"A Humanist Manifesto" - The Beginning
Raymond B. Bragg, as the associate editor of The New Humanist, initiated the project that resulted in the 1933 publication of "A Humanist Manifesto." In a letter dated February 17, 1970, reminiscing about the early stages, Bragg wrote: "The fact is that my job as Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference allowed me to move about to see people and to talk with them. It was a convenient post under the circumstances."
As he traveled about on his work for the conference, a number of people urged him to issue a definitive statement about humanism. Bragg writes in the same letter:
The fact is that in academia there was fear of a merely journalistic or promotional approach. I can remember a crass example of commercialism with a man named Howard Kraus, who appeared in Minneapolis and wanted to promote humanism on a commission basis-much the same as the Ku Klux Klan had been promoted. Harold Buschman responded to Klaus' proposal by remarking, "That stinks!" Raymond Bragg also remembered being visited by Kraus at his Chicago office. "He talked about promoting humanism by endorsing various commodities, including contraceptives," Bragg recalled.
We may judge that fear of a shallow, unethical, or insensitive approach by someone was no small part of the motivation that led Bragg and others to start the project. Within the humanist movement, there was none of the drive or opportunism of the fundamentalist spell-binders described by Alan Bestic in Praise the Lord and Pass the Contribution. The televangelists of the 1980s had their prototypes from some years before.
When Raymond Bragg undertook the organizing of "A Humanist Manifesto," he was only thirty years old. He had been educated at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where there was a Unitarian geology professor who was successfully opening his students' eyes to the primacy of scientific inquiry. Having explored Unitarianism himself, Bragg decided to enter the theological school at Meadville, Pennsylvania. In 1926, he moved with the school to Chicago, where he became exposed to humanism under the tutelage of Dr. A. Eustace Haydon, Curtis Reese, and others. Bragg graduated from Meadville in 1928 and went on to a two-year ministry in Evanston, Illinois. He then moved back to Chicago to take the post as secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference.
Further recollections of the start of the project are found in a letter from Dr. Bragg to Dr. A. E. Haydon, dated March 3, 1971:
To be fair, it should be stated that I did not fully share these apprehensions about Charles Francis Potter. After years in Unitarian churches, Dr. Potter gave his time and effort for still more years to lecturing at the First Humanist Society of New York without recompense; he earned his living by lecturing and writing-no small achievement. On occasion he protested to me against being considered a popularizer just because he could write so that the layperson could understand him. My respect for him grew with years of association, and before Potter died, he pointed to a shelf of books and documents and told his wife Clara "not to let anyone touch them until Ed Wilson took what he wanted for his library." Moreover, Potter cooperated fully with the project Bragg initiated and gave helpful advice on press releases and other publicity. By indicating that Dr. Potter was a catalyst, building fires under the meticulous academic men and stirring them to action, no disrespect is intended for his memory nor lack of appreciation for his unquestioned and unique contribution to the humanist movement. He put humanism in the headlines before "A Humanist Manifesto" was written.
Twenty years after the publication of the manifesto, Bragg wrote "An Historical Note," which appeared in the March/April 1953 issue of The Humanist as part of a symposium. He said:
Interestingly, in the March 3, 1971, letter to Dr. Haydon, Bragg remembered it this way:
Dr. Sellars was asked and, using the foundation of his work, the collating of views and editing was begun. As time passed and with aging, Dr. Sellars began to believe that he had single-handedly produced "A Humanist Manifesto." In fact, his initial draft was the basis of much input, editing, and revision, ending with a consensus declaration.
The authorship of "A Humanist Manifesto" has frequently been debated. As noted, Dr. Sellars is often credited. After all the editing of successive versions, enough remained of its original substance to permit Dr. Sellars to recognize himself in the document. (And most certainly Dr. Sellars was among the earliest religious liberals to use the term humanist, which appears in the last chapter of his book, The Next Step in Religion.) However, Sellars was but a principal of many minds forming the consensus of "A Humanist Manifesto."
In a letter he wrote to me in 1970, Dr. Bragg noted:
Unfortunately, the original draft may be irretrievably lost. There were, however, nearly fifty archival drawers of material, including dossiers on everyone prominently connected with that new movement. In one of the drawers, we found, attached to a vitae of Dr. Sellars listing his books through 1933 but otherwise undated, what may be the outline of the talk Sellars gave at the University of Chicago when Bragg first approached him about the project-or it may be the first draft of the manifesto. We sent a copy to Dr. Sellars in 1970 asking if he could recall which it was. Our correspondence reached him at an Ann Arbor nursing home. At the age of ninety-one, his eyes were weakening and he had to use a cane to get about and could no longer care for himself. However, he claimed that his mind was unaffected and wrote:
The conviction that he had personally written and circulated "A Humanist Manifesto" appeared in correspondence and conversations with Dr. Sellars during his advanced years while we were seeking a copy of the original draft. On July 7, 1970, he replied from Ann Arbor:
On another occasion, Dr. Sellars wrote:
Making allowance for age and the difficulties of recollecting a process that took place forty years before, we can state with some assurance that probably Dr. Sellars was not fully aware of the extent to which revision by others took place. When one considers that much younger men proved completely forgetful of the circumstances surrounding the Humanist Fellowship and its fate-not to mention the fact their experience with The New Humanist completely escaped their memories-one can understand Dr. Sellars' foggy memory of the considerable editing that produced the final document.
Twenty years after publication of "A Humanist Manifesto," Dr. Auer of Harvard University, a most meticulous church historian, wrote in a letter dated March 3, 1953:
As we shall see, both Sellars and Auer had it partly wrong. Sellars wrote the first draft, probably-according to Raymond Bragg-using as background notes from a lecture on the nature of value which he gave about that time at the University of Chicago. In the March 3, 1971, letter, Bragg wrote to Professor Haydon:
Beyond all the debate and discussion over the authorship of "A Humanist Manifesto," the point remains that Dr. Sellars contributed heavily to its formation. He was one of the steady workers for religious humanism, and a study of his book, The Next Step in Religion, secures in larger context his contribution to the production of the manifesto. Sellars wrote at least ten books on religion; he worked out a systematic, philosophic system of his own; and he made the ideal of evolutionary naturalism (the title of one of his books) central to his religious views. Moreover, in the same issue of The New Humanist in which "A Humanist Manifesto" appeared, Sellars published an article interpretive of religious humanism. Two issues later, he answered criticism of the manifesto by the Reverend George R. Dodson of St. Louis.
Copyright © 1995 by Humanist Press, a division of the American Humanist Association, 7 Harwood Drive, P.O. Box 1188, Amherst, NY 14226-7188. (Phone 1-800-743-6646 or 1-716-839-5080.) All rights reserved. This book may be downloaded for personal use only. Otherwise, no part of it may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means - electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise - without the written permission of Humanist Press. The hard copy edition is available from the above address.
|Top of Page|