Edwin H. Wilson

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Wilson, Edwin H(enry) (23 August 1898 - 26 March 1993)

Wilson was born in Woodhaven, New York, and raised in Concord, Massachusetts, where he attended the First Parish Church, a Unitarian fellowship. His mother introduced him to Unitarianism, but his father had no use for the church. “The people,” said the father, “worship God Almighty half the time and Ralph Waldo Emerson the other.”

A Unitarian Minister in the 1920s

After serving in World War I, Wilson attended Meadville Theological School, graduating in 1926 with a doctorate degree, after which he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris.

In 1928, he was the Unitarian minister in Dayton, Ohio, later having pulpits in Schenectady, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Yellow Springs, Ohio; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Cocoa Beach, Florida. Early in his ministry, he composed “Where Is Our Holy Church?”

A Humanist Editor in the 1930s to 1950s

A Unitarian minister, Wilson in 1929 became a regular contributor to The New Humanist, a mimeographed newsletter published in Chicago by the Humanist Fellowship. The following year, he managed the publication. In 1936, The New Humanist ceased because of lack of funds, so using his own funds he commenced a modest Humanist Bulletin which, in 1941, was succeeded by The Humanist, which is still being published. He edited the journal for sixteen years (1941 to 1956) and was interim editor from 1963 to 1964.

In 1933, Wilson was the guiding force behind the formulation of Humanist Manifesto I. That document, signed by thirty-four liberal humanists, defined and enunciated the philosophical and religious principles that they considered to be fundamental. It was committed to reason, science, and democracy, and many of the signers were Unitarian clergymen. The document emphasized the view that human beings determine the moral principles which govern their lives. Wilson gathered leading thinkers of the time into a group which rallied behind the philosophy variously termed religious, scientific, or naturalistic humanism. They criticized religious dogmatism, called for universal education, advocated more participatory democracy, and declared that nationalism and war were obsolete. Further, they affirmed euthanasia as well as the right of women to choose abortion and the right to birth control.

In 1941 he moved from Chicago to the Unitarian pulpit at Schenectady, New York, for a five-year war-time ministry. Corliss Lamont and Max Otto encouraged him to resume publication of The New Humanist, now as editor and under a new title, The Humanist. By 1952 the magazine circulation had grown and its sponsor was changed from the Humanist Press Association to the American Humanist Association (AHA). Writing of the controversy at that time, Wilson explained,

  • Because various philosophic points of view emerge religiously and ethically as humanism, there came a time in the 1940s when there was a rather vigorous complaint that the editorial policy of The Humanist was too pragmatic in its orientation. (This was the position of philosopher Arthur Murphy who chose to drop out.) Roy Wood Sellars was a critical realist and therefore, in epistemology, anti-Dewey. Eventually there was also a rather sharp conflict between the logical positivists, as represented by Charles Morris, John Dewey, and Arthur Bentley, and conflict between Bertrand Russell and John Dewey.

In addition to editing and contributing to The Humanist, he was one of the founders of the American Humanist Association (AHA) in 1941 and served as its executive director from 1949 to 1970, then becoming its official historian. In 1952 he participated in the founding and named of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

Wilson was able to keep the group together and in 1953 published a symposium about the original manifesto, asking a number of people what they would change now that twenty years had passed. Sellars called humanism a religion, “the next great religion,” and he suggested what could be the next big push. In The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto (1995), Wilson collected further critiques, calling them “The Symposium: Part I” from J.A.C. Fagginer Auer; E. Burdette Backus; Harry Elmer Barnes; L. M. Birkhead; Edwin Arthur Burtt; Ernest Caldecott; A. J. Carlson; Frank H. Hankins; A. Eustace Haydon; Llewellyn Jones; Robert Morss Lovett; Harold P. Marley; Lester Mondale; Charles Francis Potter; J. H. Randall Jr.; Curtis W. Reese; Oliver L. Reiser; Clinton Lee Scott;V. T. Thayer; E. C. Vanderlaan; Jacob J. Weinstein; and David Rhys Williams. Later, in “The Symposium: Part II,” he published further critiques from Van Meter Ames; Fred G. Bratton; Albert C. Dieffenbach; John H. Dietrich; Corliss Lamont; Harold A. Larrabee; Alfred McClung Lee; Francis Meyers; Lloyd Morain; Arthur E. Morgan; Herbert J. Muller; Harold Scott; Mark Starr; Gerald Wendt; and Gardner Williams.

Wilson was expert in collecting humanistic comments, and The Humanist in the 1950s was noted for its intellectual content and a growing reputation among a large variety of philosophers. Wilson in 1956 wrote these views concerning humanism:

  • Humanism appears wherever thinkers or doers meet the problems of man and life in terms of the scientific world view rather than of the pre-scientific world view. Today’s Humanism shares with all Humanisms—including the Christian Humanism of the Renaissance—a central concern for the good life for men here and now. Humanism is always this-worldly and regards life this side of the grave as the locus of fulfillment and moral achievement. But today’s Humanism more clearly yields to man a place of dignity in his own right. It does not need theological sanctions. It refuses to rob man to pay theology. It is itself a new synthesis, naturalistic rather than supernaturalistic, unitary rather than bifurcated. The old vertical dualisms of body and mind, spirit and matter disappear in Naturalistic Humanism. Humanists claim that man’s unique rationality emerges from his sub-rational animal past. Naturalistic humanists see the spiritual as an emergent quality of the material. Nature is relatively predictable; right and wrong are relative to a human nature that is much the same in all cultures and times. Man lives in relation to a relatively more stable universe. All is part of one web of relationships to which man belongs, yet in which he has achieved a grandeur of his own. In our own day man has developed his rationality to the point at which scientific method and cooperative skills exist in sufficient potential to enable him to place control of the major obstacles to planetary control of his own destiny within his reach. But there remains the stirring of the will to do so, the growth of that confidence and vision that makes it possible. Humanism, as an organized movement slowly growing around the world, must accept the moral responsibility of the Humanist idea—the idea that all men are one and that potentially they have what it will take to end war and create a significant common life for a qualitatively produced race. Their task is to articulate the implications for man’s common destiny, of the new knowledge that is science and the promise of the method that is scientific method.


A 1954 letter from Wilson to Warren Allen Smith, his new Book Review Editor:


In 1956 Wilson sent Smith a copy of the following correspondence to a leading economist, George Henry Soule, author of The Strength of Nations: A Study in Social Theory (1942):


A 1958 letter from Wilson showing AHA's Staff in 1958


A 1968 letter from Smith reminiscing about how Wilson started him off as a book review editor.

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His Later Years

Wilson was one of several editors of The Humanist who would be “eased out” of his job, Herbert A. Tonne has observed, by the AHA board of directors. A long-time editor of The Humanist, he remained for years on its editorial board despite having been eased out of the editorship. In 1979, the American Humanist Association named him Humanist of the Year. At the age of over ninety, he helped form an active humanist group in Salt Lake City, Utah. Wilson was in demand at dinners to say grace, and he was always pleased to accept:

  • Oh, God, for as much as without Thee We would be unable to doubt Thee, Give us power by Thy grace To convince the whole race It knows nothing whatever about Thee.

Whereupon those present responded with loud and boisterous amens. Wilson wrote “A New Synthesis: Among the Intellectuals” (The New Humanist, January 1930); “A New Synthesis: The Development of Method in Cooperative Problem Solving” (The New Humanist, February 1930); “A New Synthesis: The Organization of Knowledge” (The New Humanist, March 1930); “A New Synthesis: Integrating Science” (The New Humanist, April 1930); “A New Synthesis: Adult Education, England” (The New Humanist, May 1930); “A New Synthesis: Adult Education, the United States,” The New Humanist (June 1930); and “The Origins of Modern Humanism,” The Humanist (January-February 1991).

Wilson spoke at many humanist funerals, including in 1957 the funeral of John Hassler Dietrich, one of the early Unitarian humanist ministers .

Three years after his death, in a work edited by Teresa Maciocha, Wilson’s The Genesis of a Humanist Manifesto (1995) was published. It contains candid descriptions of the various individuals involved in the writing of the Manifesto and clarifies who specifically contributed what, who failed to sign the drafts and why, and who even twenty years later were still its supporters as well as who remained its critics. The work, which contains much new information, is surprisingly gentle in its treatment of some individuals who are known to have irked Wilson tremendously.

"What Humanism Means To Me"

For Warren Allen Smith's project to determine the connotations of humanism, Wilson in 1956 wrote as follows:

Wilson, Ed 2.jpg

Wilson, Ed 3.jpg

(See entry for American Humanist Association. Also see a critique of Wilson’s humanism by Herbert A. Tonne in Free Inquiry, Fall 1996. Wilson was a founder of The Friends of Religious Humanism.)

{CL; EW; FUS; HM1; HM2; HNS; HNS2; PK; WAS, 3 November 1956, and numerous conversations.}