On May 15, 1876, in New York City, twenty-five-year-old Felix Adler delivered the founding address for Ethical Culture, laying out his argument and design for a new movement that would modernize religion, ethicize philosophy, and commit its members to affirming the infinite worth of every man, woman, and child.
For the 130th anniversary, we will revisit the Founding Address, translating it where necessary into modern understanding, and see how well it has held up and what inspiration and direction it offers our still-moving movement. This will be the inauguration of an annual Founders Day, a day on which Ethical Societies across the country recall our roots, celebrate our individual Society’s history and people, and consider our legacy as the founders of the future.
“Diversity in the creed, unanimity in the deed!” Felix Adler, Founding Address
A very free and idiosyncratic re-wording by Kate Lovelady, Leader of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, of the Founding Address by Felix Adler, May 15, 1876, New York Society for Ethical Culture. read the original address.
For a long time now, people have suspected that–without meaning offense to traditional religious institutions–Sundays might be used for a better purpose than they are now. They might even be used to advance the general good. During the past few years this suspicion has become an urgent conviction, and those who feel passionately about this purpose have brought us together today.
So brave a cause as moral progress can only succeed with the help of many, and so you are here. My task is to explain, as frankly and plainly as I can, our ideal goals and our great plans. We are about to set out on an untrodden path that will take our lives in a new direction, so let us begin by looking at the health and happiness of both our public and our private worlds.
We would seem to live in a golden age, having left behind so much ignorance and brutality and having achieved unimagined technological progress, comfort, even luxury. Yet our technology also has made possible unimagined evil, and our relations with each other seem to lag far behind our intellectual and economic progress. The old faiths have fallen before new knowledge; doubt spreads even in places where it is forbidden to speak of it. The foundation of our morality has been the old faiths, and as that foundation has crumbled so has our understanding of our obligations to each other as members of the human family—our understanding of every person as sacred. In our anxiety and our greed we sacrifice what should be most precious, and we sell the possibility of a better future for short-term gain.
I do not wish to imply that personal or national wealth is necessarily immoral. It is usually easier to pursue happiness in a rich country than in an impoverished one, and millions have come to America for a better life. But as we diminish our pursuit of happiness to a mere pursuit of personal wealth and comfort, we diminish ourselves and we forget life’s greater causes and meanings. We have already lost much of a sense of meaningfulness in life; we are rudderless ships tossing on economic tides, each of us absorbed in the race of competition or in simply remaining upright. And when we make it to harbor, we find our home fires barely burning. We come home at night tired, perhaps to tired children and a tired partner, with our minds still at work. We are pulled between our jobs and our relationships and our families, and more and more often something breaks. Being a partner and a parent requires a commitment of time and attention, as well as inner resources that can only be developed with time and attention. More and more we trust in strangers to care for and educate our children. We spend our days in the frenzied pursuit of money and our so-called leisure time in the frenzied pursuit of shallow and fleeting pleasures. Our only true joy is in music—the divine comforter that wordlessly speaks of an ideal beauty and harmony far transcending our prosy life.
The great and crying evil of modern society is want of purpose, a narrowness of vision that shuts out the wider vistas of the soul, the absence of the inspiration that consecrates existence. We keep so busy that we may not feel wanting. But there comes a time of rude awakening. We lose a job, a home, we lose a loved one. In such hours, what is to keep us from despair, if not the deeply held and developed conviction that humanity has a great and unselfish work to perform, independent even of comfort, yet work in which we will find our true solace, our enduring reward?
Our private concerns also have a wider effect, because our homes are the roots of the nation, and when they are weakened, the fruit that is our public integrity rots on the vine.
This is the 100th anniversary of our nation. General Washington once declared, “The national policy would be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality,” and he appealed to the wisdom and integrity of the founders to safeguard our nation. If he were here today, he would find on his doorstep each morning a new story of corruption and perjury. Our highest offices contain the worst offenders, and America hangs her head in shame before the nations! And for what have these miserable men and women sold their honor and that of the people? For more riches to heap on an already obscene pile. Reformers suggest new laws or regulations, but how can they succeed when the lawmakers and law-enforcers are themselves corrupt? All reform will fail unless the source of the corruption is addressed, unless conscience is awoken, the confusion of right and wrong made clear, and the higher purposes of our being brought powerfully home to the hearts of all people.
And beyond the need for greater well-being in our private and public lives, what of those who will inherit the future we build? What shall we do for them? Shall we let them go forth into this world of sorrow and confusion and dead-end temptations, without even an effort to help them? We work and struggle to give our children a better life as measured by money and possessions. What do we do to help them live a more joyful, meaningful, ethical life? To help them create a world not founded on greed and inequality? To help them be true men and noble women who can meet all challenges because they believe in the destiny and the dignity of humankind? What do we do? We teach them to repeat some scattered verses of the Bible, some doctrine they can hardly comprehend; and then at the age when doubt begins to arise and grope toward the light, we send them out to fend for themselves. Do you believe that they are magic charms, these empty words you teach your children?
Many have said that the most important qualities of childhood—innocence and wonder—are disappearing; that respect for parents has become old-fashioned. A generation ago we had great hopes for the future. Have those hopes been fulfilled? Has the passive wonder of those children grown into active idealism? We have sown the seeds of long neglect, of hopes and promises abandoned. Change must come, and it can be brought about only by our combined efforts.
We live in a society with a division of labor: builders build our houses, bakers bake our bread. Most of us focus on one calling or career, and we have specialists in every field and endeavor. We entrust our children’s intellectual education to teachers who specialize in different areas of knowledge. Why should we assume, then, that the moral education of our children, the highest object of parenthood, can be achieved in the odd hours between more important activities? Society needs specialists in the moral education of children, people who will throw all their energy and passion, their hearts and minds, into this difficult but noble work.
The past speaks to us in a thousand voices; great thinkers warn and comfort and stir us to action, if we can hear them. The future also speaks; it calls us to prepare its way. Dare we fail to answer?
For all these purposes, we propose to unite in community, to set apart one day of the week to repair the wasted energies of body and mind, to remind each other that more profound relations between people are possible. We choose Sunday, for the practical reason that it is currently the only day of rest from business. Ancient traditions have chosen other days to meet, and had the labor laws chosen a different day of rest we would accept any one of them equally. The name of the day is unimportant. We are concerned only with the opportunity it offers. How others see fit to spend this day is not our affair, and if others misinterpret our choice to meet on Sunday, the practical work we achieve will quickly dispel their ideas. Some have argued that Sunday should be reserved for private time with family. While we respect this idea, we believe that an hour spent in serious reflection will not infringe upon our families but rather enrich all aspects of our lives, and add zest to all our joys.
Our meetings will be simple, and free from all formal ceremony. They are to consist primarily of a lecture, accompanied by music to both elevate and calm our emotions. The lecture will have two goals: First, to tell the story of human aspiration, to explore the roots of our continuing conflicts as well as to celebrate our achievements of social justice and the interdependence of all people. For just as viewing great works of art refines our aesthetic taste, so contemplation of higher thoughts enlarges our souls. Second, the lectures will clarify our responsibilities as moral beings in view of the political and social evils of our age, and provide us with consolation even in the midst of anguish.
But do not fear that we will create a new priesthood. The job of public teacher is an unenviable one. Few people will leave the seclusion of the scholar’s life, or the peaceful walks of literature, to become a target for the criticism of unkind and hostile minds. Moreover, the lecturers are but instruments. You listen not really to them but rather to those countless voices through the ages of which they are merely humble interpreters. Yet there are things no lecture, no language on earth can express—the nameless yearnings of the soul for a world that is far better and happier than we can even imagine. Such longings only music can express and relieve.
We will eliminate prayer and every form of ritual, on the one hand to avoid interfering with those to whom prayer and ritual are an important expression of their religion, and on the other hand to honor those who have dispensed with prayer and ritual as unfulfilling. It is my dearest hope to raise our movement above religious strife, to be that common ground where we may all meet, believers and unbelievers, for purposes universally understood as worthy and important.
Surely it is time. For more than three thousand years the earth has been drenched with blood over disagreements of doctrine. There have been no wars more terrible than religious wars, no hates more bitter than religious hates, no cruelty more brutal than religious cruelty. Countless families have been destroyed. And for what? Are we any nearer to agreement? On the contrary, diversity within and between churches has never been so widespread. Sects and factions multiply on every hand.
Freedom of thought is a sacred right of every individual, and diversity will increase with the progress of human intelligence. But if difference is inevitable and welcome in the realm of ideas, there is a sphere in which harmony and fellowship are desperately needed. Believer or non-believer, we will respect every honest conviction. But be one with us in action. Diversity in the creed, unanimity in the deed! This is the practical religion with which none can disagree. This is the platform broad and solid enough to hold the worshipper and the atheist. This is that common ground where we may all grasp hands as brothers and sisters, united in humankind’s universal cause.
The Hebrew prophets said, to serve Jehovah is to make your hearts pure and your hands clean from corruption, to help the suffering, to raise the oppressed. Jesus of Nazareth said that he came to comfort the weary and heavy-laden. The Philosopher affirms that the true service of religion is to serve the common good. There is no difference among these. There is no difference in the moral law. But many prefer to argue over the origin of the law than to follow it. It is easier for some to say, “I do not believe,” and to think no more about it, and easier for others to say, “I believe,” in order to bribe their way into heaven, than it is for any of us to fulfill our human responsibilities, with all the daily struggle and sacrifice that they require. To echo Edmund Burke from one hundred years ago, “The proposition is peace!” Peace to the shouting and warring sects, peace to heart and mind— the peace that is the fruit of true freedom. Let religions wave a white flag over the battlegrounds of the past and turn the desolate fields into sunny gardens and shaded sanctuaries. Let her call we travelers from the dusty road of life to breathe a softer, purer air, fragrant with the flowers of wonder, and musical with sweet and restful melody. There shall we bathe our spirits in clear water and take up our journey again vigorous and fully alive.
Why should there be any more dividing lines between people? Why should the fires of prejudice flare? Why should we not hold this common ground that we have found at last, and protect it—the stronghold of freedom and of all the humanities for the long years to come? Not since the Reformation has there been a crisis as great as in this present age. The world grows darker around us. And yet there is light ahead. Starry legends greet us shining through the past on their way to the misty vistas of the future—they tell us that humanity will continue to birth great and noble sons and daughters, that truth will triumph in the end, that even the humblest servant of humankind may become the instrument of unending good. We are helping to lay the foundations of a movement whose fulfillment will not be seen for centuries upon centuries. But we will be content, if we can contribute even the least toward such an achievement. The time calls for action. Let us do our part faithfully and well. And O, friends, our children’s children will hold our memories dearer for the work that we begin this hour.
“Diversity in the creed, unanimity in the deed!” — Felix Adler, Founding Address 1876