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All Souls History—The Middle Years

All Souls and Henry Whitney Bellows: Vision, Pragmatism, Activism

When Henry Whitney Bellows was called to All Souls straight from Harvard Divinity School in 1839, he was embarking on a partnership that would last 43 years and would prove to be extraordinary.

For one thing, the match of minister and congregation was a good one. Bellows, a New Englander who was a pragmatist even before the founding of the philosophical movement of that name, became the quintessential 19th-century New Yorker - activist rather than theologian, organizer rather than scholar, more chief executive officer than academician.

But Bellows served not only his congregation. He also served the nation, the city of New York and the Unitarian denomination. He stepped onto the national stage in May 1861, when he founded the United States Sanitary Commission, a volunteer organization modeled after Florence Nightingale's life-saving work in the Crimea. The Sanitary Commission would treat disease in army camps, deliver medical supplies to the battlefields and feed, treat and care for countless thousands of soldiers during the course of the Civil War. Of equal importance, it would channel and organize citizens throughout the Union into an effective and efficient organization of support.

In New York City, Bellows played an active role in the advancement of culture. Among the most successful fund-raising efforts on behalf of the Sanitary Commission were the "Metropolitan Fairs" held in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and New York. The New York Fair in 1865, led by All Souls member Caroline Kirkland, author, editor and Bellows colleague, earned over $1 million. It was noticed that one of the most popular displays at that fair was the art from the private collections of wealthy New Yorkers. As a result, soon after the war, the Union League Club, which Bellows helped organize, established a committee to examine the potential for creating a public art institution. From the vision and actions of that committee emerged the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bellows' accurate assessment of the needs, problems and course of action of such an effort is quoted in several histories of the museum.

Finally, Bellows is responsible for the effective organization of the Unitarian denomination. The Liberal Christian had been published in New York for many years under his editorship, so he had long been well known in denomination circles. In 1865, after the close of the war, he called a meeting in New York from which evolved the "National Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches." He served as president of this denominational body from its formation until 1880, two years before his death.

Bellows spent his entire adult life among this congregation, which included women and men such as William Cullen Bryant, poet and editor of the Evening Post; Peter Cooper, businessman and founder of Cooper Union; Herman Melville, during his years of personal hardship; Louisa Lee Schuyler, Sanitary Commission organizer and founder of the Bellevue School of Nursing; Dorman C. Eaton, civil service reformer and author; Nathaniel Currier, who (with his partner, Ives) created a new standard of pictorial excellence; as well as important bankers and businessmen. Together, these people created a myriad of city institutions, led reform movements, and erected a new church, All Souls' third building, at Fourth Avenue and 20th Street.

Bellows preached 30 sermons a year, and later in life honors came to him from Harvard, where he served on the Board of Overseers and delivered the prestigious Divinity School Address. When he died, the congregation commissioned the Augustus Saint-Gaudens bas relief that dominates the south wall of the chancel today.

Because Bellows was the leader of a great congregation, one could ask "who led whom?" The question hardly matters, because in his activity is All Souls' own history. What he did, we did. What we did, he supported. It was an extraordinary meeting of congregation and minister who continually worked together.

By Mary-Ella Holst, Director of Religious Education Emerita and member of All Souls.

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The Middle Years

Unitarian Church of All Souls

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