Foote II, Arthur W.

Arthur W. Foote II
Arthur W. Foote II

Arthur W. Foote II (January 18, 1911-December 9, 1999) was a Unitarian minister who chaired the commission that prepared the first hymnal after the Universalist and Unitarian consolidation. A humanist, he emphasized self-reflection and spirituality through the use of art, music, and poetry. While supporting social activism, his sermons and writing focused on the importance of the individual; how people maintain their self-integrity and how we should treat each other.

Foote was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His life blended the influences of his New England-born Unitarian minister father, Henry Wilder Foote II, and his Pennsylvania-born Quaker mother Eleanor Tyson Cope. The Cope family – prosperous farmers – were prominent in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Quaker circles. His paternal grandfather (also Henry Wilder Foote) was a distinguished Unitarian minister. His uncle (Arthur William Foote) was a well-known musical composer, leading to the subject of this biography being known publicly as Arthur Foote II. Foote’s focus on the individual reflected his Unitarian upbringing, but consistent with his Quaker ties, he also recognized the importance of the responsible “inner light” that guided each individual. His Quaker origins were also honored by his life-long commitment to pacifism.

Following paternal tradition, Arthur was educated at Harvard, receiving his AB in 1933. He excelled outside the classroom at cross-country running. In August, 1933, he married Rebecca Clark from Southwest Harbor, Maine. Arthur and Rebecca, who had grown up together during childhood summers in Southwest Harbor, developed a strong companionate marriage to which she contributed a delightful sense of humor, common sense, and an understanding of people. While not a typical minister’s wife, she often provided wise, welcome counsel to those in need in Arthur’s absence.

As a college student, Foote had a pronounced stammer. Given this limitation, he made the somewhat adventurous decision in his senior year to enter the Unitarian ministry. Foote later noted, “I was not at all sure that the ministry would prove ‘my dish.’ More than one college-mate took me aside to assure me that with my stammer it was bound to be a mistake; and I guess only cussedness kept me from agreeing.”

While the stammer was a problem, Foote flourished at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois. He graduated in 1936 and was ordained the same year at King’s Chapel in Boston, Massachusetts where his grandfather had served as minister. Meadville Lombard awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1956 and he chaired the board of trustees from 1960-63.

Foote was shy and quiet in addition to having speaking difficulties. He did, however, have a number of qualities that would serve him well as a minister. He had a good sense of humor and was a skilled conversationalist on a variety of topics. He had the gentle patience to listen carefully to others without being judgmental, although he never hid his views. Meeting Foote for the first time, people were often impressed by his compassion. He was generous in giving his time to individuals and to the community.

Foote’s father, Henry Wilder Foote, urged him to broaden his experiences by starting his ministry outside New England, as he had. Following this advice, he located about as far from New England as you could, serving the First Unitarian Church in Stockton and First Unitarian Society of Sacramento, California concurrently; 1936-45. When Foote arrived in California, both congregations were down to a few active members and had serious financial difficulties. He plunged into his new assignments, building the memberships up to respectable numbers. During the California years, Arthur and Rebecca Foote had their three children: Frances Eliot, Nathan Clark, and Caleb.

Foote wrote to his Sacramento parishioners in 1936; “Our group is small, and some of you seem to think that because it is small, it cannot justify its existence. But institutions are not justified by their size, but by their vitality and usefulness. For me the most encouraging fact of the situation is this: that the prevalent attitude in the church is changing slowly from one of discouragement and defeat to one of hope and of the ‘will to victory’.”

Unlike his father, Foote never returned to New England to serve as a minister. From 1945 until his retirement in 1970, he was the minister of Unity Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Foote and Unity were a near perfect match, the church membership had long-term ancestral ties with New England and had had a series of distinguished ministers, such as Frederick May Eliot and William Channing Gannett who emphasized the importance of music and literature in religion. Many of the members of Unity were “movers and shakers” in the larger community, similar to many New England Unitarian congregations.

At Unity, Foote developed a reputation for his sermons. He estimated that he spent 20 hours per week preparing a sermon. Chip Peterson, who grew up in the Unity congregation remembered him as “an eloquent writer and speaker who put together some of the most spectacularly artful and thoughtful sermons I have ever heard. Moreover, he wove the sermons together with all of the other components of the service into an absolutely seamless whole.”

Foote was well aware of his stammer problem, and he worked (somewhat successfully) throughout his life to minimize his speaking difficulties. James Martin, another Unity congregant, related how “He would reach a point in a sermon when he was unable to articulate a particular word. He would stand at the pulpit struggling with this word for what seemed up to a minute. The congregation would be very patient, and silently wait for him to surmount this barrier, as they seemed to be used to this. Once he managed to pronounce this word, which was probably never the same word, he would sail on fluently through the rest of the sermon, until, unexpectedly, he would encounter another blockage. I found him to be very courageous at these moments.”

Foote detailed his humanist Unitarian theology, touched by the Quaker emphasis on “inner light,” in a 1960 essay, “Man, God, and Space,” written when he was at the peak of his ministerial career. Endorsing the importance of scientific discovery for understanding the Universe, Foote argued “There simply is no need, any longer, for the hypothesis of a supernatural deity, a creative agent intervening from the outside. Entirely natural processes suffice.” Unlike many religious humanists, Foote did believe in the God concept. He went on to say, “If we are to recover God, we had best learn from those who have known Him in their own personal experience . . . So it is that I call you to cosmic citizenship and to a more inward life. I call upon you to roam the heavens, to ‘range through all their length and breadth, their height and depth, past present and to come’ – an earthbound provincial no longer.”

For Foote, religion was the process a person used to discover his or her own unique God; it was the method a person used to locate those personal life concepts that were of central importance. The quest, of course, needed to be pursued with personal integrity and respect for the beliefs of others. In a meditation titled “The Echo of Our Resolve,” Foote expressed his strong preoccupation with the individual: “So let me, in communion with the mysterious and creative and constructive energies that forever surround and flow through me, cultivate the courage to be more faithful to my own best. Let me gain sounder knowledge of myself, my strengths and weaknesses, my good and my evil. Let me gain truer knowledge of others, also, in their likenesses to me and their differences from me, so that I may deal with their real selves, measuring their feelings by my own, yet patiently considering their varied lives and thoughts and circumstances.”

Arthur W. Foote II
Arthur W. Foote II

Many of Foote’s ideas are found in his book, Taking Down the Defenses (1972). In the first paragraph, he postulates a rugged individualism: “The theme that runs through many of the brief essays and meditations of this book might be called ‘Personal Disarmament.’ Every person needs to stop defending himself – defending himself to others, but first of all to himself. Until he does successfully put aside his pretenses and self-assertions, as Jung insisted, ‘an impenetrable wall shuts him out from the living experience of feeling himself a man among men.'” In another essay, “The Way of a Simpleton,” he says “The things that make life worth living are simple things, common things, things we may possess just by claiming though we can never own them; things we enjoy most when we share them with others.”

Foote was an unassuming and thoughtful person, “a pleasure to work with,” according to Elizabeth Whitman, the Unity Director of Religious Education, 1948-72. While no specialist in church administration, Foote led ably his congregation through a number of difficult issues such as the need for more church space, the fostering of another Unitarian church (White Bear Lake) to accommodate the rapid development of the suburbs, and a serious fire in 1963 that required rebuilding the church. Foote’s most serious controversy with the congregation, according to Whitman, was the full white beard he grew during a 1960s sabbatical; some in the congregation felt the beard destroyed his handsome appearance.

Another controversy developed about the same time over the stained glass windows in the Sanctuary. Some church members wanted them replaced because the patterns were unimaginative, monotonous, and inappropriate for a church while others were resistant to a change. The controversy was resolved when the church had a serious sanctuary fire in 1963. Seeing the fire from a distance Foote said, “well, that solves the problem of the windows for me.”

Foote believed that Unitarians should work actively to achieve a social justice that was consistent with their beliefs, but this type of activity was not a dominant theme during his ministry. He made clear to the church members and the larger St. Paul community that he strongly favored racial justice, and he worked actively in nearby neighborhoods to help residents deal with housing deterioration, segregation, and racial tensions. He supported freedom of speech by making the church available to local groups even when their patriotism was being questioned.

His most noteworthy actions in the area of social justice revolved around the treatment of individuals in Minnesota’s state run mental hospitals. In 1946, Mrs. L. D. Steefel formed a committee to investigate the abusive treatment of patients based on information provided by Engla Schey, a mental hospital worker. Outraged, Foote and Minnesota Unitarians fought for reform. By the late 1950s, Minnesota had moved from having one of the worst mental health systems to one of the best.

Among religious denominations in Minnesota, only the Unitarians took a forthright stand on the condition of the mental hospitals. In 1947, Republican Governor Luther Youngdahl appointed Foote to the Governor’s Advisory Council on Mental Health. Gradually, the state legislature adopted many of the Council’s recommendations. Foote attracted national attention when he took a low-level job at a state mental health hospital to investigate conditions incognito. Many later called him the “father of mental health in Minnesota,” although he and others were clear that the project could only have succeeded with the help of many Unity church members. After the reforms, Unity Church members continued with their rehabilitation efforts by collecting magazines for the inmates, visiting, and helping them form organizations.

As the Unitarians and Universalists consolidated in 1961, Foote chaired the commission that produced Hymns for the Celebration of Life (1964). The previous collection, Hymns of the Spirit (1937) had been published by a joint committee led by his father, Henry Wilder Foote II.

Hymns for the Celebration of Life differed from the previous hymnal in that it reflected the larger post-World War II trends in liberal religion. It contained more humanist hymns and readings and they tended to address the concerns and issues of living in this world rather than the specific nature of God, Jesus, and the afterlife. In addition, it drew more materials from non-Christian religions and cultures. The new hymnal closely reflected Foote’s theology of Unitarian Universalism. The preface states that, “Religion is a present reality; it is also an inheritance from the past . . .” a view which closely reflects Foote’s understanding of Unitarian and Universalist theology. It continued saying this hymnal “is edited in the conviction that a vital faith must be a singing faith and that each generation needs to express itself freshly in its own idioms through song and the spoken word.”

Foote has reported that his years working on the hymnal were the high points of his life. Vincent Silliman recalled lively discussions about the contents between commissioners Foote, Kenneth Patton, and himself. Items were generally selected by majority vote of the commission. The music for two hymns, “For All the Joys That Greet Us” and “Sound Over All Waters” was composed by Foote. The hymnal also included two of his readings. The reading, “Freely have we received of gifts that minister to our needs of body and spirit. Gladly we bring to our church and its wide concerns a portion of this bounty” is still frequently heard and used. Hymns for the Celebration of Life (1964) was used until replaced by Singing the Living Tradition (1993).

While working hard on the development of the hymnal, Foote remained devoted to Unity Church through the socially-explosive 1960s. At age 59, Foote retired from the ministry. It was a decision expected by many members of the congregation; it grew out of his socially-responsible individualism. As he wrote in a note to church members, ” . . .I have found a steadily growing urge to make a radical change in my way of life, to change its pace and to lessen its pressures. The need to explore unused facets of myself, to cultivate undeveloped talents, to have more adequate time for thinking and creative writing seems to become ever more compelling.”

After retirement, Arthur and Rebecca decided to return “home” to Southwest Harbor, Maine where they had spent their early years, summered during his St. Paul ministry, and first met. In 1970, they moved into the home where Rebecca had lived as a child.

In a newspaper interview at the time of retirement, Foote was asked what he disliked about being a clergyman. He replied quickly, “The custom of referring to or addressing the minister as ‘Reverend.’ I’ve been spared by an honorary doctorate but I wish that something could be done about the ‘Rev’ practice in general.”

Some of Foote’s interests in retirement were presaged by an avid interest in stoneware potting that developed in the last few years of his ministry. His St. Paul home was filled with pots, and he widely exhibited his work. He continued his potting for a few years in Southwest Harbor but then did very little. He also would occasionally preach in a nearby Unitarian Universalist church. But much of his time was spent hosting friends from his St. Paul past. In addition, the Foote’s had a number of local friends and spent much time walking around and talking with people. He reported to his Harvard reunion classmates that he frequently engaged in chopping wood.

Mark Belletini, chair of the commission that produced the hymnal Singing the Living Tradition (1993) visited Foote in Southwest Harbor. He later recalled, “. . after some small talk he looked me in the eye and said, ‘So how much of our work have you kept?'” Belletini told him and showed him sheet music for the new hymns they were considering. “He looked at them on his lap and said, ‘Young man, I can’t read these any more. Will you sing them for me?’ I knelt down next to his wooden-backed chair and sang the hymns and he wept and I wept.”

Foote’s beloved wife Rebecca died in 1993. He died six years later.

Sermons, letters, and papers by and about Arthur Foote are in the Unity Church (St. Paul, Minnesota) Papers housed at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota. Additional materials can be found in the Arthur Foote UUA ministerial files, the Papers of Henry Wilder Foote, and UUA administrative files held by the Andover-Harvard Theological Library Archives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Hymns for the Celebration of Life (1964), published by Beacon Press included 124 hymns or stanzas that were fresh contributions to Unitarian Universalist hymnody. Foote wrote a 24-page book about his father, Henry Wilder Foote, Hymnologist (1968) and an essay collection, Taking Down The Defenses (1972) which was republished in paperback by Beacon Press as Taking Down The Defenses: A collection of one hundred brief essays and meditations (1977). Two essays, “Man, God, and Space” and “Quenching the Fires of Hell” are in Bradford E. Gale, ed., Contemporary Accents in Liberal Religion (1960). The first essay outlines Foote’s general perspective on religious theology in the post-World War II period. “Quenching the Fires of Hell” explains his identification with Universalist theology and his support for the consolidation of the Unitarian and Universalist denominations. Arthur Foote’s years at Unity are described in Elinor Sommers Otto, The Story of Unity Church, 1872-1972 (1972). A personal description of his work on the 1964 hymnal is found in Vincent B. Silliman, “Hymnbook Reminiscences and Reflections.”
Berry Street Essay (1977).

Article by Avery “Pete” Guest
Posted August 25, 2013