Reese, Curtis

Curtis Williford Reese

Curtis Williford Reese (September 3, 1887-June 5, 1961) was an educator, administrator, social activist, journalist, and Unitarian minister. He was a founder and president of the American Humanist Association, Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference (WUC), and Dean of the Abraham Lincoln Centre, an integrated social and educational community organization in Chicago. An editor of Unity, he wrote influential books on religious humanism and helped prepare the 1933 Humanist Manifesto.

Curtis was born in Madison County, North Carolina to Rachel Elizabeth (Buckner) and Patterson Reese, the latter a farmer and merchant. He was educated in the public schools and raised in his parents’ Southern Baptist faith. His father was a deacon. Several of his ancestors had been or were clergymen. When he turned nine, after publicly accepting Christ as his personal savior, he was baptized. A few years later he received a call to become a preacher.

Reese’s preparatory theological education was at the Baptist College, Mars Hill, North Carolina, from which he graduated in 1908. Ordained in the Southern Baptist ministry by the Mars Hill Baptist Church, he went to Geneva, Alabama where his brother, Pastor T. O. Reese, arranged for him to be the summer supply preacher at the nearby rural parish at Bellwood. He then enrolled at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. To pay his expenses he served half-time two small churches, at Gratz and Pleasant Home, Kentucky.

In 1910 Reese graduated from the Seminary and became the State Evangelist for the five hundred churches that made up the Illinois State Baptist Association. At the same time he undertook further study at Ewing College, in Ewing, Illinois, receiving in 1911 a Ph.B. degree. “During the years as State Evangelist,” he wrote in his unpublished autobiography, “my heresies, which had begun even during my seminary days, due to the impact of Higher Criticism, began to grow apace.”

That same year Reese accepted a call to the First Baptist Church in Tiffin, Ohio, believing it to be a liberal Northern Baptist group. There, he found that while he was able to preach what he believed he was unable “to say what I did not believe.” It became clear to him that if he were to remain in ministry he would need to join a denomination whose views were compatible with his own.

Reese considered the Universalists and the Christians, but in the end decided on Unitarianism. While at seminary he had studied some of their tracts and had been acquainted with the social gospel writings of Francis Greenwood Peabody. He visited with the minister of the Toledo Unitarian Church, George E. MacIllwan, and then conferred with Ernest C. Smith, the Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference (WUC). As a result he became minister of the Unitarian Church in Alton, Illinois, 1913-15.

In 1913 he married Fay Rowlett Walker, whom he had met while he was at the Pleasant Home Church five years earlier. They had three children.

At this time Reese described his religious views as “(1) a Universal Father, God, (2) a Universal brotherhood, mankind, (3) a Universal right, freedom, (4) a Universal motive, love, and (5) a Universal aim, progress.” To implement this faith, he developed a strong and active commitment to the idea of social justice for all. During his two years at Alton he inspired his fellow religious leaders to eliminate gaming houses and brothels from their community. The result was the election of a new mayor on a “clean-up ticket.”

Reese next served the First Unitarian Church in Des Moines, Iowa, 1915-19. There again he emphasized the social gospel. The church arranged chaperoned dances for miltary personnel at nearby Fort Hood. It also took on the task of improving sub-standard housing. With the support of local political leaders, and finally of the governor, Reese lobbied successfully for the passage of a state housing bill. When it was made law, he was appointed the state’s first Housing Commissioner. He undertook this task in addition to his parish responsibilities.

In 1919 Reese left parish ministry to serve as Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference, 1919-30. The Conference, which had been founded in 1852, had its headquarters in Chicago. His chief administrative duty was to supply churches with ministers appropriate to their views and needs. As Secretary he was also able to play a helpful role in several other Midwestern Unitarian organizations. He was a trustee of the Meadville Theological School, 1920-33 (and later 1940-44 and 1947-61). The school, then in Meadville, Pennsylvania, was considering relocation to a large urban center. Reese arranged the finances for it to move to Chicago in 1926 and initiated a working association with the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. Later he persuaded Morton D. Hull, who had already donated funds to Meadville, to underwrite construction of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, across the street from the school. Meadville honored him with the D.D. in 1927.

During 1928-29 Reese assumed the temporary presidency of the financially struggling Universalist-founded Lombard College in Galesburg, Illinois. Although he brought his Unitarian connections to bear, the Great Depression doomed the college’s independent survival. Lombard was eventually absorbed by Knox College. Its Ryder Divinity School, since 1912 based in Chicago, and its college charter, were transferred to Meadville, which is now the Meadville/Lombard Theological School.

During this period Reese served as a trustee of the American Unitarian Association (AUA), 1919-30 (he served again 1947-50), was executive chair of the National Federation of Religious Liberals, and was an official delegate from the WUC to the London celebration in 1925 of the 100th anniversary of the British Unitarian Association. In 1929, while on a trip around the world, he represented the AUA at the centennial celebration of Brahmo Samaj and gave several warmly-received addresses on religion at the University of Calcutta.

During the 1920s Reese emerged as a leader of religious humanism. He preached his first strictly humanist sermon in 1916 and explored the subject with Minneapolis minister John Dietrich at the next year’s WUC meetings. In his 1920 address to the Harvard Summer School for Ministers, “The Content of Present-Day Religious Liberalism” (shortly afterward published by Unity and The Christian Register), he questioned “the Judaic-Christian tradition” and “the theistic basis of religion.” Many at the gathering were outraged. From this point on the issue came to dominate religious discussion within Unitarian circles.

In 1925 Reese joined the Board of the Unity Publishing Company in Chicago and became one of the associate editors of its periodical Unity. This magazine, devoted to radical reform and correcting social wrongs, carried on its masthead the motto: Freedom, Fellowship and Character in Religion. Later he was managing editor, 1933-44, and editor, 1945-1961. Over the decades Unity printed many of his articles on humanism. His writings were also regularly published in The Christian Register, The Humanist, The New Humanist, and Open Court.

In The Meaning of Humanism, 1931, he wrote: “The trend in modern religious developments is away from the transcendent, the authoritative, the dogmatic, and toward the human, the experimental, the tentative; away from the abnormal, the formal, the ritualistic; and toward the normal, the informal, the usual; away from the extraordinary mystic expression, the exalted mood, the otherworldly; and toward the ethical, the social and the worldly; away from religion conceived as one of man’s concerns, and toward religion conceived as man’s one concern.”

In 1933 humanist thinking was epitomized in the Humanist Manifesto, 1933, signed by several Unitarian ministers as well as by prominent scholars and philosophers. Reese contributed to its composition. The manifesto stressed that theism is “past”, that the universe is “self-existing and not created,” that the “traditional dualism of mind and body must be rejected”, and that religion “must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method.”

In 1930 Reese resigned as WUC Secretary to devote himself full-time to being the Dean (director) of the Abraham Lincoln Centre, 1930-57. He had been called Dean since 1926 but his earlier relationship had been nominal. The Centre, founded in 1905 by Jenkin Lloyd Jones, had been an outgrowth of Jones’s Chicago parish, the Church of All Souls. It owned a six-story building that included a gym, living space for the Dean, classrooms, office space for Unity, and a local branch of the Public Library. A racially integrated organization from the start, it sponsored a variety of programs including classes, a forum, music, art, dramatic training, a planned parenthood clinic, a counseling clinic, and a summer camp for youngsters in Clear Lake, Wisconsin. By 1951 it served the needs of 140,000 children and adults. Reese described the Centre in The Christian Register as “a social center at the heart of which was a spiritual message and program. A social ‘settlement’ is a group of persons living within a district which they hope to improve by means of their exemplary life and habits. Lincoln Centre aimed to be the living embodiment of the best ideals of the people who composed the district—a co-operative experiment in righteous living.”

Throughout his professional life Reese was active in many social and educational causes. He served on a Juvenile Court Committee of the Chicago chapter of the American Association of Social Workers, taught in the education departments of George Williams College and the central Y.M.C.A. College, was on the board of the Chicago Adult Education Committee and chair of the editorial board of Religious Education, 1932-34. He was one of the editors of the joint 1937 Unitarian and Universalist hymnbook, Hymns of the Spirit; a regional vice-president of the AUA, 1940-45; president of the WUC, 1939-53; a board member of the Unitarian Service Committee; and a member of the Council of Liberal Churches, 1955-59. In 1941 he helped to establish the American Humanist Association and was its first president, 1941-54. In 1959 the AUA honored him with its annual award for outstanding service to the cause of liberal religion.

Reese retired after a heart attack in 1957. He and his wife went to live in Kissimmee, Florida. He died in 1961 while in Chicago attending a meeting of the board of trustees of the Meadville/Lombard Theological School. A memorial service was held at the First Unitarian Church in Chicago.


For biographical information see Reeses’s AUA ministerial file at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His unpublished autobiography “My Life Among the Unitarians” (1961), is at the Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago, Illinois. He wrote Humanism (1926) and The Meaning of Humanism (1945) and edited Humanist Sermons (1927) and Friedrich Nietzsche by George Burman Foster (1931).

Helpful studies are Charles H. Lyttle Freedom Moves West A History of the Western Unitarian Conference 1852-1952 (1952); Mason Olds, American Religious Humanism (rev. ed., 1996) [see especially chapter 5 “Curtis H. Reese: The Statesman of Religious Humanism.” Olds also provides an extensive Reese bibliography]; and William F. Schulz, Making the Manifesto: the Birth of Religious Humanism (2002). See also: Margaret Carleton Winston, This Circle of Earth: The Story of John H. Dietrich (1942); Billy J. Nicholas, The Life and Thought of Curtis W. Reese (unpublished paper written at the Meadville Theological School, 1965); Mark W. Harris, Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism (2004); David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985) and “Curtis Williford Reese,” in American National Biography (1999); and Who Was Who in America, v. 4 (1962-68). There is an obituary in the Unitarian Register and Universalist Leader (Mid-summer 1961).

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted August 15, 2005