Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Handout 3: Scientific Salvation

Elite Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History

By Mark Harris

From Skinner House Books

Also available as an eBook.

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This reading is for multiple voices, a narrator, and several individuals who represent early 20th-century Unitarians and Universalists. Excerpted and adapted from Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History by Mark W. Harris (Boston, Skinner House, 2011). Used with permission.


From the earliest days of Unitarianism and Universalism, these traditions have advocated for the compatibility of science and religion. Both traditions encourage the use of reason, the search for truth, and the improvement of human nature and society through learning and the discoveries of science. Some, especially those called humanists, eschew Biblical revelation and supernaturalism and believe that science and technology will eventually solve all the major problems facing humankind.

At the end of the nineteenth century, many liberals saw hope in the new science of eugenics as it embodied a kind of evolutionary optimism. Many believed that the births of stronger, smarter, and even more attractive babies would signal the coming salvation of the world. In the ensuing decades prominent religious liberals ... became enthusiasts for eugenics. Their stories reflect our faith in science and how our hopes for a better world can engender gross violations of human freedoms and rights.

Reader 1

Unitarian Universalists today—who uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person as their first Principle—would be shocked to read the title of a book published in 1902 by the American Unitarian Association: The Blood of the Nation: A Study of the Decay of Races Through the Survival of the Unfit. The author was David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford and the most renowned ichthyologist (a zoologist who studies fish) in America.

During the early twentieth century, Jordan became the most sought-after speaker at Unitarian events. Between 1902 and 1916, he published nineteen books with the denominational imprint, Beacon Press. He was its most prolific author with most of his titles remaining on the Beacon backlist until the eve of World War II...

Jordan was a pacifist, raised in a Universalist household, but Jordan's pacifism was based on a belief that war is a biological evil: It kills off the physically and mentally fit and leaves behind the less fit. He declared that poverty, dirt, and crime produced poor human material. "It is not the strength of the strong but the weakness of the weak which engenders exploitation and tyranny," he wrote in The Heredity of Richard Roe. Weak people bring failure upon themselves and ultimately will bring failure on the nations they live in, if they are the ones who survive and reproduce. War, Jordan believed, robs the race of its most vital blood.

Reader 2

In 1924, a Virginia law aimed at the sterilization of "the unfit" to prevent the passing on of their genetic heritage was tested with the case of Carrie Buck. Carrie Buck was scheduled to be sterilized under the new law. She had been raised in foster care, been raped, become pregnant, and given birth all before the age of seventeen. She was considered part of a "shiftless, ignorant and worthless class." The judge ruled the operation should be done. Appeals eventually took it to the Supreme Court... Unitarians Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and William Howard Taft voted with the majority, upholding the ruling, with Holmes writing the decision.

Reader 3

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices... It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind... Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Reader 4

In the early twentieth century, progressives, including a number of Unitarians, were very enthusiastic about eugenics. ...Clergy inspected prospective couples for marriage to make sure they were normal physically and mentally. The great Unitarian activist John Haynes Holmes... encouraged his fellow ministers in the Liberal Ministers Association of New York to perform nothing but healthy marriages, for the conservation of the "normal" family, so that, in the interest of improving society, "defectives" did not propagate.

Reader 5

John Haynes Holmes wrote:

Nothing is more important, to my mind, in our modern treatment of the question of marriage, than to use our powers of social control to prevent many people from marrying—those, namely, whose marriage, for one reason or another, can be nothing but a tragedy.

Reader 6

When the Universalists passed their Declaration of Social Principles in 1917, its working program included the following: "We want to safeguard marriage so that every child shall be born with a sound physical, mental, and moral heritage."

Reader 7

Birth control or even sterilization were ways to control indiscriminate breeding. When Clarence Russell Skinner, the great Universalist social activist, published The Social Implication of Universalism, he declared:

The new enthusiasm for humanity readily pictures a time when through eugenics, education, friendship, play, worship, and work, the criminal will be no more, because the misdirection or the undevelopment of human nature will cease.

Reader 8

Throughout the United States, sermon contests were held on the subject of better breeding. Sponsored by the American Eugenics Society, the contests had a central theme, "Religion and Eugenics: Does the Church Have Any Responsibility for Improving the Human Stock?" One participant in 1928 was Homer Gleason of the First Universalist Church in Rochester, Minnesota. He wrote to the society:

Please allow me to add that I have greatly enjoyed my preparation for this work. I have thought for years that I was somewhat of a eugenist, but five months of intensive study have thoroughly convinced me. . . . Surely, this is a great cause.

These contests flourished between 1923 and 1930 when the society increased the popularity of eugenics with contests and competitions among "fitter families" at state fairs. To go along with the largest pigs or cows, the fairs had the most racially perfect families on display.

Reader 9

Many progressives were also organizing to restrict immigration of what they perceived as inferior peoples. They declared a need to preserve the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant heritage in the face of new lower classes of immigrants, especially those who were not Protestants.

Reader 10

Today it probably surprises us that some Unitarians and Universalists supported eugenics. We generally think our faith empowers us to speak for those who otherwise have no voice and to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. Yet the eugenics movement had about it, as Richard Hofstadter noted, the air of "reform."

Reader 11

Some Unitarians and Universalists later changed their positions on the practice of eugenics. In the wake of World War II, Clarence Russell Skinner gave voice to the realization that science had served "the ends of destruction." He said, "Our culture . . . has let science go where it will, serving heathen gods." In A Religion for Greatness, Skinner concluded that "we must come to grips with one of the great problems of our time: Will science freely lend itself to any form of evil which demands its service and pays its price?"