Etz, Roger

Roger EtzRoger Frederick Etz (April 30, 1886-December 19, 1950) was a parish minister and a major figure in the Universalist denomination for forty years. He was Executive Secretary and General Superintendent of the Universalist General Convention, 1919-37. During a period of rapid denominational decline, and the Great Depression of the 1930s, he kept American Universalism a functioning organization, which made possible consolidation with the American Unitarian Association in 1961.

Roger was born in Akron, Ohio to Frances (Rogers) and George Emmet Etz. His father was employed by a local business firm. He had two brothers and a sister. He attended public schools, where he was both a good student and a fine athlete. As a youngster he went to the Universalist Church and was active in its Young Peoples Christian Union (YPCU). He served on the state YPCU board while he was in high school and continued to do so after he entered Tufts College in 1904. Here he earned two degrees: the A.B, 1909—his major was philosophy—and a year later the S.T.B. from its Crane Theological School.

Before seeking a parish Etz pursued a year of graduate study in religious education at the Hartford School of Religious Pedagogy (today the Hartford Theological Seminary). While studying there he was the national secretary of the YPCU, editor of its magazine Onward, and an associate for one year of John Coleman Adams, the renowned minister of the Universalist Church of the Redeemer in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1949, the centennial year of Adams’s birth, he wrote an informative essay on him for the Christian Leader.

In February 1913 the White Memorial Universalist Church in Concord, New Hampshire called Etz to be its minister. He was ordained and installed the next month. The sermon was by the editor of the Universalist Leader, Frederick A. Bisbee. A few months later Etz married Verta A. Smith. She was the organist at the nearby Congregational Church in Atkinson. They had met when he had been a student preacher there. They had two children, John and Dorothy.

Etz served the Concord parish for four years and would have stayed longer but for America’s entry in the First World War. Etz went to France as a representative of the Young Men’s Christian Association, working as an athletic director, truck driver, and canteen worker. He served “part of the time in a big camp in the area far behind the lines and part of the time in the wreckage and mud and desolation of the front.”

When he came home in 1919 Etz began his long administrative career with the Universalist General Convention, headquartered in Boston. The Convention appointed him full-time executive secretary; the only other paid staff person then was the Convention’s General Superintendent, John Smith Lowe.

From Paris in December 1918, Etz had expressed his denomination’s post-war mood, writing “our church has a divine mission which is just at its beginning.” But just the opposite happened during the twenties and thirties. The decline in churches, membership, financial support for national programs and undertakings, continued unabated. Also deeply damaging was the dislike felt by Universalists for strong national leadership, the confusion Universalists exhibited about their basic religious philosophy, and the beginning of the general decline of mainline churches in America. There was little hard-working officials could do to improve matters.

As Etz needed to supplement his inadequate salary, he took a second job: minister, 1922-29, of the Universalist Church in nearby Charlestown, Massachusetts. When he left Charlestown it remained the Etz family church until it closed. He quickly won the affectation of the congregation. A year after his arrival they wrote him expressing their “appreciation of your valuable sermons. Your zeal in our behalf,” they noted, “has awakened new courage and interest in us, and a wave of increased life and vigor seems to be flowing unto this dear old church.” He appointed Dorothy Tilden Spoerl, who had just earned an M.A. degree from Boston University, as the church’s part-time director of educational activities. Etz’s sister Elizabeth, who was ultimately ordained in 1955, had earlier served in this capacity.

In 1927 Lombard University conferred on Etz the honorary degree Doctor of Divinity. Two years later his Alma Mater made him Doctor of Sacred Theology.

As a cost saving measure the Universalist General Convention’s Board of Trustees made Etz the interim General Superintendent when Lowe resigned in 1928. Two years later they officially consolidated the two positions. As the financial situation continued to worsen Etz voluntarily took a 10 percent salary cut. During this period money was nevertheless raised to build the Gothic/Romanesque Universalist National Memorial Church in Washington, D.C., dedicated in 1930. In 1935 Etz made some long-overdue organizational reforms, creating the Council of Executives, which centralized planning and management within the denomination. Also in that year the Convention adopted its fourth and final profession of faith, the Bond of Fellowship and Statement of Faith, 1935. This affirmed, for better or worse, that the Universalist Church was theistic rather than secular humanist.

The most significant decision made at this time, however, was the rejection of any merger with Congregationalism and the pursuit of closer ties with Unitarianism. This road was to lead to the eventual consolidation of the two groups, but with many detours along the way.

In 1934 General Superintendent Etz took a six-month tour around the world. He traveled first to the Universalist mission in Japan. He had hand-painted colored glass slides made of the Universalist people and projects there. He also visited Korea, the Philippines, and India, where he spent time with Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. Coming home via Europe, he represented the Unitarians and Universalists at the Congress of Religious Liberals in Denmark.

Worn out and knowing it was time for fresh leadership, Etz resigned in 1937. Herbert E. Benton, minister of the Church of the Messiah in Philadelphia, wrote him: “I have seen the beginnings of the policy of superintendency. I have known all the incumbents of the office. Without flattery I can honestly say that the office itself has never been given such a standing in our constituency, nor has the work been conducted with such breath of vision and at the same time such careful attention to detail as under your administration.”

Etz elected to return to parish ministry. He was called to the Universalist Church of the Redeemer, Newark, N.J. Then in 1941 he accepted the call to the First Universalist Church in Medford, the city he and his family had lived in while he had worked for the General Convention. During his pastorate five members of the church entered the ministry: Robert L’H Miller, Carl Seaburg, Robert Wolley, William DeWolfe, and Alan Seaburg.

During the Second World War Etz was Medford’s Chief Air-Raid Warden. In 1948 the mayor appointed him to be a trustee of the Public Library. He was also active in Masonic and Republican Party activities. From 1942-44 he was Secretary of the Massachusetts Universalist Convention and in 1948 he was elected President. He was a trustee of the Massachusetts Bible Society from 1945 until his death.

Etz was an effective preacher. Theologically, he was a conservative liberal Christian. Underlying many of his sermons was the thought, “I cannot hear what you are saying, I can only hear what you are doing.” A companion theme, expressed in a 1943 Lenten leaflet, was that “Religion helps us to understand our failures but, better still, helps us to see that our own troubles may be stepping-stones to greater things.”

While he composed many official reports for the denominational press, his other writings were limited to an occasional essay in the Christian/Universalist Leader and to the preparation of a series of meditation manuals for the Lenten season. These came out in the 1930s and the 1940s. Emerson Hugh Lalone, editor of the Universalist Leader, related that the religious values Etz emphasized in these manuals—virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, kindness, love—were the spiritual qualities and ideals by which he lived.

One of Etz’s favorite places was Ferry Beach, the Universalist camp grounds founded on the Maine Coast at Old Orchard in 1901 by Quillen Hamilton Shinn. His association, beginning in 1910, was life long. He served as president of the Ferry Beach Park Association from 1939 until his final illness. He was also a longtime member of the Fraters of the Wayside Inn, an annual Universalist retreat/worship group.

During the last months of his life Etz developed heart problems. He died at home on December 19, 1950. The eulogy at the memorial service, held at the Medford Church, was delivered by his successor as General Superintendent, Robert Cummins. Medford’s mayor, Frederick T. McDermott, who also spoke, said that “Dr. Etz’s absolute tolerance and understanding of people of all creeds in the city made him by far one of the most popular clergymen ever to serve in the city among the Protestant people and equally so among those of other faiths.” Etz was buried in the city’s Oak Grove cemetery.

The Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School has the Etz Family Papers (1907-1963). They also house the archives of the Universalist Church of America, which include the records of the Board of Trusties and those of the General Superintendent. The hand-painted Japanese slides are now at Harvard. Besides official denominational reports and the articles describing his 1934 “Mission Around the World”in the Leader, Etz’s writings include “John Coleman Adams, Prophet of the Larger Faith,” Christian Leader (December 1949) and the several Lenten manuals he edited: Daily Readings for the Lenten Season (1933), After this Manner (1937), Add to Your Faith (1938, reprinted 1950), and Using our Spiritual Resources (1947). There is an obituary by his friend Emerson Hugh Lalone, “Roger Etz, Churchman and Friend,” in The Christian Leader (February 1951). He is also listed in Who Was Who in America, v. 3. See also Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America 1870-1970 (1985); Conrad Wright, Congregational Polity: A Historical Survey of Unitarian and Universalist Practice (1997); and Katharine Augusta Sutton and Robert Francis Needham, Universalists at Ferry Beach: A History (1948).

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted December 21, 2004