Rice, William

William RiceWilliam Brooks Rice (May 12, 1905-February 22, 1970), a Unitarian Universalist minister, was the chair of the Universalist and Unitarian Joint Merger Commission. An able negotiator, he was later recognized as “the chief architect” of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, William was the son of Jennie Brooks and architect Walter E. Rice. He graduated from East Boston High in 1922. While studying there he worked part-time as a library assistant for the Boston Public Library. He attended Universalist Sunday School and, as a teenager, was active in Unitarian young people’s activities. He was treasurer and director of their national organization, the Young People’s Religious Union (YPRU).

After graduation Rice worked for ten years as a draftsman in the office of R. Clipson Sturgis, a prominent Boston architect. He took night courses at the Boston Architectural Club (now College). Meanwhile he continued to participate in the YPRU and served as director of education at the Church of the Disciples in Boston. These activities led to his meeting Unitarian Elizabeth S. Lindsey, a graduate of Radcliffe College, who was the YPRU Field Secretary and a teacher at the Church of the Disciples. They were married in 1931 at Star Island, a Unitarian summer conference center off the coast of New Hampshire. They had two boys, born in 1934 and 1938.

By 1932 Rice had decided to become a minister. With Elizabeth’s consent and support he enrolled in a six-year course at the Tufts College School of Religion, which enabled him to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees at the same time. An excellent student—he was president of the Tufts Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa—Rice graduated in 1938 with a B.A., magna cum laude, and an S.T.D. To support his family while a student he served the Unitarian Church in Francestown, New Hampshire, 1933-34; the First Parish Church, Unitarian, Dover, Massachusetts, 1934-35; and The Dover Church, 1935-45.

When Rice first went to the Unitarian church in Dover, his task was to breathe new life into an inactive organization. This he accomplished, in part by uniting it with the struggling local Evangelical Congregational church. The two societies, which had always been close in thought, voted to try a three-year union as “The Dover Church.” Accepted by both denominations for ordination, Rice was ordained and installed at the Dover Church in 1935. Clarence Russell Skinner, Dean of the School of Religion at Tufts, delivered the sermon and Rice’s friend Dana McLean Greeley, whom he had met through the YPRU, gave the prayer of ordination. Later, in 1939, the Universalist Church also granted him fellowship.

Rice immediately set about building up the church’s membership and enlarging its programming. Under his leadership the new Dover Church flourished. Its historian observed that Rice brought to it “fresh vigor and enthusiasm” and concluded that his ten years there gave “a firm foundation to the union of the churches.”

Rice became a member of the Dover Planning Board, was chair of The Dover Forum, 1938-39, and served on the town’s volunteer fire department. In addition, he served as part-time Chaplain at the Framingham Reformatory for Women, 1941-43, and was Protestant Chaplain at the Charles Street Jail in Boston, 1943-69. He was also active in denominational affairs. In 1939 he served on a committee to appraise the effectiveness of the Tufts School of Religion and was a member of the Study Commission of the Department of Education of the American Unitarian Association (AUA). In 1941 he represented the Unitarian Ministerial Union on the AUA Board of Directors. He chaired both the AUA Committee on the Ministry and its Fellowship Committee.

Although he was a pacifist and a president of the Unitarian Pacifist Fellowship, during the Second World War Rice was chair of the Unitarian Chaplains Committee and a member of the Executive Committee of the General Commission of Army and Navy Chaplains in Washington, D.C.

Rice accepted the call of the Unitarian Society Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. He was installed in 1945. Frederick May Eliot, the AUA president, delivered the sermon. His enthusiasm and energy, as the church noted at its 1956 annual meeting, “attracted new families to our common enterprise” and “restored to many among us a vital religious belief” in “a reasonable faith.” In 1955, as a prelude to the construction of a new sanctuary (completed in 1960), the Society purchased a building for offices and meeting rooms and named it “Rice House.”

In 1948, with the assistance of Dr. Erich Lindemann of the Massachusetts General Hospital and the support of the Grant Foundation, Rice co-founded and became chair of the Wellesley Human Relations Committee, which instituted a community psychiatric service. In 1951 Tufts College awarded him an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree for bringing “the insight and power of modern psychiatry to the service of your church and your community.” He was a Trustee of the Wellesley Free Library, 1949-54. In one contested election he defeated a member of his own church who was associated with the conservative John Birch Society. As in Dover, he was a volunteer fireman at Wellesley.

William RiceRice was Chair of the Joint Merger Commission of the Universalist Church of America (UCA) and the AUA, 1956-60. He devoted much of his time, for four years, to the Commission. He himself had come to advocate the consolidated UUA because he felt that one “would be hard put to spell out any clear difference between Unitarians as a whole and Universalists as a whole.” He hosted the meetings, did the necessary research, and prepared the reports. He facilitated discussions, making sure that both denominations received equal respect and that all differences between them were addressed. He gathered information and opinions from the many congregations and kept them abreast of developments in committee deliberations. When he encountered procedural obstacles, his insistence overcame all technicalities. His thoroughness and careful, sensitive advocacy made it possible for the various churches to vote overwhelmingly in favor of consolidation. Raymond Hopkins, who served as secretary of the Merger Commission, observed that, “without Bill’s reputation, leadership, commitment, and determination, consolidation never would have happened.”

In 1961 Rice ran for election as the first president of the UUA against his friend, Dana McLean Greeley, then president of the AUA. The two candidates had differing visions of the kind of leadership needed by the denomination. While Greeley advocated a strong presidency, Rice believed in the shared leadership plan voted at consolidation, which divided responsibility between the president and the moderator. In a close election Greeley prevailed. Although disappointed, Rice continued to serve the UUA, believing that “the liberal church is the only church which can speak to our troubled age with courage and effectiveness.” He became a Trustee of the St. Lawrence Foundation for Religious Education. In 1963 he was appointed to the UUA Commission on Religion and Race. He was instrumental in establishing its Freedom Fund.

In 1960 the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California awarded Rice an honorary degree, Scientiae Theologicae Doctoris, for his work on behalf of the consolidation, his skills “in the arts of the parish ministry,” his pulpit eloquence, and his “personal integrity.” In 1964 the UUA gave him its highest honor, the Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism.

Rice died suddenly at 64 while he was at his summer home in Francestown, New Hampshire. He had planned to retire there within a few months. A private funeral service was held in Francestown and a memorial service at the Wellesley Hills Unitarian Society. His congregation remembered him as “our minister, our friend, our Bill, our Dr. Rice.”

Rice’s papers, 1927-70, his UUA Ministerial File, the UUA Presidential Campaign Committee Records, 1960-1961, and the pictures of Rice are at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, the Harvard Divinity School, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The latter are used with the kind permission of the library. There are brief biographies in David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985) and in Mark W. Harris, Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism (2004). Obituaries are in The Boston GlobeBoston Herald, and Record-American (February 23, 1970), and in the Unitarian Universalist World (March 15, 1970). For an overview on Unitarian Universalist consolidation, see Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope: The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1870-1970 (1985) and Raymond C. Hopkins, “Recollections, 1944-1974: The Creation of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Administrations of Dana Greeley and Robert West,” Journal of Unitarian and Universalist History (2007). For further information on the contested 1961 UUA Presidential Election, see Joseph Barth, “Contests for the Presidency: A.U.A., 1958—U.U.A., 1961,” Proceedings of the Unitarian Historical Society (1964) and Dana McLean Greeley, 25 Beacon Street (1971). See also A Brief History of The Dover Church in Dover, Massachusetts (1963) and Morton M. Hunt, “The Wellesley Experiment, A Pioneer Undertaking in Psychiatry for the Community,” Harper’s Magazine (July 1953).

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted January 11, 2008