal dinners, building dedications and many other milestone events, and by means of his often terse but voluminous letters to hundreds of people. In 1913, when Eliot suffered a life threatening gall bladder attack, Unitarians from all over America sent prayers and urgent wishes for his recovery. The New England Brahmin had become the continental Unitarian cleric.

In 1927 Eliot returned to parish work as minister of Boston’s Arlington Street Church. Although the church did not grow during his ministry, his date-books show that he engaged in the liturgy and social vision of a single church with as much enthusiasm as he had devoted to modernizing the practices of a movement. He retired and was made Arlington Street’s Minister Emeritus in 1935. Samuel Atkins Eliot died, still loved and honored, in 1950.

The papers of Samuel Atkins Eliot are at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This article also makes use of his speeches as President of the American Unitarian Association, published in the AUA Annual Reports for 1902, 1909, 1920, 1922, as well as his expansive Report as Secretary in 1899. The 1900 AUA/NCC Bylaws have been published in Peter Raible, editor, Polity Among Unitarians and Universalists (1992). The count of women ministers uses the fellowship list published in the 1896 AUA Annual Report; there is no similar list published in the yearbooks mentioned above.

Beside many sermons and addresses Eliot’s published writings include Phillips Brooks and the Unity of the Spirit (1903); four volumes of Heralds of a Liberal Faith (1910, 1952), brief biographies of American Unitarian pioneers; A History of Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1630-1913, together with Biographies of Cambridge People (1913); Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Indians and Others in North America [Founded 1787]: an Historical Sketch (1942); and Some Musical Memories of Cambridge (1949). He edited several volumes of the Centenary Edition of the Works of Theodore Parker (1908) and the Biographical history of Massachusetts: Biographies and Autobiographies of the Leading Men in the State (1909).

The most widely consulted resource is Pilot of a Liberal Faith: Samuel Atkins Eliot, 1862-1950 (1976), an affectionate but well-researched and concisely organized biography by his son-in-law, Arthur Cushman McGiffert, Jr. A slightly longer bound typescript is available at Andover-Harvard Theological Library. The 1920 AUA Annual Report contains a congratulatory resolution which ably summarizes Eliot’s first twenty years at the helm, conveyed in language both reverent and affectionate. A less reverent and affectionate assessment runs through Cynthia Grant Tucker’s Prophetic Sisterhood: Liberal Women Ministers of the Frontier, 1860-1930 (1990). David Parke’s “A Wave at Crest,” in Conrad Wright, ed., A Stream of Light (1975), has a discussion of Eliot’s tenure as President of the AUA. The biographical entry in American National Biography is by Conrad Wright.

Background for discussion of AUA and UUA polity can be found in C. Conrad Wright’s Walking Together (1989). Conrad Edick Wright’s The Transformation of Charity in Postrevolutionary New England (1992) provides an understanding of the switch amongst Unitarians from democratic to philanthropic models of charity. I am indebted to C. Conrad Wright, Professor Emeritus of American Religious History at the Harvard Divinity School, for his personal reminiscences of Dr. Sam, and firm but kindly improvement of my less than sympathetic first impressions of the AUA president.

Article by Elizabeth Curtiss
Posted June 18, 2001 – revised October 6, 2002