John Howland Lathrop (June 6, 1880-August 20, 1967) was a distinguished Unitarian minister, social activist and peace advocate. He said in 1936, “Human associations are all precious, but none reaches as deep as the gatherings together in a church, where we share with one another the holiest experiences of life, and strive to fan the flame of the spirit within to an ever brighter light.” His own activities in his neighborhood, in the Unitarian Association and internationally best illustrate what he meant by “brighter light.”
Lathrop was born in Jackson, Michigan, the son of Arthur D. Lathrop, a banker, and Alice McDora Osborne. At seventeen Lathrop became a Unitarian. While working in a wholesale grocery house in Cleveland, Ohio, he attended the church of Marion E. Murdoch, the first woman to receive a B.D. degree from Meadville Theological School. Influenced by her, he went to Meadville the next year. There Francis A. Christie became his mentor. Lathrop called him, “the greatest thing that happened to me in the educational world.” After receiving a B.D. from Meadville in 1903, Lathrop went to Harvard University as a junior and received a B.A. in 1905.
At Harvard Lathrop had his greatest religious experience while listening to William James lecture on the religious implications of his philosophy. As a student he met Florence Kelley and Fannie Fern Andrews, with whom he later worked in the Consumers’ League and the peace movement, and also started his ministry, assisting Louis Craig Cornish at his church in Hingham, Massachusetts. Lathrop was called to the First Unitarian Church in Berkeley, California. In 1906, his second year there, he coordinated relief efforts for the 20,000 San Francisco Earthquake refugees.
In October, 1907, he married Lita Schlesinger. They had three children, two of whom reached adulthood.
In 1911 he moved to the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn, the pulpit from which Samuel Eliot had been called earlier to head the American Unitarian Association. Arriving in Brooklyn a liberal humanist, grounded in transcendentalism during his Meadville training, he gradually became more traditional. Influenced by his new congregation’s Christocentric theology and its beautiful Gothic Revival church, he fell in love with the language of the Bible, which he had seldom read earlier. He wore in the pulpit the same style cassock worn in Boston’s traditional King’s Chapel. He worked on Samuel Eliot’s committee for a new denominational service book and helped produce a widely used volume. In 1935 he wrote “Hosanna in the Highest,” a beautiful Palm Sunday Hymn, sung on the Ford Hour, a popular radio show, on Palm Sunday, 1939. The lyrics proclaim, “But when a brother spirit/ Arises from the plain/ The men of power tremble/ And crucify again.”
Lathrop worked tirelessly to improve social conditions. In 1916 he helped found the Brooklyn Urban League, which grew out of a meeting in his church office, and was its president for many years. He was a member of the state Tenement House Commission; the first president of the Brooklyn Council on Social Planning; and as president of the Brooklyn Health Council improved the lighting in Brooklyn public schools. Lathrop was also president of the National Consumers League and of the Euthanasia Society of America. He was asked by New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey to help draw up the Fair Employment Practices Commission law, which was enacted in 1945 and made New York the pioneer state in this legislation.
A strong peace advocate, Lathrop belonged to the minority of Progressives who opposed America’s entering World War I. He courageously voiced his opinion despite his church’s trustees’ strong disapproval. Once his country had entered the war, however, he donned a naval uniform and became the Red Cross’ director of Naval Affairs, introducing the army-oriented Red Cross into the navy. At the close of the war he helped found the American Committee on the Rights of Religious Minorities and became its president. He was also president of the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom (IAEF). In 1927 he headed a 5-member commission to report on the treatment of religious minorities in Rumania. On this trip he made the first of many visits to both the church in Transylvania his Brooklyn church was helping to support and to Czechoslovakia. In that country he bolstered the existing ties of his church to Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk, American wife of its founder and first president, who had been part of the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn. Upon returning from this trip he gave fifty talks alerting Americans to the growing anti-Semitism sweeping Europe.
In late 1928 and early 1929 he traveled in India, where he represented the American Unitarian Association at the centenary celebration of the Brahmo Samaj, a liberal Hindu society. While there he arranged for his church to help support a Brahmo Samaj congregation of outcasts in Alleppey. Lathrop was president of the National Peace Conference, formed by forty-five local organizations, and (because Unitarians were denied membership) he worked as an affiliated member on the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ’s Committee for a Just and Durable Peace. In 1946 after World War II he directed a relief project in Czechoslovakia which included a medical mission, chaired by Dr. Paul Dudley White of Harvard, to update Czech doctors on medical advances made during the war years. The committee later gave rise to the Unitarian Service Committee*. In 1951 he was the first Unitarian elected to the board of the local Protestant Council of Churches. As a result of his election the organization was dropped from the National Council of Churches.
Lathrop’s travels and work abroad enhanced his determination to keep his Brooklyn congregation on the cutting edge of social change and its building “a still nobler temple of the liberal faith.” In 1928 he completed a Side Aisle Chapel of All Faiths, inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson and looking to all the world’s religions, hailed as the nation’s first. In 1929 he began a project to portray the history of liberal religion in a series of twenty clerestory portrait windows in his church’s sanctuary, including Jan Hus, Michael Servetus, Joseph Priestley, William Ellery Channing, and Emerson. Interrupted by the Great Depression, the windows were not completed until 1957.
From 1930 to 1953 Lathrop pioneered in providing counseling services for his parishioners. The support facility included premarital counseling and a parents’ discussion group. Counseling was first conducted by Beatrice Bishop Berle, a psychiatric social worker who would become the director of the Federal Employees Health Service, and later by Horatio W. Dresser, who had studied with Carl Jung and Alfred Adler. Dresser set up a clinic, later called Federated Counseling Service, which for the first time combined religion, psychology, and medicine in a unified treatment.
Lathrop’s vision, spirit, and energy made him appreciated at home, abroad and in his denomination. He received honorary doctorates from Meadville in 1923 and Franz Joseph University in Hungary in 1938; the Order of the White Lion from Czechoslovakia in 1951; the John Haynes Holmes-Arthur Weatherly Award for “distinguished service in the cause of social justice” from the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice in 1951; and the Annual Unitarian Award in 1956. As he contemplated the end of his life, “no world” interested him “so much as this world with all of its problems.” Having spent his life searching for solutions to these problems, his wish was to “live to see the gradual lines along which” they would be solved.
* 27 Jan 2015 correction The Unitarian Service Committee started work before WWII. It was established as an American Unitarian Association (AUA) committee in May 1940.
Lathrop’s papers are in the First Unitarian Church Collection, Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn, N.Y. See also “Reminiscences of John Howland Lathrop,” Columbia University Oral History Project (1953), American National Biography, s.v. “Lathrop, John Howland,” and Olive Hoogenboom, The First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn: One Hundred Fifty Years (1987). An obituary is in the New York Times, August 23, 1967.
Article by Olive Hoogenboom
Posted September 8, 2001