The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was established in 1938 as a special investigating committee of the House of Representatives, and after World War II became a standing committee of the House. Originally intended to investigate people who may have been involved in Nazi or Klu Klux Klan activities, HUAC became better known for its pursuit of those who were suspected of being members of the Communist Party and sympathetic "fellow travelers" of Communists. It was abolished in 1975.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, anti-Communist sentiment was at a peak. This was the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy, blacklisting, and the infamous Hollywood Ten (members of the film industry who received prison sentences for refusing to cooperate with the Committee). During this time, the Rev. Stephen Fritchman had two encounters with HUAC.
In October of 1946, Rev. Fritchman was serving as the editor of The Christian Register, the official publication of the American Unitarian Association. He had already come under fire for giving the Register a bent, which many found pro-Communist. He was outspoken in his dislike of HUAC and had authored a letter for a mass appeal for funds to campaign for the abolition of the Committee. He was subpoenaed to appear before the Committee on October 23 and testify under oath. He was asked about his attitude toward Communists, Communist organizations, and "Communist-front" organizations. Fritchman told the Committee he was not in close communication with any of these and that he resented the question.
Five years later, Fritchman was called before HUAC a second time, after he had been ousted as editor of the Register and while he was serving as the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. This time, Fritchman was prepared to "take the Fifth" and be considered an uncooperative witness. This meant risking a year of jail time for being in contempt of Congress. During his interview, he was asked to repeat the names of the Trustees of the Church, to describe the organizations who had rented space at the church, and to identify certain people who the Committee suspected of Communist affiliations. Finally, Fritchman was asked point blank if he was a member of the Communist Party. In a response that created much controversy in Unitarian circles, Fritchman refused to answer one way or another.
This lack of a denial caused years of speculation within the Unitarian establishment. Although Fritchman referred to his 1947 testimony as his definitive statement about his lack of ties to Communist groups, his unwillingness to give a clear "No" to this question was fodder for his critics and those who believed Communism was a dangerous ideology and a threat to freedom. While many Unitarian leaders deplored the actions and activities of HUAC, they also opposed Communism on moral and religious grounds and were uncomfortable with Fritchman's position and action.