Ratcliff, John Moses

John Moses Ratcliff
John Moses Ratcliff

John Moses Ratcliff (June 6, 1892-February 22, 1953), a Universalist minister, was Professor of Education and Religious Education at Tufts College, Dean of Tufts School of Religion, Secretary of the Universalist General Convention, and President of the General Sunday School Association.

John was born in the village of Greenup, Illinois to Thomas and Sarah (Reed) Ratcliff. His parents, active members of the local Universalist Church, were friends of Erasmus Manford, a prominent midwestern Universalist publisher and minister. Their enthusiasm for “the larger faith” influenced their son’s decision to enter the clergy. His vocation was tested and confirmed in conversations with Almira L. Cheney, who served the Greenup Circuit during his youth, and Lewis B. Fisher, Dean of the Ryder Divinity School. “The church,” Ratcliff wrote years later, “reminds me of all that I am and of all that I may become.”

Upon graduation from high school in 1913 Ratcliff entered the University of Chicago. While a student he served the Universalist Church in McHenry, Illinois, 1914-17. He was ordained there in 1915. During the summers he returned to southern Illinois to do missionary work. His long-time associate in the ministry, Emerson Hugh Lalone, observed that Ratcliff “was one of those rare personalities who could and did (for the most of his life) do two or three things at the same time and do them very well.”

In 1916, upon receiving his Bachelor of Philosophy degree, Ratcliff immediately entered the Universalist-founded Ryder Divinity School, then connected to the University of Chicago Divinity School. He received his A.M. degree from the University of Chicago in 1919. Meanwhile, he continued his parish work, serving as acting pastor of the Church of the Redeemer in Chicago in the spring of 1918 and serving the Macomb, Illinois church in early 1919. From July to December 1918 he directed one of the soldiers/sailors camps established during the First World War by the War Camp Community Service (WCCS). An agency of the United War Work Campaign, the WCCS provided service personnel with recreational outlets, fellowship, and moral support.

Ratcliff married (Elsie) Lucille Smith of Ringwood, Illinois in 1918. They had two daughters, Nadine and Roselyn. He served the Universalist church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 1919-21. He continued his practice of holding several posts at once. In 1919 he was a board member of the national Young Peoples Christian Union and worked for the General Sunday School Association. Both were Universalist organizations.

Ratcliff served Universalist churches in Rockland, Maine, 1921-24; Beverly (and nearby Essex), Massachusetts, 1924-29; and Charlestown, Massachusetts, 1929-36 (succeeding Roger Etz). Having these Boston area parishes allowed Ratcliff to further his studies. He took courses at Boston University, 1924-25, and at Columbia, 1925-26. A student at the Harvard University School of Education, 1926-34, he earned a Master of Education degree in 1928 and graduated with a Doctor of Education. Years later, in 1941, his Harvard professor, Walter Fenno Dearborn, used the material in Ratcliff’s thesis, “An analysis of results obtained from different intelligence tests and from repeated examinations with particular reference to the effect of practice,” and gave Ratcliff full credit as a collaborator in the landmark book, Predicting the Child’s Development.

At Harvard Ratcliff became friends with John P. Tilton, who was later to become Dean of the Graduate School at Tufts. “From the very beginning,” Tilton remembered, “we found much in common to share. We shared classes together and worked together on the Harvard Growth study project, which involved many trips to gather data in the towns and cities of Metropolitan Boston. . . . very early in our friendship I came to admire the way in which he had ordered his life to the minutest detail, and how his religion was a living reality to him and the basis of all of his values.”

Meanwhile Tufts College in 1927 had hired Ratcliff as an instructor in both its Department of Education and in its School of Religion (later to be called the Crane Theological School). In 1929 Tufts raised his rank to assistant professor and in 1939 to associate professor. In 1936 he resigned from the Charlestown church to become minister in Wakefield, Massachusetts, where he served two years. While here he developed the “Wakefield Plan,” 1938, which helped a church facing difficulties discover its hidden resources. He was Secretary of the Universalist General Convention, 1939-42, and Superintendent of the Massachusetts Universalist Convention, 1939-46. As Superintendent he applied his Wakefield Plan to a number of churches needing revitalization. During these busy years he also served as secretary, 1928-31, and president, 1931-35, of the General Sunday School Association. In 1941 he wrote for the Sunday School quarterly, the Universalist Helper, an adult church school text, Lifting Life to a Religious Level.

In 1945 Clarence Russell Skinner retired as Dean of the Tufts School of Religion. Although Tufts President Leonard Carmichael considered that Ratcliff lacked the necessary “professorial caliber” he nevertheless appointed Ratcliff to replace him. To this job Ratcliff devoted all his energy, declaring that “If the curriculum of theological education can be made adequate, there will be a constant flowing of strength to every community in America, which will be felt in solving the most serious world problems and in building the quality of life which is required for producing a world society.”

The School of Religion, with almost no endowment, had only one full-time and one half-time faculty member and a number of part-time teachers who taught one course per year. After four years as dean Ratcliff was able to add only one more full-time faculty member. After the 1951 destruction by fire of Fisher Hall, the main building of the Universalist St. Lawrence Theological School, Ratcliff favored merging the two schools. St. Lawrence voted instead to rebuild Fisher Hall. When Tufts in 1952 initiated a major fund raising drive to celebrate its second century it completely ignored the needs of the School of Religion. The School, therefore, launched its own $250,000 fund drive. Universalist donors were unable to meet this goal.

Ratcliff and Carmichael disagreed over fundamental policy. Carmichael felt that the School of Religion should be a professional graduate school, admitting only students with an undergraduate degree. Ratcliff favored continuing to allow undergraduates to work for a combined A.B. and S.T.B. degree and admitting students who wished to pursue religious studies, regardless of their academic background or professional potential. In the end Carmichael’s vision prevailed and Ratcliff started the process to convert the Tufts School of Religion into a fully academic graduate school. He did not live to oversee this transformation. After a brief illness he died at the age of sixty.


One of his students, the Rev. Phillip A. Smith, commented that Ratcliff “saw potentials few others had seen and helped the student to realize those potentials” and remembered that “he unhesitatingly took money from his own pocket to pay the expenses of one of his students who would have been unable to finish the year.” A memorial service was held on the campus at Goddard Chapel, attended by over three hundred people.


Ratcliff’s Unitarian Universalist Association file is at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library of Harvard University. Material on the Crane Theological School is in the Tufts University Archives. Among his writings are “A Case Study in Discovering and Developing the Resources of a Church,” Christian Leader (May 8, 1937); “What the Church Means to Me,” Tufts Papers on Religion A Symposium (1939); and Lifting Life to a Religious Level: Studies in Religious Faith and Experiences (1941). For the story of Ratcliff’s period as Dean see Russell E. Miller, “A History of Universalist Theological Education,” The Proceedings of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society (1984). For an appreciation of his life see Emerson Hugh Lalone, “John M. Ratcliff, Educator, Friend,” Universalist Leader (April, 1953) and John P. Tilton, “John M. Ratcliff, A Tribute from a Friend,” delivered at the memorial service. There is an entry in Who Was Who in America, volume 3. For background information on the Crane Theological School see Sol Gittleman, An Entrepreneurial University: The Transformation of Tufts, 1976-2002 (2004).

Article by Alan Seaberg
Posted January 25, 2005