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Humanist profile: John H. Dietrich 1878-1957 1976 Humanist Pioneer (posthumous).

John H. Dietrich 1878-1957

1976 Humanist Pioneer (posthumous)

"Humanism recognizes that if there is any supernatural world which lies beyond the range of human experience, it possesses no practical use for man, because what he cannot know he cannot use."

-- John H. Dietrich, "What Is Humanism" in the New Humanist, March/April 1933

John H. Dietrich was born the son of uneducated German-Swiss farmers in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, January 14, 1878. But he quickly proved his intellectual ability by graduating as valedictorian of Mercer Academy in 1896 and then from Franklin and Marshall College in 1900. After some time working, Dietrich followed the advice of his boyhood minister and enrolled in the Eastern Theological Seminary of the Reformed Church.

Despite his religious upbringing, however, he displayed an immediate skepticism of theistic doctrine, arguing that Christians should emulate Jesus' spiritual example rather than believe in his divinity or salvific power. Although Dietrich went on to become a popular minister at Saint Mark's Memorial Church in Pittsburgh, his more conservative colleagues could sense his liberal and increasingly skeptical views. In fact, Dietrich's six-year career at Saint Mark's ended after he was tried for heresy and defrocked in 1911.

But that same year he became minister of the First Unitarian Society of Spokane, Washington. During his tenure there he increasingly abandoned traditional theistic beliefs, embracing Jewish, Buddhist, Confucian, and ancient Greek thought. Then, in 1915, coming across the word Humanism in an essay by Positivist Frederick M. Gould in a magazine published by the British Ethical Societies, Dietrich adapted and adopted it as the name for his own emerging outlook--an outlook that began earning him criticism from Christian fundamentalists. But he also expanded his congregation from sixty members to more that fifteen hundred.

In August 1912 Dietrich married his first wife, Louise Erb, who died of cancer in 1931. In 1933 he married the writer and poet Margaret Winston.

On November 1, 1916, Dietrich became minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, where he remained for twenty years until retiring at age fifty-seven. He helped bring Humanism into the larger Unitarian denomination when he and Curtis W. Reese met in 1917 at the Western Unitarian Conference in Des Moines, Iowa. Dietrich approached Reese at the latter's presentation and said, "What you are calling the religion of democracy I am calling Humanism." The modern Humanist movement is said to have begun at that moment. Dietrich later signed the first Humanist Manifesto in 1933.

After retirement, Dietrich remained intellectually active. Then, on July 22, 1957, the man some called the "father of religious humanism" succumbed to cancer. Dietrich's influence lives on through his collected sermons and speeches.
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Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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