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About John Dietrich

John Dietrich

John H. Dietrich , 1878-1957, was a student at Eastern Theological Seminary of the Reformed Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, then became minister at St. Mark’s Memorial Church in Pittsburgh.  He grew to be more liberal and was indicted for heresy.  He left the Reformed Church and became a Unitarian minister in Spokane, Washington, advocating a religion predicated on naturalistic humanism.  He later became the minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.

At this time the liberal-fundamentalist controversy was developing, and he was cutting a new theological path in liberalism. At the end of his first decade among the Unitarians, he, along with Curtis W. Reese and others, had precipitated the so-called humanist-theist controversy.  It raged until the late 1930s, when the American Unitarian Association finally decided that its doctrine of “the freedom of individual thought” must be broad enough to embrace both humanists and theists – not simply for laymen sitting in the pews but also for ministers in the pulpits.  As a result of the pioneering work of Dietrich and others, there arose the religious humanist movement, which, though it embraced a small but influential membership, moved beyond the confines of a single liberal denomination.

(Biography from the UU Humanist Association)

Read a longer biography written by the Harvard Square Library.


From “What if the World Went Humanist? Ten Pulpit Addresses by John Dietrich”

John Hassler Dietrich born 14 January on a farm near Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. The youngest child of Jerome and Sarah Dietrich, he was named after the Rev. Jacob Hassler, the local Reformed minister.
Dietrich family moved to village of Markes, Pennsylvania.
1893 to 1896
Day student at Mercersburg Academy; graduated valedictorian of his class. Counselor at fresh-air camp north of New York City in summer of 1896.
1896 to 1900
Student at Franklin and Marshall College.
1900 to 1902
Taught mathematics and Latin for one semester at Mercersburg Academy; sold encyclopedias for a few months; taught one year at Nyack Military Academy; spent summers in fresh-air program.
1902 to 1905
Student at Eastern Theological Seminary of the Reformed Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania; during summer months was private secretary of Jonathan Thorne of New York.
Became minister of St. Mark’s Memorial (Reformed) Church in Pittsburgh; over the next few years, became a liberal theist.
Indicted for heresy by the Allegheny Classis for his unorthodox views. Resigned ministry at St. Mark’s and became ministerial member of American Unitarian Association. In September, became minister for First Unitarian Society of Spokane, Washington; shortly after that, married Louise Erb of Appleton, Wisconsin, who bore him two sons.
Began to advocate a religion predicated on naturalistic humanism.
Became minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis where, early in his ministry, he became the most articulate “theologian” of religious humanism.
Met Curtis W. Reese.
With Reese and others, precipitated the humanist-theist controversy in the American Unitarian Association.
Led successful fight against William B. Riley and other fundamentalists who tried to achieve passage of a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in Minnesota public schools.
Began publication of the Humanist Pulpit, which ran to seven volumes.
First wife died in February.
Married young widow, Margaret Winston; awarded Doctor of Divinity degree by Meadville Theological Seminary.
Retired from active ministry.
Moved to Berkeley, California, with his wife; gave occasional addresses during his retirement years; for example, at the Bay Area Humanist Conference (Oakland, California, 17 August 1945) on “Humanism: Its Background and Meaning.”
Died on 22 July. As his health failed and his end approached, he began to modify his thought in the general direction fo pan-theism. His significance as a religious thinker, however, is based on his audacity in rethinking the doctrines of the Western religious tradition from the perspective of naturalistic humanism.