A Brief History of the Ethical Culture Movement
“Now the daring thought that we had, in the beginning of the Ethical Movement, was to unite in one group, in one bond, those who had this religious feeling and those who simply cared for the moral betterment…. In the broader sense religion means zealousness and devotion to something supreme, in the special sense it means cosmic outreaching. Now I myself have always been a religious person in the second sense, and never a mere moralist. But I founded this Society with the express purpose and intent that it should not consist only of those who stood as I did, who had the same religious feeling and needs, but that it should be open to all those who believed in moral betterment, because that is the point on which we all agree. Our ethical religion has its basis in the effort to improve the world and ourselves morally.” — Felix Adler
In 1876, Felix Adler founded the Ethical Culture Movement which proclaimed a vision of humanity united in common concern for ethical values. Our Ethical Societies are fellowships of people who seek a clarification of the values of life and a faith to live by. We cherish freedom of the mind and freedom of conscience. We assert the autonomy of ethics while we tolerate a plurality of philosophies. We affirm and promote the following principles which are integral to our Ethical Movement:
- Every person has inherent worth; each person is unique.
- It is our responsibility to improve the quality of life for ourselves and others.
- Ethics are derived from human experience.
- Life is sacred, interrelated and interdependent.
Life is a great, mysterious gift. We affirm our respect for the interdependent web of existence, of which we are all a part. It is our commitment to the goal of a world community with peace, liberty, justice or all.
Although the Ethical Culture Movement started with Felix Adler, there are many strands which contributed to it. In fact the Ethical movement is a part of the long history of the effort of human beings to find meaning and purpose in life. It is part of a continuity with the past; it grew out of the religions of Judaism and Christianity. The Ethical Movement shares the long heritage of ethical religions. It is a “religion of duty” which Adler brought to life, a religion united on the common ground of moral action.
Some of the strands of ethical humanism can be traced back to the days of the ancient Greeks: From the humanist spirit of the ancient Greeks where human beings were said to be the “measure of all things,” through the Middle Ages when humanistic non-theism was an under-current of the time, into the Renaissance when there was a renewed interest in the concept of human dignity. The thoughts of Spinoza, Kant and Comte in Europe and Emerson, Frances Wright and Margaret Fuller in America entered into the philosophy of the Ethical Culture Movement.
Emerson called for a new ethical church: “There will be a new church founded on moral science, at first cold and naked, a babe in a manger again, the algebra and mathematics of ethical law. The church…will have heaven and earth for its beams and rafters, science for symbol and illustrations; it will fast enough gather beauty, music, picture and poetry.” Emerson and Adler supported the Free Religious Movement and the call for an ethical religion. In 1876 Adler founded the Society for Ethical Culture in New York City.
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century Ethical Societies were formed in Chicago (1883), Philadelphia (1885) and St. Louis (1886). Today, there are 21 Ethical Societies and five smaller fellowships nationwide, in addition to the web-based Society WithOut Walls.
Since its inception, the Ethical Culture Movement has been in the forefront of movements to improve human welfare. It has exerted influence well beyond its numerical strength in the areas of education, housing, labor and settlement work. The Movement was responsible for establishing the first free Kindergarten in the East in 1878 in New York City and the first Visiting Nurse Service. Improve-ments in housing in slum areas were made and are still being made because of the activities of Leaders and members of Ethical Societies.
The John Lovejoy Elliott houses in New York are a tribute to the special work and energy of this Leader. It was Dr. Elliott who created the Hudson Guild Settlement which became an oasis for vocational education, community service and creative play for so many young people of Hell’s Kitchen in NYC. The Ethical Culture Movement fought for Child Labor Laws; the founding of the Child Study Association was the work of Ethical members.
The Westchester Society was instrumental in founding Futura House (housing for recovering mentally ill), the Guidance Center of New Rochelle and it held the first public forum on abortion rights in the 1960′s.
It is through such action that ethical values become meaningful and are given substance. Activities at the present time include work in the educational programs of Encampment for Citizenship, Planetary Citizens, Beyond War, visions of Peace, in the work for sane nuclear policy and in the whole area of racial integration and economic justice as it touches the lives of all people.
Ethical Societies have a common commitment to a religious and ethical emphasis, congregational affiliations, family life and ethical education, life passage ceremonies, and the Sunday Meeting. Each Ethical Culture Society is a self-governing body and conducts its own Sunday Meeting, decides in its own religious and ethical education programs as well as its own social service and social action programs and projects for members and non-members alike. The national organization, the American Ethical Union, is a member of the International Humanist and Ethical Union which includes groups from Great Britain, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Germany, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the former Yugoslavia, India, Japan.
Our Ethical Movement represents a thread in history which sides with humanity. In the words of Arthur Dobrin, Leader of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island: “When we join the Ethical Movement we do so not because we are fleeing from our past but because we now accept a new form that for us is deeper and more meaningful. We desire to enter a wider spiritual fellowship, united with men and women of every heritage. What we seek is a reverence for a human personality, a passion for social justice and an attempt to apply the best of the world’s wisdom to contemporary living.”
© 1995, 1996, 1997 American Ethical Union. All rights reserved.