Pennington, Leslie

Leslie PenningtonLeslie Talbot Pennington (October 30, 1899-December 6, 1974), a Unitarian and Universalist minister who chaired the Unitarian Commission on Church Union, was throughout his career an active civic leader and organizer of pioneering church social action programs. He was especially prominent in advocating international peace and promoting neighborhood racial integration. His voice was decisive in convincing Frederick May Eliot, in 1936, to seek the presidency of the American Unitarian Association (AUA).

Leslie was born in Spiceland, Indiana to Quaker parents, postmaster and architect Levi T. Pennington and Mary Brown. The teachings of the Society of Friends profoundly influenced his views and values. After elementary education at Spiceland Academy, his family sent him to the Quaker-established Moses Brown School for Boys in Providence, Rhode Island. His undergraduate studies, 1918-22, were at another Quaker institution, Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. He then entered Harvard Divinity School to train for the ministry.

Why Pennington chose to become a Unitarian is not known. Certainly his studies at Harvard must have played a role in that decision. Recommending him to the AUA, Willard Learoyd Sperry, the Dean, wrote: “There are few men whom I have ever watched entering the ministry with a confidence and consent such as I am giving Mr. Pennington. He is a man of transparent sincerity and integrity, of very great personal charm, and of real distinction of mind.”

Shortly after graduation in 1926, Pennington was ordained to the Unitarian ministry at his first parish settlement, the Unitarian Congregational Society of Lincoln, Massachusetts. While at Lincoln in 1928 he married Elizabeth Entwistle Daniels. “Danny,” as she was always called, was a graduate of Radcliffe College and a teacher of Latin and Greek. They had two daughters, Mary and Antoinette.

In 1928 Pennington accepted a call to All Souls’ Church, Braintree, Massachusetts, where he remained until 1932. As this was a Unitarian-Universalist congregation he applied for affiliated fellowship with the Universalist General Convention. At the same time he served as summer minister at the Universalist Church of Addison, Maine. He subsequently believed that Unitarians and Universalists generally should join together.

With James Luther Adams and Frank Holmes, Pennington in 1928 founded the Greenfield Group, an intellectual retreat for ministers, still in existence. Its purpose is to ensure a more scholarly liberal ministry through discussion of theological questions from all religious traditions.

Pennington’s next parish was the Unitarian Society of Ithaca, New York. While there, during summers he also served the Manchester, Massachusetts Unitarian Church. In 1935 he was called to the First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he remained until 1944. During his ministry the congregation renewed and expanded its spiritual life and activity. Indeed, as Herbert Vetter, a later minister in Cambridge, observed, he effected “a renewal in the life of this congregation which the historian of this church has likened to the renewal of the nation under the leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

In addition to the carefully prepared worship services and sermons that were characteristic of his entire ministry, his chief emphasis in Cambridge—and later in Chicago—was “the creative shaping of the social order.” In a letter he wrote during his first year at the church he explained that he was “trying to relate some of the affairs in current public life to what seems to me very fundamental principles.”

In a 1939 sermon, “Social Relations in the Parish Church,” later printed in the Christian Register, Pennington explained that in this endeavor two things were required: “sensitive ethical discriminations in the tissues of the individual character of those who compose the parish church” and “the development of methods of group social action in the expression of religious concerns.” To accomplish the latter he had reactivated the church’s social service committee and given it increased responsibility. Its tools were to be study sub-committees, discussion, and informed democratic persuasion. Pennington himself served on the Board of Directors of both the Cambridge Red Cross and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education and was a member of the Cambridge Council of Agencies. “We are moving slowly,” Pennington allowed at the end of his sermon, “We realize that we have much to learn, that we have made, are making and probably will make, many mistakes, and that we have hardly yet scratched the surface. But we are at least attacking these problems on the social frontier.”

On the Board of Directors of the AUA, 1936-1939, Pennington chaired both the Ministry and Fellowship Committees. (He was on the Board of Directors again, 1956-58.) When the Unitarian Service Committee was established in 1940 he served on its first Board of Directors, 1940-44. Also while at Cambridge he served as the secretary, 1938-39, for the Society for Promoting Theological Education.

As chair of the AUA’s presidential nominating committee in 1936-37 Pennington made a significant contribution to the national Unitarian movement. Many Unitarians wanted Frederick May Eliot, chair of the Commission on Appraisal, to run for President of the AUA. Eliot, however, was reluctant. The Commission had just issued a lengthy report critical of the AUA and which made suggestions for its renewal. Eliot felt that his candidacy might cast doubt on the objectiveness of the Commission’s report. In a crucial letter to Eliot, Pennington successfully argued that “Our greatest need just now is a statesmanlike leadership, realistic, skilled, wise, devoted, far-sighted, and profound.”

Pennington was called in 1944 to the First Unitarian Church in Chicago. This was to be his longest—18 years—and his most significant parish ministry. The ministry of his predecessor, Von Ogden Vogt, had been deeply influenced by religious art and liturgical worship. Pennington, however, with a Quaker upbringing and New England experience, encouraged more simple worship. During his years, church membership rose from 195 to 434, the church school went from 25 to 300, and the endowment tripled. In 1956, under the leadership of assistant minister Christopher Moore, the society established a children’s choir which later evolved into the nonsectarian Chicago Children’s Choir, still based at the church. To accommodate the increase in the number of its programs the congregation constructed Fenn House in 1952 and the Pennington Center in 1961.

Continuing to preach on moral and social themes, Pennington replicated in Chicago the service committees which he had instituted in Cambridge. Hyde Park, the church’s neighborhood, was becoming racially integrated. Under Pennington’s leadership, against some opposition, the congregation voted in 1948 to publicly affirm a standing policy of welcoming all people into their activities. Furthermore, they resolved to integrate the church. Black membership went from two individuals to 10 percent of the congregation during Pennington’s ministry. “We now count among our membership,” he wrote, “persons of Japanese, Hindu, and Islamic background as well as Blacks. It is our purpose to become a church of all races and religious backgrounds . . . for this is the role of America in the new world.”

In 1949 a group that evolved into the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference gathered to address the problems of a radically changing neighborhood, where property values were falling and crime was increasing. At their first meeting, held at the Unitarian Church, Pennington was elected Chair, a position he held for three years. The Conference, Pennington wrote, came to be “recognized as one of the new and prophetic interracial movements in America.”

Beginning in 1947 Pennington chaired the Unitarian Commission on Church Union which, working with a similar Universalist group, made a report that led in 1953 to the founding of the Council of Liberal Churches. “Our times demand,” he stated then, “the widest possible cohesion, solidarity and union of all free men and women and human groups devoted to the responsible freedom of high ethical religious faith.”

Throughout Pennington’s long ministry he worked with the Church Peace Union (CPU). His commitment to world peace grew out of his Quaker upbringing. He was for many years on the CPU Board of Trustees and its Committee on Education.

In 1953 Pennington’s oldest daughter married American novelist and poet John Updike. Updike in his memoirs wrote: “My father-in-law, a Unitarian minister, had been raised as a Quaker. I loved hearing him ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’ without self-consciousness, in his gentle Midwestern voice, his wife and two daughters . . . Though my gentle father-in-law and I had some tense early arguments, in which I, blushing and stammering, insisted that an object of faith must have some concrete attributes, and he suggested that our human need for transcendence should be met with minimal embarrassments to reason, at bottom I loved him.”

For three months in 1955 Pennington served as exchange minister at the Unitarian Church of Liverpool, England. Marlboro College in Vermont, of which Pennington was a founder and trustee, 1947-62, awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1956. A decade earlier in 1946 Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida had granted him an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree. Chicago’s Meadville Theological School gave him a Doctorate of Divinity in 1961.

In 1962 Pennington moved to the Unitarian Church in West Newton, Massachusetts, where he remained until retirement to Concord, Massachusetts in 1968. He also had a summer home near Montpelier, Vermont. His colleague Miles Hanson, Jr. observed that “he loved his farm in Moretown and the green hills of Vermont. His retirement years were spent working in his garden among the flowers he loved, and watching the birds crowd his feeders. Leslie lived in covenant not only with God and men but also with nature.”

Danny, his wife of 47 years, died in 1973. He followed her a year later. A memorial service, held at his old Cambridge church, was conducted a week later by Ralph Helverson, Herbert Vetter, and James Luther Adams.

Pennington’s papers, including correspondence, 1935-44, and sermons, are at the Harvard Divinity School Library. His UUA Department of Ministry file is now also at Harvard. He published several devotional collections and numerous sermons. In 1944 the Beacon Press issued a collection of his prayers from the First Parish in Cambridge and his AUA Lenten manual, The Disciplines of Freedom. In 1947 the AUA’s World Order Commission, of which he was a member, issued his pamphlet, Let us Be Sane About Peace. He delivered the Minns Lectures for 1952, “The Disciplines of Liberty,” and the Berry Street Conference Lecture for 1960, “Liberalism in the Encounter Between Living World Religions.”

As yet there is no major biographical study of Pennington. Dana McLean Greeley wrote an obituary notice for the 1976 UUA Directory. Other appreciations of his life include James Luther Adams’s address at his memorial service, “Leslie T. Pennington: Minister of Living Democracy, 1899-1974,” and Herbert F. Vetter’s address for the same occasion, “In Memoriam: The Rev. Leslie T. Pennington.” On his role in convincing Eliot to seek the AUA presidency see Carol Morris, Frederick May Eliot, President of the American Unitarian Association (1937-1958), Boston University Graduate School, Ph.D. thesis (1970). For his ministry in Chicago consult Wallace P. Rusterholtz. “The First Unitarian Society of Chicago: A Brief History” (1979) and, for his community work there, see Julia Abrahamson, A Neighborhood Finds Itself (1971). For a view of Pennington in private life see John Updike, Self-Consciousness Memoirs (1989).

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted April 30, 2004