John E. Wood (July 30, 1910-June 15, 1980), Universalist and Unitarian Universalist minister and denominational official, played a significant part, first in preparing the way for the Unitarian-Universalist consolidation, and then in raising environmental consciousness within the Unitarian Universalist denomination.
John was born in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Ezra and Edith (Everett) Wood. Following Edith’s death a month later, Ezra remarried, and Madelyn (Hubbard) Wood assumed the role of mother; John thought of her as such throughout his life. The Woods were active Universalists. Later Madelyn served as president of the Women’s National Missionary Association, 1937-39, reincorporated as the Association of Universalist Women during her last year in office. John was brought up in the Universalist Church of the Messiah in New Haven, Connecticut during the pastorate of Dr. Theodore Fisher, who had a strong influence on him. He worked in the family awning business as a young man before deciding to prepare for the Universalist ministry. In 1934 John married Dorothy Harrington, his childhood sweetheart. The couple had three daughters, Shirley Boeheim, Nancy Bukaty, and Audrey Wakefield.
Entering Tufts College and its Crane Theological School, Wood received B.S. and S.T.B. degrees in 1940. That same year he was ordained at the Universalist church in Quincy, Massachusetts, which he had served as its student minister. Then began a series of settlements in Universalist churches: Brooklyn and Kingsley, Pennsylvania, 1940-43; Floral Park, Long Island, 1943-46 (a church that later merged to form the UU Congregation of Greater Nassau); Attleboro, Massachusetts, 1946-58; and Watertown, New York, 1958-65. He next served the Unitarian church in Bangor, Maine, and as summer minister at the Universalist Church in Round Pond, Maine, 1965-67, before becoming district executive of the UUA Central Midwest District in Chicago, Illinois, 1967-70.
Wood made significant denominational contributions. He played an important part in the long process leading to Unitarian-Universalist consolidation, first as chair of the Universalist commission exploring the possibility of merger in 1948, and then as chair of the joint commission recommending the formation of the Council of Liberal Churches (Universalist-Unitarian) in 1953 as a first step toward merger. For his role in this process, in 1954 Wood was awarded a D.D. degree by St. Lawrence University. Following consolidation in 1961 he served on the first executive committee of the newly-formed UU Ministers Association.
Although at first cautious in embracing change—he criticized the Humiliati‘s symbol of the off-center cross and Kenneth Patton‘s innovations at the Charles Street Meeting House—Wood was open-minded. Over the four decades of his ministry his theology evolved from Christian Universalism to “emergent one world” Universalism, and finally into an ecology-centered naturalism.
During the mid 1960’s Wood suffered through a period of lonely existentialism. “What has experience taught me? It has untaught me more than it has taught. Distillation [of it has left] the irreducible crud,” he wrote in 1966. “There is very little left from the soaring, wonderfilled faith of my boyhood or of my early (very early) ministry. My experience has been abrasive. . . . The tussel makes no objective sense—subjective, perhaps, but objective, no. . . . Each has his own especial perspective which is unique—absolutely unique. It is a lonely perspective where I alone stand. . . . I am sorry that life is so lonely, so senseless, so without purpose. I feel I ought to do something about it.”
In time Wood did do something about it. In 1970 John and Dorothy Wood established the Walters Ecological Experimental Station near Palermo, Maine, a pioneering effort to link liberal religious values to environmental concerns and a presager of the non-parochial ministries that were to blossom in the denomination some two decades later. In the process Wood developed an “ecological theology” to go with the station. For him the traditional idea of the “Universal Fatherhood of God” had evolved into the recognition that “everything is hooked onto everything else,” that of “just retribution for sin” into “there is no free lunch in nature,” and that of “universal salvation” into “nature recycles everything.” “All kind of marvelous things go on,” he wrote in 1973. “I don’t see how anyone who has looked, and seen, can do ought but say, ‘Where I stand, wherever I stand, I am on holy ground.'” And at another time, he declared, “Today, Nature deserves the same kind of reverence that we used to give to the Lord.”
The station succeeded in making contributions in both research and education, but after five years, to the couple’s great disappointment, was forced to close for lack of funding. Wood then returned to the parish ministry, serving three UU churches on an interim basis, 1975-78—first at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, then at Calgary, Alberta, and finally at Sherborn, Massachusetts, where he was voted minister emeritus .
In addition to being a minister and ecologist, Wood was a poet and a social activist. Some of his best poems appear in his Spiritual Embers, the 1952 Universalist lenten manual; others are scattered through denominational publications. Wood’s social activism took many forms. So many distressed people found shelter in the Attleboro parsonage that he and Dorothy were sometimes said to be “running a half-way house” there. During the Hungarian uprising in the mid-50s they shared their home with a Hungarian family for a year. Long concerned about racial issues, in 1953 Wood was instrumental in appointing Julius Scott as Director of Religious Education of the Attleboro church, perhaps the first African-American to hold such a position in either the Universalist or Unitarian denominations. Later, in 1965 he was among those jailed in Selma, Alabama during the civil rights demonstrations.
Following retirement, John and Dorothy made their home in Syracuse, New York, where he regularly attended Sunday services of the local UU churches and weekly meetings of the UU ministers group. He also continued active participation in the ministers group, Fraters of the Wayside Inn, of which he was a long time member. He died in Syracuse on June 15, 1980, Dorothy on January 12, 1981. Services for both of them were held at the First Universalist Church of Syracuse, with their ashes later scattered together in the St. Lawrence River.
Lines from one of Wood’s poems, “The Careless Candle,” well summarize his ministry:
A candle is a careless thing, God wot. See how it is always stretching up and reaching out. . . .
A candle must give itself away. In the giving, the spending, the spreading, the sending, it finds itself.
There is a proverb, “the spirit of him is the candle of the Lord.”
In the worship of my church let me learn to spend myself.
Material relating to Wood can be found at the Andover-Harvard theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts and in the archives of the Fraters of the Wayside Inn. Wood wrote a number of articles in the Christian Leader and the Universalist Leader, a pamphlet, “Charter of Our Faith” (1947), “The Power of the Fragile,” UUA Pipeline (February 1967), and other poems, sermons, and papers. The poem, “The Careless Candle,” first appeared in the Universalist lenten manual, Spiritual Embers (1952). It was reprinted in the Unitarian Universalist Association collection, To Meet the Asking Years (1984). The information in this article was partly based upon the personal acquaintance of the author and on material provided by Wood’s family. There are no other published biographies.
Article by Charles A. Howe
Posted January 18, 2002